Expository vs. Topical Preaching

February 25, 2009 — 39 Comments

I get frustrated every time I read or hear a pastor saying that expository preaching is the only right way to preach.   I was listening to a podcast a few months ago where this topic came up again. Most people think expository preaching is verse by verse going through a book of the Bible.  That is typically how it is presented.  However, that is not true “expository” preaching.  That is more of a commentary-style exposition.   First let me define what expository preaching really is.  Here’s a couple of definitions that were used in the podcast

Expository preaching is the presentation of biblical truth derived from and transmitted through a historical,  grammatical, Spirit-guided study of a passage in its context which the Holy Spirit applies first to the life of the preacher and then, through him, to his congregation. — Haddon Robinson

Expository preaching is the Spirit-empowered explanation and proclamation of the text of God’s Word with due regard to the historical, grammatical, contextual and doctrinal significance of the given passage with the specific objective of invoking a Christ-transforming response. — Stephen Olford

Now I agree with these definitions. It is important to look at the context and meaning of the scripture that we use while preaching. The problem is that the most famous sermon in the Bible does not fall into this category. The Sermon on the Mount is a topical sermon.  A powerful one that utilizes many different texts and addresses many different problems.   I like to define my style as “topical expository”  I like to take topics and then use passages of the Bible to clearly communicate Biblical truth that we can apply and use in our life today.  I do think that too many preachers use verses out of context to make their point.  However, let’s quit criticizing different styles of preaching.  As long as we remain faithful to the text, then our calling is to preach so lives can be transformed.  Whether you preach topically or expository, or a combination of the two, what is most important is that you are sharing what God leads you to share.  In other words, remain faithful to God and don’t let critics tell you the method to use.

Mike

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I am a former design engineer who now pastors Cornerstone Community Church in Galax, Virginia. I'm passionate about following Jesus and I love technology. I've been married to Jennifer for 18 years, and we have three awesome kids, Emma, Luke, and Drew.

39 responses to Expository vs. Topical Preaching

  1. I thought I was the only one who realized their could and should be a middle in their somewhere… Thanks for your words.

  2. AMEN! i love that "topical expository" best of both :)

  3. I tend to preach and teach in a blended style also. Expository preaching can be powerful if used by one who has prepared in such a way that application of the word, and not just understanding of the word, is the desired outcome. However, most expository preachers do not prepare with that thought in mind.

    I also don't find any real expository sermons in the Word of God. With my understanding that we should use the Bibile as our example of how to live, I would assume that we should also use the Bible as our guide on how to preach. I see the great sermons preached by Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets as being almost purely topical.

    So, I find out what God wants me to present, the scripture that supports it (using proper exegesis) and present it as topically as possible. This promotes retention, understanding and application.

  4. There is not one expository sermon in the Bible. All of them are topical. I am not fighting expository preaching, but that kind of preaching will destroy a great church. Do not be swayed by their suave teaching. The great soul-winning churches have been pastored by topical preaching. I am not talking about evangelistic church; I mean soul-winning church! If you want a soul-winning church, you must call a pastor who preaches topical sermons. – Dr. Jack Hyles

    I often feel that whenever am doing my devotion and study of the word of God, my reflection always lead to specific experiences or issues of which i thought is the working of the Holy Spirit, convicting me of my sins or teaching me certain truths about diverse issues that beset the church today. So i always thought and believed that topical bible studies, of course with proper exegesis and contextual approach, have always been the correct method of exposing the truths in our time.

  5. Bring it on!!!

    I would ALSO (and have done so numerous times) describe myself as primarily a preacher who does “Topical Expository”

    I challenged a friend who has jumped on the Systematic verse by verse book by book expository teaching bandwagon that it had become ‘methodolatry’ (ie. Method Idolatry) It is sad to see what is essentially a reaction against the seeker driven movement which has contained some fairly average teaching to create a new idol of methodology.

  6. I think you misunderstood the definition of expository preaching.
    It dosn’t say anything about the style or way of presentation.
    As long as you preach the correct message of the text,
    it is expository preaching. so, even you just followed the
    commentary style preaching without sincere study of the text
    and preach what you personally intented, it should not be
    called “Expository preaching” at all.

  7. Actually there is no standard definition of ‘expository preaching’. All preaching should exegete and stand faithful to scripture however the common practice of expository preaching is largely one common standard. That is book focussed, verse by verse/Chapter by Chapter exposition.

