Chapter 109

Can Topical Preaching Be Expository?

How a topical focus can be one more Style of biblical exposition.

While I am committed to the use of a topical style some of the time, I am committed to expository preaching all of the time.
Click here to read part two: "Topical Preaching on Theological Themes?".

If I were a golfer, I would use every club available to get the ball in the hole. I'd use my driver, irons, putter, and any other club I could master. I can't imagine limiting myself to a three iron. Unfortunately many preachers unnecessarily limit themselves by using one style of expository preaching exclusively.

This is an appeal for topical expository preaching. I'm not suggesting that every sermon be topical, only that some topical preaching supplement textual and verse-by-verse exposition. I realize some homileticians speak against topical preaching. The problem with topical preaching, however, is not that it's topical. The problem is when it isn't expositional.

Why Topical

I can think of at least three reasons for preaching topically. While none carries biblical sanction, each adds substance to my appeal.

First, people like topical preaching. The relevance engages them. Most listeners like to hear about things that immediately concern them.

Second, sometimes issues arise that demand a biblical response. Waiting for that subject to surface in a verse-by-verse exposition through the Bible could take years. Whether it's a preliminary to church discipline or a response to a killer tornado, topical preaching addresses the issue at hand.

Third, topical preaching is modeled in the Scriptures. I don't recall any preachers other than Ezra, in Nehemiah 8, or Jesus, in Luke 4, who started with a text. The individual books of the Bible and the sermons in them address topical issues rather than expound texts. Granted, texts were often expounded along the way, but a text was not usually the starting point. And, like Peter's topical sermon in Acts 2 or Paul's in Acts 13, multiple texts on the major topic were woven into a single exposition.

What Is Topical Exposition?

While I am committed to the use of a topical style some of the time, I am committed to expository preaching all of the time. By expository preaching I mean the communication of a biblical proposition discovered from a Spirit-directed exegetical/theological interpretation of a biblical text (or texts) and applied by the Holy Spirit through a preacher to a specific audience.

Although definitions vary, this gives us a starting point. Two elements of this definition are especially crucial to any discussion of expository preaching. Preaching must be centered in a biblical text, that is authoritative, and focused on relevance for particular listeners. I want to be both text-centered and audience-focused. Following this definition of expository preaching, topical preaching does not represent a different method from expositional. Topical is simply a subset, one among several styles, of expository preaching.

Even when what a preacher says about a topic is true and perhaps biblical, in that it appeals to some great theme of the Bible, if there are no means of confirming the message from a text or texts of Scripture, the message is not expositional. That common lack of connection to textual authority is why some expositors reject all topical preaching. They allege there is only one style of preaching that is expository: verse by verse. Within the perimeters of my definition, however, there are at least three styles of expository preaching.

1. Textual expository preaching finds its message in a single verse or sentence. For example, Proverbs 28:13 could generate the following sermon:

I. Hiding sin results in failure (13a).
II. Confessing sin results in forgiveness (13b).
III. Therefore confess your sin.

2. Verse by verse (for lack of a better title, but also called paragraph or through-a-book) expository preaching finds its message in two or more verses in a literary unit. Whereas the textual preacher finds the sermon's message in a sentence, usually taken arbitrarily, the verse-by-verse preacher works from a literary unit, like a paragraph or pericope, while moving consecutively through a whole book of the Bible. Ephesians 1:3-14 could generate this sermon:

I. Praise the Father who chose you (3-6).
II. Praise the Son who redeemed you (7-12).
III. Praise the Spirit who sealed you (13-14).

3. Topical expository preaching finds its message in two or more different texts or units in their individual contexts that share a common subject.

For example, several biblical texts address the topic of dealing with sinning believers. While each passage addresses the same general topic, they all contribute different, but compatible, complements which fill out the biblical teaching on the subject. A topical expository sermon could emerge as follows:

I. Restore a sinning brother or sister (James 5:19-20).
II. Restore a sinning brother or sister gently and humbly (Galatians 6:1).
III. Follow the Christian steps to restoration (Matthew 18:15-17).
A. If he sins, confront him privately.
B. If he doesn't listen, confront him with one or two others.
C. If he refuses to listen, confront him before the church.
D. If he refuses to listen, treat him as an outsider.
E. When he listens, restore him.

