Since March 2013, Bryan Chappell has served as the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Ill., but he is best known as the long-time president and professor of preaching at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis and as author of Christ-Centered Preaching, one of the most frequently used homiletics textbooks in college and seminary classrooms. He’s also a popular speaker in conferences and schools and will be the keynote speaker at the 2016 National Conference on Preaching in Washington, D.C., in May.
Preaching: There’s a growing interest in the topic of expository preaching among pastors, as well as a lot of confusion about what expository preaching really is. How do you define expository preaching, and why do you think it matters in the 21st century?
Bryan Chapell: I would define expository preaching in its most basic way: the meaning of the text is the message of the sermon. When the Bible speaks, God speaks—that’s the Augustinian way of phrasing things. So our goal is making sure we are not just giving human opinion; we are not going to preach the Word in such a way that it can be interpreted as our opinions rather than what God intends to say to His people.
This goes back to John Broadus, the father of expository preaching, when he taught at Southern Seminary: to say the topic comes out of a text, the main points come out of a text, and the developmental features come out of the text. We are developing the thoughts of a passage in accordance with the original intent of the biblical writer—governing our thoughts and what we say—because ultimately we believe the Holy Spirit, by and with His Word, is what can change the heart of humanity.
So our goal is to communicate what the Holy Spirit intended by explaining what the Word says. That’s our goal. We recognize that expository preaching, at times, is misinterpreted as just kind of a dry, running commentary—regurgitating a commentary that we have read and giving information to people. However, the best expository sermons have some sequence of explaining what the text says, illustrating it in human interest accounts and accounts that are common to our experience, and then applying that truth in a transformative way to contemporary listeners. When that happens, you say: Here is not just what the text means; here is a significance to you. That becomes the glory of an expository sermon because we are saying what God says and that it has significance for contemporary listeners.
Preaching: We live in an age when there are a lot of pastors who are saying: I have to speak to the culture; I have to speak to the life needs of people in my congregation. How do you see expository preaching interacting with that concern?
Chapell: It’s a noble goal to want to speak to the contemporary needs of your people. Where it can go wrong is to presume the Bible is not dealing with that—that if I am only sticking to the passage of Scripture I’m identifying that somehow I am not addressing contemporary needs. What I’ve tried to help pastors see is that every passage of Scripture is addressing some aspect of the fallen human condition, and I try to talk about the fallen condition focus of every text.
The Bible itself reminds us that all Scripture is inspired to complete us. That’s the 2 Timothy 3:16-17 understanding; and if all Scripture is inspired and given by the Holy Spirit to complete us, the implication is that we are incomplete. What we do when we explain a passage of Scripture is we identify the truth of that text that is dealing with the concerns of the original author in that context. What were the concerns of the writer?
As we deal with those concerns, we recognize that because there is no temptation taken (but such that is common) that when we truly identify the burden of the text, it is not something isolated to that text. It’s something in our spiritual condition so that when I am truly identifying what was the fallen condition that the Holy Spirit was dealing with in the writing of that text, that is freeing now, too, because we share that spiritual condition.
Now, our situational context may be very different, but our spiritual context is not different. For example, when we read the account of Thomas, hopefully we are not saying, “Wasn’t Thomas a terrible person? Here he was: He had the witness of the prophets; he had the testimony of the women; he had the testimony of John and Peter—and still he did not believe Jesus was risen from the dead. What a terrible person Thomas was to doubt. I’m so glad I am not like Thomas!”
The reason Thomas is in the Bible is not so you and I can be glad we are not like Thomas; the reason Thomas in the Bible is because you and I are like Thomas. We also have the witness of the prophets and the witness of our own experience as we have seen the resurrection of the Lord, his Spirit bringing power into the lives of the people around us. However, there are times when our lives get difficult, when our default position is unbelief. My life is struggling right now: My child is in the hospital; my church is in trouble; my job is in trouble. Is Jesus real or not? Like Thomas, because life gets difficult, we doubt what Scripture has attested, and the reason Thomas is there is not so we will be glad we are not like him but so we will recognize we share a mutual concern.
