What Makes Expositional Preaching Expositional?

by Andrew Hebert April 24, 2015

As a Texan, I’m particular about my BBQ. The culinary perversions that are peddled in places like North Carolina and Kansas City are interesting variations of grilled meat that in some cases have a fair taste, but they don’t count as BBQ. They might parade around under the name of BBQ, but for those who have experience real BBQ in Texas, we know that the other varieties are imposters.

All kidding aside, the only way you can tell the authentic from the fake is if you have experienced the authentic. In the world of preaching, much preaching masquerades as “expositional” preaching that isn’t actually expositional. There is much preaching about the Bible, but is that the only benchmark for a sermon to be considered expositional? Karl Barth once said, “Preaching must be the exposition of Holy Scripture. I have not to talk about Scripture but from it. I have not to say something, but merely repeat something.”

Here are three questions that you should ask about your sermon to know if you are merely preaching about the Bible or actually preaching from it.

1. Did I discover the author’s intent in the text?

Expositional preachers understand that the author gives meaning to the text. This means that asking, “What does this text mean to you?” simply will not do. Robert Stein says that “the meaning of a text is what the author consciously intended to say by his text.” The alternative to asking about authorial intent is to begin your sermon preparation with a homiletical idea and then search to find a verse or passage that affirms the point you’ve already settled on.

A friend of mine recently wanted to bounce an idea off of me for a sermon series. He had a direction he wanted to go and specific points he wanted to make. The only thing he lacked was a text. He began to search desperately for a passage to back up his idea. When someone approaches Scripture this way, they tend to misread the text. A better alternative is to ask, “What did the author intend when he wrote this text?” When you approach the text honestly in this manner, you will find that some of the ideas you wanted the text to say are not actually contained in the text itself.

If you preach a text without communicating the original intent of the author, you may have preached about the Bible, but your sermon is not yet an expositional sermon.

2. Was every point I made found in the text?

One way of determining whether or not your sermon is expositional is if every point you made in the sermon can actually be found in the text itself. Another way of saying this is “Was every point I made a point the text makes?” Expositional preachers restrict the points they make to points the text makes.

There might be true things you can say about the text but they may not be what the author is trying to say. For instance, if you are preaching a sermon on reconciliation from Philemon, you may notice that Paul appeals to Philemon on Onesimus’ behalf. You might make a point in your sermon about the importance of not being a demanding person. While it is important not to be a demanding person and while it is true that Paul was not a demanding person, it is at most an implication of the text and not a specific teaching of the text.

Similarly, there might be a good point you are making that isn’t in the text at all. Preaching about the power, protection, and perseverance of faith from Ephesians 2:8 may make for a good “sermon” but does not honor the point Paul is making. Expositional preaching requires that you restrict the ideas you communicate in your sermon to the ideas found in the text of Scripture you are preaching.

3. Did I explain every point the text made?

A good expositional sermon accounts for every portion of the text that is preached. If the text makes three points and your sermon only covers two, you haven’t preached an expositional sermon. The job of the expositor is to explain the entire text to the audience, even the parts that are difficult to understand or culturally unpalatable. As John MacArthur has stated, if every word of the Bible is inspired, then every word of the Bible must be preached.

It is tempting to skip portions of the text that do not make sense. For instance, in a sermon on 1 Peter 3:13-22, it would be easy to focus on Christ’s faithfulness in suffering as a motivation for our faithfulness in suffering, without also dealing with the “spirits in prison” portion of the passage. Though one of the most confusing passages in the New Testament, a sermon that skips over that section of the text cannot be considered an expositional sermon.