Expository Preaching



Merrill F. Unger


[Editors Note: The following article by Dr. Unger is taken from his manuscript Principles of Expository Preaching, which is scheduled for publication in book form by Zondervan Publishing House in 1955. This article is printed by permission of the publisher.]


The greatest single need of the contemporary church is undoubtedly the strengthening of the local pulpit. This fact is not difficult to realize in the light of distressing present-day conditions in this phase of the Christian ministry and in view of the key place pastoral preaching holds in the carrying out of the divine program. The progress of Gods work depends primarily on the local church, and the local pastor has the most strategic position for weal or woe in this important activity. In no way can the individual pulpit be strengthened for its momentous task than by a diligent return to the Bible injunction: Preach the Word. The benefits of such a ministry are incalculable.


The Benefits of Expository Preaching


Expository Preaching Gives the Preacher Authority and Power.


Holy Scripture as inspired of God, literally God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16), possesses a potent quality when preached by one who believes what he preaches is in truth the Word of God. The authority and power which the inspired Oracles possess become manifest in the pulpit ministry of the faithful Bible expositor. He speaks, yet the thrilling fact is true, God at the same time speaks through Him. He is conscious of inadequacy, yet finds his task attended by divine authority. He is aware of weakness, but discovers the power of God operating in the Word he preaches, which is living and active, and sharper than any two-edged swordpiercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Heb 4:12).


The Apostle Pauls experiences at Thessalonica furnish an inspiring example to every preacher how wonderfully effective a Bible-centered ministry can be. As a result of the faithful proclamation of Gods truth, the Apostle could say our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assuranceand ye became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit. (1 Thess 1:56).


More than this the Apostle could say that as a result of the ministry of the Word the Thessalonian converts became exemplary believers, not only famous for their own consistency of life and testimony, but also for their missionary zeal in sending forth the word, which had wrought so blessedly in their own lives, to others. Ye became an ensample to all that believe not only in Macedonia and in Achaia, but in every place your faith to God-ward is gone forth(1 Thess 1:78).


This note of divine authority and accompanying power attending the preaching of the Word of God is not a benefit lightly to be esteemed by any minister. The blessings to himself and to the people to whom he ministers are so great that no preacher, if not out of consideration for himself, in view of others, can afford to miss them. This is the glory and the excellency of the ministerial vocation. Losing this, the minister loses the pearl of great price. Forfeiting this blessing both for himself and his hearers, like the Ephesian church, which had left its first love to Christ, the minister must rememberwhence he has fallen and repent and do the first works (Rev 2:5).


But there is always a subtle temptation for the preacher to substitute human opinions and ideas for divine authority. This is especially true of the springboard sermon that takes a text merely as a starting point to discuss something other than the Word of God and buttresses its arguments and reinforces its appeal with numerous citations of competent human authorities but with scarcely a quotation of corroborating Scripture. Adhering closely to the Scripture will guard the preacher from this snare.


There is also the perpetual peril of substituting human interest and human problems for divine power. While human interest is vital to good preaching and good preaching always addresses itself to the human problem, yet both become a liability instead of an asset when they depart from the Scriptural order and give secondary place or little place at all to divine power. Preachers who do not expound the Scriptures are unprotectingly exposed to this danger, while even Bible preachers who are not constantly alert in stressing what the Word of God stresses find themselves lopsided in their presentation of these matters.


For example, in the story of the paralytic let down through the roof and healed by Jesus (Mark 2:112) one might be sidetracked by the human interest of the account to dwell on Oriental architecture, paralysis as a type of sin, or the relationship between sin and suffering, and quite neglect the main point of the passage, that ye may know that the Son of man has authority on the earth to forgive sins.


Again, in the account of Pauls thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:110), the human need might easily be dealt with in such a way, with profitless discussion about what the thorn was, that the truth emphasizing the divine power might be completely neglected. The important note to be sounded is that which rings the changes on the power of God. My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.


