30 May 2013

Verse by verse exposition is the only way to go... er, right?

by Dan Phillips

Like most of you, probably, I primarily preach in a verse by verse expository style. The reasons for going this way are well-known. Primary among them to my mind is simply that this is the best way not to end up camping out on one's own favorite hobby horses, to mix a metaphor. If I preach the Bible expositionally, I'm likelier to hit the things important to God, and not just lounge around those most congenial to me (or my hearers).

I've experienced this many, many times, and I daresay others would say the same. A number of the sermons in Titus hit issues in ways I wouldn't have, or would not have even thought to do. But the verses went there, and so I followed. Preaching through books will do that for you.

But here's something we need to consider, to give our approach Biblical balance. I'll put it as a question: what prophetic or apostolic address, in the Bible, is a strictly verse by verse exposition in the style we use today?

The most honest answer is that you can't exactly find one. There are many expositions of Scriptures. One could make the case that the entire book of Hebrews is an exposition of Psalm 110, for instance, though Apollos spends good time elsewhere as well (chaps 3, 8, etc.). And then Nehemiah 8:1-8 probably tells us that there was such teaching, though it isn't detailed or recorded.

My point is not in any way to deride expository preaching. However, I would deride those who deride any other approach as being somehow sub-Biblical.

To make my point, look at the bulk of recorded apostolic and prophetic sermons and addresses recorded in Scripture. How would you be forced to classify them?

Topical.

By this I mean, the preachers take a topic, and they bring some or many strands of Biblical passages to bear on that topic. They are preaching what God says about that topic, and demonstrating it by appeal to Scriptures. Look at the sermons in Acts 2, 14, or 17; look just about anywhere to any public address.

The first series I did at CBC was topical, titled Thinking Biblically. I used it to survey the grand doctrines of Scripture, using our statement of faith as a general outline. Knowing that this flock was accustomed to expository preaching, to anticipate any misunderstandings, my first sermon was devoted to that very, ahem, topic: why Biblical topical preaching is both possible and profitable. I demonstrated all this from Biblical texts. In short, it is possible because the Bible is the Word of God. It is one person speaking, behind the multitude of human authors. That is why it is possible to synthesize Scripture and say "God says ____."

Also in short, it is profitable, evidently, because just about every preacher in Scripture does it.

Now of course, topical sermon has a bad taste in many mouths because it is liable to abuse. My short response would be, What isn't? But I don't need convincing on this topic. One preacher I heard at length would seldom get into real exposition of Scriptures. But he was going to preach on what happens with us after we die. "At last," I thought, "a topic on which we have absolutely no experience, no anecdotes. He's going to have to get into the text!"

Wrong.

What we got instead was "We know" and "We hope" and "We as Christians believe" -- without one serious engagement with the texts that tell us what we know, hope, and believe. Astonishing.

Yet it is both useful and Biblical to expound what the Bible teaches on various doctrinal and ethical, practical and theological matters. We must be careful at all points to be expounding Scripture, to do all we can to ensure that our folks go away able to say "The Bible teaches," and not merely "Pastor X said." But we can do it, and we should do it.

After all, it's Biblical.

Dan Phillips's signature

39 comments:

David Regier said...

I like how you throw the little "Apollos" thing in there, just to make sure we're paying attention.

DJP said...

(c;

David Regier said...

But to actually interact with the subject of your post, I will just say "Thanks!" Going verse by verse just for the sake of doing it, it is possible to lose sight of the big picture.

I am grateful for my pastors who have demonstrated a good, healthy mix of methods while keeping us grounded in the serious exposition of the Scriptures.

Alex Philip said...

One advantage of the verse by verse; chapter by chapter approach is that it necessarily creates Biblical Imbalances in your preaching. Not every topic/issue is equally pertinent in the Scriptures. Some are more pressing than others. To strike this Biblical Imbalance you need to preaching through the text.

DJP said...

I'm not sure I follow you, Alex. Could you reword, and/or illustrate?

Bill said...

Dan, Amen. I love, and expect, expository preaching. Far too often expository preaching is a classroom lecture without a hint of application. Verse by verse with application is preferred. However, when a topic is important to a particular congregation, I see topical as fully biblical. You know your sheep and what they need; as the undershepherd to The Shepherd thats your job. Again, Amen!

Jason Dohm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Frank Turk said...

It's funny that you endorse verse-by-verse AND Topical, and the first comment by not-Regier is, "Yeah, but Verse-by-Verse ..."

Your point about how the Apostles and Prophets preached Scripture is stellar. The letter to the Hebrews ought to be a lesson to anyone who yeah-buts here that the Bible is SUFFICIENT and not merely INERRANT.

Carry on. I'm off to vacation.

DJP said...

Thanks, Bill.

I could say that the "categorical" approach to which I alluded in Tuesday's post opens a way to combine expository and topical preaching.

Alex Philip said...

