In Jonathan Edwards’ book, The Religious Affections, he argues that
Impressing divine things on the hearts and affections of men is evidently one great and main end for which God has ordained that His Word delivered in the holy Scriptures should be opened, applied, and set home upon men in preaching. And therefore it does not answer the aim which God had in this institution, merely for men to have good commentaries and expositions on the Scripture, and other good books of divinity; because, although these may tend as well as preaching to give men a good doctrinal or speculative understanding of the things of the Word of God, yet they have not an equal tendency to impress them on men’s hearts and affections. God hath appointed a particular and lively application of His Word to men in the preaching of it, as a fit means to affect sinners with the importance of the things of religion, and their own misery and necessity of a remedy, and the glory and sufficiency of a remedy provided; and to stir up the pure minds of the saints, and quicken their affections, by often bringing the great things of religion to their remembrance, and setting them before them in their proper colors, though they know them, and have been fully instructed in them already (2 Pet 1:12, 13). And, particularly, to promote those two affections in them which are spoken of in the text, love and joy, “Christ gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; that the body of Christ might be edified in love” (Eph 4:11, 12, 16). The apostle, in instructing and counseling Timothy concerning the work of the ministry, informs him that the great end of that word which a minister is to preach is love or charity (1 Tim 1:3-5). And another affection which God has appointed preaching as a means to promote in the saints is joy; and therefore ministers are called “helpers of their joy” (2 Cor 1:24).
This paragraph from Edwards is really a jewel. It captures, I think, the essence of what preaching is, and what it should aim to do.
1. Expositional preaching should aim at the affections with the word of God.
Edwards’ main thesis in The Religious Affections is that “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections” (23). By that he means that the true sign of a divinely created religious life is that a person’s affections, inclinations, will, etc., no longer have as their object worldly things, but heavenly things—specifically Christ. A person who has been “saved” or “born again” or made into a “new creation” has new affections set on heavenly things. The mind is “set on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2). It no longer sets itself on fleshly things, but the things of the Spirit (Rom 8:5-8). The desires of a person are for God. He “thirsts” for God (Ps 63:1) and desires nothing on earth besides him (Ps 73:25).
If the great change that has occurred in a Christian is receiving a new heart—if that is what God has done to a person and aims to do to all of his people—then preaching, also, should have that aim. Certainly we recognize that it is not the preaching of a man in and of itself that creates a new heart. But it is the means that God uses to do so (Rom 10:17). In other words, God has purposed to create new hearts in his people, and he accomplishes this purpose through the preached word. Therefore, preaching, if it is to be called preaching, must have the same purpose as God. It must aim at the creation of a new heart. It must aim at the affections, moving them in the direction of love to Christ and joy in Christ.
Now it doesn’t do this by emotional stories or moving background music; it does this by expounding upon the word. The word is the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17). There is no way that affections set on dead and fleshly things will ever find satisfaction in heavenly things unless the Spirit works, and the Spirit works through the word. Preaching aims at the affections not with some plastic sword of therapy, but with the soul-penetrating, double-edged blade of the word of God.
2. Expositional preaching is not simply an exposition.
Now we should clarify at this point that an exposition of the word of God is not simply explaining the meaning of its words. Edwards says that possessing good commentaries, expositions on the Scripture (probably printed), and other good books of divinity is not enough to “impress” the word of God on men’s hearts and affections. And we might add here that simply giving a commentary on a passage from the pulpit, no matter how accurate it may be, is not expositional preaching. It is preaching when there is a “lively application of His Word to men in the preaching of it.”
Preaching must show people their need of a Savior. It must show them how sinful sin is and how glorious the glory of God is. It must demonstrate how much better the ethics of the kingdom of God are than the ethics of the kingdom of this world. And one way to avoid falling into the trap of just giving a commentary on a passage is to not simply focus on “the point of a passage.”
Mark Dever has defined expositional preaching as “preaching that takes for the point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture” (Nine Marks, 44). This is a simple definition that, once explained, is right, so don’t take what I’m about to say as correcting his definition. I agree with it. But to help a preacher avoid the pitfall of giving a lecture, we should add that the feeling, or conviction, or pathos of a particular passage of Scripture should be the feeling, or conviction, or pathos of the sermon. Exegesis is not complete if we have not discerned the feeling of a passage. When Paul says, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Rom 11:33), it’s not enough to recognize and teach that Paul believes God’s ways are higher than our ways—that there is an incomprehensibility of God’s counsel. We must see that he is overwhelmed, lifted into a state of praise, and preach the text with the aim of stirring up the affections of the people of God to match the affections of the word, and this will only be accomplished if our own affections have been enlivened first.
Where God’s word speaks of rejoicing, the purpose of preaching is to impress rejoicing upon God’s people. Where God is grieved, his people should be grieved. What he weeps over, they should weep over. What he delights in, they should delight in. Thus when sin and the judgment it brings is spoken of, we should not joke and make light of the word; nor should preaching on the love of God be the same experience as preaching on the wrath of God. One brings joy, gratitude, and devotion. The other brings trembling, fear and awe. If true religion—the true Christian life—consists in holy affections, we need all of them, and preaching should teach how they’re all held together.
**Update: This video addresses preaching to the affections.**