    I have no problem with someone doing so but like any methodology I do have a problem with someone turning a methodology into something sacred.

    The common practice of Paul was largely a topical style which under present western academic standards would often get him a fail in both hermeneutics and homeletics.

    In an ironic twist to the argument that it is about being ‘faithful to scripture’ I see actually little of such. It is largely a pragmatic shift in response examples such as Driscoll.

  8. I am not a pastor, but as a follower of Christ have listened to many preacher/teachers over the years. The ones I am most inspired and motivated by are Alistair Begg, John Piper, and John MacArthur. I am not sure if you would call them expository, topical or “topical expository” as its been suggested. What I do know and like about these men, is that they do not allow the culture of our day to influence the truth of the gospel message. They stick to the Bible as absolute truth.

  9. Expository preaching many times includes preaching through entire books of the Bible. An advantage of this is that the preacher is not choosing which topics he wishes to cover / not cover. He simply preaches on everything that is there. He will likely better give the whole counsel of God rather than his own pet topics.

    • You would think that it is true that a preacher doing verse by verse or chapter by chapter atleast would not be able to choose what he preaches one but it simply is not true.

      Systematic Expository preachers regular skip over or glaze over verses or even chapters that make them feel uncomfortable theological or personally. For instance, I have heard Preachers regularly ignore or glaze over more experience directed material.
      For instance I heard someone just recently glaze over material int he text in relation to dreams and visions because I know they are uncomfortable with the idea of spiritual gifts or unfortunately the supernatural having any real active participation objectively in their world.

      • I apologize, it was not my intention to attack. Merely to highlight that no methodology guarantees entire objectivity or the text being covered entirely. (such is not practically possible nor personally likely)

        We all carry personal and cultural worldviews that influence us. To deny such or claim that any preacher only preaches ‘absolute truth’ (as claimed in a previous post) is to make that preacher equivalent to the catholic claim of papal infallibility.

        I have made an attempt to highlight that these possibilities are even present in all preachers, including myself.

        • I agree that our presuppositions definitely influence what we preach and teach. I don’t always agree with the pastors that others have mentioned, but I have learned from them. I do think there is a difference between saying the Bible is absolute truth and claiming that our words are absolute truth. Thanks again

  10. I loved this blog and I also feel that I am topical expositor. God bless you

    • Before I say anything else, I want to make clear that I love both topical and expository preaching. Yet I find as trends go and as many follow in hopes of being relevant, hip or whatever, it seems currently the trend is mostly topical.

      The problem with this is that is what many are delivering; a “Topical” solution. Topical solutions do not penetrate and are not long lasting. They provide only temporary relief. (generally for itching)

      Expositional or Expository preaching when done properly does not leave out or breeze past difficult verses. This is what the preacher must do! Spend the time studying and the time in prayer necessary to do it right.

      “Expository” is a compound word derived from the word “Expose”, which is why many do not like it. Because it tends to expose things folks don’t want to deal with. Just put a little topical ointment on it. Just food for thought.

      Blessings to you all

      • I don’t reply to all comments, but I felt like this was one that I must respond to. Your comments are not in a spirit of grace or of unity. You stated “Topical solutions do not penetrate and are not long lasting.” My question is what do you base this on? Scripture or your own opinion? Again, I urge you to go back to the messages that Jesus preached. Would you make that same argument with the sermon on the mount?

        You make very strong statements that can definitely cause division because you look down upon other methods by making assumptions. You are assuming that topical preachers don’t cover tough topics. Again, what is your basis for that statement? I’ve found quite the opposite true. Many topical preachers cover very controversial subjects and aren’t afraid to take a stand.

        I appreciate both topical and expository preachers, but I don’t appreciate those who take their own extra-Biblical preferences and try to use them to judge the motives of others.

        Just food for thought.

        • My most humble apologies. I do not want to seem harsh. In the hopes of not being long winded I just was not clear. However, I’m not sure you deliberated thoroughly before posting your reply.

          I did mention current trends. I made a comparison of what is currently popular to topical ointments. Poor analogy, maybe? I also started by saying “I love both”.

          I see where I could have been misunderstood. Yet, you did not rebut my thought on what “Expository” means. Just branded my input as extra-biblical.

