The War on Exposition

And if ye go to war in your land against the enemy that oppresseth you, then ye shall blow an alarm with the trumpets; and ye shall be remembered before the LORD your God, and ye shall be saved from your enemies.

~ Numbers 10:9

Know your enemy and know yourself

Sun Tzu was born during the Babylonian captivity of the southern kingdom of Judah, though he was silent on that subject. He probably wanted to maintain his impartiality. He was a Chinese military general, adviser, and war strategist. His name is known to us today because he is credited with writing the classic, The Art of War. His book is a perennial source for strategizing and conflict management, as well as military tactics. Many modern business, marketing, self-help, and motivational gurus have grown rich by repackaging his philosophies and peddling them to those who want to get ahead in life.

Sun Tzu was a firm believer in knowing your enemy and yourself. He warned that failing to know your enemy would lead to as many losses as victories and failing to know yourself puts you in jeopardy in every battle. By knowing your enemy, Tzu referred to knowing your enemy’s capabilities, his strengths and weaknesses. The same holds for knowing your own strengths and weaknesses.

Having a known and named enemy can also be useful for tribal reinforcement. Giving your enemy a name creates a rallying point and defines a target for aiming at. Having a named, common enemy can provide strategic partnerships. Even Pilate and Herod could get along when they were both against the same thing (Luke 23:12). If you’re driving the bus out of town, you can fill the seats with malcontents who will push and shove to board that bus without worrying about where it’s going. But where is the bus headed? That’s the question.

The Enemy Approacheth

In 2017, I was in conversation with some friends and fellow pastors about the benefits and blessings expositional preaching had been to us personally and to our congregations. Among the conferences, fellowships, revivals, and such commonly held by churches, there wasn’t a lot being said about the task of preaching itself. We agreed to have a seminar focused on expositional preaching. Our goal was to offer help and encouragement to all who wanted it in the task of biblical exposition in the pulpit. We primarily had young preachers early in ministry in mind. We put out some feelers to see if there was enough interest to make such a seminar feasible. After all, it would take a lot of planning work and expense to put on. Two things happened that I did not expect.

First, the bare mention of a seminar to encourage biblical exposition in the pulpit caused an immediate hue and cry to rise up across the land. The opposition to exposition was fierce. Preachers lashed out on social media, in articles in papers and church bulletins, from the pulpit, and in personal conversations. Some made phone calls and such behind the scenes to persuade other preachers to never attend such a seminar. Biblical exposition from the pulpit was called heresy, both publicly and privately, and all those who suggested the pulpit was a good place for biblical exposition were called heretics and convicted of apostasy, or departing the faith.

I don’t know about you, but that reaction struck me as odd. How could exposition be such an enemy? Do you know what exposition means? Put simply, exposition means exposing or opening the meaning of a text. To put it more preacherly, exposition means explaining the meaning of any Bible verse or passage in its original contextual meaning. That’s it. Again, being simple, expositional preaching means preaching the Bible accurately, cutting it straight, or rightly dividing the word of truth. What Bible believing Christian, much less preacher or pastor, would object to that?

Let me give you a fictitious example to further clear up any residual confusion over exposition. Let’s take a sample verse:

And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly.
– John 13:27

How might this text be preached without exposition? The preacher might read the passage and then say, “I want to preach a message from this verse on the thought, ‘that thou doest, do quickly.'” Then he proceeds to preach a cleverly alliterated, three point sermon about time efficiency, productivity, and diligence in our jobs. You’ll have to supply the ‘p’ for each point. Let’s imagine you sat in the pew with your Bible on your lap and listened to this sermon. Regardless of how well the preacher may have spoken or how good the practical advice he gave was, is that what John 13:27 means? Is Jesus there telling us to manage our time wisely and work diligently at our jobs? If the text doesn’t mean that and that is not a valid, direct and necessary implication of the text, then that sermon is not expositional. But, it’s actually worse than that. That sort of sermon is actually abusing and twisting Scripture to support what the preacher wants to say, and it doesn’t matter how good or true the things he wants to say are. He is not preaching the Bible.

Admittedly, that’s a somewhat extreme example, so let’s take another example of the sort that you’ve more likely witnessed. A preacher might take John 13:27 as his text and proceed to preach a message on the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Maybe he runs all over the Bible to suggest connections between the virgin birth and his text. The virgin birth is absolutely true and taught in Scripture, a Bible doctrine. Let’s assume that the preacher made completely accurate statements about the virgin birth. That is still not an expositional sermon. Some would object, What’s wrong with it, didn’t he preach the truth? He may have preached the truth of a Bible doctrine, but the problem is that Bible doctrine is not the original intended meaning of John 13:27. To say that John 13:27 teaches the virgin birth through some intricate web of dubious, fanciful, and forced connections is to mishandle the word of God. It is not preaching the Bible accurately. It doesn’t matter whether he’s using a passage to preach election, the church, or some other doctrine. If that is not the original contextual meaning of that passage, he is twisting Scripture to say what he wants to say.