That’s when the best expositors of Scripture make the Bible come alive. They are saying, this is not just about those people long ago. Actually, what they’re experiencing is a common human concern in our fallen condition. We can talk about the truth the Bible is dealing with in that fallen condition and apply it to our lives today, as well; in fact, that’s why it’s there.
To quote Paul again, in Romans 15:4, “Everything that is written before time was written for us, so that through endurance and in the encouragement of the scriptures, we might have hope.” It really was an apostolic understanding that what was written throughout Scriptures was written for those contemporary and engaged, to see those truths and the burden they were sharing with the parties in the text.
Preaching: One thing I appreciate about your approach is your emphasis on the fact that expository preaching is not just explaining the Word but applying the Word. Why do you think a lot of people who seek to do expository preaching tend to neglect the application?
Chapell: We tend to neglect application because we are accustomed to learning to preach in academic settings. So our tendency is to open the Word and say: My primary obligation is explanation of the text. Yet even John Broadus, the father of expository preaching, said the main obligation of the preacher is the application of the text. We are not ministers of information. We are ministers of transformation, and that means my goal is not simply to fill up your mind with more facts; my goal is to bring the power of the Word to your heart that the Holy Spirit might transform you.
If all I’m doing is saying, “What duty is here?” then my message is going to be about human competence or human performance instead of understanding that what is here is an expression of God’s grace toward us. The Holy Spirit is addressing how God can come to the rescue of His people. If I’m looking at that and saying, “What is the burden of the text?” then from the very beginning of the message, I’m taking the truth of the text to the point of human struggle.
Often we don’t want to do application because we say: I have explained the text, so now what are five things I can tell people to do out of the text? Yet then we think we are just adding burdens to people’s lives. Here are five more things you need to do. I hadn’t thought of these things; but in seminary, they taught me I had to do application, so here it comes.
Instead, say from the very beginning: Here was a burden that God’s people had in [a given] text, and you share that burden. You share doubt; you share anxiety; you have rebellion in your life. Whatever it is, if I am truly identifying the fallen condition from the beginning, then even in the introduction, I’ve begun application and to pastor people. I am shepherding them. I am not just lecturing them. I am saying: Here is the truth of God’s Word in dealing with struggles you can identify with.
In my mind, there is joy in such preaching. I am not heaping burdens on you. I am taking burdens off of you as I am explaining this text in light of the fallen condition. The Holy Spirit is addressing it in such a way that you can be free of it, and you can be helped with it. In that way, I think preaching really moves from a great onus that we all hate—that a preacher’s job is to get people to do what they don’t want to do—which is a horrible job. Instead, it’s saying the preacher’s job is enabling people to see how God is coming to the rescue in the grace of this passage and ultimately in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.
In that way, what I am doing from the very beginning of the message is helping people understand God is their Helper, their rescuer. Even if He’s rescuing them from dire sin, here in this text are places where God is going to help you. I so much love that emphasis on being able to pastor out of the shepherding context rather than out of the lecturing concept.
Preaching: Your best-known book is Christ-Centered Preaching. What is the difference between Christ-centered preaching and simply expository preaching?
Chapell: In its best form, there is no difference, because expository preaching by definition is saying what the text says. However, that presumes you are presenting the text in context, and the context of the entire Scripture is a redemptive context. From the beginning, in Genesis 3:16 God is saying we have fallen. “You have messed up, My people; but I am sending Someone to rescue you.” That promise of the coming Redeemer now begins to unfold in a redemptive plan that runs throughout the Old Testament and culminates in Christ, which means the entire Bible is God’s redemptive plan being opened to His people.
We are not trying to make every passage mention Jesus. That is not the point. Rather, we are showing that God has an unfolding revelation of His grace that culminates in Christ. So, if I’m truly doing expository preaching in which I explain the text in its context, then my obligation is not just to explain the immediate aspects of the text but rather to show how God is providing the grace that culminates in Christ, which enables me to follow the precepts, the understanding and the application of the text.
