Friday, April 18, 2008

Can Topical Preaching Be Expository?

Yes, topical preaching can be expository preaching. Granted, little of it is, but that does not mean it cannot be. So, I'm asking, "How can topical preaching be expository?" and "When is topical preaching not expository?".

Topical preaching can be expository preaching when . . .

a) the topic itself is derived from the Bible, that is from a passage/passages taken in context. These could be word studies, doctrines, concepts, biographical studies,or activities (praying, evangelizing).

b) the preacher does the hard work of making sure that he has not missed looking at and considering any verses anywhere in the Bible that relate to or inform the topic. Because of this necessity, expository topical preaching is more demanding and rigorous than sequential preaching through Bible books. When preaching through Bible books, the preacher must still relate his passage to the whole Bible (the big context), but the pressure is not quite as great because the passage itself is a safety-check, and he usually has the next week or two to fix something he misses. This suggests the great advantage of sequentially preaching through books of the Bible. But sometimes topical messages are necessary - consider the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus does topical preaching expositionally and in context, or Peter's sermon on Pentecost -same thing. Whether topical or sequential, I would humbly suggest that expositors get in the personal habit of reading the WHOLE BIBLE through regularly, maybe once per month or more. In this way, the expositor is constantly looking for those biblical connections that become part of future messages/series. Does this mean that if the preacher is going to do a series on "love", for example, that he must look at and study in context every usage of this word in the whole Bible? Yes!!

c) it is motivated by a sincere search of the Bible to find the answer/s to a real question or problem that the preacher is asking or has been asked of him. In this case, one might say that the topic initially seemed to come from the culture or circumstance and then proceeded to the Bible for the answers. The preacher must be careful that a) and b) above still apply so that the temptation to give a culturally acceptable answer does not over-ride the responsibility to give a biblically accurate answer (see First Thessalonians 2:3-4 and Galatians 1:10).

Topical preaching is not expository when . . .

a) the preacher is choosing to address the topic because of some preconceived disposition to it. Such preconceptions may include: "that topic is really popular now" (or the latest 'new word' or 'fresh moving' of the Spirit), "that seemed real effective when ______ preached it", "this is my latest hobby-horse or pet peeve", "why don't you ever preach about ________?", "pastors who are preaching this seem to have growing churches", etc.

b) the preacher does not do the hard work of Bible study and exegesis in preparation.

c) the preacher just "borrows" someone else's sermons or topics without doing his own work of Bible study, meditation, and prayer. This is not to imply that we cannot or should not glean ideas or approaches from listening to the sermons of others. I love to hear other good expository preachers!! I have learned from them, and sometimes I import their stuff. But we should not make "their stuff" the main framework of the sermon and then just stick in a few of our thoughts. Our messages must come from the biblical text, and what we glean from others becomes insight or illustration.

d) the preacher "takes a text" and uses it to "springboard" into whatever he wants to say. This kind of looks like the preacher is beginning with a Bible text (promising!) but once he gets started the text is never to be heard from again.

e) the preacher superimposes a personal presupposed "theological motif" (or any other motif) to bend the meaning of a biblical text in a certain direction instead of letting the text speak for itself. A list of examples might include liberation theology (to think of recent news headlines), liberalism, covenant theology, dispensationalism, emergent theology, prosperity theology, denominationalism, Reformed theology, etc. The goal of the expositor is to let the text speak in a manner that exalts the Lord Jesus Christ. The Spirit of God will use the text to show what of a perspective, system, or motif is correct and how.


  1. perhaps i'm pushing in a direction you don't want to go...

    i agree that a topical sermon can still be Biblical exposition...but certainly a regular diet of topical expositions isn't as healthy as sequential biblical exposition...

    1) for one, the pastor typically chooses his text for the topic before hand. therefore, he usually has his mind made up about the text before coming to the text...increasing the chance for a blindspot.

    2) how in the world could a pastor know exactly what his church body needs? while a pastor could preach the text faithfully to teach on a particular topic, who decided the topic?

    doesn't this still put too much authority in the hands of the preacher? part of the beauty of sequential exposition is that the Spirit decides the "topic" nearly 2,000 years ago.

    i'm not saying a topic sermon should be outlawed. i simply am saying that while a topical Biblical exposition can be done (i do it from time to time) the majority of the exposition should come from a sequential walk through a book of the Bible.


  2. Hi Danny . . .

    Greetings from Mexico City and GBIM Board Meetings.

    Yes, of course, I agree that the vast majority of preaching should be sequential through Bible books. I might even suggest as high as 80%.

    For years my basic pattern has been to preach NT books on Sunday mornings and OT books on Sunday nights. Often Wednesday nights is also a Bible book, and a Thursday AM bible study I teach is always through a Bible book. So at times I have as many as four books going at a time.

    I do think, however, there should be times to teach doctrine in a more topical, 'systematic theology' kind of approach - the doctrine of The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit, Creation, Sin, Judgments, Justification, Sanctification, Glorification, The Church, Church Discipline, End Times, and so on. Much of this will come up as you preach through Bible books. But people need to learn how to find answers more quickly as well - it could take you 15 years to get to Obadiah :-) !!

    The preacher also gets to pick the Bible book he is going to do next. This could become as subjective as picking a topic. The warnings I suggest in the article are, I think, the correctives to the concerns you have raised. To some extent they can apply also to sequential exposition.