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Home » All Resources » Articles on BIBLE STUDY » Iain Murray, A Caution for Expository Preaching

A Caution for Expository Preaching

Iain Murray more from this author »

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Date Published: 1/31/2011
Dr. Iain Murray discusses why a number of circles today consider “expository preaching” in vogue, but warns against exclusively preaching that way for a number of reasons.

In a number of circles today “expository preaching” is in vogue, and it is being urged on preachers as the way to preach. If this means that the preacher’s one business is to confine himself to the text of Scripture, and to make the sense plain to others, there is nothing more to discuss; who can disagree save those who do not know that the Bible is the word of God.

But “expository preaching” has often come to mean something more. The phrase is popularly used to describe preaching which consecutively takes a congregation through a passage, or book of Scripture, week by week. This procedure is compared with the method of preaching on individual texts that may have no direct connection with each other from one Sunday to the next. The latter is discouraged in favour of the “expository” method.

Why has this view of “expository preaching” become comparatively popular? There are several reasons. First, it is believed that the practice will raise the standard of preaching. By a consecutive treatment of a book of Scripture, it is said, the preacher is taken away from any hobby-horses, and congregations are more likely to be given a broader, more intelligent grasp of all Scripture. The preacher is also delivered from a constant search for texts—he and the people know what is before them. These reasons are perhaps confirmed for younger preachers by the fact that at our main conventions and conferences the well-known speakers commonly deal with one passage in a few addresses, and when these find their way into print they are taken as models of the best way of preaching. Published sermons of any other kind are few and far between, for publishers definitely favour the “expository” on the grounds of their popularity. 1

In our view, however, it is time that the disadvantages of this view of preaching are at least considered:

  1. It assumes that all preachers are capable of making effective sermons along these lines. But men have different gifts. Spurgeon was not unfamiliar with “expository preaching” (listening to sermons in his youth he had sometimes wished the Hebrews had kept their epistle to themselves!), and he decided it was not best suited to his gifts. There is reason to think that being an effective “expository” preacher is not such a common gift as some seem to think. Even Dr. Lloyd-Jones was 20 years into his ministry before he slowly introduced “expository” series.
  2. The argument that the “expository” method is the best means to cover most of the Bible is too largely connected with the idea that the foremost purpose of preaching is to convey as much as possible of the Bible. But that idea needs to be challenged. Preaching needs to be much more than an agency of instruction. It needs to strike, awaken, and arouse men and women so that they themselves become bright Christians and daily students of Scripture. If the preacher conceives his work primarily in terms of giving instruction, rather than of giving stimulus, the sermon, in most hands, very easily becomes a sort of weekly “class”—an end in itself. But true preaching needs to ignite an ongoing process.
  3. Significantly, the churches—particularly in Scotland—once distinguished between “the sermon” and “the lecture.” The word “lecture” was not used in any pejorative sense, it simply meant what is now commonly meant by “expository preaching,” namely, the consecutive treatment of a passage or book. The commentaries of John Brown of Broughton Place, Edinburgh, originated in this way. So did Lloyd-Jones’ work on Romans—he called those expositions “lectures”; the difference between a sermon and a lecture, in his view, being that a sermon is a rounded whole, a distinct message—complete in itself—whereas the lecture on Scripture is part of something larger and ongoing. In contrast with his Romans, Lloyd-Jones conceived the contents of his Ephesians as sermons, and anyone comparing his procedure in these two series (the first done on a Friday night, the second on a Sunday morning) can quickly see the difference. This is not to devalue his Romans, the purpose was different.
  4. At the end of the day, the best preaching is preaching which helps the hearers most, and in that connection the track record of the consecutive “expository” method is not impressive. It has never proved popular in the long term, and the reason for that, I think, is clear: a sermon needs a text as the basis for a memorable message. The text may be remembered when all else is gone in the mind of hearers. Sometime, it is true, a text may be a paragraph rather than a verse—a Gospel parable or a narrative, for instance—but if, as often happens with “expository preaching,” a series of verses is regularly made “the text,” then a whole series of ideas get into the sermon, and clear over-all lessons (such as one may see in Spurgeon’s sermons) are lost. The preacher has become only a commentator. Sometimes he even ceases to give out a text from the passage he intends to take. But people could commonly get the same help, and perhaps better, by taking up a book teaching the same section of Scripture. But, it may be said, “Is not Lloyd-Jones’ Ephesians both expository and textual preaching? He enforces only a few leading thoughts at one time, and yet proceeds consecutively—why cannot others do the same?” The answer is that Lloyd-Jones did bring the textual and the expository together in his Ephesians, but this is exactly the type of preaching that is not within the gift of most preachers. Too many tyros have tried to preach verse-by-verse through major books of Scripture with near-disastrous results. It is arguable that this is one of the reasons why “reformed” preaching has, in more than one place, been criticised as “heavy” or plain “dull.” The less ambitious, who also adopt the “expository” mode, make no attempt to use single verses for their texts, and that is the danger that too easily turns preaching into a running commentary.
  5. Evangelistic preaching does not best fit the “expository” mode; in fact, where the “expository” is exclusively used, true evangelistic preaching to heart and conscience commonly disappears. It may be said that if this is true it is the fault of the man, not the passage, for is not all Scripture given by inspiration of God and profitable? Surely, it is objected, all Scripture may be used of the Spirit of God to awaken and reach the lost? It may, but it is clear from Scripture that there are particular truths most adapted to speak to non-Christians (witness our Lord’s example) and that it is these truths, and the texts that best epitomise them, which have special and regular prominence in most effective evangelistic ministries. The men most used in the conversion of sinners in the past have known what these texts are—Whitefield, M’Cheyne, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones and a host of others knew. Today there is some danger of their being forgotten. When did you last hear a sermon on “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul”?

