The Necessity of Expositional Preaching

Christianity in America is now, quite famously, in decline. As a burgeoning church historian, I’m alarmed by the erosion of certain staples of the Christian Church. One of the great hallmarks of the historical Church has been a relentless commitment to expositional preaching–that is preaching that seeks to explain and expound on the meaning of Scripture. The marriage of the Church to consumerism, has lead to many American pastors forfeiting a commitment to expositional preaching in favor of things irredeemably different that they suppose will be more readily received and agreeable to the people of their communities. In defense of the historical Church’s commitment to expositional preaching, I hereafter consider the severe consequences that come as a result of non-expositional preaching.

Non-Expositional Preaching Usurps the Authority of God:

If a pastor has come to his congregation, preached, and failed to explain a particular text of Scripture, then Scripture has been replaced by whatever else has just taken place. The question of whether pastors should be committed to preaching expositionally is a question of authority. Who has a right to address the people of God? Who has a right to tell people how they ought to live? The answer, of course, is only God. Pastors must consider whether their congregation would be more benefited by hearing from themselves, or from God. And to those who are called to be pastors, the truth that only God has the authority to speak to the Church is good news! This means that giftedness, communication skills, and education do not determine the qualifications of a pastor. A pastor’s authority can not be earned or worked for, because there is no such authority. All authority in the Church is God’s authority, exercised through pastors, but only when their hearts and minds are one with God, and when they act authoritatively on the basis of a proper understanding of Scripture.

Non-Expositional Preaching Undermines the Lordship of Christ:

The question here is not very different from that of the previous point. Who is the head of the Church? The one through whom we as Christian are united, the one who has accomplished salvation for us. Christ is the head of the Church. In Colossians Paul writes:

“He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together.  He is also the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He might come to have first place in everything.”

Who should address the Church except for her head? The point again is that headship and authority does not reside in any human being. Authority is all God’s, lordship is all Christ’s. The one who has authority is the only one who can speak to the Church. It has become popular, not least because of the rise and acceptance of Charismatics into orthodoxy, for preachers to say things like, “are you listening for the voice of God?” The incredible thing being that God already has spoken, and what remains is for pastors to faithfully commit themselves to preaching these words to the people God has entrusted to them.

Non-Expositional Preaching Squelches the Work of the Spirit:

This is perhaps where the point is seen most clearly. Consumerism has convinced some pastors that what they need to grow their church is enthusiasm, emotional stimulation, lot’s of humor, lot’s of personal relatable stories, etc. Dry sermon series through books of the Bible and detailed exegetical presentations of Scripture will drive people away. There are many problems with the “seeker-sensitive” movement as it has been called, but perhaps the most crucial is the error in foundation. Scripture is clear: no person has ever or will ever seek Christ. Paul writes in Ephesians:

“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens,the spirit now working in the disobedient.We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us,  made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!”

So it is not that men are seeking, but God. This shatters the ornate construct of so many seeker friendly mega churches. Dead people do not seek life, they have to be raised to it by the only one who can give it. We believe that this life cannot be earned, it is given freely by grace–through faith. How does a person come to faith? Paul answers in Romans:

But how can they call on Him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about Him? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the gospel of good things!But all did not obey the gospel. For Isaiah says, Lord, who has believed our message?So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ.

Perhaps the most ironic and deeply tragic part in all of this is that the people who claim to have the highest priority of bringing people in and making them Christians have lost sight of the crucial work of the Spirit through preaching–faith that comes by hearing the Word. To be truly seeker-sensitive then, demands an unhampered commitment to preaching the word–the declared vehicle through which the Spirit brings faith. Don’t try and stimulate people, or emotionalize them to bring about “decisions for Christ.” Don’t minimize the Word of God in your preaching by crowding a sermon with anecdotal stories, or application, or illustrations. The job of the preacher is to explain God’s word; the Spirit will do the application. Paul never once uses extra-biblical illustrations in his sermon-letters. Any time he is looking to communicate a spiritual truth, he does so by echoing a text from the Old Testament, the Scripture that he knew. If it’s good enough for the Apostle Paul to only do cross referencing illustrations, it should be good enough for us. Every preacher should strive to preach like Paul, and herein lies another important point: we should not just be committed to expositional preaching, we should be committed to expositional preaching that finds and glorifies Christ–as he is the topic of every text. Paul encourages the church in Corinth saying:

“For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

This sounds so like the leaders of seeker-friendly topical-sermon churches today. “These people don’t want all this theology and scripture yet, they want more practical stuff that will improve their lives, help them raise their kids, and do well at work. Preaching expositionally through scripture will be over their heads.” Indeed! Foolishness to the person who is dead in sins, but how will they be risen to life apart from the faith that comes only through hearing the Word? Let us be determined to get out of the Spirit’s way in bringing faith and sanctification. No amount of human cleverness, or humor, or application, or “down to earth” devotional homiletic, or “what this text means to me” nonsense will ever give life to a dead person.

Non-Expositional Preaching is Pride:

Ask a topical preacher that spends the least amount of their sermon preparation doing thorough, Christ-glorifying exegesis, what they think about Scripture. They may tell you that it is free from error, the supreme authority for godly living. However, their actions and the shape of their sermon speaks differently. Whatever they think about Scripture, they must think more of themselves. To spend more time being funny, telling personal stories or giving advice in a sermon than you do on explaining the meaning of a given part of God’s word is to value your own intellect and experiences over God’s word. Any preacher that is not wholly committed to explaining the meaning of a text is more concerned with self-glorification and popularity than they are with God’s authority. You will not give sight to a blind person. But if you will only speak God’s speech, you have a far greater power. Your finite mind and experiences can’t give answers or healing to a world completely corrupted by sin’s curse. But God has answered the curse, and is bringing healing to the world by his son, and through his people who speak his truth. So speak truth!

