Exposition and Sufficiency

Article by   May 2010
Under-Powered Preachers

Last year a member of my congregation gave my wife and me tickets to the U2 concert in Boston.  The seats were amazing, and the concert was even better.  Bono and company did not disappoint.  But almost equally incredible was the staging.  The band performed on two stages: one a round, central platform holding the instruments, and the other a ring around the first.  A rotating foot bridge connected the two stages and spanned a pit of screaming fans.  Above, a towering four-legged structure straddled the outer ring stage, with the legs coming together in the center to suspend a rocket over the central stage.  The structure was over 160 feet high.  As the concert began, smoke billowed forth and spotlights of all colors washed the stage.   It felt like launch time at Cape Canaveral.

But the most stunning special effect was the video screen.  It was a circular screen above the central stage, attached to the bottom of the rocket.  The screen had such vivid colors and massive size that everyone in Gillette Stadium could see the performance in hi-def detail.  The screen not only showed the band up close, with studio quality filming, but also video clips, sing-along lyrics and psychedelic colors that pulsed and flowed perfectly to the music.  The screen, comprised of scores of smaller honeycomb shaped screens, could even extend and stretch downward, almost touching the stage.  This wasn't just a concert.  It was one of the most stunning multi-media, multi-sensory, technologically-saturated entertainment experiences my wife or I had ever seen.

At some point during this performance, the preacher in me awoke.  Two thoughts suddenly forced their way into my mind in quick succession.  First came, "Wouldn't it be great if a Bible expositor could get on that stage right now and proclaim the gospel to these tens of thousands of New Englanders?"  We preachers get thoughts like that when we're around crowds.  

But a second thought quickly brushed aside the first: "How could plain Bible preaching compete with such high-tech communication?"  What could be more jarring than to power down the 360 screen, kill the fog machine, turn on the pale stadium lights, and listen to some nobody with a Bible and a lapel microphone expound the meaning of kosmos in John 3:16?  Not even a Plexiglass pulpit could save him from utter failure.

Inspired, but Sufficient?

We preachers feel this tension.  Can straightforward Bible exposition effectively reach people who increasingly absorb data from multi-stream, interactive, screen-centric media?  Where does a classic sermon fit in a world with 3-D IMAX and iPads?  We feel the temptation to upgrade our worship services and sermons with movie clips, drama, power-point, and interactive text-the-preacher sermons in order to gain a hearing with postmodern people.  

I believe that behind our vacillation over straightforward, expository preaching lies a deeper theological crisis over the doctrine of scripture.  We evangelicals doubt expository preaching today because we doubt the Bible.  When I say we doubt the Bible, I don't mean we doubt the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture (well, not yet anyway).  Ask a typical evangelical if she believes that the Bible is the Word of God, and most likely she will nod in agreement.  Look at the doctrinal statements of evangelical churches or organizations, and the first or second article will usually affirm inspiration.

No, our disquiet centers on the related doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.  Is God's Word truly enough to captivate and convert sinners?  Is the Bible ample food for sustaining the souls of the saints?  Can our ancient Scriptures really build healthy churches in a modern world?  Or do we need to boost God's Word with supplemental power sources?  We believe that "all scripture is God-breathed" but we quietly fear that it's not "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  We struggle to affirm with the Westminster Confession that "the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture." (1.VI.)

Evangelicals find themselves today in a similar position as the Reformers.  The Reformer's dispute with Roman Catholicism was not over the God-breathed nature of the Bible.  Rather, their confession of sola scriptura dealt with Scripture's adequacy.  Was Scripture enough for salvation, godliness and church order, or were centuries of accumulated church teachings and traditions also necessary?  Preachers today are tempted to seek other kinds of augmentations to the Bible than our forefathers did, but the core theological issue remains unchanged.  Do we still hold to sola scriptura or not?  Is the Bible enough?

So then, when we waffle on the sufficiency of Scripture, we will also waffle on expository preaching.  Why?  Because expository preaching is a central pastoral application of the doctrine of sufficiency.  When we believe that the Bible, and the Bible alone, has everything our souls need for life and godliness, then we want the Bible clearly exposed in our sermons.  On the other hand, when we buttress biblical exposition with other tools and methods, we may tell ourselves that we're merely contextualizing, or trying to connect with different learning styles, or simply using illustrations.  But if we search our hearts, we find that we've made unbiblical assumptions about the Bible itself.  

