Reviewed by Doug Smith
One of the turning points in my life occurred when I first began sitting under expository preaching. Another happened when I began to learn what expository preaching was, and how to do it. It’s not that God uses only expository preaching; He certainly uses other approaches. However, there is nothing like taking a text of Scripture and explaining its content and urging its implications on a congregation. Furthermore, it seems to be a logical implication of texts like 2 Timothy 3:14-4:4 and even the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).
There are many helpful books available on the general subject of expository preaching. Many authors helpful break down the steps of studying a book or passage of Scripture, analyzing it, and preparing a sermon that faithfully communicates the text.
Preaching consecutive textual units (through a book or portion of a book) is probably the most frequently promoted way to preach expository messages, but it is not the only way. Dr. Larry Overstreet, an experienced pastor and seminary professor, has written a persuasive volume advocating Biographical Preaching as another approach for the preacher. His book is clear, concise, practical, and of a rare breed. While not the only book on the subject, it is one of few readily available, and it treats the matter with more depth than any subsection the present author has reviewed in other books on preaching (although the brief treatment by Irvin Busenitz in MacArthur’s edited book, Preaching, previously entitled Rediscovering Expository Preaching, is worth a look. Its appearance in The Master’s Seminary Journal is here in pdf form: “Must Expository Preaching Always Be Book Studies? Some Alternatives”).
The meat of the book is comprised of seven chapters. In order, they deal with the definition, philosophy, value, method, mechanics, model, and variety in biographical preaching. In addition, there are two appendices containing example sermons.
Overstreet views good biographical preaching as a subset of expository preaching. He defines it as “the method of preaching that expounds a Bible character, based on careful exegesis, to deduce the principles that regulated his or her life and to apply the principles to the modern listener” (13). He distinguishes between historical biographical sermons, which emphasize “the development of the person in history,” and character biographical sermons, which focus on “the inner nature of the person” in all areas: “spiritual, mental, moral, emotional, social, and even physical” (15-17).
One key issue in biographical preaching is the nature of the narrative portions of Scripture. Most biographical material in the Bible is drawn from the narratives of Scripture, which do not directly relate commands to readers. The issue at hand is whether narratives are intended to be prescriptive (telling us how to live) or merely descriptive (relating what happened in the storyline of God’s activity).
After setting forth the role of the Holy Spirit in inspiring the Bible (an act that guarantees its accuracy) and in empowering the preacher, Overstreet considers the purposeful intent set forth in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which teaches that “‘All Scripture’ is purposeful for (1) teaching, and/or (2) rebuking, and/or (3) correcting, and/or (4) training in righteousness, and (5) for an overall purpose stated in 3:17” (28). In addition, he cites Romans 15:4 and 1 Corinthians 10:6, 11 to demonstrate that Christian believers can look to the Old Testament for instruction and hope (29). He concludes: “The biographical preacher, then, can approach the Word of God with confidence that the principles gleaned from the lives of the people included therein are pertinent and relevant to lives today” (31).
Although the author sees practical relevance in the narratives of the Bible, he does not lose sight of their theological significance. Since the narrative portions of Scripture highlight “the working of God in and through the lives and actions of people,” the preacher must remember that “God is always the ultimate focus of a biblical narrative” (32). Furthermore, each narrative can be viewed at three levels: the ground level of the individual(s) in the story, the middle level of how the story figures into the bigger story of the people of God, and the top level of how the narrative functions in the overarching plan of God (33). Proper exegesis is necessary to analyzing and applying the text appropriately and avoiding reckless spiritualizing or allegorizing (32).
Overstreet argues for the value of biographical preaching because of its popular appeal, practical nature, powerful ability to impact lives, and profitability in making the Bible come alive for people (chapter 3). He then lays out a method for this approach: examining the relevant texts, studying the background, analyzing the person, using imagination, and focusing the sermon (chapter 4). He provides helpful lists of questions to ask to gather key data concerning the person’s life, character, and practical application (82-84).
Chapters five and six give further strategies and examples to promote thorough preparation, while chapter seven advocates the use of dramatic monologues in biographical preaching — assuming the perspective of the character (possibly including props and costumes). Appendix one gives a sermon example, while appendix two shows how a monologue may be presented.
Overstreet lays a great homiletical foundation and reviews essential elements of sermon preparation. His theology and view of Scripture are clearly articulated and underlie his views on preaching. His focus on application and contemporary relevance appropriately shape his approach to biographical preaching (the sermon is not a lecture, but something to teach us about the life that pleases God). Furthermore, I found the book convincing on the usefulness and propriety of biographical preaching.
The book is realistic and helpful for one seeking to preach a biographical sermon. The author is honest about the hard work involved, but does not leave the preacher to guess how hard it will be. Practical helps are given, such as the lists of questions to ask (an invaluable inclusion) and examples of sermons. Overstreet walks the preacher through essential elements in preparing, such as outlining, transitions, titles, introductions, conclusions, and illustrations. He leaves no doubt as to what is involved in preparing a biographical sermon.
I found the author irenic concerning other views. He respectfully interacts with Sidney Greidanus (192, note 1; Overstreet refers to Greidanus’s Preaching magazine article, “The Necessity of Preaching Christ from the Old Testament”; cf. related article, “Biographical Preaching Revisited”, a response to “Salvaging the Old Testament Biographical Sermon” by Timothy Peck, an article endorsed by Overstreet), who does not see a legitimacy to biographical preaching. He also disagrees with Warren Wiersbe in Preaching and Teaching with Imagination (where Wiersbe suggests that monologues should only be done by those with adequate training and talent; see 199-200, note 5).
My only caveat — and at this point it is a personal one — is the advocacy of dramatic monologue for a sermon presentation (chapter 7). I understand that my opinion may be the minority in many circles today, but – with all due respect to those who disagree – I have not yet become convinced that drama has a place in the public worship meeting of the church. I understand that some of the concerns overlap with much preaching: using imagination to fill in some blanks; dramatic use of the voice, etc. I am also aware that God sometimes commanded people, especially the Old Testament prophets, to do dramatic things (in those cases, as an illustration of a spiritual truth for the nation Israel or as an analogy for something God was going to bring to pass). However, what I continue to come back to is that drama was not unknown in the Greek culture of the ancient world. It was perfectly accessible in the apostolic age. Yet, nowhere in Scripture is it commanded or modeled as a strategy of communicating truth to the church. My fears are that it could contribute to an entertainment mindset (even if that is not the intention), and, perhaps even more significantly, inadvertently undermine its content because of the nature of its medium (truth being presented by someone who is pretending to be someone else). Perhaps I am carrying things too far here. Intelligent hearers will know that the preacher is not really the individual he is portraying. Nevertheless, I daresay that those who are convinced that dramatic monologue has a place in the preacher’s toolbox will find in this book some very practical helps for preparation, even if I am not convinced of its propriety.
I heartily recommend Biographical Preaching as a valuable resource. It is an enjoyable and clearly written resource that persuasively shows the value and propriety of biographical preaching and gives a clear strategy to walk one through the steps of preparing such messages. For those of us committed to preaching through books of the Bible, utilizing resources such as this to give a little more variety to our preaching may help breathe new freshness into our preaching, as we show people today what we can learn from the individual lives recorded in the Bible.