Discuss… Do You Agree With Dr Murray (Why? Why Not?)

February 2, 2011

Dr Iain Murray – “A Caution for Expository Preaching” (via Sermon Central)

In a number of circles today “expository preaching” is in vogue, and it is being urged on preachers as the way to preach. If this means that the preacher’s one business is to confine himself to the text of Scripture, and to make the sense plain to others, there is nothing more to discuss; who can disagree save those who do not know that the Bible is the word of God.

But “expository preaching” has often come to mean something more. The phrase is popularly used to describe preaching which consecutively takes a congregation through a passage, or book of Scripture, week by week. This procedure is compared with the method of preaching on individual texts that may have no direct connection with each other from one Sunday to the next. The latter is discouraged in favour of the “expository” method.

Why has this view of “expository preaching” become comparatively popular? There are several reasons. First, it is believed that the practice will raise the standard of preaching. By a consecutive treatment of a book of Scripture, it is said, the preacher is taken away from any hobby-horses, and congregations are more likely to be given a broader, more intelligent grasp of all Scripture. The preacher is also delivered from a constant search for texts—he and the people know what is before them. These reasons are perhaps confirmed for younger preachers by the fact that at our main conventions and conferences the well-known speakers commonly deal with one passage in a few addresses, and when these find their way into print they are taken as models of the best way of preaching. Published sermons of any other kind are few and far between, for publishers definitely favour the “expository” on the grounds of their popularity. 1

In our view, however, it is time that the disadvantages of this view of preaching are at least considered:

  1. It assumes that all preachers are capable of making effective sermons along these lines. But men have different gifts. Spurgeon was not unfamiliar with “expository preaching” (listening to sermons in his youth he had sometimes wished the Hebrews had kept their epistle to themselves!), and he decided it was not best suited to his gifts. There is reason to think that being an effective “expository” preacher is not such a common gift as some seem to think. Even Dr. Lloyd-Jones was 20 years into his ministry before he slowly introduced “expository” series.
  2. The argument that the “expository” method is the best means to cover most of the Bible is too largely connected with the idea that the foremost purpose of preaching is to convey as much as possible of the Bible. But that idea needs to be challenged. Preaching needs to be much more than an agency of instruction. It needs to strike, awaken, and arouse men and women so that they themselves become bright Christians and daily students of Scripture. If the preacher conceives his work primarily in terms of giving instruction, rather than of giving stimulus, the sermon, in most hands, very easily becomes a sort of weekly “class”—an end in itself. But true preaching needs to ignite an ongoing process.
  3. Significantly, the churches—particularly in Scotland—once distinguished between “the sermon” and “the lecture.” The word “lecture” was not used in any pejorative sense, it simply meant what is now commonly meant by “expository preaching,” namely, the consecutive treatment of a passage or book. The commentaries of John Brown of Broughton Place, Edinburgh, originated in this way. So did Lloyd-Jones’ work on Romans—he called those expositions “lectures”; the difference between a sermon and a lecture, in his view, being that a sermon is a rounded whole, a distinct message—complete in itself—whereas the lecture on Scripture is part of something larger and ongoing. In contrast with his Romans, Lloyd-Jones conceived the contents of his Ephesians as sermons, and anyone comparing his procedure in these two series (the first done on a Friday night, the second on a Sunday morning) can quickly see the difference. This is not to devalue his Romans, the purpose was different.
  4. At the end of the day, the best preaching is preaching which helps the hearers most, and in that connection the track record of the consecutive “expository” method is not impressive. It has never proved popular in the long term, and the reason for that, I think, is clear: a sermon needs a text as the basis for a memorable message. The text may be remembered when all else is gone in the mind of hearers. Sometime, it is true, a text may be a paragraph rather than a verse—a Gospel parable or a narrative, for instance—but if, as often happens with “expository preaching,” a series of verses is regularly made “the text,” then a whole series of ideas get into the sermon, and clear over-all lessons (such as one may see in Spurgeon’s sermons) are lost. The preacher has become only a commentator. Sometimes he even ceases to give out a text from the passage he intends to take. But people could commonly get the same help, and perhaps better, by taking up a book teaching the same section of Scripture. But, it may be said, “Is not Lloyd-Jones’ Ephesians both expository and textual preaching? He enforces only a few leading thoughts at one time, and yet proceeds consecutively—why cannot others do the same?” The answer is that Lloyd-Jones did bring the textual and the expository together in his Ephesians, but this is exactly the type of preaching that is not within the gift of most preachers. Too many tyros have tried to preach verse-by-verse through major books of Scripture with near-disastrous results. It is arguable that this is one of the reasons why “reformed” preaching has, in more than one place, been criticised as “heavy” or plain “dull.” The less ambitious, who also adopt the “expository” mode, make no attempt to use single verses for their texts, and that is the danger that too easily turns preaching into a running commentary.
  5. Evangelistic preaching does not best fit the “expository” mode; in fact, where the “expository” is exclusively used, true evangelistic preaching to heart and conscience commonly disappears. It may be said that if this is true it is the fault of the man, not the passage, for is not all Scripture given by inspiration of God and profitable? Surely, it is objected, all Scripture may be used of the Spirit of God to awaken and reach the lost? It may, but it is clear from Scripture that there are particular truths most adapted to speak to non-Christians (witness our Lord’s example) and that it is these truths, and the texts that best epitomise them, which have special and regular prominence in most effective evangelistic ministries. The men most used in the conversion of sinners in the past have known what these texts are—Whitefield, M’Cheyne, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones and a host of others knew. Today there is some danger of their being forgotten. When did you last hear a sermon on “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul”?


  1. Interestingly, I agree with point 1. However I find the other points as only extensions of that singular point.

    God has called each one to their own ministry, with their own talents and gifts.

    Also, I think the arguments are muddled between expository preaching and ‘chapter by chapter, verse by verse’ preaching.

    I personally beleive the Bible is central to our Christian faith. And therefore, expository preaching is key – as we need to remain not only true to the Bible, but point people back to it – as there is no way one can cover all the issues for a congregation in one sermon, series or year! So we need to point people back to the Bible, and hence I believe expository is the way to do.

    However, some people cannot do verse by verse. They may choose a passage to preach from, using the Word of God as their base (expository preaching), for example Matthew 5 – without going through Matthew 1-4 first, and then maybe going somewhere else entirely at the end.

    Hence I beleive the argument is more about ‘sticking’ to a whole book of the Bible verse by verse, when a preacher is not called or does not have the talent to then turn that into an evangelistic message that meets the needs of the people.

    For example, I once sat through over a year of verse by verse of Exodus. And Jesus was in every message – clearly. It was an amazing series to sit through. But one of the keys was God had gifted that pastor in that way – so it was effective.

    Just my thoughts, given in respect I hope! I know God has called everyone in different ways, my goal however is for us all to see the Bible as central to our life – and let our preaching or teaching go out from there.


  2. While I appreciate the idea of knowing your gifts and working accordingly, I would think that preaching from individual verses (a la Whitefield, Lloyd-Jones’ evangelistic sermons) is also itself a unique gift, and one which I believe fewer possess than have the “gift” of consecutive, expository preaching. I have come to believe that the shorter the chosen text, (1) the greater one’s grasp of systematic theology must be to safeguard the sermon, (2) the greater one’s oratory skills must be, to maintain a reasonable discourse at length. Moreover, such sermons, sometimes despite the skill of those who preach them, still run into the error of eisegesis (see some of L-J’s evangelistic sermons for example). For me, I’ll stick with consecutive, expository preaching. It’s safer and it suits me better. And I’d rather all but the most brilliant of my fellow preachers do the same.

  3. […] Discuss… Do You Agree With Dr Murray (Why? Why Not?) « unashamed […]

  4. Interesting to see that both the article and comments seem to deal almost entirely with the matter of the gifts/abilities of the preacher, rather than the needs/attendance patterns of the listeners. Surely both are important? Murray says: “the best preaching is preaching which helps the hearers most” and steers the discussion in this direction.

    Presumably then, a preacher needs to at least assess whether a sufficient number of his congregation are able to attend consecutively, in order to benefit from such a series. While sporadic attendance is obviously not ideal, shift-workers, carers, emergency service workers, the long-term ill, new mothers, armed-forces personnel, Sunday-School staff, (etc) are amongst those on whom the benefits of consecutive-sermons might be lost. If these are a small minority in your congregation, no problem. However there are some places, where such people will make up a huge majority.

    Other factors about the nature of the congregation will be important too. Surely, the ‘pew’ is as important as the ‘pulpit’ in this discussion, though!

  5. It has been my experience that each method of preaching has a time and place. Espousing a singular method as correct can lead to an over emphasis on style, rather than reliance on the Lord to guide us in the appropriate approach to individual situations.


  6. I so appreciate the insights of my dear friend, Iain Murray.

    YES, I prefer and encourage expositions of whole sections/books of the Bible, but would not limit the local church pulpit to only this. By God’s grace we’ve done long series over long periods, with flexibility to insert other messages as fitting.

    I particularly liked the comment (which we ought to rally behind):

    “too largely connected with the idea that the foremost purpose of preaching is to convey as much as possible of the Bible. But that idea needs to be challenged. Preaching needs to be much more than an agency of instruction. It needs to strike, awaken, and arouse men and women so that they themselves become bright Christians and daily students of Scripture.”

    Amen! pdb

  7. It seems that Dr Murray’s main point is that our preaching must have a message. It is God’s Word to these people on this occasion and not a generic explanation of a group of verses. One danger with expository preaching is that we might settle for giving a lecture and not work hard at making it really hit home as a message. The answer, however, is not to lose the expository method, but rather to make sure that we work hard at preaching a message with urgency and passion.

  8. This article on tbe benefits and pitfalls of expository preaching by Peter Masters in the Sword & Trowel also explores this:

    His conclusion is:
    “Overall, my burden is to say that exposition is not a synonym for complexity or technical analysis, but the work of showing the sense, and bringing out the message of God from a passage. Speaking to fellow preachers, one wonders if we should at some time allow a year to pass during which we isolate ourselves from all commentaries and allied aids, in order to derive our messages solely from the Word, in dependence upon the Lord. Such a course of action may help us to develop the spiritual thoughtfulness of past pulpit worthies. It could prove to be the most formative year of our ministry. No doubt we would gratefully return to our earthly helpers, but much more able to provide our own contribution, to the blessing of souls.”

  9. I think Iain Murray makes many good points; but I ultimately disagree with him. Whilst I cannot speak for people’s experience in other denominations, in my native Presbyterian setting the minister/pastor is the ‘teaching elder’. That means that his approach to preaching is determined and shaped by the teaching of God’s Word. The preacher is a pastor – and a pastor’s (shepherd’s) flock is to ensure that the flock is well-fed in the pastures of God’s Word. I do not think it is the preacher’s responsibility only to get the congregation to study Scripture privately – I think it is his responsibility to make absolutely sure that they are fed from the whole counsel of God. And, of course, preaching must encourage them to be daily Bible students also.

    I actually think it much harder to preach only from a verse, rather than a passage. Other comments have drawn attention to the temptation to eisegesis rather than exegesis. The preaching which has helped me the most (to pick up one of Dr. Murray’s points) has almost invariably not been textual preaching. I do, however, take his point that very often there have been too many points in a particular address. But preaching through passages can ignite and stimulate. There needs to be that prayerful dependence on God’s Spirit.

    No, nobody wants to make light of how God used Whitefield, Wesley, Spurgeon, McCheyne et al. in the conversion of people. But just as Dr. Murray can cite many ponderous Reformed expositions which do not connect with people or achieve very much, it is equally possible to cite much preaching on texts which aims to be evangelistic and is divorced from the original context, ending up simply as an attempt to harangue people into God’s kingdom. The work of the Spirit is what is key to both people’s salvation and up-building in grace. To pick up two different addresses in Scripture which were very signally used by God, it is the Christ-centredness of the preaching on Pentecost or by Stephen which is most striking, rather than the texts used. And to anticipate an objection that the latter surprisingly wide-ranging sweep through Scripture was not primarily an evangelistic address, it most probably (under God) had a significant role in affecting one individual whom God would later bring startlingly to saving faith in Jesus: Saul of Tarsus.

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