Preacher, Show your Working Out

I was never much good at maths. For some reason, words always made more sense to me than numbers—they still do. But it’s hard to forget my maths teacher’s four favourite words: “Show your working out!” Don’t just tell me what the answer is, show me how you got there!

For many years, Australian evangelical preaching has been committed to show our working out. The influence of preachers like John Stott and Dick Lucas has been profound on pulpits across our nation.

I’ve noticed a trend towards sermons that are about the Bible but not in the Bible. Sermons that are anchored not in Scripture proper but an extended story or illustration that relates to Scripture.

However, I wonder whether in recent times, we are less keen to preach explicitly expository sermons. In particular, I’ve noticed a trend towards sermons that are about the Bible but not in the Bible. Sermons that are anchored not in Scripture proper but an extended story or illustration that relates to Scripture.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Illustrations are remarkably important. But I wonder whether evangelical preachers need to reprioritise explicit exposition. Do we need to more clearly show our working out?

Preacher, when was the last time in a sermon you:

  • highlighted repeated words and phrases;
  • showed connections between ideas;
  • related your text to the central purpose of the book;
  • revealed and resolved tensions in the text;
  • cross-referenced Old Testament quotations and allusions; or
  • traced out the logic of the book you’re preaching?

Now, all this can sound like the work of a commentator not a preacher. But I’d like to suggest three key benefits for showing our working out.

1. It locates our authority in God

It’s painful to admit, but not much has changed since Corinth.

Churches are still attracted to charismatic preachers and prone to idolising “eloquent wisdom” (1 Cor 1:17). They instinctively locate authority not in God but their preacher (1 Cor 1:1112). And they too easily attune their hearts to the voice of the preacher not theShepherd.

At the same time, preachers face the constant temptation of selfish ambition (Phil 1:17). And if we’re not careful, preaching can easily become an exercise in self-glory. The pulpit is dangerous ground on which to stand.

Preachers face the constant temptation of selfish ambitionThe pulpit is dangerous ground on which to stand.

Explicit exposition combats these dual temptations by fixing our church’s eyes on the immortal, invisible God. It quite literally directs their gaze away from us and onto Scripture. It might not be rhetorical best practice but one of our go-to phrases should be, “Look at the next verse”. In calling our church to look at the book, we are pointing them to God as the one true authority.

By tethering ourselves to the text, we proclaim God’s authoritative word. Just as Ezekiel was mute but for speaking God’s words, we preachers have no authority outside those very same words (Ezek 3:2627). This is why Heinrich Bullinger can claim: “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God”.

Sermons that claim to be expository but fail to look at the book risk becoming TED talks about the word, instead of the preached word itself. Our congregations should be looking down at their Bibles more than up at us.

2. It holds us publicly accountable to the Word

How can our churches discern the truth of our words? Do our sermons make us appropriately vulnerable to the scrutiny of our flock? As preachers, there must be a willingness on our part to be challenged and questioned in light of our charter.

In Jeremiah’s day, false prophets were announcing, “I had a dream!” and representing their lies as God’s words. They were “prophets of the deceit of their own minds”. In response, the LORD declares:

“The prophet who has only a dream should recount the dream, but the one who has my word should speak my word truthfully. Is not my word like fire—this is the LORD’s declaration—and like a hammer that pulverises rock?” (Jer 23:2829)

By showing our working out, preachers “speak God’s word truthfully” and hold ourselves accountable to it. We guard against prophesying a lie in God’s name by casting our words in the clear light of God’s words.

Explicit exposition exposes not just the text but the preacher. It works against modern-day clericalism by summoning believers to the best of the Berean tradition, who received the word with eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

3. It secures long-term biblical ministry

One of the great risks of not showing our working out is that we cultivate our church’s dependence on us. We can preach the most orthodox and evangelical of sermons but without explicit exposition, we will not train our members to read the Bible for themselves.

Indeed, the greater risk is that our pulpits are biblically faithful while our congregations remain biblically illiterate. Our churches enjoy the reputation of biblical preaching but suffer the reality of biblical poverty.

The great risk is that our pulpits are biblically faithful while our congregations remain biblically illiterate

In The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church, James Smart observes, “Without the Bible, the remembered Christ becomes the imagined Christ, [a Christ shaped] by the religiosity and unconscious desires of his worshippers.”

Of course, unless his worshippers actually know how to read the Bible, the remembered Christ will inevitably become the imagined Christ—if not in this generation, then in the next. The preacher who makes himself the sole font of biblical wisdom is guaranteeing that loss of memory. He is increasing his church’s dependence on a finite and limited man, not the eternal and limitless word (Psa 119:8996).

Gospel ground gained in one generation can be easily lost in the next. By showing our working out, we are training God’s worshippers to remember Christ long after they have forgotten us.

Is explicit exposition just for nerds?

I wonder whether our subtle shift away from explicit exposition is driven by a well-intentioned pastoral and evangelistic concern. After all, we can all think of preachers who showed their working out but were dry, arid and let’s face it, plain boring.

But when done well, explicit exposition has the potential to turbocharge our preaching.

  • It can strengthen our application by not just commanding the imperative but demonstrating the indicative.
  • It can sharpen our evangelism by locating the gospel as the sure promise of God not the empty words of man.
  • It can ignite our affections and passion not by our rhetorical ability but the inner rhetoric, tone and genre of the text.

And it can train all believers—not just nerds—by leading them step by step on a journey of discovery.

Preacher, show your working out.