‘Expository Preaching’ – Time for Caution

Clarifying the term ‘expository’ as a model of preaching

Preaching needs to be much more than an agency of instruction. It needs to strike, awaken, and arouse men and women so that they themselves become bright Christians and daily students of Scripture. If the preacher conceives his work primarily in terms of giving instruction, rather than of giving stimulus, the sermon, in most hands, very easily becomes a sort of weekly ‘class’ – an end in itself. But true preaching needs to ignite an on-going process.

 

In a number of circles today ‘expository preaching’ is in vogue, and it is being urged on preachers as the way to preach. If this means that the preacher’s one business is to confine himself to the text of Scripture, andto make the sense plain to others, there is nothing more to discuss; who can disagree save those who do not know that the Bible is the Word of God. But ‘expository preaching’ has often come to mean something more. The phrase is popularly used to describe preaching which consecutively takes a congregation through a passage, or book of Scripture, week by week. This procedure is compared with the method of preaching on individual texts that may have no direct connection with each other from one Sunday to the next. The latter is discouraged in favour of the ‘expository’ method.

Why has this view of ‘expository preaching’ become comparatively popular? There are several reasons. First, it is believed that the practice will raise the standard of preaching. By a consecutive treatment of a book of Scripture, it is said, the preacher is taken away from any hobby-horses, and congregations are more likely to be given a broader, more intelligent, grasp of all Scripture. The preacher is also delivered from a constant search for texts – he and the people know what is before them. These reasons are perhaps confirmed for younger preachers by the fact that at our main conventions and conferences the well-known speakers commonly deal with one passage in a few addresses, and when these find their way into print they are taken as models of the best way of preaching. Published sermons of any other kind are few and far between for publishers definitely favour the ‘expository’ on the grounds of their popularity.1

DISADVANTAGES CONSIDERED

In our view, however, it is time that the disadvantages of this view of preaching are at least considered:

1.       Know your gifts

It assumes that all preachers are capable of making effective sermons along these lines. But men have different gifts. Spurgeon was not unfamiliar with ‘expository preaching’ (listening to sermons in his youth he had sometimes wished the Hebrews had kept their epistle to themselves!2), and he decided it was not best suited to his gifts. There is reason to think that being an effective ‘expository’ preacher is not such a common gift as some seem to think. Even Dr Lloyd-Jones was twenty years into his ministry before he slowly introduced ‘expository’ series.3

2.       What is preaching?

The argument that the ‘expository’ method is the best means to cover most of the Bible is too largely connected with the idea that the foremost purpose of preaching is to convey as much as possible of the Bible. But that idea needs to be challenged. Preaching needs to be much more than an agency of instruction. It needs to strike, awaken, and arouse men and women so that they themselves become bright Christians and daily students of Scripture. If the preacher conceives his work primarily in terms of giving instruction, rather than of giving stimulus, the sermon, in most hands, very easily becomes a sort of weekly ‘class’ – an end in itself. But true preaching needs to ignite an on-going process.

3.       Sermon or lecture?

Significantly, the churches – particularly in Scotland – once distinguished between ‘the sermon’ and ‘the lecture’. The word ‘lecture’ was not used in any pejorative sense, it simply meant what is now commonly meant by ‘expository preaching’, namely, the consecutive treatment of a passage or book. The commentaries of John Brown of Broughton Place, Edinburgh, originated in this way.4 So did Lloyd-Jones’ work on Romans5 – he called those expositions ‘lectures’; the difference between a sermon and a lecture, in his view, being that a sermon is a rounded whole, a distinct message, complete in itself, whereas the lecture on Scripture is part of something larger and on-going. In contrast with his Romans series, Lloyd-Jones conceived the contents of his Ephesians series6 as ‘sermons’, and anyone comparing his procedure in these two series (the first delivered on a Friday night, the second on a Sunday morning), can quickly see the difference. This is not to devalue his Romans series; the purpose was simply different.

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