The Mandate for Expository Preaching
Expository preaching made a splash within evangelicalism over the last 15 years, or so. I remember in the early days of my ministry going out of my way to explain expository preaching to people interested in our church. Now the moniker “expository” is so common that most people within evangelicalism are generally familiar with the terminology. This joyous development, however, has not come without its own set of problems. Mainly, the myriad of preachers who’ve latched on to expository preaching (at least in name) as a methodological fad. For them, it is what works for now, and when the next fashionable trend comes along they’ll catch that wave. Here is the problem: expository preaching is not just an effective method for preaching, it is the mandated method. The extraordinary task of the preacher is to communicate God’s truth, and the only way to do this is to preach the text. Anything less falls short of Scripture’s mandate and will not be used by God to communicate with His people. Expository preaching is the mandate for Christian preaching and the only method that promises spiritual power.
At this point, you might be tempted to wonder why there is no explicit command in the Bible to preach expositionally. That is such a good question which has been posed to me on many occasions. In response, I always point out that a number of passages do command us to preach the Word and it would be anachronistic to wonder why those commands do not clarify expository preaching over some other method. In other words, when the Bible commands the preaching of the Word it assumes what we call expository preaching.
Consider, for instance, Paul’s instruction in 2 Timothy 4:1-6:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
What does this sound like to you? To me it sounds like Paul is calling for Timothy to avoid innovative, trendy, and popular methods of preaching and just preach “the word.” Paul does not use the term “expositional preaching,” but isn’t that exactly what he is talking about? Expository preaching is simply preaching the message of the Bible from the Bible, which is precisely what Paul commanded. When thought of this way, expository preaching is not only found in the Bible, but it is explicitly commanded in the Bible.
In addition to being commanded by the Bible, the mandate for expository preaching arises from the implications of biblical doctrines. Take, for instances, the doctrine of sanctification. God designed for believers to grow through a steady diet of the truth found in Scripture (John 17:17). There are lots of circumstances through which a believer can grow, but none of them are devoid of truth. Saturation in the precepts of Scripture transforms the mind and strengthens faith. Since God designed preaching as a means of grace for growth, He must have intended for that preaching to come from the truth of the Bible. Truth is the potent instrument of sanctification, and preaching animates this sanctifying instrument. A right understanding of the doctrine of sanctification drives preachers deeper into the text of Scripture for the growth and maturity of their people.
Furthermore, a healthy doctrine of Scripture demands expository preaching. A robust bibliology and an expository pulpit go hand-in-hand, which is why the Reformation was full of expositors. They were committed to Sola Scriptura, the formal principle of the Reformation, and because of this theological commitment they were methodologically committed to expository preaching. An inerrant and inspired book demands to be proclaimed. “The only logical response to inerrant Scripture…is to preach it expositionally. By expositionally, I mean preaching in such a way that the meaning of the Bible passage is presented entirely and exactly as it was intended by God” (John MacArthur, Rediscovering Expository Preaching, 23-24). If the Bible is inerrant in every word and thought, then every word and thought must be preached.
Similarly, the doctrine of perspicuity demands expository preaching. Ironically, the obscure term perspicuity means that Christians can understand the Bible on their own. With the help of the Holy Spirit and through proper methods of interpretation the Bible is a book that can be interpreted. Those who resist expository preaching on the grounds that it will be too difficult for some in the church to understand sound eerily similar to the Roman Catholic opponents of the first English translations of the Bible. They said that the people of the church could not be trusted with the interpretation of the Bible, and those who think that expository preaching is beyond the reach of the average congregant are making the same claim. If God has revealed Himself in the Bible so as to be understood, then the Bible should be preached expositionally so that God will be understood as He intends.
In all of this, it is clear that the Bible—as well as the theology we derive from the Bible—mandate the practice of expository preaching. Thus, expository preaching is not merely a happy trend, it is how we define faithful preaching. The church has a responsibility to obey the expository mandate by practicing and supporting expository preaching in the local church. God knew what He was doing when He mandated this kind of preaching. He knew our sinful hearts would prefer ear-tickling communication over sanctifying sermons. That is why God commanded that we preach his Word. It is, and will always be, what Christians need even if it is not always what they want.
Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.