Preaching with More Than Exposition by David Dunham

Saying that Evangelicals are prone to hyperbole would be an exaggeration of the understated kind. Carefulness and nuance are not our forte. We excel in extremes. We apply exaggeration to every category: Reformed Evangelicals are heartless academics more concerned with doctrine than with people. Arminians, on the other hand, would rather love a heretic than firmly hold to truth. Pastor a mega-church? You’re a sell-out, a huckster, interested only in numbers. Use a rock band in corporate worship? Then you probably aren’t really interested in congregational singing, just showmanship. We’ve got hosts of bold declarations for any number of other choices too. I’ve noted it particularly in relation to discussions about preaching. There is a particular trend these days to promote expositional preaching as the only method of preaching worthy of the church. As important as expositional preaching is, extremists need to be more careful in their pronouncements about it. Since the Bible does not give us a prescriptive method of preaching we can and should be more balanced in our approach.

Expositional preaching refers to the method of proclamation that seeks to break down a passage of scripture verse by verse and draw the main point of the sermon from the main point of the passage itself. It is a tried and true formula for preaching with a long legacy in the protestant church. Both Calvin and Luther practiced this kind of teaching in their pulpit ministries. The great British pastor D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones excelled in it. Other modern teachers like John MacArthur have stood as key examples of it too. I am a huge fan of the expository sermon. You will hear no complaints from me regarding this method. Our senior pastor does a phenomenal job each week of unpacking the book of Matthew and every week I am challenged, encouraged, and enlightened by his teaching. Expositional preaching has a number of strengths. First, it keeps us focused and grounded in Scripture. If the main point of the sermon is drawn clearly and expressly from the passage at hand then I am building the support for my main point from the text too. This keeps me and my hearers focused on what the text actually says. Second, it forces us to preach on topics that we would not normally choose to teach on. By working my way verse-by-verse through a book of the Bible I am going to come to face a number of topics that might not naturally make their way onto my topical preaching list. Romans 9 is going to force me to preach on election. 1 Samuel 13 is going to put rape onto my preaching calendar. Parts of Matthew 5 are going to force me to talk to my congregation about divorce, not likely to garner much appreciation in this culture. Expositional preaching forces me to indeed preach “the whole counsel of God,” even the parts I am not fond of teaching. Finally, this method helps to increase Biblical literacy in my church. Preaching verse-by-verse through a book of the Bible can help us all to learn what the purpose of the whole book is and to place our favorite proof texts within their appropriate context. When we learn what a singular verse’s place is in the larger context then we can better guard against misuse of it. These are just some of the tremendous strengths of expositional preaching. It is worthy of your time, and yet it is not the only appropriate model of preaching.

Expository exclusivists are right to affirm the value of this method, but they would be hard-pressed to find even a single example of an expositional sermon – at least as we often understand it – in the New Testament. To suggest, then, that this is the only acceptable method is to go beyond what the Bible says. The Bible does not give us that kind of restriction. Jesus doesn’t preach expository sermons, Paul doesn’t preach them, nor did Peter at Pentecost or Stephen at his stoning. In fact, if we move on down through history there are lots of godly men whom we appreciate who don’t preach what is technically defined as expository sermons. Charles Spurgeon didn’t preach expositionally, at least not as the norm. And for all his skill in handling the Word John Piper’s “exposition” looks a great deal different from someone like Mark Dever or Francis Chan. It’s hard to understand, then, why people keep insisting that expositional preaching is the only Biblical model of preaching. Such hyperbole seems odd in light of the evidence of Scripture itself. I am not intending to argue against expository preaching; rather I am arguing for more careful, balanced, and varied approaches to preaching. The expository sermon is important, but other approaches can be helpful.

Iain Murray is right when he points out that this approach also has its own disadvantages. Murray lists five weaknesses of the model, two seem to overlap so I’ll list four: (1) It is not compatible with the gifts of all preachers – he cites Spurgeon again here, also noting that Lloyd-Jones was in ministry for 20 years before he introduced an expository series; (2) it conflates the goal of preaching with communicating information; (3) it does not always lend itself to a clearly focused main point; (4) evangelistic preaching does not best fit this model (“A Caution for Expository Preaching”). I don’t know that all of Murray’s criticisms are legitimate, but he raises some important issues and ones worthy of our consideration. The weaknesses of this approach, however many there are, remind us that this is not a divinely mandated model of preaching. As it has strengths and weaknesses to it so it allows us to make room for other approaches that have their own strengths and weaknesses too. There is a place for non-expository preaching in our pulpits.

