Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 14: The Crisis in 21st Century Preaching: A Mandate for Biblical Exposition, Part B

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence is a series of articles by faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary that seeks to offer some definitions of what constitutes a GCR, why we believe the SBC is in need of such a movement, and what such a movement might look like in SBC life. The series will address biblical, theological, historical and practical issues related to a GCR with the hope that God will use our finite and flawed efforts for His glory and the good of the people called Southern Baptist.

A Mandate for Biblical Exposition, Part B

1. Preaching Must Be Text-Driven So That It Truly Honors What Is In The Divine Revelation.
Mark Dever writes, “The first mark of a healthy church is expository preaching. It is not only the first mark; it is far and away the most important of them all, because if you get this one right, all of the others should follow” (Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 39). Mark is absolutely right in our judgment.

Expository preaching allows the Scripture text to determine both the substance and the structure of the message. How one structures the Scriptures will determine how one structures the sermon. The Scriptural text drives and determines, shapes and forms sermon development as it relates to the explanation of the biblical text. Sidney Greidanus reminds us that,

Biblical preaching is “a Bible shaped word imparted in a Bible-like way.” In expository preaching the biblical text is neither a conventional introduction to a sermon on a largely different theme, nor a convenient peg on which to hang a ragbag of miscellaneous thoughts, but a master which dictates and controls what is said (The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, 11).

Allen Ross of the Beeson Divinity School concurs and adds an important warning:

Too many so-called expositors simply make one central idea the substance of their message. The narrative may be read or retold, but the sermon is essentially their central expository idea-it is explained, illustrated, and applied without further recourse to the text. This approach is not valid exegetical exposition. In exegetical exposition, the substance of the exposition must be clearly derived from the text so that the central idea unfolds in the analysis of the passage and so that all parts of the passage may be interpreted to show their contribution to the theological idea (Creation and Blessing, 47).

We believe the faithful expositor will reject any method that would entice him to superimpose his preconceived agenda on the text. He will not use the text as a springboard to address the particular issue that currently has his attention. The faithful expositor will make sure that his people hear the message of God who inspired the text and is in the text. Anything less is to be derelict in one’s pulpit ministry.

Are there advantages in this expositional method? The answer is yes and there are many. Don Carson highlights six:

  1. It is the method least likely to stray from Scripture.
  2. It teaches people how to read their Bible.
  3. It gives confidence to the preacher and authorizes the message.
  4. It meets the need for relevance without allowing the clamor for relevance to dictate the message.
  5. It forces the preacher to handle the tough passages.
  6. It enables the preacher to most systematically expound the whole counsel of God if sufficient chunks are handled.

Unfortunately, in our therapeutic culture, where felt needs and how-to sermons are dominant and deemed essential (even by a number of evangelicals!), text-driven preaching is viewed as simply inadequate for the day. The perspective of many was expressed well in an article entitled “What Is The Matter With Preaching?” The author writes,

Every sermon should have for its main business the solving of some problem- a vital, important problem puzzling minds, burdening consciences, distracting lives. . . . And if any preacher is not doing this, even though he have at his disposal both erudition and oratory, he is not functioning at all. Many preachers, for example, indulge habitually in what they call expository sermons. They take a passage from Scripture and, proceeding on the assumption that the people attending church that morning are deeply concerned about what the passage means, they spend their half hour or more on historical exposition of the verse or chapter, ending with some appended practical application to the auditors. Could any procedure be more surely predestined to dullness and futility? Who seriously supposes that, as a matter of fact, one in a hundred of the congregation cares, to start with, what Moses, Isaiah, Paul or John meant in those special verses, or came to church deeply concerned about it? Nobody else who talks to the public so assumes that the vial interests of the people are located in the meaning of words spoken two thousand years ago. The advertisers of any goods, from a five foot shelf of classic books to the latest life insurance policy, plunge as directly as possible after the contemporary wants, felt needs, actual interests and concerns. . . . Preachers who pick out texts from the Bible then proceed to give their historic settings, their logical meaning in the context, their place in the theology of the write, are grossly misusing the Bible. Let them not end but start with thinking of the audience’s vital needs, and then let the whole sermon be organized around their endeavor to meet those needs. This is all good sense and psychology (“What is the Matter with Preaching?” in Harper’s Magazine (July 1928): 135).

Interestingly, this statement is not the musings of a contemporary pulpiteer. Its author is Harry Emerson Fosdick, who penned these words in 1928! Contemporary evangelicals need to be careful from whose homiletical stream they drink. This stream is poison water and will be the death-blow to a Great Commission Resurgence in our churches.