What would exposition look like from John 13:27? The preacher would explain the setting of the verse at the Passover supper and that Jesus was speaking to Judas. Jesus had revealed that he knew Judas was betraying him and that’s what he meant when he told Judas to do quickly what he was going to do. Whatever points and applications are made in the sermon would come from the text. That is exposition. Exposition is merely preaching the Bible accurately and has nothing to do with style, type of sermon, or the preacher’s gifts. It means preaching verses in their original contextual meaning, and any message from John 13:27 must align with its original contextual meaning to be rightly dividing the word of truth. Exposition means a preacher will not take Jesus’ words and use them in any way not in line with what Jesus meant when he said them.

So that’s what exposition means? Yes, that’s what exposition means. Then why would any preacher object to that and oppose it? That’s a good question. It’s very odd to oppose the accurate preaching of the Bible. You would think accurately handling God’s word would be the preacher’s primary objective in the pulpit. I can understand why pulpit charlatans and hucksters oppose exposition, or think it unnecessary. Handling the Bible accurately doesn’t allow them to peddle their merchandise or fill up the large domes they have to pay for. They have a lot of ears to scratch after all. But I can’t give you any good reason why any preacher who valued truth and held to the inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, authority, and sufficiency of Scripture would oppose exposition in the pulpit.

The second surprise came a little later, when we held the actual seminar. I was surprised by how many people attended. I figured we would have about a dozen and I was fine with doing the seminar under those conditions. We ended up with many more people than that and the conference room we used, which was bigger than I thought we would need, was pretty full. Nearly everyone that attended expressed appreciation and said they had benefited from it. Many of them returned to the second seminar almost two years later. For the most part, everyone that attended was overwhelmingly positive about it. There were some opportunists who crept in unawares to spy out our liberty and after a small sample proceeded forthwith to spread false reports about what we were saying, but that was a small happening and only received by those already disposed to hear it.

We later made the videos available on YouTube and had many watch and commend them. We heard from some that watched the videos and reached out to us secretly for fear of the Jews to give us thanks and express their appreciation for the seminar. Some of those that attended, confessed they were skeptical due to the opposition and some confessed to being accosted privately and warned to have nothing to do with such lewd fellows of the baser sort. Overall, the reception of the seminars was far better than I expected. I will leave this point with the links so you can see for yourself what monstrous heresies were spouted, what gross errors were embraced, and whether or not exposition is the enemy of truth. You can access the videos, audio, and PDF files for 2017 here and for 2019 here.

All Quiet in the Camp

What sort of alarms were raised against exposition in Baptist churches? There were numerous objections, such as Jesus and Paul never preached expositionally, exposition is boring, exposition is too hard, exposition is too easy, exposition doesn’t address current issues, and more. I communicated with some directly about objections and was confronted at conferences with objections. If you’re interested in the objections and answers to them, I recommend you access the seminar links where there is an entire session devoted to answering them. Amongst all the objections and accusations against expositional preaching though, something was strangely absent. I never once saw or heard anyone take the Bible and show from the text of Scripture why biblical exposition was so wrong it ought to be opposed with the heat of a thousand suns and why it put fellows like me down among the Alexander the Coppersmiths and Judas Iscariots. I have yet to see a single Bible verse offered to justify condemning as heretics everyone who believes the Bible ought to be preached accurately. Odd.

As a drill or test of the warning systems, it is encouraging that the watchdogs lying at the orthodox gate can bark. They’re capable of raising a ruckus and that’s not bad when a ruckus is precisely what’s needed. When the enemy is approaching, you want a dog with stout throat and lungs to set to the business at hand of raising an alarm that can’t be ignored. They at least excelled the failed watchmen of Israel (Isaiah 56:10). A bit of zeal and exuberant barking can be good, but it has to be according to truth. The alarm has be raised over a proper enemy.

The most barked up objection was that expositional preaching would lead to the loss of Baptist doctrines. Upon examination, this assertion means that the accurate preaching of the Bible in context will result in losing Baptist doctrines. At the risk of repeating myself, I must say that is odd. Is the accurate preaching of Scripture the enemy of Baptists? If your doctrinal system is biblical, how could the accurate preaching of the Bible be any danger or threat to it? It wasn’t clear to me which Baptist doctrines were in jeopardy, but I assume they meant teachings Baptists have historically believed and defended, such as the gospel and justification by faith, Scripture as the sole and final rule of all faith and practice, the independence and autonomy of the local church, individual soul liberty and freedom of conscience, the priesthood of every believer, and so on. I cannot see why exposition would threaten any of those doctrines. I’ve preached on all of those and more while preaching sequential exposition through Acts and Romans in the last couple of years.

