Expositonal Preaching: How We Speak God's Word Today
Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God's Word Today. By David R. Helm. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2014. 125 pages. $12.61.
I appreciate a book that I can read in one morning. I appreciate such books all the more when the morning devoted to its pages was well worth it. Expositional Preaching—a short book in a series of short books put out under the title of Building Healthy Churches—is one of those books.
I picked this book up to scratch an itch I have for expositional preaching—a style of preaching I have come to appreciate and seek to practice more carefully. From the introduction, the author David Helm defines expository preaching as:
Empowered preaching that rightfully submits the shape and emphasis of the sermon to the shape and emphasis of the biblical text. In that way it brings out of the text what the Holy Spirit put there… and does not put into the text what the preacher thinks might be there.
I read these opening lines with a nod of agreement, and continued reading with an eye to hone this skill for the benefit of God’s people.
Where We Go Wrong
Helm begins by addressing the main problem in our preaching: we allow contextualization (code for “being cool, relevant, and interesting”) to steer or even starve our exegesis and theological reflection. In other words, we engage the text with our mind made up about what it should say, or we breeze through it’s verses without ever asking what the text means on its own terms. And, like Helm admits, we’ve all done this. With a careful mixture of humor and soberness, he describes three ways our contextualization steals the glory of the Spirit-inspired text.
Impressionistic Preaching: We read the text quickly, without paying careful attention to history, authorial intent, context, canon, or biblical theology, and we construct an outline based on our impressions. The result may be wildly successful sermons, however, the eventual pay out is a famine of Gospel-centered preaching and a harvest of moralism.
Inebriated Preaching: In this case, we use the text the way a drunk uses a lamp post—“for support rather than illumination” (24). Once again, we’ve all done this. We have an agenda we want to communicate, or we want to speak to the felt needs or current events at hand, and so we use the text as a launch pad for our opinions.
Inspired Preaching: This is when we read the Bible like a Jesus Calling devotion book and then use our devotional insights as the authoritative Word of God. Helm finds fault with Lectio Divina insofar as it leads to interpretations of the text that are subjective, individualistic, and void of contextual and historical considerations (31). We end up offering opinions rather objective realities.
Getting Back on Track
The following three chapters steer us in the right direction. Helm notes that while contextualization is important and necessary, we must approach this as our last step. Hence, this is the topic of the final chapter. Before discussing context, he first leads his readers along the path of faithful exegesis and theological reflection.
Exegesis: “All preaching must begin with exegesis” (39). By doing so, the preacher keeps “first things first.” According to Helm, this means that “a faithful preacher starts the sermon preparation process by paying attention to a biblical text’s original audience and a text’s purpose for those readers” (39). Preachers accomplish this pivotal task by paying close attention to the place the text occupies within the immediate context, the book, the genre, and entire scope of biblical history. By doing so, we dig deep into the original “them/then” message, which in turn will prepare us to speak correctly once we arrive at the “us/now” moment (58).
What are some practical disciplines for the faithful exegete? Helm notes a few: read the book you’re preaching from cover to cover, noting what he calls “melodic notes” (47), read the beginning and end of the book to uncover controlling themes, and be keenly aware of genre.
How does the preacher move from exegesis to emphasis and outline? Here Helm provides an important point—in fact, one of the strongest points of the book. He urges us to allow the text to set the tone for both. What are the key words in the text and context? Make that (or those) your key point(s). What is the rhetorical structure of the text? Well, let that guide your outline. What I love about this point is that it recognizes that the Spirit not only inspired the words of Scripture—he also inspired its rhetorical structure. We’re prone to homiletical inebriation when we let go of the genre and logical structure God put there.
Theological Reflection: Exegesis is essential, but exegesis is not enough. Helm is careful to point out that exegesis alone often leads to boring information dump sermons, or to moralistic “imperatival” sermons which foster a culture of legalism (59). What we need is to plug our hard-earned exegesis into the wider witness of Scripture—namely the drama of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. For any readers familiar with Jim Voelz’s book What Does This Mean, Helm is referring to what Voelz calls “matrix.” Every text we preach is part of a greater unity of scripture in which consistent themes connect from Genesis to Revelation.
Helm first points out that our exegesis must be Christ-centered. Jesus is, of course, the best exegete, and he instructs us that the entire Bible gives witness to him (Luke 24:27). So, if we fail to proclaim Christ, we fail to preach. However, Helm is careful to steer us away from creating superficial Christ connections. We need to pay careful attention to how the text points to Christ rather than finding him under every stone. He is there—the entire Old Testament anticipates him. However, we must keep in mind the biblical narrative and the variety of types, themes, and analogies it employs.
What tools aid us in applying theological reflection to our exegesis? First, prayer. The Spirit is essential before, during, and after the sermon (96). Second, Helm recommends having a solid biblical theology on hand. Having a sharp knowledge of the salvation story allows us to plug the story we’re preaching into that bigger story and the particular “act” within the drama. Third, he advocates for the support of systematic theology. Systematic theology keeps us honest and inside the circle of orthodoxy—in other words, it functions as system (no pun intended) of checks and balance for our exegesis.
