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A question concerning the authority of Scripture and expositional preaching

The other day I was listening to a conversation among some ministers and seminary educators. Among them, there was an assumption of sorts that expository preaching is a necessary activity in Christian churches. And I have noticed that many, indeed, appear to agree with these men on the importance of expository preaching.

And I agree with this. I love expository preaching. I would not want to be a part of a church where the pastor did not preach expository messages. I want to be a pastor who preaches expositionally. I affirm what I read one pastor say, “The first mark of a healthy church is expositional preaching. It is not only the first mark; it is far and away the most important of them all.” I think this practice has historical precedent and is very wise (and Christians must be wise).

Here’s my question: does the affirmation of the importance or even necessity of expositional preaching stretch the bounds of “sola Scriptura” to the breaking point? I can’t think of a single passage of Scripture that explicitly tells us that we must preach expositionally. So why all the urging that we preach that way? Does it not seem to go beyond the authority of the scriptures alone? Is it even judgmental to insist on the importance of this practice?

I mean, just to set up the conversation, let me put it the way another fellow recently did on the question of music (with no animosity intended):

I think we need to be ruthlessly biblical when addressing the question of [expository preaching], especially if we are presuming to tell what kind of [preaching] glorifies God. Failure to do so will be disastrous. At best, those we teach will dismiss us when they see that we’re relying on arguments and authorities outside of the Scriptures. At worst, we’ll win a Pyrrhic victory, convincing those under our care of our position on the [expositional preaching] issue at the cost of undermining their confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture.

I am not saying this to be cheeky or disrespectful. But let’s be frank. There are lots of churches and Christian pastors who don’t believe that expositional preaching is necessary or even important. I’m not pulling this out of nowhere.

Now, I am not one who thinks that the authority of Scripture is necessarily broken when we insist that a certain tradition of Christian worship and music be conserved in Christian churches. Nor am I one who thinks that the authority of Scripture is broken by affirming expositional preaching. But it strikes me as inconsistent to deny us the ability to affirm one but then affirm for ourselves the other.

Ryan Martin

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

5 Responses to A question concerning the authority of Scripture and expositional preaching

  1. It might be interesting to interact with Dr. Ian Murray's first two points in his article "A Caution for Expository Preachiing":

    1. It assumes that all preachers are capable of making effective sermons along these lines. But men have different gifts. Spurgeon was not unfamiliar with “expository preaching” (listening to sermons in his youth he had sometimes wished the Hebrews had kept their epistle to themselves!), and he decided it was not best suited to his gifts. There is reason to think that being an effective “expository” preacher is not such a common gift as some seem to think. Even Dr. Lloyd-Jones was 20 years into his ministry before he slowly introduced “expository” series.

    2. The argument that the “expository” method is the best means to cover most of the Bible is too largely connected with the idea that the foremost purpose of preaching is to convey as much as possible of the Bible. But that idea needs to be challenged. Preaching needs to be much more than an agency of instruction. It needs to strike, awaken, and arouse men and women so that they themselves become bright Christians and daily students of Scripture. If the preacher conceives his work primarily in terms of giving instruction, rather than of giving stimulus, the sermon, in most hands, very easily becomes a sort of weekly “class”—an end in itself. But true preaching needs to ignite an ongoing process.

  2. Ryan,

    I would love/really appreciate some constructive back and forth on this, as it has interested me for some time now.

    I didn't really know what expository preaching was until I found myself in a church that used only expository preaching. Then, I realized that I had heard it all of my life, but only as one of several preaching styles.

    When I made inquiries as to why someone would select one style at the expense of all others, well, I was never really quite impressed with the answers. As you say, the Scriptures certainly do not command such an approach. I was also presented with the notion that ministers should not select from Scripture but should, instead, cover ALL Scripture. That sounded pretty impressive, but only in a very superficial way. I am confident no minister is covering the genealogies in the OT Sunday after Sunday. I can think of other select passages of Scripture that are probably not covered as well.

    The other point that I heard was that the expository approach, somehow, removes subjectivity in the preaching process, in that the minister is not actually choosing what Scripture he desires. This is, of course, unconvincing, because the very selection of this style is a subjective choice, as is the places where one starts and ends.

    I could go on, but I would like to hear what you have to say about these particular points.

    My experience with this style – as a sole strategy – is very limited, I admit that. But I also came away from my experience with the distinct impression that attraction to this style might very much be the result of a combinations of personal taste, and personality as well as work ethic. When it seemed to me that this style of preaching could be done with only a Bible and a Greek lexicon, I thought, "What a boon this style is for lazy ministers who have no interest in taking the time, energy and effort to apply Scripture to the real world, and to show its application throughout history."

    Indeed the minister referred to "illustrations" pejoratively as "canned." When I heard him actually attempt something like an illustration, it was so poorly chosen, and so poorly delivered, I understood why he stayed away from illustrations! It was a style problem more than anything.

    Anyway, I look forward to your thoughts.


  3. Thanks for commenting, Ed and PS.

    Much has been written affirming the importance of expositional preaching. While I believe that there may be times and seasons of "topical" (or other kinds) of messages, I do believe that expositional preaching is, as I say above, wise and important.

    Of course, that is not to say that unapplied or "lecture-ish" expository preaching is good or helpful. There may be times where the way a certain pastor goes about expository preaching is less helpful than another preacher goes about his craft while employing using topical sermons. In fact, some of those examples of bad expository preaching that you gents gave might actually not be considered expository preaching. In a similar way, some examples of "traditional worship" are done in such a way that they are less helpful than other instances of contemporary worship, even though I remain resolutely opposed to contemporary worship.

    I really did not intend this post to be a defense of expositional preaching as much as an illustration of how some people can blithely affirm the necessity of expositional preaching without explicit biblical warrant while criticizing those who advocate traditional hymnody as somehow denying the sufficiency of Scripture. I don't think you can really affirm both, and it seems some people try to do that.

    All the same, I think expositional preaching is helpful in that it (in its best application) lets the Word of God drive the church's preaching and message. Too often topical preaching tends to be poll or seeker-driven, and perceived needs drive the preaching in such situations. It's a way of proclaiming the whole counsel of God. I think there are very good examples in church history of expositional preaching driven by texts instead of topics.

  4. Ryan,

    I agree expository preaching is important – I have never heard of a minister who was not willing to do it. I also agree that "contemporary worship" is largely detestable.

    Still, I wonder this – and have for some time – what is the difference between "expository preaching" and a Sunday School lesson? In my mind, at least based on my own experience, they are one in the same. I don't understand what the differences might be.

    Indeed, when I have heard expository preaching, plodding verse by verse by verse, with the minister subjectively selecting where he chooses to elaborate (a decision probably based on some lexicon or scholarly exposition), I have also thought, "This is just the kind of reading I can do (and should be doing) at home. I came all the way here, to hear you for something different."


  5. Some might argue that we have example of NT expositors (Jesus, the Apostles, etc), but do not have extant examples of musical style.

    Although I haven't gone through all the sermons or (or accounts in which sermons were breifly described) to tally the expositions vs. other.

    Very challenging point, though.

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