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Expository preaching (also referred to as systematic exposition) is a form of preaching that throws light upon the meaning of a particular text or passage of Scripture. As "throwing light," this term is more general than exegesis, which is used for more technical and grammatical exposition, a careful drawing out of the exact meaning of a passage in its original context. While the term exposition could be used in connection with any verbal informative teaching on any subject, the term is also used in relation to Bible-teaching and preaching. The practice possibly originated from the Jewish tradition of the rabbi giving a "Dvar Torah", explaining a passage from the Torah, during the prayer services.
Expository preaching differs from topical preaching in that the former concentrates on a specific text and discusses topics covered therein, whereas the latter concentrates on a specific topic and references texts covering the topic.
Expository preaching is a term and technique that refers to the proclamation the content of the Bible as it appears in the text, as opposed to an emphasis on application to the hearers.
There are a number of other techniques for preaching, some of which are covered in this article including textual, topical, topical-expository, and lectionary. According to the proponents of expository preaching the weaknesses of the other forms generally center around their inability to strictly expose the original meaning of the text. There is of course overlap between all types as they share one text. The expository method of preaching is favored among those who believe that the Bible is the very word of God and thus worthy of being presented in its purest essence, rather than modifying the message to match the characteristics of the audience.
There are three ways in which texts are selected for exposition:
A lectionary is a pre-arranged set of passages on which the preacher is to expound. The passages found in the lectionary are usually influenced by the church calendar, and are sometimes set by the particular denomination of the minister and church.
When the passages are determined by the preacher or the individual church, the preacher has the freedom to work out which passages are studied at particular times. In such a situation, the preacher will preach through an entire book of Scripture, which generally allows a far more detailed look at the text being studied. Under some circumstances, preachers may prefer to preach through whole books of the Bible systematically over a long period of time. For example, suppose a preacher decides to cover the book of I John. On the beginning week of the series, the preacher may explain and apply 1 John 1.1-4, then 1 John 1.5-7 the following week, then 1 John 1.8-10 after that, and would continue until all of 1 John is covered. Then another book of the Bible is examined, or else a specific topic is covered for a time (few if any churches use the expository method exclusively, even where it is predominant topical studies are used as either "breaks" between books or to cover a specific area of concern to the congregation).
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Some advantage of expository preaching are as follows: 1) The presentation of the entire content of an entire Bible passage is attempted regardless of the desires of the congregation. Hot topics and controversial topics may not be avoided; pandering is diminished. 2) The preacher is never be lost for a sermon subject. 3) The preacher is not left to guess the needs of his flock and to present appropriate topics, since the preacher believes that God's word has God's comprehensive diet for his sheep.
Some disadvantages of expository preaching are as follows: 1) the truths in a particular Bible passage may not be those most needed by a particular audience at their point of life. 2) The topic presented may lack the unity afforded by the topical method. 3) By limiting the message to a certain passage, the presentation of topics in their fullness may be neglected. Therefore, in order to properly address the context and content at hand in a given passage, the preacher may become topical by concentrating on the topic at hand, and integrating other supporting passages. W.A. Criswell managed to cover the entire Bible over a 17 year period as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. But John MacArthur (pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA) has spent nearly a decade in the book of Luke alone. J. Vernon McGee, radio preacher, preached through the entire Bible in 5 year cycles.
Many famous evangelical preachers have used systematic exposition.
J. Vernon McGee of the Through the Bible radio program may be the best exemplar of the purely expository method of preaching in modern American times. He preached more than one 5 year cycle through the entire Bible.
Reputed to be a great evangelical preacher of the 20th Century D Martyn Lloyd-Jones was the minister of Westminster Chapel in London from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. His series on Romans took years to complete as he worked through the book almost a verse at a time.
Other famous expository preachers include John Stott, Dick Lucas and Charles Spurgeon from England, William Still from Scotland, Phillip Jensen and David Cook from Australia, and Stephen F. Olford, and Fred Craddock from America.
John MacArthur is probably the best known expository preacher in America, and is a proponent of the expository method of preaching (and an outspoken opponent of the topical method as used almost exclusively by some churches). In addition, the Calvary Chapel group of churches, headed by Chuck Smith, include the regular use of expository preaching as one of their distinctives.
Many such prominent preachers in the second half of the twentieth century have put on record that to a lesser or greater extent they were persuaded of the importance of systematic exposition as a result of reading the works of A.W. Pink.
