The Failure of Practical Expository Preaching

History is one of those subjects that are vital in developing our thought processes and our character but is commonly hated by many. There is a prevalent notion among the newer generations that the only history that we should be bothered with is the history that we make. Such responses aptly summarise the key problem with these generations: preoccupation with self.

In the modern evangelical movement (church scene), we find similar shifts happening especially with the ‘expository preaching’ development of the last few decades. Though this may not be reflected within the academic or theoretical arena, it certainly is seen in the practice. To set the context – “expository preaching” has (surprisingly) varied definitions based on one’s theological and church background. I find Raymond’s article on “The Gospel Coalition” helpful as he does the difficult task of compiling a few sources for the definition:

John MacArthur: The message finds its sole source in Scripture. The message is extracted from Scripture through careful exegesis. The message preparation correctly interprets Scripture in its normal sense and its context. The message clearly explains the original God-intended meaning of Scripture. The message applies the Scriptural meaning for today.

Bryan Chappell: The main idea of an expository sermon the topic, the divisions of that idea, main points, and the development of those divisions, all come from truths the text itself contains. No significant portions of the text is ignored. In other words, expositors willingly stay within the boundaries of the text and do not leave until they have surveyed its entirety with its hearers.

John Stott: Exposition refers to the content of the sermon (biblical truth) rather than its style (a running commentary). To expound Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view. The expositor opens what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted, and unfolds what is tightly packed.

Although there are nuances in the preachers’ definitions, we can see the areas of agreement. My definition would be like this: “expository preaching” is the art (skill) of examining, elaborating and clarifying the Word of God, whether it is a single verse, or a passage or large portions of Scripture, to an intended audience. If there is any ingenuity in my definition (it is not my intention) it would be the final four words – “to an intended audience” which I will explain in due time.

It is common to hear from the pulpits of many churches, or even in the explanations given in some weekly bulletins, that the church believes in “expository preaching”. However, when one sits in the pews, one quickly realises the opposite. The biggest problem is the lack of examining the Bible passage – usually, only the scantiest overview is given and the listener is to “put their faith” in that scanty overview of what the passage is about. Or, there is the over-elaboration of the wider passage (context) without dealing with the immediate passage under consideration. Even when the passage is dealt with, many verses are ignored or the most general meaning is presented to the listener. Sadly, the most dangerous form is the expositing of the preacher’s theology, mood, and direction rather than God’s. This is the most dangerous because it hides behind the illusion that the Word of God is actually being taught. From my past experiences, this has given rise to unhealthy beliefs, practices and even abuses that begin from an unbiblical indoctrination that claims otherwise. The effect is quite pronounced on the listeners – they begin to “want to please the preacher” or to “listen more to the preacher”, but not to the Word of God for themselves. The Berean spirit is usually not found in many cases. One can easily whip out the Macbook and type out every word that proceeds from the mouth of the preacher, and miss the true meaning that the Lord Jesus gave in Matthew 4:4 – “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Why is it so hard to find good, simple preachers who will just spend time examining the Word of God? From my own experiences and understanding of the ministers’ struggles and process – it boils down to a few factors (which cannot fit this brief article). The chief of those would be 1) insufficient time spent in the study room, 2) over-reliance on own experiences, 3) mechanical or routine treatment in studying God’s Word, 4) aiming for “the message” rather than doing the passage justice.

The first reason is commonly found in those “over-worked” ministers, who have a hundred and one things to do every week. This is not a critique but a simple explanation of what is. Especially among certain Asian ministers, there is the unspoken belief that the minister must justify their salaries to the congregation. This results in the minister taking up all “tasks” that come in their way, whether it is from the new visitor to neighbours, elderly, children, and countless others who have been, is part of or who will join the local church. Unfortunately, this is more often found in small churches (small in size). Is this biblical? Yes and no. The apostles made it clear in Acts 6:2-4 – And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Certainly, the Christian believer should show love to their neighbours, especially ministers who ought to show hospitality – but their main job is “devotion” to PRAYER and the WORD. The minister who is not wrestling on their knees in prayer for their congregation will find it rare to find the congregation wrestling with the Word of God in their conscience.

The second reason for this misdirection in exposition-emphasis is the over-reliance of the minister to their ‘knowledge of the Scriptures’. Every minister who is serious about their gifts and calling will grow their understanding of the whole counsel of God, there is no doubt about it. However, it is perplexing when ministers begin to unconsciously elevate biblical theology and systematic theology above the very Scriptures themselves. The common conservative defense is to claim that the particular systematic theology is derived from Scripture and remain adamant with their particular emphasis. This stumbles the preacher as they have already concluded before they even have begun, by stating that “this” is the goal or the message – the passage is merely a vehicle to help them enforce their “made-up view”. The end result is the preacher bringing his interpretation and views into the passage or verse, thus solidifying the preacher’s own bias or personal preferences over and against the passage’s actual meaning. Sometimes, this over-reliance is also the result of lack of time or exhaustion on the part of the preacher – the minister quickly relies on experience to expedite the ‘preparation of the sermon’.

