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Expositional Impostors

by Mike Gilbart-Smith

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 many sermons that intend to be expositional, yet fall somewhat short. Below are seven pitfalls that one might try to avoid. Each of these pitfalls either doesn’t correctly make the message of the passage the message of the sermon, or doesn’t make it a message to that congregation at all.

1) The point of the passage is misunderstood: the ‘Unfounded Sermon’.

This is where the preacher says things that may or may not be true, but that in no sense came from the passage, when understood correctly. This can happen either by carelessness 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 carelessness 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 preferences. For "When someone regularly preaches in a way that is not expositional, the sermons tend to be only on the topics that interest the preacher" (Nine Marks, 41). Thus the congregation doesn’t receive all that God intended. The lesson? Preachers must give themselves to thoroughly understanding the text before setting out to write their sermons. A cursory reading is not enough. Preachers must allow God to determine the sheep’s diet so as to prevent an insufficient feeding.

2) The point of the passage is ignored: the ‘Springboard Sermon’.

Closely related is the sermon where the preacher has understood the center of the text, pays lip service to it, and then becomes intrigued by something that is a secondary or tertiary point, fixing his attention on that for the remainder of the sermon. What he says does come from the text, but is not the main point of the text (e.g. the sermon on John 2 that focuses primarily on the lawfulness of Christians drinking alcohol).

3) The point of the passage remains unapplied: the ‘Exegetical Sermon’.

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 is not really a sermon; it is merely a technical lecture on the passage. 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. There is no application to anything but the congregation’s minds. True expository preaching will surely first inform the mind, but also warm the heart and constrain the will.

4) The point of the passage is applied to a different congregation: the ‘Irrelevant Sermon’.

Too much preaching promotes pride in the congregation by throwing bricks over the wall towards other people’s greenhouses. Either the point of the passage is applied only to non-believers, suggesting that the Word has nothing to say to the church, or it is applied to problems that are rarely seen in the congregation that is being preached to. Thus the congregation becomes puffed up, and like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable ends up thankful that they are not like others. The response is not repentance and faith but, "If only Mrs Brown heard this sermon!" or "Umpteenth Baptist Smorgsville, Pennsylvania really ought to have this sermon preached to them!"

5) The point of the passage misapplied to the present congregation: the ‘Misfit Sermon’.

Sometimes the hermeneutical gap between the original passage and the present congregation may be misunderstood, so that the application to the original context is wrongly directly transferred to the present context. So, if the preacher does not have a correct biblical theology of worship, passages about the Old Testament temple might be wrongly applied to the New Testament church building, rather than being fulfilled in Christ and his people.

6) The point of the passage is divorced from its generic impact: the ‘Doctrinal Sermon’.

God has deliberately spoken to us ‘in many and diverse ways’. Too many sermons ignore the genre of a passage, and preach narrative, poetry, epistle and apocalyptic all alike as a series of propositional statements. Whilst all preaching 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. Such diversity is not to be flattened in preaching.

7) The point of the passage is preached without reference to the passage: the ‘Shortcut Sermon’

Another sermon might have wonderfully appropriate application to mind, heart and will, yet the congregation will leave unaware of how it is appropriately applied from the text. 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’.

Expository preaching is so important for the health of the church because it allows the whole counsel of God to be applied to the whole church of God. May the Lord so equip preachers of His Word that His voice may be heard and obeyed.

Mike Gilbart-SmithAbout the Author

Mike Gilbart-Smith is a graduate of Cambridge University, and Oak Hill Theological College (London). He is currently a Pastor to Students at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C. This article first appeared on, and is reprinted with permission.