RPM, Volume 14, Number 18, April 29 to May 5, 2012

Why Expository Preaching
is the Power for Pastoral Ministry

By Dr. Michael Milton

Chancellor/CEO Elect and the James M. Baird, Jr.
Professor of Pastoral Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary

• How can we have an effective pastorate?
• How can our ministries, our preaching, support church health?
• How can we be faithful in our ministries?

There is a parable for young preachers in Walt Disney's Dumbo, the little circus elephant that had a hard time keeping up with mom and the other adults. He would just latch his trunk onto the tail of the massive mammal in front of him and go with the herd! He was small, but with one critical attachment, he could keep up.

How do we keep up as pastors in today's world? How do we even keep up with those who have gone before? How do we follow great preachers? How do we follow long pastorates? There are significant and divinely wise answers to those questions that may be located in the Bible, cultivated through prayer, study, consecration, and dying to ourselves. But I want to consider one single answer today. I must try to answer it, without apology, from the Word of God. So, I ask you to join me, and turn to 2 Timothy 3.16 through chapter 4.1-5. There, a little pastor named Timothy, just like the name of the mouse in Dumbo, who followed a ministry giant, a pastoral pachyderm named Paul, is instructed on how to latch on to the legacy. Hear the Word:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound* teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (

2 Timothy 4.1-5 ESV)

Let's just say it and let the power and the possibility for failure sink in: Timothy was pastor of the church planted by Paul. When I feel really challenged, I think of Timothy. The elders at Ephesus had fallen on the neck of Paul and wept over his departure at Miletus. Three years of powerful ministry gave Paul the right to call them to shepherd the Church of God that He had purchased with His own blood. And Paul, in his swan song at the twilight of his remarkable ministry, reminded Timothy how he had to follow Him. He gave the secret to power. He lifted a mouse (no, his words were so divine and powerful that they magically transformed the mouse into an elephant), a giant linked to his ministry, and linked to Jesus Christ, powered by Almighty God Himself. And what did Paul commend? He commended the Word of God, and after calling it God-breathed, he charged a God-called man to preach. The answer to the question, "How do mice latch on to elephants?" is neither original nor surprising at this conference. Like Charles Hodge addressing new students at old Princeton, I, too, say to you, "I glory in saying that you will learn nothing new here." But it is an answer that every frail follower of pulpit giants must remember:

The only way for any of us to stand in the long and honorable legacy of gospel preachers is through expository preaching.

Why? I offer eight concise reasons why expository preaching is the power for the pastorate, whatever your situation.

1. Expository Preaching is the Power of the Pastorate because it is Divinely Wrought.

The way for Timothy to take his place as "[the] beloved child [of Paul]" (1.2), to latch on the legacy of "faith that dwelt first in [his] grandmother Lois and [his] mother Eunice" (1.5), to "fan into flame the gift of God" (1.6) which was transferred through the apostolic laying on of hands of Paul himself (1.6), to overcome a "spirit" of "fear" (1.7), to "guard the good deposit entrusted to [him]" (1.14), to teach others what he has learned from Paul, thus extending the apostolic succession to another generation (2.1-2), to avoid getting "entangled" (2.4) with "civilian pursuits" (2.4), to proclaim and teach the whole counsel of God, from the old covenant to the new covenant (as Paul speaks of in 2.8-13) "for the sake of the elect that they may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory," "to take his place," to "flee youthful passions and purse righteousness" (2.22), and to do all of the things he is charged to do at Ephesus like: reminding the saints not to quarrel about words (2.14), to "avoid irreverent babble" (2.16), to correct his opponents with the aim of leading them to repentance and a knowledge of the truth (2.25) so that they may avoid "snare of the devil" (2.26); to say it again, the way to be this man and conduct this ministry is— khrucon ton log— to preach the Word.

For Paul makes it clear that the Word of God alone is able to meet the mission of the preacher. The reason this is so is that the Word of God is the authoritative instrument from the throne of God to accomplish God's mission in the world. We remember that Paul's admonition to "preach the word" follows his teaching that "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent for every good work" (3.16-17). Paul had been building up to say that in everything he had written previously.

