There are many reasons to applaud expository preaching. But one reason speaks the loudest to me: The person of God is more important than the personality of the preacher. We are living in the age of sensationalism. There are simply too many competing voices and Christian teachers feel the need to be relevant, creative, catchy and interesting. This is because what attracts us is how eloquently and creatively a certain preacher presents his message. Little is said about the content of his message or its fidelity to biblical truth. I experienced this effect in much of the reaction I got after my review of a sermon series preached at Mavuno Church, last year. Those who stood to speak in defense of the message mainly appealed to the personality of the preacher rather than the Biblical text.
Some of the common defenses included:
“That’s just how this pastor likes preaching,”
“That’s his approach, every Pastor at the church has their unique style” or
“You may find his approach unorthodox, but trust me, it is quite effective.”
I found such justifications quite disheartening. This is especially because few people seemed to notice that a proposition is a proposition, whether it is presented as a song, a poem or a dissertation. The problem I will have with a pastor cursing on the pulpit is not to be confused with the problem I will have with that pastor if the curse-stained proposition didn’t even communicate a biblical message. The most important difference between expository preaching and “most” topical preaching is not the fact that the latter deals with a particular subject matter while the former focuses on the biblical text and its context. There is another much more significant difference. Good expository preaching elevates God on the pulpit, not man.
This means that even topical sermons can be expository, the difference is in the biblicity, the authority and the emphasis. Are we highlighting the preacher’s methodology over his message? Are we giving scientific studies an equal weight of authority as the Word of God?
MORE PASTOR, LESS GOD
I am speaking about teachers who have studied the word, understood and internalized it. But when they go to teach, they preach as if the message is coming from them. The biblical basis of their teaching is usually not mentioned, and the Gospel is assumed. When the Bible is quoted, it is presented as a supplementary source of information, not the fundamental basis of all other information. The Bible is only cited and mentioned as a resource for examples or as a way of emphasizing the point. Such teachers present the word of God in a way that seems to say “God is agreeing with me and supporting MY points”. They do not present themselves as the ones agreeing with God and submitting to God. They become an authority on the pulpit. EVERYTHING they say comes forth as “A Word from God.” The inevitable effect of this is the slow disappearance of God as an authoritative figure in the minds and hearts of the congregation.
The preacher increases as God decreases.
THE INFALLIBLE PASTOR
If this is indeed what happens majority of the time, and I am convinced that it is, then James is right in pointing out why we should be very wary of taking up the role of a biblical teacher:
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” [James 3:1-2]
Topical preaching that elevates the preacher is dangerous because, on that one occasion when the teacher presents a falsehood, it will not be easy for the congregation to tell the difference. Consider these notable differences between most expository preachers and most topical teachers:
- Most expository preachers will often arrive at points in the passage where they admit ignorance, acknowledge controversy and accept mystery. Topical preachers seldom do this.
- Topical preachers often seem to be experts on every aspect of the topic they are preaching. This is because, in their research, they tend to preach only what they know, they tend to highlight only their position in the controversy (leaving the congregation even unsuspecting of any differing points of view) and they seldom admit mystery. Because that would mean there is something they haven’t figured out about God or the subject in question. Ignorance not good for the image.
- An expository preacher will often admit imperfection in their understanding of the Word and in his personal application of that word.
- The topical preacher will seldom, if ever, admit imperfection in his understanding of the Word, but will usually admit imperfection in his personal application of it.
THUS SAYS THE LORD
You will agree with me that such tendencies and possibilities in preaching put the congregation in a very vulnerable place. It is my prayer that the church will reform its pulpits, the Gospel will be centralized in the message, and that the person of Jesus Christ will prevail above any personality on the pulpit. “Thus says the Lord” needs to be heard more on our pulpit, compared to “Thus says research studies,” “Thus says Spurgeon,” and surely not “Thus says I”.
I hope you will admit this one exception of “Thus says Spurgeon” 🙂 :
“Thus says the Lord,” This is the motto of our standard; the war-cry of our spiritual conflict;
The sword with which we hope yet to smite through the loins of the mighty who rise up against God’s truth.
“Thus says the Lord God.” This is the trowel, and this the hammer of God’s builders; this the trumpet of his watchmen
and the sword of his warriors. Woe to the man who comes in any other name!
If we, or an angel from heaven, shall preach unto you anything but a “Thus says the Lord,” no matter what our character or standing, give no heed to us, but cleave unto the truth as it is in Jesus.
To the law and to the testimony, if we speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in us.
That test which we demand to be exercised upon others we cheerfully consent to be exercised upon ourselves, praying that we may have grace to forsake our errors as we would have other men forsake theirs.
“Thus says the Lord,” is the only authority in God’s Church.
For the fame of His name,
PS: This is not a call to pit expository preaching against topical preaching as approaches to preaching. This is a call for us to be discerning listeners of the messages that we hear on our pulpits and favorite sermon podcasts.