The third reason for the poor practice of expository preaching comes down to a “dulled spiritual sense’. This happens when we have gotten into a routine and allow ourselves to take things for granted. For example, the minister is called to handle the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, or another passage that he has done before: it is easy for the minister to assume that the points or message of the passage is the same as before. Thus, the minister does little to re-work on the passage, assuming that they have “done” the passage before. This is done more often or not – just try to listen to preachers who preach their “old” sermons – there is no difference. Sure, the wording(s) may change here and there, but the general points remain the same. Should we expect a thoroughly different message? No, but the grace that works in the heart and mind of the minister will help bring new things out of old things. An aging saint that grows older sees things with greater depth and with better skills than the younger self. Unfortunately, many allow their spiritual sense to be dulled by repetition and a “cold” walk with the Lord – often made worse by a lack of true and constant prayer with Him.

Lastly, this often happens when ministers are faced with certain heart convictions – they attach whatever passage they are dealing with their “favourite topic”. There is the example given by the late teacher/preacher S Lewis Johnson of a Baptist minister who would always link the message to the importance of water baptism. This may seem funny until you realise how horrifying it is to give “permission” to listeners to do the same! Yet this is the sad reality of many who claim to be expository preachers. One preacher may claim not to believe in “works over faith”, but if every sermon is going to guilt, rebuke and call on “righteous works” do not be surprised if the congregants exhibit a tendency to legalism and salvation based on works. Likewise to the preacher who emphasises “evangelism” – every message preached becomes a call to action that is done out of a sense of duty devoid of passion and true conviction.

True expository preaching minimises such dangerous man-initiated errors. To conclude, the onus is on the listener to make sure we “listen” to God’s Word rather than man’s word. It is not enough to claim this or that person is a “man of God” and turn off our thinking and discerning faculty. The rule of our life and conscience ought to be God’s Word that is Spirit-inspired. That is why God’s Word must be properly examined, elaborated and clarified by preachers. This is not an easy task – for it demands the preacher to do these three activities for himself FIRST before he communicates the Word to the congregation. After the application of his study is done to himself (as Paul hints in Acts 20:28), the minister can then prepare to communicate the lessons to the listener. What good is ANY expository preaching that fails to be communicated to the intended audience? Thus expository preaching must incorporate the intended audience as part of its definition. Can expository preaching be done for young children? Certainly. Can expository preaching be practiced to elderly persons? Absolutely. To make it effective, one must take into consideration the listeners – are we preparing, wording, articulating, structuring and ordering the whole message so that the Word of God is properly understood by the listeners? If we look at the time of Nehemiah, it seems that the teachers did exactly that – They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading (Nehemiah 8:8). How wonderful for the teachers and ministers were to give the sense of God’s Word clearly to the people (made up of different demographics)? This IS possible, but with hard work from the minister. It IS possible because God’s Spirit supplies what is lacking in the minister, and the listeners.

There are more things to say on this topic – but for now, this will suffice. Food for thought, especially for those who truly yearn for “pure spiritual milk” (1 Peter 2:2).

Spurgeon’s Sermon Notes

2 thoughts on “The Failure of Practical Expository Preaching”

  1. Jana Berylin Crawford

    Would you please post exactly what Spurgeon’s letter states? I am having a very difficult time reading his writing.

    1. Hi!

      That’s a good request… Spurgeon’s handwriting is of a different era (super cursive)…. anyway…. he basically wrote this (I got it from another website, although I actually bought his sermon notes):

      Mark 16:14

      This shows us the way in which we must deal with unbelief in ourselves, and in others. It is a sin and should be treated as such. Jesus would not have upbraided had not this been the case.

      In the case before us they had repeated testimonies from their own brethren, and backed by his own word—but we have even more guilt, for we know him to be risen and yet doubt.

      1. Let us consider its evil in itself.
      Suppose someone doubted us.
      Think of who he is and what he has done.
      Consider his near and dear relation to us.
      The many times in which we have doubted
      And upon the same matter.
      Where his promises forbade unbelief
      Despite our own declarations.
      What have we believers in preference?

      2. Let us observe the evils which it causes.
      It grieves the Spirit of God.
      It causes disbeliefs in our own hearts.
      It weakens us for action or offering.
      It depresses others.
      It leaves an ill impression [on] sinners.
      It cannot but gender to bondage.

      3. Let us reflect upon its sinfulness where it reigns.
      It gives God the lie.
      It argues hatred in the heart.
      It is the sign of utter moral death.
      It is the essence of hell.

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