The Expository Method

Topical expository preaching is the same kind of preaching as all text-centered, audience-focused expository preaching. The difference is that topical exposition deals with more than one text or literary unit in their different contexts. All styles of expository preaching, whether starting with a text and moving to a relevant topic/application or starting with a relevant topic and moving back through several texts to application, follow the same method.

Once you grasp the expositional process, you will see how topical preaching can be expository. John Stott's Between Two Worlds employed the metaphor of " bridging the gap " between the world of the ancient text and the world of the contemporary audience. This bridging process makes possible the connection between text-centered authority and audience-focused relevance. Over time I've tried to fill in more details of the expositional process. Whether by intuition or intent, whether in brief, broad strokes or in comprehensive, specific steps, all expository preaching proceeds in four movements.

1. The first movement progresses from a text to an exegetical interpretation. An exegetical interpretation seeks to understand and state the meaning of the text from the perspective of the original author, audience, and situation. I work through the exegetical process using a historical/contextual, grammatical/syntactical, normal/literal, literary/rhetorical hermeneutic. I seek to state the original meaning of the passage according to its own outline/structure, culminating in a proposition or big idea statement.

For example, " The purpose for which Paul commanded the Corinthian believers not to eat meat offered to idols was so that they would not cause their weaker brother in Christ to eat against his conscience, " (see 1 Corinthians 10:28).

2. Having exegeted the text in terms of its original context, I advance to the second movement in the expositional process: the theological. I generalize away from the particulars of the exegetical statement and seek to express the text's timeless message.

In Leviticus 4, for example, Moses, the Israelites, and the sin offering give way to a universal truth. I must consider the progress of revelation. The sacrificial system of Leviticus was appropriate until superseded by Jesus. As a Christian expositor I must factor in Hebrews 9 and Hebrews 10.

I also test my theological proposition against my systematic theology. If something doesn't " fit, " I go back through my exegetical and theological processes to discover my misunderstanding. Then I either restate my theological proposition in acceptable terms or I adjust the way I think about and express my theological system.

Ultimately I will state a timeless biblical truth abstracted from my chosen text. " Love for a fellow believer limits the expression of Christian liberty, " (1 Corinthians 10:28), or " Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness, " (Leviticus 4).

3. The third move in the expositional process is the homiletical. Having articulated the timeless message of my text, I ask the following questions of that theological proposition with my particular audience in mind. First, what does this theological truth mean? Will my audience understand the message of the text? Second, is it really true? Will my listeners actually believe it? Third, what difference does it make? Will they know how this theological truth applies to their lives?

I may argue, for example, for the 1 Corinthians 10 passage, " Since your attending gratuitously explicit movies causes your sister to attend such movies against her conscience, do not attend gratuitously explicit movies. " Or, with Leviticus 4, " Trust Christ alone for forgiveness. "

4. I will not have completed the full expositional process until I and my listeners follow the demands of the text in our own thinking, feeling, and doing. Paul had this concept in mind when he called the Corinthians " living letters read by men. " Biblical truth applied to real life completes the full expositional process.

Expository preachers move through the expositional process step by step and in order. They remain aware of their theological biases and homiletical situations, setting aside those influences, as much as possible, during exegesis. They do not allow a rush to relevance to twist the theologically intended message of the text. When the topical preacher fails to let the text speak its original and timeless message, he opens himself to legitimate criticism. Without careful adherence to the expositional process, the preacher who starts with a relevant topic is likely to find that topic in a text whether it is there or not. Preachers who find topics in texts where those topics are not addressed do not preach with biblical authority.

On the other hand, preachers who start with a topic and then find that topic addressed in a text or texts through the exegetical-theological-homiletical process may legitimately be preaching expositionally.

There are different styles of expository preaching; topical is one of them.