In this final post from Brother Steven J. Cole’s responses to questions about expository preaching, we look at questions which cover some big picture questions. These cover why expository preaching is better than topical preaching, challenges to stay committed, ways to improve one’s preaching, and challenging genres.
Why do you think expository preaching is better than topical preaching?
By topical preaching, we’re talking about sermons that draw a point from one verse and then jump to another point from a different verse, etc., to say what the preacher wants to say, often tying them together with alliteration. But the points are often taken out of context and are not controlled by what Scripture says. They do not explain a portion of Scripture in its context.
There is a valid form of expository topical preaching, where the preacher takes a biblical topic, such as redemption, justification, sanctification, etc., and explains and applies what the Bible says about that subject. In this type of sermon, the content is controlled by what the Bible says, not by the preacher’s ideas imposed on the Bible.
The normal expository sermon explains and applies a section of Scripture in its context in line with the original intent of the Spirit-inspired author. The advantage is that this communicates God’s message for His people as He gave it to us in His Word. His Spirit speaks through the preacher to convey who God is, how He works, and how He wants us to live. One advantage of this is that if there is a difficult truth that confronts you and your congregation, you can say, “I didn’t make this up; I’m just conveying what God inspired the author of Scripture to say. It’s in the text! It steps on my toes just as much as it does on your toes.”
Also, expository preaching keeps us from riding theological hobby horses. It gives a balance to our preaching by covering “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). It forces us to cover the difficult portions of Scripture as well as the sections that are everyone’s favourite. Some preachers dodge difficult or controversial topics like election, hell, homosexuality, abortion, and the roles of men and women. But the Bible addresses all these topics for our edification. We do not help our people to grow in godliness if we avoid these matters.
What challenges one must overcome to stay committed to expository preaching?
The main challenge is the time pressures in ministry and the time-consuming hard work and discipline of preparing expository sermons. You have to arrange your schedule so that preparing sermons is the main priority in your week. I always took off Mondays and spent them with my family. On Tuesdays, we had staff meetings which usually lasted until 10 or so. Then I’d spend an hour or so dealing with administrative issues, replying to emails or voicemails, and scheduling appointments for later in the week. I wouldn’t make any appointments on Tuesdays or Wednesdays unless it was a severe crisis (a suicidal person, a person going in for serious surgery, the death of someone in the church, etc.). Most marital crises have been building for years, so they can wait until Thursday or Friday to meet with me. I’d tell people, “I want to give you my full and best attention. But when I’ve got the sermon hanging over me, I’m going to be distracted by that demand. So can we meet later in the week, after I’m out from under the pressure of sermon prep?” Almost always people understood and were fine with this.
A ton of other distractions can crowd into your schedule. Too many meetings with people can fill up your week and not leave adequate time for sermon prep. Emails and reading stuff online can chew up a lot of time. I like to reply to emails as soon as I read them so that they don’t get lost in my inbox, unless the reply requires some research. Then I’ll reply quickly and tell the person that I need to research the answer and then I’ll get back to them later. I’ve had numerous people tell me that they appreciate my quick reply to their emails. It’s important to let people know that you care about them and their questions, issue, or problem.
Don’t sacrifice your family on the altar of ministry. If you do, you aren’t qualified to be an elder (1 Tim. 3). Spend time with your children, especially when they’re younger. Play with them. Read to them. Take walks together. Have fun with your kids. Let your wife know that you’re married to her, not to the church. Take a family vacation every year if you can afford it. Spend your day off each week with your family. Don’t be tied up with ministry to the neglect of your family.
What are practical things we can do to improve in our preaching?
As I’ve mentioned, be disciplined to put in the necessary hours to do it well. Read theology to ground yourself in sound doctrine. Take a study leave each year for extra reading time (I used to take two weeks each year). Read and listen to others’ expository sermons. Read books on preaching by good preachers (Lloyd-Jones, Stott, Piper, Calvin). Work constantly at collecting and filing (so that you can easily retrieve them) good illustrations of biblical truth. Mark Dever goes over his sermon in detail with a group on Saturday night and then has a review of his message on Sunday evening. That would drive me crazy, but you might find it helpful. My wife is a good critic of my sermons. So listen to your wife! If she says that you lost her, ask her to explain and listen to her critique. If you have a trusted elder or mature man of God in your church, you could ask him for feedback. Don’t be defensive when you get criticized. Not all criticism is valid. Harry Ironside used to say, “When you throw a rock at a pack of dogs, the one who got hit is the one who yelps!” So some critics are feeling convicted by your sermon and don’t want to face their sin. But others may have helpful insights if you will listen.
Which genre is the most challenging for you to preach from?
Prophecy or eschatological texts. I have never preached through Revelation verse by verse because I do not understand the details of it. (I’m in good company in that Calvin didn’t preach through Revelation!) I wouldn’t know how to preach Ezekiel 40-48. I used to be a premillennial dispensationalist, because that’s what I was taught in seminary and was the only view I ever heard. Over the years, I’ve moved out of that camp and am now more of a historic premillennial (post-trib rapture). I can’t accept the amillennial interpretation of Revelation 20. When I preached through 1 & 2 Thessalonians, I gave one message with an overview of the different approaches to prophecy and where I’m at and why. I always emphasize that the point of biblical prophecy is not for us to draw end-times charts or speculate about the date for the Lord’s return. Rather, it is to cause us to examine our lives and be ready for His return by living in holiness.
I also shied away from detailed exposition of the OT law (sections of Exodus, Leviticus, etc.). How the OT law applies to NT believers is a very difficult topic! I gave a single message on the tabernacle when I preached on the life of Moses, but I find that sermons that go into detail about the symbolism of every aspect of the tabernacle (or temple) are much too speculative and subjective in interpretation. The genealogies in 1 Chronicles 1-9 would be difficult to preach. I did preach separate messages on the genealogies in Ezra 2 & Nehemiah 7.
This article is based on the Q&A session with Brother Steve J. Cole in a meeting held in July 2021 entitled ‘Expository Preaching.’
Please click here to read Part 1 of the Q&A session article on “Expository Preaching” by Bro. Steven J. Cole.
Please click here to read Part 2 of the Q&A session article on “Expository Preaching” by Bro. Steven J. Cole.
Please click here to read Part 3 of the Q&A session article on “Expository Preaching” by Bro. Steven J. Cole.