This is not an argument that the whole concept of consecutive preaching through a passage is wrong, simply that it must not be allowed to have an exclusive place in pulpit ministry. Let each preacher find what he is best able to do, and let it be ever remembered that, whatever the method of presenting the truth, it is preachers filled with faith and the Holy Spirit who are needed most at this hour. More than correct teaching is needed: we need messages that will move congregations and even sway communities.

Lest anyone should think the above observations are novel, I close with the opinion of one of the greatest preachers of the last century, R.B. Kuiper. His biographer points out that he refused to allow the term “expository” to be applied only to sermons given in serial form on passages or books of Scripture. The word should apply to all exposition of Scripture worthy of the name. He continues:

“It follows that it is a serious error to recommend expository preaching as one of several legitimate methods. Nor is it at all satisfactory, after the manner of many conservatives, to extol the expository method as the best. All preaching must be expository.... He was also objecting to the commonly held opinion that only a running commentary on an extended portion of Scripture (a chapter, perhaps) could be called expository preaching. The running commentary type of preaching has certain glaring faults, according to Kuiper. The exegesis tends to be superficial, since so much material has to be covered. And such sermons often lack unity, so that the hearer has no clear idea as to just what the sermon is about.” 2

Whatever method the preacher adopts, the following words of Kuiper are relevant for all:

“A simple and conversational, yet forceful delivery commands both respect and response. Enthusiasm inspires. Logic is convincing, the illogical confusing. As preachers let us have a heart. Let us stop wearying our audiences. Let us make our preaching so absorbingly interesting that even the children would rather listen to us than draw pictures and will thus put to shame their paper-and-pencil-supplying parents. But we may as well make up our minds that an absolute prerequisite of such preaching is the most painstaking preparation.” 3

 


  1. I am not necessarily deploring this. There are good reasons why the “expository” appeals on the printed page, but is dangerous to conclude that what is best for readers is also best for hearers. Reading and listening are two different things.
  2. Edward Heerema, R.B. A Prophet in the Land (Jordan Station, Ontario [Paideia, 1986], pp. 138–9.
  3. Ibid, p. 204.

Iain Murray

Dr. Iain Murray is a prolific author specializing in church history and biography and the founder of Banner of Truth Trust in Edinburgh, UK. He also served as assistant to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel. Two of his best-known books include Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography and Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858. Learn more from Dr. Murray at BannerofTruth.org.

