Why Biblical Exposition? It reflects a healthy doctrine of Scripture
It’s not an exaggeration to say the preaching of God’s Word is the center of our gathered worship at Westgate Church. This is intentional, and reflects our commitment to what is often called biblical exposition.
In the last post, we talked about what biblical exposition is: the kind of sermon where the message and aim of the sermon are controlled by the message and aim of the biblical passage being preached.
In the next three posts, we’ll talk about why biblical exposition is necessary for the life and health of our congregation. The first reason: it reflects a healthy doctrine of Scripture.
BIBLICAL EXPOSITION REFLECTS A HEALTHY DOCTRINE OF SCRIPTURE
When we talk about “a healthy doctrine of Scripture,” we’re talking about historic, orthodox convictions about what the Bible is and how we received it from God. I believe that those convictions fuel a commitment to biblical exposition. As Pastor Kent Hughes has said, “The authority that you attach to Scripture will determine the weight and prominence that you give Scripture in your preaching.”(1)
So how ought a healthy doctrine of Scripture shape what a preacher does in the pulpit? Let’s consider the practical impact of a few key doctrines.
1. The Inspiration of Scripture
By “inspiration” we mean that the Bible is God’s revealed Word, brought forth by the Holy Spirit in human words through human writers. It is the very voice of God, and as such it carries the character and authority of God’s voice. This is the claim of 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
If this is true, that the Bible we hold in our hands is the very Word of God, then it ought to impact what a preacher does in the pulpit in at least two key ways.
First, it should affect the content and focus of a preacher’s sermon. God’s Word should be on display—not the preacher, and not something else. The message and aim of the sermon should reflect the message and aim of the biblical passage being preached.
Second, it should affect the preacher’s attitude and posture toward preaching. These are the very Words of God he’s handling. As Paul says in 2 Timothy 2, we preachers must do our best to present ourselves to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2:15). Which means that when we wrongly handle it, it is to our shame. It is no small matter, especially as a shepherd called to feed the sheep. We must be faithful to the biblical text.
Because these are God’s Words, the preacher should tremble before God in humility, and pour over his Word in prayerful dependence and repentance before he ever utters the words, “Thus says the Lord.” And yet because these are the very Words of God, when he has carefully and humbly listened to him, he should stand boldly on his feet and declare with authority, “Thus says the Lord.”
2. The Power of Scripture
God’s Word, because it’s God’s Word, is intrinsically powerful. God created by his Word. Psalm 33:6 says “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.” God convicts by his Word. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” God converts sinners by his Word. 1 Peter 1:21 tells us how we “have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” It’s God’s very Spirit who gives power to God’s Word. The book of Acts is all about the spirit-empowered proclamation of God’s Word, through which Jesus is building his church.(2)
If God’s Word is indeed powerful, and accomplishes what he sends it to do (cf. Isa. 55:10-11), that should also impact what happens in the pulpit in several key ways.
Again, it should humble us preachers, reminding us that the effectiveness of our preaching has nothing to do with our homiletical prowess or our rhetorical flair. Paul reminds us where the power of preaching lies in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Second, it should also build the preacher’s confidence in the task God has given us. It’s not ultimately up to us to affect change in the hearts of our hearers. We plant and water, but God gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:7-8). And we can trust God to do it.
Third, it should reinforce the preacher’s prayer life. If God is the one who has to do the work, we should be on our knees for the sake of our own hearts and on behalf of our people, pleading with God to change hearts through the power of his gospel.
3. The Sufficiency of Scripture
Related to the power of Scripture is its sufficiency, namely, that the Spirit-empowered Word of God revealed in the Bible is adequate for the life, faith, and witness of the church. We’re not waiting for any other revelation, and nothing else can improve upon it.
If this is true—that the Bible is sufficient—then the preacher can resist the temptation and the pressure to move on from or away from Scripture. Preachers today are surrounded by voices telling them that what people need is something that will draw them in, meet a felt need, hit them where they’re living, and that the Bible itself doesn’t really do that.
The sufficiency of Scripture tells us otherwise. This doesn’t excuse sloppiness, laziness, or lack of clarity by the preacher. But it does remind him again that God’s Word will accomplish what he sends it to do (Isa. 55:10-11). After all, what else are we preachers going to give our congregations, really? Are you going to improve on the wisdom of Scripture? Have you come up with a way to grow in holiness that’s more effective than the gospel of Jesus and more powerful than the Spirit of God?
Second, if Scripture is sufficient, then the preacher doesn’t need to depend on gimmicks to make a point. There’s incredible pressure on the preacher today to take it to the next level. To go bigger, to be more creative, more innovative in our use of technology or other media.
But if Scripture is sufficient, then preachers should strive for clarity more than creativity. That’s not to say that there’s no place for technological innovation. Technology is a gift, so long as it’s used in service of God’s Word and not as a substitute for it. And good illustrations are an important part of clear preaching; they help connect God’s Word to God’s people today. But it is the Scriptures themselves that are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The Scriptures are sufficient, which means preachers should exposit them, not exchange them for something else.
1. R. Kent Hughes, “The Anatomy of Exposition: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos,” in Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, vol. 3 (summer, 1999): 46.
2. See Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), 33-35.