I love the way Dr. Robert L. Reymond puts it, "the Bible is a Word from another World." In his New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Reymond writes, "When God gave his Word to us; he gave us much more than simply basic information about himself. He gave us the pou sto ("[a place] where I may stand"), or base that justifies both our knowledge claims and our claims to personal significance."

The Word of God is the place where the pastor may stand. Indeed, our very existence, our calling, our vocation only have meaning through this Word. I recently read J.C. Ryle's wonderful "Warning to the Churches," in which the old Bishop of Liverpool warned his diocesan ministers of the perils they faced. The book left me amazed at his prophetic gifts and understanding of the times. I do not have such gifts, I am sure. But I do want to raise a danger related to the matter before us.

We live in an ever increasing iconoclastic culture that demands image and entertainment to communicate, that tells the preacher that short sound bytes are more persuasive than exposition of a text, that narrative is of more importance than the exposition of a text, that postmodern man cannot endure direct teaching, but needs to make the homeletical turns for himself. I say that this is a danger to the preaching of the Word, to evangelism, and to discipleship. And in the midst of such an age, we would all do well to remember that God called for Israel to do something that the heathen did not do, to think about Him in His Word, not in image. The late Neil Postman, a non-practicing Jew, saw this clearly. The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking. Iconography, thus, became blasphemy, so that a new kind of God could enter a culture. People like ourselves, who are in the process of converting their culture from word-centered to image-centered, might profit by reflecting on the Mosaic injunction.

The Word, my beloved brothers in the ministry, is the God-given place where we may stand, where we may reason, where we may dialogue with man. Indeed, we have been forbidden to go elsewhere. As a pastor, the reason that I want to focus on expository preaching ��" that is, proclaiming the inerrant and infallible Word of the living God as it is written, as it has been transmitted to me by God through the church, passing muster with the intent of the author, with conviction in my own life, and with love for those before me ��" is because expository preaching fixes itself, by its best definition, onto God's Word, divinely wrought and divinely authorized. This has powerful implications for my ministry that I want to explore further.

The only way for me to stand in the company of pulpit giants is to stand with this Word from another world. The truth is, if they are truly giants in the church, if they are linked from Spurgeon, to Ryle, to M'Cheyne, to Whitefield, to Bunyan, to Luther, to Calvin, to Wycliffe, to Augustine, to Paul, to Jesus and the prophets, then they are men of this one Book, and that is all they have to say. This leads me to a second reason that we must cling to expository preaching in order to find our place in the accredited college of godly preachers.

2. Expository Preaching is the Power of the Pastorate because it is Biblically Faithful.

We have seen that Paul tells Timothy to preach the Word, and we all know why. Preach the Word because the Word is divinely wrought. It is God's Word, and what could be nobler? If there were no other reasons to proclaim His Word other than the mere fact that the Bible is His Word that would be enough. The matter, then, becomes how shall we do it? To "preach" the Word must be to faithfully communicate that Word (from another world). Expository preaching, properly understood and properly done, fulfills this mandate.

Expository preaching is defined concisely and Biblically By Albert Mohler put it in his contribution to "Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship": "Expository preaching is that mode of Christian preaching that takes as its central purpose the presentation and application of the text of the Bible." And if expository preaching is really exposing the mind of God in a given text and communicating the mind of God to men and women, then no other methodology will do.

William Temple was not an expository preacher, though he said enough good things that we often quote him. But the old Bishop of Canterbury did not believe that God would communicate His Word propositionally in the Bible because man could not understand it even if He did. Temple did not believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. Temple did believe that you could understand what he wrote; otherwise, he wouldn't have written anything, but that is another argument. Enough to say, that if we believe that the power for our ministries is the Bible, as Paul teaches us, then it surely follows that expository preaching is the only model we should seek in communicating that Word.

As one who serves a seminary and who is also a professor who gets to teach preaching every now and then, and who, as a pastor, gets to mentor younger preachers before sending them to other places of service, the subject of "the future of expository preaching" in light of post modernity and post Christian America is a hot topic. I have found that many are wrestling with the question of whether such communication really can reach across the widening and ever-changing rivers of modern culture to grip the hearts and persuade the minds of an emerging generation. The realities of the emerging generation cause them to question expository preaching, and, in fact, have led several on a journey to "find their voice," as they tell me, apart from the safe constraints of exposition. . I'm happy to say that many of these with whom I have met have worked through that question to re-discover the power of expository preaching for this generation.