          Btw, Jesus preached expositionally each time He told a parable and then explained it afterward. I believe Haddon Robinson and Stephen Olford would agree.

  11. “topical expository” that sounds great!! and make sense.

  12. Christ follower April 24, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    I think when Jesus used a parable, He was dealing with a specific issue or ‘topic’ if I may use that term here. He certainly didn’t use an entire passage from Deut or Isaiah to deal with it.
    Whether expository or textual or topical, what is needed more is the unction of the Holy Spirit and not just reliance on yet another technique. I suspect this is why so many sermons lack ‘life’ and make little impact even though they tick all the boxes.

  13. I believe that as Christians it is important that we follow the teachings of the Bible and not the teachings of man. I feel it is easier to achieve this when a sermon is based on the Bible and uses events to ‘make it relevant’ rather than having a sermon that is based on a topic or event and uses verses from the Bible to ‘back it up’. Topical sermons may be more interesting but how much of the Bible verses used in such sermons are merely ‘proof text’? I have often found that the short verses used in a topical sermon get lost amongst the lesson the preacher is teaching.

    • Christ Follower May 8, 2012 at 2:01 am

      May I ask why a ‘topical’ sermon is considered a sermon of man and an ”expository sermon’ one from God? Both are just methods. It’s true that some people uses verses to back up what they say from the wrong passage, but that is no reason to throw out the baby with the bath water. There are expository preachers that do the same, and focus on what they want to talk about from a passage. do we say its no good because of this? The bottom line is that both are just methods, and the Holy Spirit can use both.

      BTW Can someone enlighten me and show which sermon of Jesus was based on the expository method?

  14. I really like the way it is put in this post: http://www.pleaforpower.com/2011/09/3-types-of-preaching-sermons-part-1-topical-sermons/
    I’m not great at explaining what I mean but I’ll try:
    It’s not that ‘topical’ sermons are ‘bad’ it’s just that when you stick to a verse/passage it’s easier to follow and it is easier to identify if it is unscriptual. For an example, someone who has a sound knowledge of the bible may be able to follow a topical sermon and identify points that are unbiblical but it is very hard for a new or growing Christian to do the same. With a verse/passage/scripture based sermon it is easier for new or growing Christians to identify points that are unbiblical (and learn from the teaching of the Bible not just of man). I’m not saying topical sermons have no place, just that if ALL we are fed from day one as a Christian are topical based sermons then we will struggle to develop a sound knowledge of the Bible.
    What I’m trying to say is I agree with the article in the link I posted – that topical sermons have a place and can be very powerful but they should not be used all the time as they don’t seem to get too deep into scripture and I feel that as we grow as Christians it is very important to get deep into scripture – for the most part I would like to see sermons that have a scripture base rather than a topic base.

    • Christ Follower May 8, 2012 at 7:56 pm

      Thanks for the link. He has put it nicely. I apologise if I have been too strong in my reaction. I do agree that there are preachers who string together verses to make whatever they want to make.
      It’s just that I heard a few preachers that put down the topical method and put the expository method up like it is inspired. These same people do not expose the passage when they’re preaching but still goes on and on with what they want to say anyway. On the other hand I have also heard really good expositors like DA Carson who can bring out so much from a passage. But there are not many like him. No method can replace bad bible study.

    • I read the link as well, but I would disagree with his statement that topical preaching is the easiest method. The truth is that all methods, if done correctly, take time and effort. I have seen expository preachers just pick up their Bible without preparation and just talk about their understanding of the text. I have also seen topical preachers rant on and on about their opinion. But when the preacher prays, studies, listens for God’s guidance, and preaches boldly, I think God’s Word is honored, and lives are changed.

      Personally, I have found topical preaching the be the hardest to do correctly. But I also see that it serves a vital purpose within the church. The Great Commission commands us to not only teach people the Bible, but to teach them how to obey the Bible. That is an important distinction that we cannot forget.

      I would also disagree that expository sermons are deep and topical sermons are shallow. Arguments like that do nothing but create division and are simply not true. You can go very “deep” and leave people confused. But is our goal to create smart sinners, or to create people who are transformed by the power of the Gospel. I heard a pastor once say that you are only as deep as the last person you served. To that I say Amen!

      Thanks for your comments.

