Mark One: Expositional Preaching
Marks of a Healthy Church
Mark One: Expositional Preaching
by William Klock
We just confessed in the Creed that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. These are historically known as the “marks” of the Church. Despite our various differences and schisms, the Church is one. Whether Anglican or Mennonite or Coptic or Baptist, we’re all part of the one Church. It’s holy. Jesus has called us, set us apart, washed us clean, and filled us with the Spirit. It’s catholic. It is universal and it is complete in and of itself. And it’s apostolic in that it continues in the teaching, in the gospel, that was given to us by the apostles. These identifying marks of the Church have served us well since the Fourth Century—and it’s not like they were new ideas when they were written into the Nicene Creed back then. But they are fairly abstract—in the sense that these things describe the Church in the broadest sense. So how do we identify the church at the local level? When you look at a local congregation, what sorts of things should define it? Or we could ask what makes a local church a church as opposed to a social club or a group of do-gooders or even a cult? Or we might ask what makes for a healthy church? These issues became of paramount importance at the time of the Protestant Reformation. If the Church is “broken”—as the Reformers observed—what needs to happen to set it right? For the Reformers, whether German or Swiss, French or English or Scottish, the identify marks of a true local church, of a church faithful to Jesus and the teaching of the apostles, distilled down to two things: the preaching of God’s word and the administration of God’s sacraments. This principle was written, in one way or another, into all of the Protestant confessions of faith, but here’s how it comes to us in ours, in Article XIX of our Articles of Religion:
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.
Anglican and Lutherans, Baptists and Presbyterians, we have our differences, but we are united in these two core marks of a church: we preach the word and we administer the sacraments. Faithfulness to these two things—and whether or not we do these things with deliberate faithfulness to Scripture—is what determines the health of a church. Not attendance and numbers, not programs, not activities, not vibrant fellowship, but faithfulness to preaching God’s word and administering his sacraments. All those other things can be good—and sometimes they come out of faithfulness to word and sacrament, but it’s the word and the sacraments that create this community called the church. We can build community around all sorts of other things—and churches often do. We build community around programmes. We build communities around styles of worship, whether a grand pipe organ and a choir or a rock band and fog machine. We even build community around celebrity preachers. But those things should not and do not define a church—let alone a healthy church. Faithfulness to word and sacrament do. We visited this topic almost thirteen years ago and it’s my plan to revisit it again between now and Advent. My own views have evolved and refined a bit in the last decade, but I think the key principles I preached back then are still basically the same. So I want to start these first several weeks with that first mark, faithful preaching of the word. The first four principles derive from our preaching. From there we’ll move onto the principles that are connected to or derived from our administration of the sacraments.
So a faithful church, a healthy church is a word-centred church. Such church should be characterised by people who take God’s word seriously and who understand that it speaks with authority. We should expect such a church’s members to be committed to reading and studying the Bible for themselves. We should expect that they will probably gather in groups to read and study the Bible together. But at the centre of all of this should be a pulpit ministry devoted to and centred on the Bible. Virtually every church includes some kind of sermon in its worship, but not every sermon is Bible-centred. So we need to be very explicit about this. The first mark of a faithful and healthy church is not just preaching, but what’s usually called expositional or expository preaching. Now, what is expositional preaching? Expositional preaching is what I do virtually every Sunday. Expositional preaching takes a text from the Bible—maybe given by the lectionary or maybe as we work through a book of the Bible verse by verse or chapter by chapter—expositional preaching takes that text, explains what it means, and applies it to the congregation—it tells you what to do about it. In contrast there’s topical preaching. That’s what I almost never do—but I am doing it right now. In a topical sermon, the preacher preaches not about a Biblical text, but about subject—and hopefully what the Bible has to say about that subject, whether it's prayer or justice or holiness or expositional preaching. There can be some crossover. A topical sermon can be expositional as it explains what a certain text has to say about a certain topic. But a steady diet of topic preaching isn’t healthy for a church, because it’s not driven by the word. Topical preaching is driven by the preacher. And if a congregation only ever hear what their preacher wants to preach about, they’ll never grow beyond where their preacher is at. And he won’t grow either, because he’s always digging into the Bible to find support for his ideas. In contrast, expositional preaching is driven by the word. The Bible’s agenda becomes the preacher’s agenda—and he’s therefore always learning and often surprised by what he finds—and the congregation grows by hearing God’s word. Brother and Sisters, my ideas—no preacher’s ideas or pet topics—will not transform you into the people God intends you to be. Only his word will do that.
