Expositional Imposters (Expanded)
Mark Dever rightly describes expositional preaching as “preaching that takes for the point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture.”
However, I have heard (and preached!) sermons that intend to be expositional, yet fall somewhat short. Below are a dozen pitfalls: five that don’t make the message of the passage the message of the sermon and thus abuse the text, five that fail to connect the text the congregation, and two that fail to recognise that preaching is ultimately God’s work.
None of these observations are original to me. Many I learned at Eden Baptist Church in Cambridge in the mid 90s. Others I’ve picked up along the way. Since writing a similar article a few years ago, I’ve included some suggestions people made for additions. I’m sure you can think of others.
IMPOSTERS THAT FAIL TO SEE THE TEXT
1) The “Unfounded Sermon”: The Text Is Misunderstood
Here the preacher says things that may be true, but in no sense come from a correct interpretation of the passage. He is careless either with the content of the text (e.g. the sermon on “production, prompting, and inspiration” from the NIV of 1 Thessalonians 1:3, though each word has no parallel in the Greek) or with the context (e.g. the sermon on David and Goliath, that asks ‘who is your Goliath, and what are the five smooth stones that you need to be prepared to use against him?’).
If a preacher is not deeply mining the truth of God’s Word to determine the message of his sermons, they are likely being driven by his own ideas not God’s.
2) The “Springboard Sermon”: The Point of the Text is Ignored
Closely related is the sermon where the preacher becomes intrigued by something that’s a secondary implication of the text, but is not the main point. Imagine a sermon on the wedding at Cana in John 2 that focuses primarily on the lawfulness of Christians drinking alcohol and said nothing about the display of the New Covenant glory of Christ through the sign of Jesus changing water into wine.
One of the great advantages of sequential expository preaching is that the preacher is forced to preach on topics he would rather avoid, and to give appropriate weight to topics he would tend to overemphasise. A preacher of “unfounded” or “springboard” sermons can unwittingly jettison both these advantages, and instead God’s agenda is silenced or sidelined.
3) The “Doctrinal Sermon”: The Richness of the Text Is Ignored
God has deliberately spoken to us “in many ways” (Heb 1:1). Too many sermons ignore the literary genre of a passage, and preach narrative, poetry, epistle, and apocalyptic all alike as a series of propositional statements. Whilst all sermons must convey propositional truths, they should not be reduced to them. The literary context of the passages should mean that a sermon from the Song of Songs sounds different than one from Ephesians 5. The passage may have the same central point, but it is conveyed in a different way. The diversity of Scripture is not to be flattened in preaching, but treasured and conveyed in a manner sensitive to the literary genre. Narrative should help us to empathize, poetry should heighten our emotional response, and apocalypse and prophecy should leave us awestruck.
4) The “Shortcut Sermon”: The Biblical Text Is Barely Mentioned
The opposite of the exegetical sermon, this kind of preaching shows no exegetical “working” at all. Though the Lord has set the agenda by his Word, only the preacher is fully aware of that fact. The congregation may well end up saying, “what a wonderful sermon” rather than “what a wonderful passage of Scripture.”
Let’s keep encouraging our congregation to hear God’s voice not just ours, by frequently pointing them back to the text: “look what God says in verse five” more than “listen carefully to what I’m saying now.”
5) The “Christ-less Sermon”: The Sermon Stops Short of the Savior
Jesus castigated the Pharisees: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). How sad that even we who have come to Jesus to have life would bring a whole congregation to study a passage of Scripture and yet refuse to bring them to see what that Scripture says about Christ, turning Old Testament texts into moralistic sermons, and even preaching Christ-less, gospel-less sermons from the Gospels themselves. Imagine the horror of a sermon on Gethsemane narrative that majored on lessons on how we could handle stress in our lives.
If God’s Word is like a vast wheel, the hub is Christ and the axle is the gospel. We have not faithfully preached any passage of Scripture until we have worked our way down the spokes to the hub, and communicated what the passage says about Christ and how it relates to the gospel.
IMPOSTERS THAT FAIL TO SEE THE CONGREGATION
6) The “Exegetical Sermon”: The Text Remains Unapplied
If the “unfounded sermon” totally misses the text, the “exegetical sermon” totally misses the congregation. Some preaching that claims to be expositional is rejected as boring and irrelevant . . . and rightly so! One could just as well be reading from an exegetical commentary. Everything that is said is true to the passage, but it’s not really preaching; it is merely a lecture. Much might be learned about Paul’s use of the genitive absolute, but little about the character of God or the nature of the human heart. There is no application to anything but the congregation’s minds. True expository preaching will surely first inform the mind, but also warm the heart and constrain the will.
A regular diet of exegetical preaching will make people feel that only topical preaching can be relevant, and will model private Bible reading that presumes we can read God’s Word faithfully and remain unchallenged and unchanged.
