Bruce Fong – Inspirational Incarnational Influences on Expository Preaching

a9a01de9-2aa2-44ea-a921-0f1077786e8b-220My first ever seminary class was with Dr Bruce Fong sixteen years ago.  It was such a joy to walk through half the Bible under Bruce’s contagious laugh and delight in the Scriptures.  We have both changed jobs a couple of times since then, but he is now the Dean of Dallas Theological Seminary’s Houston Campus.  Bruce blogs regularly on  As we continue this series marking the release of Pleased to Dwell, Bruce shares with us some thoughts on the difference the Incarnation makes to expository preaching.


Every preacher is challenged to build a bridge between the sermon and the souls of people.  These two worlds of earth and eternity were stunningly linked by the life of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself when He was incarnated at His birth.  The Scriptures tell us that He gave up the expression of who He was as the Son of God in order to identify with mankind and ultimately sacrifice His life on their behalf.  This incarnation of the Christ to be Jesus of Nazareth is a model for every preacher to do the same.

When an expositor successfully follows the example of Jesus’ incarnation they ultimately blend culture with the Gospel by way of four emphases.  He modeled each of these qualities in His coming to earth. They are humility, a new mind, a renunciation and a new identification.

First and foremost of these incarnational elements is Christ’s example of being sent to be born as a human.  He did not argue, complain or resist the Father’s plan.  Instead, He humbled Himself and became human so that He could die as a substitute for sin in our place.  The expositor lives a humble life in compensation, Spartan lifestyle and public affirmation.

Second, somewhat related to His humility Jesus Christ demonstrated a new way of thinking.  His incarnation led to an existence that was never self-absorbed.  He did not worry about losing public status but instead was absorbed with an unending interest in His assigned mission, bringing the Gospel to the whole world.  In the same way expositors by virtue of their mission selflessly bring attention to their Lord.

Third, before Christ came to earth as a Galilean Jew He first “emptied himself”.  This was a sacrifice.  He renounced His status, his independence and his immunity.  Voluntarily He set aside what was rightfully His.  Pride and the pursuit of fame has no place in the life of an expository preacher who is following the incarnational model of the Savior.

Fourth, Jesus had a genuine solidarity with man by becoming a true human, sharing in the limitations of flesh and blood, through both life and death.  He lived among the people, embraced them and served them.  Expository preachers will be more effective when they live among and embrace the people to whom they bring the Word.

The incarnation that Jesus followed and modeled is our example of His devotion for us.  Furthermore, it is the example that should be the driving motivation for every expository preacher.

Expository: Why?

All week I have been raising concerns about different approaches taken to preaching.  There are others, but I wanted to finish with a reminder of the core requirements for expository preaching.  It isn’t about sermon shape – all four approaches mentioned this week might be used in an expository ministry.  Yet none of them define it.

1. The best preaching will always involve the work of God’s Spirit.  He is the one that searches the depths of the heart and communicates that.  We need to be sure that we are pursuing His heart as we study His Word.  We must prayerfully pursue the whole process of preparation, all the time being open to learning and changing and growing ourselves.  We also need to pursue His heart for the people to whom we preach.  Prayer has to be a critical thread throughout the whole preparation process.

2. The best biblical preaching will always be genuinely biblical.  That is, the text is not being used, but offered.  It isn’t a data source for anecdotes, for launch pads or for proof texting.  It is the inspired Word of God that we seek to offer to others as we preach.  This means that we take the form seriously, we take the meaning seriously, we take the relevance seriously.  The Bible is not something that serves us, it is something that changes us, and it is something we consequently serve to others.  And the more effectively we communicate the Word, the clearer the path for listeners to not only gain information, but to be transformed by encountering the God who gives of Himself in His Word.

3. The best preaching will always take the issue of communication seriously.  So it isn’t enough to pray hard and study well, producing a textually accurate and even a congregation specific relevant message.  If we don’t take our role as communicators seriously, then we can be a real bottleneck.  Communication is more than just a crude explanation of exegesis with some illustrations stapled on to the outline.  Communication is concerned with the mood of the text, the persons to whom we are speaking, the situation, etc.  It is concerned with the words we choose, the way we say them, the body language that reinforces or undermines.  Our communication matters because God places such a high value on communication.

4. The best preaching will always emphasise the relevance to the listeners.  We don’t make the Bible relevant.  We show how it is relevant.  And so we don’t perform a sermon to show off our own knowledge, nor even to simply declare God’s truth.  We preach to communicate to people.  So we care, and we prepare in order to communicate.

God. Bible. Communicator. Listeners.  All critical features of expository preaching.

Preparing to Preach OT Narrative – 2

Yesterday I pondered the challenges of unfamiliarity of context.  When we preach from the Old Testament, if our listeners are more used to the New Testament, then this will be a challenge.  We thought about the canonical context, as well as the historical context.  There’s another challenge:

Low expectation of relevance.  I have to remember that by the time I come to preach from Ruth, I will have spent many hours in studying it.  It will have taken root in my heart again and God will have stirred me through His Word.  This will not be the case for the listeners.

They will be coming into the meeting with minds and hearts on all sorts of things.  They will be thinking of anything but pre-monarchical Israelite history.  So if I start into the message with an assumption that Ruth is a motivating destination, I may well be starting into my message alone.  I’d much rather take folks with me.  How can I do that?  A couple of thoughts:

1. Introduce with relevance.  I have written this before, but I’ll reiterate because it is important.  It is not dishonouring the text to start with an introduction before reading it.  I think the text can be dishonoured by reading it before people care to hear what it says.  So one approach is to craft an introduction that overtly seeks to connect the listeners and their current state of disequilibrium with the text as relevant to them.  This is not to “pander” to felt needs, but to recognize the reality of life and what it is to be a listener.  Getting relevance into the introduction makes all the sense in the world.  The listeners need an early appreciation of the fact that the preacher is relevant, the message is relevant and the text itself is relevant.

2. Let the narrative bite quickly.  This does not necessarily contradict with the previous point.  With a narrative the preacher has the advantage of the inherently gripping nature of the genre.  TV show producers know that there is a better way to grip viewers than a long series of opening credits with promises of big name actors and actresses (as they did thirty years ago!)  The best way is to let the narrative begin and bite quickly.  Once bitten, viewers will then tolerate the 40 seconds of opening credits (sometimes several minutes into the show).  This illustrates what I am saying here.  The listeners should be gripped if the first three or four verses of Ruth are presented effectively.  Maybe it would be worth getting into the tension of the plot before pulling back to make sense of context, etc.

Preparing to Preach OT Narrative

I am preparing a series of messages from the book of Ruth.  Consequently I am processing some of the challenges that come with preaching through an Old Testament narrative.  Perhaps some of the thinking might be helpful, or at least there can be a sense of conversing together about this important subject.  As ever, no claim here to being exhaustive, but hopefully mildly provocative in a good way.

In our church it is fair to say that the majority of messages, from both in-house and visiting speakers, come from the New Testament.  This means that the Old Testament is much less familiar turf. As I prepare to preach Ruth, then, I must take that into account.

Less familiar literary context – I have to be careful not to assume anything here.  Ruth comes in a period of about four centuries covered by the bleak book of Judges.  Here is the jewel on the dark velvet.  But I can’t assume folks understand the book of Judges.  For some it will be a collection of children’s stories (where protagonist is always portrayed as a full-on hero, whatever the text may hint).  For others it will mean nothing at all.  So I need to think through how to make sense of the fact that “In the days when the judges judged” is the opening line of Ruth.

At some point I might think about showing where Ruth came in the Hebrew ordering of the canon.  Not after Judges (in the former prophets), but after Proverbs (in the writings).  Specifically, after Proverbs 31 . . . a wife of noble character, who can find?  Again, I can’t just drop that in without confusing people.  It will need a bit of explanation, perhaps I might use a powerpoint slide to help visualize the difference.  Perhaps.

Less familiar historical context – Not only is the Judges context unfamiliar, so is the culture of this time frame.  It is considerably further removed from today than the more familiar world of the New Testament.  This is pre-monarchy.  This is before the prophets and their impact on the nation of Israel.  I don’t want to preach it with assumptions, and have some listeners envisioning the action in the context of the Roman occupation, or whatever.

I need to think through what is pertinent about the context, the culture, the politics of the day, etc.  And I need to think through how to communicate that in the messages.

10 Ways to Half Preach a Text – Part iv

Sometimes it is just a good idea to finish a list.  Let’s go, two more items to add, especially for preachers who like to tick the “expository preacher” self-description box:

9. Explain it, but don’t apply it.

This is a common error among those who say they are most committed to expository preaching.  They will give in-depth explanation of the preaching passage, sometimes avoiding every item on the list so far.  Carefully explained text in context with focus on historical situation, authorial intent, and perhaps some linking into the broader sweep of theological and salvation history.  Solid stuff.  Then they stop.

One of the reasons I use Haddon Robinson’s label of “biblical preaching” for this site, rather than “expository preaching” is because of the baggage people have with the latter term.  Some people grew up listening to endless dry Bible lectures and whenever they questioned its value they were silenced with a war cry for “faithful expository preaching!”  Problem is, preaching without emphasizing the relevance to the listeners is not expository preaching, no matter how good a Bible lecture it may be.

We simply can’t abdicate our role as preachers when it comes to applicational relevance and hide behind the notion that this is the work of the Holy Spirit.  This is to suggest that I can handle the illumination of the text, but will hand the baton over to the Spirit for application of the text.  Sorry, it is both/and.  The entire process of preparation and delivery, of explanation and application, is a process in which the Spirit is at work, and so is the preacher.  We must apply what we explain.

10. Commentary it, but don’t proclaim it.

This is another one for “expositors” to keep in mind.  Either due to a certain approach in training, or as learned behavior from examples observed, too many preachers preach sermon points that are actually commentary titles.  “The next point in my sermon is Saul’s Contention!”  Uh, no, that is the next subtitle in the commentary you are reading out to us.  There is a big difference between biblical commentary and biblical proclamation.

When we proclaim a text, we look to speak it out to our listeners.  Oral communication does not match written communication.  We don’t speak in titles, we speak in sentences.  Let me encourage you to make your points into full sentences, and why not make them contemporary rather than historical if possible?  This will keep us from sounding like we are reading our personal biblical commentary, and listeners are more likely to sense that God’s Word has been proclaimed and they have heard from Him.

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Troublingly Distant

I enjoyed a conversation with a church planter recently.  He made a comment that I’m hearing more and more.  There is a trend, not new, but seemingly on an upswing, toward distant preaching.  That is, preaching that is safely removed from any hint of emotional appeal or accusations of manipulation.  It is a manner that reveres the intellectual, but makes little or no attempt to touch the heart.  It is cold, distant, removed, disaffected.

Somehow proponents seem to think that this kind of preaching leaves room for the Holy Spirit to work out the impact in listeners’ lives.  It protects the speaker from accusation of manipulation.  It keeps the main thing the main thing and allows the truth to stand unsullied by any emotional appeal.

On the other hand, perhaps it abdicates the preacher’s responsibility to fully engage either the text or the listener.  Perhaps it provides for a prideful presentation of knowledge.  Perhaps it protects the preacher from any responsibility when listeners do not respond, since that, of course, is the Spirit’s concern, not theirs.

I find it concerning that this kind of preaching is coming up more and more in conversation.  It is a sort of expository preaching corrupted.  Expository preaching is not simply about presenting the truth.  It is about presenting the truth of the Scripture in an effective communication manner that emphasizes the relevance to the contemporary situation of listener and seeks response.  Every element of the preaching preparation and presentation should lean fully into God’s work by His Spirit, but that offers no excuse for abdication on the part of the preacher.

Am I faithfully representing the text when I neuter it and remove all affective appeal?  Am I really showing pastoral care for the flock when I turn the multi-dimensional appeal of Scripture into an intellectual exercise?  Am I really honouring God when I act as if I, as His representative, am doing my job by simply informing?  Am I really avoiding manipulation when I give the impression that Christianity is primarily about the commodity of knowledge and I am the dispenser of it?

There’s more to say, but I don’t want to lose the focus on that last sentence . . .

Not a Rule, But a Commitment to Expository Order

I split the preparation process into two.  Stages 1-4 focus on the text.  Stages 5-8 are concerned with forming the message.  Before beginning to think about the message, it is a good idea to consider the listeners (audience analysis).  Until this point the focus is on the text.  From this point on the focus is on both the text and listeners.

Obviously it cannot be a rule that no thought should be given to the listeners in the first half of the preparation process.  Our minds will naturally and often wander onto those for whom we care pastorally.  We will see points of application.  We will have illustrative thoughts coming to mind.  We will remember that their questions of the text must be answered if they are to receive a full message.  At times in the process we will mentally jump ahead and make a note for later in the process (an illustration, a helpful nugget of the wordsmith’s craft, etc.)

However, we should have a strong commitment to keeping our focus on the text in the first part of our preparation.  Brief and even frequent thoughts related to our listeners may be acceptable.  Periodic leaps forward in our notes to record a thought for later in the process is fine.  But first and foremost our objective is to understand the passage.  What did the author mean?  What was his purpose?  What is the idea conveyed in the text itself?

We must make a firm commitment to first truly study the Bible, rather than hunting for a sermon in the sacred text.  The study process should lead to application in our own lives, which should naturally then lead on to an applied message for our listeners.  But our first task is not to find a message, but to let the Scripture be master of our lives, then of our message.  A commitment to expository preaching is a commitment to study the text first.  It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it is a commitment.

Who’s The Boss?

It is so easy to get things turned around.  Sunday is rapidly approaching and you are not yet ready to preach.  You have to preach, your name is on the bulletin.  You probably have to preach a specific passage too, that’s on the bulletin as well.  But time marches on, life happens and you’re not ready.  It’s easy to forget who the boss is for this sermon.

It is tempting to take charge.  After all, you are the one who has to stand and deliver.  You are the one people will critique over their Sunday lunch.  You are the one people might be paying to preach.  So it is tempting to take charge, to make the text fit the sermon shape or idea you have in mind.  It is tempting to make the text your servant, looking in it for interesting points from which you can jump off and preach something or other.

Remember who is in charge. Preaching is God’s work.  They are His people.  This is His church.  You are empowered by His Spirit.  You are preaching His book.  So, no matter how tight the schedule may be.  No matter how distracted or tired you may feel.  No matter how daunting the text may be.  Prayerfully wrestle with the text.  According to most good definitions of expository preaching, the text is necessarily boss over the central concept, the main idea of the sermon.

As you pray your dependence to God and submit your urgings to take over to the superior inspiration of His Word, you will remain an expository preacher.  You may not be the best ever.  You may not have taken enough time to craft a masterpiece.  But if the meaning of the text is in charge and you prayerfully strive for relevance, you will be an expository preacher.  The church needs that.  Not necessarily the best or the brightest, but just little old me and you, presenting the best and the brightest Word of God to those He chooses to put before us.

Definitions Without Jesus – Christian Preaching?

John raised an important question in response to the post on key elements of an expository preaching definition.  Should it not include some reference to Jesus?  Some say yes, others say not necessarily.  Interestingly, of the six definitions I have used in my preaching course, only one includes a reference to Christ (J.I.Packer uses the term, “Christ-related”).  Anyway, two positions to ponder:

Christocentric preaching – Bryan Chappell, influenced by Edmund Clowney, teaches and models a form of preaching wherein the fallen-condition focus of the passage is resolved by moving to the person and work of Christ.  People in this line of thought have made comments that a sermon which could be preached in a synagogue, or one in which Christ is not mentioned, is essentially a non-Christian sermon.  (Interestingly, Chappell’s definition of an expository sermon, on p132 of Christ-Centered Preaching does not make any reference to Christ – “An expository sermon . . . expounds Scriptures by deriving from a specific text main points and subpoints that disclose the thought of the author, cover the scope of the passage, and are applied to the lives of listeners.”)

Theocentric preaching – I’ve heard Haddon Robinson reject the charge that a message without Christ is essentially a non-Christian sermon by stating that he preaches theocentrically, and if God plays a key role in the message, then he knows no other God but the Trinitarian God of Scripture.  In practice, Robinson does move from an Old Testament passage to Christ when it works to do so, but he does not feel obliged to do so every time.

People who question the “always bring it round to Jesus” approach are not automatically advocating anthropocentric, “seven secrets for success,” or self-help sermons.  Chappell is right to critique sub-Christian preaching of the “be like,” “be good,” or “be disciplined” variety.  However, must every sermon include Jesus in order to be considered expository?  Certainly many sermons will naturally move to Jesus, but must every sermon?  I would say not, what would you say?