Expository preaching

From Academic Kids

Expository preaching is preaching that concentrates on explaining the meaning of a particular text or passage of Scripture. While the term could be used in connection with any religion that has organised worship that includes scriptural teaching, it is most usually used in relation to Christianity, and is thus concerned with the exposition of the Bible.


Expository preaching compared with other styles

Expository preaching is so called to distinguish it from a number of other styles or types of preaching, including:

  • topical preaching - concerned with a particular subject of current concern;
  • exhortatory preaching - concerned with changing or affirming the behaviour of the congregation in a particular way;
  • biographical preaching - tracing the story of a particular biblical character through a number of parts of the bible;
  • evangelistic preaching - seeking to convert the congregation or bring them back to their previous faith;
  • charismatic preaching - seeking to inspire the congregation to an immediate spiritual experience.

It can be seen that expository preaching differs from the other styles in that it will tend to lead preacher and congregation to concentrate on a particular bible passage, whereas all the other styles will tend to lead them to range across a number of passages.

All preachers need to use a mixture of styles, depending on the needs of their congregations at a particular point in time, but direct exposition is the backbone of preaching in almost all parts of the church. In particular the increasing use of lectionaries, and the widespread adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary, has led to an increase in systematic expository preaching in most mainstream Christian denominations in recent decades.

Systematic exposition

There are two ways in which texts are selected for exposition: The use of a lectionary, or letting the preacher or individual church decide which books or passages are examined.

The lectionary is a pre-arranged set of passages have been set for the preacher to expound, and is usually influenced by the church calendar. The passages found in the lectionary are sometimes set by the particular denomination that the minister and church belong to. The advantage of using a denominationally based lectionary is that the same themes and passages are expounded at the same time throughout that body of churches. A lectionary also has the advantage of covering large sections of the Bible so that the regular congregation is exposed to them over a reasonable amount of time. One disadvantage of using lectionaries is that the church and preacher are somewhat constrained by the lectionary's rules. Another disadvantage is that the set passages in the lectionary may not cover an entire book of the Bible, or may contain too much information for the preacher to cover in one sermon.

When the passages are determined by the preacher or the individual church, the preacher has the freedom to work out which passage is studied at particular times. In such a situation, the preacher will preach through entire books of scripture. It also allows a far more detailed look at the text being studied. Another advantage of this system is that the preacher is forced to expound passages that may not be examined or applied normally. The disadvantage of this system is that it may not fit into any form of liturgical calendar followed by the church and its denomination. It may also lead to an over-reliance upon preaching through the New Testament rather than the Old Testament, since the former is generally easier to understand and apply. It could also result in a more individual church becoming more independent and less connected to its denomination, which may be a problem in denominations that emphasize unity and interdependence.

Under some circumstances, preachers will prefer to preach through whole books of the Bible systematically over a long period of time. For example, one Sunday a preacher may explain and apply 1 John 1.1-4. The following week he explains and applies 1 John 1.5-7. The week after that he explains and applies 1 John 1.8-10. This goes on until the book is finished. Then another book of the Bible is examined.

The advantage of systematic expository preaching is that the preacher will never be lost for a subject for his or her sermon, since no ordinary preacher has ever preached through the entire Bible in their lifetime. This means that the preacher need not have to worry about which topic or message he should give for the next Sunday's service; the lectionary provides guidance, and a wealth of resources are available to guide the exposition of the recommended passages.

Many famous evangelical preachers have used systematic exposition. Perhaps the greatest evangelical preacher of the 20th Century was D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who was the minister of Westminster Chapel in London from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. His series on Romans took years to complete as he worked through the book almost a verse at a time. Other famous Expository preachers include John Stott, Dick Lucas and Charles Spurgeon from England.

Relative importance of expository preaching

There has been some discussion among preachers of the relative importance of expository preaching. The great majority of Christians follow the conventional understanding that there are four bases for faith (the bible, the tradition of the church, the individual's religious experience, and human reason). However the emphasis put on each of these varies between denominations and congregations. In particular some churches give scripture the dominant position over all other sources of religious understanding (this is common in fundamentalist or evangelical denominations, for example). Such a position may lead to a greater emphasis on expository preaching, and some of its greatest advocates have come from this tradition. What it will certainly do, however, is to affect the style that expository preaching takes.

In churches who take the position that the Bible is God's inerrant word, and contains sufficient information for the Christian to understand their faith and how they should live their lives, exposition is not likely to be influenced by material from outside the bible (such as tradition, experience and crticial scholarship), though it often involves detailed comparison of one text with another in order to reach a synthesis.

In churches that take a different view, expository preaching will need to bring the biblical material into relation with tradition, reason and individual experience. Thus congregations with a firm conviction of the authority of the church will need to know how the church has traditionally interpreted a passage; strongly charismatic congregations will want to understand how the passage under study relates to their personal experiencies; and congregations whose members are influenced by modern critical scholarship, and believe that the ancient texts of the bible need to be interpreted in the light of the context in which they were written, will need a different kind of exposition again.

Regardless of these differences of emphasis, however, all preachers and congregations would agree that preaching must be honouring to God rather than to human beings. In practice, this means that the preacher as expositor should be concerned with speaking about what God sees as important. This will be of little use, however, if it does not connect to what the people in the congregation see as important - even if it only does so by seeking to upset their priorities. But the principle must be that when a church is exposed to expository preaching, they are being enabled to hear God speak rather than being told what they think they need to hear.

Scriptural basis for exposition

For those who believe that the dominant source of Christian understanding is the bible, it may seem obvious that expository preaching should be essential. Nonetheless the logic of their position demands that preaching itself should have a scriptural warrant.

The biblical basis for expository preaching can be found in many places in the Bible. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is perhaps the most important, for it states that Scripture is "breathed out by God", which means that the Bible is actually God's words. The phrase "breathed out" is also a link to the Holy Spirit, which shows a link between the work of God's Spirit, and the work of God's Word. The verse also goes on to explain that Scripture is "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness". This shows that the Bible is not theoretical, but practical in its application. Finally, it states that "the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work". This has been claimed to show the sufficiency of scripture - that it is all that a Christian needs to understand his faith and how to live his life.

Another important verse is Ephesians 6:17, which states that the "Sword of the Spirit is the Word of God". This indicates again the link between the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of God's word. It shows that when the word of God is read, examained and applied, there also works the Holy Spirit.

A third important verse is found in Hebrews 4:12, which says that "The word of God is living and active, sharper than any double edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart". This second picture of God's word as a deadly sword is deliberate, not because of the violence it implies, but because of the change it can bring to those who listen to God's word. Here also the word of God is almost given a personality of its own - which implies, again, the hidden work of the Holy Spirit as it works with the word of God to change people's lives.

The expository preacher

Expository preachers will spend a decent amount of time studying and understanding the text in question. While this is going on, they will also be praying that God will reveal to them the meaning of the text, and that the hearts and minds of the congregation will be changed by it. As they speak to their congregations, they know that there is nothing in them that can convince anyone of anything pertaining to God and the Christian life. More than that, they also know that those listening to them have nothing in themselves that can respond to the message they preach. Yet they preach knowing that God will work in them and through them, and that the Holy Spirit will use their weakness, and that as the word is preached, the Spirit works in the hearts and minds of those who listen. Thus preachers have confidence, not in their own skills or abilities, nor of the willingness and attentiveness of their listeners, but solely in the power of God as he works through his word.


Scripture Quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers (c) 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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