Chapter 108

What Makes Textual Preaching Unique?

And how do we use this sermon Style, with its great rhetorical potential, biblically?

Textual preaching dominated the homiletical landscape in the latter half of the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s and remains popular in some circles today. The list of preachers who have employed textual preaching effectively, though not exclusively, includes Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Frederick W. Robertson, and Rick Warren.

At the dawn of the 21st century, when topical preaching and expository preaching get most of the press in America, what is the role of textual preaching? That question can be answered only after defining what textual preaching is.

A definition of textual preaching

The question about what constitutes textual preaching resembles the question about who killed John F. Kennedy. Even the experts disagree. Some homileticians distinguish it from expository preaching, while some view it as a type of expository preaching or even equate it with expository preaching. Others argue that the length of the passage to be preached determines whether the sermon is textual or not. Others disagree and claim that the relation of the divisions of the sermon to the divisions of the text is what classifies a sermon as textual or places it in another category.

So what is textual preaching? A good place to begin a quest for definition is the classic homiletics text by John Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (first published in 1870). Broadus, premier Southern Baptist preacher and seminary president, classified sermons in three forms: (1) subject-sermons (what most contemporary homileticians describe as topical), (2) text-sermons (what this article refers to as textual), and (3) expository sermons.

According to Broadus, a subject—or topical—sermon is structured according to the nature of the subject rather than the biblical text(s) on which it is based. He notes that the Bible does "not present truth in a succession of logical propositions," so when the preacher needs to present a doctrine or moral issue, the topical form works well. While the sermon must of course be faithful to Scripture, its structure does not take its cue from the biblical text(s) on which it is based.

In both text—or textual—and expository sermons, the sermon's structure takes its cue from the biblical text. The preacher draws the "topic and the heads"—that is, the subject and its divisions—from the passage. What, then, is the difference between a text-sermon and an expository sermon? Broadus sees a gradation from textual to expository sermons. The difference lies not so much in the length of the sermon text as in its details. He explains: "If we simply take the topic and the heads which the passage affords and proceed to discuss them in our own way, that is not an expository sermon but a text-sermon."

Broadus distinguished between two types of text-sermons: those that present a single subject and those that discuss several subjects. In a single-subject text sermon, the details relate to one definite and comprehensive subject. However, in a text-sermon with several topics, the points or topics of the sermon are much more diverse, although Broadus argues that they should have some kind of "internal connection."

While the length of a passage to be preached does not define the form of the sermon, it appears that text-sermons are generally based on shorter passages. Broadus gives examples of text-sermon outlines for Acts 9:4, Jude 24, Luke 23:43, Ezekiel 11:19–20, Psalm 73:24, 26, and Romans 5:1–2. Still, he observes that an expository sermon may be devoted to a long passage, a short one, or even part of a sentence. Likewise, in theory, a textual sermon could be based on a long passage. The bottom line is how the details develop. An expository sermon will explain and concentrate on the details of a given biblical text. A textual sermon will take its leading ideas from the text but then look elsewhere in Scripture for much of its development. In a sense, then, a textual sermon is a hybrid of a topical and an expository sermon. As Broadus' two categories for text sermons suggest, a textual sermon may lean more in one direction than another.

Here are some examples cited by Broadus. In the following sermon on Luke 23:43, the preacher will take the successive words or clauses of the text and enlarge on them.

I. Thou shalt be in paradise
II. Thou shalt be with me in paradise
III. Today thou shalt be with me in paradise

The following sermon on Romans 5:1–2 describes the believer's happy estate:

I. He may have peace with God
II. He may stand in the grace of God
III. He may exult in hope of the glory of God

Still another sermon from Ezekiel 11:19–20 attempts to explain the particulars of genuine religions. Notice that these points are not characteristics as in the sermon on Romans 5:1–2. Rather, they are labels or categories for analyzing what the text says about genuine religion.

I. Its author
II. The disposition it produces
III. The obedience it demands
IV. The blessedness it assures

How have other homileticians understood textual preaching? In 1881, Austin Phelps defined a textual sermon as "one in which the text is the theme, and the parts of the text are the divisions of the discourse, and are used as a line of suggestion." His last phrase—"used as a line of suggestion"—aligns his understanding of a textual sermon with John Broadus. In 1955, Merrill Unger suggested that the only difference between a textual sermon and an expository sermon is found in the length of the text. A textual sermon expounds a passage of shorter length. H. Grady Davis mentions textual preaching only twice in his classic work, Design for Preaching, published in 1958. In the first discussion, he seems to link textual preaching and expository preaching. In the second discussion, he cites a sermon by Karl Barth on Matthew 11:28 as an example of a textual sermon which, he defines as one which "draws not only its idea but also its structural elements from the text."

