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8 Ways Expository Preaching Changed Our Church

The following article is a guest post by Anthony G. Wood and was originally published in the Fall edition of VOICE magazine. 

I was thankful to not be in the front row of class that morning. The famed old expositor leaned over his lectern with a glare. Tensions rose, and the air conditioner silently kicked on. Did the older man rise on his toes? Suddenly, with the growl of a mama bear over cubs, he roared, “Every sermon is an argument where I argue, and you must believe!” Then, as quickly as they’d lifted, the heels settled back to the gray linoleum floor. The glare behind the glasses softened. The wrinkled brow disappeared. The moment passed.  The patriarch’s grandfatherly tone returned, and he began instructing us on the 20th-century failures of experiential preaching, sentimental preaching, analogical preaching, cultural preaching, so on, and so forth.

I’ll never forget that day. Of all my years in school, that one sentence – along with the glare, guts, and ferocity – marked me for life. I’d grown up viewing preaching as pastor talking “about” the Bible. I’d attended a typical evangelical bible school and been told that good preaching was telling people “about” God. Thus, my pulpit resume came lined with quips about the Bible, a menagerie of popular theologies, and a boatload of emotional anecdotes. However, in class that day, the preaching “semi-truck” plowed over my heart –preaching wasn’t talking about God but speaking for God.

Faithful expository preaching meant that the Word of God is presented as the words of God. It sounds funny to write it that way, in tautology, but this was earth-shaking news. Every word of Scripture was pure ‘truth’ and ‘argument’ of God, flowing out upon people, forcing they either accept or reject His holy position. The light had dawned: expositional preaching was the only preaching that had any power. Faithful preaching could only be expositional preaching.

After class, I went home and began tracing through old books, writing out the family tree of historic bible expositors. I was ecstatic to learn that God didn’t speak with multiple meanings. I was humbled to learn that those who studied the grammatical, historical, and literary context of God’s Word could know precisely what God said. I was encouraged to know that faithful preaching wasn’t fancy. The goal wasn’t to be inventive or funny; the goal was to be right…God would do the rest! My studies began in earnest: What did the author write? What did the author mean? What are the primary verbs? What is the supporting syntax? How does it correlate to the remainder of God’s revealed Word?

Through tears, I learned that inerrancy demands exposition. If I believed the Bible was true (which I did!), I didn’t have a choice but to preach what it said. If I had an inerrant text, that meant God wrote it. If God wrote it, I couldn’t change it. Thus, my only option was to preach it. Exposition was the single type of preaching that brought the full text to the hearer and allowed the hearer to know the Bible. Only the expositor walked in the full assurance of God, knowing it was irrelevant what people thought, and only relevant what God thinks. People needed to hear from God. Our young church plant needed to hear from God. So, that’s what we did. And, expository preaching changed our church:

