What the minister is to do with the Word – the Word from God that brings salvation and prepares the Christian to do God’s work – is to preach it. And in his instructions to Timothy, the apostle Paul indicates what that preaching ought to include.
In the first place, preaching must be evangelical, which simply means that it takes as its central theme the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Greek word for preach (kerygma) is the word for proclamation. So when Paul told Timothy to preach, he was telling him to proclaim the good news of the gospel. A minister is a herald who makes the royal announcement of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Good preaching is always evangelistic, which perhaps is why Paul went on to remind Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5). Even though he was the pastor of an established church, Timothy still needed to reach the lost. Proclaiming the gospel was a necessary part of his ongoing work as a minister. A preacher is an evangelist who, in one way or another, is always saying to people, both in public and in private, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31 ).
This kind of proclamation requires boldness, a virtue that is sadly lacking in the contemporary church. One of the reasons evangelicalism is in decline is that Christians have lost their nerve. In these post-Christian times, we are all too content to live in our own private enclaves, reinforcing our own opinions by attending our own schools, forming our own clubs, and reading our own magazines. However, it is not the herald’s job to stay at home. His task is to go out and confront people with his message, which in this case is the most important message ever proclaimed: the free gift of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.
In addition to being evangelical, preaching must also be doctrinal. Preserving sound doctrine is a major emphasis in the pastoral epistles. According to Paul, anyone who wants to be a good minister must watch his doctrine closely (1 Tim. 4:16) and “correctly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). He must maintain “the truths of the faith” (1 Tim. 4:6), also described as “the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 6:3) and “the pattern of sound teaching” (2 Tim. 1:13).
Paul understood that the future of the church depends on the defense of its doctrine. When he charged Timothy to preach the Word, therefore, what he had in mind was the preaching of biblical doctrine. This is clear from the end of 2 Timothy 4:2, where Timothy is told to preach with “careful instruction,” which again means “doctrine.”
The reason he needed to preach this way is given in the following verse: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:3). If the problem is unsound doctrine, then obviously the solution is good, doctrinal teaching.
In order to meet the challenges of the 21st century, preaching must be theologically informed. We face the same problem that Timothy faced: People are turning away from sound theology. People outside the church prefer what novelist David Brooks has termed “flexidoxy,” or flexible orthodoxy.1 In response, we must apply the same remedy that Paul recommended to Timothy: Preach sound doctrine.
This is especially important at a time when most people (including many churchgoers) have never been introduced to the basic principles of Christian theology. In these post-Christian times, a major pastoral task is to explain Christianity to people who really have no idea what it means. And once people come to Christ, they need to be taught the basic doctrines that will help them think and act the way a Christian should.
It would be a mistake to think that doctrinal preaching is something different from evangelical preaching. The New Testament makes little or no distinction between teaching and evangelism. The apostles understood that the gospel is for Christians as well as non-Christians. Thus their teaching was always evangelistic and their evangelism included a heavy dose of teaching. In keeping with their example, Christian preaching for post-Christian times must be squarely doctrinal as well as solidly evangelical. There can be no preaching for conversion without an announcement of Christ’s divine person and saving work, both of which need to be explained in clear doctrinal terms. Similarly, no aspect of Christian theology should ever be taught apart from its relationship to Jesus Christ. And when theological instruction is Christ-centered, it has the power to draw people to salvation in Him.
Preaching must also be practical, and this was Paul’s primary concern for Timothy. The eternal truths of Scripture must be applied to contemporary culture and to the needs of daily life. To that end, Paul reminded Timothy to be practical in his preaching. A good sermon serves to “correct, rebuke and encourage” (2 Tim. 4:2).
To correct is to reprove; it is to warn those who persist in sin. To rebuke is to censure those who are in error, especially theological error. Here again there is a dual emphasis on life and doctrine. The preacher has a responsibility to teach the Scriptures in a way that reforms belief and transforms conduct. Then to encourage is to exhort, to press the truth of Scripture home to the heart. Biblical teaching is not effectively applied unless it comes with life-changing persuasion. Correcting, rebuking, encouraging – these are not the only ways to apply a sermon, but together they remind us that good preaching is as practical as it is evangelical and doctrinal.