The divine authority and power which rest upon the true herald of the Word of God must be continually guarded against loss or diminution. The Bible preacher must ever be on watch against departing from the vantage point where what he says bears the authority of Thus said the Lord. In proportion as his sermons depart from this position and are watered down by mens thoughts and opinions, or featured by human interest and human problems to the point of relegating the power of God to a secondary place, in proportion do they lose the note of divine authority and forfeit the manifestation of the divine power.


Expository Preaching Provides an Inexhaustible Store of Sermonic Material.


Ministers who do not systematically preach the Word, who have never been taught to rightly divide its truth and to set forth the wonders of its plan and purpose, are continually at wits end how to get suitable homiletical material. Many a sincere pastor desperately scours the latest book of sermons by some successful pulpiteer, or depends upon Spurgeon or Jowett for any expository efforts with which he may occasionally regale his congregation. One does not have to go far to detect Truett or Talmadge being preached from the pulpit instead of the Word.


It must be confessed that Spurgeon or Jowett, Truett or Talmadge make good pulpit fare even when warmed over and served second-hand. But it is tragic that many ministers have not been trained or encouraged to come themselves to the same exhaustless fountain of truth and inspiration that these great preachers came to and to get their sermon material first-hand and fresh from God as they did.

The preacher who will honor the Word of God by believing that it has unity and coherence, that it actually unfolds the divine plan and purpose from eternity past to eternity future, and who will diligently study it in this attitude of reverent faith, will be more and more amazed at its wonders and find himself possessed of an ever-increasing store of thrilling and heart-warming truth, furnishing the basis of more sermons than he could preach in a lifetime.


There truly is no dearth of preaching material for the man who cultivates the study of the Word of God itself. The well is deep and the supply of refreshment unfailing. As the man of God ponders prayerfully over the sacred page, he will find himself less and less dependent upon human aids and more and more completely cast upon the tuition of the Spirit of God. It is as the man of God becomes more completely Spirit-taught in the things of God that his preaching rises to its greatest excellency.


The deeply spiritual student of the sacred page will find a freshness and a vigor in his message which will not require caeseless searching for novel illustrations from mens pen. The Word will begin to suggest illustrations from its own pages, which will frequently be found to be more forceful than those gleaned from life and secular literature, although the latter, of course, will always have a legitimate place in sermonizing. True Bible preaching, however, will keep such illustrative material, often so excessive in some mens sermons, strictly in the proper place.


As the preacher strives to know and preach the Word, he will find such a wealth of inspiring scriptural themes crowding in upon him for attention and treatment that he will covet his sermon time, whatever length it is, whether twenty or thirty minutes or more, to an ever-increasing degree for the presentation of Biblical truth illuminated by illustrations taken from the Bible itself. Non-scriptural material, whether illustrational or purely factual, will be subject to more keen discrimination before it is admitted to the sacred domain of the pulpit.


Nothing like Bible study and Bible preaching can condition a true expositor to be discriminating in the choice of the type and quality of the illustrations he permits himself to use in his messages. The Bible preacher will find himself no longer taken up, as once he may have been, with the superficial, ultra-emotional variety of story that is often of extremely dubious factual content. He will begin to demand that illustrative material be on the same high level of spirituality and solidness that characterizes the holy truth he expounds.


Expository Preaching Meets Human Needs.


The fact that the Christian pulpit in proclaiming the Word of God faces the realities of life and provides for the deepest needs of the human heart makes it a vitally necessary institution in a free world. As Bible preaching declines, men degenerate morally and spiritually and become slaves to sin and self. When this happens, there is only an additional step to becoming slaves politically with the loss of free government to communism, fascism or some other foreign ideology.


One of the most fundamental needs of the human race is deliverance from the penalty and power of sin. The Bible sets forth in unmistakable terms both the reality of sin and the absolute need of deliverance from it. Bible preaching, therefore, does not dodge this vital point, but meets it fully. Non-Biblical preaching, however, frequently denies or ignores the reality of human depravity and hence offers no adequate way of salvation. The result is that it fails the human soul in its most crucial need of all.


Failing the human soul in its most crucial need of salvation from sin, humanistic preaching, the heralding of the social gospel, or the proclamation of salvation by character or good works, or any other non-Biblical message fails to meet the human need in all other important spiritual requirements. These messages give no assurance of salvation, guarantee no true peace or joy for this life, nor offer any solid hope for eternity.


