Why Exposition is Unnecessary

Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things
~ Isaiah 30:10

What if we play Pick-a-Passage-for-the-Pastor?

I know the game isn’t likely to catch on, but you don’t never know sometimes. Suppose you were adequately blindfolded so you could not see. Don’t worry. You won’t have to eat or drink anything gross. Suppose you were handed a Bible. You fanned the pages and stopped at random. You put your finger down, either to the right or the left, and whatever verse(s) you pointed to, your pastor had to preach a sermon from that text. Though your choice was truly random to you, let’s further suppose that your pastor had never preached from that text before, so he cannot whip out an old outline to preach from. What would he need to do to preach that text? How would he go about it?

His method, or process, will depend on what kind of sermon he intends to preach. How many kinds are there? Not as many as you might think. By referring to the kind of sermon, I’m not talking about style of delivery, which varies with every different preacher. I’m talking about the way the sermon is built, or what it is built around. Speaking in the broadest possible terms, there are few options.

Topical

A topical sermon is built around a topic or subject. It could be delivered in a variety of styles, but the content of the sermon is structured around a topic. If your pastor intends to preach a topical sermon from the text you selected, he will look at the text for key words, phrases, or suggested images. He would be looking for words or suggestions of topics like faith, love, grace, hope, sin, God’s word, or the church. Having identified a topic in the text, he will next think of three points he wants to make about that topic. Of course three points is a rule of thumb and not an inviolable law of preaching. He might have two points, or four. He could optionally make the points rhyme, have the same rhythm, or start with the same letter.

For each of his points, he will need some supporting verses. He will use a concordance, possibly Strong’s, to search for words related to his points and select a few verses to reinforce his points. If it’s a familiar topic, he may already have many verses to use so he looks those up to make sure he gets the reference right. Along with supporting verses he will need some illustrations. He can sift through his own experiences and come up with some. He can borrow some illustrations from other preachers. Depending on his personality, he may not give this too much thought ahead of time and rely on off the cuff illustrations.

He will need some introductory and concluding material. He has many options at this point. He can talk about why this topic is important, why it is needed, or even why it is neglected. He may include actionable steps of application so you will be prepared to pray more, sin less, have more faith, or be more forgiving.

Expositional

Exposition is a big word little used except in certain circumstances. It has an archaic meaning: to expose to view. Simply put, exposition is a comprehensive explanation of some source material. Exposition is not a sermon, but a sermon is considered expositional, or expository, when it is built around the explanation of the meaning of a text. Exposition is the structural core of a sermon that holds it all together. Whatever points of observation are made, whatever points of application are made to the saved or lost, they come from the explained meaning of the text.

If your pastor intends to preach an expositional sermon from the blindfold text, he will start with a big picture, then zoom in to minute details, and zoom back out to put the sermon together. Exposition means getting to the original, intended, and contextual meaning of a passage. He will start with the big picture. Where is this text? Is it in the Old Testament or New Testament? Is it in a wisdom book, historical book, a Gospel, or an epistle? Those questions may seem too obvious to ask, but they are vital to properly interpreting a passage.

Once he has the aerial photo, he needs to zoom in drastically. He has to focus on the text and its setting. He has to consider biblical backgrounds, biblical languages, grammar, logical structure and flow. He has to start zooming out slowly to the broader context of the passage, the book it is in, and what it contributes to the book as a whole. He has to keep zooming out to consider the text’s place in the storyline of scripture, intertextual connections with other books, quotes, references, and allusions outside the text.

Next, he has to zoom out so that today is in the picture. Once he has properly interpreted the passage for its intended meaning, he has to connect that to today to make application to his modern hearers. If his text is in the old covenant dietary laws or Sabbath laws, does that mean we have to follow those today? What relevance do they have? If his text is a miracle of Jesus, how does that apply? If the text involves John the Baptist, does that mean we should all move to the desert, wear camel hair girdles, and eat locusts?

His introductory material will likely consist of background and setting of the passage, so it can be understood. His points will be developed from the passage itself. His concluding applications will come from the exposition of the passage and understanding of its place in the progress of revelation. He then brings home the relevance of the passage for us today.

Tribal

The tribal sermon could come under the topical umbrella, but it is quite the specimen and deserves its own pin and info card in the display case. If you talk about tribal rhetoric today, you will most likely be understood to talk about blind, fanatical political allegiances and groupings, i.e., tribes. Tribalism is just that, blind allegiance and loyalty to one’s own group. Tribalists blindly adhere to the worldview of the group, the tribe’s body of dogma, and jargon. Tribalists are immediately skeptical of anyone or any ideas not within the group, and they immediately know who is in and who is out. Tribalists presuppose their own group and collective groupthink to be superior to all others.

