One of the greatest delusions under
which people suffer is that they will know Satan when they see him. It
serves his purposes precisely for them to believe this.
Instead, Paul warns that Satan disguises
himself as “an angel of light” and his minions as “servants of
righteousness” (2 Cor.
11:13-15). Likewise, Jesus
said that false prophets would appear “in sheep’s clothing” (Matt.
Satan is not always obvious. In fact,
he may be downright difficult to detect. Moreover, it should be
expected that he would be especially subtle with those who ought to know
how he looks.
is undoubtedly one of the last places where anyone would expect to find
Satan. For that reason alone, claims made for it deserve attention.
clarification is in order. There is certainly nothing wrong with
expository preaching, per se. It can be a very appropriate and
effective homiletic method. In fact, churches frequently, if not
usually, employ the expository approach in their Bible classes.
On the other hand,
the push to displace topical studies and preaching by the
expository/textual approach needs careful consideration. Also, to hear
it used and advocated in a manner which suggests its superiority as a
teaching method raises concerns. Indeed, to read that a rigid use of
expository preaching is the only way a preacher can be
faithful to his duty is nothing short of alarming. It would be
improper to impugn the motives of those who press for expository
preaching to the (near-)exclusion of topical preaching, but it would be
foolhardy not to contemplate the consequences if they are successful in
Anyone who thinks
this is an exaggeration of the situation may read for himself. Under
the title, “A Wake-Up Call for the Church,” and the subtitle, “Have we
stopped declaring the whole counsel of God?” one brother writes, “I
submit to you that the only truly effective way to do this [i.e.,
preach] is with verse-by-verse, systematic, expository preaching. Start
in chapter 1, verse 1 and preach His word one verse at a time. By
systematic, I mean progressing through the text of scripture as it was
given without skipping any of it. By expositionally, I mean preaching
in such a way that the meaning of the Bible passage is presented
entirely and exactly as God intended it” (Focus, Dec.
1999, pg. 13). “I don’t think we jettisoned our commitment to preaching
the whole counsel of God on purpose, but we may have let it happen by
practice. … There are three major categories of preaching: Topical,
textual, and expository. … Around 5% of preachers are expositors. It
is my firm belief that neither the topical nor the textual method
represents a serious effort to interpret, understand, explain, or apply
God’s truth in the context of the Scriptures used” (Ibid., pg.
14). “In fact, the word of God is replete with such examples [of
expository teaching]…. We must return to the Biblical pattern and
example of proclaiming the whole counsel of God exactly and entirely as
it was given to us. Failing to do will lead to a generation of
Christians that know very little about God’s word, who do not grow
spiritually, and (worst of all) cannot reproduce themselves. We do not
do justice to the word of God when we fail to proclaim it in its
entirety” (Ibid., pg. 15).
specifically endorsed this brother’s article.
“… We appreciate
_______ _______’ emphasis … on getting back to the Bible in our
preaching … and emphasizing the importance of a steady diet of
expository preaching. While … there are occasions [for] … topical
preaching …, the way to guarantee that the whole counsel of God is being
preached throughout the year is to preach expositorily, giving attention
to everything God has said in His word” (Ibid., pg.
What these brethren
are saying should be starkly clear in the reader’s mind. With only
occasional exceptions, the only kind of sermon a preacher should allow
himself is expository. This is not a matter of opinion for them. The
writer of the article on the subject does not simply have a personal
preference for expository preaching; he flatly denies validity to any
other kind, and the editor approaches this position.
Repeated reference is made to “the whole counsel of God” amid calls for
expository preaching. Unless one preaches expository sermons, virtually
without exception, he is simply not preaching the whole counsel of God
and is, therefore, derelict in his duty as a preacher of the gospel and
fails to adhere to the Biblical pattern in the proclamation of God’s
word. Terrible foreboding is observed for God’s people unless there is
a return to this kind of preaching.
The writer of the
article on the subject is especially extreme. The preacher is not
allowed to expound from any text he chooses, even if it is locally
relevant. Instead, if he ever had the need or desire to preach on First
Corinthians chapter fifteen, for instance, he could not go directly to
that passage and begin preaching on it. No, he must first traverse the
preceding fourteen chapters of this book “verse-by-verse.” He must
“start in chapter 1, verse 1 [of First Corinthians] and preach His word
[in First Corinthians] one verse at a time … progressing through the
text of scripture as it was given.” May he take shortcuts? No, he must
follow this process straight through the text of First Corinthians all
the way to chapter fifteen “without skipping any of it.”