However, as the Christian preacher faithfully expounds the Word of God, all these and hosts of other important questions will be answered in the minds of his hearers and a radiant faith imparted, assuring joy and full spiritual satisfaction in this life and radiant expectancy for the life to come.


But the faithful preaching of the Word of God will not only meet the individual hearers need. It will meet the need of the group, or the nation or the nations of the earth in their dealings with one another as well. The desperate confusion rampant in a distraught world today is due to the rejection of the Word of God by great segments of the worlds population. A simple return to faith and obedience in the Word of God and its faithful proclamation from every Christian pulpit would do more to bring about rest and stability to a bewildered and war-torn world than all our panicky plans, the frantic deliberations of men, and the feverish build-up of armaments. The Word of God is the sure panacea for our national and international sickness.


Expository Preaching Produces Mature Well-Taught Christians.


It fills our churches with truly regenerated and Spirit-filled men and women, aggressive in the work of God, and joyous in Christian fellowship. In contrast, non-Biblical preaching results in the wholesale admission of unregenerate men and women into church membership. This sad condition is inevitable where the Bible plan of salvation is not clearly set forth nor clear Scriptural truth presented on what the Christian life is and how it is to be lived. The writer distinctly remembers the lament of the aged and godly president of a large seminary, where he was a student in the early 1930s, that our churches are rapidly being filled with unregenerate members.

Such a condition can mean only one thing. The church becomes largely a lecture hall for discourses on morality and character building, instead of a meeting place for the public declaration of the divine way of salvation and deliverance from sin. It partakes more of the character of a social club than an assembly of saints for fellowship in the Spirit. It assumes the character of an agency for promoting the selfish interests of its members rather than a missionary vehicle for carrying the gospel to the uttermost part of the earth.


Having no clear understanding or experience of Gods redemptive grace, the non-Bible preaching church cannot be expected to carry the gospel to the heathen. People must first experience the benefits of the gospel themselves before they are willing to carry it to others.


However, there are numerous churches today that preach a clear message of personal salvation from the penalty of sin through faith in the atoning work of Christ and consist of truly regenerated members, but suffer great weakness because of lack of instruction in the Word. The result is the believers are stunted in growth and experience. They have experienced the power of deliverance from the penalty of sin, but know practically nothing of deliverance from the power of sin and the Spirit-filled life of victory and full blessing.


Over against this condition of weakness, Biblical preaching creates stalwart Christian character and produces strong spiritual churches aggressively evangelistic and world-wide in missionary outlook and outreach. It fortifies people with the truth of God and the power of God to withstand temptation and the strain of modern life. It sets mens affections on things above and not on things of the world (Col 3:13), generates a love for God and man, and inspires a spirit of service and consecration that makes those who hear it and receive it eminently useful to their day and generation.


In the light of the tremendous present-day need for Bible preaching and in consideration of the widespread evils which prevail because of a lack of such preaching, together with the vast benefits which accrue both to preacher and hearers alike from a Bible-centered ministry, it is the purpose of this treatise to encourage every preacher to give himself more completely to this glorious work.

Every minister can be a Bible preacher if he will study to show himself approved unto God a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). Why should he not be such a preacher? It is the preaching that God has bidden him preach. It is the preaching which draws down heavens approval and counts for the most in time and eternity. Preaching the Bible brings the highest joy to the preacher, and does the most good for the hearers.1 Brethren, let us preach the Word!


Definition of the Expository Method


If one accepts the plain injunctions of the Bible in general and the exhortation of the Apostle Paul to Timothy to preach the Word (2 Tim 4:2) in particular, it is quite obvious that the principal task of the preacher is to proclaim the truth set forth in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. To define the main business of the minister in these terms, as R. Ames Montgomery correctly does, however, is scarcely an assumption, as he maintains,2 but in the light of scriptural testimony, a fact. Moreover, the fact suggests the basic reason of the importance of expository preaching.


