The definition of expository preaching is elusive yet crucial. The definition is elusive because exposition is much more art than science. Many pastors and theologians have sought to define the basic boundaries of the discipline but without the needed cohesion. The definition is crucial because there are many pastors who desperately want to handle the Word of God with reverence and competence. They want to exposit, but are perhaps unsure of what doing so actually entails. So, how can exposition be defined?

No definition of any kind of preaching would be complete without including the famous definition given by Phillips Brooks1 during the Lyman Beecher Lectures at the Yale School of Divinity in 1877. Brooks said:

"What, then, is preaching of which we are to speak? It is not hard to find a definition. Preaching is the communication of truth by man to men. It has two essential elements, truth and personality. Neither of those can it spare and still be preaching. The truest truth, the most authoritative statement of God’s will, communicated in any other way than through the personality of brother man to men is not preached truth…It is in the absence of one or the other element [truth or personality] that a discourse ceases to be a sermon, and a man ceases to be a preacher altogether."2

In this definition, Brooks focuses on the enduring principle that preaching must be communication of truth from man to man. Therefore, there is an implied truth to be shared and a place where it may be found.

The most significant aspect of Brooks’ definition is the fact that the truth is communicated through personality. The human factor of preaching is nonnegotiable, according to Brooks’ belief. He made it clear that if either truth or personality is sacrificed, then whatever happens cannot be preaching.

What did he mean by “truth that comes through personality”? Brooks said, “Truth must come really through the person, not merely over his lips, not merely into his understanding and out through his pen. It must come through his character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being. It must come genuinely through him.”3 Preaching in general and expository preaching in particular must contain a truth to be communicated and a personality through which the truth is communicated.

John Broadus, another giant of the preaching world, has a discussion of the preaching event in the beginning pages of his famous work on preaching. He wrote:

"When a man who is apt in teaching, whose soul is on fire with the truth which he trusts has saved him and hopes will save others, speaks to his fellow-men, face to face, eye to eye, and electric sympathies flash to and fro between him and his hearers, till they lift each other up, higher and higher, into the intensest thought, and the most impassioned emotion—higher and yet higher, till they are borne as on chariots of fire above the world—there is a power to move men, to influence character, life, destiny, such as no printed page can ever possess."4

In context, Broadus was arguing the merit of the live preaching event against the practice of printing sermons. It is clear Broadus did not disagree with the printing of sermons. To the contrary, he argued that the printing press had “become a mighty agency for good” because it helps the “spread of the truth.”5

He was, however, rather clear that printing sermons (and by implication for our context, translating them to other media such as television or podcast) is no viable replacement for the preacher being face to face and eye to eye with his listeners as he communicates the truth that has changed him to those who need to be changed. Part of the purpose of preaching is to “move men, to influence character, life, destiny.” Change is the goal.

Haddon Robinson has crafted one of the most widely accepted definitions for expository preaching. While Brooks and Broadus have, in a sense, defined preaching in general, their inclinations are definitely toward an attitude of exposition. Robinson, however, is on the forefront of the movement to refine and define exposition into more than just an attitude. He is, however, cautious about taking the definition too far.

Robinson said, “Attempting a definition becomes sticky business because what we define we sometimes destroy…Preaching is a living interaction involving God, the preacher, and the congregation, and no definition can pretend to capture that dynamic.”6 He then gives his definition.7 Robinson said:

"Expository preaching is 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 the preacher, applies to the hearers.8

Robinson’s definition builds upon Brooks’ definition (personality/experience) and Broadus’ definition (Holy Spirit/divine interaction) and refines elements that apply specifically to exposition such as historical/grammatical contextualization and communicating biblical concepts.

Robinson acknowledges the fluidity inherent in defining how a preacher does exposition. As he said, “Expository preaching at its core is more a philosophy than a method,” but he also said, “Whether we can be called expositors starts with our purpose and with our honest answer to the question: Do you, as a preacher, endeavor to bend your thought to Scripture, or do you use Scripture to support your thought?”9 While Robinson leaves the definition of exposition in the realm of philosophy, it is not a philosophy devoid of clearly defined boundaries.