Douglas Quenzer
March 25, 2014
What Ian Murray is probably hearing is Bible Commentary preaching. I have heard quite a bit of that. It's dull and lifeless. He misses the point of passionate application to the hearers. The fact is expository preaching can also be prophetic in nature; especially when the passage is prophetic in emphasis. [delete comment]
I agree with some points in this article, however I am concerned with the over generalization of the subject. I preach expository for PM and Wed services when given the chance. While AM is a deeper sense, still with a expositional approach to the point of a different text with a central theme and explaining that theme in as Dr. Richard would call topical exposition form. I am challanged weekly to seek God's will for the message and have to reley on Him not self. [delete comment]
Edgar Johnston
September 16, 2012
Do we have any examples of expository preaching in the Bible??? Look at the sermons in Acts. What are they? Expository? Look at Jesus's messages. Are they expository. Look at some of the prophetic sermons. Are they expository? If we use the Word of God as a paradigm how should we preach. The sermons in Acts are promise-fulfillment type expostions, but clearly do not cover a text. If we don't use Biblical sermons as a paradigm, then our conclusions are based on a consideration of wisdom. May the Lord give us that wisdom. [delete comment]
Young Kerux
December 8, 2011
My comment on this article may be found in my blog: http://cogitationsofayoungkerux.blogspot.com/2011/12/reaction-to-iain-murrays-caution-to.html [delete comment]
Tim Miles
February 28, 2011
It would be as wrong for me to claim that all topical preaching is to avoid the tough subjects, and is just feel good preaching, as it was in this artical to claim that expository preaching is just cold boring giving of facts. I have been priviledged to sit under expository preaching, and to preach mostly expository messages in my ministry. Preaching is not just giving facts but making the practical application of those Biblical truths to our daily lives, and challenging people to walk in truth. I have found it exciting, challenging, and life changing. [delete comment]
Gene Escoe of Faithworks
February 19, 2011
Interesting article from an academic perspective. I even shared the author's opinion about exegetical preaching when I first starting learning about exegetical preaching in seminary. Unfortunately, the author makes the same mistake that I did at first blush. He left out the work of the Holy Spirit. I preach almost exclusively from an exegetical approach. In all my years of preaching, even when I didn't see how my scripture reference or my sermon could be applicable before I delivered my sermon, it always dealt with some issue that was going on in my church and/or my churchmembers lives. I do have to admit that I may take a somewhat different view of exegetical preaching at times. Though I attempt to preach every word in scripture, I do not limit myself to just 2-3 verses at a time. However, in the end I do preach through books of the Bible. If i only preached topically, there are plenty of subjects that I would never touch. However, I have been forced to preach on many difficult subjects because I can't do the topical two step to avoid them. [delete comment]
Let the Bible speak. I mostly preach through books of the Bible and have found it has helped spiritual grow our people. I do mix it from time to time with a doctrinal time or a survey of a book or books. I find it is best to pray and obey! [delete comment]
Peter Kutuzov of The Redlands Presbyterian Church
February 6, 2011
Dear Iain, Brother, thanks for your exhortations to loving our congregations with our preaching. May it be so for us all. I just wonder whether a number of your critiques of 'expository preaching' (happily using the term as you defined it) are not in fact critiques of expository preaching but critiques of just plain bad preaching. Does the lectio continua method actually necessitate some of the outcomes that you imply it does? For example, you claim, "in fact, where the “expository” is exclusively used, true evangelistic preaching to heart and conscience commonly disappears." If I'm aware of a scene where the expository preaching is fantastic and demands a heart change on the part of the listeners, does this not demonstrate that expository preaching isn't the problem? If so, perhaps we have to start looking for a different culprit... [delete comment]
Alan Davis
February 4, 2011
Expository=a sermon in which the proposition and main points are derived from the text. Given this simple definition, ALL scripture can be preached in this manner, no matter if it is a different text from a different book each week or the same book each week. Just simply EXPOSE the scripture chosen and STAY with the CIT of the chosen text. The 'whole counsel" of God is to preach the texts chosen in their true sense not adding or taking away or dodging. [delete comment]
