Elements of True Preaching

True Preaching is Exposition of the Text

Preaching will either be exposition or speculation. Either we will know what God has said or we will have nothing left to say but the imaginations of our own minds. By expositional preaching we mean that the main point of the sermon is the main point of the text of Scripture. It is preaching which explains the meaning of the text of the Bible: following the order suggested by the entirety of the text itself. The word exposition comes from the Latin words for “out of” (ex) and “posit” (posito)—which means to claim or set forth. It can be one verse or a whole chapter. It may even be an overview of a book of the Bible where several chapters are covered at once. Exposition is to be distinguished from either topical or textual preaching in the following ways: Topical preaching involves the preacher selecting a topic, or subject matter, and (at most) buttressing his thesis with supporting biblical texts. Textual preaching involves the preacher selecting a particular text of Scripture as his subject matter, and, more or less, building a thesis from it.[1] That “more or less” phrase will be important, because it may be very beguiling to suppose that the form we choose for our preaching, by itself, prevents us from forming our own thesis (apart from Scripture) and then merely using the Bible to justify our own views. The fact is that all three forms of preaching are susceptible to the sin and finitude of the preacher.

The value of expositional preaching is that here we have a form that is most conducive to imprinting on the preacher’s mind the concerns of the Spirit. Truth be told, there simply is no form that “compels” the preacher to be faithful: structure cannot make the heart right. But there is a form that is most proper and proportionate to that faithfulness. Topical and textual sermons are occasionally preferable—though if one is persuaded that his congregation needs to hear from a particular topic, then the textual mode is preferable, as there is no great theme for our souls to which the Bible does not speak with final authority. Maximizing the expositional form cultivates the impression in a congregation that God is to be trusted in His choice of what we need to be hearing. It also keeps the preacher on the shortest leash of the three forms.

In expositional preaching, the priorities of God shape the priorities of the preacher. We may even say that preaching that is not at least expositional in its aim is not preaching at all. It may be teaching; and it may even be good and necessary teaching. However, where the Spirit-inspired text does not unfold into the outline, it is no longer a message directly from God. Exposition is simple in one sense and hard work in another. Growing up playing baseball, my teammates and I were always reminded by our coaches: “This isn’t a complicated game—you see the ball and you hit it!” That is at least part of the right attitude about preaching, especially toward those who would attack it on the grounds that it makes knowing God inaccessible. We would say just the opposite as they. Our mandate is clear. Here is the text; here is what it means. That is our job as preachers: you see the ball and you hit it. And in doing so we train our people to be the priesthood that Christ made them to be: you open up your Bible and you tell them what it means. Then, pretty soon, they will go back home and do the same for their children.

This priority of expositional preaching must not be taken in a legalistic or superstitious fashion. We do not mean that one needs to follow along an entire book of the Bible every time in order to be doing exposition, nor that one needs to take as long as Calvin or MacArthur did on this or that book. One may embark on a single text or a topical series; so long as the subject matter of his sermon(s) issues forth from the structure of a text of Scripture and not from his own preferences. Naturally our preferences are always at work. We may pray fervently and collectively to decide which book of the Bible to do next. However it would be superstitious to attempt to remove the element of human preference. After all, one ought to like where he is going next—even if he believes that the decision was revealed directly from God himself! So, let’s not turn the value of expositional preaching into a mindless, wooden mandate. Rather, let us see it as a normative form. It is the proper form, but it will play out in diverse ways in equally faithful pulpits. If a church plant is brand new, a book like Titus or Haggai or Jude will be a wiser decision than Isaiah or Romans or Revelation. The reasons should be obvious. Both the lengths and the themes of those books are more or less conducive to different stages of the journey that our church bodies are on. If you don’t know what building you will be meeting in next month, nor which of these ten to twenty people will stick, then may I suggest small series no more than a dozen weeks. If our church is in the midst of a licentious culture and is in danger of being compromised itself, one may consider the Corinthian letters or one of the prophets who spoke to the decadence of Judah. There is nothing unspiritual about such pastoral decisions. Any suggestion that this is somehow “unspiritual” is nothing but Gnostic drivel.

There are two more common misunderstandings about expositional preaching:

1) ‘Going’ through the Bible – Perhaps the greatest popular misunderstanding about expositional preaching is that if one has read from the Bible, or even through a whole book of the Bible, that one has “exposited” the Scriptures. That is not the case. It is possible to go through the twenty-five verses of Jude and never have once explained the concepts of orthodoxy, heresy, apostasy, or the task of elders in dealing with the wolves that Jude mentions. One reason why that is possible is because the words “wolves,” “elders,” “apostasy,” “heresy,” and “orthodoxy” are nowhere mentioned in the letter. Yet their relationship to each other is what the whole letter is about. If the preacher has glossed over that—whether through ignorance or sin—then he has not even scratched the surface of explaining the letter to his hearers. One does not have to use those exact words; but the context has to be explained using some suitable synonyms.

2) Exposition Flows from Biblical Theology Alone – This is probably the greatest misunderstanding among preachers themselves. This is the predominant poison coming out of the seminaries in our day. Some background will be necessary here, since this specific error flows from a more general error concerning the nature of theology itself. Any textbook on Systematic Theology will divide theology into four different theoretical kinds: biblical, historical, philosophical, and systematic.

a. Biblical Theology – knowledge of God’s revelation via inductive study of the text of the Bible itself.

b. Historical Theology – knowledge of God’s revelation via the scholarship of the church throughout history.

c. Philosophical Theology – knowledge of God’s revelation via the logical clarification of terms and truths.

d. Systematic Theology – knowledge of God’s revelation via the doctrinal assimilation of biblical data.