For Robinson, the clear borders that free and restrict the expositor are the borders of the text itself. The truth of the text must shape the thoughts of the preacher. How does the preacher deal with theology in reference to Scripture? What governs what? Robinson has made this clear. The preacher’s theology also should be defined by the text. Preachers change based on a changed understanding of the text. Long-held beliefs may become irrelevant in light of an expanded understanding of Scripture. Robinson said:

"Theology may protect us from evils lurking in atomistic, nearsighted interpretations, but at the same time it may blindfold us from seeing the text. In approaching a passage, we must be willing to reexamine our doctrinal convictions and to reject the judgments of our most respected teachers. We must make a U-turn in our own previous understandings of the Bible should these conflict with the concept of the biblical writer."10

Sunday sermons inadvertently may become exercises in exegetical gymnastics. The gymnastics occur when the preacher encounters a text that challenges an aspect of his theology and he decides to jump through several hermeneutical hoops to make the text comply with his theology.11

Gymnastics never should be part of a Sunday sermon. If and when a preacher encounters a text that challenges or undermines his theology, it is his theology and not the text that should be changed. Theology is not static, but the text is. Notice that Robinson’s definition highlights the communication aspect of preaching but limits this communication to that which is “derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical and literary study of a passage in its context.”12 Context is vitally important to the proper communication of the biblical concept because the meaning of the text, at least in part, is contained in the three areas of history, grammar and genre.
These three areas help the understanding of the preacher as he seeks the meaning of the text. Can the meaning of Isaiah 6:1-10 be fully understood without an understanding of the reign of King Uzziah? If the preacher does not know that Uzziah was made king instead of his father, that Judah flourished in his reign, and that his reign lasted more than 50 years, the preacher will not communicate the unrest that must have been present in Judah upon hearing of the death of King Uzziah. Many in that day would have been born and reared, never knowing any other king except Uzziah. These facts are historically significant and are vital to this passage’s context. This is only one example where history is important to meaning.13

What about grammar? Is it that significant for the preacher to delve into tenses, moods, voices or stems? Take John 3:16 for instance. John 3:16 has been referred to as “the gospel in one verse,” and so it is; but it is also one of the most widely known verses in Christianity. Many Christians have committed this short verse to memory because of its theological significance.

The preacher who studies the grammar in John 3 will see something very interesting. Verse 16 actually is a grounds clause that supports verses 14 and 15, in which Jesus discusses an event from Numbers 21. God was judging His people for complaining. He sent fiery serpents among them that bit people, and they died. Moses made a bronze serpent and lifted it up on a pole, and all who looked to the serpent were spared. Jesus used this instance to speak of Himself, but this connection might be overlooked if not for grammar. There are many instances in which grammar is the exegetical key that unlocks the fuller meaning of a passage.

Genre also plays an important role in interpreting texts. The preacher who is unaware of genre may partially understand or miss the meaning of the text altogether. The same phrasings take on different meanings depending on whether the genre is poetry, wisdom, narrative, gospel, apocalyptic, law, epistle or prophecy.14 The genre in which God communicates is significant when establishing the meaning of a text.

Robinson also mentions application in his definition. The biblical concept is that “which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.”15 The text first changes the preacher. The goal of preaching is not only change within those receiving the communication but also change in the one communicating. Once this change is accomplished, the concept can flow through the preacher and be applied to the hearers. Thus, in the communication event, all involved should experience change based on an encounter with Scripture. Change seems to be a critical element in Robinson’s definition of expository preaching.

R. Albert Mohler Jr. has posited a significant definition for exposition in a recent work. He said:

"Expository preaching is that mode of Christian preaching that takes as its central purpose the presentation and application of the text of the Bible. All other issues and concerns are subordinated to the central task of presenting the biblical text. As the Word of God, the text of Scripture has the right to establish the substance and the structure of a sermon. Genuine exposition takes place when the preacher sets forth the meaning and the message of the biblical text and makes clear how the Word of God establishes the identity and worldview of the church as the people of God."16

Mohler continues to develop his definition by breaking it into its constituent parts. Mohler is keenly aware of the preaching climate of today. His definition is well-crafted and worth consideration.

Speaking of Scripture being part of the central purpose of preaching, Mohler says:

"This simple starting point is a major issue of division in contemporary homiletics, for many preachers—from Harry Emerson Fosdick onward—assume they must begin with a human problem or question and then work backward to the biblical text. On the contrary, expository preaching begins with the text and works from the text to apply its truth to the lives of believers. If this determination and commitment are not clear at the outset, something other than expository preaching will result."17

The determination and commitment Mohler speaks of is the determination and commitment to study the text and communicate its meaning to the listener. Exegesis is critical to Mohler’s definition. He says, “There are no shortcuts to genuine exposition. The expositor is not an explorer who returns to tell tales of the journey but a guide who leads people into the text, teaching the arts of Bible study and interpretation even as he demonstrates the same.” If one were to imagine preaching as traveling from point A to point B on a map, then Mohler is concerned that not only are preachers not trying to get to the same destination, but also that they may not be starting from the same point of origin.

