The task of preaching today is difficult. The preacher is called upon to declare a message which is mighty enough to match the desperate plight of modern man. Such a message is not to be found in the treasures of human wisdom, but in the Bible. No word of advice or mere opinion rising out of the human scene can save us. The desperate needs of this age demand a return to strong, sound Biblical preaching. Through the ages, we have called it "expository preaching."
My good friend of many years, Robert Shannon, and his son, Michael, have written a book which calls us all to a kind of preaching which has proved its worth through the ages. They call usto have the courage to proclaim the message of the Bible. If the road is worn down with much traveling, it is so because it leads to a desirable destination. The Shannons challenge us to do "expository preaching." In dealing with this theme, I want to underscore two significant aspects (both emphasized by the Shannons): that preaching must be solidly rooted in Scripture and that it must be directed to the needs of people today.
What Is Expository Preaching?
When you consult the older experts in homiletics - John Broadus, F. B. Meyer, Henry Burgess, Andrew W. Blackwood - you will find them not in precise agreement on what they mean by "expository preaching." Nearly all agree on the length of the passage handled (though Broadus says it may be "a very short" passage). Some stress the point of verse-by-verse, clause-by-clause treatment. This would seem to indicate that if the details of a passage were omitted from the sermon, it would not be expository. Others stress the didactic style and explanatory method as though the purpose of preaching was to explain a passage of Scripture.
We need a new definition of expository preaching. It is really too good a term to give up. We are going to seek a new definition in terms of substance rather than form. Biblical exposition needs to be limited only by the broad principle that the substance of one's preaching be drawn from the Bible. That means every sermon must be rooted solidly in Scripture. All true preaching, then, is expository preaching. The sermon may be based on the whole Bible, a book of the Bible, a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence, a phrase, a word, a character, a doctrine, a topic, etc. The one requirement is that the sermon be soundly and solidly rooted in the Scripture. That means concern must be shown for the literary historical context, grammatical and lexical data, as well as the larger context of the entire book and the whole Bible. It means being a literate and devoted student of the Bible. This view has a large appreciation for the dedicated scholarship of the church.
Marvin R. Vincent, known to most of us for his Word Studies in the New Testament, wrote another book entitled The Expositor in the Pulpit. In that book he says, "the phrase 'Expository Preaching' properly covers all preaching. Exposition is exposing the truth contained in God s word: laying it open; putting it forth where the people may get hold of it; and that also is preaching."
Donald G. Miller develops this workable definition of expository preaching:
"Expository preaching is an act wherein the living truth of some portion of Holy Scripture, understood in the light of solid exegetical and historical study and made a living reality to the preacher by the Holy Spirit, comes alive to the hearer as he is confronted by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit in judgment and redemption" (The Way to Biblical Preaching, Abingdon Press, 1957, p. 26).There are three elements in this definition worthy of our attention: (1) Preaching is not merely a person speaking to other persons; it is an act. Preaching accomplishes something. As P. T. Forsyth said, "The Gospel is an act of God. Its preaching must therefore be an act, a 'function' of the great act. A true sermon is a real deed." A person is either made better or worse by the preaching of the gospel. Preaching never leaves a person where it finds him. Preaching must be based on the Bible. A message not based on Scripture may be called something, but it is not a sermon. (2) The substance of preaching, drawn from the Scriptures, is to be found by careful study in the light of the best methods of historical and exegetical research (God did address His revelation to our intelligence), but this process must be made alive by the Holy Spirit, who desires to speak now through the ancient witnesses. (3) The end of preaching is that the sermon should be transformed from a human conversation between preacher and people into a divine encounter between God and both preacher and people. Such a concept of expository preaching is according to substance (rooted in Scripture and applied to human needs) rather than form. We are free to use a variety of forms, but we may never violate the substance of preaching.
The Values of Expository Preaching
There are many values in Biblical preaching. First, you will always have a ready supply of preaching material. Recently I spent nearly three years preaching my way through the Gospel of Mark. It was one of the delights of my ministry. I am currently preaching through Ephesians, and in the second year am just beginning chapter four. I have hundreds of sermon ideas, more than I may ever be able to preach. If you preach through a Biblical book systematically, you will have an overabundance of sermon material. Second, Biblical preaching will give a breadth of scope to your preaching and a sense of balance and wholeness. It makes you study broad themes and deep currents. You will handle subjects that you would otherwise overlook or postpone. I preached five sermons on predestination as I worked my way through Ephesians. Often I have thought about predestination, but it seldom got into my preaching before I came squarely up against it in Ephesians. People today need the strength and vitality of the God who comes through the Biblical doctrine of predestination. Many feel the world is hopeless and meaningless. The Biblical concept of predestination will speak to that condition. The balance of God's sovereignty and man's free will is beautifully set forth in Scripture. Third, Biblical preaching will acquaint your people with the Bible and impart authority to your preaching. When R. W. Dale preached at Carrs Lane Church in Birmingham England, "the congregation was like one great Bible Class: there was a Bible open in almost every hand." When the Bible is used in the pulpit, the people have the best safeguard against error and the best of spiritual food for the soul. When one is a consistent expositor of Scripture, he finds that the message carries its own authority. People can never be saved by oratory and fervency, but they can be saved by hearing the Word of God.
