“Why do you preach like that?” It’s a question I’ve heard on more than one occasion. Typically (which means about 90 percent of the time) I preach expositional sermons, also known as verse-by-verse preaching. I usually limit myself to a single paragraph or story and then I follow a simple plan: read the text, explain the text, apply the text, go home. What’s more, I usually preach in series through whole books of the Bible. So, we covered the Gospel of Mark in 52 sermons. I spent just two weeks on the book of Jude. Now, three quarters of the way through our second year in existence as a church, we are approaching the end of First Peter. Sometimes doing this can be tedious. Sometimes I get impatient and find myself ready to move on to the next book before I’m finished expounding the current one. Always, though, preaching slowly and deliberately through the Word of God is a joyful and encouraging exercise. The words of the prophet Jeremiah resonate in my heart: “Your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name,” (Jeremiah 15:16).
Most people assume, of course, that I enjoy preaching the way that I preach; otherwise, why would I do it? So, here are five motives beyond, or perhaps behind, the motive of delight that moves me to preach the way that I do, i.e. verse-by-verse, book-by-book.
- Expositional preaching helps me to avoid only preaching on my own soapboxes.Everyone is passionate about something. Whether you’re disgusted with our current political situation, or you want to champion the rights of the unborn or help people improve their marriages, you all have your soapboxes. Soapboxes aren’t necessarily bad, either. We should defend the rights of the unborn. I should, in my preaching, help my church members to become better spouses and better parents. These things matter. However, if I’m not careful, and if I don’t have some controls set on what I preach, then I might easily find myself preaching about the same issues over and over. Many of us have been in churches where every sermon seemed to be about one of a small selection of issues: church growth, biblical finances, healthy marriages, etc. Or for the more doctrinally-minded: the sovereignty of God, spiritual gifts, biblical inerrancy, etc.I do preach on these issues. Occasionally, I will even preach a short topical series covering some practical or theological topic that is particularly relevant to the life of the church. Most of the time, however, I guard against becoming a soapbox preacher by working my way through a whole book, preaching whatever the text says, and not what I want to say that week.
- Relatedly, expositional preaching helps me to avoid the critique that I only preach on issues I’m interested in.I never want people to perceive me to be preaching at them rather than to them and for them. In other words, I don’t want church members to fear that I might use the pulpit against them. Nor do I want to be accused of ignoring important doctrines because I don’t like them or because they’re difficult to explain. Expositional preaching helps me to avoid these kinds of critiques. “What are you preaching on next week Chris?” “The next few verses.”
- Preaching verse-by-verse forces me (and the rest of the church) to consider passages and doctrines that we might otherwise avoid.Of course, preaching verse-by-verse through books of Bible means not only that I won’t talk about the same handful of issues every week; it means that I will be forced to deal with perplexing passages and difficult doctrines when they arise in the Bible. If a text issues a warning about the dangers of failing to endure to the end, I will preach about the dangers of apostasy. If, on the other hand, the text addresses the doctrine of election, I will preach about God’s sovereignty in salvation. All manner of difficult topics are covered in the Bible, so if I cover the Bible without skipping the uncomfortable parts, I will myself preach about all manner of difficult topics. This is good for God’s people. They need to know what God thinks and what he demands – even if it makes them uncomfortable.
- Preaching expositional sermons gives me confidence that I am, like Paul, proclaiming the “whole counsel of God” to the people of God.When Paul exhorted the elders (pastors) of the church in Ephesus, he told them that he was “innocent of the blood of all,” because he “did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God,” (Acts 20:26, 27). As a pastor, I want to be able to make the same kind of pronouncement at the close of my ministry some day. I am innocent, because I did not hold back some portion of God’s Word. I didn’t hide the hard parts or only talk about the things I find exciting. I declared to you the whole counsel of God, verse-by-verse, book-by-book.
- Finally, expositional preaching helps me to plan ahead.This may not seem like the most spiritual reason for preaching verse-by-verse. Moreover, it is possible to plan topical preaching in advance as well. I have found, though, that sermon planning is much easier with expositional preaching. More importantly, knowing what book is next, and approximately how much time I will spend in that book allows me to begin study in advance. I can begin to think about and read about the more difficult issues in a book or the more taxing interpretive tasks well ahead of time, so that I am not surprised by any great difficulty only a few days before having to preach a difficult text. This means that God’s people are better served by the way in which I prepare to teach them his Word.