Below is a transcript of a interview done by Preaching Today Sermons with Dr. Brian Chapell, President of Covenant Theological Seminary, on the importance of Expository Preaching.
Preaching Today’s Questions will be highlighted in Blue. Dr. Chappel’s answers will follow
Preaching Today Sermons: How do you define expository preaching?
Bryan Chapell: Proponents of expository preaching would say this: An expositor is solemnly bound to say what God says. In an expository message we relate precisely what a text of Scripture says. A more technical explanation—an old one that I hold to—is that an expository message gets its main points and its sub-points directly from the text.
A textual message gets its main points from the text but its developmental components elsewhere. A topical message gets only its topic from the text and could be developed according to the nature of the topics rather than the text. An expository message, however, says what the text says and gets all its developmental features from the text as well.
Do you think the term “expository preaching” is perhaps applied too broadly?
I think it is, candidly. Often when people use the words “expository preaching,” they get only a theme from a text and then develop that theme out of their own thoughts or from various passages of Scripture. They may well explain a truth in Scripture but may not say precisely what a passage says according to the intent of the author. As a result, the sermon may reflect more the thought of the speaker than of the author.
It can be difficult to bind oneself to what a particular text says; yet that’s the way we believe we are most closely bringing forward the dynamics of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration to work in the listeners. In expository preaching, I’m saying what the Holy Spirit has said, explaining it so it makes sense to you; at the same time, I’m being clear what this text says, and you can see it developing even as I explain it to you.
What forms can an expository sermon take?
1. A sequential order–I simply take things in the order that they appear in the text. That can be fine.
2. A logical order. The expositor will find it hard at times to go in the direct order of the text. A particular text might have a theme that Paul begins, then a long parenthetical thought that might go two or three verses, and then Paul might pick up that theme again. If I’m going verse by verse, I may not actually be able to follow the thought. So I may need not only to do sequential development; I may need to add logical development, which identifies the major themes and presents them in a homiletical outline that may not exactly follow the exegetical outline.
For another example, some psalms are formed on the Hebrew alphabet, every verse representing a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. That order may get complicated for a listener today.
When I write and when the biblical writers write, typically we state our most important thoughts first and then develop them. But in an oral medium, we typically state our most important thoughts last because we know that position will give them the greatest impact. So sometimes to be true to the biblical writer, I may need to say the first thing last, because in an oral medium that’s where the greatest impact will be made. I may need to follow the truth of the text rather than just the pattern of the text.
What are some examples of logical orders?
In a “problem/solution” order, we identify a problem and show how that problem is demonstrated in the text; then we show the solution the text is offering. A variation is “need/plan,” in which having identified the need in my introduction, I spend the bulk of the message identifying the plan for dealing with that need. A problem/solution message deals a lot with the problem; a need/plan message deals a lot with the solution.
Another logical approach is sometimes called “comparative advantages” or “planned motivation.” I identify both a problem and a plan in the introduction. (For example, the problem is alienation from God; the plan is praying in a way that we understand his nearness in our lives.) But we already know the problem and we know the plan; we’re just not doing it. Therefore, the rest of the message presents motivations: “If we pray to God, we’ll see his activity in our lives. If we pray to God, we’ll see his power in our lives.”
In all these forms of logical presentation, we still deal with all of these ideas directly from the text, showing precisely where the ideas come out.
Is there any problem for the listener when we present the most logical order but move through the Scripture out of sequence?
People may feel we are hopping and skipping. Therefore, it’s the obligation of a preacher to indicate the reason he is extracting these particular ideas in this particular way. If the preacher does not explain the reason, then people have reason to think he’s not saying what the text says. I might, for example, deal with verse 1 and then say, “Now there are eight verses of parenthetical thought,” and go to verse 9. I need to make sure I’ve covered all the ideas and shown their logical connections.
To what extent is an expositor obligated to unpack all the elements of a passage–the verb tenses, shades of meaning, and so on?
He doesn’t have time to unpack all the ideas that are there. John Stott, I think, says one of the great agonies of every preacher is that he must dispense with 90 percent of what he knows about a passage before he actually preaches it. If you look at every tense and every verb and every definition, you’d never get past a single verse.
Identify what is important for the purpose of this sermon. What is the purpose for which you are preaching this message today? What’s the burden of the message? Once you’ve determined the truths in the text through exegesis and research, you have to say, “Which truths are most applicable to the persons here today?” I use application, as it were, as the means of determining what is most appropriate to reveal from the exegesis I have done of this text.
You refer to “The 3 A.M. Test” in your book Christ-Centered Preaching. What is The 3 A.M. Test and how do you apply it to an expository message?
If your spouse or roommate were to roll you out of bed at 3 A.M. and ask, “What is the sermon about this Sunday morning?” if you cannot answer in one crisp sentence, the sermon’s not ready to preach. You need an idea people can grasp. If the sermon’s idea is, “In the Babylonian incarceration of God’s people, they suffered for seventy years to determine what God’s plan was and never could determine it…” and you keep talking, that idea is not going to pass the 3 A.M. test. We need something like “God remains faithful to faithless people,” something that’s crisp.