That becomes so important, because as you think about what preaching is, it is not just meaning; it is also significance. If I can tell you what this text means, but you don’t know the significance for your life, you really don’t understand it. In order to tell you the meaning and significance, what this means for your life and what God is calling you to do, you must remember that apart from Christ, you can do nothing; that is what Paul is reminding us. If Christ Himself is telling us, “Apart from Me you really can do nothing,” we need to make sure we show how God is providing the grace that is pardoning us from our sin but also fueling the life of obedience that God requires.
The best expository preaching is not just information from an immediate text. It is placing each text in its redemptive context in such a way that people know the meaning of the text and its significance, which means they know how this makes a difference in my life, but they also know how to apply it to my life, which means I still require the grace of God to help me. If the message is entirely, “Feel bad; don’t do it; now, let’s have a benediction,” then something is wrong. The moral imperative is right but insufficient, because God Himself says apart from Christ we can do nothing. So, when Paul reminds us to put on the full armor of God, he reminds us that we have to be strong. So, if I’m not clueing into the redemptive provision of God, then I actually am taking the text out of context.
The best in expository preaching is simply presenting that truth in context, which includes its redemptive context. That’s what we often forget. We simply present performance or competence. We forget that if all we are doing is telling people how they should perform better, they become their own redeemers. “I just have to perform better or know more,” but that is actually taking the text away from its intended context, which is that you need to learn even more, because Paul says in Galatians 3 that you’re not your own redeemer. Simply knowing your moral imperatives are not enough; they are necessary, but they are not enough. You also know how God must provide a way for people who cannot provide for themselves, or you don’t know the true purpose of the text.
Preaching: I understand that you are beginning a national radio ministry this fall. What leads you to do that, and where and when can we find out how we can hear you?
Chapell: I’ve got a wonderful opportunity at this stage of life and ministry. I’m senior pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church, and Grace has a long history of an extensive media ministry. When the church came talking to me, one thing the [leadership] asked was if I’d be willing to help them with a media ministry. That was something that was a delight to me—to think the Lord might take this message of grace, which is so beautiful, and enable His people to know His truth that relieves their burdens and not just adds to their burdens.
Would there be an opportunity to say that in a broader sphere, for the good not just of the Christian world but a magnet to our culture? You’re worse than you can possibly imagine, but God is better than you can possibly imagine. Can that message of grace truly be sweetness, honey and magnetism in our culture?
So, we have been working toward this ministry that we hope will launch this fall. I try to tell people again and again, there is no reason to do this if it’s not for the message of grace. We don’t need more radio personalities; we don’t need more celebrity culture in the church. If there is a reason to do this, it is because we believe in the power and the uniqueness of how grace can affect our culture from an expository stance, where it’s not just pardon.
The way most people view grace in the church [is that] it’s pardon and leads to license, because all you’re doing is telling people whatever they do, they’ll be forgiven. What most Christians do not understand is grace is not merely freedom; it is fuel. Jesus said, “If you love Me ,you’ll keep my commands.” Paul said it is the grace of God that compels us; it is the love of Christ that actually controls our hearts. There are masses who always say, “If God will forgive me later, why not sin now?” However, the answer to that is the heart that says: If You love me enough to send Your Son for me, to plan for centuries to send a Redeemer to claim my heart in this day and age,” that creates love for Him. That means you don’t want to trample on His blood, to take advantage of His grace.
There is a chemistry of the heart that says, “If He loves me so much, I want to walk with Him, serve Him and glorify Him.” It’s that message of grace that I hope we are giving a unique opportunity to tell. The only reason to go into this media presence is to say the message of grace is too good to pass by; and if God is giving us an opportunity to proclaim it, then that’s what we need to do.
Preaching: Tell me about your preaching at Grace Presbyterian. How long is a typical sermon for you?
Chapell: It’s between 30 and 40 minutes in the ideal world. Certainly my people will tell you it is more than 40 minutes, and I hate that; but I’m trying to become more disciplined.
Preaching: It is a hard task! Do you preach in series?
Chapell: I do preach in series. In part, that’s because of where I am. We have the blessing of being a large church, so we have multiple cultures and multiple languages. I pretty much have to tell my people—the worship people, translators, planners—three to six months ahead of time what I will be preaching about, so that tends to lend itself to series. We have to prepare the worship for it, the media programs and the translations.