Since a preacher
could hardly do the justice to a book this kind of approach demands, a
decision to preach on any part of any book would really be a decision to
preach a lengthy series of lessons on that whole book from end-to-end.
After all, if all preceding text must be studied for whatever
contextual relevance it might hold for the interpretation of a
particular passage, why could the same not be said for all succeeding
One also wonders
about the propriety of injecting references to related texts elsewhere.
After all, why would it be proper to introduce them without a study of
their contexts if concern for the necessity of a verse-by-verse study is
what drives this radical approach in the first place?
Hence, this method
essentially argues for making Bible “textual studies” out of every
sermon, the only difference between the typical Bible class and a sermon
being that the latter may not allow feedback from the audience. What
this author’s words practically demand from preachers is an endless
expository loop which begins at the first verse of Genesis and winds all
the way through the text of the Bible to the last verse of Revelation
and then wraps around to begin the process all over again. Anyone who
thinks this is a misrepresentation needs to re-read the quotations
and more slowly.
Not only was this
article given the credibility of publication, but the editor also saw
fit to single it out for special commendation. Moreover, while it may
be safe to say that no preacher or church would tolerate such a rigid
and radical approach as it was presented, perhaps others have lately
noticed an increased incidence of expository sermons or pressure for
more of them? Too, has anyone noted the recent offer made via email of
a book proposing to teach preachers how to preach expository lessons?
have been around a long time. It is just that they have probably been
more likely the resort of denominational preachers, whereas topical
sermons have heretofore predominated among preachers of the gospel.
This distinction, if it is valid, is no coincidence.
There are a couple
of imposing problems with the school of thought which says that
expository sermons are the only valid method of preaching God’s word.
(1) It is unscriptural. Nowhere does the Lord command or
commend this method of Bible instruction for His people as the only
legitimate kind. Nowhere does the Bible say that, before a preacher can
preach on a text within a book, he must first go back to its beginning
and expound on every verse in order until he comes to the one he
especially wants to consider. New Testament authors cite the Old
Testament many times but never show a need to go to the first verse and
cover every one until they get to the particularly relevant one.
Instead, they just “pluck and apply” with little, if any notice, of the
context. Indeed, out of the many sermons in the Bible, not a single one
of them is expository! The characters and writers of the New Testament
preached and taught topically and drew freely from a wide variety
of texts to support their points.
To be specific, when
Jesus spoke in the Capernaum synagogue (Lk. 4:16ff), he quoted
Isaiah (61:1ff) but also cited the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs. 17) and
Naaman (2 Kgs. 5). In His sermon on the mount (Matt. 5-7),
He quoted from Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Psalms. It is
particularly noteworthy that, when Satan tempted Him (Matt. 4:5-7)
with a promise in the Psalms (91:11,12), He did not go into an
exposition of that promise in its context, as He might have done, but
simply met its misapplication by an appeal to Deuteronomy (6:16).
He took a topical approach with the two men on the road to Emmaus by
going to Scriptures about Himself in Moses and the prophets (Lk.
24:27). When Peter preached on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2),
he quoted from Joel (ch. 2), then David (Psa. 16), alluded
to God’s promise to David (2 Sam. 7), and again quoted from another
Psalm (110:1). When Philip found the Ethiopian eunuch reading
from Isaiah (53:7,8), instead of going back to the first verse of
Isaiah, “beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him”
When Paul wanted to show the sinfulness of both Jews and Gentiles, he
quoted from four different Psalms (14:1-3; 5:9; 10:7; 36:1), even
injecting a quotation from Isaiah (59:7) among them, and strung
the quotations together without interruption, as if they were one
continuous passage (Rom.
Even a casual perusal of New Testament writers will reveal that they
drew from a broad diversity of Old Testament texts as suited their
teaching is the Biblical pattern! What brought these
far-flung passages together in the mouths and writings of New Testament
figures, and properly so, was identity of theme and relevance
to topic. The writers and preachers of the New Testament allowed
the occasion to dictate the topic, and the topic to dictate the
Scriptures they used. They showed no compulsion to go to the beginning
of the book and proceed from there in their teaching. They started
where they found their listeners or readers. They drew from whatever
texts met their needs, regardless of their location. Therefore,
any claim that the Bible supports the idea that expository preaching is
the only, or even best, method of Bible instruction is simply bogus!
may be justified as critical for the respect it gives to the context of
a passage. Yet, the importance of the context to preaching and teaching
has probably been exaggerated. (How often have liars, false teachers,
and slanderers been caught “flagrante dilecto” and found refuge in the
claim that their words were “taken out of context”!) “Context” is not a
word that occurs in English Bibles (NASB, et. al.). Moreover, New
Testament writers exhibited no particular need to look at the contexts
of the passages they quoted. If they were able to use a text faithfully
in the service of truth, they used it without reference to its context.