There are 929 OT chapters, and 260 NT chapters. That would put you expository preachers in the ot 4 times as much. Is that what you do? You could spend a year in Psalms easily. At a chapter a week it will take you 22 years for the whole bible. How about the new convert that comes when you are starting Leviticus, you do preach Leviticus don't you? What is the fundamental goal of preaching? What did the whole counsel of God mean to Paul? Not our slant on the meaning. Paul ministered in the church of Thessalonica for one month, and then left the church with a novice convert as a pastor, I doubt they heard the whole counsel of God, at least not in the way some of you seem to understand it. In point of fact the whole bible had not yet been written yet, so whole counsel must mean something other than all God says through his word, most likely it was everything God wanted to express through Paul to the church at Ephesus. [delete comment]
John A Hartley
February 3, 2011
Personally I find Dr. Murray's counsel best when he speaks of caring for the congregation. This has always been a struggle. It is easy for me to slip into a mindset that the congregation's weakness in attentiveness and hunger for the Word is the problem instead of my own preaching. In that regard Murray's points are well taken. I do think, however, that preaching lectio continua as the norm greatly benefits all. The preacher discovers his weakness in this approach, whereas if other approaches are the norm the preacher is always preaching to his abilities instead of beyond them. He will not learn to seek the big idea and synthesize all to Christ in tough passages. The congregation benefits in that they learn to hear all of scripture, they get a pastor who has to wrestle with God over all of scripture, and it is less likely their pastor will become a superstar preacher with lectio continua preaching, so they won't get corralled into a big building campaign. :-) [delete comment]
Andrew Siegenthaler
February 2, 2011
Lectio continua=consecutive preaching through a book of the Bible or larger portion of Scripture. Lectio selecta=choosing different passages of Scripture from week to week. Expository=a sermon in which the proposition and main points are derived from the text. Topical=a sermon in which the theme is derived from the text, but the main points come from other passages of Scripture or general biblical principles. I think Dr. Murray's article is simply pointing out the weaknesses of the lectio continua method that any good preacher should be aware of. First, if your series is too long, the congregation can get tired of it. Second, you might encounter texts that are beyond your homiletical skill to craft into sermon with a clear proposition--so you resort to a running commentary or lecture. Third, you will be faced with occasions and opportunites in which you must break away from the series and select a text to address a particular need or problem. [delete comment]
Alan Davis
February 2, 2011
Once again with all due respect to the good brothers who have said that biblical preaching is not expository preaching; I would ask that we are on the same definition of expository preaching. Some preachers, proponents, opponents, professors and authors have added to the definition till it has been twisited and warped. In the raw/base definition of expository preaching i think we find it is biblical preaching. Here is a good short article on the subject by John MacArthur http://thegracecommunity.wordpress.com/2011/02/01/preaching-the-book-god-wrote/ [delete comment]
I don't agree with the author's overall perspective. People need the whole counsel of God. Although a preacher need not cover every chapter or verse in a book, Christians need the even handedness that comes from belief that we need all of Scripture, that all is inspired and that ALL is profitable. The reality is that most people in our churches today get only what they receive in a church service. They might listen to a little Christian radio or perhaps engage in occasional devotions. In a day where even lay-leaders have never read through the Bible even one time in their lives, we need to step up -- not step-down -Bible content. When people faithfully attended Sunday School and read the Word, that was a different era. We need to get with the reality of the times and cram as much nutrition in as we can for the short time we have them -- as well as challenging them to get into the Word during the week. But that challenge will only impact a few. [delete comment]
The danger here is to make a personal preference the "scriptural way," to do things. Does anyone want to seriously argue Peter's sermon in Acts 2 is an expository message? He starts in Joel and then wanders all over the place. Paul said to preach the word, let's leave it at that. Most of the arguments given thus far (on both sides) are anecdotal evidence, i.e. what works for me in my church. Let's not force a contrived meaning of what preaching the Word means, and you can't possibly hope to prove your point with personal experience. Sola scriptura. [delete comment]
Pastor Mickey Willard of Eureka Baptist
January 31, 2011