  15. Both topical and expository preaching are powerful and effective especially when the Word Of God remains central.

    Paul’s charge to Timothy was, “Preach The Word…” And since we know that Jesus is the Word and the Word is Jesus (John 1); and if our priority is the great commission, the topical and expositional become inextricably intertwined.

    In the end, The Word is what changes lives (God said HIS Word will not return void).

  16. The Prince of Preachers was a topical preacher. I love his sermons, and he was perhaps one of the greatest soul winners that ever lived!! I say–“one of the greatest!”

  17. I have sat in the pew thru many different preaching methods. When a pastor uses a topical method, there exists a tendency to “use” the verse to support the idea. I have gone back and read those verses in context within the Chapter and within the books. I have found out that when used in topical preaching, the verses impact gets diluted from its original intrention. In expository approach, you cannot do that. The most faithfully closed the Word of God is the expounding of the Word.

    Every word breath by God , every word of the Bible needs to be properly handled with all the honour it is deserved. Let us not cheapen it and bring the full councel of God to the sheep which was purchased with our Saviours blood.

    • I have also sat through expository sermons that completely misinterpreted the text. We cannot take our experiences and make them the normative for other believers. I believe that either topical or expository sermons can be done in a way that properly handles God’s Word. Your statement “The most faithfully closed the Word of God is the expounding of the Word” simply is not supported by Scripture and is only an opinion. There is room in the Kingdom of God for more than one style, especially when styles are not prescribed in the Bible.

  18. I think we should read Nehemiah 8:8. Ezra read the law and then gave the sense of it. That’s expository preaching. So we should be careful to say that there’s no evidence of expository preaching the Bible. Also, expository is more beneficial. It takes your congregation through books instead of skipping around texts every sunday. It teaches your congregation to read through scripture instead of just putting your finger on a page and reading that for that day. Expository preaching is more biblical than people think it is. And people say that expository preaching can still take scripture out of context. This is very true, but topical preaching can take scripture of context easier since you can load up scripture to feed your argument or point. There’s nothing wrong with topical preaching as long as it’s done correctly. We should just be careful about downplaying expository preaching.

  19. Pointing out that Jesus didn’t use expository preaching is kind of pointless and misleading. Of course he didn’t. What he said was the word of God. He didn’t need to give an exposition to further back it up. The Apostles were teaching and expounding on what Jesus had taught them and did not have a written New Testament to pull from at that time. Paul is the most in depth example of this as he spent much of his writings breaking down important theological truths about Christ and his implications despite not having a word for word account to quote. He was the word for word account because his account came from Jesus himself.

    Someone mentioned Driscoll. Yes, he and others follow an expository pattern but each passage chosen to teach through ultimately speaks to a specific topic in their sermons. They aren’t just mindlessly breaking down scripture with no application or direction.

    And those saying all sermons in the bible were completely topical? One of the sermons recorded in the most detail in the bible was done through heavy exposition. Stephen in Acts 7.

    • Thanks Anthony for joining the conversation. I am not saying that expository preaching is bad, just that other methods can and should be used. I just finished reading several books on expository preaching, and what stood out to me is the wide variance in how expository preaching is defined. Some, like Meyer, believe that it has to be a continuous study of a book or lengthy passage. Others like Kaiser define it as a minimum of one paragraph of text as a basis for the message. According to definitionslike these, Stephen’s message in Acts 7 would not be expository, as would the messages of preachers like D.L. Moody or even Spurgeon. I would mention that I like and agree with the definitions of Olford, Stott, and Robinson as shared in the post.

      There are examples of expository preaching in the Bible, contrary to what a few people have commented here. Nehemiah 8:8 is one. Philip preaching to the Ethiopian Eunuch is yet another. But there are also examples of other methods. And I do disagree with you about the preaching of Jesus. The way he preached should be a model to us, just as everything else in his life. I find it very difficult to understand when you say that it is pointless and misleading to use the method of Jesus as an example. It seems to be circular reasoning at best.

      My goal when writing this three years ago was to bring attention to a problem that I see within the church. I feel that many expository preachers have turned their method into doctrine. This is a dangerous road that leads to legalism.

      • “And I do disagree with you about the preaching of Jesus. The way he preached should be a model to us, just as everything else in his life.”