Creation stewardship is a theme in the Scriptures. It is not emphasized to the degree that atonement is. I started preaching 10 years ago and tried to balance out my topics giving equal time and attention to the topics I felt were important. 5 years ago I began preaching verse by verse chapter by chapter. I have yet to address creation stewardship. I am always addressing the atonement. Biblical imbalance.

Jason Dohm said...

I love to hear great expositors preach topical sermons, because they stick to the text as tenaciously as when they are doing sequential exposition. As the writers and readers here know, topical sermons can be and ought to be expository, where the discourse on the topic is driven by a careful look at various texts in their proper contexts.

DJP said...

Eleven comments, one rating, and it's a TWO-star hater.

Welcome!

rfb said...

In concurrence but with a qualifier. I think that exposition is vital, but I also think that it is critical that proper contextual support is provided by all verse-by-verse instruction. If we understand that each book/letter as more than a single sentence, then those other sentences must be included for what the "therefore is there for".

As a general principle, I think that a baloney sandwich requires bread, baloney and bread. Without the bread its just...

Michael Coughlin said...

I agree with your points and that is the first question I asked when someone brought this up to me is show me where in the scriptures this is commanded. I get preferences.

I had a guy tell me that he didn't pick my church even though he lives close and we match his ecclesiological views because he prefers verse by verse, expository, preaching and he didn't hear it at my church.

Funny. All my pastor's sermons are expository. And about half of them are verse by verse. The other half topical. That is born out of him preaching thrice weekly.

So this guy who I love and want to grow and see at church drives 20 minutes farther to a presby church where they have all sorts of "other" problems he can't stand because he maybe placed too high a priority on verse by verse preaching, mistook that for expository and didn't investigate enough to know he could get that anyway if he simply showed up Sunday and Wednesday nights...

Phew!

David Regier said...

Not-Regier is a really, really big category.

Frank Turk said...

It's not as small as some people think.

Brian Shealy said...

But Dan, the problem is with your premise. You say that there are many expositions in Scripture, but I'd say that there are none. All of Scripture is revelation, not exposition. Hebrews is not an exposition of Psalm 110 it involves prophecy and fulfillment, type antitype. It is an author writing inspired Scripture revealing meaning to us for sure, but doing oh so much more. The example of Scripture is not why it is valuable to preach expositionally verse-by-verse. It is because we are commanded to teach this revelation and verse-by-verse exposition respects the form and context of how it was revealed. But with that said, I see value in topical preaching as well. It is just harder because you have to make sure you understand the various contexts of every verse you use.

Jill Miller said...

I appreciate this post very much.

I have sat under extremely topical teaching. When the "pastor" did a sermon series based on family tv shows of the last 4 decades, we left.

I have also sat under teaching that was at the extreme of verse-by-verse; more like word-by-word, poring over the grammatical intricacies and historic context. While interesting to a grammar and language geek like me, what I eventually found was that I was very familiar with the miniscule specks of dirt and stone and detritus on the forest floor. But I had no idea what the trees looked like, and I had completely lost the sense of awe and wonder at their magnificence.

It takes a fine pastor to balance the view so his flock sees the details AND the forest.

Frank Turk said...

DJP - I am glad this is your post. The responses today are not edifying.

J. E. Smith said...

Brian Sheely said "The example of Scripture is not why it is valuable to preach expositionally verse-by-verse. It is because we are commanded to teach this revelation and verse-by-verse exposition respects the form and context of how it was revealed."

I was going to say something like this (albeit less succinctly more-than-likely) but I really really like that catagorical expostion deal-io you were talking about yesterday: best of both worlds imo.

Jeremy Weaver said...

I have noticed that some preachers do not know that their verse-by-verse exposition needs to have a topic.

J. E. Smith said...

..."verse-by-verse exposition respects the form and context of how it was revealed."

Uh...now that I think about it...this is a somewhat subjective statement. If the revelation itself was mostly-topical-esque then the same would seem to also 'respect the form and context of how it was revealed'

One thing I do know: I am adept at typing and posting before putting brain in gear. Great thoughts, pastor Dan!

Robert said...

Don't you have to get topical at points during the verse-by-verse expositional preaching? There are certain topics that come up in certain books that other portions of Scripture provide a lot more clarity on...and isn't it best to provide such clarity on those issues so as to provide the Biblical balance on such topics? Any of the guys that I respect and listen to doing verse-by-verse take the time to also do topical series to provide perspective on these issues. To not do so is a great disservice to the flock, in my humble opinion. And it kind of misses the whol point of the verse-by-verse approach - to leave no stone unturned.

fastidiouswolf said...

From a Lutheran perspective: v-by-v has a place in preaching, but is really best suited for Bible classes. Most Lutheran preachers will follow the pericopal system, and will then exegete the text for the purpose of proclaiming Christ from it. Verse-by-verse can be helpful in such preaching, but is generally what the preacher does in preparation for preaching. Much of the difference here has to do with what preaching is thought to be for: is it for teaching the people, or is it for giving Christ to the people with teaching as a necessary component in doing so. Don't hear this as ripping on v-by-v; just throwing in rather different view of the matter.