Making God's Point Your Point

We've said that expository preaching flows naturally from a preacher convinced of Scripture's sufficiency.  But what exactly is expository preaching?  There are many good definitions.  At 9Marks ministries, we typically say that an expositional sermon is one in which the point of the text becomes the point of the sermon, which is in turn applied to the congregation.  It's a preaching that exposes what the Word says, and then shows how that relates to the hearers.  Visualize the expositor pointing at the text with his right index finger, and then pointing at himself and the congregation with his left index finger.  That's the essence of exposition.

Perhaps it would be helpful to clarify what expository preaching is not.  Unfortunately the term carries negative and inaccurate connotations for some of us.  Consider these four clarifying denials about expository preaching:

First, expository preaching is not merely a verse-by-verse approach to Scripture.  A pastor can exposit a text verse-by-verse.  But he can also take up a paragraph, a pericope, or a whole chapter.  God's Word speaks whether we take a microscopic look at one word, or a wide-angle shot of a whole book.  I have one sermon that I intentionally repeat at my church that covers the entire book of Job.  I recycle that sermon because suffering is a constant challenge in our peoples' lives, and Job calls us to worship God even in our pain and perplexity.  But the point is that it's one sermon on the main point of the entire book.

Second, expository preaching is not to be equated with the style of any one expositor.  When you think of someone who typifies expository sermons, who comes to mind?  Whoever that model pastor may be, don't think that to be a faithful expositor you need to mimic his style, mannerisms, or preaching pace.  Give a text to four faithful expositors, and you will likely get four similar, yet unique sermons.  Though they will make similar points about the passage, the tone, emphasis and insights will vary according to the distinct personalities and gifts God has given to each.

Third, expository preaching is not merely a running commentary on the text.  Our definition includes an emphasis on application.  We preachers often struggle with making application.  Our seminaries trained us in exegesis, hermeneutics and theology, and our sermons often reflect this.  But if we never make application, we merely puff up our hearers with knowledge, or possibly cause them to tune out, without ever pushing the point of the text into their hearts, their families, their speech and their wallets.

Fourth, expository preaching is not inherently seeker insensitive.  We sometimes assume that relevant, topical sermon series are good for unbelievers and new Christians, while expository preaching is better for mature Christians.  Again, this betrays our faltering courage in the Bible's adequacy.  Seekers (i.e. unrepentant sinners) need the Word of God if they are ever going to believe: "Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ" (Romans 10:17).  Furthermore, sinners aren't stupid; they're just ignorant.  They can learn what God's Word says if we'll take the time to explain it to them clearly.  If teenagers can pound down Harry Potter and Twilight novels, and adults can consume The Wall Street Journal and follow the twists, turns, and theology of The DaVinci Code, then they can certainly digest a cogent expository sermon.

Expository preaching at its core is faithfulness to the Bible's message and intent.  It arises from twin desires to see sinners sanctified and God glorified, by showing the power for doing both comes from God's Word alone.  By making the point of the text the point of the sermon and application, we as preachers merely lead people to God on God's terms and then watch as people encounter him through his Word.

Expository Trends

When we become convinced of the sufficiency of God's Word for the life of the church and commit to crafting expositional messages, our preaching will likely follow several predictable trends.  

Trend 1: Preaching Through Books of the Bible

An expository ministry will first and foremost trend toward preaching through whole books of the Bible, rather than preaching topically.  Preaching through a book best conveys the point of the text week after week.  

Can a pastor preach a topical sermon expositionally?  Isn't it possible to pick a topic, find several passages related to that topic, and then carefully exposit those texts over several weeks so that the point of those texts become the point of the sermon each week?

