Of the making of definitions of expository preaching there is no end. Of late, in reaction against the overabundance of topical preaching, there has been a return to expository preaching. So a cottage industry has developed of defining expository or expositional preaching.
A Return to Exposition
This return to exposition is a laudable development, because exposition is the most foolproof way to ensure that the preacher is God’s mouthpiece, God’s herald, announcing the good news of the kingdom every time a sermon is given. So no matter how narrow the definition and practice of expository preaching is, it can’t help but be a good thing.
Certainly, expositional preaching is to be preferred to the topical preaching I have heard in most pulpits. This is not limited to the conservative preacher who reads a verse of Scripture that refers to lying and then proceeds to talk about lying without recourse to the text he just read, and doesn’t really spend any time expounding any text or texts of the Bible in considering his topic. It extends (probably more so) to the sermons I heard at Yale Divinity School by Protestant liberals who read a verse of Scripture that made reference to justice and then proceeded to talk about justice without recourse to the text just read, or delving into any text(s) of Scripture. The same can be said for the pop-psychology-type sermons so prevalent in the so-called seeker-sensitive megachurch movement.
Expository Preachers Sometimes Preach Topically
Now, one thing I have noticed is that even the most avid proponents of expository preaching see the need for a portion of a preacher’s sermonic repertoire to be topical sermons. When my friend Mark Dever preached at Welch College a few years ago, one of the four sermons he delivered was a topical sermon. And he informed his listeners that he was going to preach a topical sermon that evening just to exemplify that a portion of a preacher’s sermon schedule should be topical sermons. So I don’t think most expositional preachers believe there’s no place for topical sermons. Rather, they would say that most sermons should be expository.
Having never taken a course in homiletics, I was largely taught the subject informally by my grandfather, L. V. Pinson, and by reading great sermons from the past. My self-taught grandfather’s maxim was, “Always stay as close to the Bible as you can.”
Most of my grandfather’s sermons were from paragraphs out of the Bible rather than single verses. But his method would vary—from mostly distilling the meaning out of a text and probing that meaning in his own homespun way, all the way over to running-commentary-style, verse-by-verse exposition—always with a heavy dose of practical application. After I grew up and started hearing other sermons, I was struck by how rare my grandfather’s more textually driven approach to preaching was.
Most of my sermons over the last twenty-five years have developed out of my grandfather’s cherished method of distilling the meaning out of a given text—accurately (I think!) interpreting the text in context and then applying it to present-day concerns of my listeners. Like my grandfather, when I was an active pastor in a local-church setting, I generally did not preach through books of the Bible. Each sermon was a self-contained unit but was always very textually driven and “stayed close to the Bible.” (But, when I had friends who chose to preach serially through books, I always thought that was a good thing. In chapel at Welch College, I will often take a paragraph or chapter out of the Bible and preach through it sequentially over several sermons. But this is not my only method of preaching, even in chapel.)
The vast majority of my sermons over the years have been on a single text, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer. But I’ll occasionally preach a sermon from more than one text. I also occasionally preach topical sermons. Needless to say, my own preaching method has predisposed me to be delighted with the revival of expository preaching today.
Squeamish about Harsh Sermon Critics
I must tell you, however, that I am squeamish about the number of very harsh sermon critics that seem to have come with this renewal of expository preaching. I often tell people that I am not too stern a critic of sermons as long as preachers “stay as close to the Bible as they can.”
What concerns me most is that the majority of the sermons I hear when I travel—inside and outside my denomination—are just using a text, usually a single verse, as a springboard for a subject the preacher wants to talk about, and the preacher never expounds that text or any text of Scripture. But if the preacher really is expounding a text or texts from the Bible and is accurate in his interpretation of the text(s) he’s preaching from, I’m not going to get too bent out of shape. In my next post, I’m going to talk a little more about some of the definitions of expository preaching.