The case for expository preaching

The February 2010 edition of The Banner of Truth contains an article by Iain Murray warning of the disadvantages of ‘expository’ preaching (by which he mean “preaching which consecutively takes a congregation through a passage, or book of Scripture, week by week). Unfortunately the article is not online, but you can read a summary here. Iain is right to warn of the dangers, but as the letter below (which I’ve just sent to Banner HQ) says, I think he goes too far:

I believe Iain Murray (February 2010) overstates his case for non-‘expository’ preaching. First, the preacher’s responsibility is to preach ‘the whole counsel of God’. If I am to preach through a large part of the Bible over a ministry, I will need to preach on texts significantly longer than a single verse (otherwise it would take more than 200 years to get through the 31,000 verses in the Bible).

Second, preachers should model the handling of the scripture from the pulpit. Preaching is very different to private devotion or study. But it is from the pulpit that our congregation will learn how to read the Bible for themselves. Would we want our congregation’s regular devotions to be a meditation on a single verse, plucked apparently at random?

Third, I want unbelievers to be utterly convinced that the gospel application in a sermon is from God’s Word. A great danger with non-‘expository’ preaching is that whilst the sermon’s content may be very biblical, it is not seen to be biblical by the unconverted because the preacher’s text serves only as a spring-board and not as a foundation.

Fourth, I reject the ‘either/or’ antithesis. In being committed to ‘expository’ preaching, I am not rejecting preaching that helps the hearers, is memorable, evangelistic and relies on the Spirit. It is true that attempting to preach in an expository style can expose inadequacies in the preacher. It is true that a running commentary is not a sermon, and that you can be faithful to the Word yet fail to preach, and fail to know the Spirit’s power. But I do not believe only an elite few should attempt to preach in an ‘expository’ way. Mr. Murray’s advice that novice preachers tread carefully is wise. But every Christian should always be maturing and growing. Safe, easy methods that stretch neither the preacher nor the congregation are a recipe for dull sermons, tired preachers and bored congregations.


  1. couldn't agree more Mark – have you seen Christopher Ash's appendix in his book 'the priority of preaching'? It's entitled 'Give God the microphone' and is a defence/commendation of expository preaching. It's a great read if you haven't seen it.

  2. I fear for good people who don't understand that it is the Word of God ITSELF that is living and active … and who feel compelled to minister what amounts to Systematic Theology in its place.Is this what results from being Reformed rather than Reforming?

  3. what random texts would you use to support your view mark?

  4. Mark,

    Good letter. There certainly is a place for the “topical” sermon, but I do believe that by and large we are called to feed our flock from books of the Bible. As a good friend of mine put it to me: “I don’t care what you think. I don’t care what I think. I care what God thinks.”

  5. from r.c. sprouls new puplished commentary on romans: ref: chapter 8:16 – finally we come to the deepest and highest level of assurance of salvation we can have in this world.THE SPIRIT HIMSELF BEARS WITNESS WITH OUR SPIRIT(V.16)here again we see paul use the word spirit to refer to both the HOLY SPIRIT and our spirit.there is a conversation here,a spiritual communication that come from the HOLY SPIRIT to the human spirit which indicates THAT WE ARE CHILDREN OF GOD (V.16)…in the final analysis our assurance of salvation is not a logical deduction springing from our theology.Our assurance is certinally not based on a careful anylasis of our behaviour.our final assurance comes by the testimony of GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT,who bears witness with and through our spirits that we are children of God.- sprouls commentry is from his expository preaching on romans,I was so blessed may many of his preaching on this I had to share this short statement on romans 8:16 last Sunday evening in Gwersyllt.May it remind us all of the riches of Gods grace ,and also the benifits of expository Jesus saving namePaul

  6. Good response Mark.

    I do topical sermons all the time, they are expository sermons, but they address relevant topics.

    I would argue that for the young minister fresh out of college that expository sermons are the easiest kind.

    Without years of battle in the theological trenches (millenialism, predestination, church government, gifts) and years of service in the crush of humanity how do you develop the wisdom (and self confidence) to preach “my ideas” in an edifying way? It’s a great relief to me to know I only have to help peopel understand what God is saying here. It’s my job just to apply this living word to this generation.

    That I can do.

    Bring wisdom into peoples’ suffering, pain and wickedness. Very Hard to do. Preach God’s word into people’s suffering, pain and wickedness, praise God that’s doable in his grace.

    God Bless,
    Good to see soem more thought provoking articles arrive on the site – thanks.

    Michael hutton,

  7. Owen Milton says

    I’d like to make a few comments on the points you raise,Mark.

    1)There should be no doubt about the responsibility of the preacher. How that responsibility is discharged is open to question. Why is it necessary to expound extended passages of scripture in order to achieve the end you hold out to us? Paul preached to the Athenians without once quoting the Bible ( not that I commend this method!) He preached ‘all the counsel of God’ to the Ephesians in considerably less than two hundred years. Spurgeon was a ‘single-text’ preacher. It would be a very foolish man who accused him of preaching anything short of or other than the whole counsel of God.

    2) Preachers should certainly encourage their congregations to study the Bible, carefully, consistently, painstakingly, ‘not handling the word of God deceitfully’. Why can this not be done through ‘single-text’ preaching? It is a big step, and scarcely warranted,from saying, ‘This is how I prepare my sermons’, to ‘This is how you should read the Bible.’

    3) Using a verse to leap, Lone Ranger-like, into the saddle of my hobby horse must always be discountenanced. To apply the gospel in an invalid way is possible for the ‘expository’ preacher as well as for the ‘single-text’ preacher. If this is more likely to happen with the latter than with the former, then not to apply the gospel at all is more likely with the former than with the latter, as I assume happens in Gospel Standard churches.
    I am not sure that we ought to be preoccupied with whether an unbeliever recognizes that our sermons are biblical or no. After all, how many unconverted folk leave our churches saying, ‘I didn’t think much of that – it was totally unbiblical’? What matters is that the sermon IS biblical. This is a judgment that the non-christian is hardly in a position to make.
    And if ‘expository’ sermons are more biblical (which I do not concede) they are usually, in my opinion, more soporific.

    4) Your last sentence is applicable (I suspect unintentionally) to both kinds of preachers and, following on from my last sentence, may well be better directed at the ‘expository’ preacher. If we have ‘bored congregations’ it is extremely questionable at the very least whether we should be in a pulpit, a subject you and I have discussed before.
    Surely what is important is not the question of a contest between ‘expository’ and ‘single-text’ preachers, but whether we are preachers at all, and that ‘with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven’. You hit the nail on the head when you say, ‘You can be faithful to the Word yet fail to know the Spirit’s power.’
    May I make one final remark. I am a fan of expository preaching. During much of my ministry I used to preach through a book or passage in the morning, then from disparate texts in the evening. When I had finished the series I used to reverse the order. Which was more acceptable or ‘successful’ is not for me to say. I suspect that some people slumbered through both!

  8. I enjoyed looking over your blog
    God bless you

  9. As someone who lectures on preaching styles expository preaching gets my vote every time.