One Thing is Not Like the Other
Something that we can all be thankful for in conservative American evangelicalism is the increasing prominence of expository preaching. The best preachers and faithful seminaries have modeled and taught a commitment to biblical exposition as the standard for preaching that upholds the inerrancy, sufficiency, and authority of Scripture for the edification of God’s people. Training pastors to have a sound hermeneutic that pursues the authorial intent of a passage and to explain that meaning to a congregation, is invaluable. Biblical exposition is necessary and is a distinctive held in high esteem.
However, over the past few years I have noticed some differences among churches and pastors who ostensibly are doing the same thing. Many pastors are committed to preaching verse-by-verse through a book of the Bible – but it seems not all expository ministry is created equal. It turns out that not everything under the banner of exposition is “good preaching.” I’ll define “good preaching” in a moment but for now, I want to highlight the trouble with many so-called expository ministries today.
Gold Vs. Tailings
During my time in seminary, one of my professors was fond of using a mining analogy for a preacher’s development of a sermon. In his study, the preacher does his “spade work.” That is the process of digging into the text and around the text in order to discover the golden truth of its meaning. He studies the Greek and Hebrew, he looks into the historical context of the book, the author, and the subject discussed in the passage. The Bible is truly a gold mine and the process of mining is the work of exegesis. But where many preachers go wrong is in developing their message (the expository sermon) from the pile of material that they dug out. They deliver to God’s people the tailings. In mining terms, the tailings are the materials left over after the process of separating the valuable fraction from the uneconomic portion. Tailings are not waste material, but they are not the prize that the miner is supposed to be pursuing.
So, how does this relate to preaching? Some of the tailings of expository preaching today are the filling of a sermon with trivia. The frequent, often weekly excurses into the nuances of Greek words, in-depth, lengthy explanations of the geography, the topography, the history, the culture, the chronology, the dates – all of this is important to sift through, and some of it may have value and may be necessary for adding color and clarity in the sermon. But the goal of exegesis is for the preacher to discover the golden meaning of the text for himself. The goal of exposition is not to deliver the exegesis to the people but to deliver a polished nugget of pure gold for the worshipful wonder and practical value that the listener can take home with him. Often, expositions that are full of tailings leave the people with a history lesson where they walk away saying, “That was interesting.” For many, an interesting sermon is a good sermon. But what’s often missing in expository sermons is the prophetic boldness that includes important and often hard-hitting applications. Pastors need to preach to the hearts of those who make up their flock – people who are dealing with real life, in this world, battling sin, and needing counsel on how to live well for God’s glory and their flourishing. The gold is the beauty of what the mining produces, not the sharing of inconsequential material. The clear and faithful meaning of the text in its context, with relevant explanation for why it matters and how it applies, is the job of the preacher. Preach the gold, not the tailings.
With the contemporary threats of social justice, wokeism, and progressivism that surround God’s people on a daily basis, when and how does a preacher committed to Bible exposition address such issues? Well, it turns out that some expository ministries have been able to avoid a lot of engagement with the issues by hiding behind their commitment to expository preaching. The excuse goes something like this, “We preach expositionally verse by verse through a book of the Bible. We’re not shying away from dealing with issues. We’ll address it when the subject shows up in the text, but we can’t let the newspaper headlines dictate what we preach about.” And so, they simply move to the next verse, explaining what it was like in ancient times, and promoting a very generic and winsome message. Time marches on and somehow an expository ministry, “built on the Word of God,” leaves their people ill-equipped, frustrated, unprotected, and vulnerable because it’s amazing how they never seem to come to “those verses.” This is a classic “Big Eva” move – to stand on conservative principles simultaneously undermining them.
Why can there be such a wide range of quality in preaching when that range is filled with “expositors?” It’s because “doing exposition” is not sufficient. Pastoral ministry is not boxed in by a commitment to a method of preaching. The call of Christ to the Apostle John in John 21:16 was to “Shepherd my sheep.” Too many pastors translate that as “explain to the sheep how you came to the meaning of the text.” The message of Paul to the elders in Ephesus in Acts 20:28-30 (NASB) was “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” A shepherd loves the sheep and gives them what they need in order to be protected from threats such as savage wolves. To do that, you may or may not have to leave the next verse and find other verses that address the need of the hour to fend off the wolves.
What then is good preaching? Good preaching comes from shepherds who exposit the text of Scripture with a vision for applying a biblical worldview to every area of life. Pastors need to not just demonstrate that they studied the meaning of the text by delivering the gold, but also how their love and concern for God’s people shows in their applicational use of the Bible.
The most wonderful realization for me in preaching expositionally through books of the Bible is in seeing how relevant and timeless Scripture is. It is remarkable how easy it is to draw out principles, parallels, and applications for living in our present age from the text we are in. But even if that is not easy for other preachers, it is incumbent upon shepherds to deliver good preaching on the issues that threaten their flock, even if that means doing a topical series. Why? Because applying biblical worldview matters. Good preaching is at war with “speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:3-5). Good preaching is directly related to loving Christ’s flock.
Perhaps you’ve heard it said, as I have, that the application of a sermon is the Holy Spirit’s job, not the preacher’s. But I agree with Joel Beeke, that the Reformers and Puritans held no such view. Timeless truths and pointed applications are essential to good preaching. As Beeke points out, “The Reformers and Puritans spent many times more effort in application than in discrimination. Many preachers today fall far short in this area. They have been trained to be good expositors, but they have not been trained in the classroom or by the Holy Spirit to bring the truth home to the heart.” Furthermore, he says, “the best preachers include application throughout their sermons, not only when concluding.” (pg 30-31) When you hear your pastor apply the text, you find out what kind of leader and shepherd you have.
While we must continue to have a commitment to Bible exposition, these times call for men who can do more than show their study and deliver tailings of trivia. We need shepherds who are good preachers that are faithful to the text, and who love their people by helping them to properly apply the Word to every area of life.
Pray for your pastor, encourage your pastor, and may God grant us good preaching through our turbulent times.