That said: how long do many of you preach? How does the style / aim affect that?

Rob said...

Expositional teaching, with the pastor giving topical applications without going overboard, is what it should be all about.

I've loved your Titus messages on sermonaudio. Some great insight into a book I've not studied much before.

Frank Turk said...

Weaver's comment is the best so far.

By a lot.

Kerry James Allen said...

Preaching and teaching through books expositionally was very helpful to me in one big area: It forced me to deal honestly with texts that ran contrary to a lot of theology I had learned earlier and was therefore easier to avoid topically. Election was one. We just never got to that topic! However, dealing with Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 verse by verse grabbed me by the throat and throttled me. Topical only advocates need to continually run self-diagnostics to see if they are using that as am avoidance technique. One of Andy Stanley's books suggests exactly that. Sort through your Bible and determine which subjects you need to avoid. Expositing chapters and books would make that nearly impossible.

J. E. Smith said...

Basck to pastor Dan's "catagorical" approach. The more I think about - it the more I see value (for the disciple) in the method. For instance, in going through the Gospel of John v-b-v I can stop in 1:18 and do a whole message on the topic of the pre-incarnate appearences of Christ. By-the-by, I also was thoroughly helped by the Titus series, so again tnx.

J. E. Smith said...

AND I can't spell, so yeah...

trogdor said...

Lest this point get lost, here it is again:

We must be careful at all points to be expounding Scripture, to do all we can to ensure that our folks go away able to say "The Bible teaches," and not merely "Pastor X said."

You can do that, or not, in verse-by-verse or topical, in biblical or systematic theology. The goal is to faithfully bring God's word to bear, there's no one-size-fits-all approach to every situation - sometimes you can't do it one way without temporarily switching to the other. No matter how you approach a particular sermon, the question remains the same: are you teaching your ideas or what God says?

Jeremy Weaver said...

I like Turk's last comment the best.

DJP said...

I must be unspiritual today or something. I like all of them. Except the dumb one.

Elaine Bittencourt said...

Dan, how about expository sermons that have so much application they don't sound expository at all?

Not sure if I can explain this properly. I am so accustomed to listening to MacArthur that anything that is not his style sounds topical to me.

E.

Pastor Steve said...

Thank you for this post. I am a long time lurker and this is my first comment. Tom usually pipes in and says what I was thinking only more clearly.

I think it is a false dichotomy to speak of topical or expositional preaching. I understand how the words are popularly understood and used but all preaching should be expositional preaching...even topical preaching.

Your last paragraph hits on this point and may be where you were leading us:

"Yet it is both useful and Biblical to expound what the Bible teaches on various doctrinal and ethical, practical and theological matters. We must be careful at all points to be expounding Scripture"

There is also a distinction between verse by verse preaching and expository preaching. I have heard many verse-by-verse expositions that were not expositional at all. They may have covered every word in the verse and yet they still never uncovered (exposed, if you will) the author's intended meaning.

[In fact, I don't want to overstate it but one might be able to make the case that some of the biggest violators of true exposition are those preachers who are going through a book verse-by-verse.]

Though it is not popularly spoken of in this way, expositional preaching is more about the approach to the text than about a particular style. One can be expositional while dealing with a topic and one can be expositional while dealing with a verse and the reverse is also true of both approaches.

Our churches need more exposition, whether they are dealing with a topic, dealing with one verse in Hebrews, dealing with the entire book of Job in one Sunday or just opening up their Bibles in the morning for their devotions.

Am I missing your point, Dan?

DJP said...

Nope, Pastor Steve, sounds like you're right where I was. All preaching should be Biblical; verse by verse through a book is not the only way to preach Biblically -- and, in fact, it isn't the approach of most of the recorded preaching of apostles and prophets.

Steve Scott said...

I think [good] topical preaching presupposes that each passage used on a topic has already been the subject of exposition as opposed to merely proof-texting. So, topical preaching done right, is right.

As for expository preaching alone, I've heard the "verse by verse expository preaching guarantees that the entire text is dealt with" argument. But all it guarantees is that every passage will be read in its entirety at the beginning of the sermon. Preachers can avoid all sorts of truths even while reading and/or discussing a verse.

What's needed, of course, is for a preacher to not be afraid to tackle every truth, even if he doesn't know the meaning, or if a verse bothers him for some reason.

Bill said...

I wish Phil Johnson would comment :)

J. E. Smith said...

Both Phil and CHS have weighed in this weekend. Huzzah TeamPyro!

Julia in CA said...

"What's needed, of course, is for a preacher to not be afraid to tackle every truth, even if he doesn't know the meaning, or if a verse bothers him for some reason."

BAM! There ya go. What Steve Scott said.

I must say, as much as I enjoyed the original post, the comments have been delightful as well! It's my first time visiting the blog... I can see I'll be needing to come back in the future :)