What is a tribal sermon? Tribal sermons are generally topical, but stick to an approved and acceptable set of topics. Tribal sermons are immediately critical of everything outside the tribe and reinforces the superiority of the tribe by either directly affirming the group or indirectly affirming the group by censuring all the non-group. One evidential feature of tribal sermons is the preacher making statements and using key phrases, which are accepted and applauded without any explanation or actual expositional proof from the Bible.

If your pastor intends to preach a tribal sermon, he considers whether the text is one of the tribal prooftexts. He may recognize this text is where we go to prove X doctrine, or that text is where we go to prove Y principle. If the text is not one of the standard prooftexts, he will consider if it is equivalent or close to one of the prooftexts. If the text is not a standard prooftext, or it doesn’t intersect conveniently with a prooftext, he has more work to do. He must consider the tribe’s set of approved and acceptable topics and find some way to either preach that topic deliberately from the text, or bridge from the text to the topic.

He will need the appropriate introductory and concluding remarks. He will probably not try to get too creative and just stick with the tribal boilerplates. Regardless of the text or topic, tribal sermons tend to abide certain conventions at the bookends of the sermon. They start with some variation on how important the subject is that is about to be preached, how nobody today is preaching on this subject, how everybody else is wrong about it, or how nobody else knows or understands it. Advanced onset tribalism will even press these critical claims toward those “within the group” who are not sufficiently emphasizing the tribal talking points. Tribal sermons tend to be thin on application and more about what you know and who knows and don’t know. There’s always a looming threat of being “out” of the tribe and so loyalty is reinforced.

Summary

What sermon would your pastor preach from the selected text? What sermon does he preach from the texts he selects? One of the questions or debates about preaching is whether exposition is necessary or not. It may surprise you to hear this, but exposition is not necessary all the time. If your pastor intends to preach a topical sermon as described above, exposition is unnecessary. He can find inspiration for sermons all around him. He may even have a sermon he wants to preach and needs only find a text to preach it from. In that case, exposition is unnecessary.

If your pastor intends to preach a tribal sermon, exposition is unnecessary. The tribe already provides a set of topics and prooftexts that are acceptable. The Bible must always be filtered through these, so the real work involved is figuring out how to fit a text in when it doesn’t seem to fit naturally. He can make pre-approved statements and exposition is unnecessary.

Of course, exposition is always necessary if he intends to the preach the word as God gave it. Sorry, but I don’t know any way around that. So, who’s ready to play?

Speaking Non-Signs

… they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.
~ Acts 17:11

Non-Signs the Bible is Being Preached

I‘m unaware of any preacher at any time who has not claimed to be preaching the Bible, or at least claimed the Bible backed up what he was saying. Paul charged Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2), which he defined as all of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16). Preaching the Bible is the main duty of every preacher of the Word and the standard of judgment for his faithfulness (James 3:1).

How can you be sure the Bible is being preached when you go to church? That could be a big answer. The church is responsible for that, so it’s also an important answer. I suppose we could come up with numerous ways of confirming the biblicalness of a sermon. I want to approach this from the other direction. We mistakenly assign authority to a message by a number of trappings that have nothing to do with the actual content of the sermon. I am going to give you seven non-signs the Bible is being preached. The presence of any or all of these signs in no way ensures the Bible is actually being preached.

1. A six-pound, three inch thick, black leather bound Bible is laid open on the pulpit

Such a Bible makes an impressive visual, but is the Bible necessary? Is it being used? We’ve all heard sermons where the preacher read his springboard text and then never returned to the Bible at all. If he would have closed his Bible and laid it aside after reading the text, it wouldn’t have changed a thing about the sermon. Some preachers have said the same things repeatedly for so long, they don’t even need a Bible in the pulpit to preach from. If the Bible is not being read, explained, and applied from the pulpit, the Bible is not being preached.

2. The preacher told you God gave him the message

The more a preacher primes the congregation by telling them God gave him this message, laid it on his heart, or otherwise told him to preach it, the more wary you should be. The sermons I have heard most qualified with those kinds of statements were the most obviously not from God, because they were not preaching the Bible. God did such with Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Peter, and Paul. This is how he communicated his word through his prophets and apostles. That revelation is complete and we already have it. He is not giving new revelation today. God has given preachers a message. It’s called the Bible and has sixty-six books. There are thirty-nine Old Testament books and twenty-seven New Testament books. Your preacher should take a text and preach it, and then you can be sure it is a message from God because it’s on the page in front of you.