  1. Exposition Showcased the Authority of God. When we began to teach God’s Word in a verse-by-verse manner, people came to realize who was really in charge. John Piper well describes the danger of non-exposition, “The entertainment-oriented preacher seems to be at ease talking about many things not drawn out of the Bible. In his message, he seems to enjoy talking about other things more than what the Bible teaches. On the other hand, the Bible oriented preacher says, ‘I am God’s representative sent to God’s people to deliver a message from God.’ He feels the weight and the joy of his trust.”[1] As long as we are circling God’s Word, preaching the latest news clippings, hijacking from online sources, or pushing sentimental self-help fixes, people know (consciously and subconsciously!) that we somehow view ourselves as the authority (Ps. 19:7-9). However, preaching God’s Word in God’s way proves once and for all who is sovereign King.
  2. Exposition Spiritually Deepened Praise and Worship. People who know the Word know to worship. Instead of continuing our emotionally stimulating Sunday morning experiences, we worked to ground our church in the Word, emphasizing the depths of truth, instead of the shallows of emotionalism. In his short manual Why Johnny Can’t Preach, T. David Gordon cajoled the plight of evangelical pulpits, “Even when one can discern a unified point in a sermon, it’s rarely a point worth making, and certainly not worth making in a Christian pulpit during a service of worship.”[2] Pastors must be preachers, not entertainers. There must be a depth of truth that leads to the extent of praise. Expositors understand they are not The Entertainer, but the Worship Leader, informing people of truth that will drive their devotion. Exposition slowly turns the church from being a place where consumers our king to a place where Christ is King.
  3. Exposition Signaled the Lordship of Christ. Many modern preachers have returned to slick titles (e.g., Bishop, Pastrix, Lead) to signal their power over a church. In our early days, we tried all the titles, all the tactics, and all the taglines. However, expositors know that Jesus is the Head of the Church (Eph. 1:17). There are only two ways to lead a church – revelation or manipulation – manipulation works through channels of fear, money, popularity, curt maxims, or supposed signs and wonders. Churches built on forms of manipulation elevate the ‘holy men’ lauded, applauded, self-focused, and money-hungry. Not expositors — expositors have elected revelation as the source of church authority. Scripture, not influence, is the rule of faith and practice for their church, and the pastor is merely the facilitator of truth for the Great Shepherd.
  4. Exposition Synced Saints With Their Heritage. We found that modern gimmick preaching based on relevance, trends, and viral videos, didn’t connect Christians with their hallowed halls of Christian history. [Often, it disdains the past!] And, every time one of my “hip” trendy pastor friends flamed out due to finances or immorality, the congregation he’d jumpstarted in some strip mall or school gymnasium was left orphaned and without a family tree or denomination to rescue. Within days, his jaded people would disappear, and the church building sold to a condo developer. Conversely, expositors ground their people in the ancestry of historic Christianity, the progeny of patristics, reformers, and redemptive history. What Christian isn’t encouraged to find hundreds of generations have held their theology?
  5. Exposition Sanctified Saints by the Holy Spirit. We had to fire the entire worship team. Early on in our ministry, it became clear that many of our leaders and their spouses weren’t regenerate. There’d been professions of faith, but no possession of faith and the nasty fruit proved the reprobate root. Expositors know the Holy Spirit uses the Word, so only proper exposition facilitates the work of the Word to save and sanctify (Jn. 17:17). Jonathan Edwards famously called this spiritual surgery, “(The preacher) has put his patient to great pain, but goes on to thrust his lance in further, till he comes to the core of the wound. Such a compassionate physician, who as soon as his patient began to flinch, should withdraw his hand…would be one that would heal the hurt slightly, crying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”[3] Edwards’ point is clear; expositors keep driving the scalpel until there’s complete healing! Those who communicate around the Word (e.g., Joel Osteen, Judah Smith, Bill Johnson, Steven Furtick) are in open rebellion against God. Luther reacted against the Catholic Church because it didn’t speak for God. It’s been well said, “True ministers are brokers of one book.” By not expositing the Word, we undermine God and His heart for sanctification, because we neglect the very tool the Spirit promised to use.
  6. Exposition Submerged Pastors in Sanctifying Grace. In the early days when I borrowed sermons or composed anecdotal talks, filled with fad illustrations, and light stories, I (the supposed pastor) wasn’t being exposed to the sanctifying Scriptures. I wasn’t drinking of God. However, expositors know that weekly study becomes the harbinger of God’s sanctifying grace – He touches His man in the trenches of exegetical “spade” work – When preaching verse-by-verse, searching out God’s proposition, connecting doctrines of Scripture, the expositor will naturally find himself at God’s mercy. Have we not all begged God for illumination? Do we not arrive at a point where the pen and prayer flow almost simultaneously? A mentor, Dr. Steven Lawson, once told us, “Too many men cry out for more giftedness but feign the quest for more godliness. To write like Calvin, you must become Calvin.”
  7. Exposition Simplified the Tough Truths. When we were an entertainment-oriented church, we rarely touched so-called “tough” truths. As with much of evangelicalism, we were nervous the “tough” facts might scare people. But, expositors know that all truth, regardless of popularity, comes from God. Thus, only an expositor can preach every truth with equal vigor, knowing the soul-battle is between the listener and God, not the listener and the preacher. Alec Motyer writes, “Of the ninety-seven verbs used in the N.T. for communicating God’s truth – at least fifty-six are declarative – verbs like kyrusso, to ‘herald, proclaim’ or didasko, ‘to teach,’ even laleo, ‘to speak, chat.’ Our primary task is to make the truth plain!”[4] To this end, Paul encourages, “We have the mind of Christ…” (1 Cor. 2:16) How do we speak the mind of Christ? Preach the Word! How do we respond to questions? Preach the Word! It is alarming how many modern preachers dance around cultural issues like homosexuality. All they need to say, no matter the subject or audience, is, “The Word of God says…” Preaching by nature will offend. However, we are not heralds of self…we are heralds of the King. A holy God demands sinners repent and believe. If they do not, they will face judgment. That’s God’s message, not ours. Expositors don’t pull punches. Expositors know that if we don’t declare the things that offend the sinful, then we forfeit the right to report grace that makes cheerful.[5]
  8. Exposition Satisfied People in the Glory of God. For years my preaching was typical evangelical fluff centered on “you” instead of God. Expositors know “you” preaching doesn’t help anyone. Expositors know that when preaching stops being about the pain, struggles, platitudes, and depressions, and starts being about God’s holiness, providence, self-existence, omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, faithfulness, etc., they have a hope beyond the grave (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:31; 2 Cor. 5:1). Topical entertainment preaching is a band-aid that won’t cure. Jeremiah called this “superficial wound treatment.” People leave church pumped for an hour then can’t recall one truth in their hours of distress. Expositors don’t let their church slap on a band-aid of analogy, intuition, quotes, maxims, and humor, for their death-wound! Expositors want their people dependent on God’s revealed truth, so all their thinking is Christ-centered. Expositors know life will eventually imitate theology. People will live out their beliefs. People don’t live on emotion, but what is embedded below emotion. The fewer convictions a church has, the more susceptible it is to temptation. A sheep unfed has no strength to stand.