Conclusion:

Worldly preachers seek approval and success by the world’s standards. Popularity, fame, and the number of people in your church are not the validation of ministry. Are the people God has given you changing and becoming more like Christ? Do the people in your church love one another? Are the people in your church burdened to share Christ with their neighbors? It’s an incredibly perilous thing for the preacher to spend time preparing to address God’s people by doing anything other than studying the meaning of what God has said. What did this passage mean to the original audience? What is the heart of God in this text? It’s a form of high-imperialism to think that we should make God’s word fit our culture when we’re preaching. Yes the Bible is for us, but it was not written to us. The task of the preacher (and scholar) is to place this Scripture back into its original context, guiding contemporary readers to hear as Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. Case in point, why did God through Mark include the story about the healing of the paralyzed man in chapter two of Mark’s gospel? I heard it preached recently that the point of this text was that we need to “get in the game” and be like those men, “they weren’t passive, they were in the game!” The heroes of Mark chapter two are, apparently, these anonymous men who aren’t even named and who are given three verses. A tragically stupid presentation of the text. They are not the stars of the play, or act, or even the scene! This message was preached without much reference to Christ, let alone his authority to heal, his claim to be the Son of God (particularly important to Mark’s Roman audience), or his forgiveness of sins. The Gospel was screened out of this sermon, and the people there that night left, emotionally charged to “get in the game.” To this day I mourn for the time that was wasted on that night by that preacher. Martyn Lloyd Jones describes a preacher in his book on the subject like this:

“You are a man ‘possessed’, you are taken hold of, and taken up. I put it like this–and I know of nothing on the Earth that is comparable to this feeling–that when this happens you have a feeling that you are not actually doing the preaching, you are looking on.”

Preacher, my prayer is that God will speak through you as you commit yourself to saying what he has said.

Grace and Peace,

Austin Holmes

Reading

One of the more exciting prospects of the end of the semester and the beginning of Summer is the departure of assigned reading for my classes. This means that I’ll get back to reading only the things I want to. I thought I’d share briefly what those things are at the moment:

Strange Fire by John MacArthur- This book is written in MacArthur’s usual erudite fashion, with sternness and clarity. Though I’m only half-way, it has been the best critique of The Charismatic Movement, Word of Faith preachers, and the prosperity gospel that I have encountered. This is not least because the author has a relentless devotion to the supremacy of Scripture. MacArthur is actually one of those authors that I started out reading and that I have continued to read through the last couple of year. We don’t line up in every way, but from the perspective of a reader, it’s really enjoyable to work through MacArthur’s written thoughts. An important theological thought that I’ve gleaned thus far is that perhaps the greatest critic of the Charismatic Movement is the Holy Spirit himself, who demands that all focus, and worship, and glory be unto the Son. This book isn’t about rhetoric, or winning an argument. It’s an urgent call for orthodoxy.

The Church by Mark Dever- Dever has devoted his graduate work and ensuing career in Christian ministry and scholarship to loving the doctrine of the Church. It’s often overlooked, and the book does a superb job of laying out the centrality of the Church on the basis of the centrality of the Gospel for Christian life. Dever has organized the book to be about 1.) What the Bible says 2.) What the Church has believed and then 3.) based on Scripture and Tradition, how ought the Church look today? I’m nearly finished, and have enjoyed reading this book. It’s written from an unashamedly Baptist perspective, but every churchman, denominations aside, can benefit from reading this presentation of the doctrine of the Church.

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens- I was a fan of Hitchens for his debates and his appearances in mainstream media. As a new-atheist, he is far and away the most interesting of the uninteresting bunch, though his arguments against theism don’t hold very well. He is a moralist, and a contrarian. Liberal and conservative. This book has more than 100 of the Hitch’s essays. Only a few deal with criticism of religion, and they’re much better as argument for Atheism than his book God is Not Great which I have criticized elsewhere. The essays cover a vast aray of topics like historical imperialism, the modern conflicts in the Arab world, the future of education in the West, and even why women aren’t funny. It’s vintage Hitchens, and all the essays taken together probably make it the most well-written book in this blog post.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright- I started reading this a few months ago, inching my way through an intellect as high powered as the Apostle in question. This book answers all of the outstanding questions that Piper and others had about Wright’s view on justification that weren’t answered in his book by the same title. From the perspective of someone who is working on a BA in History, I really enjoyed parts 1 and 2 of the book in which Wright is reconstructing the world and worldview of Paul as a man of 3 worlds: Jewish, Greek, Roman. This book has many things in common with the New Testament and the People of God by Wright, which was the first in this series. I will have much more to say when I’m finished and I’ve been taking notes the whole way through. This book is being acclaimed as the most extensive look at Paul ever written by scholars from all over the theological map.

Those four are keeping me the most busy for now, but in the next week or two I hope to start From Heaven He Came and Sought Her which is a compilation of arguments for the doctrine of definite atonement, and Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham which argues for the gospels as historical documents based on eyewitness testimony. Looking forward to learning a lot this Summer.

-A

 

John Stott: Death

“Death is unnatural and unpleasant. In one sense it presents us with a terrible finality. Death is the end. Yet in every situation death is the way to life. So if we want to live we must die. And we will be willing to die only when we see the glories of the life to which death leads. This is the radical, paradoxical Christian perspective. Truly Christian people are accurately described as ‘those who are alive from the dead.'”

-John Stott, The Radical Disciple