Reprise: Evangelicalism’s Got Talent (Part 2)

Jun 30, 2020

In part 1 of this two-part series, I mentioned that there are two issues that that cause me to think that evangelicalism is being duped when it comes to how we evaluate effective ministries and preaching. As I explained, the first of those two is that we make wrong assumptions about what it means to be a “gifted” preacher. In this post, I want to address how those faulty assumptions about giftedness lead to an errant view of expository preaching.

Assumptions about Bible “Exposition”

This may step on a few toes, but I might as well say it plainly right up front: I just don’t think a number of the most widely-known preachers today are truly doing Bible exposition, even though they define their preaching by those terms. Referring again to the panel discussion video I watched, all the men on the panel are considered expositors, yet only a few of them, in my view, are both surrendered to the text and preaching its full intent and implications.

For a sermon to be classified as “expository,” it must derive its central message exclusively from the biblical author’s intended message.  The sermon’s principles, therefore, must rise naturally from the structure and force of the text in light of the surrounding context. D.A. Carson’s explanation is important:

Expository preaching is preaching whose subject matter emerges directly and demonstrably from a passage or from some passages of Scripture. In other words, its content and structure demonstrably reflect what Scripture says, and honestly seek to elucidate it…

This essential element of expository preaching does not assume that the passages of Scripture must all be contiguous, or that only systematic preaching through a book can properly be called “expository preaching.” One might have a series on temptation, for instance, and preaching serially on the temptation of Adam and Eve, the temptation of Joseph, the temptation of Hezekiah, the temptation of Jesus, and so on–and in each case the sermon might be genuinely expository. In this instance the organizing principle for the selection of texts is topical, but the expositions themselves are expository. Nor does this definition say anything explicit about the length of the passage. One preacher may work through Romans 1-8 in eight years; another may work through the same chapters in seven or eight sermons. I have heard it done both ways, both very effectively. Different times call for different style…. But one non-negotiable characteristic of expository preaching is that its subject emerges directly and demonstrably from Scripture (emphasis mine).

Dr. Albert Mohler is also poignant:

As the word of God, the text of Scripture has the right to establish both the substance and the structure of the sermon. Genuine exposition takes place when the preacher sets forth the meaning and 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.

Some of the popular preaching today just isn’t remotely covering this kind of ground. Even the best sermons from some of these mega-pastors leave the sheep with only theological-haziness, a few practical but surface thoughts about dealing with daily troubles, and a number of entertaining anecdotes from human experience to make it “relevant.” This is not expository preaching! Worse, it leaves the sheep unable to evaluate the doctrinal purity of the content. Regularly, someone will tell me that their pastor does expository preaching, and after listening to several sermons I’m left to conclude that they simply don’t know the difference. Here are the features of what I would consider the best of a typical sermon offered in many churches today:

  • A sermon topic is introduced.
  • An opening illustration or story sets up the problem needing a solution or truth under consideration.
  • A passage is either read or briefly referenced.
  • General principles, in outline form, are stated and briefly explained (the outline is often either creatively superimposed on the text without warrant, or drawn from general ideas in the text while ignoring structural specifics which the author intended for precision and force).
  • As each principle is presented, instead of mining out the riches within the contextual, grammatical, and historical features, preachers often teach implications using other loosely related material not from the passage, such as pithy quotes, illustrations, other proof-texts, and anecdotal material from human experience (none of which is Spirit-inspired, and is therefore not authoritative).
  • Applications are suggested, usually focused on practical outward changes.
  • Narrative texts are often abused in far greater ways as preachers infer all kinds of strange principles from biblical stories never intending as much.

The net effect of these sermons over time is not good. Christians are not taught “the whole counsel of God,” the Bible is portrayed as a book of self-help vignettes and proof-texts, and sanctification slowly becomes a matter of coping skills and the search for earthly fulfillment. As biblical discernment fades the sheep are left with only gospel-generalities for building convictions. Their battle against sin and temptation is treated more casually because they’ve become convinced that a more aggressive posture is overkill. Worst of all, given enough malnourishment, believers will conclude that serious Bible exposition is impractical and merely “academic,” and professing unbelievers in the church will be made to feel quite self-sufficient and comfortable in their sin.

