By Michael Gowens
I believe that sustained expository preaching, under the blessings of God the Holy Spirit, builds strong, mature believers. Even though each message is a complete message in and of itself (that is, has a theme, an explanation of that theme, and an application of it to life), each also builds on the other to form the “big picture;” like one layer of bricks on top of another slowly rising into a wall. This kind of preaching corresponds to the basic goal of public worship. Public worship is intended to facilitate spiritual growth. I believe in expository preaching, therefore, because it tends, by its very nature, to motivate a growth not an entertainment mentality.
Today, most Christians, I fear, think of church attendance as an occasion for spiritual refueling; they have no concept of the priority God’s word gives to the idea of ‘growth.’ The church assembled is to them what a gas station is to the car, a place to replenish what is consumed during the week. No doubt, public worship does provide such spiritual renewal and refreshment. The biblical ideal for the Christian life is not a matter of spending and refilling, but a matter of maintaining what one has received and then adding to it progressively so that there is positive growth (I Cor. 15:2, I Thess. 4:1-10, Col. 1:9-10), etc,). The brick wall, not the petrol station, is the best metaphor.
The goal is actual growth and development from one Sunday to the next. Most people, however, have a survival mentality toward the Christian life. They see public worship as a refreshment stand in a marathon race: “If I can just survive until the next energy boost, then I can make it.” Again, I concede that there is rest for the weary as one sits under the proclamation of the gospel, but this temporary benefit should never obscure the greater, long-term goal of actual progress toward spiritual maturity.
Expository preaching, by its very nature of connecting one verse to the next, one chapter to the next, and one Sunday to the next, cultivates a mentality that thinks in terms of progression instead of equilibrium. In other words, the carryover of the epistle’s dominant theme and flow of thought from one Lord’s Day to the next enhances a dynamic, as opposed to a static, view of the Christian’s life. Beneath this method of preaching is the underlying philosophy that all of life is spiritual. The mere randomness of topical preaching in which a preacher takes a subject one week in one part of the Bible and an entirely different topic the next week from another portion of Scripture, tends to encourage a mindset in which it is easier to separate the sacred from the secular dimension of life. That is not to say that topical preaching is inappropriate. In fact, topical preaching is inherently theological and because few Christians have any idea of truth as a system (i.e. how it all connects together in a consistent, unified whole), I will periodically preach a topical message. God wrote the Bible, however, not as a systematic theology (i.e. there is no one chapter in which the subject of justification is addressed comprehensively). Sustained, verse-by verse preaching, therefore, is consistent with the way the Lord gave us His word. The goal of biblical exposition is not, however, the stringing together of a bunch of facts and trivia. The goal is to lead to doctrine: to truth about God, Christ, salvation, and life that is consistent with the rest of God’s revelation in Scripture.
Granted, in today’s “instant” society of sound bites and fifteen second infomercials, sustained expository preaching runs cross grain to popular preference. It takes too much effort to think connectedly, from one week to the next. Modern man thinks in fragments. He wants everything condensed to the bottom line and neatly packaged in a convenient, carry along, no-hassle container so that he can add water and serve at his next spiritual pit-stop. The sheer pace of our push-button lives has produced a culture in which virtually everything is tolerated except long sermons. There is a growing distaste today for the spiritual disciplines of study and solitude. Though our forefathers sang, ‘Take time to be holy: speak oft with thy God:’ Americans today don’t have time to be holy. We are, in the words of Neil Postman, “amusing ourselves to death:’ [Editor’s note – In the word amuse, the prefix “a” means “no.” The root “muse” means “to think.” Therefore, amuse means no think.]
What should a preacher do when society at large has adopted a consumer mentality toward everything in life, even the gospel? How should the church respond to the modern demand for a spiritual “quick-kick” when that church has historically served full-course family meals? Most people today are answering that question by saying, “If there is a demand. we must supply it. We must give the people what they want. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Interestingly, Paul addressed this very issue in 2 Timothy 4. When the time comes that people will not tolerate sound doctrine but will select teachers whose goal will be to tell them what they want to hear, Paul says to Timothy, continue preaching the word (vs. 2-3). Timothy needed to remember that his philosophy of ministry was determined by God, not market conditions. He had no right to edit or amend the message to the selective tastes of his audience. Timothy, said Paul, preach the word.
I believe in verse-by-verse preaching because it is the only way to fulfill the charge to preach the word. It forces a minister to preach a full gospel – to address issues that he would ordinarily bypass in favor of something less controversial or more personally preferable. By verse-by-verse biblical exposition I am not, however, talking about a running commentary or lecture on etymology and syntax. I’m talking about a view of preaching that sees it primarily as the act of explaining what the passage means and then applying its doctrinal principles to our lives today.
Personally, I am careful not to begin a sustained expository study that will last for several weeks or months unless I have had a consistent burden toward that particular portion of God’s word for some time. Although all of God’s word is profitable (2 Tim. 3:16), I try to follow the Holy Spirit’s leadership in selecting preaching portions, for He alone knows what is most needed by our congregation at any given moment. At times, even in the midst of a study, I will also interrupt an extended series to bring a random message as I believe the Lord directs.
Some have the mistaken notion, however, that the Spirit only guides on the spur of the moment. They doubt that He would lead a preacher to systematically tackle a book that may take several months to expound. Remember, however, that God is a God of order and system. He made the universe in an orderly, structured, and systematic way. Further, the Holy Spirit who authored the Bible, can certainly direct a man to preach it according to the format in which He wrote it.
May I make a suggestion? If you will bring your Bible with you to public worship, and follow the message visually as well as verbally, you will be amazed at how much you will learn, and retain, and grow. I believe worship traditions that are still built around the exposition of God’s word as the central fare are growing increasingly rare in our consumer-oriented society. In all candor, this is a matter of conscience for me before God. Others may not share my conviction, but in this day of famine for hearing the words of the Lord, I believe in the priority of the expository preaching of God’s word.