“Textual, Expository, Redemptive-Historical, Applicatory” Preaching?

If all expository preachers differ in their style, structure and approach to preaching, is one specific way of preaching that we ought to be aiming for?

A hermeneutical principle can never take the sole place in a homiletical method. This danger can occur with systematic theology as well. We have to integrate the redemptive-historical elements into the sermon as they are naturally highlighted in the immediate context of the text. This is not always an easy task. We have to give ourselves to a diligent study of the text and meditation on its relationship to Gen. 3:15 and redemption.


Let’s be honest, none of us has the handle on preaching and no two ministers preach the same. John ChrysostymAugustine of HippoJohn CalvinJonathan Edwards, Samuel DaviesCharles SpurgeonGeorge WhitefieldJohn Wesley,Archibald AlexanderMartyn Lloyd-Jones and James Boice were some of the model preachers in the history of the church and they all had unique approaches to expounding God’s word and unique personalities that God worked through. Of those living today Sinclair FergusonEric AlexanderDerek ThomasWilliam StillJohn PiperEdward DonnellyLigon DuncanIan HamiltonPhil RykenRick PhillipsJoseph PipaTim KellerJoel BeekeKent HughesD. A. CarsonMark DeverJohn MacArthurR.C. SproulAlistair BeggBrian Chapell and Mark Driscoll are some of more well known expository preachers–and yet, as was true of those in the history of the church, each one has a unique personality and approach to sermon structure and content.

Some preachers are more textual than others. Some are more topical. Some are more experiential. Some are more exegetical. Some are more explicitly systematic. Some are more explicitly biblical-theological. Some are more culturally engaging. Some are more passionate. Some are more pastoral. Some are more humorous. Some are more somber. Some are more conversational. Some have more heat than others. Some are more didactic. Some are more creative–and yet all of those mentioned above would consider themselves “expository” preachers due to their commitment to preaching in a lectio continua approach. Hughes Oliphant Old has done a great service by illustrating and emphasizing the differences and nuances that exist throughout the history of the church in his seven volume, The Reading and Preaching of Scripture in the Worship of the Christian Church.  

So the question we now have to answer is, “If all expository preachers differ in their style, structure and approach to preaching can we say that there is one specific way of preaching that we ought to be aiming for?” The answer is–at one and the same time–‘yes’ and ‘no.’ I’d like to suggest that while there is freedom to differ in many of the categories listed above–and since the Scriptures do not give us a specific homiletical method–we don’t have to press one example as THE example of faithful preaching. That being said, it does seem to me that a “textual, expository, redemptive-historical and applicatory” approach most faithfully takes consideration of the more narrow and more broad context of the message of Scripture and the bearing it has on those to whom it is preached.  What do each of these categories mean and how should be go about striving to incorporating them into our preaching of the word of God? The following chart might help us envisage the way in which each text (i.e. the smallest preaching unit or ‘pericope’) has a larger context in the chapter, the book, and the entire story of redemption in Scripture. From there it reaches out into the experience of believers in the world through it’s contextual applications:


Before anything can be said about the four contexts that need to be considered in the sermon, brief consideration must first be given to our hermeneutical principles. Once the pericope is chosen, the minister must preach the text according to the grammatical-historical-theological method.

The grammatical element would deal with the nouns, verbs, tenses, cases and all other pertinent exegetical aspects (i.e. syntax, use of idioms, metaphors, etc.).

The historical element would include understanding the authors context, audience, and the overall purpose of the book as a whole. Was a particular book written as an evangelistic tract to a particular group? This seems to have been true of the Gospel of Matthew. Is it a polemic against some particular error jeopardizing the Gospel? Such was the case with the letter to the Galatians. Was it written to deal with a particular deficiency in the life of the church? The epistle of James is an example of such a letter. Was it written to show forth the missional nature of the church in the world? This was certainly the case with the book of Acts. There are many helpful Old and New Testament Introductions available to ministers to help them navigate through the more challenging historical settings. For instance, this is helpful for the historical aspects of the Old Testament, and this for those of the New Testament.