Expositional preaching also requires and builds a commitment to God’s word. Many of us came from the Anglican Church of Canada. How did a church go so badly awry, how did it stray so far from orthodoxy, and how did so many people just sit and let it happen? It happened because the church lost her commitment to the word. Her pulpit ministry failed. The great expositional sermons preached in Anglicn pulpits from the Reformation through the 19th Century were replaced by ten or fifteen minute homilies—often topical, but typically paying only lip-service to God’s word. And that created a people with no passion for the word and that, in turn, created a people with little knowledge of the word—people ready to be carried about by every wind of doctrine.
Brothers and Sisters, God’s word creates God’s people. Many of us have seen what happens when you take it away or water it down. God’s people become lax in faith and lax in discipline. Instead of conforming to the word, they conform to the culture around them. And eventually they simply stop being God’s people altogether—they apostatise. And it’s not just “liberal” churches. Evangelicals at large are facing their own crisis, because so many of our churches are failing to preach the word. Our preachers are preaching pop-psychology or they’re preaching topically and preaching their own ideas—and even as they affirm the authority or inerrancy of Scripture, their churches are often looking less and less like the people of God and more like the culture around us. Dear Friends, our churches must, first and foremost, by centred on God’s word and that begins with our pulpit ministry. If we look at the history of the Church we see a lot of ebb and flow, high points and low points, and one thing we see consistently is that the high points in Church history always align with those times and places where her people and especially her preachers were committed to preaching God’s word. People like to say that the great revivals of history were brought about by prayer. That’s only half the story. Those periods of great prayer were brought about by periods of great biblical preaching. Again, God’s word creates God’s people. It won’t happen any other way.
Let’s go back to the very beginning of the story. Genesis 1. What was God’s agent of creation? “God said…” He spoke and the cosmos and everything in it came into being. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were cast from his presence, but the word of the Lord remained. He spoke, cursing the serpent and giving them hope in a promise of restoration. When all humanity had lost the knowledge of God, he spoke again, this time calling Abraham out of Ur and leading him to the promised land. And when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, the word of the Lord came again to Moses, and through him to the whole people—even to Pharaoh. By his word he brought down a pagan king and created a people for himself. At Sinai he spoke again, establishing a covenant with his people and giving his life—the means of life in his presence. God’s word creates and gives life.
Over and over the Lord spoke to his people. That phrase “the word of the Lord came” or something similar occurs more than 3,800 times. By his word he created a people and by his word he sustained them. By his word he made himself known. By his word he created faith amongst them. I was reading an article this week about literacy in ancient Israel. Hardly anyone in the ancient world knew how to read and write—just a tiny handful of scribes. But in ancient Israel and Judah the literacy rate may have been as high as fifteen or twenty per cent. Why? Because they were a people of the word, particularly as the ancient oral traditions were recorded and became scripture. They knew that God’s word is life.
Think of Ezekiel’s vivid vision of the valley of dry bones. This is one of my favourite passages in all of Scripture because it so often gives me hope as a preacher. The Lord took Ezekiel to a valley full of dead, dry bones. The Lord asked him how those bones could live again. Ezekiel had no idea. It looked hopeless. Here’s Ezekiel 37:4-6:
Then [the Lord] 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. But there 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)
The Lord explains to Ezekiel that the bones are Israel—her hope is gone. But he will not leave his people dry and hopeless. He promised in verse 14, “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.” What’s the Lord’s means of giving life—of imparting his Spirit—to his people? As in the beginning, his word, this time spoken through the prophet. It’s an amazing thing. As a preacher it gives me hope. Israel was dead. Lots of people had lots of ideas about how to bring her back to life. The nation certainly wasn’t interested in listening to Ezekiel. But preaching was the Lord’s solution. If he could speak into the pre-creation chaos and bring life, he can certainly speak to a lost, sinful, rebellious, and hopeless people and bring them back to life—giving them faith anew. Brothers and Sisters, that’s why the Church exists: a people created by the word and called to preach that word to the world. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Ezekiel. The Lord promised to speak to Israel and to give her his Spirit. Through the prophet he promised, “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)
And the Lord did just that. Think of the opening verses of John’s Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with 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. (John 1:1-4)
The word incarnate. God’s creative power, there in the beginning, now incarnate, one of his own people, that he might bring the dry bones to life. And what did the word incarnate do? He preached, of course.. His was the ministry of a prophet, the word of the Lord proclaiming the word of the Lord—announcing judgement, but also calling Israel to repentance so that when he died for the sins of his people and rose from the grave, they would understand this fresh and mighty work of God and believe. And when it was accomplished, what did he do? He ordained apostles to proclaim this word to Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to the whole world. We cannot know this God, we cannot know this Saviour, we cannot know this gospel apart from the word and without its proclamation. It was like this for Israel and it is like this for the Church. There’s a reason, again, why Christianity and Christian missions have promoted high literacy rates—why missionaries spend years learning the languages of pre-literate peoples, developing alphabets and grammars for them, so that they can then translate the Bible—the written word—so that those peoples can have it in their own languages. There are folks today who think that preaching—a monologue by a single man at the front—is passé, but it has been the norm for both Jews and Christians from the beginning, because we are a people committed to the word of God, knowing that it is the only source of true life.
