How To Discern What is Expository/Text-Driven Preaching and That Which is Not

 |  December 12, 2016

The preaching circus is ever in town; and, as part of the show, most everyone claims to be an expository (text-driven) preacher. However, actually, few are. This is an interesting development since it is a confession, of sorts, that text-driven preaching is the preferred variety. Of course, I argue that it is more than the preferred variety. I believe that it is the only acceptable form of address for a preacher who believes that God has spoken in His Word, the Bible. There is nothing that a preacher does – other than the sanctity of his own walk with God – that is more important than preaching. And the most important thing about preaching is helping people to read the Word of God effectively and fruitfully.

So then, why is it that people claim to be doing exposition when, in fact, they are not doing so? How can one tell what is a real text-driven sermon and what is not? For example, there is the famous sermon on the Prodigal Son. Its three points are that the Prodigal:

  1. Went to the dogs
  2. Ate with the hogs
  3. He homeward jogs

Now technically, all three points do arise out of the text. But it is rather obvious that something here is not quite right. So, how does a man go about determining what is a text-driven sermon? Although these are not the only considerations, please note the following five things:

  1. First, is the text explained in such a way that the auditor comprehends the message of the Holy Spirit through the human author? Note the facets of this question. First, the text must be explained. If the text is not explained, then obviously, it is not a text-driven sermon. However, it must also be explained in such a way that the auditor comprehends the message that the Holy Spirit was giving through the human author. This recognizes the unique stylistic contributions of the author; but still more important – that the overriding hand in the writing of Scripture is the Holy Spirit. Has the sermon therefore captured the mind of the Holy Spirit in His inspiration of the author?
  1. Is the preacher supporting the text in the way that the author supported his point? This does not demand rigid reproduction of the exact words of the text. But whatever words are employed must be chosen in such a way that not only are the author’s major points the major points of the message but also so that even the methods and linguistic devices employed by the author are captured in support of the issue. The sermon mentioned above on the Prodigal Son might get the main points of the message, but it certainly deviates from the way in which the author produced the text. So, one must ask the question of how the author supported his point.
  1. Is the preacher aware of the context, and has he properly exegeted the text in the light of that context? Here is the point at which many supposed expositors violate the text-driven tradition. John claims in his gospel that we might believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. According to John’s gospel, “These things were written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing, you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). This in turn means that any text must be interpreted in keeping with the stated purpose of John’s gospel. So, preaching a sermon on our need to feed hungry people, based on the parable of the feeding of the five thousand in John 6, is not a legitimate use of the text; and it is certainly not text-driven preaching. This point could be made in a sermon such as that; but it cannot be the main focus of it. The driving point of the sermon is that Jesus once again shows that He is Lord of all of nature and that if you believe in Him, you can have life through His name.
  1. Has the preacher taken unauthorized fishing trips? The issue here is the tendency on the part of many preachers to chase rabbits. Something stated in the text reminds the herald of something else that he would like to say; and, so, he pursues that succulent hare. Unfortunately, this takes away from the impact of the text and violates the single useful observation that hardly anybody listening to a sermon will remember more than one thing about it. So, therefore, if it can be established what the text really says and that is what the people leave remembering, the desirable end should be focused on the main thing and not be augmented by unauthorized fishing trips to other ideas.
  1. Does the text developed by the preacher reflect the direction of the book from which it is taken? Once again, the book of Job is a rich book with a wide variety of expressions. The book is not about the doubts of Job or even the suffering of Job. The book is about the providential care of God and His governorship of all of life. As one preaches the various texts in Job, this truth must be the underlying accent of the book. For example, one may be infatuated with the nature of the beast unsuccessfully hunted in Job 41; but whether it was a hippo, a crocodile, or some early member of the dinosaur family is not relevant to the meaning of the text. Whether ancillary facts are an interesting endeavor, or even the subject of considerable study, the point of the text is that the power of such an animal – whatever the species may have been – is something that only God controls perfectly.

Consequently, to say that a man is a text-driven preacher is, first of all, a high compliment. You are affirming that he understands the necessity of getting the Word of God to the people. If the Word of God is “living and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of the soul and spirit and the joints and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12), then to be called a text-driven preacher means that the task of the preacher is to open the door of the cage skillfully and unleash the Bible effectively into the hearts of the listeners. When a man claims to be an expositor of God’s Word or a text-driven preacher, one can easily test whether that claim is, in fact, true. God bless every preacher who wants above all else for the auditors to hear and comprehend the Word of God.

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