Having been in the ministry now for over 25 years I have found expository preaching to make the most impact on the congregations I have served. I began preaching through a book, verse-by-verse, at a time quite a few years ago and the response from the congregations have been nothing but favorable. The people read ahead in the book and begin doing some studying on their own. I've had more than a few tell me they have been digging into the Word more than ever. There are times when the Lord leads me in a different direction for a short period and then I come back to the book I am going through. The results are people growing in the Lord and people coming into the kingdom of God (over 30 in the past two years). I go through one book Sunday morning, another one Sunday evening and then another on Wednesday evening, all verse-by-verse. We are called, as others have said on other postings, to give the whole counsel of God. Hard to do that with purely topical preaching. Many will agree with me that in topical preaching many times some preachers avoid the controversial subjects in order to not stir up the people. [delete comment]
Donald Butters
January 31, 2011
I am concerned with the Pharisee like thought here. I am a Sr. Minister that believes in the full power of the Word of God. I preacher from what I call the Bible Book of the Month. I begin in Genesis and draw from the main topics in our morning services and teach from Gensis in a lecture during the evening service in a class setting. We move to Acts and then back to Exodus and so forth. The key to this form of teaching is the use the Bible as a whole while exposing the established text. I try to use the New Testament to confirm the Old when possible and vise verse. The sermon might have a topic like Salvation. Genesis holds a Baptism in Noah's flood confirmed by the Apostle Peter in the new, Moses and the Israelites were Baptized, confirmed by Paul and the we moved to Acts 2 to see the Christian Baptism confirmed by the Holy Spirits indwelling gift. Topical and Expositroy and that sermon blew people away because they had never see the three in one sermon and had never put Baptism in that light before. I use single point sermons, three point and even four point if the text dictates it. The idea that one is any better than the other is to say that one apostle is greater than the other, or on prophet is greater. Last point, Jesus preacher in the local houses of worship and those would have maybe had one scroll of the old testament at a time. He would have preached Expository, i.e. Isaiah preached in Nazareth! Don't push your preferences on those who have a different way of doing it. I preached this way for over four years in my last congregation and we averaged 8 to 10 Baptisms per year in a church that started with 20 people. My final message I preached to over 70 people and had some that had passed away and many out of town. It was not perfect but those people grew in Christ weekly. Preacher Jimmy [delete comment]
Alan Davis
January 31, 2011
Luk 24:27 "And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself." Expository preaching simply means to expose what the the chosen text says in it's correct context with the understanding that all of scripture speaks ultimatly of Jesus Christ. This takes study which takes time and effort, "study to show thyself approved". Heaven help us if the called men of God think they have not the gift to preach. If you are called to preach then preach as it should be done, 100% true to scriptures, preaching the whole counsel of God and not trying to please the people but God. [delete comment]
Tim Hall
January 31, 2011
I believe that most historically signficant sermons were ether topical or textual. Spurgen did an "exposition" of the text before he "preached" his sermon. Expository preaching is not the only style to preach God's word. I don't believe it is even Biblical (modeled in scripture). Just be responsible and preach the word. [delete comment]
Richard Hopper
January 31, 2011
I find that if I preach an expository message without making it a series then it works. I'm not sure if I am deficient in my skills or if the people of the congregation I serve just bore easily, but whenever I preach a series through a book then loose interest quickly. So I tend to use a "style" that works best for me. And it ends up being what works best for me and impacts the congregation most with the message of God's word. [delete comment]
Fred Thomas
January 31, 2011
I find that expository preaching fits my "style" of preaching. However, I don't usually use it for "preaching through a book" because most books of the New Testament seem to have more than one topic. [delete comment]
Alan Davis
January 31, 2011
With all due respect, and I do respect Dr. murray, on this point I believe that Dr. Murray has given some bad advice and will be used as ammunition for the "ear tickling preaching" that has been going on in America. I heard Joel Osteen this weekend preach a message and totally misrepresent the Words of Jesus about having an abundant life and this problem would have been fixed if he used the expository method. But then again he might not be sellng so many books, and we know it is the book sales that matter. (tounge in cheek) [delete comment]
Alan Davis
January 31, 2011
Sorry cant stay away from this debate... when Dr. murray says "when was the last time you heard a sermon on the scripture "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?" I would dare to make the point bthat if your pastor used the expository method and preached through the teachings of Jesus he most definatly would have to preach on this text. however a to[ical preacher may NEVER preach on this text. Unless of course it strikes his fancy to do so...mmmm, Let us remember to "preach the whole counsel of God" [delete comment]
