Upon first glance (and given the title), readers might assume this little book is yet another how-to manual on homiletics and expository preaching. But while this volume is a brief treatment on the subject of expository preaching, it is not written primarily for the benefit of the minister, but rather for the congregant. Strain serves as the senior minister at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi (PCA), and he makes explicit that his aim in this work, rather than being an instructive guidebook for the preacher to learn the craft of expositional homiletics, is to introduce the church member to what expository preaching is intended to be and how one can better benefit from it.
Part of the Blessings of the Faith series from P&R Publishing, Strain’s volume is one of several short and accessible treatments of some Reformed and Presbyterian distinctives. Readable in one sitting, these books are useful introductions to new Christians or laypeople new to Reformed theology. Perhaps a person has come to your church who has never experienced expository preaching before. Perhaps they are used to other styles of sermons, or worship services that are more interactive and less monologue in nature. Perhaps they are a new believer who simply has no category for Christian sermons and extended discourses, and they are not quite sure what to do with this lengthy time of teaching in the middle of a worship service. While preachers would certainly benefit from reading this book, this brief and accessible little volume will be of immense benefit to such congregation members. Complete with reflection questions at the end of each chapter, this book is ideally suited for either individual or group study—perhaps in a small group or Sunday school setting.
Strain begins his book with a brief introduction, providing a scenario similar to the kind I have suggested: Steve and Rachel have been in all kinds of Christian churches and are new to this kind of preaching and liturgy. They are unfamiliar with Reformed worship style and still find it a little bit weird, but they are growing in their appreciation of it. They wonder why the Reformed church does not practice the high liturgy of the Anglican or Lutheran Churches, and why the preacher does not seem to favor the so-called practical style of messages often found at nondenominational mega-churches. They are still not quite sure about the seemingly heavy, studious style of Reformed preaching. How might the thoughtful preacher answer folks like Steve and Rachel? In this book, Strain aims “to establish the basic biblical and theological foundations for expositional preaching in a Reformed church, to highlight some historical examples, and answer questions, fears, and objections people often have about preaching” (17).
In the first chapter, Strain offers a basic foundation by giving a brief treatment of what the Bible is. He explains what kind of book the Bible is, highlighting a number of the classical Reformed descriptors of the Scriptures, such as inerrant (23), authoritative (24), sufficient (26), clear (27), and Christ-centered (28). He offers numerous examples from the Bible itself as to the centrality of preaching, aiming to highlight that the central role of the sermon is not some sort of innovative, stylistic preference among Reformed and Presbyterian churches, but a cue Reformed Christians take from the example of the Bible itself (30–35).
Especially useful to the average Western Christian who has a little familiarity with Reformed belief and practice is the section, “Reading the Bible with the Church” (35). Here, he explains why Reformed Christians aim to read the Bible along with the church down through the ages. He describes the principle of sola Scriptura and how the creeds and catechisms of the church serve as interpretive guides and helps to our biblical understanding. Especially appreciated is the emphasis on the corporate engagement of God’s people. That is, while private and small group Bible study can be incredibly useful, they are not the primary venues of discipleship and spiritual nurture. That primacy of place is occupied by the preaching of the Word of God by the shepherds and elders called by God, in the context of God’s people gathered for public, corporate worship.
In the last section of this chapter, Strain gives helpful attention to the (sometimes objected-to) notion articulated by Heinrich Bullinger in the Second Helvetic Confession: that as the lawfully ordained minister is expositing the Bible in the church, this preached Word is the very Word of God itself. Though perhaps misunderstood in our day, he stresses this classic Reformed understanding: the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God, and in it, God himself is speaking to his people.
