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Identifying an Expository Sermon

What constitutes an expository sermon? Better yet, how might the preacher know if he has preached an expository sermon, and how might the congregation know if they’ve heard one?

The question is a bit more angular than one might initially perceive. It is a question that has struck me in recent months, as I have heard multiple preachers describe their preaching style as expository. Never mind that they give little attention to interpreting the text, applying the text, or actually preaching the text.

Regrettably, the title “expository preaching” has grown so elastic that it has become an almost inadequate, if not altogether unhelpful, designation. Much preaching gets crammed under the heading “expository preaching,” though it bears little resemblance to classical exposition.

In fact, the designation “expository preaching” has become like the designation “evangelical.” There is enough residual respectability in these labels that many want to cling to them, even if their theology or preaching methodology have long since given up any true resemblance to it.

So, what constitutes an expository sermon? Expository preaching begins with a commitment to preach the text. This commitment is rooted in the Bible’s self-attestation that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” and that the preacher’s primary task is to “preach the Word.” As he does, the preacher stands on promises like, “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the word of the lord endures forever.”[1]

These passages, among many others, provide a rationale for biblical exposition, but they do not delineate its essential, distinguishing marks. A consensus definition of expository preaching proves stubbornly elusive, but there are three essential marks that are supported by Scripture and consistent within most classical definitions of the term. Consider how Alistair Begg, Haddon Robinson, and Bryan Chappel define expository preaching.

Begg defines expository preaching as, “Unfolding the text of Scripture in such a way that it makes contact with the listener’s world while exalting Christ and confronting them with the need for action.”[2]

Robinson’s definition, which has been standard issue in seminary classrooms for several decades, presents exposition as, “The communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to the hearers.”[3]

Chappel argues expository preaching has occurred when, “The main idea of the sermon (the topic), the divisions of that idea (the main points), and the development of those divisions (the sub-points) all come from truths the text itself contains.  No significant portion of the text is ignored.  In other words, expositors willingly stay within the boundaries of a text (and its relevant context) and do not leave until they have surveyed its entirety with their listeners.”[4]

Note, “preaching the word” is marked by these three essentials:

  1. The necessity of accurately interpreting the text in its immediate, and broader, biblical context.
  1. The necessity of the main point of the sermon and the sermon’s sub-points to be derived from the text.
  1. The necessity of the sermon’s application to come from the text and for the text to be brought to bear on the congregation.

These three marks are, admittedly, minimalistic, but they are essential. They are found where an expository sermon is to be found. Consequentially, expository preaching may be much more than this, but it mustn’t be anything less than this.

So, how do you know if a sermon is an expository one?

  • Is the text accurately interpreted, with consideration given to both its immediate and broader biblical contexts?
  • Are the main point of the sermon and its sub-points derived from the text?
  • Does the sermon’s application come from the text and is the text being brought to bear on the congregation?

An expositor doesn’t merely preach from a text or on a text. An expositor preaches the text.  These three essentials mark an expository sermon, and these three questions will let you know when, in fact, the Word has been preached.

[1]  I Peter 1:23-25.

[2]  Alistair Begg, Preaching for God’s Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 23.

[3]  Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages  (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 21.

[4] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 131.


*A version of this article appeared 12/06/2015*

topicsExpository Preaching

One Response to “Identifying an Expository Sermon”

March 21, 2016 at 11:23 pm, Andrew Smith said:

Dr. Allen-
You nailed it!! Great job. Amen.

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