The whole matter of whether expository preaching can effectively communicate to a "late modern" Western secularized culture is a question that has been posed and pondered by many. Yet if we are preaching the very Word of God, then surely God knows what we need in every age. This Word worked in the fallen ruins of Eden when God promised a Savior in Genesis 3.15. The Word worked in Genesis 12 when God's Word provided promises to Abraham for a land, a nation, and a blessing that would reach around the world. God's Word was enough in 586 BC in the crumbled remains of Jerusalem when a weeping prophet named Jeremiah preached through tears. God's Word worked in first century Rome when Paul preached it. It worked in the 18th century in America when George Whitefield roared out its truths up and down the colonial coast. It worked in the 19th century in Korea when missionaries preached there, and it worked in industrial Dundee, Scotland, when Robert Murray M'Cheyne preached there. It worked in the 20th century, the bloodiest century in the world's history, when modernity overtook the West and men such as Martyn Lloyd-Jones thundered from a world capital such as London. And it will work in the 21st century, in postmodern and post-Christian North America, as it will work in China, Africa, India, and in Bulgaria. The Word will work in Chattanooga, will free slaves to sin in Miami, give abundant life in Los Angeles, renew cold-hearted saints in Des Moines, restore marriages in Peoria, reunite severed relationships in Louisville, sprinkle the spirit of holiness in New Orleans, call new missionaries out of Kansas City, and save souls from eternal damnation in Bangor, Seattle and Paducah. The power of our ministries is expository preaching because, if what we have to say is the Word of God, how we say it matters. And expository preaching, rightly followed, is the way to say it.

Now, I have said that expository preaching is powerful because it is the Word of God and it is faithful to the Word of God. Let me continue with my reasons as to why it is the power for the pulpit, but let me be thoroughly pragmatic about it.

3. Expository Preaching is the Power of the Pastorate because it is Pastorally Effective.

If this is the Word of God and it is and if expository preaching is the biblically faithful method for giving out this Word of God— and it is— then it surely is the key to success in the pastorate.

What do I mean? I surely don't mean to imply that success and effectiveness in the pastorate is to be connected with being a celebrity, or selling books, or gaining fame. This past week I read a fine sermon by J.C. Philpot, from 1857, about the ever-present temptation of pride and vainglory among preachers, and I am aware that each of us deals in some way with this. But no, I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about effectiveness in what I call the essentials of the ministry—gathering, growing and sending forth strong disciples of Christ. I have in mind the work of seeing souls saved, lives transformed, marriages saved, young people's hearts burning with zeal for Christ and His kingdom, and desiring to die to themselves to live for Christ. I have in mind "setting in order the things that remain" and ordering our churches according to God's intentions. I have in mind speaking peace into a troubled, maybe even splitting, congregation. I have in mind being pastorally effective in shepherding the flock of God over whom God has made me an overseer. There is no program, no model, no paradigm, no experiment, no policy, and no amount of pure elbow grease or mental genius that can equal the power of the Word of God preached. It accomplishes everything I hope for in the ministry. Recently, I read where someone said that the best time-tested discipleship tool in the history of the church has been morning and evening worship where there is expository preaching. My own experience as a disciple and a pastor is that I couldn't agree more. I believe that this is so.

When I counsel people in trouble, I always ask if they are sitting under the expository preaching of the Word of God. I'm not asking them to come to my church, though I would love to have them. I'm simply saying that they must locate a place to belong, a local congregation, where the preacher is committed to moving sequentially through the Word of God—that may be moving through books, chapters, or other preaching portions within a book—in such a way that they are getting the mind of Christ in the study. Expository preaching is pastorally effective.

4. Expository Preaching is the Power of the Pastorate because it is Vocationally Satisfying.

When I say "vocationally satisfying," I am speaking to those who have come, in their own lives, to say with Paul in 1 Corinthians 9.16, "For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!"

If we are called by God to preach the Word of God to a dying world, and if preaching is unveiling the mind of God for man in this Word, and this is what expository preaching is, then it follows that we will only be happy in our work if we are doing that!