F.W. Boreham once shared a story depicting the passion of Scottish preacher Robert Murray McCheyne:

Years after McCheyne’s passing, a young man visited the famous minister’s church. Approaching the associate minister, he questioned, “Where did McCheyne get his preaching power?” The associate took the youthful inquirer into the vestry and asked him to open his Bible and sit in the chair used by the great preacher.

“Now put your elbows on the table,” he said. “Now, put your face in your hands.” The visitor obeyed. “Now let the tears fall. That was the way Mr. McCheyne used to do it!”

The man then led the young minister to the pulpit and gave a fresh series of instructions. “Put your elbows down. Now, put your face in your hands.” The young man did as he was told. “Now let the tears fall again. That was the way Mr. McCheyne used to do it!”[6]

This is the way to do it. An expositor is moved over his Bible in the study then stands moved over people in the pulpit. Expository preaching changes a church.

Anthony G. Wood is the pastor-teacher of Mission Bible Church in Tustin, California and has been leading the church since planting it in 2011. He is the co-author of Defining Deception, and is currently completing his doctorate at The Master’s Seminary. Anthony and his wife, Breanne, have three children.

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[1] John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015), 124.

[2] T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2009), 69.

[3] Jonathan Edward, Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 4, ed. C.C. Goen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972) 390-91.

[4] Alec Motyer, Preaching: Simple Teaching on Simply Preaching, (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2013), 103

[5] For an insightful explanation of ‘quiet confidence’ in preaching, see John Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 35-36.

[6] See F.W. Boreham, A Late Lark Singing (London: Epworth Press, 1945), 66.