Marks of a Healthy Church: Expositional Preaching
Marks of a Healthy Church
Mark One: Expositional Preaching
by William Klock
This morning we’re starting a new sermon series. For the next couple of months, I’m going to be preaching on the marks of a healthy church. So what is a “mark” and what does it have to do with the Church? Well, it was the Protestant Reformers who first talked about “marks” of a church. They were thinking in terms of what defined the church. Up until that point no one had given it much thought. The Church was the Church. But the Reformers realised that there are those groups out there that may be playing at church, that look like a church in a lot of ways, but that really aren’t. And so they came to define the true Church in terms of two “marks” on which they were all in agreement. The German, French, Swiss, and British reformers all came to the same conclusion. Article XIX of our own Articles of Religion puts it this way:
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
We may have our differences from place to place, but every true church is marked by two things: First, the faithful preaching of God’s Word, and second, the administration of the Sacraments – of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
Here’s why Word and Sacrament are critical. God’s Word creates his people. You cannot be the Church without hearing his Word. But it’s not enough merely to hear the Word. You also have to submit to it—your have to let it shape and mould you. Jesus ordained two Sacraments as means of grace and commanded us to continue in them. The first was Baptism—the cleansing water that God chose to be the outward sign and seal of our being cleansed from sin and immersed in his Holy Spirit. The second was the Lord’s Supper—the holy meal that serves as an outward and visible sign and seal of the new life we have in Jesus. In both we find the grace of God, but in being faithful to Jesus’ command to continue in both of them, we show the first and most basic steps of obedience to the Word.
If the Word is not preached, men and women will never know God. And if they do not participate in the Sacraments, they cut themselves off from the grace of God and disobey him. The two most basic marks of the Church are the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. If either one is missing, you’re only playing at church.
Now, those are the two basic marks that identify the Church, but there are other marks that are necessary if we’re going to be faithful to those first two basic ones – marks that help us to be faithful first in hearing the Word and then faithful in doing it. This morning I want to look at the first of these marks: Expositional Preaching. I say this is the most important one, because if you get this one right, then all the others should follow naturally.
Now I know a lot of you are probably asking, “What’s expositional preaching?” Expositional preaching is what I have offered you every Sunday morning I’ve been here—ironically, until today. This is a topical sermon that happens to be on expositional preaching. Those are the two basic sermon types: expositional and topical. In a topical sermon the preacher chooses a topic and preaches on it. Hopefully he draws on Scripture to explain and illustrate his point, but that’s just it. In a topical sermon, the point is the preachers—it’s his idea. Now, a topic sermon can be expositional. I could choose to preach on the topic of prayer and then preach through the Lord’s Prayer. I could choose to preach on the topic of church discipline and preach through Matthew 18:15-20.
Expositional preaching is different in that the point of the sermon is driven by the Word itself—the preacher submits himself to the point of the text, not to his own ideas or thinking or agenda. Expositional preaching takes a systematic approach to God’s Word and lets the Holy Spirit speak, usually as we go through a passage or a book verse by verse. This is what I’ve been doing in preaching through the Sermon on the Mount and First Corinthians. Bad expositional preaching is often not much more than the preacher’s running commentary on the text. Good expositional preaching is a commitment to hear the Word and to apply it with the goal that we all submit to it. That’s how we grow and mature: we hear, we apply, and ultimately submit ourselves to God’s Word.
One of the most significant characteristics of the lowest points of Church history is a dearth of God’s Word. Remember that I said it’s God’s Word that creates his people. If the Word isn’t preached, the Church loses her power and authority and her witness and falls into decline. As I look around me at the Church in the West today I see us entering a new dark age for precisely this reason. The Word is no longer at the centre of our churches. Yes, we affirm the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, but we don’t preach Scripture. Most of the books published today on preaching, and pastoring, and church growth point away from the systematic exposition of the Word and encourage preaching based on felt needs, pop-psychology, and all sorts of other things that tickle the ears. St. Paul warned in 2 Timothy 4:3, “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (NIV). Expositional preaching makes sure that the preacher isn’t just telling people what they want to hear.
When preaching is not expositional, the sermons tend to be only on topics that interest the preacher. The end result is that neither the preacher nor the congregation are challenged to grow – they hear in Scripture only what they want to hear and only what they thought when they came to the text. There’s nothing new being added to their understanding and ultimately both the preacher and his congregation will stagnate in their growth, because they aren’t being challenged by God’s Word. The church will conform to the preacher’s mind, not to the mind of Christ.