Of course, this is
not to say that context is not sometimes, even oftentimes, critical, but
only that it is not always determinative in the interpretation of
a text. That texts cannot usually be understood in isolation from their
original contexts is virtually the implication of expository preaching
advocates. If not, then why all the hue and cry for expository
since it is largely the examination texts in their contexts?
words and sentences in the light of their contexts is practically
automatic and intuitive. At the most basic level, the words
in a sentence, for instance, would do little to communicate the meaning
of a writer or speaker except as the readers or hearers relate them to
one another. Thus, there is typically no need to call their attention
preacher or teacher does this in the course of preparing his
presentation. A conscientious preacher of the gospel will make himself
aware of the contexts of any texts he cites for any effect they might
have on his interpretation of these texts and might see fit to bring
this to the attention of his audience. If not, he has not done his job
correctly and effectively. In any event, the remedy for the problem of
ignoring relevant contexts is not to belabor the teaching process with
gratuitous coverage of the context of each verse.
Bible verses are
typically self-contained in the sense that their basic meaning is
determinable apart from preceding and succeeding verses. Any reference
to these other verses should almost always confirm or, at most,
clarify and reinforce, the initial interpretation rather
than correct it. In-depth study of a text probably will not
change an interpretation gained from quick, superficial reading. To
assert otherwise is to claim that the Bible is a book so difficult and
obscure that it can only be understood with in-depth study of each
In this connection,
it is instructive that, when confronting an issue or question, Jesus
sometimes used the expression, “Have you not read?” (Matt. 12:3,5;
21:42; 22:31; Lk. 10:26),
or its equivalent. Oftentimes, that is, a mere reading of a text
will reveal its basic meaning without reading or studying up to it or
A final and
extremely important point about context is that the most important
context for any part of the Bible is the whole Bible! This
principle is honored in such statements as, “The Bible is the best
commentary on itself.” Bible students pay tribute to this principle
when they strive to “harmonize the Scriptures with themselves” (cf.
“take into account every relevant passage on a subject.” Indeed, it is
much more often the case that misinterpretation of Scripture, or false
teaching, depends on ignoring, not the immediate context, but the
remote context of the whole Bible. There are few, if any, false
doctrinal systems which hinge merely on ignorance or neglect of a
context. It is typically the case that referring to the immediate
context will do nothing to expose the misuse of “proof-texts” to defend
false doctrine, but the liberty of ranging far afield to take into
account other relevant texts will certainly do so.
In fact, no one in
Scripture was condemned for ignoring context. Rather, if anything,
people would be criticized for not having the broad knowledge which
allowed them to pull texts from a wide range and collate and integrate
them into a whole to arrive at the teaching of Scripture (cf. Matt.
More important than knowing the context of a verse, it is knowing
what the Bible says in every pertinent part that constitutes knowing
what its teaching is on any subject. In practical terms, this
means taking a topical approach to Bible study.
Some may respond to
this by arguing the permissibility of referring to relevant texts in an
expository sermon. Yet, if there is extensive reference to other
relevant texts, what was supposed to be an expository study essentially
morphs into a topical study, with the point of contention or
misunderstanding in a verse serving as the topic and dictating which
passages are drawn into the study. In other words, others passages are
brought into the study, not because they are textually proximate to the
particular one under consideration, but because they are thematically
relevant to a topic its study has raised. Yet, the esteem which
some have for expository preaching or teaching will necessarily put a
restraint on preachers consulting other texts very much; otherwise, they
defeat their purpose in pursuing what is supposed to be an expository
Herein consists the
advantage of topical preaching over expository preaching. It allows the
preacher to do what a preacher should do. His task is to bring together
those passages that are relevant to an idea and integrate them with one
another in such a way that they yield a harmonious whole and give the
student a complete conception of what the entire Bible says about it.
Any failure to do this results in a misunderstanding of “the whole
counsel of God.” As was often observed in former days, the one who
wants to know what the Bible teaches on a subject must take into account
every relevant passage.
Application is the
point at which many fail. It is often possible to have some conception
of the broad principles of the Bible without acquiring the ability to
make practical application of them to particular situations. Yet, if
this latter need is addressed by the preacher making practical
applications to real-life issues or situations, again, then what was
supposed to be an expository study might be transformed into a topical
one. For this reason, any applications that are made during the course
of expository preaching must be limited.