Remember, we are speaking to listeners, not to readers. In an oral medium I need to speak to people in a way they can readily hear what my main ideas are. Presenting crisp ideas will help.
We also need to think, What will make people have to listen to what I am saying? I encourage preachers to include in the introduction the “fallen-condition focus.” Namely, what aspect of this fallen world requires us to hear what this Scripture is addressing today? I’m going to ask of a text not only, “What’s the main idea?” but “Why was it written?” and “How are we like the people to whom it was written?” By asking, “How are we like them?” I begin to think of my people: What are they struggling with? What do they have to confront? I want to state that in crisp and particular ways to make them think, I’ve got to listen to this; this really is something that I’m struggling with, and I want to know what the Word of God has to say about it.
You mentioned the introduction. Is the introduction different for an expository sermon?
Yes and no. All good sermon introductions arouse interest and identify the subject of the message. But an expository message goes one step further—it links the reason for the message to the truths of the text. I’m bonding myself to the reasons the text was written as well as the truths that are written in the text.
Preachers typically are great at identifying the subject of the message, but we’re not always as good at identifying the reason for the message. Why do people have to listen to this today? We add power and passion to our messages when right within the introduction we say, “Folks, this is why you’ve got to listen. This is something you’re struggling with, and the Bible speaks to it.” People sit in the pew saying, “You don’t have to convince me that it’s hard to raise teenagers today. I know that. Tell me how I’m going to deal with my family. What does the Word of God say about the situation that I’m facing?” So when in the beginning the preacher says, “Folks, I know your situations, here’s what you’re struggling with, and here’s why we’re going to cover this text,” then people want to hear what that text has to say.
We have to be much more purposeful in our application to daily life in expository preaching. Is that true?
It is true, and it’s one of the dangers of expository preaching. The reason expository preaching gets such a bad knock is that people think of expository preaching as a dry recitation of facts, verb tenses and the definition of terms. Teaching is vitally important, but we have to identify the purpose for the teaching if we are to do what preaching is really about.
Preaching hooks two basic questions together: “What is true?” and “What do I do about it?” Sometimes expositors answer “What is true?” but never get around to saying what to do. We have to tell people, “You don’t really know these truths until you know how to apply them to your daily lives.” That’s why I say application is part of exposition.
A generation or two ago, application was typically done in the conclusion. I think that can be done effectively today still, but most of the time, if we wait twenty minutes to tell people why this message is relevant, we’ve lost the majority. The best application begins in the introduction: “Folks, this is a problem, a situation, a need, a difficulty in your lives, and I am going to show you how the Word of God applies to it.” Then as I move through the text, I am purpose-driven. I say, “Here’s why we’re going to identify the reasons that God is in charge of tomorrow, because you’re dealing with these things as the people of God.”
I usually think of main points as having to include:
–explanation, explaining what the Word of God is about
–illustration, demonstrating how that truth can be seen in everyday life
–application, saying how that truth applies to daily life.
So I try to make sure there is concrete application within every main point.
Does expository preaching mean you will preach book by book through the Bible?
Not necessarily, but it is perhaps the best way that expository preaching unfolds. Going through a book, you deal with every passage in context, and it’s obvious to everyone that you are doing so. You’re flowing through the text, developing the author’s thought.
There are great advantages to preachers going through a book. One, you do not have to do new research every week on what this particular book is about. Two, you’re able to see how portions of a book connect, how ideas unfold from chapter to chapter. Three, you train the people of God to see how a book develops and unfolds. They’re better able to see how the Bible hangs together.
Some would say, “The attention span of a congregation is shorter than it used to be, and it’s hard to hold their attention through a lengthy book.”
Correct. It is hard to hold people’s attention through a lengthy book, and I typically would not encourage a preacher to extend a preaching series through a book beyond a quarter of the year. I know people really disagree with that, but let me tell you my reasons. If somebody new comes to the church and we are in our thirty-second week of covering Genesis, he or she may think, I missed so much of this, I am never going to catch up with everybody else. Also, our culture is transient. If people are in a church three to five years on average, I may want them to have a broader scope of Scripture’s instruction.
I don’t feel strongly about these issues. We must look at our people–what they need, what their experiences are, what their Bible background is–and make prudential pastoral decisions. But I don’t think we have to be a Lloyd-Jones, preaching fourteen years through the Book of Romans, to be great expositors. I think we can preach shorter series through books and still be true to our ethic of having God’s people see how God’s Word unfolds.
How would you explain the Holy Spirit’s role in expository preaching?
The same Spirit who gave the Word is the same Spirit operating in people to allow them to receive the Word. Apart from the Holy Spirit, we will really understand nothing. Our hearts are not able to comprehend and apply what the Word of God says unless the same Spirit who gave the Word is opening our hearts to receive it. The God that is the same yesterday, today, and forever is the one who is operating to allow us to understand and apply that Word to our lives. We don’t have to think of the Bible as an ancient, irrelevant book, because it is as fresh and new and alive and real as the Holy Spirit in us.
Bryan Chapell is president of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, author of “Christ-Centered Preaching,” and a contributing editor to Preaching Today audio tapes.