When Expository Preaching Goes Wrong
Those of us who are in the Reformed camp are generally agreed that expository preaching is the first mark of a healthy church. Without the gospel of Christ being expounded on from Scripture, everything else in the life of a church will eventually rot and perish. Again, we are all generally agreed here. However, it is possible for even our seminary trained expository preaching to go dreadfully wrong.
For example, when I listen to much of modern expository preaching, while in one sense it seems to be an absolutely perfect analytical exposition of the text—giving all of the history, geography, cultural context, grammatical context and syntax, and so on—nevertheless, the great truths and grand redemptive themes of Scripture are rarely heard. If you ask a preacher why he never gets to doctrines like total depravity, regeneration, or justification by faith alone with any clarity or specificity, the answer you will invariably get is something like: “I am an expository preacher. It wasn’t in my text today, so I did not preach it. When I get to a text that deals with that doctrine, then I will preach it.” …But they never seem to get there with anything more than an occasional “tip of the hat” so as to pay brief homage to a once preeminent truth of a bygone era.
Yet, I am amazed when I listen to an expositor like Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He seemed to find all of the great truths and grand themes of Scripture in every text he preached. The whole counsel of God seemed to be present in every sermon with power, clarity, and authority. Sound doctrine and systematic theology seemed to naturally flow out of every text as he applied these old truths to our modern situation. So how is it that men like Martin Lloyd-Jones and Charles Haddon Spurgeon found these great Reformed doctrines in every text of Scripture, but so many modern expositors who have been trained in Reformed seminaries can’t find water in the Atlantic Ocean?
A False Presupposition in Preaching
I have been tempted over the years to think perhaps I was missing something, or that perhaps I was simply being too critical of preachers. So I was surprised to hear Iain Murray make a very similar observation in his book, “The Old Evangelicalism.” In the chapter on “Spurgeon and True Conversion” he not only points out the error, but exposes the underlying false presupposition. On “where conversion has to begin” he writes,
“We proceed to the question how understanding regeneration as the work of God affects the presentation of the gospel.
There are false deductions that can be drawn. Some preachers, believing firmly in the divine side of salvation, have given little place to human obligation and duty. They fail to urge their hearers to repentance and faith because they fear it would mislead people into thinking they have the ability to change themselves. This is a serious error and thankfully its advocates are not many today.
But there is another error, perhaps closer to us, and that is of supposing that because conversion depends on God, there is nothing particularly important or effective that can be said to the unconverted, nothing that can bring them nearer the kingdom of God. It is thought that whatever subject we address to the unconverted, it will make no difference until God intervenes and gives regeneration. So, it is deduced, provided our material is scriptural, it matters little what we are preaching on. It may be because of such reasoning, perhaps unconsciously adopted, that a number of preachers today have abandoned what used to be called ‘evangelistic preaching.’ Instead of what were called ‘gospel sermons,’ they see the work of preaching as simply ‘teaching the Bible’ in a consecutive manner. They say, ‘All the Bible is the sword of the Spirit, and we can leave it to God to use whatever truths he pleases.’
What is wrong with this thinking? It is that, while God keeps the gift of new life in his own hands, he has made it very clear in his Word that those to whom this gift is given are first made aware of their need. There is an order and sequence that God follows. In the words of Jesus, ‘I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance’ (Mark 2:17). In other words, he saves the sick, the lose, the prodigal sons who have gone into a far country. He has come for the blind and the captives. Now not all Scripture is equally adapted to reveal to men their real condition. There are particular truths that need to be heard if man’s natural high estimate of himself is to be changed. Conviction of sin does not by-pass the mind. A man has to despair of himself before he will think anything of Christ. Once that is understood, the order in which Scripture directs us to address the unconverted is meaningful. ‘God the Holy Spirit can convert a soul by any text of Scripture,’ says Spurgeon, ‘but there are certain Scripture passages, as you know, that are the best to bring before the minds of sinners.’”
Ian Murray pinpoints the false presupposition when he says, “So, it is deduced, provided our material is scriptural, it matters little what we are preaching on.” In reality, however, the preacher is to be a systematic theologian, and as such, he must be able to expound the text in such a way as to draw in all of the great truths and themes of Scripture, applying them to the condition of his hearers, as he points them constantly to the person and finished work of Christ.
An All-Consuming Passion for the Gospel
To put the whole problem plainly: We do not seem to share the conviction of Paul who believed that the gospel was of “first importance.” (1 Corinthians 15:3) When this inspired apostle came to the church at Corinth he said, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2) Paul “decided.” It was an intentional, informed decision. He could have discussed many things, even biblical things, but having examined all subject matter he decided that there was nothing more important or more worthy of his thoughts, affections, and his preaching than the person and work of Christ. So Paul says again in Philippians 3:8, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Likewise, when we turn to the great Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, we see this same gospel-centered passion. In his preface to his classic commentary on Galatians he writes,
“For the one doctrine which I have supremely at heart, is that of faith in Christ, from whom, through whom and unto whom all my theological thinking flows back and forth day and night.”