        You can preach in an expository fashion and still use Jesus as a model. Many people who preach through books or passages also use stories, analogies, illustrations, and contextualization within their sermons (using Driscoll as an example again, he’s constantly getting in trouble with fundamentalists for contextualizing the Gospel through modern analogies). Matt Chandler is another one usually lumped into the expository circle. Listen to a sermon by him though and there’s always a central theme out of the text he’s bringing out and he even teaches more strictly topically sometimes.

        “I find it very difficult to understand when you say that it is pointless and misleading to use the method of Jesus as an example. It seems to be circular reasoning at best.”

        I didn’t say anything about using the overall method of Jesus as an example. Of course you can and should do so. I was speaking specifically to making pronouncements about his method without taking into account the circumstances. Saying Jesus didn’t use exposition glosses over the fact that he didn’t need to. He was the Son of God. He spoke absolute truth. He didn’t need to cite prior exposition of the word of God because what he said was the word of God. That’s why it’s misleading to say, not because his method isn’t valuable.

        In other words, I’m just saying that making the statement “Jesus didn’t use exposition” doesn’t necessarily prove one way or the other that he’d be against it in today’s context.

        I think we probably agree more then I’m leading on. I’ve always simply defined exposition as teaching through a passage to bring out the central theme therein. Taking the scripture for what it’s saying and expounding on it into application. I tend to teach this way. Anchoring in a passage, bringing out the central theme as it applies to us, and surrounding it with analogies, stories, supporting texts, etc. i.e. things that contextualize it for people.

        Someone who defines it so strictly that you must be teaching through an entire book only in the context of word study? I’d disagree with them that’s the proper approach.

  20. I hope that you don`t mind me commenting. Having looked up the word expository, and the word topical I find that the former relates more to explaining or to make clear, plain, or understandable. To give the meaning or interpretation of. And that the latter refers to remedy. Something that relieves a disease or bodily disorder or tends to restore health. Something that corrects, counteracts, or removes an evil or wrong. Also to put back in proper condition; to put right. In the church in which I have been a member for many years, exposition related more to the Sunday School lesson. Whereas the topical was m reserved mostly for the main church sermon. Dr. Jack Hyles said that there are only topical sermons in the Bible. Dr. Elmer Townes declared that Dr. Hyles had the world`s largest Sunday School. Dr. Hyles wrote two wonderful books on the subject. ” Teaching on Preaching ” and ” Teaching on teaching “. Don`t know which one you`re inclined to, but I think it a wise choice to learn from a man of God who has had that kind of success in the ministry! He also wrote a book called ” The Hyles Church Manual “, which I have heard several pastors say that they wished that they had had a book like that to help them out when they started in the ministry. God bless and your work at getting the Gospel out to a lost and dying world. Martin Laing

  21. OK, Joe layman here, just one who merely sits in the pew.
    I am exposed, confronted, convicted and inspired by Jesus’s preaching, which in my humble non-theologian mind is exclusively topical. I feel the same about many preachers I hear on radio – Swindoill, Zacharias, Jeremiah, Keller (I know, he blends) and many others.
    I am bored to the point of dreading church when I know that we will be in “book X” from Jan till May. There’s nothing else in my life that relates to that unchanging narrow focus except (hopefully) following Christ Himself. Was it coincidence that He always taught by the book without teaching by each book?

  22. One more thing (sorry). I agree with the idea of expository teaching in a Sunday School or Bible study context. But for the sermon topical all the way.

  23. Couple of years late – so thanks for Internet search engines!
    I do think of ONE case of expository preaching in the Bible. In Nehemiah 8, they’ve found the Book of the Law, and the whole people gather to hear it read. In verse 8 it says “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear[a] and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.”
    So no hidden agenda, no favourite topic; just read and explain the Word.
    But agree with other commenters … most Bible sermons are topical. In fact, I’m sometimes puzzled by an NT choice of an OT verse to quote and need to dig deeper into its original context.

    • I get the idea that at least conservative seminaries simply teach that expository (as in verse by verse, book at a time) is sacrosanct, like the 11th commandment, and all the graduates say “amen”. I see no problem with an honest, trained preacher who is responding to a call (not merely a vocational choice) and is aware of the dangers of projecting his own views into a topical sermon. But I feel that in conservative circles (and I’m a reformed Presbyterian PCA type) topical is simply categorically dismissed, even though the bible gives example after example of topical sermons.

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