January 7, 2022

5 Misconceptions About Expository Preaching

By Clint Harrison

Several years ago, my brother-in-law laughingly mentioned that he’d been attending his church for four years and never once heard a sermon outside the book of John. It was the kind of church where congregants carried Greek Lexicons to service, and pastors took a snails-pace approach to unpacking books of the Bible phrase by phrase.

This is the picture that comes to a lot of people’s minds when they think of “expository preaching,” but it’s not necessarily an accurate picture. 

What is Expository Preaching?

A common misconception about expository preaching is that it means “preaching through books of the Bible.” It actually means preaching the main idea of the text. Any sermon can be expositional – whether it fits into a broader study on a book of the Bible or is a standalone sermon – as long as it aims to teach the author’s original intent regarding the passage. In the same way, any sermon can fail to be expositional regardless of whether or not it appears within a book study. 

What Goes Into an Expositional Sermon? 

Expository preaching begins with exegesis, which just means studying what’s actually in the text. So before trying to apply Romans 7 to modern readers, I would learn about Paul’s first-century audience. What was Romans 7 saying to those readers? How does the structure of the passage reveal its main emphasis? How does it fit into the broader message of Romans? By allowing the biblical context to inform the meaning of the passage, pastors avoid importing their own meaning into a text, which is called eisegesis.

But we can’t stop with exegesis alone because preaching shouldn’t be purely intellectual. This is another misconception about expository preaching – it’s dry, totally academic, boring, and irrelevant. In order for expository preaching to be both accurate and applicational (which is always the goal), we have to move beyond exegesis to theological reflection.

How does the gospel undergird the entire passage? How does it inform our study, enrich our understanding, stir our convictions? Because the gospel holds all things together and is itself central to everything (Colossians 1:15-20), it ought to be central to expository preaching. 

But there’s a nuance here – if you’re keeping track, I’m about to hit the third misconception: If you don’t tackle theological issues from the pulpit, you’re not practicing expository preaching. That statement is only true in so far as the theological issue in question is the main idea of the text you’re preaching.

When we began preaching through Romans at Grace Church, a lot of people assumed we’d be neck deep in controversial theological quandaries. And we’ve certainly waded through some tough theology, but to make a theological issue the main point of a sermon when Paul doesn’t make it the main point of his letter would be a failure to exposit the text faithfully. Expository preaching is always guided by the text, whether its message is popular or offensive, theologically scintillating or radically simple. 

Finally, after exegesis and theological contemplation, expositional sermons consider modern implications, or contextualization. In this way, application flows out of the passage rather than informing the passage. 

Why Does Expository Preaching Matter? 

A fourth misconception is that expository preaching is primarily for discipleship – to deepen the faith of Christians – and not for evangelism, or engaging the lost. Sure, committed Christians might be interested in Zephaniah’s authorial intent for the people of Judah, but unchurched people? Who cares?! 

Often this is the thinking behind marketing a sermon series around a culturally hot topic, or ditching expository preaching in favor of thematic preaching that’s Bible-light and application-heavy. The motivation may be pure – pastors want to engage lost people and win them to Jesus. But superimposing our own agenda onto the text is never the way to do it, because it’s the Word of God, not our own ideas or moralism, that’s “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). 

In his book, Expositional Preaching, David Helm paints a sobering picture of the danger of using God’s Word for our own purposes:

On those weeks when we have stood in the pulpit and leaned on the Bible to support what we wanted to say instead of saying only what God intended the Bible to say, we have been like a drunken man who leans on a lamppost – using it more for support than for illumination.

My guess is most pastors have been guilty of this kind of preaching at some point – I certainly have – whether from lack of knowing better, lack of time to deeply study, pressure to convey a particular theme, or a desire to capture the listeners’ interest. 

What a relief that God’s grace is sufficient for pastors, too! What a relief that our only calling in regard to preaching is to faithfully teach the Word to the best of our ability, and to trust that the Bible itself is “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

How Much Should a Church-Goer Value Expository Preaching?

There’s a wide spectrum of feelings about expository preaching from total indifference to scrupulous fixation. My opinion? Value it deeply but humbly.

Remember my brother-in-law’s church? Years later, he relocated and began attending a different church. When his new church decided to study the book of John, they did it in 10 months. It was a radically faster pace than his previous church, but he didn’t balk. As long as they faithfully taught the main idea of the text, he didn’t mind if they took a different approach – summarizing portions and focusing more deeply on others. 

A fifth misconception is that certain elements of a sermon series are prescriptive to expository preaching, when in fact they’re preferential. Pace, style, use of illustrations – those are all matters of preference. Recognizing the difference between a prescriptive (or “essential”) issue and a preferential one is key to maintaining a humble spirit, which is a tremendous blessing to your church. 

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