When W. A. Criswell first came to First Baptist Dallas, he told the congregation he was going to preach through the entire bible. Upon hearing this, several people came to him to kindly let him know he would empty the church if he did. After almost 50 years of pastoring First Baptist Dallas, Criswell left a legacy as one of the greatest preachers of our time. So what is the benefit of preaching through books of the bible?
First it's important to distinguish between the two primary forms of preaching: topical and expositional. Topical preaching takes a topic and uses different text to bring out truth about the topic. There is an appropriate time and place for topical preaching. In fact, you could qualify one of the greatest preachers of all time, Charles Spurgeon, as a topical preacher. The problem with topical preaching is it lends itself to proof texting (taking text out of context), opens the sermon up to the preacher’s opinions, and over time can leave a congregation simply feeding on practical self helps and not the rich truth of scripture. Expository preaching takes the text of scripture, explains it, and applies it. That is an oversimplified definition as there is much more that goes with it. I like to think of true expository preaching as text driven preaching; letting the text alone drive the explanation and application of the sermon. I think there are clear benefits over time for the preacher and the congregation to text driven preaching.
You don't have to preach through books of the bible to be an expositional preacher. In fact, preaching through books of the bible is not as common as you might think it is among expositors. So why do it?
1. It is practical
It takes a gifted person to say anything of value on any given topic week after week. Because of this, topical only preachers’ sermons tend to sound the same over time. There is only so much you can say on any given topic. Spurgeon was the exception. He was a brilliantly gifted man who wouldn’t start to prepare for his sermons until the night before he was to preach. If I waited till the night before I preached to prepare a sermon it would come out sounding like a Dr. Seuss book. There is a lot of time that goes into sermon preparation and it makes since to not waste time thinking about what text or topic will come next. This might not sound like a big deal but choosing a text or topic can be very time consuming. This is valuable time that the preacher could use on study of the text, if he knows when and where he is going. It also helps the study flow as themes and issues tend to come up throughout any given book. Time spent in study early on will make the preacher’s preparation much more productive.
2. It guards the preacher
There are two things that come to mind here in how preaching through books of the bible protects the preacher. First, it protects him from proof texting. Taking a text out of context is very easy to do, even for the most biblically sound preacher. Preaching through a book forces the preacher to look at everything in the context of the book and scripture as a whole. Second, it guards the preacher from crafting application based on things happening in the life of the church. If the text for each week’s sermon is seemingly random to the congregation, and the issues that come up in the sermon are immediately relevant to problems in the church, people might accuse the preacher of making sermons that are specifically directed at them. Preaching through books of the bible allows the text and the Holy Spirit to do the convicting and this is especially helpful when the text relates to current issues in the life of the church.
3. It sustains the church
Preaching through the whole counsel of scripture produces endurance and strength in the life of the congregation over time. Think of all the themes of scripture. Joy, sanctification, redemption, love, justice, mercy, and the list goes on and on. Now think about how W A Criswell must have touched every theme of scripture over his close to 50 years at First Baptist Dallas. When scripture is all that is being preached there is no subject or topic that will go untouched. The church will surely know the deep riches of the gospel when the Word is faithfully proclaimed week in and week out. Preaching through books of the bible allows the Spirit to convict, brings forth the knowledge of his will, and sustains the church over time.