3. The preacher says things you agree with

Just because a preacher is saying what you want to hear or what you like to hear, that is no sign he’s actually preaching the Bible. He may cycle through your pet doctrines like a politician hitting the talking points at a political rally, but that doesn’t mean He’s preaching the Bible. Ear-tickling comes in many forms and one of those forms is the preacher regularly regaling the congregation with their favorite doctrines or topics. The Scripture Paul told Timothy to preach is profitable for doctrine, but also for reproof and correction (2 Timothy 3:16). He warned that itching ears abound that will not endure actual Bible preaching (2 Timothy 4:3). If God is holy and we are sinners, then God’s words will cross us sooner or later. If the Bible is being preached, you Christian church goer will be reproved and corrected.

4. The preacher says some things that are in the Bible somewhere

A preacher can make true statements from the pulpit, but still not be actually preaching the Bible. On the whole, making true statements is better than making false statements, but that still falls short of the command to preach the word. Bible preaching is when the text is explained and applied. The content of the sermon consists of what is explicitly stated in the text and the consequences properly deduced from the text. It isn’t enough that the sermon’s substance can be found in the sixty-six books somewhere. It must be found in the text, if he’s to preach the Bible.

5. The church has the “right” doctrinal statement

The church may have a statement of faith that hits all the right points in your mind, but that doesn’t mean the Bible is being preached from the pulpit. Because we are humans and fallible, we can be inconsistent. We can be orthodox in one area and heterodox in another. But even if all our doctrinal ducks quack on cue, that doesn’t mean Scripture is being explained and applied every week. If a church’s doctrinal statement is actually biblical, then preaching the Bible will affirm it again and again. If Bible preaching causes you to lose articles from your doctrinal statement, that is a good indication those articles weren’t biblical to begin with. The true orthodoxy of a church is not measured by it’s church documents, but by the Bible being regularly preached from the pulpit.

6. The church and/or the preacher has the “right” pedigree

The church’s particular bona fides in terms of their lineage or associations, does not mean the Bible is being preached. The fact that a church came from, recognizes, or otherwise fellowships with another particular church does not mean the Bible is being preached. Similarly, the fact that a preacher has a certain last name, certain family connections, or the endorsement of certain other preachers does not mean he is or will actually preach the Bible. Some churches are more concerned about a preacher’s connections when it comes to having him preach, or even in calling a pastor, than they are whether he will stand up, take a text, and preach it.

7. The preacher looks like a preacher

We put more stock in appearances today than perhaps any generation before us. Many have the idea of what a preacher should look like in their minds. A man may have a matching three-piece suit, french cuffs, shiny shoes, and coordinated necktie and pocket square, but that has nothing to do with whether or not he’s preaching the Bible. For some, facial hair for a preacher is an abomination, while the absence of it is unmanly for others. We are far too concerned about appearances and set up standards that are nowhere to be found in the pages of Scripture. A preacher may fit well your idea of what a preacher should look like, but that doesn’t mean he’s preaching the Bible.

Conclusion

I have given you seven non-signs the Bible is being preached. You may think I’m saying the things I listed don’t matter at all. I am not saying they don’t matter at all. I am saying they don’t matter more than the fact the Bible is not being preached from the pulpit. If you believe in the inspiration of Scripture, inerrancy of Scripture, authority of Scripture, and sufficiency of Scripture, then you must accept no less and nothing else than God’s Scripture being opened, read, expounded in its original context, and applied to the saved and unsaved today.

Water is Wet

For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
~ Habakkuk 2:14

Thoughts on Gospel conservation

Maybe you’ve seen the recently published article, “4 Reflections after Listening to 18 Hours of Sermons in America’s Biggest Churches,” by Colton Corter. I’ve seen it shared numerous times on different platforms with various comments affixed to it.

Corter wanted to find out what the preaching was like in America’s biggest churches. He listened to four sermons from each of nine churches that could be described as evangelical mega-churches. He listened to 36 sermons that averaged about 30 minutes per sermon, and that’s where the “18 hours of sermons” came from. The body of the article enumerates his four reflections, but he noted his most important observation as the following: “in 36 sermons, the good news of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was unclear 36 times.” Based on what he heard from these churches, he concluded the Gospel was absent, not being preached.

The article is worth reading and considering. I can’t envision anyone being shocked, surprised, scandalized, or stumped by what Corter found. Given the premise, finding the clear Gospel in popular churches in America today is about like finding full shelves of hand sanitizer and toilet paper at Walmart at the end of March 2020. It’s like jumping into 36 different pools, rivers, lakes, and oceans to emerge and announce, “Water is wet.”

An Experiment in a Different Direction

I’m not being critical of the article. I think we need to read it and consider it. The problem I foresee is with the reader and not the writer. Large, popular mega-churches are by far the minority of churches in the United States and, therefore, represent a minority of church-goers as well. As far as I have understood the data, most regular church-goers in America go to what are considered small churches. Those same small church-goers are probably naturally suspicious of mega-churches. They don’t expect to find orthodoxy at such places. They would have been surprised if Corter reported hearing the Gospel clearly preached in the sermons he listened to.