Eugene Peterson is the pastor's friend in so many ways. I have greatly benefited from his various works. In "Under the Unpredictable Plant," he tells how he was at the point of burnout at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Belaire, Maryland. He was going from board meeting to board meeting, doing this and that, and as a pastor who has planted two churches (and Peterson's church was a church plant) I know how it can be. Well, this tired pastor goes to his session and tells them that he can't go on. He thinks he is at the end of his pastorate. Fatigue is physical exhaustion, and we all get that. Burnout is a loss of meaning, and we do not necessarily have to have that, but this is apparently what Peterson had. His Session was wise and told him to list the things he went into the ministry to do. He listed, preaching, visiting the sick, sharing the Gospel, and the things that the Bible teaches us is our work. His Session told him, "You do those things you were called to do, and we will do the rest." You probably have read what happened. He not only was renewed in his ministry, but stayed over 30 years at that church.

If God has called you to preach, He has not called you to be a rush chairman, a religious store manager, or even a really great storyteller. Yet, there are many who will tell us that expository preaching is not enough. Peterson says, "Propagandists are abroad in the land lying to us about what congregations are and can be. They are lying for money. They want to make us discontent with what we are doing so we will buy a solution from them that they promise will restore virility to our impotent congregations. The profit-taking among those who market these [programs] indicates pastoral gullibility in these matters is endless."

Let us not be gullible. Expository preaching fulfills God's purpose for our lives as preachers. He has called you to preach the Word, and you will never be happy until you go to that Word, live in that Word, exegete the meaning of that Word, dive like a Pacific native to the bottom of the ocean for the rich pearls of that Word, and then come back up from your time in the deep-blue of God's presence, string those pearls together in a sermon, and put them on the neck of your people.

Only a preaching method, a preaching approach, that is radically Word-centered, Christ-centered, Gospel-saturated, and uncompromisingly faith to the text will give you joy. For you were made to preach.

5. Expository Preaching is the Power of the Pastorate because it is Eschatologically Useful.

Now when I say eschatologically useful, I am saying that expository preaching brings our people into contact with ultimate realities. In personal eschatology, expository preaching prepares our people to not only live but to die. Oh, if we could hear the stories of faithful preachers, seated right here today, who have shared those sweet and sacred moments of vigil with a family when a loved one is going home. You know that the power for your ministry at that time is in the exposition of the Word. An elder in our church who recently went home to be with the Lord said, "I have been waiting for this. I am ready to go home." This attitude comes from expository preaching.

Expository preaching also is eschatologically useful in that it brings our people to see God's ultimate cosmic realities. I would say that faithful exposition of the Word would probably distance our preaching from some of the excessive, eisegetical propositions that we sometimes hear at certain prophecy seminars that lead to theological speculation and seem to draw cosmic curiosity seekers. But faithful exposition, say of 1 Corinthians 15 or Ephesians 1, leads our people to see that God is a teleological God, that this world is going somewhere, and that we who are God's children are destined for something greater than ourselves.

The revelation of God gives meaning, purpose, context to time, space, and eternity, to man and God. It gives meaning to sickness, hope, and even happiness in the face of theodicy, and the questions of suffering.

6. Expository Preaching is the Power of the Pastorate because it is Personally Edifying.

The call to preach the Word is a blessing. Each week we come to the text, and we are fed by it, hopefully, before we give it to others. I know the James 3 warning against being teachers, but we also know the words of Paul—this Word will "make you wise for salvation" (2 Timothy 3.15). We will save ourselves as well as those who hear us.

I must say this, also. When we are about the work of expository preaching in the pastorate, the work carries us along in a sense. Week-in and week-out, we develop a discipline of study, for to preach the Word of God line-upon-line, precept-upon-precept, demands time, struggle, and prayer. I know that in this room, your heads and hearts are turning, perhaps not over this address, but over the portion of Scripture that you must deliver this week. Is there anything as rewarding in life as unburdening your soul in that movement when you approach the sacred desk and open up the Bible? Expository preaching feeds my soul. I know of no other way to put it. But more than that:

7. Expository Preaching is the Power of the Pastorate because it is Constantly Challenging.

To present the mind of Christ in a text requires much of us, does it not? I once heard a preacher say that every time he preached, a little piece of him died. I am sure there are those for whom that is true because they are tired of preaching, or they will know that they will get ripped to pieces at the front door of the church. But this man was speaking about preaching in a way that I can identify with. Like you, to preach the mind of God, to go through the necessary steps to get there, then to emotionally discharge the holy calling on your life through the act of expositing a text is the most challenging thing in the world. It takes your very life.