7) The “Irrelevant Sermon”: The Text Is Applied to a Different Congregation
Too much preaching promotes pride in the congregation by throwing bricks over the wall toward other people’s greenhouses. Either the point of the passage is applied only to non-believers, suggesting that the Word has nothing to say to the church, or it is applied to problems that are rarely seen in the congregation that is being preached to.
Thus the congregation becomes puffed up, and like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable ends up thankful that they are not like others. The response is not repentance and faith but, “If only Mrs. Brown heard this sermon!” or “the local Methodist church really ought to have this sermon preached to them!”
Such preaching will grow the congregation in self-righteousness, not godliness.
8) The “Private Sermon”: The Text Is Applied Only to the Preacher
It is easy for the preacher to think merely about how a passage applies to himself, and then to preach to the congregation as if the congregation is entirely in the same situation as the preacher. For me it is certainly easiest to see how a passage of Scripture applies to a white British man in his forties with a wife and six kids who works as a pastor of a small congregation in West London. That may be great for my quiet times, but not much use to my church, as nobody else fits that bill.
What are the implications of the text to the teenager and the single mother? The woman in her forties who’d love to be married and the immigrant? The unemployed and the visiting atheist or Muslim? The congregation as a whole and the bus driver or the office worker or the student or the stay at home mum?
The private sermon can lead to the congregation thinking that the Bible is only relevant to the “professional” Christian, and that the only valid use of their life would really be to work fulltime for a church or other Christian organization. It can cause the congregation to idolize their pastor and live their Christian lives vicariously through him. It robs the congregation of seeing how to apply the Word to every aspect of their own lives, and how to communicate it to those whose lives are quite different from theirs.
9) The “Hypocritical Sermon”: The Text Is Applied to All But the Preacher
The opposite error to the “private sermon” is the sermon where the preacher is seen as the one who teaches the Word, but does not model what it means to be under the Word.
There are times when a preacher needs to say “you” and not “we.” But a preacher who always says “you” and never “we” does not model how he is only an under-shepherd who is first and foremost one of the sheep who must himself hear his great shepherd’s voice, who must know him and follow him, trusting him for his eternal life and security.
A preacher who preaches like this may make the opposite error to the congregation who lives vicariously through their pastor: he will live vicariously through this congregation. He will assume that his discipleship is entirely about his ministry, and end up not walking as a disciple under God’s Word at all, but only as one who places others under a Word above which he sits aloof.
10) The “Misfit Sermon”: The Point of the Passage Is Misapplied to the Present Congregation
Sometimes the hermeneutical gap between the original passage and the present congregation may be misunderstood, so that the application to the original context is wrongly directly transferred to the present context. So, if the preacher does not have a correct biblical theology of worship, passages about the Old Testament temple might be wrongly applied to the New Testament church building, rather than being fulfilled in Christ and his people. Prosperity gospel preachers might claim the promises of physical blessings given to faithful Old Covenant Israel and flatly apply them to the New Covenant people of God.
IMPOSTERS THAT FAIL TO SEE THE LORD
Preaching classes often refer to the two horizons of preaching: the text and the congregation. But the Christian preacher must recognise that behind both stands the Lord who inspired the text and who is at work in the congregation.
11) The “Passionless Sermon”: The Point of the Passage Is Spoken, Not Preached
It would be possible to have a preacher who absolutely understood the passage, and spoke about its implications to the congregation present in apt and even profound ways. Yet the preacher delivers the sermon as if he were reading the telephone directory. There is no sense that, as the preacher delivers God’s Word, God himself is communicating with his people. When the preacher fails to recognize that it is God himself, through his Word, who is pleading, encouraging, rebuking, training, exhorting, moulding, and refining his people through the Spirit’s application of that Word, there will often be no passion, no reverence, no solemnity, no evident joy, no sense of sorrow tears—just words.
12) The “Powerless Sermon”: The Point of the Passage Is Preached Without Prayer
So much time is given to studying the passage and crafting the sermon, that little time is given to prayer either for correct understanding, or for appropriate application.
The preacher who works hard but prays little trusts much in himself and little in the Lord. It is perhaps one of the biggest temptations to fall into as an expositor, for the more discerning in the congregation will be able to spot false exegesis or inadequate application. But the difference that the prayers of the preacher made to the impact of the sermon will only be clear to the Lord and on the day when all things will be revealed. The horizons of the Lord and of eternity must ultimately be more important to the preacher; in fact, he should only really care about the horizons of the text and the congregation because the horizons of the Lord and of eternity are invisible, yet of infinite importance.
Expository preaching is so important for the health of the church because it allows the whole counsel of God to be applied to the whole church of God. May the Lord so equip preachers of his Word that his voice may be heard and obeyed.
Editor’s note: This article is a revised and expanded version of an article Mike wrote several years ago.