Expository Enough?

Most preaching that self-identifies as expository is simply not expository enough. The basic etymological definition of expository is to expose the meaning of the biblical text.1 What is key to fleshing out that definition is rightly reckoning what one means by the word text. Can a particular text be abstracted from the canonical text and be correctly and faithfully preached or not? While many so-called expository sermons deal with a text of Scripture, the particulars of the text are often disconnected from the overall purpose and message of Scripture. For a sermon to be truly expository it must preach Christ and his kingdom--the central message of Scripture. Ignoring the Christ-centered canonical context of Scripture is no less reductionistic and problematic than ignoring the immediate context of the human author. Failing to account for the fact that the Scriptures are the supernatural word of a sovereign God errs in the same way that fanciful allegory does: both approaches exclude indispensable biblical context.

In Peter Adam's, Speaking God's Words: A Practical Theology of Expository Preaching, he observes that every preacher "has some kind of theology." Adam contends that every biblically and theologically faithful preacher must believe that the Bible is God-given, theological, self-interpreting, and cohesive (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1996: 109-111). Since the Bible is cohesive, faithful preaching inevitably involves proclaiming both the intended meaning of the original author and the divine intention of the ultimate author. The principle of the analogy of Scripture (Scripture interprets Scripture) simply reminds the interpreter that the Word of God is infallibly auto-interpreting. "All Scripture is breathed out by God," and the God who gives his Word is also the interpreter of his Word (1 Tim 3:16). What comes out of the preacher's mouth must be faithful to the holy God to whom he will give an account and to the canon of Scripture God has given (2 Tim 4:1-2, Titus 1:9, Heb 13:17).

The Christocentric focus of biblically faithful expository preaching is more than pinning John 3:16 to the tail of the sermon. It is also more than a weekly theological treatise that speaks eloquently of the glories of Jesus Christ but lacks exegetical support rooted in a particular text of Scripture. Both of these approaches are woefully inadequate and cannot rightly be called an expository sermon. Preaching that simply suffixes Jesus onto every passage lulls their hearers into lethargy. Such redundant sermons also undermine the centrality of Jesus Christ in the mind of the listener; he or she cannot help but conclude that the preacher caboosed Jesus on at the end because he could not get him in the sermon in any other way. Likewise, sermons that are fine-sounding lectures on the glories of Christ but are not rooted in a particular text suffer from a lack of credibility and authority. Even though everything the preacher says in a sermon may be true, if the sermon is not latched to the text itself, it is not an expository sermon.

The biblical text must not be ignored or abused in preaching. We are to preach Christ from the entire Bible because proper exegesis demands it. The Scripture is not an inspired book of moralisms or a book of virtues; it is, from cover to cover, a book about the glory of God in Jesus Christ through the redemption of his people who will dwell in the kingdom of Christ forever. D. A. Carson summarizes: "At its best, expository preaching is preaching which, however dependent it may be for its content on the text or texts at hand, draws attention to the inner-canonical connections that inexorably move to Jesus Christ."2 C.H. Spurgeon declared,

"The best sermons are the sermons which are fullest of Christ. A sermon without Christ, it is an awful, a horrible thing. It is an empty well; it is a cloud without rain; it is a tree twice dead, plucked by the roots. It is an abominable thing to give men stones for bread, and scorpions for eggs, and yet they do so who preach not Jesus. A sermon without Christ! As well talk of a loaf of bread without any flour in it. How can it feed the soul?"3

Everything in heaven and on earth will be summed up in Jesus Christ. The preaching ministry of the local church should constantly model this eventuality in the pulpit for the subjects of the kingdom (Eph 1:10). Regarding Ephesians 1:10, Peter O'Brien notes, "Christ is the one in whom God chooses to sum up the cosmos, the one in whom he restores harmony to the universe. He is the focal point, not simply the means, the instrument, or the functionary through whom all this occurs."4 The implications for preaching in the present age of inaugurated eschatology are readily apparent. Since God's plan is that all things be eschatologically summed up in Christ, then the role of those upon whom the ends of the ages has already come is to do so right now (1 Cor 10:11, Heb 9:26). The expository pulpit must call the church to comprehensively reorient its vision of all reality in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ and the eschatological triumph of his kingdom.

The alternative approached expository preaching approach modeled by many committed to verse-by-verse sermons is to sum up all things in the biblical text in light of self. The preacher analyzes a pericope grammatically, syntactically, and literarily; he develops the context of the historical author; and he exhorts his hearers to apply certain principles educed from the text. This approach is often called principalization: that is, restating the author's propositions and arguments into timeless truths with special focus on the application of those truths to the current needs of the Church and individual. Some contend that principalization must excludes the use of chronologically subsequent biblical data. In the name of a high view of biblical exposition some deride understanding the meaning of the text in light of the canonical whole eisegesis rather than exegesis. To the contrary, ignoring the larger text of the biblical story leads to self-referential eisegesis that reads that Bible as if it is all about you rather than Jesus.

Atomistic preaching, which isolates a particular truth from the fabric of redemptive history, often results in moralistic preaching that abstracts ethics from the gospel, though it almost always passes under the expository banner. Edmund Clowney made a helpful distinction between what he described as "truth to the first power" and that truth realized in Christ: "truth to the nth power." When the preacher goes straight from a particular truth to immediate application without mediating the text through fulfillment in Christ, moralistic preaching is the result. The implicit message of such preaching is that the Bible is all about the individual. As Clowney notes, "It unconsciously assumes that we can go back to the Father apart from the Son" (Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003: 32-33).

The call to submit to what the Scripture says, must not be reckoned as submission to abstract principles or ideas but to the authority of Christ, whose gospel provides the only hope for justification, sanctification, and glorification. We must be committed to expository preaching, exposing the meaning of the biblical text in our sermons, which means a particular biblical text, faithfully handled in light of the whole biblical text.

1. I define expository preaching as, preaching that takes a particular text of Scripture as its subject, proclaiming the truth of that text in light of its historical, epochal, and Christocentric, kingdom-focused canonical contexts, thereby exposing the meaning of the human and divine authors for the purpose of gospel-centered application.

2. D.A. Carson, "The Primacy of Expository Preaching," audiocassette, n.d. Quoted in Michael Fabarez, Preaching that Changes Lives, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002) p 116.

3. Charles Spurgeon, "Christ the Glory of His People," in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons Vol. 14, (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1868: 467).

4.Peter T. O'Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999: 111)

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, and Preaching Today.