Study the text. Understand its words. Observe the relationship of the words to one another. Consider the structure. But do all of this not as an end itself. Do it in order to get to the point of the text. Only then can you deliver a truly expository sermon that makes the point of the text the point of your sermon in a way that will thoroughly furnish your congregation unto all good works (2 Tim 3:17).
Common in conservative evangelical circles today—certainly among the readers of ministries like 9Marks—is a professed commitment to expository preaching. We say “professed” commitment because our experience over decades as both a pastor and faithful church member, having either delivered or listened to thousands of sermons, has led us to the conclusion that much “expository preaching” does not in fact meet the definition.
Too many sermons focus on the biblical text, but fail to exposit the main point of the scriptural passage under consideration. To be clear, this critique isn’t merely an academic or definitional one. If a sermon fails to unpack the main point of the text at hand, the pastor is failing to preach the whole counsel of God regardless of how throughly the speaker examines the scriptural passage. Such a sermon fails to communicate what God intended to communicate by inspiring that text.
Let’s be more specific. Two kinds of preaching are often confused with expository preaching because of a superficial resemblance: “sequential preaching” and “observational preaching.” We’ll discuss them below. We pray that this discussion will be edifying to preachers as you seek to feed your flocks.
1. Sequential preaching is not necessarily expository preaching.
Many preachers believe they’re engaged in expository preaching simply because they sequentially preach through a particular book of the Bible. While there’s much to commend about this approach, it doesn’t necessarily equate to expository preaching.
For example, a pastor may preach a 16-week series through the book of Romans. That fact by itself would cause many preachers to think they’re doing expository preaching. But it’s not. Whether the sequential preacher is delivering an expository sermon in any given week depends on two things:
- whether the preacher has rightly identified the main point of the week’s assigned passage,
- and whether the sermon then keeps as its focus the main point of the passage.
An example may clarify this point. If, in the third week of the series, the preacher delivers a sermon on Romans 3 that centers on and rightly explains the doctrine of inspiration, then the preacher would not be preaching an expository sermon. Why do we say that? Because the main point of Romans 3 is not the doctrine of inspiration, but rather the fallenness of man. The entire chapter builds to man’s fallenness; Paul surveys the Old Testament and concludes that “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (3:23).
To be sure, the doctrine of inspiration is mentioned, but only in passing in verse 2 (“the very words of God,” NIV). Simply put, inspiration is not the main point of Romans 3. Rather, the inspiration of the Old Testament is invoked by Paul to give authoritative weight to his recitation of passages that make his main point.
Furthermore, the main point of Romans 3 is not the unbelief of Israel (vs. 3), the faithfulness of God (vs. 3), the righteousness of God (vs. 5), the coming judgment of the world (vs. 6), or the ways men demonstrate depravity (vs. 13–18). All of those concepts appear in Romans 3 not as ends in themselves, but rather as elements of an argument toward Paul’s main point: we all, Jew and Gentile alike, have a sin problem that we cannot solve.
What distinguishes an expository sermon is not simply that what the preacher is saying is biblically accurate, but that it draws its main truth from the main point of the passage. An expository sermon on Romans 3 requires that the main point of the sermon is the main point—not a sub-point, not peripheral to the main point—of Romans 3.
Of course, there’s value in sequentially preaching through books of the Bible. It helps to ensure that the whole counsel of God is preached and you have “kept nothing back that was profitable for” the congregation (Acts 20:20 KJV). Furthermore, by taking an entire book under study, the preacher is forced to grapple with the flow of the author’s argument throughout. This increases the likelihood that the preacher is rightly identifying the main point of a particular sermon’s text.