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The first of Dever’s marks, expositional preaching, is “far and away the most important” because “if you get the priority of the Word established, then you have in place the single most important aspect of the church’s life, and growing health is virtually assured, because God has decided to act by His Spirit through His Word” (39). In Dever’s mind, the other eight marks flow out of the first: a commitment to hear and submit to God’s word will, over time, lead to health in other areas of church life.
To begin, we should ask the question: What is expositional preaching? Dever says that people commonly contrast expositional and topical sermons. A topical sermon “begins with a particular matter that the preacher wants to preach about” and then usually “assembles various texts from various parts of the Bible and combines them with illustrative stories and anecdotes” (39-40). In contrast, an expositional sermon “takes for the point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture” (40). Topical and expositional preaching uses the Bible differently when selecting, organizing, and focusing a sermon.
The difference here is not absolute. As Dever says, “A topical sermon can be expositional. I could choose to preach on a topic and just pick one passage of Scripture that addresses exactly this concern. … But it is still a topical sermon, because the preacher knows what he wants to say and he is going into the Bible to see what he can find to say about it” (40). So a topical sermon is not necessarily un-biblical and can be rooted in Scripture, even focusing on and unpacking the main point of a single passage. Indeed, Dever can’t be absolutely opposed to ever preaching a topical series, since his own book, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, began as a topical sermon series! Dever says that expositional preaching “is not what I’m doing in this chapter, but it is what I normally intend to do when I step into the pulpit on Sunday” (40). So while a topical sermon or series here and there can be very appropriate for Sunday mornings, his point is that expositional preaching is the healthy norm, going through a book of the Bible and unpacking the main point of each passage.
Moreover, his caution is well taken: certain dangers are far more likely when preaching topically. In particular, with topical sermons, it is far easier for a pastor to misinterpret Scripture because he doesn’t consider a text in its context but is looking for a passage that fits his earlier ideas. A pastor who consistently preaches sermon series organized around his own ideas is more likely to twist Scripture in some ways, using God’s word as a prop for his own thoughts. On the other hand, a church that makes a regular habit of preaching through whole books of the Bible, carefully considering every word in context and in light of the larger whole, expresses a desire to follow God’s own thoughts by tracing the flow of Scripture.
And misinterpretation is not the only danger of topical sermons – the very act of choosing a topic can be dangerous because of what it omits, if a pastor, over time, consistently avoids uncomfortable biblical teachings. We all like certain ideas or passages in the Bible more than others, and if we ourselves determine which topics to explore, it’s all too likely that we’ll begin to omit the parts of Scripture that we’re less comfortable with. God’s word doesn’t just comfort and strengthen us; it also confronts us, and a pastor who preaches primarily topical sermons may be sorely tempted to ignore those sections of Scripture that challenge us.
Expositional preaching, then, is a safeguard against both biblical misinterpretation and biblical omission; it attempts to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15) and to declare the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). As Dever warns, a church that does not have such a commitment to hear and submit to Scripture “will slowly be conformed to the pastor’s mind rather than to God’s mind. And what we want, what as Christians we crave, are God’s words. We want to hear and know in our souls what He has said” (42). For Dever, expositional preaching is not simply a matter of style or preference, but of Christian obedience. God does not call pastors to advance their own ideas, but to “preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2). Regular expositional preaching is perhaps the best way to give God control of the pulpit and to let him plan the calendar for the church’s instruction and worship.
But in the rest of the chapter, Dever goes even deeper. Underneath all that he’s said about expositional preaching as a mark of a healthy church, Dever thinks through some very important questions: What is the Bible? How do Christians grow? And his answers to those questions are phenomenally huge: The Bible is God’s word, fully authoritative and entirely true, his very own speech, and God’s word is the source that creates and sustains all life.
Dever finds this pattern, appropriately, in the beginning. In Genesis 1, God repeats his refrain of “Let there be…” and the heavens and the earth and every living thing come into existence. And Dever finds this creational pattern reenacted in redemption – he looks at the prophet’s vision of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37 and notes that first comes the command, “Prophesy!” and then, after the prophet speaks the word of the Lord, the bones snap together, are covered with flesh, and are filled with the breath of life. Indeed, this would seem to be what James has in mind, when he writes to the church about the goodness of our Father God, and says “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18). So our conversion, our spiritual new birth, is a word-triggered change. The pattern still holds: God speaks, and we come alive.
The phrase Dever uses to describe this pattern is “God’s Holy Spirit creates His people by His Word” (50). As the Scripture says, “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:3 / Matt 4:4). Dever says, “A healthy church is a church that hears the Word of God and continues to hear the Word of God. And such a church is composed of individual Christians who hear the Word of God and continue to hear the Word of God, always being refashioned and reshaped by it, constantly being washed in the Word and sanctified by God’s truth” (51). Not only do we become Christians by the word, we also grow as Christians by the word. And this does not only happen on Sunday mornings under good preaching, but throughout whatever time we spend reading, studying, discussing, praying, memorizing, singing, and applying Scripture, or any other way the truth of God’s word takes root in our hearts and, in the power of his Spirit, begins to grow.
But Dever is right to emphasize the importance of good preaching in overall church life. Every Sunday morning, when a pastor stands up to preach, he models to the congregation how they should approach and handle the Bible. A church that regularly preaches through whole books of the Bible is making a statement about the importance of Scripture. A pastor who considers each verse in context and who attends carefully to each specific word teaches people how to carefully listen to God: focus, pay attention to details and to the larger whole, and humbly allow your own prior ideas to be corrected by what is written. A pastor who doesn’t skip over any verses, even the unpopular ones, teaches people to submit to God and acknowledge him as Lord. A pastor who, after working through what the Bible says, preaches that truth boldly and with great conviction, teaches people that the Bible has authority. And a pastor who is constantly moved and stirred by Scripture teaches people that God’s word does indeed bring life, and he models what it looks like to live a Spirit-filled life as we relate with God and respond to his word.
Review by Dan Schwartz