The theological element of our interpretation would include the redemptive-historical (canonical) setting and the systematic-theological categories of Scripture. This means that we need to have a good grasp on the organic unity of the Scriptures. We need to understand how all of the Scriptures are organically related to God’s promise of redemption in Genesis 3:15 and that all of Scripture is eschatological (i.e. moving toward a consummated goal through the finished work of Jesus). Vern Poythress’ article, “The Presence of God Qualifying Our Notions of Grammatical-Historical Interpretation: Genesis 3:15 as a Test Case” is one of the most helpful treatments of the “theological” element in our biblical interpretation. If we leave any of the three elements of interpretation we do ourselves and our listeners a great diservice. Many who seek to “make the Scriptures” relevant to their hearers are guilty of leaving off one or another of these; but many in solidly Reformed churches are often also guilty of over-emphasizing one or another in their preaching. More will be said about these categories throughout this post.

Textual Context

I had a professor in seminary who used to say, “Just as the three rules of realty are ‘context, context, context,’ so it is with preaching. Context is King.” Textual preaching is simply the faithful contextual preaching of a passage of Scripture as defined by a particular self-contained pericope. You might choose to divide a text into a larger or smaller section. The divisions found in most English Bibles are, in many cases, the most naturally manageable divisions to preach. You do need to be careful, however, not to divide it simply because the English translators have given you division headings in your Bible. Sometimes the translators fail to include a verse or two before the break or a verse or two after the break that would naturally go with the exegetical flow of the writer’s argument. This is where knowing the flow of the book as a whole is the only way to properly contain the pericope. The professor I mentioned above would encouraged the students to print out, in Hebrew or Greek, whatever book we would preach through and then to remove chapter divisions and verse numbers. This way the minister learns to do his own dividing of the text and is forced to think through where a natural division might be in a more informed manner. For instance, If you wanted to preach through the book of Romans you would, at some point, divide the book into naturally divided passages. You would want to look for Paul’s line of argumentation, consider how much you are able to preach in a 30 min. period and so divide the book into manageable, naturally divided texts. If you came to Romans 5, you might divide it into three sections: Romans 5:1-5, Romans 5:6-11 and Romans 5:12-21.

The goal with all textual preaching is to drain everything in the text out of the text. This means that we need to labor to stay close to the text. It’s never good to stray far from the text. Many ministers use a text as a springboard from which to jump off into a particular topic they wish to talk about or into another related passage of Scripture. Textual preaching does not do this. Textual preaching seeks to hold forth the proposition of the pericope and to exposit the main point of the text from the text itself. At first this will feel restrictive to the preacher. It is far easier to jump around. But the Holy Spirit has inspired each passage of Scripture–ordering all the words and arguments in the way in which they are written by the human authors. The more men seek to preach textually the easier the other contexts become to discern.

Textual preaching must connect the passage you are preaching with the context of the chapter, or wider context, in which it is found. In my totally biased opinion, no one does this as well as Sinclair Ferguson. Especially when he is preaching a passage in the Gospels, Ferguson connects the more narrow context of what went immediately before or what comes immediately after the text from which he is preaching. In his sermon on Matthew 11:25-30, “The Greatest Rest You’ll Ever Enjoy,” Ferguson ties Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-29 to the context of Matthew 12:1-14. When Jesus says, “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” this can only be fully appreciated when it is seen against the background the subsequent accounts mentioned in Matthew 12:1-14. Since there were no chapters divisions given by inspiration of the Spirit, Ferguson models how to read the text in its immediate context. In this way, the words of Jesus find fuller significance as we see them in the context of the theological purpose of the Sabbath day–the day of redemptive rest. I have had many “Ah ha!” moments while listening to Ferguson preach a text in its immediate context–which I had missed so often. This is what we meant by textual context.

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