Preaching, Part 7: On Preaching Paragraph Units through Bible Books

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a preaching series from Southwestern Dean of Theology David Allen. To view the series, click here.

Nowadays it is not uncommon to hear some people decry the notion of preaching through books of the Bible. Naysayers inform us that congregations won’t endure such preaching; that it does not meet the needs of people; that such series take too long; that it is boring; not to mention a host of other lugubrious objections. At the same time, many churches led by men who do regularly preach through Bible books are growing and thriving. What are we to make of this?

I have found it to be true that people want to know what God says. They don’t really care what we think or say. It appears to me that people are beginning to tire of the pop-psychology, “five ways to do so and so” preaching. Many younger pastors engaged in church planting or in their first pastorate of an established church are committed to exposition, including in their preaching strategy working through books of the Bible. Their people are responding well to the Word.

The simple fact is: preaching through a book of the Bible works if it is done well. One reason why some criticize this method is they have heard it done poorly. What most people are against is not really exposition, but boring exposition. We should all be against that! There is simply no reason why any preacher who commits himself to the task cannot do solid, satisfying, exposition week by week that feeds the sheep.

There is simply no reason why any preacher who commits himself to the task cannot do solid, satisfying, exposition week by week that feeds the sheep.

That such preaching today is needed is evidenced by the rampant biblical illiteracy of so many of our people. When church members struggle to find in their own Bibles Joshua or Isaiah or John or Romans, something somewhere is amiss. How can one be a good disciple of Jesus and have little or no understanding of Romans? Preaching through books of the Bible helps people to see the big picture of what God is saying and doing.

Not only should we preach through books of the Bible, but I maintain that we should preach the paragraph units of meaning in those books. I am not speaking of a paragraph merely as an orthographic unit. From a linguistic perspective, the paragraph has meaning just like the clause and sentence has meaning. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. This is developed and illustrated using 1 John 2:15-17 as a test case in my chapter “Preparing a Text-Driven Sermon” in Text-Driven Preaching: God’s Word at the Heart of Every Sermon, 101-34 (eds. Akin, Allen, and Mathews).

Preachers actually hinder people from seeing the big picture of God’s Word when they tend to preach on short texts of one or two verses. Post-reformation preaching, particularly Puritan preaching, sometimes fell into this trap. During that era, it was not at all uncommon to hear or read sermons preached from a single verse or other short passage. Who can forget John Howe’s 14 sermons on Romans 8:24 – “we are saved by hope”? John Broadus correctly noted in his famous On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons: “There are few sentences in Hebrews or the first eleven chapters of Romans which can be fully understood without having in mind the entire argument of the Epistle.”

When church members struggle to find in their own Bibles Joshua or Isaiah or John or Romans, something somewhere is amiss.

By the way, what these Puritan preachers were doing was preaching a theology, not just the text of Scripture they happened to be dealing with at the time. They sometimes subordinated their exegesis and exposition to a doctrinal system rather than the other way around. The Puritan sermon was based on a small piece of text, which then became the jumping off point for teaching doctrine to the people. Study Puritan preaching and notice how seldom you find a Puritan doing anything with narrative. Don’t get me wrong! I love the Puritans, though I don’t agree with all of their theology. And I certainly don’t agree with the approach to preaching that some of them engaged in when they limited themselves to a single verse or two and then from this small foundation erected a colossal doctrinal edifice all in the confines of one sermon. Nor are the Puritans the only guilty party here when it comes to preaching from short texts. In fact, the practice was all too common in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the substitution of application or some such like for the heavy dose of doctrine.

Consider this: as a general rule, the shorter the text, the more you have to fill in the sermon with material other than the text. This is one reason why so many sermons that are based on a short text of one or two verses often are filled with illustrations and applications, to the neglect of exposition. David Larsen was correct when he pointed out in his discussion of the primacy of the text that the superficial character of many modern sermons is derived from a near-exclusive use of a short text. Choosing to preach through books of the Bible and doing so by crafting sermons that cover at least a paragraph or two of text will go a long way to solve this problem. I’ll give Broadus, Southern Baptists’ great homiletical genius of a bygone era, the last word on the subject: “The history and use of this word [“text”] points back to the fact that preaching was originally expository. Early preachers commonly spoke on passages of some length and occupied themselves largely with exposition.” May we go and do likewise.