But the importance of the expository method is not only suggested by the fact that it fits into the main business of the preacher. It also meets the supreme need of the hearer. No matter how scientifically enlightened or culturally progressive men may become, there will never be a diminution of their need for the Word of God. Especially this will not be the case in a time such as ours when the Bible is becoming increasingly unknown and misunderstood and the day of Bible knowledge as our fathers understood it is quite gone, a loss that may entail deeper consequences in national life and outlook than any of us yet comprehend.3


Great contrariety of opinion and considerable confusion exist concerning the question precisely what expository preaching is. Many homileticians define it principally on the basis of the length of the passage or portion of Scripture expounded, whether a verse or a number of verses, or a larger unit involving chapters or books. For example, Andrew Blackwood stipulates a Bible passage longer than two or three consecutive verses.4 F. B. Meyer specifies the consecutive treatment of some book or extended portion of Scripture.5


However if a clear and unconfused definition is to be arrived at, the valid criterion, it would seem, is not the length of the portion treated, whether a single verse or a larger unit, but the manner of treatment. No matter what the length of the portion explained may be, if it is handled in such a way that its real and essential meaning as it existed in the mind of the particular Biblical writer and in the light of the over-all context of Scripture is made plain and applied to the present-day needs of the hearers, it may properly be said to be expository preaching.


Expository Preaching Is First and Foremost Biblical Preaching.


It is emphatically not preaching about the Bible, but preaching the Bible. What saith the Lord is the alpha and the omega of expository preaching. It begins in the Bible and ends in the Bible and all that intervenes springs from the Bible. In other words, expository preaching is Bible-centered preaching. Whatever extra-Biblical material is employedillustrations from human experience, history, archeology, philosophy, art or sciencemust be purely subsidiary and strictly fitted into one single aimto elucidate the portion of Scripture chosen, whatever its length, and enforce its claims upon the hearers.


It is quite obvious that the popular springboard sermon which employs a Bible passage as a starting point for a discourse on morality or sociology, or some other worthy but not strictly Biblical subject, is not expository. The exceedingly common homiletical practice of our day of using the Bible as a mere textual anthology from which to choose seedling thoughts for sermons on current events or social betterment is a far cry from expository preaching and is an indication of the spiritual superficiality of our age.


It is a tragedy of unparalleled proportions that many present-day ministers preach as if the Bible were little more than a collection of isolated religious aphorisms or anecdotes, unconnected to one another and to the general context out of which they are taken, or to the Bible as a whole.


Expository Preaching Is Biblically Instructive Preaching.


As Montgomery says, the expository preacher purposes above everything else to make clear the teaching and content of the Bible.6 The average church member today, even in many churches that are otherwise soundly evangelistic and missionary, is a Biblical illiterate because of a lack of stimulating Bible instruction from the pulpit. People in the pew will not study the Bible if preachers in the pulpit do not study it and preach it. A love for the Word in the pulpit is bound to produce a love for the Word in the pew.


The Bible expositor must not only be a student of the Word, he must be a teacher as well. He must feed Christs sheep (John 21:17). He must be like a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old (Matt 13:52). In a special sense the pastor, who is located indefinitely in one place, must be a teacher. And he gave some to be apostles, and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11).


It is clear that the gift of pastoring and that of teaching are closely associated. The pastor must be a teacher. If he is to be a faithful shepherd he must be a Bible expositor because his business is to teach the Scriptures. Yet the Bible expositor must be more than a teacher. He must be a preacher as well, for true expository preaching, although it consists to a large extent of teaching, goes beyond mere impartation of an intellectual comprehension of truth. In addition it embraces appeal to the emotions and the will.


The portion of Scripture to be expounded must be that on which the preacher has concentrated head and heart, brain and brawn, over which he has thought and wept and prayed, until it has yielded up its inner secret, and the spirit of it has passed into his spirit.7 With this essential preparation real expository preaching takes place, when the preacher with unction and power, clearly explains the meaning of the passage of Scripture dealt with and effectually presses its truths upon the needs of his audience. Then, and not till then, does Bible teaching become expository preaching.