In 1990, Sidney Greidanus proposed that all textual preaching be understood as expository preaching since "textual preaching is preaching on a biblical text and expounds the message of that text." Al Fasol contributed a fine essay in 1992 on textual preaching in which he seemed to concur with Greidanus in arguing that a textual sermon is not defined by the length of its text but rather by its practice of drawing both its topic and divisions from the biblical text. In 1994, Bryan Chappell published Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, now a standard textbook in many evangelical seminaries. His taxonomy of sermon forms, which resembles the understanding of John Broadus, is helpful for grasping the uniqueness of textual preaching. Here is a summary of his distinctions:

  • A topical sermon takes its topic from the passage and gets its organization from the nature of the subject rather than from the text's distinctions.
  • A textual sermon takes its topic and main points from ideas in the text, but the development of those main ideas comes from sources outside the immediate text.
  • An expository sermon takes its topic, main points, and subpoints from the immediate text.

The following definition attempts to describe the textual sermon as it has been defined and practiced over the past 150 years. A textual sermon derives its topic and main ideas from a biblical text—usually a verse or two—and then develops these ideas theologically from other biblical texts.

It seems helpful, then, to maintain Broadus's distinction between and gradation from topical to textual to expository sermons. At the very least, a textual sermon should be viewed as a specific type of expository sermon, if not a category by itself.

The value of textual preaching today

What is the use to biblical preachers of textual sermons in the 21st century? While people need expository preaching to help them think through and track the arguments developed in Scripture, textual preaching can supplement exposition to meet two specific needs.

(1) Textual preaching provides an effective vehicle for preaching on some of the Bible's grand statements. Even in a course of expository sermons on a particular book, these grand statements are worth examining under a microscope. They may be "mountaintop" texts like Jeremiah 33:3, Romans 8:28, or 1 John 1:9, which believers memorize and turn to in times of need. Or they may be texts that summarize some of the Bible's grand themes. Some texts which fall into this category include individual proverbs (such as Proverbs 15:1), Ezra 7:10, Mark 12:30, Romans 12:1–2, and Hebrews 12:1–2.

For example, the three infinitives in Ezra 7:10 ("to study … to practice … and to teach," NASB) can form the heart of a sermon on the task of a Bible teacher or preacher. The idea of the sermon will be that effective teachers of Scripture will commit themselves to (I) studying the Bible, (II) obeying the Bible, and then (III) teaching the Bible to others. The preacher will develop these points theologically by appealing to other Scripture and will describe what this process looks like for Christians living in 21st century America.

For another example, an adaptation of a Rick Warren sermon on Mark 12:30 takes the first half of the "Great Commandment" and explains how God wants his people to love him. The sermon outline would look like this:

I. God wants you to love him thoughtfully (with your mind)
II. God wants you to love him passionately (with your heart and soul)
III. God wants you to love him practically (with your strength)

One reason the textual form is well suited for the Bible's grand statements is that it lends itself to more dramatic, rhetorical, and artistic development. Since preachers can turn elsewhere in Scripture for the subpoints of the sermon, they can arrange these subpoints in ways that deliberately employ artistic features like contrast, climax, storytelling, parallelism, refrain, and metaphor.

(2) Textual preaching provides an effective vehicle for evangelistic preaching—that is, preaching to non-believers. It allows a preacher to combine the benefits of exposition and topical preaching. As in an expository sermon, it leaves the listeners with a passage that will serve as a reference point. Because the passage in a textual sermon is usually one or two verses long, this reference point is something that listeners can grasp and remember. At the same time, as in a topical sermon, the preacher is free to cover key ideas that reside in different passages and genres of Scripture.