Theoretically, yes, one can preach a topical sermon by expositing a Scripture.  But in reality many perils await the topical message.  Imagine that we want to preach a topical sermon for Sanctity of Life Sunday.  Simply by choosing that emphasis, we have already slanted our approach to any scripture we take up.  Let's suppose we choose to speak on Psalm 139:15-16: "My frame was not hidden form you when I was made in the secret place.  When I was woven together in the depths of the earth your eyes saw my unformed body."  And so we begin weaving together a sermon in our minds about the sanctity of unborn life in the womb based on this verse.

But is the sanctity of human life really the main point of the passage?  Isn't the Psalm essentially a meditation on God's infinite nature?  God sees everything and goes everywhere, even into the mysterious realm of the womb where he knits together a child by his power.  His work in the womb highlights his infinite majesty.  The sanctity of life may be one legitimate application of these verses, but God wants to tell us something far greater.  However, a topical approach sets us up to miss the main point of God's revelation if we're not highly disciplined in our study.

Topical preaching can so easily slant toward the preacher's pet issues or doctrines, likes or dislikes.  The limitations of the preacher's thinking, experience and creativity constrain what topics we hear.  So while a topical sermon may have usefulness on occasion, it should be approached cautiously and should certainly not comprise the congregation's main teaching diet.  As Dr. Walter Kaiser often joked, "I believe every preacher should give a topical sermon once a year, and then immediately repent!"

In contrast, preaching expositionally through a book of the Bible lets God's Word set the agenda of topics.  God knows better than we do what sinners need to hear in order to be converted, and what the church needs to hear in order to become a holy and loving body that reflects his glory.  When studying a book week by week, the pastor and congregation must often confront difficult texts and hard topics that we would normally avoid.  As preachers we end up growing along with the congregation.  And perhaps most importantly, preaching through a book reinforces the doctrine of scripture's sufficiency rather than the pastor's creativity and wit in crafting a clever topical series.

One final question: why do we feel the need to do topical series anyway?  Yes, there are those times when we must address a pressing issue head-on with a sermon or three.  But why do we shy away from whole-book preaching as our primary method?  If we're brutally honest, isn't it because at some level we distrust the sufficiency of Scripture to reach unbelievers and believers alike?  To some degree we believe that the Bible needs more relevant packaging.  The medicine won't taste right so we need to surround it with a trendy gel capsule for easy swallowing.

Trend 2: Preaching the Whole Bible

An expository ministry will not only trend toward preaching through books of the Bible, but also preaching the whole Bible.  Again, if we believe that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for thoroughly equipping the saints, then we will desire to expose our people to the whole counsel of God over time.  We will want to show the goodness of God and his Word from Leviticus as well as from Luke, and from Ruth as well as from Romans.  

If we preached, say, only through the Pauline epistles, people would be saved and grow in grace.  But that growth would be limited to the strengths of Romans and Philippians.  Our flocks wouldn't graze on what Genesis and Acts have to feed them.  Over time our sheep might even become malnourished in a subtle way.  There will be certain things about God, the gospel, and themselves that they won't grasp as clearly as they could.

So in your preaching, try alternating between Old Testament and New Testament series.  And try to preach from different genres.  Take a copy of Fee and Stuart's classic How to Read the Bible for All its Worth and turn to the table of contents that lists the major biblical genres.  Then take your preaching records and see which types of literature you've preached, and which you've neglected.  If you find a big hole in the genres you've preached, then fill it in with the next series.

Last year I attended a Simeon Trust Workshop on Biblical Exposition at 10th Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.  The topic was Apocalyptic literature.  David Helm, the workshop's leader, asked us preachers there, "Don't you get frustrated when your people fall for all kinds of strange ideas and conspiracy theories about the end times?"  Murmurs of agreement rustled through the group.  "And don't you wish they would all leave behind the Left Behind series?"  Now chuckles of knowing laughter could be heard.  But then David sprung his trap.  "Well, let me ask you: when's the last time you've preached through any apocalyptic literature in the Bible?  If you don't teach on it, then why do you think your people will know any better?"  I realized that at that point I had been preaching to my congregation for twelve years and had rarely touched on apocalyptic texts.  I went home and informed my elders that we would be studying Revelation next.  We just entered Revelation 14 at the time of my writing this article, and God's people are loving it.