Most of us go to small churches and the danger for us is dismissing Corter’s findings and reflections as only a problem out there somewhere, with those people, and not a problem at home, with us. I was immediately struck by the article because I have been conducting a similar experiment, though running it in a different direction.

Over the last 2-3 years, I have been deliberately listening to sermons, reading articles, and paying attention to social media posts coming from small, conservative Baptist churches in the U. S. I’ve listened to sermons from regular services, special services, conferences, etc. and I’ve read articles in print and online. I’ve considered older as well as newer material. I have also read a few books. I haven’t kept an exact tally, but I do know I’ve listened to well more than 18 hours of sermons and spent many more than 18 hours reading.

I confess I have not been conducting a scientific experiment with rigorous parameters and controls, and such. My observations are admittedly anecdotal, but still concerning. On the positive side, my findings are not like Corter’s 36-for-36 lack of Gospel preaching, but I have found a discernible lack of Gospel preaching and Gospel focus. Even in articles and sermons with “Gospel” in the title, the Gospel was either unclear or unmentioned. I have listened to sermons with Romans 1:16 as a text where the Gospel was not preached. I’m not saying I didn’t find the Gospel at all, but that it was noticeably missing in places across the whole sample.

A Few Reasons Why the Gospel May be Missing

I can’t say why the Gospel is absent in all cases. It could be a number of reasons. I do want to give a few reasons from my own experience and observations. The following list is in no particular order.

  1. Gospel Confusion
    Preachers are sometimes not clear on just what the Gospel is. That may seem impossible, but I have heard preachers give different answers to the simple question: What is the Gospel? I’m not talking about mere differences of terms or formulation, but vastly different answers about the content of the Gospel. Sometimes the Gospel is confused with church traditions, doctrinal statements, or even a preacher’s personal convictions. A good place to start is Paul’s statement of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, or Romans 1:1-6, or the Apostolic preaching in Acts, and especially Paul’s sermon in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia where he preached justification by faith to unbelieving Jews (Acts 13:38-39). The Gospel is the good news of the life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, for the salvation of sinners who believe in him and trust him fully for righteousness apart from any and all works of the law to gaining eternal life and to the eternal glory of God, the Father. For the Gospel to be preached, this message must be stated clearly, and people should be called without qualification to repent of their sins and charged to trust in Jesus Christ.
  2. Losing Focus
    Preachers are sometimes not clear on what priority the Gospel should have. I have actually listened to preachers debating whether the Gospel should be preached in church. I’m plum stymied as to how that could even be a disagreeable topic. How can there be any debate about that? But, there is. Paul writing to churches clearly stated his priority for preaching the Gospel, both in his first ministry and his continuing ministry among them (Romans 1:15; 1 Corinthians 1:23; 2:2; Galatians 6:14; Ephesians 3:8; Colossians 1:28). Paul even spoke of the priority of his calling in terms preaching the Gospel rather than baptizing (1 Corinthians 1:17). When we don’t maintain the deliberate priority of preaching the Gospel, we lose our focus and eventually our grip on the Gospel.
  3. Lack of Exposition
    When preachers are in the habit of parachuting into random passages to extract a word or phrase to preach their pet topics with apparent biblical support, the Gospel moves to the background, is tacked on as an afterthought, or is completely missed. All Scripture is about Christ (Luke 24:27) and when expounded properly, every part of the Bible contributes to the story of Christ’s redemption of sinners. Commitment to proper exposition will ensure the Gospel is clearly and regularly preached.
  4. Loading the Gospel
    Preachers sometimes undermine the Gospel in sermons through guilt-driven, legal preaching. Sometimes justification by faith and salvation by grace are stated as doctrinal truths, but the sermon focuses practically on a message of do this, don’t do that, try harder, do more, etc. The net effect of such preaching loads the Gospel with legal requirements and confuses the hearers about what the Gospel actually is and what it actually requires. Not only should we affirm the Gospel clearly in our doctrinal standards, we must also preach the Gospel clearly from the pulpit. We must clearly distinguish between the grounds of our justification by grace through faith and the fruits of salvation worked in us.

Conclusion

There are a lot of problems out there, but we need to start looking at the problems in here. Just start asking around what the marks of a true church are, and you will find some answers that don’t begin with the Gospel. How could the Gospel not be the first item on the list? The Gospel is not the only point of doctrine in the Bible. It is not the only concern for a church. However, Paul said the Gospel was of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:3). It’s where we begin and is central to all we do as a church. Conservative churches like to think of themselves as conservative, but what are we conserving? No matter how many things a church may boast of having, if it doesn’t have the Gospel right, it is not a church of Jesus Christ.

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