One Thing I Did Right in Ministry: “I Did Expository Preaching”

I grew up under very poorly done topical preaching. When I came to faith in Christ as a teenager and subsequently sensed God’s call to ministry, I had few models of solid biblical preaching. I too, followed in stride by preaching some pathetic topical sermons. Gripped by inerrancy, I kept gravitating back to the need to “preach the Word.” As a college junior, I attended a pastors’ conference in Birmingham, Alabama that solidified my view of preaching. I listened to the late Stephen Olford, former pastor of churches in London and New York City, preach expositionally. I literally could not get up from the pew after the first sermon! The power of opening a biblical text and letting the text speak staggered me. Before the week ended, I committed to the Lord that whenever He found pleasure in me preaching that I would do my best to preach expositionally.

The journey from that 1975 conference to the present day, serving on a couple of church staffs and pastoring four churches, preaching in other churches and in international settings has given me the opportunity to continue to learn to preach expository sermons. While a number of seminaries in the seventies neglected teaching exposition, I was fortunate to have one professor who emphasized it (unfortunately, another did not). I even took a class in expository preaching, something that seemed an oddity in 1977. But taking a class on expositional preaching doth not the expositor make! That’s why I call it a journey over the past forty-one years since making a commitment to preach expositionally. I’ve faltered many times, no doubt, to let the text speak. Yet the Lord, along with four congregations, has been patient with me in learning how to work through a biblical text and expound it so that its doctrines and applications are set forth to the benefit of the hearers. Along the way, I’ve seen a number of positive outcomes with expository preaching.

  1. Biblical exposition feeds my own soul devotionally. One must not approach a text for preaching as though it is yet another academic exercise in ministerial profession. It’s not just our Sunday duty. Instead, the Word is life, food, and drink that nourish the soul. Many weeks, while feeling the struggles of discipline and Christian walk, digging into the Word in preparation to preach has reenergized me spiritually.
  2. Biblical exposition has challenged and transformed me theologically. I’ve found over the years that the best way for me to be reoriented theologically is to work through doctrine in the biblical text. My journey in the doctrines of grace came twenty-six years ago as I attempted to preach expositionally through Ephesians. Week-by-week, neglected and hazy theological ideas came into focus. It is no exaggeration to say that exposition has rocked me theologically. For that, I’m profoundly grateful to the Lord.
  3. Biblical exposition forces me to deal with subjects and themes outside my comfort zone. Face it, some issues we would rather dodge than stand before the congregation and open them knowing that we’ll likely offend or be misunderstood or open a taboo subject. We might even get fired! But preaching through books of the Bible will not allow us to hide from texts—nor should we. We need those texts and subjects; so do our congregations. Give the people the Word.
  4. Biblical exposition brings reformation to the church. The most natural way for a church to experience biblical reformation is through biblical exposition. In that way, the pastor has no need to pick the theological and ecclesiological topics that he wants to incorporate where they’ve been previously neglected by other pastors. If he is patient and persistent, the pastor will address basically everything as he works through books of the Bible. With that approach, a congregation sensitive to God’s Word realizes that the pastor is not trying to lead them down some sinister path of change. He’s just opening the Word and letting the Word by the Spirit do the work in the church.
  5. Biblical exposition exposes me to a wider range of competent scholars, expositors and theologians. I’ve often wondered about non-expositional sermon preparation. The preacher spends his time studying a topic, hunting for illustrations and stories and finding suitable applications. He doesn’t do much wrestling with biblical texts, so he doesn’t need to dig into Calvin, Luther, Lloyd-Jones, Carson, Stott, Broadus and others. But in expository preaching, the preparation time means digging into the text, considering the original languages, interacting with commentaries, feeding the soul from fellow expositors and supplementing with theologians who address the themes of the text. My reading expanded when I got serious about exposition. Otherwise, I would not be ready for Sundays. A range of old and contemporary friends, sit on my bookshelves along the four walls of my study. They join me each week in preparing to expound the Word to my congregation. I’m thankful to have these friends as dear colleagues in expositional ministry. They have taught me and stood by me for four decades of ministry.
  6. Biblical exposition feeds my congregation a more balanced diet of God’s Word than other approaches in preaching. While my first audience in preaching must be the Lord (2 Timothy 4:1), the aim must be to make sure that His people regularly receive the Word. We live in an era when far too many people who regularly attend worship in evangelical congregations, know very little about the truths of Holy Scripture. Some of them may be capable of using an evangelistic outline that they learned in a class but are unskilled in discipling a new believer in biblical doctrine, woeful in explaining some of the great themes of God’s Word or unable to trace the story line of Scripture. While these believers can certainly study the Word on their own, much of the fault for their paucity of understanding lies in the pulpit where pastors have neglected biblical exposition in favor of an easier, more entertaining approach to preaching. Knowing that I must give an account before the Lord for how I shepherded the flock entrusted to me, that daunting fear looms larger if I’m failing to recount to the church the massive truths of who the Lord is, what He has done redemptively and how He will be glorified among the nations. Paul told the Ephesian elders that he “did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable” (Acts 20:20). Will that be said of me when I finish my course as pastor?

I’m always learning as a biblical expositor. With every text and every sermon, I’m reminded of the depth and riches of what God has given to us in His Word. Consequently, preaching never gets boring; the preparation never becomes blasé. With every sermon and the labor that goes into preparing it, I’m enriched before I stand in the pulpit. I pray that my congregation will be too. While I’ve made many mistakes in ministry, the best thing that I’ve done is to remain committed by the grace of God to biblical exposition.

Phil planted South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee in 1987 and continues to serve as senior pastor of that congregation. He previously pastored churches in Mississippi and Alabama. He received his education at the University of Mobile (B.A.), New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Fuller Theological Seminary (D.Min.), and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Ph.D.). Phil and his wife Karen married in 1975, and have five children and seven grandchildren.
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