Today: Now that exegesis and theological reflection have provided a solid foundation, Helm makes the final move to contextualization—that step we often want to place first. We accomplish this task by first knowing our audience. This requires sensitivity:
One the one hand, if our preaching always opposes culture, our message will be rejected by the world even before we have the opportunity to present Christ. On the other hand, if we accommodate our message for the world (or assimilate the pattern of our lives), we forfeit the very ground that enables us to be useful to God in the world. Our task is to find a way to take God’s unchanging message into a world nearly void of biblical categories and rife with theological confusion (89).
Using the example of Paul’s preaching in Athens (Acts 17), Helm commends an interpersonal approach that listens and responds rather than pontificates, as well as an integrated strategy that is willing to use cultural icons as an avenue for preaching creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.
As far as the arrangement of our material, Helm argues for clarity and conformity to the structure of the biblical text. And finally, application must always aim at the heart:
We are not merely looking to apply God’s truth to the minds of our listeners… Nor are we content merely to put their hands and feet to work… Rather, we pursue the hearts of our listeners… our goal is to completely capture the will and the affections of our listeners to God (102).
Recommendation and Clarification
Overall, I heartily recommend this book. Not only is it brief—it will also pay dividends for such a small amount of time spent reading. First, I appreciate how stubbornly the author asserts that God’s Word should be the first and last word in our preaching. In an age where preaching is often full of either boredom or hype, what could be more exciting and relevant than the living and active Word of God studied hard and preached well week after week? Helm feels the pulse of something I have felt more and more recently—“Every faithful biblical expositor I know carries within himself the fixed conviction that the Word of God creates and sustains the people of God, his church” (91).
Second, I love that Helm is Christ-centered and Gospel-centered (which, of course, is the same thing). After long seasons of preaching in which moralism and even Moralistic Therapeutic Deism held sway in many pulpits, this is a must. Remarking on the application of the sermon (that bullet point where so much legalism often resides), he remarks, “Is the application I am making grounded in the gospel, or am I in danger of simply placing more commands on my people?” (109).
Third, I recognize within Helm’s book themes that guided my own homiletical development—namely the four threads that comprise what David Schmitt calls “The Tapestry of Preaching” (see the Spring 2011 edition of the Concordia Journal—like Helm’s little book, this article is worth every word). These threads are: textual exposition (exegesis), theological confession (theological reflection), evangelical proclamation (application), and hearer interpretation (contextualization). While I see a clear connection on these four points, the third point brings up my main criticism of the book.
Concerning application, Helm centers on what he calls “heart repentance” (103). On this point I fully agree. However, the ultimate aim of repentance is faith and the good fruits that follow. I recognize that the word “repentance”—being a “change of mind”—often encompasses faith and the good fruits that follow. However, I believe a better and more clear way of speaking about the goal of our application is in terms of evangelical proclamation—namely the second-person discourse of law and gospel. Furthermore, following the Formula of Concord, a more excellent goal for each of our sermons should be that our hearers get all the comfort of the gospel and that Christ gets all the glory. Obviously such comfort and glory require conviction of sin and necessarily lead to the good fruits of faith that follow regeneration. However, the main way we apply the Word of God to our people is by applying the promises of the gospel to the heart.
With that said, Expositional Preaching is Gospel-centered from start to finish, and so I imagine Helm would agree on this point. He is careful to point to Jesus and to gospel motivations. I also know that the series to which this book belongs is part of a movement within the evangelical world to reclaim the basic centrality of the gospel. As a Lutheran, I can’t help but be thankful for that. Baptists—which I believe is the camp to which Helm belongs— are part of a great preaching tradition, and Lutherans have a heritage that speaks about repentance, faith, and good fruit in very careful, precise categories. Perhaps Baptists and Lutherans can enjoy a symbiotic unity in sharing the treasures from each of their traditions.
One final word. While I do share Helm’s conviction that the structure of the text must guide the structure of the sermon, I am not closed to the possibility of employing a number of rhetorical structures that assist hearers in their grasp of the Word. In fact, these are often necessary for the sake of successful communication. For example, David Schmitt’s overview of sermon structures are especially helpful when making the move from exegesis and theological reflection to the here and now communication of God’s Word. In fact, as I reread his overview of sermon structures alongside Helm’s book, I am convinced that many of these structures arise from Scripture, and that even thematic or dynamic structures work best when oriented around the text’s keywords, themes, and basic outline.
Walther once remarked in his Law and Gospel lectures:
Among the various acts of a servant of the Church the most important of all, my friends, is preaching. Since there is no substitute for preaching, a minister who accomplishes little or nothing by preaching will accomplish little or nothing by anything else that he may do (247).
I'm convinced, along with Walther and Helm that true renewal comes to the church through faithful preaching. So, for the sake of your vocation and for the sake of your people, the few hours you spend on this little book are worth it!
Pastor John Rasmussen—Our Savior Lutheran Church—South Windsor, CT