Expository Preaching is Not Enough

Having just returned from a pastors’ conference, I was struck again by the way expository preaching is viewed by some Christian leaders. According to them, expository preaching is the main ingredient for healthy Christianity, and the lack thereof is the reason for its sickness. If only, they say, all pastors were committed to expository preaching, the church would be reformed and revived.

I am committed to expository preaching. I believe expository preaching grows out of a conservative view of Scripture. If you believe that God has inspired Scripture, making it the rule for all Christian life and practice, it follows that you submit to its meaning. Therefore, you desire to understand what has already been revealed, submit to it yourself, and make it plain to others. Expository preaching usually goes hand-in-glove with inerrancy, for when you believe the Bible has been given without error, you are fastidious in your approach to understand the very words of Scripture, not just the themes. Expository preaching also reveals a desire to preach the whole counsel of God, not our pet themes or popular topics. For these reasons, I believe in expository preaching. I am furthering my studies through a seminary committed to expository preaching. I prefer to make the mainstay of my preaching expository series of books of the Bible. (I think you can preach biblical topical sermons by treating several texts in an expository fashion, though it is probably harder than simply expouding one passage of Scripture). We teach students in our church how to do expository preaching.

But having said all that, I think many Christian leaders have a faith in expository preaching which is overblown and looks to expository preaching to do what it cannot accomplish by itself.

It is a tempting position to hold. After all, the Bible teaches us about worship. Surely if we preach expositionally, biblical worship will take place, right? The Bible speaks about what affections we should have for God. If we preach the whole counsel of God, won’t it automatically lead to ordinate affection?

Look around for the answer. You have any number of Reformed or conservative evangelicals who are committed to expository preaching, but who come out on almost opposite ends of the worship and affection spectrum. Compare Mark Driscoll’s church to Ligon Duncan’s. Compare Phil Ryken’s church to the Resolved conferences. Compare John Piper’s church to Mark Minnick’s.  All of these men preach expositionally. Apparently, they aren’t coming to the same answers.

This camel-in-the-room fact leads many to relativise the affections. If such good preachers who are so committed to biblical authority come out at completely different answers as to what it means to worship, it must be because we’re just talking about ‘styles’ and various ways of ‘contextualising’ the gospel. So as not to shake anyone’s faith in expository preaching as the be-all and end-all, the quite obvious disparity in worship and affections by those committed to expository preaching is played down in favour of a shared commitment to Reformed doctrine.

I think ignoring this disparity is part of the problem. It’s my contention that expository preaching is not a magic bullet, but it must be accompanied by something to have its desired effect.  

The fact is, preaching occurs in a context. It ought to occur in the context of a local church. Within that local church, much of the meaning of expository preaching is fleshed out, specifically our worship-responses to God. In other words, the propositional truth of expository preaching must be modelled and incarnated in a church culture. You can hope that expository preaching will produce piety, devotion, and ordinate affection, but the truth is, propositional truth must be complemented by affective truth. Propositional truth tells us who God is; affective truth tells us what He deserves. Propositional truth tells us how Christians should respond to God; affective truth tells us what that looks like. Propositional truth gives it to us in black-and-white; affective truth colours it in for us.

In other words, you can preach a sound and good sermon on Hebrews 12:25-29, but if you do not complement that exegesis with church worship that models reverence and awe, your expository preaching has not succeeded. If your church culture capitulates to a postmodern view of the affections, if it endorses a warped understanding of reverence and awe, you have done the truth equivalent of drawing a nice black and white outline of a sunset, and then colouring it in with green and brown.  

We would like to think that expository preaching will produce biblical worship and ordinate affection, but it will not do so by itself for a simple reason: Scriptural truth is properly learned in the context of a right Christian tradition. Just as no one comes to the doctrine of the Trinity without inheriting that understanding from the church triumphant, so no one will understand ‘reverence and awe’ without inheriting that understanding from the worship of the church triumphant. No one ‘thinks up’ the hypostatic union by just doing sentence diagrams of John 1:1, and no one comes to a right understanding of ‘rejoice in the Lord’ without seeing ordinate joy modelled by other believers. A right Christology is built on the shoulders of the church triumphant, and a right joy in Christ is built on the shoulders of the church triumphant.  To argue that expository preaching is antecedent to right application is to ignore the relationship that Christian doctrine has always had with Christian tradition. Right doctrine modifies and corrects the tradition. Tradition gives balance, context and correction to the doctrine. The two are simultaneous tools for Christian living.