A Proper Approach to Biblical Interpretation
As we study to preach Biblically, there are two dangers to be avoided: (1) The dogmatic approach, which uses Scripture as an arsenal or proof-texts to be arranged without regard to literary form, historical context, theological context, or even the best translation into English. Little attention is paid to the teaching of the passage or the book in which the isolated text appears. Such use cannot escape the charge of subjectivism, which twists the Scriptures to make them mean what the preacher wants them to mean. (2) The impressionistic approach, which equates the message of the passage with any thoughts which fill the preacher's mind as he reads. It places Scripture at the mercy of human feelings and overlooks the historical context of the Bible. It is far too simplistic for any honest handling of the Scriptures. Today we know nothing better than the grammatical-historical approach to save us from the subjectivism that distorts Scripture. The preacher must be concerned with the text, grammar, historical context, and literary form of the passage as much as with trying to discern what the passage means today. The first responsibility is to discern what the passage meant to its original author. Only then may we ask what it means today.
Preach to the Needs of People
Another aspect of preaching needed today is that it must be related to the lives of people. One does not preach for the purpose of explaining a passage of Scripture. One preaches to bring men and women into contact with God so that their lives may be transformed. Much so-called expository preaching in the past has been deadly dull, uninteresting and irrelevant. Robert J. McCracken says, "The weakness of much expository preaching is twofold; it inclines to be tedious and colorless, and it is often detached and remote from the activities and concerns of everyday existence. Nobody will deny the industry and conviction back of it, but it lacks relevance and contemporaniety" (The Making of the Sermon, Harper and Row, 1956, pp. 36-37). As the sermon is prepared, there must ever be before us the faces of our people with their needs and our world with its tragic problems. The preacher must learn to apply Biblical insights to contemporary situations. An artist was sketching outdoors in the Barbizon District in France. He was working at his easel set up along a stream, when a group of four children appeared in front of him and watched every stroke of his pencil. Finally one said, "Mister, please get us in your picture!" That is the plea of every congregation as it faces the preacher on a Sunday morning, "Get us in your picture." Without that, there is no preaching. We need to have the eyes of Jesus - "When he saw he crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:36). Somehow we must learn to feel the sense of insignificance felt by many in our world the insecurity, the anxiety, the fear, the sense of emptiness, the feeling of futility and the absence of hope. The Bible speaks to every lonely condition of the human heart. It is the preacher's job to bring the sound message of Scripture and the crying needs of the human heart together. There can be no real communication of the gospel without participation in the life of our generation. T. S. Eliot once wrote, "To apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time, is an occupation for a saint." It is surely the occupation of the preacher. The fact is that in the preparation of a sermon, the sooner the preacher can involve the people who listen in the sermon, the better. There is a problem in nearly every pew, and the preacher must meet each one. Bring the sermon close to life.
There is always a need for more and better Biblical preaching. James Smart writes of "The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church." Seminary professors have stories of preachers whose old sermons have been ruined by a course in sound Biblical exegesis. Many discerning church members know they get a lot of moralism and allegory in their preaching. We need more sound Biblical scholarship, and we need to see a closer relationship between Biblical studies and preaching. Edward Taylor's biting comment on one person's sermon might say something to some of us "My dear brother, if your text had the smallpox, your sermon would never have caught it." The preacher must be a student (he dare not neglect his study), and he must be a student of Scripture. It is an arduous, life-long responsibility, but it bears joyous and rewarding fruit.
The Shannons have written a book which points in the right direction. Their book is intended to be suggestive, not exhaustive. They are encouraging us to root our preaching solidly in Scripture (note the helpful outlines of the larger chunks of Scripture) and to relate that preaching to the needs of people (look carefully at the abundance of helpful illustrative material). All that we have said about expository preaching is encouraged and set forward by their book. They expect us to obtain the best volumes for study of Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon. Do careful exegesis. Find Paul's meanings for Paul's words. Be thoughiful as you make the long and perilous journey from the first century to the twentieth century, and seek to speak to the needs of today. Let the Biblical message come alive. Capture the fire of the Biblical message, cast it on the dry fagots of our own hearts, and let it burn. To learn to preach Biblically is one of the most thrilling and rewarding experiences a human being can know. It is the kind of preaching the church needs today. We thank the Shannons for beckoning us in the right direction.