We cannot know God apart from his self-revelation of himself. We see this in Genesis as things go from bad to worse in those first chapters, as fallen humanity loses all knowledge of God. They grasped for heaven at Babel, but did so in an act of unbelief. Humanity was utterly lost. But then, in his grace, the Lord spoke and called Abraham and faith sparked to life in the darkness of the world—because God spoke, because a man heard the word of the Lord, believed, and obeyed. As St. Paul writes in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word”—and specifically he adds—“the word of Christ.”
There are all sorts of philosophies of church growth today. People argue for building churches around programmes. People argue that you’ve got to find your niche and build it around that. When I was visiting my parents I saw that someone had started the “Cowboy Church” not far from where they live. When I was first ordained in the REC a friend gave me a manual for traditional Anglican church planting. It was all about building contacts with anglophiles by getting involved in clubs and societies centred on all things English. Other people build churches around a worship experience or a youth programme. It’s not that God can’t or won’t use some of those things, but Brothers and Sisters, a healthy church will always be built around the proclamation of the word of God, modelled in the pulpit and lived by the people. Nothing else will last. 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 mindset the Church needs.
But the word does more than create. The word also sustains and sanctifies. It is the water that causes us to grow and we will not grow without it. When he was tempted by the devil Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 8:3, “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” (Psalm 119:105). Without the word we will lose our way and starve. We only have to look at Israel to see this. Go back to King Josiah’s day in 2 Chronicles 34. After years of neglect, Josiah ordered a renovation of the temple and during that renovation the book of the law was found. The word of the Lord had been lost—buried in a pile somewhere in the temple and forgotten for generations. Josiah recognised the significance of that find. He tore his clothes in grief and repentance and then gathered the priests and the elders of the people. In their presence, he the King, read out the Lord’s word and led the people in a covenant renewal ceremony. God’s word sanctifies his people.
Jesus prayed this for us in his high priestly prayer in John 17: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” And St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus, “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” (Ephesians 5:25b-26). Brothers and Sisters, without immersing ourselves in God’s word we will not hear him. There are no shortcuts. Only his word gives life and only his word sanctifies. This is why topical preaching—where the preacher drives the agenda—cannot be our main diet. Occasionally a topical sermon it’s necessary, but it cannot be our staple food. This is why regular personal reading and study of the Bible is necessary. We must be confronted by word to know God and to grow into the people he has called us to be. And, of course, it goes without saying that we don’t hear merely to hear or merely to read, but we immerse ourselves in God’s word, we hear him speak, so that we can submit to his will and his ways. And there’s the Spirit at work, renewing our hearts and making fertile soil for the word to take root. A healthy church not only proclaims God’s word, but listens and is daily remade and sanctified by it.
Timothy was St. Paul’s young protégé. When Paul wrote to him to give him advice as to how to shepherd the flock, it’s worth noting that he gave him none of the advice that is common today. He didn’t advise Timothy to start a new program, to buy a fog machine, to hire a paid choir, to take a poll to find out what people want to hear. He didn’t do any of that. He wrote to Timothy and said emphatically, “Preach the Word!” (2 Timothy 4:2). Or think of the early Jerusalem Church. When the apostles were struggling to keep up with the day-to-day tasks of the church, they ordained deacons to carry on that ministry and declared, “We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). They knew that God’s word is life.
One day we will see God face to face and know him perfectly, but until that day we live, not by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from his mouth. As a church named “Living Word” my prayer is that we will be a people known in our community for our commitment to the life-giving and sanctifying word of God. That we will be a people who value and love God’s word, who put it at the centre of our ministry and of our lives, and who not only recognise its authority, but who are also seeking to submit to it and to be transformed. I pray that we will be a people so full of God’s word—this water of life—that as in John’s vision of the New Jerusalem, it will overflow from us to carry God’s life—the good news about Jesus—to the world around us.
Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, you have sent your word, incarnate in Jesus, to deliver us from our bondage to 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 our Lord, the word incarnate. Amen.
 Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 51:77.