The Great Need for Biblical Exposition
There is more than one way to preach a sermon. It is not my intention to say that every minister must preach exactly the same way on every occasion. The sermons we read in the Bible show that different preaching contexts call for somewhat different sermons. But if faithful preaching includes these three elements – gospel presentation, theological explanation, and practical application – then not just any sermon will do. A minister who wants to preach in the biblical way will not spend all his time preaching revival sermons, such as an evangelist might preach at a rally. Such sermons would be evangelical, but not very doctrinal. He will not deliver theological lectures, such as a scholar might deliver at a seminary. Although such lectures presumably would be doctrinal, they would not be practical. Nor will a minister preach about his own spiritual experience every week, which could be practical, but might not be biblical.
If the church needs evangelical, doctrinal, practical preaching, then the kind of sermon that best satisfies the need is an expository sermon. The most effective way to keep Paul’s charge to preach the Word is through biblical exposition, the careful and thorough communication of what the Bible actually says. Thus a Christian church for post-Christian times upholds a tradition of strong expository preaching by gifted men of God.
Expository preaching means making God’s Word plain. In an expository sermon the preacher simply tries to explain what the Bible teaches. The main points of his sermon are the points made by a particular text in the Bible. The minister not only begins with Scripture, but also allows the Scripture to establish the context and content for his entire sermon. The way he decides what to say is by studying what the Bible has to say, so that the Scripture itself sets the agenda for his interpretation and application.
This kind of preaching is most helpfully done when a minister follows the logic of the Scriptures, systematically preaching chapter by chapter and verse by verse through entire books of the Bible. This helps ensure that a congregation hears what God wants them to hear, and not simply what their minister thinks they ought to hear.
But expository preaching is not so much a method as it is a mind-set. A minister who sees himself as an expositor knows that he is not the master of the Word, but its servant. He has no other ambition than to preach what the Scriptures actually teach. His aim is to be faithful to God’s Word so that his people can hear God’s voice. He himself is only God’s mouthpiece, speaking God’s message into the ears of God’s people, and thus into their minds and hearts.
To that end, he carefully works his way through the Scriptures, reading, explaining, and applying them to his congregation. On occasion he may find it necessary to address some pastoral concerns in a topical fashion, but even then his sermons come from his exposition of particular passages of Scripture. Rather than focusing on his own spiritual experience, or on current events, or on what he perceives as his congregation’s needs and interests, the minister gives his fullest attention to teaching what the Bible actually says.
During the Protestant Reformation John Calvin made a claim that we can only pray to make about evangelical churches in the 21st century. He said: “It is certain that if we come to church we shall not hear only a mortal man speaking but we shall feel (even by his secret power) that God is speaking to our souls, that he is the teacher. He so touches us that the human voice enters into us and so profits us that we are refreshed and nourished by it. God calls us to him as if he had his mouth open and we saw him there in person.”2 And God most clearly speaks this way through a sermon if it is expository – that is, if it makes God’s Word plain.
Expository preaching is able to do all the things that good preaching is supposed to do. This is because in expository preaching the minister preaches God’s Word. We noted earlier that the whole Bible is about Christ. Therefore, when the Bible is preached, Christ is preached, and sinners are saved. As long as he is careful to preach Christ from all the Scriptures, an expository preacher is an evangelical preacher.
He is also a doctrinal preacher. All true and sound theology comes from the Word of God. A good expository preacher is careful to explain the doctrines that are taught in each passage of Scripture. As he preaches the Word, therefore, he is preaching biblical theology. Furthermore, he is preaching Christian doctrine in its biblical arrangement and according to its biblical proportions. In many cases, his listeners will be unfamiliar with theological terms and concepts. But this is one of the reasons they need a preacher: to teach them what they need to know about God and His way of salvation.
Expository preaching is also practical, which is precisely why Paul told Timothy to preach the Word. The Bible is the most practical book ever written. As Paul understood, practical preaching is biblical preaching – and the more biblical it is, the more practical. God’s Word is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). If that is what the Bible is good for, then it should be used for that purpose. So Paul told Timothy to “correct, rebuke and encourage” (2 Tim. 4:2b).
