Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever
Definition of Expositional Preaching
The place to begin is God’s beginning with us–His speaking to us. That is how our own spiritual health has come, and that is how our churches’ health will come, too. Especially important for anyone in leadership in a church, but particularly for the pastor of the church, is a commitment to expositional preaching, one of the oldest methods of preaching. This is preaching whose object is to expound what is said in a particular passage of Scripture, carefully explaining its meaning and applying it to the congregation (see Nehemiah 8:8). There are, of course, many other types of preaching. Topical sermons, for example, gather up all of Scripture’s teaching on a single subject, like prayer or giving. Biographical preaching takes the life of someone in the Bible and portrays it as a display of God’s grace and as an example of hope and faithfulness. But expositional preaching is something else–an explanation and application of a particular portion of God’s Word.
Expositional Preaching Not Fundamentally a Style
Expositional preaching presumes a belief in the authority of Scripture, but it is something more. A commitment to expositional preaching is a commitment to hear God’s Word. Even as Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles were given not just a commission to go and speak, but a particular message, so Christian preachers today have authority to speak from God only so long as they speak His words. Thus the expositional preacher’s authority begins and ends with Scripture. Sometimes people may confuse expositional preaching with the style of a favorite expositional preacher, but it is not fundamentally a matter of style. As others have observed, expositional preaching is finally not so much about how we say what we say, but about how we decide what to say. It is not marked by a particular form, but by a Biblical content.
Submission to the Word of God, Not a Preacher’s Own Knowledge
Someone may happily accept the authority of God’s Word and even profess to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible; yet if that person in practice (whether intending to or not) does not preach expositionally, he will never preach more than he already knows. A preacher can take a piece of Scripture and exhort the congregation on a topic that is important without really preaching the point of the passage. When that happens, the preacher and the congregation only hear in Scripture what they already knew.
By contrast, when we preach a passage of Scripture in context, expositionally–taking the point of the passage as the point of the message–we hear from God things we did not intend to hear when we began. From the initial call to repentance to the area of our lives the Spirit has most recently convicted us about, our whole salvation consists in hearing God in ways which we, before we heard Him, would never have guessed. This very practical submission to the Word of God must be evident in a preacher’s ministry. Make no mistake here: it is finally the congregation’s responsibility to ensure that this is so. (Witness the responsibility that Jesus assumes for the congregation in Matthew 18, or Paul does in II Timothy 4.) A church must never charge a person with the spiritual oversight of the flock who does not in practice show a commitment to hear and to teach God’s Word. To do so is inevitably to hamper the growth of the church, practically encouraging it to grow only to the level of the pastor. In such a case, the church will slowly be conformed to his mind, rather than to God’s mind.
God Has Always Created His People by His Word
God’s people have always been created by God’s Word. From creation in Genesis 1 to the call of Abram in Genesis 12, from the vision of the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37 to the coming of the living Word, God has always created His people by His Word. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ,” (10:17). Or, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe,” (I Cor. 1:21).
Sound expositional preaching is often the fountainhead of growth in a church. In Martin Luther’s experience, such careful attention to God’s Word was the beginning of reformation. We, too, must be committed to being churches that are always being reformed according to the Word of God.
Once, when I was teaching a day-long seminar on puritanism at a church in London, I mentioned that puritan sermons were sometimes two hours long. At this, one person gasped audibly, and asked, “What time did that leave for worship?” The assumption was that hearing God’s word preached did not constitute worship. I replied that many English Protestant Christians would have considered hearing God’s word in their own language and responding to it in their lives the essential part of their worship. Whether they had time to sing together would have been of comparatively little concern.
Centrality of the Preached Word of God
Our churches must recover the centrality of the Word to our worship. Hearing God’s Word and responding to it may include praise and thanks, confession and proclamation, and any of these may be in song, but none of them need be. A church built on music–of whatever style–is a church built on shifting sands. Preaching is the fundamental component of pastoring. Pray for your pastor, that he will commit himself to study Scripture rigorously, carefully and earnestly, and that God will lead him in his understanding of the Word, in his application of it in his own life, and in his application of it to the church (see Luke 24:27; Acts 6:4; Eph. 6:19-20). If you are a pastor, pray these things for yourself. Pray also for others who preach and teach God’s Word. Finally, pray that our churches would have a commitment to hearing God’s Word preached expositionally, so that the agenda of each church will be increasingly shaped by God’s agenda in Scripture. Commitment to expositional preaching is a mark of a healthy church.
Questions for Reflection
- Read Nehemiah 8:7-8. What does the Bible say that the Levites did for the people as they read the Book of the Law to them? In verse 12, it is recorded that after the assembly, the people went away celebrating with great joy. According to the passage, why were they celebrating?
- The author defines expositional preaching as “an explanation and application of a particular portion of God’s Word.” Restate that definition in your own words. What distinguishes expositional preaching from other types of preaching, like topical and biographical?
- In Acts 20:27, Paul tells the Ephesians that he has labored to preach to them “the whole will of God.” Recognizing that our job as church leaders is to do the same for our people, how can expositional preaching benefit us in our own labor of presenting the whole counsel of God to our people? What is the danger if we do not “take the point of the passage as the point of our message?”
- From Genesis 1 to the New Testament, God has always created His people by His Word. Read Romans 10:17 and I Corinthians 1:21. What does God use to bring His people to saving faith in Christ? What does this tell us Nine Marks of a Healthy Church about the esteem in which we should hold the Word of God in our churches? How should that esteem practically show itself in our preaching?