The non-expository sermon, that is the topical message or the thematic message, can benefit our congregations greatly. There is benefit in meticulously working your way through Romans, no doubt. There is also benefit to preaching through Romans quickly and thematically to get the big picture. One approach can help us see the trees, but if we don’t also utilize the other we can lose sight of the forest as a whole. Topical sermons that address important issues in the life of our church can provide immediate direction and insight for pressing matters. Preaching on death in the aftermath of a tragic loss within your congregation provides sensitive pastoral care to your people much better than continuing your trek through Leviticus at that exact moment. Preaching on the vision of your church can help refocus a congregation in a way that continuing your series in James might not at that moment. Good preaching is sensitive to the time and place of the audience. While a steady diet of exposition is extremely important, there are seasons and occasions where the congregation may need a different kind of message. Not a message any less grounded in Scripture, supported by God’s Word, and framed by His revelation, but one that is less expository in development. That is to say non-expository sermons can be pastorally wise, and Biblically rooted.

I’ve preached my fair share of expository sermons and series. I love expositional preaching. But I also value the thematic sermon. One of the first series I ever preached was a series through 1 Kings in three sermons. It was a very insightful way to think about the book and examine its purpose. It was useful because it connected with us differently than a verse-by-verse exposition would have. The varied approaches to preaching connect with us in varied ways, and we need that. There is more than one way to preach because life, people, and ministry are far more complicated than some exclusivists suggest. Different approaches connect to us differently, and we need the Word of God applied to us from every possible angle. There’s no denying that our people need to hear from the Word of God each week, but they can hear from that Word in a variety of ways. Preach the Word, brothers, and sometimes do so with non-expository messages.

David Dunham is an associate pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. He is a graduate of Ohio University (BA) and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv).

Comments
5 Responses to “Preaching with More Than Exposition by David Dunham”
  1. Dave,

    Thanks for your wonderful blog post “Preaching with More Than Exposition”. Although I whole heartedly agree with your conclusion that topical preaching can be helpful and should not completely be avoided. I do think one clarification needs to be made.

    In your article you stated:

    “John MacArthur argues that inerrantists can only preach expository sermons, or else they aren’t really inerrantists”

    Upon first glance, this statement was problematic for me on several levels. First, I completely disagree with MacArthur’s view (as stated). Secondly, I have personally heard him preach “non-expository” sermons. Thirdly, and perhaps the most confusing, is that I have not only read and heard him say something different, but I have listened to him address the exact topic that you are addressing and he came to the same conclusion as you. (See “What is topical preaching? Does it have a place in the church?” http://www.gty.org/Resources/Questions/QA39). So without question, something is not adding up.

    From what I can tell, it seems that you may have pulled MacArthur’s view out of the context in which he was writing. As a result, it seems that you mistakenly inserted his argument into your article to provide an example of the extremist view of expository preaching. In doing so, MacArthur’s position (as stated) naturally made your conclusion much more appealing.
    I can only assume that you are referring to his essay “THE MANDATE OF BIBLICAL INERRANCY: EXPOSITORY PREACHING” (http://www.tms.edu/tmsj/tmsj1a.pdf) or one of the many books on preaching that includes this same work. In this particular essay, MacArthur is responding to an “experience-centered, pragmatic, topical approach in the pulpit” (see page 4 of essay). He is arguing that true biblical preaching is derivative from the intent of the text. He says “Any form of preaching that ignores that intended purpose and design of God falls short of the divine plan.”

    It seems that the definition of expository preaching used in your article is critically different than what MacArthur is speaking of in this essay. MacArthur said, “By expositionally, I mean preaching in such a way that the meaning of the Bible passage is presented entirely and exactly as it was intended by God. Expository preaching is the proclamation of the truth of God as mediated through the preacher.” He also said “I assert that expository preaching is really exegetical preaching and not so much the homiletical form of the message. Merrill Unger appropriately noted, “It is not the length of the portion treated, whether a single verse or a larger unit, but the manner of treatment. No matter what the length of the portion explained may be, if it is handled in such a way that its real and essential meaning as it existed in the light of the overall context of Scripture is made plain and applied to the present-day needs of the hearers, it may properly be said to be expository preaching.”

