Verse-by-Verse or Bust?

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The great British preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones, as usual, made a striking declaration to his audience. “The most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and most urgent need in the Church, it is the greatest need of the world also.” Of course, I believe Lloyd-Jones is right (because how could one possibly disagree with the guy?). The significance and the primacy of the preached Word is unmatched. It is through preaching Jesus Christ crucified that we complete the crux of our commission, and begin to fulfill the evangelizing of the world.

Most of us Christians recognize the importance of the preached Word. Where we may differ is in what we feel is the best methodology for preaching. The past two decades have seen a war between various preaching methodologies, primarily expository, topical, and textual preaching, which I will define here. Expository preaching, in short, is the practice of preaching that takes the point of the biblical text and makes it the point of the sermon. Topical preaching centers the sermon’s subject on a topic, then finds Scripture to support the topic. Textual preaching is a little different than both of these, as it takes a central passage of Scripture to build its sermon from or around, though it’s not necessarily on that passage of Scripture. There has been much debate about the “right” method. Topical preachers have accused expositors of cheating in preaching, saying that exposition is near-laziness; some have even gone as far as to call it unbiblical. Expositors would argue that textual preachers are misinterpreting passages and topical preachers care more about their words than God’s words, not being faithful with the text.

I find myself in line with the expositional method. I think it is the clearest, most important, and most conducive way to preach God’s Word. Most of the time I get up to preach, you’ll find a line-by-line, verse-by-verse walk through the relevant Scriptures, because I am persuaded that this is the best way to do it. But as I have gotten more opportunities to preach, and watched others who have differing philosophies, I have to ask myself: Is “expository preaching” a hill worth dying on? Here are some of my thoughts.

1. Preaching is a serious task.
It should go without saying, but alas, God knew that preachers of all methods would need the reminder of James 3:1. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” There is no entering the pulpit with flippancy on Sundays, because the calling before us is too high, too serious. What does this verse offer to this discussion? Because the task of preaching cannot be taken lightly, neither should we take our methods lightly. In our preaching, we should preach the Word with James 3:1 in the back of our minds, and thus, presenting to the flock the kind of sermon we feel will most genuinely and effectively present the truths of God’s Word. We must not preach expositionally, or topically, or textually, for the sake of convenience or to boost our egos or to push our agendas, but because we are convicted that it is the proper way to preach. The seriousness of our calling cannot be overstated.

2. Preaching’s Effectiveness is Not Determined By You.
We settle into camps pretty quickly in this conversation of methodology, and because of this, we find ourselves in favor of anything that’s rubber-stamped like us, and in opposition to anything unlike us.

However, simply saying that anyone who preaches expositionally is doing it right, or wrong, is not good practice. We cannot throw our anchor into a method so much as we throw it into Christian doctrine and biblical conviction. In other words, I have seen some topical preaching done with more biblical clarity than an expositional sermon, and other topical sermons that felt like a graduation speech. There is no formula.

Once, I visited a church in which a guy spoke on one verse in Proverbs. He made a pseudo-joke about expositional preaching in his intro, and I got excited. “This is awesome,” I’m thinking. “Finally, someone who gets it!” It went on to be a very stale and unmoving 35 minutes. It was definitely an expositional sermon, but I didn’t learn much at all. On the other side of that is one of the pastors I sat under for many years, who said he would be preaching ten messages on the entire book of Ezekiel. I was a bit perplexed at first, considering this pastor was normally a “line-by-line” kind of guy. But it was a very fruitful and edifying ten Sundays, though it was more textual in nature.

These examples are merely meant to demonstrate that what makes a sermon work is not your methodology, but the Holy Spirit and His ability to lift scales from eyes. As the great expositor H.B. Charles Jr. once put it, “It is not our preaching that makes the Gospel work, it is the Gospel that makes our sorry preaching work.” You’ll never be powerful enough to craft transformation on your own.

3. Bear in Mind Your Audience.
This point needs clarification. Far too often, I think preachers can overreach in this area of contextualization. Some expository advocates accuse topical preachers of dumbing down the preaching, of lightening up on doctrine so that their crowd isn’t going home too convicted, or spending their pulpit time trying to tell stories instead of preach the Word. The reverse, however, is also true. Some expository guys rail so hard against contextualization that they make the opposite error of presenting Hebrew chiasms and typology charts that do nothing but hinder the listener’s learning, breeding confusion or frustration. Contextualization is tricky, but it is still important, and plays a role in what methods we use to preach.

One thing I’ve learned in my first year of pastoral ministry is that there are real and authentic congregational seasons in which your church body may have different needs. This means that while a verse-by-verse study of Luke may be beneficial for your church’s growth, it’s okay to disrupt that every now and then. Let’s not be so married to a sermon series and a style that we turn a blind eye to our flock’s needs. Take heed: there are more New Testament references to pastors caring for and shepherding the flock than adhering to preaching styles. Also remember: your flock will always need more Bible than more illustrations and story-time.

4. Be Faithful to God’s Word.
Where I think expositional preaching succeeds oftentimes is its natural ability to produce faithfulness in teaching God’s Word. Expositional preaching wars against the crafting of sensational messages. It protects us from preaching what we want to. It helps us trust in God’s sovereignty and the Spirit’s moving when we land upon the next passage instead of cherry-picking it. There are a host of benefits expositional preaching provides, many of which are captured in this short little book I would highly recommend.

But here’s the truth: topical and textual messages, if done right, can also be faithful to God’s Word; this faithfulness just has to take precedence. No matter how you to decide to preach, the what of your preaching should not change, and as long as the what is always the primary focus, methodology takes a backseat.

5. Consider Spurgeon.
Anyone familiar with Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s sermons knows that title “Prince of Preachers” is absolutely fitting for him. As Mark Dever once rightly put it, there was not a single sermon of Spurgeon’s that fell short of superb. Yet Spurgeon was definitely not a line-by-line “expositor” by our definitions. Many of Spurgeon’s sermons were textual in nature, beginning with one small verse, borrowing a particular phrase from that verse to build a whole sermon on that idea, without a ton of exegesis actually taking place. We didn’t burn Spurgeon at the stake for this.

But this is not a simple proof for topical preaching; we should look carefully. Spurgeon spent his time so saturated with the Scriptures, that what made his non-expositional sermons so touching is their continual “bibline” nature. Spurgeon, commending the work of John Bunyan, describes this idea further:

“Prick him anywhere—his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of the Word of God. I commend his example to you, beloved.”

The same could be said of the Prince of Preachers. Perhaps the reason it wasn’t necessary for Spurgeon to adapt to this preaching style was because he preached the whole Bible, every time! Not to mention, Spurgeon makes a point in every sermon to carefully analyze words and phrases, spending less time storytelling and more time Scripture-telling.

Remember what Lloyd-Jones reminded us of. The Church’s most dire need is true preaching. Style is important, but a quality of preaching that is bibline, that God’s Word is proclaimed and prevails, this is more important. I think Spurgeon’s example, and some of these observations, can move the ball forward in this conversation. We have a very important task of preaching before us. Let’s be sure we’re making the Word our primary word, we’re remembering the flock entrusted to us, leaning on the Spirit to guide us in the how, and being faithful.

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