Luther expounds on what he means by “the one doctrine…of faith in Christ” saying,
“I mean the doctrine that we are redeemed from sin, death and the devil, and made partakers of eternal life, not by ourselves (and certainly not by our works, which are less than ourselves), but by the help of another, the only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ.”
The cross of Christ is what drove men like Martin Luther and the apostle Paul. Go back and listen to or read the great preachers of church history again, men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Owen, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and Martyn-Lloyd Jones. Were these not all men who burned with an all-consuming passion for the gospel? The great truths and themes of Scripture were always on their lips and in their writings: God, man, the fall, sin, Christ, atonement, redemption, faith, justification, sanctification, adoption, glorification, and the glory of God—these were the subject matter they found in every text of Scripture.
Preachers must preach the gospel, and all of the doctrines which are necessarily connected to the gospel. You can’t understand the gospel unless you begin with the eternal, transcendent, holy God. Only then can you understand man, and beyond that, only then can you understand the exceeding sinfulness of sin which is a falling short of his infinite glory. (Romans 3:23) It’s only then that we can see our need of a Savior, and that we can begin to see something of the glory of Christ as he hung bleeding on the cross as a propitiatory sacrifice for our many sins. Furthermore, it is only once we know what Christ has accomplished by his death, burial, and resurrection that we are ready to hear that it is by faith alone, and not by any works of the law performed by us, that we are united to this great Savior and therefore declared justified.
Expound the Scriptures with Jesus’ Hermeneutic
Someone may be tempted to object, “But what you are proposing is that preachers should impose our theology onto the text.” I have two answers to this:
First, look again at the great preachers in church history. Look at what message throughout church history resulted in reformations, revivals, and awakening. It’s always been the same truth, the same gospel message, the same “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3) The doctrines of the atoning work of Christ, justification by faith alone, and regeneration have always been preeminent and central in the periods of church history when the church was most lively and vigorous.
Second, we sometimes fail to really think through and rightly apply Jesus’ own hermeneutics. Jesus believed that every text in Scripture was about him. In Luke 24:44 Jesus said,
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
Likewise, in John 5:39 Jesus said to the Pharisees,
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”
Again, in John 5:46 he says,
“For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.”
Jesus had a “Christ-centered hermeneutic,” as the apostle Paul exemplified for us. This hermeneutic means that we should be able to clearly see the shadow of the cross falling over ever text of Scripture. Indeed, Jesus was primarily pointing back to the Old Testament, saying that the Old Testament Scriptures were entirely about him. We see Paul use this hermeneutical principal when he tells Timothy,
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:14-15)
The “sacred writings” in this verse refers to the Old Testament. “These Old Testament Scriptures,” Paul says, “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” The Old Testament speaks with such clarity concerning Christ that one can clearly see and believe the gospel message through it. That is absolutely incredible!
Yet, what is even more incredible is how the New Testament speaks of the Old Testament as “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone.” (2 Corinthians 3:7) It was a “ministry of condemnation.” (v9) The Old Testament had a something of a “veil” (v13) covering over the gospel. What are we to make of these words in comparison to what Jesus and Paul had to say about the revelation of the gospel of the glory of Christ in the Old Testament? Exactly what Paul says, that “if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.” (v11) In the Old Testament the glory of Christ is veiled, but in the New we all behold the glory of the Lord “with unveiled face.” (v18) Therefore, if Israel was without excuse under the old covenant for not obtaining salvation through faith in Christ, how much more should we under the new covenant make much of Christ in every expository sermon?
In conclusion, to have gospel-centered expository preaching is not to impose our theology onto the text. It is simply to exposit the text using the hermeneutics which Jesus and the Apostles employed. Whenever men like Martin Luther or George Whitefield began to preach these truths, they were simply returning to Scripture and the kind of expository preaching which Scripture itself commends.
Throughout church history methods of “evangelistic preaching” and “gospel sermons” have varied. Some men preach line-by-line, verse-by-verse through Scripture. Others, like Spurgeon, select a text each week as the Lord leads them through prayer and by the Spirit. Of course there have been many other methods as well, such as doing a sermon series on a particular topic and so on. I refuse to argue for any one of these particular methods. I think they each have their use, and perhaps they each have a time and season when one or the other is most appropriate.
My hope is that some preachers will see how expository preaching can go wrong, and by the grace of God, begin to labor with all their might to make known to their congregation the great doctrinal truths and the grand Christ-exalting themes of redemptive history as they expound Scripture from the pulpit. In this way, together with one voice, may the church declare the praise, the glory, and the excellence of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. To him be glory and majesty and dominion, “from this time forth and forevermore.” (Psalms 131:3) Amen.