Passages that lend themselves to textual sermons for non-believers include John 3:16, John 14:6, Romans 4:5, Galatians 4:4–5, and Ephesians 2:8–9. For example, Larry Moyer preaches an evangelistic sermon on Romans 4:5 in which the main idea is: "You will stand perfect before God if you trust Jesus Christ and not your works." The sermon could proceed either as an expository sermon or a textual sermon, depending on whether the details emerge from the immediate text or from the whole sweep of Scripture. Here is a possible outline adapted from Moyer's sermon:

I. God is not asking how many good works you have done ("to the man who does not work")
II. God is not asking how well you have behaved ("but trusts God who justifies the wicked")
III. God is asking whom you are going to trust ("his faith is credited as righteousness")

The following guidelines will help preachers prepare and preach textual sermons effectively.

(1) Pay attention to the context. Context determines meaning. Preachers who select a small preaching unit like a verse or two run the risk of isolating a statement from its context and thus missing the author's intent. For example, Revelation 3:20 has been a favorite text for evangelistic sermons. But when viewed in its context, the statement is made to Christians about restoring their relationship with Christ—not to non-believers about entering a new relationship with Christ. Legitimate textual preaching makes the effort to locate the selected verse(s) in the larger flow of material.

(2) Use the textual sermon form strategically and sparingly. People pick up a methodology for studying the Bible from the sermons they hear. A steady diet of textual sermons will teach people to look for "hot" statements instead of tracing the flow of thought through a paragraph, a chapter, and an entire book. Furthermore, listeners will never get the opportunity to work through major blocks and books of Scripture. In general, reserve textual sermons for the defining statements of Scripture or for times when you need to address a huge issue and a single verse or two captures the heart of what you need to communicate.

(3) Include synthesis as well as analysis. Some homileticians complain that textual sermons take things apart but never put them back together again. Like any other type of sermon, a good textual sermon must have unity. A preacher must show how the pieces relate to the whole. For this reason, writing outline points in complete sentences is a helpful discipline. This practice will help preachers think through their ideas clearly as they attempt to synthesize them.

(4) Avoid trite, cleverly packaged outlines. Recent homiletical thought suggests that outlines resemble skeletons. They are vital for providing structure, but they do not need to be seen. Textual preaching in the past—like expository preaching in the past—sometimes focused too much on cleverly worded outlines, especially ones developed with alliteration. But in the 21st century, verbal communication shies away from this approach.

An example from Hebrews 12:1–2

Here is a more detailed example of a textual sermon outline that derives its main ideas from the text but takes its subpoints from other Scripture. The text is Hebrews 12:1–2:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

I. God calls us to run the race in which he has entered us with endurance (1)

A. The race in which God has entered us is the Christian life here on earth
  1. One church leader, Paul, likened his own Christian life and service to a race (Acts 20:24; Galatians 2:2; 2 Timothy 4:7)
  2. Paul also likened the lives of other Christians to a race (Galatians 5:7)
B. The race metaphor helps us understand why Christians need endurance
  1. Like a race, the Christian life requires stamina over a long period of time
  2. Like a race, the Christian life contains difficult challenges
  3. Like a race, the Christian life has a prize at stake (1 Corinthians 9:24)

II. We can run with endurance when we adopt Jesus' strategy of focusing on future joy! (2)

A. Jesus serves as our model for how to run the race and win
  1. 1. Qualification #1—He is the pioneer who finished the course
  2. 2. Qualification #2—He finished the course as a winner
B. What we learn from Jesus is to endure misery by focusing on future joy!
  1. 1. Future joy includes a life of beauty (Revelation 21:2, 4, 18; 22:1)
  2. 2. Future joy includes a life of intimacy (Revelation 21:3, 7, 16)
  3. 3. Future joy includes a life of adventure (Revelation 22:3, 5)

Notice how this sermon unfolds. First, the second main point is the main idea of the sermon. Of course, a skilled preacher will want to work on another way or two of restating this. A catchy way of restating it would be: Like Jesus, you can endure your present misery when you focus on future joy!

Notice that the sermon follows the text in first explaining what God is asking you to do (verse 1) and then explaining how God says you can do it (verse 2). Yet the subpoints come either from other Scripture or, in the case of subpoint I. B., from the race metaphor. Here, preachers can use their imaginations—as controlled by Scripture!—to probe the metaphor as a means of understanding the text. Notice that subpoint II. B. is derived entirely from the description of heaven in Revelation 21–22.

When employed thoughtfully and strategically, textual sermons can take listeners through specific texts of Scripture and still cover the grand sweep of biblical theology.