In contrast, expositional preaching takes the point of the text and makes it the point of the sermon and allows God to speak something to us that we may have never known was there. I may have some good ideas, but God’s ideas are always better and if we won’t let the Spirit speak through the Word he has inspired for our learning and growth we’ll never truly know him. I don’t want you to be conformed to the mind of Bill. I want you to be conformed to the mind of Christ. That’s why I preach expositionally.
I’ve said twice now that God’s Word creates his people. If we can understand that, I think you’ll see why it’s so important for the Word to be at the centre of our preaching, directing it and giving it shape. I want to take a quick walk through the Scriptures so you can see the creative power of the Word. Think all the way back to the beginning—to Genesis 1. It was by his Word that God spoke the world and everything on it into existence. He spoke, and it came to be. In Genesis 3 we read the story of our parents’ sin. They disobeyed God and were cast out of his presence. Literally, they lost sight of God, and yet in his great grace they didn’t lose all hope. Even though God was gone from their sight, he mercifully spoke to them—they continued to be able to hear him and to receive his promises. In 3:16 God cursed the serpent and warned him that one day the seed of the woman would crush him. That little word is what gave hope to Adam and Eve as they lived with the consequences of their sin.
But God didn’t stop speaking. In Genesis 12 we read how, by his Word, God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans. God’s Word, in the form of a promise, was used by him as the driving and guiding force in the call of Abraham. God’s people were created—they became visible—by hearing his word of promise and by responding to it—by coming out after it. God’s people were created by God’s Word.
And how did it work? Abraham was made the father of God’s people because God’s Word came specifically to him and he believed it. He trusted God for what he said. He believed him. Genesis tells us how Abraham’s family grew, how they eventually went down to Egypt and became slaves. And just at the point when that slavery looked permanent, look at what God did. Once again, he sent his Word. In Exodus 3:4 God called to Moses from a burning bush, calling Moses to himself. Now a burning bush, especially one that wasn’t consumed by the flames, was an amazing thing to see, but the burning bush itself couldn’t communicate much to Moses. The key was that God spoke out of that bush once he had Moses’ attention. He gave his Word to Moses and called him by that Word. But the Word didn’t just come to Moses. God called the entire nation of Israel with that Word – called them to be his people and called them to new life.
Then God led his people into the desert, and what did he do there? Again, he came to them in his Word. Through Moses he gave them the Law and it was through that Word that he made them his special people. And we see this process of the Word creating and calling (and even dividing) throughout the Old Testament. The phrase “the word of the Lord came” (or similar phrases with the same meaning) occurs more than 3,800 times. God’s Word came as he created a people for himself and as he led them. His people were those who heard his Word and heard his promises and responded in faith. In the Old Testament God’s Word always came as a means of faith. Consider that God is first and foremost the object of our faith—we “believe in” him. But that doesn’t mean very much if we don’t know who God is or what he wants from us. If we want to know God we can do one of two things. We could make it up, or our God could tell us. Scripture is the record of God telling us—it’s his Word. And because he has spoken it, we know that it’s something we can always trust and rely on. God’s Word creates and leads his people.
So can you see why the Word of God is so important in creating faith? It creates faith because it shows us God and his promises. It shows us what to believe and it gives us life. The most remarkable example of this I can think of is Ezekiel 37. You can turn there if you’d like. This is one of my favourite passages in all of Scripture because it so often gives me hope as a preacher. It’s a familiar passage. There’s even song about it. In a vision, God took Ezekiel to a valley full of dead, dry bones. God asked him how those bones could live again. Ezekiel said he didn’t know. Look at verses 4-6:
Then [God] said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD.”
And look at what happened when Ezekiel began preaching God’s Word to those bones:
So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. Butthere was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. (Ezekiel 37:7-10)
God explained the vision to Ezekiel, saying that the dry bones represented the house of Israel who had lost their hope. God’s answer to his hopeless people is in verse 14, “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.” How does God do that? He does it by his Word. Just to make it crystal clear, God tells Ezekiel to start preaching to these dry bones and as the Word comes to them, the bones return to life. It reminds us of the way God spoke into the void and created his world with the power of his Word. But it also points us to the fact that God’s Word came into the world in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. St. John tells us, “…the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” But through the Incarnate Word, God has re-established and is building his kingdom.
God told Ezekiel to speak to the dry bones and life came through that breath—the Spirit came through his speech—and as God breathed out his Word he gave life. Jesus calls his people to himself the same way Ezekiel prophesied: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). That’s exactly what Jesus does. He takes our old hard hearts and replaces them with hearts that are soft and ready to be shaped and formed by his Word. That’s how he creates his people—a people who show the life of God as they hear his Word and are moved by his gracious Spirit to respond to it.