Trend 3: Preaching the Bible's Story Line

Our concern to preach the whole Bible will lead us to preach the storyline of the whole Bible as well.  Not only will we want to expose our local fellowships to the writings of all the biblical authors, but we'll also want them to see the hand of the great Author crafting His-story within history.  

We need to familiarize our congregation with the Bible's macro-plot: Creation, Fall, Promise, Israel, Exile, Christ, Church, Glory.  We should show where our sermon text resides in the story line.  We will highlight how the point of our sermon finds expression in what God has done before in salvation history and what he will do in the future.

I might add that this type of preaching is quite seeker-sensitive.  Postmodern people have been indoctrinated to reject meta-narratives.  And yet rather than being liberated, they've found themselves lost and adrift in vast sea of meaninglessness, with no land in sight.  Postmodern people are still created in God's image, and still need to be located in framework of meaning.  Highlighting the Bible's big picture will speak to these lost souls.

Trend 4: Preaching the Gospel

And finally, if we preach the Bible's story line, we will preach Christ and the gospel, because that story-line revolves around him.  Jesus chided the two disciples on the road to Emmaus for their failure to see the gospel in the Scriptures: "He said to them, 'How foolish you are and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?'  And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:25-27).

Then later in the same chapter, he illuminates the disciples by showing them how all the Scriptures are fulfilled in the cross and the empty tomb.  "He said to them, 'This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.'  Then he opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures.  He told them, 'This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise form the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem'" (Luke 24:44-47).

Paul taught the whole counsel of God.  And yet he could summarize his message by saying, "We preach Christ crucified" (1 Corinthians 1:23).  All of the OT Scriptures lead us to Jesus, and all of the NT Scriptures flow from him and his work.

Therefore, faithful exposition shows how the text at hand relates to the Bible's epicenter, namely Jesus and the gospel.  This overarching gospel message protects our preaching from mere moralism and pietism.  When we preach about David's failure with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11, our sermon won't stall out in a mere ethical exhortation to affair-proof your marriage.  We will also help our congregation see David's failure as Israel's shepherd, and our own. And then we will beckon our hearers beyond them both to Jesus, the true Davidic King, who flawlessly obeyed the Father in our place and fearlessly embraced the punishment for all our infidelities.

Preach the gospel in every sermon.  That doesn't mean that every sermon must be an evangelistic message. But it should contain the gospel.  Every sermon should show how we are great sinners, and how Christ is a great Savior.  When you've completed your manuscript or sermon outline, re-read it and ask, "Is the gospel clear?"  Submit your homily to the "Orthodox Jewish rabbi" test: If an Orthodox Jewish rabbi could preach your sermon, then you're not proclaiming Christ crucified.

When our hearts rest confidently in the sufficiency and power of God and his Word, we will want to preach expositional messages.  This in turn will lead us to preach through whole books, as well as through all the books of the Bible.  We will preach the Bible's storyline, which is ultimately to preach Christ crucified.

The Art of Application

Expository preaching not only makes the point of the text the point of the sermon, but it then applies the text's thrust to our congregation.  The presence of application, exhortation, rebuke and encouragement separates a sermon from a lecture.

And yet, as I suggested earlier, we preachers often struggle with application and fail to do it well.  Our sermons run the risk of reflecting the commentaries we consult: strong on historical background and grammar, but weak on heart-probing questions.  Or sometimes we make the opposite error.  In a desire to be relevant and pastoral, we launch into extensive applications, replete with tear-jerking stories, which have only the loosest connections to the text we just expounded.

How do we go about making faithful application that sprouts organically from the text?  First and foremost, we must be clear about the point of the passage.  If expository preaching includes applying the point of the text, then we need accuracy in articulating that point.  If we're not sure what the text is about, our congregation will be confused at best.  As the old saying goes, a mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pews.  So begin your application by writing in one sentence the main point of the text you've studied.  If you can discipline yourself to articulate succinctly the scripture's central theme, you're on your way.

Second, bombard your text with application questions.  Good application is like good exegesis.  It's about listening to the text by asking questions.  Start by asking, "Where does this text fit in the Bible's story line?"  Clarify for yourself how your text relates to believers today in the grand scheme of salvation history.  If you're preaching from Deuteronomy, for instance, be aware of the hermeneutical issues in applying Israel's Law to Christ's church.