There has been some discussion among preachers of the relative importance of expository preaching. Some churches give Scripture the dominant position over all other sources of religious understanding. This is most common in fundamentalist and evangelical denominations that take the position that the Bible is God's inerrant word, and contains sufficient information for the Christian to understand their faith and how they should live their lives. In historical theology, these churches may adhere to the Reformation teaching of Sola Scriptura which is present in the statements of faith of a number of mainline denominations (e.g., chapter 1 of The Westminster Confession of Faith).
In practice, many Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches are not regularly exposed to Expository preaching from the pulpit. Despite this, expositions of scripture are more likely to occur in these churches than in non-evangelical ones. The exposition is unlikely to be influenced by material from outside the Bible (though such material may be mentioned in the sermon, for example the writings of a commentator on the passage).
However, in churches that elevate church tradition, individual experience, and/or human reason to a level on par with Scripture, expository preaching (if used) will include reconciliation of the Biblical text to other sources:
Regardless of these differences of emphasis, however, most preachers and congregations would agree that preaching must be honouring to God rather than to human beings. In practice, this means that the preacher as expositor should be concerned with speaking about what God sees as important. This will be of little use, however, if it does not connect to what the people in the congregation see as important - even if it only does so by seeking to upset their priorities. But the principle must be that when a church is exposed to expository preaching, they are being enabled to hear God speak rather than being told what they think they need to hear.
For those who believe that the dominant source of Christian understanding is the Bible, it may seem obvious that expository preaching should be essential (though this is not the case with the seeker movement). Nonetheless the logic of their position demands that preaching itself should have a scriptural warrant.
The biblical basis for expository preaching can be found in many places in the Bible. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is perhaps the most important, for it states that Scripture is "breathed out by God", which means that the Bible is actually God's words. The phrase "breathed out" is also a link to the Holy Spirit, which shows a link between the work of God's Spirit, and the work of God's Word. The verse also goes on to explain that Scripture is "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness". This shows that the Bible is not theoretical, but practical in its application. Finally, it states that "the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work". This has been claimed to show the sufficiency of scripture - that it is all that a Christian needs to understand his faith and how to live his life.
Another important verse is Ephesians 6:17, which states that the "Sword of the Spirit is the Word of God". This indicates again the link between the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of God's word. It shows that when the word of God is read, examined and applied, there also works the Holy Spirit.
A third important verse is found in Hebrews 4:12, which says that "The word of God is living and active, sharper than any double edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart". This second picture of God's word as a deadly sword is deliberate, not because of the violence it implies, but because of the change it can bring to those who listen to God's word. Here also the word of God is almost given a personality of its own - which implies, again, the hidden work of the Holy Spirit as it works with the word of God to change people's lives.
Most churches that are committed to Reformed Theology and Calvinism are similarly committed to the practice of expository preaching. Most of the notable preachers mentioned above are Calvinistic in their theology. Expository preaching is not limited to those who embrace this theology, however, and can be found in a wide variety of churches.
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David Fitch, an editor of Leadership Journal, wrote three articles entitled The Myth of Expository Preaching & the Commodification of the Word part 1 part 2 part 3. Fitch, an evangelical, argues that an underlying assumption behind much expository preaching is an individualistic understanding of scripture and an over-reliance upon the expository preacher as the means by which God works in the church.
Simon Perry, another evangelical preacher, has warned that most forms of expository preaching place the authority of Scripture above that of the Christ to whom the Scripture witnesses. As such, he claims, expository preaching is inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture itself.
Within the broad Christian church, certain denominational and inter-denominational movements exist which promote Expository preaching as being essential in the life of the church, and should be the normative way in which sermons should be preached. Some of these movements include:
Republic of Ireland
Expository preachers generally believe that their main duty as a pastor is the preaching of the Bible. As such, they will spend a considerable amount, if not the majority, of their time studying and understanding the text in question, as well as associated texts on the same subject, believing it to be absolutely necessary for the welfare of their congregation. While studying, they will also be praying that God will reveal to them the proper meaning of the text, and that the hearts and minds of the congregation will be changed by it (believing that they do not have any inherent ability to effect such change, only God can do so).
Expository preachers thus assure themselves that, no matter the "results", so long as they preach the Bible and through the Bible, they have followed God's direction.
Bible quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers (c) 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.