Mohler’s definition introduces a new idea to the discussion when he says, “As the Word of God, the text of Scripture has the right to establish the substance and the structure of a sermon.”18 Many who try to define exposition discuss Scripture as they relate to the substance of the sermon, but the discussion of Scripture as it relates to the structure of the sermon is a recent discussion. Mohler says:

"This is where many preachers will be challenged in their own preaching. Because the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God, the very shape of the biblical text is also divinely determined. God has spoken through the inspired human authors of Scripture, and each different genre of biblical literature—historical narrative, direct discourse and apocalyptic symbolism, among others—demands that the preacher give careful attention to the structure of the text and allow it to shape the sermon. Far too many preachers come to the text with a sermonic shape in mind and a limited set of tools in hand."19

Not only does Scripture define what is said in the sermon, but also the way it is said. In the structuring of the communication event, the preacher should pay close attention to how God has communicated the information the preacher will present. This focus on structure is simply expanding the grammatical aspect of the historical-grammatical approach of exegesis to encompass sermon structure.

Notice Mohler’s caution against having a sermonic shape that is applied to every text. All too often, preachers are guilty of this exact thing. In an effort to be clear and with good intentions, they inadvertently may obscure the meaning of the text by ignoring the structure of the text. If the structure of the text is inspired, it logically follows that the structure of the text also adds to the meaning of the text and should be communicated by the preacher.

Mohler, as does Robinson, highlights the need to apply the text in the life of the listener when he says, “Genuine exposition takes place when the preacher sets forth the meaning and the message of the biblical text and makes clear how the Word of God establishes the identity and worldview of the church as the people of God.”20 The desire to apply the Word of God puts expository preaching in conflict with postmodern thinking. What should the response of the church be to the preached Word? Mohler says:

As the Word of God, the biblical text has the right to establish our identity as the people of God and to determine our worldview. The Bible tells us who we are, locates us under the lordship of Jesus Christ, and establishes a worldview framed by the glory and sovereignty of God. Put simply, the Bible determines reality for the church and stipulates a God-centered worldview for the redeemed.21

In essence, the church becomes what Scripture says it should be and not vice versa. Scripture becomes the driving force for change in the lives of listeners, and, as God’s Word, has an incredible amount of authority in the life of the believer.

Before concluding his definition for exposition, Mohler posits three characteristics of true exposition, one of these being authority. Modernity has given way, at least partially, to postmodernity. Authority in every form is being rejected. So, how can expositors claim to have authority if all authority is suspect? Mohler said:

"In all true expository preaching, there is a note of authority. That is because the preacher dares to speak on behalf of God. He stands in the pulpit as a steward “of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1), declaring the truth of God’s Word, proclaiming the power of that Word, and applying that Word to life. This is an admittedly audacious act. No one should contemplate such an endeavor without absolute confidence in a divine call to preach and in the unblemished authority of Scripture."22

Authority as it applies to the preacher is only present when the preacher communicates the Scripture. According to Mohler, preachers only have authority when they speak for God. According to the argument thus far, preachers do not speak for God unless they speak the words of God. The words of God are found in the Word of God. Preaching does not occur unless Scripture is explained and applied to the life of the preacher and the listeners. This type of preaching is exposition. Therefore, proponents of exposition would argue that the only preaching that can be done with authority is exposition.

Text-driven preaching is a movement within exposition that seeks to allow the text to define several aspects of preaching. Mohler hints at this idea in his definition of exposition when he says, “the text of Scripture has the right to establish the substance and the structure of the sermon.”23 While many proponents of exposition include some reference to allowing the text to define the sermon, none has done as complete a treatment of this idea as Akin, Allen and Mathews in their work, Text-Driven Preaching: God’s Word at the Heart of Every Sermon. In speaking about the current state of preaching, Allen says:

"What form should a text-driven sermon take? Today, sermon form is frequently dictated by one or more of the following considerations: tradition, the prevailing paradigm in homiletics, culture or literary form. Not all sermons are created equal, and some are based on a faulty understanding of biblical revelation and/or the human sciences.24

Of the four options given, literary form is the one Allen agrees should dictate the sermon form. Whether the meaning of a text is couched in narrative, prophecy, poetry or epistle is significant according to Allen. He focuses on the idea that genre and structure are related concepts. The meaning of the text cannot be divorced from the genre of the text."

Text-driven preaching endeavors to submit the will of the preacher to the meaning of the text. By focusing on text structure as it relates to sermon structure, text-driven preachers use the how of preaching to convey meaning. You would expect a different sermon structure for a narrative section of text versus a psalm because the two texts differ structurally. This devotion to the structure of Scripture is not present in all of exposition. In fact, many critics of exposition accuse expositors of placing an artificial sermon structure on every text regardless of genre or length. This accusation is often valid.

