According to some recent surveys, the experience of sitting through the average expository sermon is tantamount to being invited to a yawning contest. Many church-goers view expository preachers as odd fellows who stand before a crowd of people and dryly recite abstract references from academic commentaries while the people are left sleeping with their eyes open. The most genuine prayer uttered in such churches is a silent plea for the sermon to cease.
Of course, any criticism of such bland preaching in the church usually finds the critics being quickly ushered to 2 Timothy 4:3, in the hopes that they might come to their senses and discover that their negative analysis is motivated by an unconscious desire to have their ears tickled. In other words, the listeners are told that if they are under-impressed with the sermon then something must be wrong with them.
But is that really true?
Is it wrong for our people to desire preaching that is engaging, powerful, and life-giving? Do their words of criticism necessarily reveal worldly longings?
In truth, critiques like these can be very helpful in cutting through confusion about the true nature of expository preaching. Far from being boring, expository preaching should be the most soul-stirring preaching in the world.
With that in mind, here are five marks that ought to characterize every expository sermon:
1. Expository preaching should be powerful.
“My message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4).
No preacher wants to be boring. Yet, in practice many seem to think that a mere discussion about the text—even if it is tedious, dull, choppy, or meandering—should be evidence enough to call what they do “expository preaching.” They remind us that even Paul did not use techniques of worldly Hellenistic rhetoric when he preached. Instead he relied solely on the working of the Spirit’s power through the proclamation of God’s truth. That is undeniably correct. There is no innate power in any homiletic process unless it is first and foremost rooted in Scripture. As Paul understood, the preacher’s confidence must rest in the power of God, not in the force of his own rhetorical skill.
Yet, the apostle’s preaching was far from lifeless or lackluster. It was bold (Eph. 6:19–20), convincing (Acts 19:8; 26:28; 28:23), heart-felt (Acts 20:31; Rom. 9:2; 2 Cor. 2:4), and Christ-centered (Col. 1:28–29). Because he was a herald of the truth, the fervency of Paul’s preaching reflected the potency of the message. Ours should too.
2. Expository preaching should be persuasive.
“Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:11).
The preacher is more than just an explainer; he is also a persuader. Having rightly interpreted the text, biblical exposition must also confront the will. The glories of exegeting the Scriptures can never be disconnected from the necessity of urging the church to believe them.
The presupposition of the pastor must always be that he has a people before him who are in dire need of being persuaded. No man of God should ever believe that his congregation has arrived or that they already are who they must become. Sin and temptation are alive and well in every congregation.
Therefore the mandate behind every sermon requires the one delivering the message to persuade those who hear it to believe the truth. The preacher’s message must address both the mind and the will. Until the expositor is convinced that his aim in preaching is to sway souls and inform hearts his zeal will lie dormant and his congregation will remain unmoved.
3. Expository preaching should be purposeful.
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (1John 2:1).
If would-be expositors are ever to escape the reputation of being dull, their sermons must have clear purpose. It is not uncommon for young pastors to confess that, after all of their research is done and their sermon is organized, in the urgency of an approaching Sunday morning they somehow forgot to ponder the purpose for their preaching.
But before he enters the pulpit, every preacher ought to ask himself: “Why is this message vital for my listeners to hear?” He must understand why his people need to know what he is about to say. Passion flows from a heart consumed with purpose.
In general, sermons are preached to change lives, re-calibrate thinking, and convince the congregation that what God has said is what must be believed. However, the specific purpose of any single sermon can only be found through the study of that passage of Scripture. In the end, it is not enough that what the preacher says is factually true: he must also determine to drive that truth deep into the hearts of his people.
4. Expository preaching should be practical.
“Attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you” (1 Thess. 4:11).
Sometimes sermons are dull and out-of-touch because the aspiring preacher has stripped the message of all of its practical implications. Yet, every expository sermon should help people see how the truth of Scripture affects their lives.
Practical preaching happens when biblical truth is delivered to its hearers in such a way that they begin to contemplate how to apply God’s Word to their own lives even without being told to do so. Practical preaching presupposes that the expositor is studying his subject not only with a desire to understand his text but also with an eye towards capturing his congregation’s attention. Moreover, explaining the Bible in a practical way implies that even lofty theological issues have relevance to the way one thinks and acts in everyday life.
5. Expository preaching should be personal.
“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20).
When an “expository” sermon seems uninteresting, many times it is because the preacher has failed to personalize the message to himself. Though the preacher may speak forth wondrous truths and believe the veracity and infallibility of each word, much will be lost if the man and the message have never embraced. Yes, the verbs were parsed and the outline was alliterated, but the preacher never preached the sermon to himself.
Unless a man has taken the time to reflect on the meaning of the message in his own life, his preaching will seem unmoving and disengaging. That is not to say that each sermon reveals a personal story or insight from the pastor’s life. The use of personal anecdotes must be used sparingly if they are used at all. Yet, even though the sermon is never to be about the preacher on a personal level, it must always be a personal matter to him before it can ever be an effectual matter to others. A lack of personal application, meditation, and evaluation communicates louder than words; but the man who has personally pondered the truth he is about to proclaim will be able to grip the hearts of even the most critical of listeners. When he speaks they will sense that his own heart has been gripped by the truth he proclaims.
Though it is vital that the Bible be explained accurately it must also be proclaimed passionately. Lifeless sermons have no place coming from the living Word of the living God. Genuine expository preaching is powerful, persuasive, purposeful, practical, and personal. Conversely, preaching that is boring, tedious, or dull is not truly expository—no matter what label is placed on it.
A “boring expositor” should be an oxymoron in the church. The genuine exposition of Scripture inevitably lights people’s hearts on fire (Jer. 23:29).
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Tom Patton is the pastor of Pastoral Care at Grace Community Church. He is married to Lori, his bride of 16 years, and has three wonderful sons that keep them very busy.