Preaching through a book of the bible means that no verse is left uncovered. There are no divisive doctrines that are skipped, in order to avoid the all-too-often expressed fear of offending seekers. Because there is complete solace in the truth that God alone transforms lives and converts sinners we (the church) can rest assured that while we are accountable for preaching the truth we are not responsible for bringing others to salvation. Salvation belongs to God.
To preach expositionally and to place God's Word central in the church should be the first priority in any church. Mark Dever lists expository preaching as the first of 9 marks of a Healthy Church.
I want to say that I first heard the phrase, expository preaching, probably five or six years ago when we attended a different church than where we are now, and I required a layman's definition then....and then again....and one more time, please.
So often it was defined as, "the way a pastor preaches when they preach through the Word" or "when a pastor preaches verse by verse". While these definitions are not false, they do not bear the complete truth of what I have come to understand as expository teaching or preaching.
Dever uses the comparison of topical preaching versus expository preaching and I think this gives a clearer view of both. Rather than muddle up his words, I'll just quote him directly (and I will probably do this a few more times for good measure).
Topical preaching- "The topical sermon begins with a particular matter that the preacher wants to preach about. Having established the topic, the preacher then assembles various texts from various parts of the Bible and combines them with illustrative stories and anecdotes....The topical sermon is not built around one text of Scripture but around this one chosen theme or idea."
Expositional preaching-"Preaching that takes for the point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture. That's it. The preacher opens the Word and unfolds it for the people of God. Expositional preaching is preaching in service to the Word.It presumes a belief in the authority of Scripture--that the Bible is actually God's Word; but it is something much more than that. A commitment to expositional preaching is a commitment to hear God's Word--not just to affirm that it is god's Word but to actually submit yourself to it."
I found myself (5 years ago) saying, "Well, doesn't our preacher do that?" I mean, he was going through the book of Ephesians. Isn't that what was meant by preaching the Word or preaching verse by verse? The difference was that he had developed a topic before choosing what passage of scripture to support that topic.
Just because a sermon is topical doesn't mean that it cannot be expositional as well, but choosing the topic before choosing the Word would the make the sermon first and foremost...topical. Dever says, "the preacher knows what he wants to say and he is going into the Bible to see what he can find to say about it."
That part was the most confusing as we were in the process of leaving our old church and finding a new one. Certainly on any given Sunday and at any given church in our area, you would find a pastor who would use the bible in his sermon and sometimes even preach through the text, verse by verse. It was not until I actually heard expositionally preaching that I understood the complete difference.
Our current church, Grace Fellowship, spent 17 months in the Book of Romans. Our pastor preached verse by verse, sometimes covering only 2 or three verses per Sunday. Truly exposing the Word of God and never avoiding the difficult doctrines of grace that are almost always glazed over from the pulpit.
Certainly man would be hard pressed to find a topic to hold fast and firm to for 17 months if it were up him. Thankfully, God's Word does not ever come up short in the way of providing wisdom, clarity, conviction, and change.
So the good about expository preaching seems obvious, but why is topical preaching not the most biblical method for churches to adhere to? Because that method is a man-driven, culture-led, congregation-pleasing method. It feeds the hunger for what either the people want to hear or what the pastor wants to say. Either way, you have sinful man trying to decipher what God wants preached. It just doesn't make sense.
Dever says, "A preacher should have his mind increasingly shaped by Scripture. He shouldn't just use Scripture as an excuse for what he already knows he wants to say....There's nothing new being added to their understanding....To charge someone with the spiritual oversight of a church who doesn't in practice show a commitment to hear and to teach God's Word is to hamper the growth of the church, in essence allowing it to grow only to the level of the pastor. The church will slowly be conformed to the pastor's mind rather than to God's mind. And what we want, what as Christians we crave, are God's words. We want to hear and know in our souls what He has said.
Now, with that said I think there are appropriate times for topical preaching and I am certain that our pastors have chosen topics for relevancy on at least a couple of occasions, but I can attest that it is the exception and not the norm.
If pastors all over this country begin to preach in an expository way, will their members head for the doors? Will their fears of "offending" be founded by a mass exodus of church attenders?
Not all those sitting in the pews or standing in the lofts or swaying in aisles have be justified by faith. Not all of those included in the head count have been converted and made alive in Christ. Their membership is really just that. Membership. But is it true communion with Holy God? A life that has been forever changed by the Lord of heaven & earth reaching down and reviving a dead heart?
If not, then certainly, God's Word... the sword of the spirit, could cause extreme discomfort in heart of the unredeemed and therefore result in offense. The scripture that I memorized for last week's catechism was from Hebrews 4:12...
"For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart."
The church at Lacodicea could serve as a very accurate reflection of the church in America today. Wealthy.... therefore healthy. Large in number and in status, therefore whatever pragmatic method in place must be the right one. Jesus had a few things to say about that church:
"I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!
So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked....He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
Revelation 3:15-17 & 22