The dogs barked a lot about the loss of Baptist doctrines, but it’s difficult to measure the loss of Baptist doctrines today. Based on what Baptists are saying in the pulpit and in print, Baptist doctrines don’t seem to be fixed in stone. While the watchdogs raised alarms about potentially losing Baptist doctrines, there hasn’t been so much as a growl or a snarl when Baptist doctrines are actually being lost among them by the mishandling of God’s word. I’m afraid we don’t know the enemy and we don’t know ourselves. This is the position Sun Tzu thought most dangerous.

The Enemy Within

Exposition is not the enemy of truth. It’s actually the lack of exposition that is the enemy of truth. When we allow exposition to be neglected, we open up the pulpit for the mishandling of God’s word by preaching passages out of context. This may be done with good intentions, such as preaching true doctrines, but the result will be the same. True Baptist doctrine is lost when God’s word is not handled accurately.

In reading Baptist histories and the historic writings of Baptists, we regularly encounter their high view of Scripture. Baptists generally viewed the Scripture as the sole and all-sufficient rule for all faith and practice. They championed the translation of the Scriptures into the languages people spoke and understood. They stood for a Bible in every man’s hand that he could read for himself and abhorred anything that would be put between a man and his Bible, whether it be a church or a so called priest. They stood for religious freedom so every man would be free to follow his own conscience in subordination to the teachings of Scripture.

Such a high view of Scripture demands expositional preaching because God’s word is the only authoritative word and the only content that should be preached. The preacher should be tied to the text, speak where God has spoken, and be silent where God has not spoken. It’s odd that anyone claiming a heritage of high Scripture views would object to accurately handling that word through biblical exposition. Baptist pulpits and presses don’t seem to be too tied to the text when Baptist preachers claim to be getting their sermons from dreams and visions where God speaks to them, or they are speaking audibly with God when they lay on their left side at night because that’s where God shows up. Many claim that God has told them this or that, or God has told them to preach a particular message and they’re only being obedient by preaching it. If such preachers had Bereans in their audience who would search Scripture to confirm what they were saying, how would they confirm that God spoke to this preacher and told him to preach this message? What chapter and verse would verify the preachers’ words. Why aren’t the dogs barking when preachers are giving a “Thus saith the Lord” that isn’t in the text of Scripture?

Leaving off exposition that is committed to literal, historical, grammatical hermeneutics leaves room for a host of things to be preached and added to the historic Baptist faith. Today, we hear of Bible prophecies of America, Donald Trump, and the Supreme Court. We hear admonitions to pray for the dead. Even in churches that are pre-trib and pre-mill, we hear the covenant theology and the eschatology of the Reformers being borrowed to preach post-mill concepts of the kingdom and a hybrid replacement theology that says the New Covenant was made with the church and references being made to Israel and the temple as the church. Such replacement theology is advanced by spiritualizing or allegorizing passages, particularly from the Old Testament, to be speaking about the church. These doctrines do not come from exposition but from the lack of it.

Milburn Cockrell recognized the hermeneutics of hyper-churchism and how it contributed to the rise of the priesthood of the church doctrine in his 1979 booklet, Sacerdotalism and the Baptists. He was still warning about hyper-churchism twenty years later in his book, Here Comes the Bride. The church has become so elevated in the pulpit and print that we hear things at least sounding like the church can be worshiped because she is united to Christ and that other “Christians” will be bowing before Baptists in eternity. No, Baptist doctrines do not seem to be set in stone, but rather are open to addition. As it turns out, exposition doesn’t result in the loss of Baptist doctrines, but the lack of it clearly adds “doctrine” to the list of Baptist doctrines. If Baptist doctrines are in danger, it’s because exposition is not being practiced or demanded and the alarm is not being raised.

The War’s End

The war on exposition is a long mistake in the wrong direction. Exposition is not the enemy of truth, Baptist doctrine, or orthodox Christianity. Handling the Bible accurately only leads to and establishes us in the truth God has revealed in Scripture. If our doctrine and practice are not consistent with the Bible, they need to be corrected. Lack of exposition does real damage and sets preachers and churches on trajectories away from biblical truth and toward errors. By all means, raise alarms when threats arise, but take heed to the word unless you be barking up the wrong tree, or barking at the wrong enemy, so as to not mix my metaphors.

About Jeff Short