What makes for powerful expository preaching that upholds the truth of God’s Word, builds Christ’s church, and by the Spirit mightily works to save sinners? A survey of effective expositors over the centuries would reveal great diversity in many facets of their preaching, but certain elements are critical to every expositor who desires to expose people’s consciences to the sword of the Spirit. Over the next four weeks, I want to discuss four essential elements of effective biblical exposition. To make them memorable, they all begin with the letter C, so I will call them the four Cs of effective expository preaching.
The first C is conviction. An effective expository preacher is a man of conviction. The first expositor I remember hearing preach (via cassette tapes at that!) was John MacArthur when I was a teenager. What struck me most about MacArthur’s preaching was the note of conviction that rang throughout his sermons. As he preached, I had the sense that he knew what he was talking about and that he sincerely believed in it. Such preaching was radically different from the topical preaching I had grown up hearing, which was always more suggestive and tentative in tone, lacking a clear voice of conviction.
The expositor who preaches with conviction must have a sense that he himself knows the content of the Scripture as he preaches it. I am convinced that one of the primary reasons so many preachers are so tentative and hesitant in the pulpit, so unwilling to state propositional truth with conviction, is because they themselves are not convinced they understand the text. It is as if they have fallen prey to the weakness of a hermeneutic of (false) humility, a style of biblical interpretation that fears certainty, as if certainty is pride’s cousin. Thus, many preachers stand in the pulpit and preach as if they are offering suggestions about what a text might mean rather than declaring the Word of God to His church with the conviction that He has spoken in such a way that His ministers and servants of the Word can understand Him and declare His truth with confidence.
Such an approach contradicts the entire tenor of biblical teaching. For example, consider the opening verses of John’s first epistle. In 1 John 1:2 he writes,
“We have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us.”
He continues in verse 3:
“What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also…”
and later in the verse asserts
“Indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.”
There is no hint of uncertainty in John’s tone. He proclaims the truth he has seen and heard. He asserts that he has fellowship with the Father and the Son. He is filled with godly and humble conviction that he knows the truth that God has revealed to him and that he now proclaims to the churches. He follows the example of our Lord Himself who, when He taught, caused the crowds to marvel because He spoke with authority.
To preach with such authority and conviction requires that the expositor give ample time to study the Word of God and meditate upon it in prayer. The kind of conviction that stirs the hearts of sinners by the Spirit is not force of will or misguided conviction that is so certain while it is most certainly wrong in its understanding of Scripture. Conviction that we know the truth is only useful when we actually do understand the truth of God’s Word.
It is perhaps here where many expositors fail. Pastoring a church and preaching the Word is a demanding task. For pastors of smaller congregations, the work of the ministry can involve myriad tasks in addition to preparing a weekly sermon or two (or sometimes three!). Tragically, we often find it easiest to shortchange our study time when other demands come calling, but when we have not adequately studied, we cannot stand in the pulpit with sincere and godly conviction. Therefore, we must make sure to guard our study time. Close the office door. Turn off the cell phone. Quit the email app on the computer. Tell your wife how to reach you in an emergency, but other than that, be completely unavailable to the world and wholly given to the Scriptures and to prayer as you labor over them. Make understanding the Scripture your highest aim in the study, and be willing to cut out whatever other tasks hinder that pursuit. Your congregation will benefit more from a pastor who weekly stands up and preaches with genuine conviction of the truth than they will from prompt replies to emails or texts or hours spent in meetings. Whatever the expositor does, he must be certain that he knows what the text says and what it means by what it says when he prepares to draft his sermon notes.
Conviction also requires that we believe in what the Scripture says. Once we have understood the passage, we must ask ourselves the searching question, “Do I really believe this?” Academically and theologically we know the correct answer to that question. Of course we believe the Bible since we believe in inerrancy! However, do we believe this text applies to us? Do we believe we are called to obey this text? Do we believe we are called to submit to this text? Do we believe our congregations need to hear, understand, and obey this text? We must not only be convinced of what the text means by what it says but also that the text is powerful, effective, and needful for the people of God to hear preached. People must get the sense when the expositor preaches that he not only knows what the text means but that he believes it is true with all his heart. Such preaching is preaching with conviction!
Many expository sermons fall flat because the preacher stands up to preach without conviction. The message falls to the floor between the preacher’s mouth and the congregation’s ears because it does not have the energy of conviction to travel the necessary distance from preacher to pew. Such conviction only comes when we give ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word. After such demanding study, we can stand in the pulpit and with full conviction in the power of the Spirit proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord.”