Perhaps an example or two will help:

  • One famous pastor, for example, preached a sermon in 2010 wherein he tried to explain how we can “get a word from God.” With authority, he explained five ways God speaks to His people today. I include this example, not to dispute his view of how God speaks (with which I confess strong disagreement), but to note that he didn’t expound any texts of Scripture from which his five assertions came. Instead, he used human-experience stories as the ground of his claims. His audience was left with bold teachings regarding divine revelation but was given no biblical path the verify them.
  • A few years ago, Preaching Magazine conducted an interview with their prize preacher, Rick Warren, who was asked why his preaching unashamedly focuses on the felt-needs of his audience. He explained that he was simply following Jesus’ method. The passage Warren used to “prove” his claim was Luke 4:16-30, noting that Jesus’ first sermon from the book of Isaiah spoke of Messiah proclaiming “release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the downtrodden,” etc. Beginning with a person’s felt-needs was clear evidence “from Jesus,” at least for Warren, as to why the Lord was able to attract large crowds. Of course, someone at Preaching Magazine forgot to tell Warren that a few verses later that same audience at Jesus’ first sermon tried to murder their preacher.
  • Areas of clear orthodoxy are often lightly glossed over, or altogether botched. A few years ago, another of today’s evangelebrities attempted an exposition of Exodus 3:14 and not only twisted the meaning of Moses’ actual words, but he seemed oblivious to the blasphemous, man-centered view of God coming out of his mouth! Nevertheless, because the pastor’s massive congregation seems miracle-grown, he is classed as an extraordinary preacher and is a featured guest at evangelical venues alongside respectable, skilled expositors.

Sadly, evangelicalism has done very little about these and many other examples of superficial Bible teaching and blatant Scripture twisting. Frankly, I’m not sure some of these preachers would be open to critique. After all, their churches are large and the preaching well received. I submit, however, that equating these things with “good fruit” doesn’t automatically make it true, and is, on the other hand, flat out dangerous! Let’s face it: crowd size and fame easily intoxicate. To squelch other serious questions about a preacher’s content and skill is to open a portal through which a thousand menacing conceits enter the church. Popular preachers become “untouchable,” sermons lazy and vacuous, and audience appetites diluted.

Sometimes we’re told that doctrinally thin preaching is the result of good contextualizing. “We want to be more practical and relevant,” many have explained. To my shock, one pastor even shamelessly told me that although he could feed his people the deeper “meat,” he gave them the “see spot run” version to reach people that churches of a more serious Bible approach couldn’t reach. But is this truly the motive behind all this “preaching light?” Are men setting aside the profound riches of Christ they’ve learned in order to accommodate remedial congregations? I highly doubt it. No honest, faithful pastor teaches less depth than he truly understands, so if these men offer only scant content, you can be sure that’s all they have to offer.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not implying that hard-working, faithful expositors don’t exist. They do! In great numbers, I’m happy to say. I’ve traveled all over the world and throughout this country, and have met scores of diligent fellow pastors slugging it out in the text.  Many don’t have all the formal training they would like, but they remain surrendered to the text, preaching what it says rather than their own opinions. The words of Steven Smith in Dying to Preach should be soberly considered:

Surrendered communication is a relinquishing of our right to say anything we want any way we want.  It is limiting our own freedom of expression in order to maximize effectiveness and minimize self-interests. What, then, is surrendering to the text? Surrendering to the text is at all times deferring to the Scripture, to the point that the sermon is always an expression of the content and spirit of a particular passage…. God has not promised to bless the persuasive meanderings of the pulpit—no matter how cunning, no matter how brilliant the delivery or how perfect the timing. The only message that carries the promise of lifesaving results is the message that is forever tied to the text…. The essential skill that every preacher must hone is precision. This is the ability to say exactly what the text is saying with force and unction, while saying only what the text says—no more and no less (emphasis mine).

We need men with this kind of courage and humility! Men who herald the message of the King with His authority, His passion, His exhortations, His encouragements, and His intended purposes. If evangelicalism’s got any talent, it should be used for His glory and the exaltation of His truth! May God’s grace produce in us the willingness and stamina to train the next generation of His gifted men.

Dr. Jerry Wragg is one of our elDr. Jerry Wragg is President of The Expositors Seminary. He serves as the Pastor-Teacher of Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, FL, one of eleven church-campus locations of TES.