The advocate of
expository preaching must necessarily, if he is faithful to his
philosophy, feel practically restricted. His self-assigned mission is
to interpret the verse at hand in the light of its immediate context and
then move on to the next verse and treat it in similar fashion. He
cannot wander afield too long or too far, if at all.
Anyone who has ever
taught the Biblical text or secular textbooks (in school) understands
quite well the pressure teachers are under to “cover the material” or
text. This would certainly apply to expository preachers or teachers
who feel the need to “start with chapter 1, verse 1” and cover the whole
Bible one verse at a time. If the expositor is to complete his task
expeditiously or in any reasonable time frame, he will feel the pressure
to curtail any excursions into applications of the text or inclusions of
other Scriptures. This, then, encourages a shallow study of the Bible,
a superficial knowledge of it, and inadequacy in applying it. Thus, the
irony is that the very (expository) approach which was favored
because it supposedly promotes a knowledge of the whole counsel of God,
instead, does the very opposite.
anticipates the other problem with the expository-preaching-only
approach. (2) It is impractical. Expository teaching is
not the kind of Bible study that meets the needs of the immature Bible
student. What such a student needs from Bible study is an immediate
infusion of broad knowledge, or at least a rapid
acquisition of some knowledge of some subjects, rather than an in-depth
knowledge of an opening text of a book or some other text.
For instance, a
person who needs to know what to do to be saved needs to be taken
quickly to those texts that answer his question. Such texts are
scattered broadly through the New Testament. As has often been said, “A
person cannot find all he needs to do to be saved in just one verse.”
It would be irrelevant to his immediate needs to start at the beginning
of Acts or Romans (books in which the “five steps of salvation” can be
found) and go into an in-depth study of the book. To meet the needs of
an inquirer, the teacher needs to go directly to the texts which
answer his questions. Those texts do not typically lie at the beginning
of a book.
When the rich ruler
asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life (Matt.
Jesus took him directly to the Ten Commandments in the middle of Exodus
(ch. 20). When Paul taught the Philippian jailer what he needed
to do to be saved, it was something he could cover in an hour (Acts
Expository teaching as it has been set forth in the comments under
review would not allow for this.
preaching approach is not true-to-life.
Life does not come at a person “in canonical order.” For instance, one
cannot guarantee that a question about evolution will confront him while
he is studying Genesis one, or premillennialism while studying
Revelation twenty, or marital problems while studying Ephesians five.
From a human perspective, issues, questions, needs, and problems occur
randomly. For life as it is, a person needs to be able to range freely
to and fro across the Bible, from end to end, if need be, in pursuit of
any relevant texts which might hold the answers to his immediate
situation. The student almost never finds all the information he needs
compactly presented in one text. Acquiring competent Bible
knowledge typically requires a person to collate and integrate texts
from a wide variety of books.
All of this draws
attention to dangers involved in the pressure to make expository
preaching predominant, if not exclusive, in the pulpit. Though it may
not be the conscious intention of its advocates, it is certainly the
result that “a steady diet of expository preaching” will hobble the
efforts of gospel preachers to treat subjects and situations, especially
in a timely and thorough manner.
The idea that
exigencies could be met by reverting to the occasional topical sermon
only concedes the inadequacy of expository preaching. Furthermore, it
demonstrates an inadequate appreciation of the seriousness and frequency
of the problems Christians face to think that only the occasional
topical sermon need interrupt “a steady diet of expository preaching” to
focus the laser beam of God’s word directly on them. Preachers need the
flexibility which only topical preaching allows. Marital
problems in a church can hardly wait until the preacher works his way to
Matthew nineteen or First Corinthians seven or Ephesians five if he is
only in chapter one. To apply Bible teaching in a timely way, the
preacher must appeal broadly to appropriate texts, as situations
A corollary problem
with the expository-preaching-only approach is that it prevents, or
hampers, the treatment of controversial topics. This may not be
the conscious aim of its advocates, but it is the result and serves the
purpose of those who wish for a more mellow religion. At the very
least, strict adherence to a regimen of expository sermons slows
treatment of problems, questions, or issues as they arise,
because the preacher has entered into a commitment not to deviate from
the text where he finds himself in his endless chain of expository
sermons. If he is unwilling to interrupt his expository series on a
book, he will have to ignore a problem from the pulpit.