Alan Davis
January 31, 2011
I have been the lead pastor at the same church for a little over 12 years now. I mainly preach through books of the Bible. I just finished Gen. and our crowds grow slowly each week. I have had so many emails, text messg., and people come into my office thanking me for a good solid weekly diet of the Word. I have seen lives totally changed and I firmly believe that God has used the expository method (and by expository method I mean letting the text be the central idea of the sermon and drawing all points from the text, with Christ always being the center piece, thus allowing teh scripture to say just what it says) to grab the hearts of the hearers week by week, building line upon line and precept upon precept. We have consistantly seen growth every year in our church and always consistantly baptize int he top 5 of a 62 church assoscition. I have seen our Sunday morning congregation grow from 65 to about 300 in these 12 years. Most if not all our church "issues have been dealt with from the pulpit because of this method of preaching and we have grown and reformed to a much more biblical church. I do not believe that one must preach book by book to be expository but a called man of God is to "preach the Word", be totally honest with the text in it's context, explain, illuminate, apply and allow the scriptures to call for a reponse from the hearers. I do however believe that Dr. Murray has way more experiance than me and I do repect that. However I would take to task that John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, Peter and the early preachers of the gospel did not use an expository method. Appears to me they expounded a portion of scripture and let the text be the central idea of the text. I firmly believe that the reason "people" dont want to listen to expository messages (weather they are through a book or just chosen passages) is the overwhelming fault of the preachers for the last 100 years wanting to be cute and have people remember their silly illustrations and jokes week by week. To hear someone say "my you have a way with storys" may be flattering but the ultimate question would be "did it bring glory to God and lift His Word up higher than anything else?" And sad to say most times preacehers just want to hear the applause of their congregants over the applause of heaven. [delete comment]
Matt Stephens
January 31, 2011
The criticisms / weaknesses of expository preaching are by no means inherent to the method. Much work has been done to correct these weaknesses, and I would name Bryan Chapell's book, Christ-Centered Preaching, as exemplary. The "running commentary" approach leaves much to be desired, which is why learning to structure the sermon with one proposition and main points all supporting or following from that proposition is key. I would say preaching this way is not so much a matter of gifting as it is of work. A basic level of gifting is required (namely, "the ability to teach," as the Bible calls it), but refining one's craft is the product of rigorous labor. If you want to preach expositorily, "text-by-text" (i.e., the logical thought-units of Scripture), you have to be able and willing to put in the time to do it right. That means at least 20 hours per week, and sometimes close to 30. Unless you're a megachurch pastor who has a research team, but that's a whole 'nother issue. [delete comment]
Andrew Sexton
January 31, 2011
Perhaps many view expository sermons as "preaching through an entire book." During Wednesday night Bible study, I lead my congregation through large books. I have never attempted to do this on Sunday morning. We have went through a study through James and Philipians on Sunday mornings, but they are relatively short books. I often preach through a series, that has a theme or topic, but I always treat the text each week in an expository manner. I feel that expository preaching doesn't require a sermon from the same book of the Bible every week. Expository sermons occur when the TEXT determines the POINTS in the sermons. I have heard many topical sermons preached whereby the preacher could have used multiple texts to preach his sermon because the points of the sermon were not derived solely from the text he was using. As long as the Word of God is handled carefully, I don't mind the preaching of topical sermons. Some are very creative and practical, but I don't feel this should be the method that a preacher should confine himself to. I feel the best method of preaching is that which is true to the Word of God and culturally relevant. [delete comment]
Most of the sermons that I preach are expository. Once, I did cover the book of Haggai in 4 weeks by preaching 4 expository sermons. But I never attempted to preach a relatively larger book of the Bible using expository method. I always had a feeling that our congregation would not be able to digest me preaching from the same book over a long period of time. However, at least 90% of my sermons are expository in nature. I still do believe that it is the best method of preaching the Word (though I don't believe in preaching through an entire book). [delete comment]

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