I typically work though books, but occasionally I work through topics in an expository manner. Right now, I am in a series called Mission at Work: What does it mean to live your faith in the workplace? With each new message, in an expository way, I am dealing with different passages of Scripture. More often, I work consecutively through a book, and this is a little different. I am finding out what it means to do a topic through different passages, each passage handled in an expository way.
Preaching: How long is a typical series, or is there a typical length?
Chapell: Eight to 12 weeks; 12 is getting really long for our purposes. Even if you’re looking at fall, spring or summer series, you have the mission conference, the Bible conference, the visiting pastor…things that will come and break it up. Having a series that is 12 weeks is getting pretty long in that sequence, so probably six to eight weeks is more common for me. I certainly have done 12 week series but not many that are much longer than that.
Preaching: Some biblical books obviously would lend themselves to eight to 12 weeks, but some would be difficult to do in that length. How do you handle that if you’re doing an extended book series?
Chapell: I have broken up the books, and sometimes I’ve broken up the series. So, when I preached through John, for instance, I did three 12-week series, and we had different ways of talking about that. One was Getting to Know Jesus; one was Understanding Jesus; and one was Walking with Jesus. So, I broke up the book into multiple series, and there were some weeks between the series when we could do other things during that time. Other times, I will do something for a while—talk about marriage and family—then come back to it in another several months or perhaps a year or two. I’m still learning. I’ve been a seminary administrator for 25 years, so I tell people, “I am just a baby pastor, because I am just learning again what it means to be a pastor.” Lots of people know a lot more about pastoring than I do!
Preaching: You’ve been a great influence in the lives of many preachers, but if you could go back and influence young Bryan Chapell as you were beginning in ministry, what is the best advice you could have given yourself?
Chapell: Well, the best advice I could give myself is the advice I’ve tried to give since I was broken by my early approach to preaching. I began basically unloading imperatives on people every day: Straighten up, and do better. Because we were in a church where there was great employment loss in a very short period [of time], a lot of people were without jobs and lost income very quickly; the consequence was a lot of homes were very troubled with addictions, abuse, divorce and depression.
The more I [merely] told people to straighten up, fly right and stop [behaving badly], I was only crushing them. I was crushing [myself]. I said to my wife, “I didn’t go to seminary to learn to hurt people, but every Sunday I stand in the pulpit and hurt people.” All I would do was tell people who were struggling to stop. Just stop struggling and do better. We called my wife’s parents and said, “We might be coming to live with you, because I can’t do this anymore. I can’t keep hurting people.”
My great rescue at the time was reading some of the works of Sidney Greidanus, who talks about Christ-centered preaching and reminds us that the heroes of the Bible are terribly flawed. Almost all of them, except for one—and that One is Jesus. As obvious as it is to me now, it was revolutionary then, because I was able to tell my people, “If God can use as heroes the messed up people in the Bible—the Davids, the Abrahams with all the problems in his life, and the apostles with all their cowardice and betrayal—and if God can use people as much as that, then there is hope for you.”
More than that, I began to believe there was still hope for me. I wasn’t out of my 20s, and I believed I was a failure. So, when the Lord began to show me His grace, I began to recognize that grace is not just freedom from sin and guilt, and it’s not just freedom from sin and facing obligation. Grace is the power of the gospel, the joy of the Lord is our strength. If we love Christ, we will want to follow after Him. It changes our affections and our walks. When that happens, that is the beauty.
Here I am, late in the preaching life, and a man came to me a few months ago. He said, “Bryan, I’ve been at Grace Church for 40 years, and I haven’t known joy until now.” You know, that thrilled my heart! That is the blessing that young pastors can learn if you’re not just teaching people obedience. If you’re really teaching them how great God’s grace is to them, that actually is the power of obedience.
It is not letting them off the hook; it is providing the fuel for the obedience that their hearts will desire when God truly has revealed it to them through your preaching. How great is His grace to them! Don’t fear grace. Actually believe it is fuel for Christian obedience. I believe it will not just transform your people but will transform your own heart as you grow in joy. That is your strength.