If the rejoinder is
that such problems can be addressed (topically) in private sessions with
those directly involved, then why could the principles involved not
likewise be addressed from the pulpit? Why should a teaching method
whose utility or necessity in private study is readily recognized be
deemed ineffectual or inappropriate if it were brought into the pulpit?
No doubt, some find controversy so
distasteful that it would please them that a preacher could not address
it and would be constrained to avoid it to “stick with the text of the
assigned lesson.” Precisely herein lies the insidiousness of a
philosophy which ostensibly promotes itself as the superior, if not
sole, method of bringing people to a knowledge of the Scriptures, while
actually fostering ignorance of them and an inability to apply them to
contemporary issues and problems.
Anyone who doubts
the accuracy of the scenario just described has but to consider just how
an expository preacher would undertake a comprehensive study of divorce
and remarriage, for instance. First, he might have to wait weeks,
months, or even longer before the rigid process of covering the
Scriptures verse-by-verse brings him to a relevant text. Then, he must
ask himself how far, if at all, a purist approach will allow him to go
in pulling in other relevant texts, making applications, or even
addressing the subject in more than one sermon. A thorough examination
of some subjects would require a series of lessons, let alone the
occasional sermon, and would incorporate scores of different texts.
As another example, how would a preacher undertake a study of Biblical
authority, and particularly how it is established, if he must
essentially confine himself to one text?
of just about any controversy which has significantly troubled brethren
and there may be dozens which have reached the level of division
could never be undertaken with expository preaching. Therefore, this
approach to preaching would well serve the purposes and interests of
anyone dissatisfied with such controversy and entertaining a desire to
minimize, if not eliminate, it.
Indeed, this author
cannot now recall hearing a single expository sermon that could not have
been comfortably received in any denominational congregation. This
should not be surprising, since many, if not most, of the specific
issues which have confronted people are not reflected in the New
Testament as having risen before the end of the first century A.D.
Where in the Bible, for instance, is there a dissertation on abortion,
environmentalism, carnal warfare, infant baptism, institutionalism,
instrumental music in worship, or a host of hot issues that could be
named almost ad infinitum? It is only as the student gathers and pieces
together relatively isolated Bible passages, and inferentially
applies their principles, that he learns and implements the will of God
from the Scriptures for him in similar contemporary situations. This
is the very process involved in topical preaching! It is a skill
absolutely indispensable to the use of the Bible as God intended it to
Of course, this by
no means makes expository preaching wrong. Yet, it does say something
about the effectiveness of topical preaching as a weapon in combating
doctrinal error and Satan’s desire to eliminate it if he is to soften
and prepare God’s people for another apostasy.
With this in mind,
it is interesting that the writer of the article in review introduced
his case for expository preaching by decrying what he believes is
narrowness in the pulpits of churches of Christ.
“There is another
movement currently taking place that says there are only certain
subjects that should be preached on exclusively: Baptism,
Denominationalism, the Church, and Authority. With only minor
variations, the congregation hears essentially one of four sermons twice
every single week (morning and evening). This is what I call the ‘only
four things really matter’ school of preaching” (Ibid., pg. 12).
This must surely be
an exaggeration, but even if it were not, the way to correct one extreme
is not by going to the opposite extreme.
This concept about
expository preaching makes it an excellent rationale and instrument for
the implementation of the positivist philosophy of preaching and
teaching, which urges that anything negative (i.e., controversial)
simply be ignored. Expository preaching allows its proponents to avoid
controversy without making it too apparent that this is what they are
doing with it. Indeed, it presents the appearance, and makes the claim,
of being “… the Biblical pattern and example of proclaiming the whole
counsel of God ….” Combining the strategy of “positivism” and the
tactic of “expositivism” in the pulpit promises to produce an indistinct
preaching which ought to leave any lover of truth deeply unsettled.
The supreme irony is
that this proponent belies his contention by making his case for
expository preaching with a very topical article which cited
about thirty different Biblical texts and which was carried and praised
in a magazine which carried virtually nothing but topical studies.
Why did he not go to chapter one, verse one, of a Biblical book and
write a commentary to make his point?
The author of an
entry for “Churches of Christ” in an old Britannica Book of the Year
wrote glowingly about their growth, work, and institutions. Amid
reportage of relatively remarkable happenings is one comment perhaps
noteworthy for nothing more than its incongruity in such a setting:
“Increasing emphasis was placed on
expository preaching of the Bible and study of the Bible in classes.”
The year was 1962;
the author: M. Norvel Young, President of
“In order that no advantage be taken of
us by Satan, … we are not ignorant of his schemes” (2 Cor.
5242 Deborah Drive
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