Tradition is not authoritative, Scripture is. But Scripture is interpreted with the help of the Spirit’s work in past believers as well as present ones. Whether we are talking about a right understanding of salvation by grace, or what it means to be of a contrite heart, we do not ignore what the church has said, sung or prayed when we examine the Scriptures for ourselves. What is being done today to the tradition of worship in the West is the equivalent of rejecting all the work done in Nicea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, Augsburg, Westminster and New Hampshire, and re-formulating the doctrine of the Trinity from scratch, just to ‘contextualise it for moderns’. In fact, that’s exactly what some emergents do. Sadly, many conservative evangelicals are guilty of the same deconstructionism in the area of worship.

All the more reason for Christian leaders to connect with our Christian heritage pre-Finney. If we do not understand what the church has meant by loving God, we will probably complement that propositional truth with an affective idea that is a sentimental, or brutal, or sensual. Which will be idolatry. And worse, our people will be certain that their idolatry is pleasing to God, since it is done in a church committed to expository preaching.

Expositional preaching requires a living context to be understood. While the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to make the right applications to a completely blinded heart, He usually uses the natural means of family, church and human culture to give a context to truth. Barring common grace, much in modern culture is useless for teaching the right application of Scripture. That leaves redeemed families and gospel churches to put flesh on the bones of expository sermons. If we make the wrong applications in our own worship services, our devotion to expository preaching is a wasted hope, and a clanging gong.


7 Responses to “Expository Preaching is Not Enough”

  1. Scott Aniol Says:

    Outstanding. Thanks, David.

  2. Andy Says:

    Thank you. I value expository preaching as much as the next guy but, my friends and brothers in Christ seem to push for it and advocate it solely. I recently joined them during their weekly street preaching outing in Washington D.C., and it was a great time of fellowship – or so I thought. A majority of them attend churches that have expository preaching and those that didn’t wanted to be them. After each one stepped down from preaching there were handshakes, high-fives and hugs and yet I was unsettled. Yes, they preached the Gospel, yes, they were preaching the Word…but, where is the accountability? Where is LIVING the Gospel? I’m not sure they know the difference. Can the Holy Spirit work through this? Absolutely. I’d be the last to dare say there was any limitation to the working of the Holy Spirit. Even in church they think that expository preaching alone will cure what ails the church. It isn’t their disdain for other preaching methods that bothers me, it’s that they don’t recognize that there is more to it, more that has to go hand in hand with expository preaching. Does expository preaching glorify God? Yes, and it is the reason we were created – to glorify the One who alone is worthy. Yet, when I look at the faces of those sitting in my church I feel there is more to expository preaching. If they don’t grow they will probably hear, “What’s wrong with you? This is expository preaching! Why don’t you get it?” The answer is because they don’t see it lived out which to me renders it useless. It is choked out by the very people who advocate it. Who are so proud of it that they fold their arms like the work is done. Where is the washing of the stranger’s feet? My friends have no idea how to love on a lost/dead soul with a sacrificial love in order to show how real Christ is to them.
    I apologize for rambling on when I just meant to thank you for helping shed light on this.

    In Him,


  3. David Says:

    Tozer said “You can be a straight as a gun barrel theologically, and as empty as one spiritually.”

  4. david Says:

    Expositional preaching is exellent and is required for people to get the “mind of God.” Yet, that is not all that is necessary. There is also our relationship to the Lord that must be personal, constant, and consistant.
    There are many churches today that would look down on other churches that are more enthusiastic and devotional in their worship. Many today shun any show of emotion in a person’s worship thinking that it’s just a “quiver in the liver” and of the flesh.
    A cold religion is just as bad and harmful as the carried away charismatics that thrive on excess. There is a balance and expository preaching is necessary for that balance but it is not the only needed thing.

  5. simon Says:

    Any expository preaching at all would be welcome! In a church which professes to submit to the Word of God, I have heard the preacher turn up having abandoned his sermon based on Matthew’s gospel in favour of something that came to him while watching a popular TV dance show, and saying that God showed him “a word”.
    Preachers snip the word of God into “promises”, “prophecies”, “proof-texts” and believe they are taking it seriously without ever expounding the actual meaning of even several verses taken in context.
    It’s like having been given a vast mansion to live in and then taking it apart brick by brick and constructing a lean-to shed in the back-yard and saying “what wonderful bricks we have been given to build with”
    If you are in a church where expository preaching takes place at all, then consider yourself blessed indeed.

  6. Steven Says:

    Was Christ an expository preacher?

  7. David Says:

    Christ did not need to expound the Word with one preaching method to the exclusion of all others, for he was the Word, and when He spoke, His words were God’s words. However, when He did teach the Scriptures, He clearly taught the texts in context, taking them literally, harmonising them with other texts, and explaining their meaning.

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