The “exegetical sermon” totally misses the congregation. Some preaching that claims to be expositional is rejected as boring and irrelevant . . . and rightly so! One could just as well be reading from an exegetical commentary. Everything that is said is true to the passage, but it’s not really preaching; it is merely a lecture. Much might be learned about Paul’s use of the genitive absolute, but little about the character of God or the nature of the human heart.
Mark Dever rightly describes expositional preaching as “preaching that takes for the point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture.”
However, I have heard (and preached!) sermons that intend to be expositional, yet fall somewhat short. Below are a dozen pitfalls: five that don’t make the message of the passage the message of the sermon and thus abuse the text, five that fail to connect the text the congregation, and two that fail to recognise that preaching is ultimately God’s work.
None of these observations are original to me. Many I learned at Eden Baptist Church in Cambridge in the mid 90s. Others I’ve picked up along the way. Since writing a similar article a few years ago, I’ve included some suggestions people made for additions. I’m sure you can think of others.
IMPOSTERS THAT FAIL TO SEE THE TEXT
1) The “Unfounded Sermon”: The Text Is Misunderstood
Here the preacher says things that may be true, but in no sense come from a correct interpretation of the passage. He is careless either with the content of the text (e.g. the sermon on “production, prompting, and inspiration” from the NIV of 1 Thessalonians 1:3, though each word has no parallel in the Greek) or with the context (e.g. the sermon on David and Goliath, that asks ‘who is your Goliath, and what are the five smooth stones that you need to be prepared to use against him?’).
If a preacher is not deeply mining the truth of God’s Word to determine the message of his sermons, they are likely being driven by his own ideas not God’s.
2) The “Springboard Sermon”: The Point of the Text is Ignored
Closely related is the sermon where the preacher becomes intrigued by something that’s a secondary implication of the text, but is not the main point. Imagine a sermon on the wedding at Cana in John 2 that focuses primarily on the lawfulness of Christians drinking alcohol and said nothing about the display of the New Covenant glory of Christ through the sign of Jesus changing water into wine.
One of the great advantages of sequential expository preaching is that the preacher is forced to preach on topics he would rather avoid, and to give appropriate weight to topics he would tend to overemphasise. A preacher of “unfounded” or “springboard” sermons can unwittingly jettison both these advantages, and instead God’s agenda is silenced or sidelined.
3) The “Doctrinal Sermon”: The Richness of the Text Is Ignored
God has deliberately spoken to us “in many ways” (Heb 1:1). Too many sermons ignore the literary genre of a passage, and preach narrative, poetry, epistle, and apocalyptic all alike as a series of propositional statements. Whilst all sermons must convey propositional truths, they should not be reduced to them. The literary context of the passages should mean that a sermon from the Song of Songs sounds different than one from Ephesians 5. The passage may have the same central point, but it is conveyed in a different way. The diversity of Scripture is not to be flattened in preaching, but treasured and conveyed in a manner sensitive to the literary genre. Narrative should help us to empathize, poetry should heighten our emotional response, and apocalypse and prophecy should leave us awestruck.
4) The “Shortcut Sermon”: The Biblical Text Is Barely Mentioned
The opposite of the exegetical sermon, this kind of preaching shows no exegetical “working” at all. Though the Lord has set the agenda by his Word, only the preacher is fully aware of that fact. The congregation may well end up saying, “what a wonderful sermon” rather than “what a wonderful passage of Scripture.”
Let’s keep encouraging our congregation to hear God’s voice not just ours, by frequently pointing them back to the text: “look what God says in verse five” more than “listen carefully to what I’m saying now.”
5) The “Christ-less Sermon”: The Sermon Stops Short of the Savior
Jesus castigated the Pharisees: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). How sad that even we who have come to Jesus to have life would bring a whole congregation to study a passage of Scripture and yet refuse to bring them to see what that Scripture says about Christ, turning Old Testament texts into moralistic sermons, and even preaching Christ-less, gospel-less sermons from the Gospels themselves. Imagine the horror of a sermon on Gethsemane narrative that majored on lessons on how we could handle stress in our lives.
If God’s Word is like a vast wheel, the hub is Christ and the axle is the gospel. We have not faithfully preached any passage of Scripture until we have worked our way down the spokes to the hub, and communicated what the passage says about Christ and how it relates to the gospel.