In the second chapter, “Why Expositional Preaching?”, Strain takes his readers through a multi-angled case about why, far from being one of many equally valid stylistic options, expositional preaching really is the best method for Christian preaching. Strain offers eleven arguments in favor of expositional preaching. Particularly appreciated by this reader were the reasons: “expositional preaching offers respite from the concerns and burdens of the world” (53), “expositional preaching models how to read the Bible” (54), “expositional preaching guards against hobby horses” (55), and “expositional preaching meets our need to know Christ” (64). Strain also provides three useful vignettes of expository preaching models from the early church, the Reformation, and the modern era in the persons of John Chrysostom, John Calvin, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
In the third chapter, “Expositional Preaching and the Ministry of the Church,” Strain lays out a case for why worship, evangelism, and discipleship are all main priorities in the mission of the visible church and that, in each instance, preaching occupies primacy of place. Strain very clearly, though not brashly, makes the case that in Reformed churches, while there are numerous legitimate elements that take place in a worship service, preaching is both the center and the high point of worship (68) (not the Lord’s Supper as is often the view in Anglican and Lutheran communions, and which view has become increasingly trendy in some Reformed circles). Likewise, while there is certainly a place for evangelistic conversations or small-group discussions, Strain asserts that “in Reformed churches, preaching is God’s primary instrument of evangelism” (68, emphasis original). Additionally, while small group discipleship efforts, mentoring relationships, prayer groups, etc., all have their right and valuable place in the Christian life, they must not occupy the place of preeminence in the spiritual resources available to a believer: “In Reformed churches, preaching is the principle means of discipleship” (69, emphasis original). In a helpful and kindhearted corrective, Strain is keen to note that preaching not only results in worship, but that preaching is also itself worship—both for the preacher and the hearer—because preaching ought to be, at its core, doxological (71–74). Under the section on discipleship, Strain fleshes out the idea further by presenting three further short arguments as to why preaching is pastoring (81), providing (83), and protecting (86). In these ways, preaching helps fulfill some of the main callings an elder has toward his people. While expository preaching does not fulfill all pastoral duties, faithful expository preaching certainly aids, reinforces, and works toward the common end of an elder caring well for his flock in knowing them, loving them, providing spiritually for their nourishment, and guarding their souls with sound truth.
While the whole book is aimed toward practicality, the fourth chapter is especially practical: “Getting the Most Out of Expository Preaching” (93). Here, Strain gives very down-to-earth tips on how one might better engage with and benefit from the weekly practice of expositional preaching. He provides short, bullet-point-style snippets of advice for what a listener should do before, during, and after the preaching of the Word, and he leans on the teaching of Westminster Larger Catechism 160. Strain provides counsel such as: read the passage in advance, pray for the preacher as he prepares to preach during the week, pray during the sermon, remind yourself that God is talking, make notes, meditate on the truth, confer with others about the message, and so forth (103–104). With these various tips, Strain aims to help the reader better prepare to hear God’s voice in the preaching of the Word, to be an active listener as the sermon is delivered, and then for the ministry of God’s Word to bear fruit in one’s life as we take active steps to cultivate fruitfulness.
Finally, in the last chapter, “Questions and Answers on Preaching,” Strain helpfully anticipates potential questions, reservations, objections, curiosities, and even potential misunderstandings people might have regarding the practice of systematic expository preaching—especially if one is a new Christian or is not familiar with Reformed faith and practice. With much kindness, patience, pastoral understanding, and plenty of scriptural grounding, Strain offers short and approachable answers to questions ranging from the necessity of expository preaching, to online preaching and personal devotions, to the accessibility of preaching for young children, to the place for topical preaching, and more. Personally, I found his answers here both logical and biblical (as well as likely to be raised by, say, a typical person coming into the Reformed church from a nondenominational or even an Anglican church background), as well as kind and evincing a great deal of understanding, not haughtiness. There was a serious firmness where needed (such as insisting that preaching is necessary), but also a pastoral patience and understanding (such as explaining the necessity of preaching as monologue).
Again, if a reader is searching for a how-to manual on the art and craft of expository preaching, they will likely come away from this volume disappointed. But if they are looking for a short, accessible resource that they can hand to a congregant—especially a new convert or a new-to-Reformed-theology church member—that will help him or her better understand and benefit from the Reformed practice of expositional preaching, then this volume will serve them well.
©Sean Morris. All Rights Reserved.
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