Expository preaching has been brought into disrepute in some quarters because it has occasionally been misrepresented. Biblical teaching, purely analytical and abstract, divorced from spiritual power and passion and unaddressed to human need, has paraded as Biblical preaching. But teaching, no matter how Biblical in content, accurate in interpretation, or coordinated in its presentation is not expository preaching, if it does not bring the Word of God down to the plane where men live and with the unction and the power of the Holy Spirit challenge them with its claims.


Stricty intellectual Bible teaching may possibly have a place on the lecture platform, in the seminary classroom or in the Bible conference or where the need exists mainly for instruction in the letter, but even under these circumstances it is questionable whether spiritual fervor or concern for the needs of the hearers, which are vital elements of preaching, may be neglected. The very nature of Biblical truth and the constant necessity for its cleansing ministry in the human soul make the purely intellectual approach to it extremely hazardous.


The difference, therefore, between Bible teaching and expository preaching is one of degree, rather than of kind. In Bible teaching there is a more pronounced appeal to the intellect with a larger degree of the didactic or instructional element and less appeal to the emotional and volitional faculties. In Bible preaching, however, there is a greater appeal to the emotions and the will than is proper in pure instruction. But both impart a knowledge of the Bible itself, the former only more so than the latter. Moreover, both are inspirational and challenging to human conduct and action, the latter only more so than the former.


Proper understanding of what true expository preaching is would save many a church from a ministry that is ostensibly Biblical and expositional, but spiritually barren, and spare many a Bible conference from what might be called intellectual curiosity in the letter of Scripture without vital concern for the spirit. A correct conception of what Biblical teaching is, moreover, would keep many a seminary from becoming a spiritual cemetery, where zeal and power are buried in the grave of theory and higher criticism, or even spiritless orthodoxy.


Expository Preaching Is Preaching That Expounds the Scriptures As a Coherent and Coordinated Body of Revealed Truth.


The true expositor not only believes that the Bible is a unified whole with definite plan and purpose, but bends every effort to understand that over-all plan and purpose and to relate whatever portion of the Scripture he may be expounding, whether a single verse or larger unit, to the whole.


While the expository method is not dependent upon the length of the passage expounded, as has been noted, the best work in this sphere is ordinarily done in systematic verse by verse, paragraph by paragraph, book by book exposition. When you preach from the Bible, as Andrew W. Blackwood says, deal with it as it is written, book by book, and as a rule paragraph by paragraph.8 This wise counsel avoids conducting a sort of Cooks tour through the Holy Scriptures.9

But even a Cooks tour becomes marvelously illuminating and spiritually edifying when it is conducted by a competent guide who not only has a close-up and detailed knowledge of Scriptural truths but who is also acquainted with a birds eye view of Gods revealed ways with man and is able to fit the more or less isolated truths of Scripture into the larger context of a coherent system of interpretation.

It is the necessity of an adequate system of interpretation, which will open up the Old and New Testament as a coordinated whole, that undoubtedly constitutes the chief barrier against expository preaching in the case of many ministers. Unless a pastor is taught such a system in seminary, which is extremely unlikely in the average theological institution today, he either remains unequipped for expository work as a result of this deficiency, or by sheer labor and searching of his own, fits himself for this important pastoral task.


While there have been great expositors of Holy Writ who have not been premillennialists, the premillennial system of interpretation, in the writers opinion, gives impetus to exposition and offers the key that unlocks the meaning of the Bible, especially the extensive and important prophetic portions. This system solves the most difficulties, sets in bolder relief the marvelous coherency of plan and purpose of the Sacred Oracles, most glorifies the Word of God, and acts as the greatest incentive for systematic expository work.


Moreover, it is the writers firm conviction that a thoroughly open-minded and unbiased study of the premillennial plan of interpretation by ministers at large with the observance of sound Biblical dispensational distinctions would do more than anything else to bring about a revival of expository preaching in the churches.

Wholesale spiritualizing of Old Testament prophecies to Israel by their application to the New Testament church and vain attempts to identify things that obviously differ under non-premillennial interpretations have involved so many difficulties and seeming discrepancies that many honest minds have given up any systematic exposition of the Bible altogether. A workable system of interpretation would effect wonders in stimulating interest and genuine effort in expository preaching.

Dallas, Texas

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