Based on the preceding discussion regarding some accepted definitions of exposition, what threads can be drawn together to weave a working definition of exposition? What follows is a working definition of exposition that is crafted as a composite of the accepted definitions that already have been discussed. Therefore:

Expository preaching is a philosophy of preaching that explains, illustrates and applies the text of Scripture. True exposition occurs when a preachable unit of Scripture is examined according to its historical, grammatical and literary contexts, and then a sermon is presented whose substance and structure are governed by the substance and structure of the text being preached. The preacher and hearers are exposed to the revelation of God through Scripture and the power of God through the Holy Spirit with life transformation being the goal.25

Notice some key aspects of the definition. First, expository preaching is a philosophy. The definition of exposition rests mainly in its theology, not its methodology. The overall consensus is that exposition is more a set of guiding principles undergirded by conviction than a pragmatic approach to sermonizing.

Second, expository preaching is about Scripture. Without a commitment to the inerrancy, infallibility and inspiration of Scripture, the preacher will not do the work it takes to be an expositor. It is from this conviction regarding Scripture that the desire to arrive at the correct meaning of a text flows. The preacher wants to get it right because he believes he is communicating the very words of God. For the expositor, Scripture is the beginning and ending point in all he does.

Understanding Scripture becomes paramount, so the hard work of examining history, grammar and genre become critical parts of bridging the gap between the events of Scripture and life today. The expositor wants his listener to get it. Therefore, the expositor explains and illustrates the text so the listener can comprehend in a short time the meaning that took the expositor hours to discern. The expositor does not leave the listener at mere understanding. Not only does the expositor want the listener to get it, but he also wants the listener to do it. Application is part of the goal to the expositor.

How much should be preached? The expositor will look for textual clues to find the limits of the preachable unit of Scripture that contains a complete biblical concept for the congregation members to understand and apply to their lives. The expositor carefully will construct a sermon with substance and structure reflect the substance and structure of the text being preached. He does this because he believes that just as he has been changed by the text he will preach that the listeners through the power of the Holy Spirit also can be changed by the text he will preach.

The expositor sees lasting change as the result of preaching. However, the goal of preaching for the expositor is not only change, but also faithfulness to the text of Scripture as God’s truth is communicated in the preaching event.

The preacher who desires to be an expositor can reflect on the previous definitions and count the cost in commitment and preparation. The commitment required for exposition is a commitment to the Scripture text and a willingness to allow the text to shape the sermon. This type of preaching takes preparation through diligent exegesis but yields much fruit in relation to effort. By confining himself to the intended meaning of a particular preachable unit of text, the preacher can present the information with an authority that isn’t contrived but rather derived—derived from the very Word of God. For those willing to commit to the discipline of exposition, may God bless and increase your ministry of His Word.

1 Phillips Brooks and John Broadus factor into any discussion of preaching because of their respective contributions. These men are included in those who may not have been expositors by name but definitely expositors in practice. Their definitions and input regarding preaching in general are applicable to expository preaching specifically.
2 Phillips Brooks, The Joy of Preaching (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), 25-26.
3 Ibid., 27.
4 John A. Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1891), 18.
5 Ibid., 17-18.
6 Haddon W, Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 21.
7 Robinson's definition is emblematic of the current thought as it captures the main components found in most modern definitions of exposition. These components include discussion in some form related to the preacher, the text, the congregation, the method, contextualization, authority and purpose.
8 Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 21.
9 Ibid., 22.
10 Ibid.
11 Consider also what Peter Adam says about the need to preach the text in Peter Adam, Speaking God's Words: A Practical Theology of Expository Preaching (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996), 25. Adam says, "Modern theology has tended to remove the idea of speech from the forms of divine revelation, but I hope I have demonstrated that this is a false move, and that God's words are inseparable from his self-revelation…Without God's words there can be no ministry of the Word. If God is dumb, we may speak, but we cannot speak Gods words, for there are none to speak. The first great theological foundation for preaching, then, is God has spoken." Adams continues his discussion of foundations for preaching with It is written and Preach the Word.
12 Ibid., 21.
13 Notice that in this instance, Scripture informs Scripture on historical matters. It is only in these instances where preachers can utilize historical facts as authoritative because the historical facts are also included in Scripture and are Scripture.
14 Expositors have done recent work addressing how genre affects structure and content of sermons. Some of those works include Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 270-346, Craig C. Broyles, Interpreting the Old Testament: A Guide for Exegesis, ed. Craig C. Broyles (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 13-62, and Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 63-172.
15 Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 21.
16 R. Albert Mohler Jr. He Is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World. (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2008), 65.
17 Mohler, He Is Not Silent, 66.
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid., 67.
20 Ibid., 65.
21 Ibid., 69.
22 Ibid., 71.
23 Ibid., 65.
24 David L. Allen, "Preparing a Text-Driven Sermon," in Text-Driven Preaching: God's Word at the Heart of Every Sermon, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 103.
25 In endeavoring to distill what has been presented into a concise definition, certain aspects of the aforementioned accepted definitions were either combined or omitted altogether.
26 Mark Twain, Mark Twain's Speeches (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1923), xv.

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