Book Review: Expositional Preaching

How we speak God's Word today

Reviewed by Matt Mitchell

It’s much easier to preach a good sermon than teach someone else how to preach a good sermon. But even as solo pastor of a smaller church, I know that it’s part of my job description to equip others to do the work of the ministry, not just do it myself (Ephesians 4:11-12). So, along the way, I need to raise up other expositors to feed our flock, which is easier said than done.

This summer, I offered my first-ever class on the craft of biblical preaching. Three people, including our 20-something ministry intern, met with me nearly every week in June, July and August to find out what biblical preaching is and how to do it. At our first meeting, we sat at a table on the stage in our empty auditorium right behind the pulpit, and as I pressed upon them the weighty privilege and responsibility of handling the Word of God, I also handed them David Helm’s little book Expositional Preaching: How we speak God’s Word today. This would be our textbook.

David Helm is a preaching pastor and executive director of the Charles Simeon Trust, a ministry that trains preachers in the mold of the influential 19th-century Cambridge pastor. Helm’s book is meant to reintroduce the approach to preaching that Simeon championed: “He was committed to staying on the line, never rising above the text of Scripture to say more than it said and never falling beneath the text by lessening its force or fullness” (pg. 12).

That’s what Helm means by expositional preaching, and he believes it is the best way ensure the “health and happiness” of the church (pg. 13). I couldn’t think of better goals for our little preaching class.

Helm offers four brief chapters to introduce the expositional approach. The first chapter presents the various problems that arise when this approach is not followed (contextualization gone awry), and the remaining three lay out the steps toward a healthy expositional sermon: exegesis, theological reflection and “today” (i.e. audience, arrangement of materials and application).

The chapter on exegesis makes it crystal clear that the most important thing a preacher can do is simply read the Bible well. Because the power in preaching does not come from the personality or gifting of the preacher but from the inspired source material, Helm offers multiple strategies for discerning the message of the Scriptures. He uses simple diagrams and short sentences to introduce ideas such as literary and historical context, genre hermeneutics, and what he calls “the melodic line”—the essence of the portion of Scripture that is under consideration.

But there is a danger in thinking that once you’ve done your exegesis, you are done. Helm suggests that before we go to application or to actually preaching, we should spend some time doing theological reflection. I think that this chapter sparked some of the liveliest discussions in our preaching class. Helm explains how the disciplines of biblical and systematic theology are useful for shaping and informing our broader understanding of what is going on in any one preaching portion.

I knew that Helm would value the unfolding of redemptive history in prophetic fulfillment and historical trajectory. After all, he wrote The Big Picture Story Bible. But I was encouraged that he also values systematic theology and its benefits: tying us back to the historic faith, connecting the dots to the gospel from any point and sharpening our evangelistic presentation to non-Christians (who often have category-specific questions).

In the final chapter, Helm steers all of these themes back to his end goal: producing an expositional sermon that speaks to real people in their everyday lives. He makes a case for arranging the organization of the message as close as possible to the form, structure and flow of argument of the original, as long as clarity is not sacrificed. And he calls for the prayerful development of applications that preach to the heart, not just to the mind, will or behavior.

As the teacher of this preaching class, I was glad to have discovered this little hardback book in the 9Marks Building Healthy Churches series. It was like a mini-course on homiletics.

Expositional Preaching does have its weaknesses. In a book so short, for example, you have to leave out a lot. But Helm assumes quite a bit, including that readers know the meaning of a number of big words: contextualization, historical criticism, iconoclastic, etc. I agree with everything in his opening chapter on the dangers of doing contextualization poorly, but the categories he uses to label these problems seem picked for alliteration, not clarity (inebriated preaching and inspired preaching don’t mean what you might think they mean).

Helm also uses the term city, when I think he might better refer to the culture to which we are preaching, because many do not preach in urban contexts. And even though there is no one style of expositional preaching, I would have appreciated a few pointers on good presentation, which adorns and doesn’t detract from the exposition of the biblical message.

But these are small quibbles for a great read. The four-page appendix (where Helm restates his full outline in questions that preachers should ask each time they write a message) is worth the proverbial price of the book! I will use it again and again with budding preachers.

Helm’s book did not teach my class for me. I still struggled with how to explain in practical terms and concrete steps what exactly I do every week to produce a sermon. But it gave us a starting point and showed us the general outline of the work to be done.

And it worked! At the end of the summer, our intern, Hunter Galley, intrepidly stood up front on a Sunday morning and delivered his first sermon—an expositional message on Psalm 32 that embodied the principles we’d spent our class learning. Maybe teaching preaching is possible after all.

Matt Mitchell has pastored Lanse (Pa.) EFC since 1998 and is the author of Resisting Gossip: Winning the war of the wagging tongue and Resisting Gossip Together.

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