Already, there is potential misunderstanding. If all we are doing is describing methods to constructing our overall system of theology (or worldview), then it is all well and good to make this four-fold division. In this methodological sense, “systematic” theology means a method of collecting biblical data that is arranged by doctrinal coherence: “what the whole Bible teaches us today about some particular subject.”[2] However, if what we mean is that theology may ever be done by one of the other three means, apart from our existing system of thought, then we are embracing a robust absurdity that will have consequences beyond our wildest nightmares. The chief offender here is the erroneous idea that biblical theology exists by pure induction. In other words, it has become assumed that one can (and should) empty the mind of any doctrinal categories the moment we come to any individual text. This is of course impossible. We should reflect for a moment on whether or not it is even desirable.

Gut-Wrenching and Gospel-Driven

Finally we must agree with the Puritans (and Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones and Piper) that there is no expositional preaching that is not also an appeal to the affections and the will of the hearers. A word that does not grip the heart and present the eternal crisis to our souls is a contradiction in terms. God does not speak to hear himself talk. He also does not reveal things to be subject to the trivial chatter of roundtables of pretension and indifference. If we have produced nothing but armchair Christians, then whatever we have produced, it is certainly not of the Spirit.

So what ought to be felt by the preacher and therefore through the sermon? Blood-earnest conviction that God is the greatest conceivable reality, that therefore our sin is infinitely worse than we thought, that the cross and empty tomb are a jewel with infinitely more glorious angles to explore, and that heaven and hell are real and near. All of this must be felt, not merely understood: it must rattle the bones, not tickle the mind. In other words, exposition is a double-edged sword. The word is exposed, but so is the heart. If both sides do not cut deep, no glory has been unpacked and the word has been left as a dead letter. The truth that the preacher must always sense is that, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” [Heb. 4:12]. The Bible on Sunday morning is a sword to be wielded with swift and sweeping results expected. It is the “sword of the Spirit” [Eph. 6:17].

Since all theologians that we have access to (outside of Scripture) are finite sinners, then all theology will have to be the unpacking of the gospel. The reason for that is that there are really only two main classes of things in Scripture: 1) God’s glory in his being and his works, and, 2) Man’s falling short of this in our rebellion and inability to do otherwise. If anyone imagines a third class—namely what God has done about our sin—we would easily be able to show that this is simply a part of the first category as well. And the deeper we get, the more we will see that category 2 is also subsumed under category 1. Now this reveals what should be an obvious implication for how we read the Bible. We cannot read it like we have been reading other books. As Bunyan’s pilgrim confessed to Evangelist about the death and judgment of which he learned in his book: “I find that I am not willing to do the first, nor able to do the second.” Now that is an honest reader. Our task is to preach the book in such a way that our hearers know full well that they are neither willing nor able to live for God’s glory as they ought. Only then can the gospel take root.

What we should never do is to show them a part of the Bible that is not driven toward the gospel in the first place. What other things could one possibly derive from a biblical text or account? A moral lesson? An analogy to a cultural cause? A fascinating lecture on ancient history? A practical tip? These are the things that we sinners will naturally gravitate toward if we are not slain by the sword of the Spirit down to the conscience. Jesus said to the Pharisees:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life [Jn. 5:39-40].

So do we extend invitations in such preaching? Yes—if by “invitation” we mean the pressing home of the need for repentance and faith by means of greater pictures of eternal reward and more severe warnings of eternal judgment. No—if by “invitation” we mean to manipulate a “decision” for Christ that either obscures God’s role in the gospel or inflates man’s role by such an act of the will. If anyone laments that such invitations give us a means by which to assure people of their salvation, I insist that we must tear down all such “assurance” that is not a looking to what Christ alone has deserved and secured. Rather, true assurance is tested out over time in the company of believers persevering in gospel-hearing, gospel-fearing, gospel-conversation and gospel-reveling. This is why Paul tells the Corinthians:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. [1 Cor. 15:1-2].

Finally, in order to be gospel-driven in our preaching we must be anointed and infused by the power of the Holy Spirit. I purposely saved this point for last, not because I desire to overcorrect the subjectivism of our age (though I do think that this is a main problem), but because I think many great things have already been written about it by so many great saints. Lloyd-Jones said what I think is the most helpful in this area:

Seek him always. But go beyond seeking Him; expect Him. Do you expect anything to happen when you get up to preach in a pulpit? Or do you just say to yourself, ‘Well, I have prepared my address, I am going to give them this address; some of them will appreciate it and some will not’? Are you expecting it to be the turning point in someone’s life?…That is what preaching is meant to do…Seek this power, expect this power, yearn for this power; and when the power comes, yield to Him.[3]


[1] This three-fold division of preaching forms is supported by texts on preaching such as James Braga, How to Prepare Bible Messages (Multnomah Books, Portland 1969); Bryan Chapel, Christ-Centered Preaching (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI 2005); Calvin Miller, Preaching (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI 2006); and Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching (Baker, Grand Rapids, MI 1980) 

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Zondervan, Grand Rapids 1994); p. 25

[3] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 1971); p. 325

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2 Comments

  1. Lifesong said,

    June 3, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    Great article! Very glad I found you. I have posted an excerpt from this piece on my Facebook but was unable to give your name as the author. What’s your name?

    • neopuritan said,

      June 4, 2011 at 7:35 pm

      I’ve never responded successfully on my blog, so hopefully this works! Thanks for those encouraging words.

      My name is Matt Marino, pastor of The Well in Boise, Idaho.

      Grace and Peace!


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