Chapter 110

Topical Preaching Can Be Truly Biblical

To be biblical, a topical sermon must base its main points on texts that share the same purpose.

Topical preaching that is truly biblical is

  1. through a common subject
  2. and through either parallel or progressive assertions about that subject.
The danger in topical preaching is we may short-cut the exegesis of a passage and fail to get the true point of the biblical author.

Let's unpack each of these bullets.

First, a topical message, as all good preaching, attempts to communicate a single idea — one central truth, one dominant sentence that expresses the sermon in a nutshell.

Second, this central truth is formed from several different passages, each of which genuinely addresses the same specific subject.

It is at this point that many topical messages go biblically astray, as the preacher makes a passage speak about a subject other than the one intended by the biblical writer.

For example, a preacher who delivers a message on "How to Parent Teenagers" might be tempted to include James 1:19 among his main points: "Be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry."

But James is not talking about parenting teenagers. Instead, his flow of thought through chapter 1 is:

The danger in topical preaching is we may short-cut the exegesis of a passage, fail to get the true point of the biblical author, and instead attach his words to a topic far different from what he had in mind.

In a sermon on "A Man after God's Own Heart" (1 Samuel 13:14) the preacher might be tempted to highlight David's

I. Fearless Trust (1 Samuel 17)
II. Generous Devotion (1 Chronicles 29)
III. Genuine Confession (Psalm 51)

But none of these passages is intended by the biblical author to explain what made David a man after God's own heart. The selection is purely arbitrary on the part of the preacher, who could have just as inappropriately listed David's "Skillful Songwriting," and thus eliminated most of us from ever qualifying as a person after God's heart.

Instead, the context of 1 Samuel 13-15 clearly shows which of David's traits the biblical author has in mind. David, in contrast to Saul, will "keep the Lord's command"; he will obey everything God says (13:14; 15:19-27; Acts 13:22). This unswerving obedience, and not any of the factors above, is what made David a man after God's own heart.

Biographical sermons are especially vulnerable to this abuse of using verses to establish points unintended by the biblical author. For example, a sermon on "What Are the Marks of a Spirit-Filled Man?" based on the life of Philip (Acts 6:3-5), would certainly be suspect if its main points were

I. A Spirit-filled man will leave a successful ministry and labor unknown in a desolate region (Acts 8:4-8, 26-40).
II. A Spirit-filled man will channel his daughters into celibate ministries (Acts 21:8-9).

There is no suggestion in the text that Philip was struggling with the decision to relocate. For all we know, he had completed God's mission in Samaria and was anticipating returning to his home in Jerusalem. Nor is his Gaza road assignment a posting to a desolate region. Instead, he is walking just outside the Jerusalem city limits, on the road that leads south through the desert to Gaza, and is being overtaken by the traffic exiting from the city.

The point of Acts 8 is not the ministry choices a godly man should make, but rather how the Spirit is expanding the church into previously excluded countries and social classes. And, obviously, point II is an absurd extreme of what can result when we incorrectly attach biblical statements to our chosen topics.

Topical preaching that is truly biblical thoroughly studies each individual passage in its context to make sure the biblical author is genuinely talking about the speaker's chosen subject. Properly done, topical preaching will result in profitable messages, such as

"How to Be a Good Husband"
I. Live considerately (1 Peter 3:7).
II. Love sacrificially (Ephesians 5:25-33).

Or, in a message on "Honor Your Father and Mother"

I. In our early years, we honor our parents by obeying them (Ephesians 6:1-3).
II. In our middle years, we honor our parents by respecting them (Leviticus 19:3, 32).
III. In our mature years, we honor our parents by assisting them financially.
A. Assisting our parents financially comes ahead of commitments to the Lord's work (Matthew 15:1-9).
B. Assisting our parents financially shows our own genuine godliness (1 Timothy 5:3-8).

Sometimes a speaker may be tempted to use a general verse to speak to a specific topic. For example, in the above message on "How to Be a Good Husband," the speaker may be tempted to include "Forgive freely" (Colossians 3:13) as one of the main points. Or, in the message on "Honor Your Father and Mother," the speaker may be inclined to make the point, "We honor our parents by being kind and compassionate toward them" (Ephesians 4:32). While such statements may be true, the listener senses: We're supposed to do this to everybody; that Scripture is not uniquely about husbands, or parents.

In such cases, it is better to preach a passage exposition on the specific verse, rather than a topical exposition on a subject. In a passage exposition on Colossians 3:13, the speaker would explain what it means to freely forgive, and then apply this to many relationships in life — husbands, wives, parents, co-workers. Similarly, for Ephesians 4:32, the speaker would explain kindness and compassion, and then illustrate how we could show these to many different people — parents, spouses, children, harried sales clerks, and so on. In this way the topical speaker saves specific verses for their specific subjects, and the result is a message that has greater focus, penetration, and impact.

Finally, in biblical topical preaching, the subject will develop into a central truth by means of either parallel or progressive assertions.

The assertions will be parallel when each individual passage answers the same specific question about the subject. For example, in a sermon on "God Speaks to You," each of the main points answers the same question, "How does God speak to us?"

I. Through creation (Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:18-20)
II. Through conscience (Romans 2:14-15)
III. Through Christ, the incarnate Word (Hebrews 1:1-5)
IV. Through Scripture, the written Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21).

The assertions will be progressive when each individual passage answers a different question about the subject. For example, a message on "Fasting" might address the questions,

The main point assertions would progressively develop into a central truth along the lines of:

Done correctly, topical preaching can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of a biblical doctrine or subject. But done incorrectly, it can lead to ideas the Bible never intended to say. We need to study thoroughly and organize carefully, to be sure we can say, "Thus saith the Lord."

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