St. John writes in the opening verses of his Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
In Jesus the Word of God comes to us in all its fullness. It makes sense that the Word Incarnate would want to preach—to tell out his Word. Jesus knew that his real ministry was going to be giving up his life for our sins, but everywhere he went we see him preaching. In order for people to understand what he was doing in making his great sacrifice for sin, he had to teachthem first. That’s always been God’s pattern. He acts—and his acts are great and mighty—but he always speaks too. He always explains his acts and tells us why they’re important.
It makes sense that God speaks. Look at how he’s made us. Consider our human relationships. If you meet someone, how to do you get to know them? You talk with them. Watching someone can only get you so far. At some point you have to open the lines of verbal communication. What’s the number one reason marriages fail? A lack of communication. We stop talking and pretty soon we cease to know our spouse and the relationship falls apart. God made us this way and so we come to know him through his Word. It’s no wonder so many Christians don’t really know God. They don’t know him because they don’t read his Word and they don’t know him because preachers aren’t preaching the Word. If you want to know God and if you want to deepen your faith, immerse yourself in the Word. St. Paul writes in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
The church growth books today tell us that we should be building churches around programmes and niches. You build a church by appealing to a certain ethnicity, or an age group, or some other demographic. You build a church with youth groups, choirs, care groups, or service projects. God can use those sorts of things, but in the end none of those can be at the centre of a church. The true Church of God can only be created by the Word of God and that’s what needs to be at our centre. Someone once asked Martin Luther about his accomplishments. He answered saying, “I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing….The Word did it all.” That’s the kind of mindset the Church needs.
But the Word not only creates, it also sanctifies. God uses his Word to make us grow. In Matthew 4:4 Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Or think of the Words of the Psalmist, who wrote, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
Second Chronicles tells us how, during the reign of King Josiah some workmen in the Temple found the scrolls containing the Law. For generations it had been forgotten as all sorts of idolatry and false religion replaced the worship of God in the Temple. When Josiah read the book, his response was to tear his clothes in repentance and then to have the Word read to all the people. The reading of the Word brought national repentance and a turn-around of the people. God uses his Word to sanctify—to make holy—his people that they might be more like him.
This was Jesus prayer in John 17:17: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” And St. Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:25-26, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” Brothers and sisters, we need God’s Word to be saved, but it doesn’t end there. We need his Word to shape and mould the new life he’s given us. And that’s a never-ending process as we continue living in God’s Word. For our own health we must continue to be shaped in new and deeper ways by God’s agenda in our lives, instead of by our own agendas. God makes us more like himself through his Word, washing over us, refreshing us, and reshaping us.
So the Word gives us life. The Word builds and shapes that life on an ongoing basis. But where does the preacher and the sermon fit in? I would suggest that if you ever move on from Living Word, the single most important thing you need to consider in a new church or in a new priest is a committment to the centrality of the Word, especially when it comes to preaching.
A while back there was an article in The New Yorker that lamented the “audience-driven” nature of most preaching today:
“The preacher, instead of looking out upon the world, looks out upon public opinion, trying to find out what the public would like to hear. Then he tries his best to duplicate that, and bring his finished product into a marketplace in which others are trying to do the same. The public, turning to our church culture to find out about the world, discovers there is nothing but its own reflection.”
Friends, that’s the opposite of what should be happening. Preachers aren’t called to preach what’s popular. We’re called to preach the Word of God so that he can bring life. The Word is exactly what the sinner does not want to hear, but at the same time it’s the only thing that will save him! And so notice that in writing to young Timothy, his protégé, Paul never tells him to take polls, form a committee, or survey people. He said, “Preach the Word!” That is the minister’s chief duty. When the day-to-day tasks of ministry like caring for the poor and visiting took them away from preaching the Word, the apostles ordained the first deacons so that the preachers could stay focused on preaching.
Our parish is called “Living Word” and we should be living out that name in our priorities. That living Word of God must be at the centre of our congregational life. We need to feed hungry people with the only food that will give them life and transform their lives. We need to be like Martin Luther and put the Word at the centre and let that be our driving force—and watch God work. Again, as Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, you have sent your Word, incarnate in Jesus Christ, to purchase our redemption from sin and death, and you have given your Word written through the inspiration of your Spirit. Remind us always that without your Word there is no life. As we go about the work of your kingdom, let us keep your Word at the centre, that we might be always shaped by it and declaring it’s life-giving power to the world. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate. Amen.
This series of sermons is adapted from Mark Dever's book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Crossway, 2004.