It is astonishing how many personal problems can be resolved when someone hears even a few months of solid expository preaching. Of course, sometimes there is a need for personal counsel, for the private ministry of God’s Word. But over time, good expository preaching – in which a minister is careful to draw out the practical implications of the biblical text – addresses the vast majority of spiritual needs. Expository preaching works. This is not the main reason to do it, of course. The reason to preach expository sermons is because it is right. But because it is right, it also works.
The Final Analysis
Expository preaching may seem rather old-fashioned. This is an age of dialogue, and it is often said that preaching needs to become less dogmatic, more conversational. People want the minister to share, not preach. We are also told that Bible exposition is out of place in the information age. People need more stories and fewer propositions. They want preachers to be more personal, less doctrinal.
There are many reasons to be cautious about this kind of thinking. For one thing, information technology has its limitations as well as its strengths. Furthermore, few things are more powerful and persuasive than a living voice preaching a living Word. The personal proclamation of God and His gospel will never become obsolete.
Here it helps to know a little church history, because wherever systematic expository preaching has been practiced, it has brought great blessing to the church. The technical term for this method is lectio continua, the reading and teaching of consecutive passages of Scripture. One notable example is John Chrysostom, the great preacher of the fourth century, who transformed the city of Constantinople by expounding large sections of the Bible, especially from the New Testament. Or consider Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, who reformed the church primarily through their daily expositions of God’s Word.
There are more recent examples as well. From his pulpit in Aberdeen, William Still influenced an entire generation of Scottish ministers by preaching and teaching through the entire Bible in fifty years. And here in America the late James Montgomery Boice inspired many to become better preachers by publishing substantial expositional commentaries on Genesis, Psalms, John, Romans, and many other books of the Bible.
The point is that systematic Bible exposition is always beneficial in life-changing and culture-transforming ways. And it will remain beneficial as long as there are sinners who need to be saved and sanctified.
The best reason to practice expository preaching is not simply that it works, however, but that it brings glory to God, which ought to be the ultimate purpose for everything we do. Expository preaching does this by making it clear that all spiritual blessing comes from God’s Word, and not from any human being. When a church grows through the plain teaching of God’s Word, it becomes obvious that whatever has been accomplished is not due to the gifts of men, but to the grace of God, who alone deserves all the glory.
The apostle Paul was well aware that preaching would not always be popular. This reality seems to lie behind his exhortation to “be prepared in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). Usually this is taken as a comment on Timothy’s own personal circumstances. Whether it is convenient for him or not, he must always be ready to preach at a moment’s notice. However, the word for “season” (kairos) more properly refers to the times in which he lived.
Sometimes preaching seems to be in season; at other times it is out of season, according to popular opinion. But whether it is in season or out of season, Bible exposition is the minister’s God-given responsibility, and he must keep doing what God has told him to do. Preaching is God’s primary and permanent method for converting sinners and teaching them to grow in grace.
It is an awesome responsibility to preach to the glory of God. Consider the charge Paul gave to Timothy: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom . . . preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:1). This is a solemn charge, urgently given with a view to Christ’s Second Coming. This is why a calling to pastoral ministry is such serious business. It is a matter of spiritual life and death. It also explains why it is such a serious error for ministers to abandon their responsibility to preach the Bible. In the final analysis, God will hold us accountable for making God’s Word plain.
On the day of judgment preachers will not be asked where they went to seminary or whether they earned any advanced degrees. They will not need to present membership statistics or submit their annual budgets. It will not matter how popular they were or whether they could make people laugh.
Instead, when they stand before the heavenly tribunal they will be asked, “Did you preach the Word?” Those who followed their own agenda – or even worse, the world’s agenda – will hang their heads in shame. But many humble preachers, who were held in little esteem, will shine in the brightness of their Father’s glory. For in their proclamation of God’s Word they were faithful to the very end. Their preaching was evangelical, doctrinal, and practical. Their Lord will say to them, “Well done, good and faithful servant! . . . Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matt. 25:23).
Used by permission of Moody Publisher, Chicago, Illinois. From the book City on a Hill by Philip Graham Ryken. Copyright 2003.
Philip Graham Ryken is Senior Minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.
1 David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), quoted in Modern Reformation, January/February 2002, 36.
2 John Calvin, Ephesians (Edinurgh: Banner of Truth, 1973), 42.