While in high school, the Georgia preacher-boy enjoyed hearing his pastor deliver a sermon series based on a particular book of the Bible. The example of expository preaching contrasted with what he was taught in seminary years later. There he was told to develop a sermon topic based on the needs of the people and current interests across the nation. Staying aware of the best-selling books would provide additional ideas, he remembered.
“What I was learning about topical preaching was more interesting” on the surface, he added, “and included more illustrations.” Sermon structure followed a Greek model whereby every major point received equal attention. After graduating, the young preacher tried to apply what he had learned in his own pulpit, offering topical sermons that were biblically based.
When James W. Bryant accepted an associate pastorate at First Baptist Church of Dallas, he recognized a difference in the preaching style of W. A. Criswell and what he had been taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. For five years he heard Criswell preach through books of the Bible and realized “evangelistic preaching can be deep and expository preaching can be exciting.”
The example of Southern Baptists’ most famous expositional preacher persuaded Bryant to abandon a topical approach in favor of expository preaching.
While seminary preaching professors had encouraged memorization of sermons, it was not until he saw Criswell abandon his notes that Bryant tried to do the same. “You can preach expositional sermons without notes more easily than topical sermons,” he said, explaining that the text provides the outline and points can be marked in the Bible.
Only recently have some Southern Baptist seminaries emphasized an expository model of preaching in the classroom. Bryant believes the long-standing preference for topical sermons contributed to the tolerance of theological error within the denomination and local churches. “As much as anything, that is responsible for the drift to the left in our convention.”
At The Criswell College where Bryant serves as academic dean,students completing the B. A. in Biblical Studies take an additional three hours in Old and New Testament survey andan additional three hours in systematic theology when compared to most master of divinity students emphasizing pastoral ministryatSouthern Baptist seminaries. While the master of divinity includes one preaching course and a lab, TCC expects students in the pastoral ministry track to take separate courses in biblical exposition, sermon delivery, Old Testament preaching and New Testament preaching for a total of 12 credit hours. An additional class in evangelistic preaching is offered as an elective. At New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, a master of divinity with a specialization in expository preaching is available, providing 12 hours of preaching courses.
Bryant is convinced that a pastor who is committed to careful exposition inoculates a congregation from doctrinal error.
“Years of expository preaching in a church will have a doctrinal result in the lives of people so that they will know what kind of preacher to get,” he said. Furthermore, pastors are more likely to deal with difficult subjects in the course of preaching through books of the Bible. “You have to deal with things that are there. When asked why, you can say, ‘It’s because it’s in the Bible,'” Bryant said.
During the Jerry Vines Institute of Preaching held at The Criswell College last September, Kent Hughes added, “You will preach on texts you would never preach and avoid if possible. That is a great plus of sequential exposition,” he said, noting the necessity of preaching on divorce, sexual ethics and many other difficult issues. “It’s hard at times, but good for you.” Hughes spoke of a related benefit of preaching an expositional series, stating, “I never had to fret about what I had to preach on Sunday.”
Southeastern Seminary professor Stephen Rummage said that once the preacher determines which of the 66 books of the Bible to pick, most other decisions are made for him. “No longer does the preacher waste time and energy searching for preaching texts,” he wrote in “Planning Your Preaching.”
Furthermore, biblical exposition avoids the accusation of preaching at certain people, Hughes said. “When the text comes up, you’re free to preach it. If you’re jumping around and had a problem with a family, they can think, ‘He chose that to get at us.'”
Hughes warned of “the sermonizer’s trap” of looking for a sermon instead of examining the details of a passage in order to discover the meaning. “Text-based preaching particularly requires an inductive approach to Bible study for sermon preparation,” he told students. “For one thing, that means waiting until your own analysis is complete before consulting commentaries and other helps.”
He added that expository preaching keeps the preacher subject to the text, while topical preaching involves setting up a structure and collecting information to fit into it. “When you know the text in context and the Holy Spirit has ministered to your own heart, authority and passion are inevitable. It’s not manufactured,” Hughes said.
Rummage defined this style of preaching by clarifying the meaning of exposition as “putting something out in public view, uncovering it, opening it up and placing it on display.” He turned to Nehemiah 8:8 for an example of teaching listeners the meaning and persuading them to apply that meaning in their own lives. The passage stages, “So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped th