By Sinclair Ferguson
G. Campbell Morgan once described a remarkable sermon on 2 Samuel
9:13: "So Mephibosheth dwelt in Jerusalem; for he did eat continually at
the king's table; and was lame in both his feet":
"My brethren, we see here tonight, first; the doctrine of human depravity -
Mephibosheth was lame. Second, the doctrine of total depravity - he was
lame on both his feet. Thirdly, the doctrine of justification - he dwelt in
Jerusalem. Fourthly, the doctrine of adoption - he sat at the king's table.
Fifthly, the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints he did eat at the
king's table continually."
We may well smile at such a mixture of human ingenuity, systematic
theology and hermeneutical confusion! Clever points, a wide range of
doctrines, wonderful spiritual blessings - biblical truths, but not biblical
exposition There is a fundamental transgression of this wise principle: "In
raising doctrines from the text, his [the preacher's] care ought to be, first,
that the matter be the truth of God. Secondly, that it be a truth contained in
or grounded on that text, that the hearers may discern how God teacheth it
from thence" (The Directory for the Publick Worship of God, 1645,
Our failures here are not harmless; they multiply in their impact over the
long haul on those who hear us preach. This is because most Christians
learn how to study the Bible by a process of osmosis. The principles filter
through to them, not from books, but by example, by what they experience
as they listen to the working models they see and hear.
Those who hear us preach ought to be able to go back to the Scriptures,
Berean like (Acts 17:11), tracing the same truth we have brought out from
them, and see that what has been preached is not only true in general, but
truth drawn from the preaching portion we have used.
What, then, is demanded by what Paul describes as "setting forth the truth
plainly" (2 Cor. 4:2)? We may need a mental "cold shower" to alert us to
our weaknesses. These principles will help us:
1.Exposition of Scripture must exhibit Paul's motto for preachers: "Do
your best (the verb is spoudazein, which suggests strenuous effort) to
present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not
need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth" (2
We must apply to our handling of Scripture the apostolic principle
that in Christ we always "put off" and "put on" (Col. 3:1, 5, 11). We
repent of our tendency to mishandle Scripture, and our minds are
renewed by the Scriptures themselves to use them properly,
discerning the will of God (Rom. 12:1-2 applies to preaching as
well as "real life"!).
2.Exposition of Scripture must never be replaced by either illustration
Both of these are essential parts of good teaching and preaching. It
should concern us if we find that preaching narratives appeals to us
far less than preaching on doctrinal propositions.
Nevertheless, the modern homiletical passion for stories and
illustrations (not to mention feel-good funnies and jokes) must be
unbiblical in character and ephemeral in its fruit. Apostolic
preaching involved "setting forth the truth plainly" (2 Cor. 4:2). Our
aim is to see the Emmaus Road experience duplicated and our
hearers say, "My heart was strangely warmed as the Scriptures were
opened today - now I see what these Scriptures mean."
3.Exposition of Scripture should include Scripture's application of
Do we expound the meaning of a passage, then, for application,
scrape around for personal experiences, moving stories, or modern
psychological counsels to explain the "how to"? The basic instinct
here is faulty. We shortchange our hearers by failing to show how the
application of Scripture arises from and is usually given with the
very passage we are expounding. The application does not always
present itself in a surface, obvious way. But if we are not workmen,
we are not really fit to be preachers.
4.Exposition of Scripture should always function with some basic
We preach Scripture in terms of the particular kind of literature from
which we are preaching. First, we preach from each part of
Scripture in terms of its place in the whole and its relationship to
God's ongoing, progressive revelation. Second, we preach in such a
way that we draw the line from our passage to Christ; and third, we
preach so that every imperative is rooted in the indicatives of grace.
In technical terms, our preaching is genre-sensitive,
redemptive-historical, Christocentric and carries gospel-grace
application. Every sermon!
5.Exposition of Scripture should never move too quickly from the
objective to the subjective, from God to man, from grace to sin, from
Christ to the sinner.
This is still a great contemporary weakness, even in Reformed
preaching. We invest much energy and legitimate imaginative
creativity in speaking about man, sin, need. We are weak and poor in
explaining, expounding, and exalting God, Christ, grace, glory. We
are often too much in a hurry to get to application.
Where can we go for help? Nowhere better than to Paul's preaching
grid in 2 Tim. 3:16-4:5. Here he connects what Scripture is for and
what preachers are to do with it. Since it is for teaching, rebuking,
transforming, and training (2 Tim. 3:16), those must be the four
things our preaching should exemplify and accomplish (2 Tim. 4:2).
Go to it!
Dr. Sinclair Ferguson is the author of many Banner of Truth books and
minister at St George's-Tron Parish Church in Glasgow.