I was once in a seminar with Dr. D. James Kennedy where seminary students got to ask him anything they wanted. One asked, "Dr. Kennedy, what is the most challenging thing you have ever done in the ministry?" His answer was, "Prepare next Sunday's sermon." Can I get an "Amen" on that? We all know it is true. We all know that such rigorous preaching cut short the life of John Calvin. It must be balanced with recreation and separation unto God in quiet prayer and reflection. We all know that to constantly face the Word of God each and every week, sometimes three or four times each week, is overwhelming at times. But for those called to do so, it is a response to a calling to an amazing love that demands my soul, my life, my all. Would you really want it any other way?


8. Expository Preaching is the Power of the Pastorate because it is Always Contemporary.

When we go to the Word, and preach the Word, we never have to worry about whether it is the right time or not, or if this is the right message or not. Now surely wisdom is needed to discern between preaching Lamentations at a wedding or Leviticus chapter 15 and "bodily discharges" at the dedication or baptism of an infant. But, you know what I mean. As I think about this conference, I am reminded once more that expository preaching is always in vogue, always "cool," if you will, for the human condition remains the same in every age.


How did Lloyd-Jones follow Campbell-Morgan? Expository preaching. How did Boice follow Barnhouse? Expository preaching. How did Timothy follow Paul? "Preach the Word." We must guard what was deposited to us with expository preaching. We must, because we can't conduct a sound ministry of visitation of the sick and dying without it. We cannot carry on the work of evangelism, discipleship, world missions, building up our saints, or being a witness to our communities without expositing the Word from another world. We were made for it. It is our lives. It is our heart. Readers of great missionaries' stories will recall the amazing story of that intrepid Scotsman, the physician Dr. David Livingston, who, like Lloyd-Jones, was not only a medical doctor but also a preacher of the Gospel. You will recall that David Livingston's body was returned from Africa, where he died, to be buried with highest honors in Westminster Abbey. But do you also recall that before his body was removed from the deepest parts of that great continent to make the 700 mile trip to the coast, the tribesmen of the place where he died so loved this man that they removed his heart from his body and buried it in great ritual in the land where he preached the Gospel? , Jesus said in Matthew 6.21, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (NIV). The tribesmen knew that David Livingston's treasure was Africa. His soul would go to His Savior. His body would return, for the time being, to his native country. But Livingston's heart was in Africa.

So do our people know that we treasure them? Do they know that we treasure preaching the Gospel of God to them? Do they know where our hearts are?

I was the 12th pastor of a church that was started in 1838. The men who went before me were greatly loved. I followed one of the greatest Christian communicators of the 20th century. Dr. Ben Haden remains a close friend. He followed a man whose name is engraved on everything from the YMCA to a homeless mission. He followed a beloved pastor who died five years into office but whose five years left an impression of ministry that was felt for six decades after his death. He followed a former Confederate chaplain who ed a veritable civil rights campaign for African-Americans in the late 1800s in that community. He served for 50 years. He always wore a clerical collar and always left the gas light, later electric light burning, on the porch of the manse—"just in case someone needs a minister."

I once talked to some of the older folks in our congregation about my predecessors! "Why are they still venerated so? What was it about them that made them so special?" I heard answers—from different people, different stories, but always a common denominator. I think that the reason my predecessors are so honored is that, like Livingston, they preached the Word to a certain people in a certain time in a certain place. That Word did for those people in their land, in their time, what the Word always does—saves, changes lives, heals, restores, gives hope, brings assurance, and brings God to men and men to God. I am convinced that in the final analysis, this is the answer. All preachers, whether they consider themselves mice or elephants, great or small, are loved when they faithfully open up the Bread of Life and feed the lambs of Jesus. And this becomes our legacy, not that our images are recorded in oils to hang on a church wall, but that our hearts are buried in that place where we took our stand, spent our years, and gave our lives to preach the Word. For, you see, to those whose lives are changed, you will always be a giant to them. Amen.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

Subscribe to RPM

RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. To subscribe to RPM, please select this link.