    I think this is important for two reasons:

    1) The expository method of preaching in which MacArthur writes is one that we MUST be committed to week in-week out. This approach should NEVER be replaced by any other preaching method that misses or avoids the God-intended meaning of the text. In his own words “As a result of this exegetical process that began with a commitment to inerrancy, the expositor is equipped with a true message, with true intent and with true application. It gives his preaching perspective historically, theologically, contextually, literarily, synoptically and culturally. His message is God’s intended message.” It seems to me that this can be accomplished through the means of a “Topical” sermon.

    2) I think this conversation serves as a clear example of why we must be extremely cautious with our “Topical” preaching. It is so easy for us to mistakenly strip something out of its original context and wrongly apply it as a result. In doing so, we not only misrepresent the author, but we lose the original intent and in the end we run the risk of confusing our audience.
    Again, in no way am I disagreeing with your conclusions. I genuinely appreciate you and your writings. You have a wonderful ability to articulate your thoughts (which makes me jealous). I just wanted to chime in on that one area.

    I will leave the final words to MacArthur:

    “Expository preaching is the declarative genre in which inerrancy finds its logical expression and the church has its life and power. Stated simply, inerrancy demands exposition as the only method of preaching that preserves the purity of Scripture and accomplishes the purpose for which God gave us His Word.”

    “As it was with Christ and the apostles, so Scripture is also to be delivered by preachers today in such a way that they can say, “Thus saith the Lord.” Their responsibility is to deliver it as it was originally given and intended.”

    Respectfully Submitted,

    Gary Chaffins

    • Dave says:

      Gary,

      Thanks for your response and encouragement, brother. It seems we often find ourselves discussing Pastor MacArthur. The obvious danger in writing an article like this is that the term “exposition” is defined differently by so many people. So, when one person uses the work “exposition” they mean this and when another uses it they mean something different. I am happy to discover that I have misread and misunderstood MacArthur.

      Thank you for the clarification and I will have the editors fix that line in the article.

      God bless,
      Dave

    • southernohiotheology says:

      Gary,

      Thanks for the encouragement, brother. The difficulty, obviously, in writing a piece like this is that everyone has a different definition for what precisely we mean when we say “exposition.” When I read MacArthur I inserted what I believe is a more commonly held understanding of the term. The fact that Dr. MacArthur uses the same term but defines it different threw me. I think you are correct though, I have misread Pastor MacArthur. I will have the editors scratch that line from the article.

      Thanks for the clarification, brother, and for keeping me honest.

      Dave

  2. Dave,

    The reason that we talk about MacArthur so much is because I am a “MacArthurite” 😉 In all seriousness, he is someone that I have read and studied after for the last several years. Naturally, his name sticks out to me a little more when reading articles like this. Thanks for researching and seeking to make the necessary clarification.

    With that said, I was hoping that the clarification was not the only point taken from my comment. I was also using it as a platform to chime into the topic at hand. Topical/Thematic preaching certainly has its place in the church. However, in doing so, do we run a greater risk of missing the original intention of author?

    In my short experience of pastoral ministry, I find topical (including thematic or systematic) preaching/teaching to be very helpful but much more difficult. You are no longer exegeting one section of scripture in order to bring out the authors point, but now you are forced to exegete many passages. And sometimes this can be done loosely in order to bring out or agree with your own point (the topic that you chose to preach about). It is like you are interrupting many different conversations and taking out just a few words from each in order to formulate another conversation. That’s why I used the difference between your definition of “exposition” and MacArthur’s as an illustration. I’m confident that you did not purposely mis-apply that word. But it seems that you may have just been searching for something that gave support to your pre-formulated conclusion without truly considering the original context of his words (I am guilty of this as well).

    I know that you are well aware of this danger and I am confident that most who read things like this work very hard to properly present their “topical” messages. I also recognize that this same error can also be applied to verse-by-verse preaching. But it seems to me that topical preaching, although helpful, carries a little more risk than is often portrayed. Perhaps a follow-up article with some tips would be helpful for the in-experienced guys like myself.

    Thanks again for your helpful blogs!

Trackbacks
Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Dunham reminds us that we have some flexibility when it comes to good sermons in a piece he wrote for the Southern Ohio Pastors […]



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: