Derogatory Preaching

Expository preaching sacrifices the gospel on the altar of biblical literacy.

Ian Olson / 2.8.23

We have been told expository preaching is important because such preaching excludes anyone’s agenda but God’s. How can it be otherwise when it is just a faithful laying out of what is there in the text? But this is precisely why so much of what passes for “expository preaching” is so loathsome, as the majority of it reflects the clueless preacher’s agenda alone.

Preaching is the announcement of Good News. This news is good because God is the active agent within it. The only fit response to such news, then, is to repent and believe what is announced. The repentance does not even have to be that thorough or the belief that stalwart for the announcement to do what it does, either, which is why preaching happens week after week after week! Gospel proclamation transmits Jesus Christ, the substance of the covenant of grace, to the disheartened helpless gathered to listen, from whom nothing can be expected. Whatever it is congregants must do, it must be announced that Jesus Christ is the one who will accomplish it. The faith that believes plants the desires and commitments of Jesus Christ within the one who believes. But only proclaiming God as God sets this in motion, not moral grandstanding and disappointed tones and suspicion-sewing.

The fact is, however, that much of what passes for expository preaching is almost precisely that. For one thing, it usually assumes an audience that only needs a couple of helpful tips from the Bible to get through the rest of the day and week. For another, it is of relatively recent vintage. Prior to the Puritans you would be hard pressed to find anything quite like it in church history. So pretending it is the church’s normal homiletical practice come round again is simply untrue. Worse of all, though, is that it is so typically unimaginative and bland, domesticating the vibrant danger of the Bible into easily digestible truths.

For there is regularly nothing in so-called expository preaching that opens the eyes of the listener’s heart to the wondrously insane thing God is doing to defeat that which defeats us. There is no invitation to see the world or ourselves differently. Such preaching can get the sinful rebellion part of our condition down, but even then, only in part. For even as it speaks of God’s “No” to sin, it only intermittently awakens us to God’s pity for his ruined creatures. Far too often, it just clobbers us with our stupidity and ugliness and uselessness. It doesn’t render more visible the condescension of God in assuming the form of a slave to undo the architecture of evil from within, just three points on what you’re doing wrong and a reminder that God wants you to get it right, finally.

Expository preaching sacrifices the gospel on the altar of biblical literacy.

The text of scripture is more dissected than closely read, wrenched apart into atomistic components that cease to bear address when they are so subdivided. It performs the heresy of paraphrase as it reduces the text to propositions, but these far too often tend to be impositions upon the text rather than derived from the text. The ironically unbiblical presumption that humans are, oddly enough, encumbered with these tremendously inconvenient bodies that keep getting in the way of pure cogitation, line-by-line preaching becomes as unfeeling and oppressive as an SAT prep class.

So it’s not that a series going through a biblical book is categorically unsound: Augustine did the same thing, as did John Chrysostom, as did Bernard of Clairvaux, as did Calvin. Working through the canonical texts at length, re-familiarizing ourselves with what Scripture actually says (and not what we think it should say) is, it should go without saying, right and meet.

The problem is that there are entirely too many wannabe John Calvins (or, more recently, John Macarthur) going verse-by-verse through the Letter to the Romans who miss the forest for the trees. Every would-be preacher being trained on the expository assembly line is being injection molded to emulate the essentially Puritan practice of despairingly long sermons that place a premium on bludgeoning the listener with guilt and law and groveling self-loathing. Pour more contempt upon yourself and this sadistic version of God might deign to be merciful and you will be spared the Götterdämmerung napalm storm he’s eagerly looking forward to unleashing on losers like you. This type of preaching tends to be little more than verbal degradation and soul-demolition — it doesn’t offer itself as the mouthpiece of the reconciling God revealed in Jesus Christ.

But besides failing as announcement, more often than not it devolves into extended wallops of how important expository preaching is. How disheartening is it to be subjected to an avalanche of self-congratulatory chest thumping that holds nothing out to the listening congregation aside from us vs. them diatribes in the form of those rotten heretics who aren’t eructing forty-five minute sermons and we, the faithful few who have their act together. Is there anything more absurd than preaching about how crucial preaching is?

The gospel, proclaimed by a preacher who understands its necessity, reassures the fentanyl addict that his dependency has not weakened God’s love for him and that the ravages of his addiction don’t have to have the final word. It promises the couple whose marriage seems to be falling apart that Jesus Christ brings his fathomless fidelity to the equation as the marriage-partner to both, who wants to overcome the fear and the disillusionment they have fallen into. The good news addresses those catechized throughout the week by hateful partisan talking heads, pointing them to a savior whose love extends to those they’ve been taught to hate.

To those who are intimately familiar with how life sucks, who believe the world is against them, the gospel announces that the circle is only closed from the inside, that the divine tangent can strike and penetrate that circle in gloriously unforeseeable ways to rescue and renew what seems right now like pointless suffering and malaise. To the secretly desperate listeners, whether they’re nineteen or forty-nine or seventy-nine, Jesus Christ can make peace between them, their unlived lives, and their shadow selves. He can make the inevitable winnowing of options that growing older represents not only bearable, but a joy — in small, quiet doses perhaps, but a genuine joy.

Expository preaching rarely does any of this, of course. Concerned more with “truth” than God, it raises the bar all the more painfully high for us to fail yet again. Such preaching will scarcely qualify as preaching because the announcement of genuinely good news won’t take place, and that because the dispossessive, kenotic God of mercy and grace won’t even be on display. The suffering don’t need a coach, but a doctor. The sinful don’t need self-loathing, but forgiveness. And the arrogant certainly don’t need any more Bible lessons to sharpen their self-righteousness. We need a preacher, not a teacher. We don’t need more truth: we need the news that changes the world.

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10 responses to “Derogatory Preaching”

  1. Marcus says:

    I don’t know man, I’d counter that the world needs both teaching and preaching…

    I appreciate the alarm against thinly veiled legalism like MacArthur seems to exude. However, expository preaching/teaching/learning is quite critical to our sanctification process, in my view.

    I know this site revels in its low anthropology. I get it. There is nothing we can add to the work of Christ on the cross. However, why then did Christ himself directly tell folks to “sin no more”? Why did he stress the importance of repentance so? It seems to me we have a part to play in our following Jesus, instead of this proposal that we sit back, enjoy God’s forgiveness, and perhaps God will change us. Jesus emphasized repentance (going the opposite way) as an inseparable hallmark of following Him!

    Exegesis (to draw out) should always be the foundation for explaining concepts (exposition). It is true, that exposition can go off course from the original meaning of the text. But understanding a word in its original language doesn’t require one to rabbit trail into legalism.

    Eisegesis, the reading of one’s own ideas into the text, is the real culprit to poor preaching and teaching. My wife is an MD and she spends most of her day….teaching! She has to preach some too, like literally, “so you want to continue this behavior and die?” We do need to raise the bar of truth – albeit lovingly – to awaken the need for repentance in our lives. It’s incredible how God releases his power when we seek his strength to repent.

    Preaching and teaching can co-exist. As can truth and the Gospel. Jesus describes himself as the truth. I believe you are arguing that expository preachers like MacArthur can produce an excessive portion of pharisees who say, “thank you Lord I’m not like that sinner” as opposed to those who pray, “have mercy on me Lord, a sinner”. And to this point I generally agree. (Right there, I just took the original truth of a teaching of Jesus and applied it expositorily with the felt perception that MacArthurites act like know-it-alls) However, the truth is not the culprit, the pride and the eisegesis is.

    And just a friendly aside – the fifty cent words made me feel similar to a bad MacArthur sermon – inferior! Lol…

    • Ian Olson says:

      Hey Marcus, thanks for your comment.

      I’m not against truth. I’m not against teaching. What I am against is the Macarthurs of the world drawing lines in sand that our Lord wouldn’t draw and calling that line the truth that has to be defended at all costs.

      The same goes for expository preaching. I thoroughly agree with expositing the text of Scripture. It’s the schlock that I spent too long hearing trumpeted *as* expository preaching that is so repulsive. Because even if you exegete this or that passage well, the real point has been missed if the unilateral delivering action of God in Christ isn’t the focus and the promise of something different and better happening.

      I completely agree that I’m responsible for something if the Lord says, “Go and sin no more.” But what fuels and funds that responsibility is crucial. I know that in my flesh no good dwells: if I am to change, to be better in some way, that course correction and the energy to move along that trajectory will not and cannot originate in me. The Lord knows that and expects nothing different. I don’t mean that to sound like pious fluff. I truly believe that.

      And of course I’m not going to “sin no more.” However much I want to as I feel the intermingling joy and sorrow of my Lord forgiving me and renewing me, I’m going to blow it. And again, he knows that and counts on that, as even my best efforts are always divided against themselves and what I, in the deepest part of myself, want. It is a merciful Lord who confers new possibilities on such creatures as us, and that, unfortunately, is what I heard little of and frankly was not trained in when I was part of that world.

      Hope that clarifies some things, Marcus.

  2. Cheryl Pickrell, Gary Pickrell says:

    My husband and I absolutely say,” Amen!” Titus 3:5, a very short verse succinctly captures what this essay proclaims, and that is,”He saved us, not on the basis of deeds that we have done in righteousness but according to his mercy.” This is a statement of absolutes and absolutely we do not help Christ save us. Hanna Whittall Smith says,”It’s our job to trust and His job to work.” ( A Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life) We are so grateful Paul preached Christ crucified. Henri Nouwen said every problem can be helped by sitting at the foot of the cross.

  3. “Every would-be preacher being trained on the expository assembly line is being injection molded to emulate the essentially Puritan practice of despairingly long sermons that place a premium on bludgeoning the listener with guilt and law and groveling self-loathing.”
    In retrospect, kinda harsh and inaccurate? Objective or subjective?

    • Ian Olson says:

      I don’t think it’s inaccurate at all. That’s how it made me feel after a while and people I “preached” to reported likewise.

      And I’m not trying to be a smart aleck, but the subject/object divide isn’t absolute. I know what you mean by it, but the subjective response is important and that’s something that is too often downplayed by Macarthur types and other shouters of “Facts don’t care about your feelings!”

      So no, I don’t think it’s inaccurate and, given its effect on people, I don’t think it’s harsh. I think the type of pulpit activity I’ve written about is.

  4. Cheryl Pickrell, Gary Pickrell says:

    This is one of the wisest most comforting lines I’ve read about aging. My husband and I are in our 70’s, and this rings true. “He can make the inevitable winnowing of options that growing older represents not only bearable, but a joy, in small, quiet doses perhaps, but a genuine joy.”

  5. steve behlke says:

    I am a regular reader and huge Mockingbird fan, and I am no Lordship Salvation nor John MacArthur follower. But this article felt like a low blow. I have heard the best Gospel declarations and grace-in-practice teaching from verse by verse (expository) teaching through the Epistles to the Ephesians, Philippians, 1 John, Romans, and the Gospel of John. So rich, and such a blessing. Sadly, this is the least gracious article that I have read on Mbird. While I may be in the minority, I am extremely grateful for faithful, grace-filled, and inspiring expository preaching. And I am glad to say my experience is far from this author’s experience.

    • Ian Olson says:

      Hi Steve, thanks for your comment.

      I am very happy that what I’ve written here doesn’t characterize the preaching of your church. I would also say that what I’m targeting here doesn’t apply to those who preach in your church. What I’m criticizing isn’t expository preaching as such but the preaching that calls itself that but exemplifies the negatives I’ve described. By virtue of these failings I’m differentiating “expository preaching” from life-giving preaching that works through the text.

      I’ll never say stop preaching the text. What I do want to say is the point is missed if the sermon only elaborates on historical context and vocabulary but doesn’t announce the self-emptying God of the gospel who wants to save even me. Thanks again.

  6. Tim Summerford says:

    I appreciate your replies to the reader’s comments, as they provided much clarity to your definition of “expository preaching”. The gentleness in which you handled the response(s) was greatly appreciated as well. I will say, you came out swinging a pretty big stick with “…. why so much of what passes for “expository preaching” is so loathsome, as the majority of it reflects the clueless preacher’s agenda alone”. That’s a rather broad brush you painted expositors with. Guess I never viewed Martyn Lloyd-Jones or Tim Keller as loathsome or clueless, but I’m not a theologian and far from an expository expert. Yes, I would agree that your buddy Johnny Mac seems to have become a bit acerbic in his later years, and that is disappointing. My prayer is that my new-found writing friend doesn’t follow that path by swinging too large of a stick at those fundy expositors, so much so that one could almost assume a reverse fundamentalism. Sad to say, having spent decades working closely with pastors from all denominations, there can be an eerie sense of self righteousness working its way to the surface (i.e. “those fundy’s, those liberals, those …. “you get my drift). But for the grace of God! I do appreciate your writing (and thinking) style. Thanks for listening.

    • Ian Olson says:

      Hi Tim, and thank you for your comment!

      It means a lot to me that you followed to my replies to readers’ comments as that, in itself, is an exercise of grace. You’re absolutely right that I came out swinging with a big stick, though I envision that stick as more of a racket which I’m swinging to return a volley that’s about to explode near some folks.

      You bring up a good point about Keller. I specifically didn’t target him as I don’t see him as an offender: in every Keller sermon I’ve ever heard he preaches the gospel on the occasion of this text. And that’s what I would say the failure of so much expository preaching is. Because I can’t agree that eisegesis is what the problem boils down to. I don’t think that proper exegesis is itself the point of preaching or the guarantor of good preaching, and I think the episode on the road to Emmaus proves that.

      Because what Moses or David or Ezekiel did or said isn’t in itself the gospel: the gospel is latent in the text, awaiting the preacher who will make plain how this text indicates the God who comes near to us in Jesus. Again, our Lord says that people who had been rigorously taught *what* a text says were not getting the real point if those texts aren’t explicitly connected to him.

      If a preacher nails historical context and Hebrew or Greek vocabulary and syntax then they can faithfully relay what was said. Which is worthwhile! But it isn’t preaching. Preaching draws on what God has said in the past to speak a contemporary word from God to us. And this is why good exegetical method doesn’t inherently lead to gospel preaching.

      I ask anyone reading this to please remember that my criticisms spring out of the recognition that began to arise years ago after being formed and trained in the kind of theological culture that hoorahs triumphalisms that ignore the plank in its own eye while majoring on the specks in others’. I want to think that I have learned from people close to me that are wiser than me (people like DZ, who helped me in a very hard, painful time) and have shed much of that zealous cluelessness and now want to try to help remove others’ planks as well. I have been battered by such preaching and unfortunately have battered others when I was provided time to preach and it just hurts my soul recollecting how I have contributed to the problem. I believe the check box that expository preaching provides has allowed too many people like my former mentors and myself to assure ourselves we were just killing it for the Lord while we were killing our people instead and completely oblivious to it.

      Thanks for hearing out further elaboration from me. I hope you know all the better that what I’m targeting is a type of expository preaching and not any and all instances of expository preaching as such. And I hope it sheds more light on why there’s force to this piece. I hope I’m not kidding myself that the heart of the Savior is present in that force; a Savior, after all, who overturns tables and chases people out of the Temple with a whip of cords when they would shout, “What’s the deal?? We’re just trying to make sure people can worship!!”

      I’m not a better man, and I’m not a vocational preacher, but I am someone who is repentant of damage he’s done and eager to play a part in bringing compassion to the flock who are harassed and helpless and whose shepherds have not strengthened the weak, have not healed the sick, have not bound up the injured, have not brought back the strayed, have not sought the lost, and have ruled with force and harshness over them.

      Grace and peace.

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