Expository preaching – friend or foe?

The Gospel Coalition posted an article today by Iain Murray titled “Expository Preaching: Time for Caution.” In it Murray raises some questions about the current trend toward expositional preaching, where “expositional” is understood to refer to “preaching which consecutively takes a congregation through a passage, or book of Scripture, week by week.” Although he recognizes some of the reasons often given for this style of preaching ministry, he raises five concerns:

  1. Not everyone is gifted/capable of doing this kind of preaching well.
  2. Preaching should not be seen as merely instructional.
  3. There is a role for lecturing your way through the Bible, but that is not the primary function of preaching.
  4. Expositional preaching can easily become a dull running commentary on the text, rather than the powerful and memorable declaration of important ideas.
  5. Expositional preaching is not conducive to evangelistic preaching because not all texts are equally conducive to Gospel proclamation.

He concludes with two final thoughts. (1) This doesn’t mean we should avoid this kind of expositional preaching, only that we shouldn’t make it the exclusive focus of the pulpit. (2) We shouldn’t limit “expositional” to this kind of preaching, but should extend it to any kind of sermon that seeks to explain God’s word clearly and powerfully.

My initial reaction when I started reading the article was not terribly positive. I immediately jumped to what I think of as the opposite of expositional preaching – the kind of “topical” sermon that takes its starting point from some biblical text, but never returns to it. Obviously, though, that is far from Murray’s mind. He is still talking about preaching expositional sermons, he’s just pushing back on the idea that a truly expositional preaching ministry needs to walk through entire books passage by passage.

My second reaction was one that he actually dealt with throughout the article. I concluded that of course we need expositional preaching or people won’t ever hear the whole word of God. And, I’m actually still concerned about this one. As I reflected a bit more, however, I began to wonder if the contemporary emphasis on expositional preaching was related to the modern shift away from other teaching times. With the downfall of Sunday schools and Sunday evening services, where do people hear the word of God taught/lectured on a regular basis? If Murray is right and teaching/lecturing is not the primary purpose of preaching, something that I would agree with, how are we ensuring that people are getting that other kind of equally necessary time in the word? They certainly aren’t getting it from most of the small groups that I’ve been a part of. (Hmmm, what’s the common denominator there?) Is it possible that expositional preaching of this kind is the solution to a problem that we should be trying to solve in other ways?

So, here are the questions for our consideration. First, what do you think of Murray’s arguments? Do they hold water? Second, what do you think about the contemporary emphasis on expositional preaching? Does it lie at the very heart of good preaching? Is it something that has possibly gotten overemphasized in the modern church because of weaknesses in our teaching ministries elsewhere? Or, do you just like topical preaching and would like to hear more series on “You and Your Money.” I must confess that although I’ve had many regular teaching ministries over the years, I’ve never had to preach every week. I think we all can and should have an opinion on this, but I’d be particularly interested in hearing from those of you who preach (or have preached) on a more regular basis.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on May 24, 2010, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Brief comments on Murray’s 5 points:

    1. Maybe. But you get better by doing it. But really, if you are not “good” at this kind of preaching it might be more because you are not good at exegeting your people, rather than Scripture. Which means you might not be good at either.:-)
    2. Agreed. Preaching has to be addressed to the whole person. But the instructional material should always serve and even shape the application.
    3. Granted. But you can preach Christ to the heart going all the way through a book of the Bible, too. The purpose in preaching is proclaiming Christ to your people.
    4. True. It has it pit-falls. As does topical preaching (aka catechetical or theological preaching). Both can and should be done in spite of these hazards.
    5. False. All Scripture is Christ-centered and Christ-anchored (Luke 24, Hebrews 1), hence conducive to proclaiming the good news. Isn’t all preaching evangelistic? The gospel isn’t just for unbelievers. [note to Murray: I preached on gaining the world and losing your soul when I did a series on the kingdom about a year ago]

    • 1. Do you think there’s any validity to the idea that some people are just not cut out for this kind of preaching? In other words, they could do it, but they’ll never do it very well. So, they should just stick with what they’re good at.

      4. I really think this is his point. Let’s recognize the challenges inherent in various styles of preaching and make sure that we don’t get exclusively locked into one way of doing things.

      5. I would definitely agree. I would be interested, though, in how you define “Christ-centered and Christ-anchored” preaching. Any thoughts there?

  2. 1. No.
    5. Hebrews 1 teaches that Jesus is God’s last word. Luke 24 teaches that X is the telos of redemptive-history. That has to inform preaching (which itself is a sign of the presence of the kingdom of Christ). It informs it in that the reason I preach is because Christ has been raised from the dead and vindicated in the Spirit for the justification of His saints (anchor).

    Jesus centers the text, because no matter where in the canon you preach from (Moses, Psalms, Prophets) His person and work is where that text finds its purpose and application e.g. if I preach from Leviticus I can only talk about holiness if I explain it through Jesus; if preach from the Proverbs, it has to be clear that in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom; etc. This is why a simply grammatical-historical hermeneutic fails to be sufficiently Christian at the end of the day. You can’t toss it out, but you can’t end with it either.

    • 1. I love the brevity.
      5. It take it that you (unsurprisingly) espouse an Enns-like christotelic reading of Scripture. If so, does that mean that you are comfortable preaching a sermon from the OT that doesn’t point directly to Christ as long as the overall shape of your preaching demonstrates how the entire narrative is Christ centered and anchored. Or, do you think it’s important that each sermon demonstrates a christotelic dimension? I realized we’ve strayed a little from the original point of this post, but I’m curious.

  3. 5a. Hopefully, in addition to Enns, there was some Clowney and R.B. Kuiper in there, too. And Vos and Ridderbos, for that matter.

    5b. The latter and not the former, i.e. Christ as the end of the sermon, and not only the shadow or contour of it. Or to put it another way, it should be explicit about Jesus and not simply assume Him.

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