Next, look for applications within the text itself.  Does it include a command to be obeyed, or a sin to flee?  Does the passage articulate a doctrine to be believed or a promise to be trusted?  Do characters in the story present models to be imitated or avoided?

You can also exposit your congregation.  Think about the spiritual taxonomy of your hearers and how the text relates to each.  What does the scripture in question have to say to unbelievers?  Believers?  Does it address specific categories of people like parents or children, leaders or slaves, the rich or poor, the arrogant or the downtrodden, legalists or libertines?  Does it have a corporate application for the church?  

I've also found it helpful to think about the kinds of objections an unbeliever brings to the text.  Dr. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has created a useful list of "defeater beliefs," which are assumptions held by a culture that undercut the gospel a priori.  Keller argues that in post-modern America ideas like, "All religions teach the same thing so claims to exclusivity must be false" and "A good God wouldn't allow suffering in the world" particularly predispose people against God's Word.  Does your sermon text bump into any of these ideas, or perhaps respond to them?  Gospel preaching is not the same thing as apologetics, and yet we should be aware of the specific idols that inhabit our society's mental pantheon as we bring the gospel siege engine to bear against its walls.

Finally, be sure to preach the gospel.  Show how your text reveals our depravity, and how it points us to Jesus as the Savior.  Again, preach the gospel in every sermon.

A Demonstration of the Spirit's Power

Does this sound like a lot of work?  Well, it is.  It takes effort to preach God's Word faithfully.  But if we will wrestle with the text like Jacob did with the angel, we will eventually receive the blessing.  If we will spend time with the text by doing the steady exegetical and application spadework, we will unearth two large piles of gold.  The first pile will contain exegetical treasures for elucidating the point of the text.  The second heap will be filled with searching applications flowing from the text.  In fact, you will normally have so much material that you will be wrestling with what to leave out of the sermon.  And by the way, this is also why expositors typically follow a fifth trend: longer sermons!

Let us glorify God by honoring his Word with serious study.  Let us stop fiddling with power point slides for the sermon and quit surfing Google Images for just the right visual.  Let us quit poring through back issues of Reader's Digest to find an apt illustration or joke, and instead use the time to pray and meditate on Scripture.  Let's be done with trying to cobble together a video montage from Gladiator to illustrate the idea of "Teamwork" for our latest topical series on "Living in Community" designed to fuel attendance in our new small group program.  

Why not stop splicing modern power lines into our sermons to soup up our effectiveness, and instead trust in the sufficiency of God's power through the Word?  Preachers in every age must decide whether to use the power tools of their day or to simply preach the Word.  Even Paul in Corinth ignored the worldly levers at his disposal, namely rhetoric and philosophy.  "My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power" (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).

We New England pastors sometimes speak together of a shared hope.  Many of us long for a thunderous revival to sweep over New England again.  We read of the spiritual Nor'Easter that blew through our region during the Great Awakening, and we believe that God can do it again.  We remember the stories of crowds, the size of the ones gathered at Gillette stadium to hear U2, pressing onto Boston Commons to hear the words of life from George Whitefield, who spoke without lights, videos, or even basic amplification.  And we long for God to renew them in our time.

We cannot organize such a revival.  True awakenings cannot be got up or hauled down, any more than a blizzard can.  No, God must move graciously and sovereignly.  But, we can pray.  And we can commit ourselves to expository preaching.  Because whenever God has moved in revival--authentic, heaven-sent revival--one always finds at the center of it a resurgence of Spirit-soaked, biblical, gospel preaching.  Until another awakening comes, may we preach the Word faithfully.  And should it come in our lifetime, and the world asks what method or technique we used to elicit such a response, may we simply say, "We preached Christ crucified" so that men's confidence might not rest on our wisdom, but on God's power, to his glory.
  
Jeramie Rinne is the Senior Pastor of South Shore Baptist Church in Hingham, MA. This article is adapted from a lecture originally created for 9Marks workshops.


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