I love Charles Haddon Spurgeon. I named my middle son after him. One of his sermon manuscripts marked by his own hand hangs in my office. I count him among the greatest, if not the greatest of English-speaking preachers to have ever lived. Needless to say, I’m a fanboy.
Yet I always find it ironic when seminaries and other Christian groups that host events, seminars, or training dedicated to expository preaching defined only as proceeding verse-by-verse through sections of Scripture1 also pay homage to the pulpit ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a man who to my knowledge didn’t preach expositional sermons as they’ve delineated it.2
Often, Spurgeon’s sermons would open with one verse as a reference text and after some initial addressing of said text, he’d be off to the races with stories, points, and appeals, rarely returning to the initial verse. When it comes to how we think about preaching styles in modern terminology, Spurgeon leans more toward topical than expository-as-defined.3
Heresy? Not really. Sample Spurgeon’s sermons for yourself. I’d argue evangelicals do with Spurgeon like they do with many great leaders of the faith (Augustine, Luther, etc.): quote easily, read rarely. But the fact that Spurgeon was more topical than expository is hard to miss if you actually read his sermons. I’m not alone. Indeed, Phil Johnson, founder of The Spurgeon Archive, sees the exact same thing:
It’s true that Spurgeon was not an expository preacher. In fact, he regarded biblical exposition as something distinct from “preaching.” His approach to “exposition” was simply to read a phrase and comment on it. Some of his printed sermons include an “Exposition” section, but the “exposition” was a whole different part of the worship service, distinct from the preaching.
This doesn’t mean Spurgeon misapplied texts or took them out of context.4 His sermon’s bled Scripture when cut and took aim at the glory of Jesus. Even so, that doesn’t take away the fact that his style wasn’t given to preaching through a book of the Bible or working through large sections of Scripture in a verse-by-verse manner that many preaching leaders today would promote.5 Johnson thankfully adds, “Normally, [Spurgeon] at least took time to explain both the context and the meaning of his text, even if he then departed from the text and its context into a more topical kind of message.” So while this keeps us fanboys from tearing our Spurgeon t-shirts and smashing our Spurgeon pint glasses in grief, the truth still remains. Yea verily it has been said unto you, from the guy who founded The Spurgeon Archive, that the Prince of Preachers was a topical preacher.
Say it with me, “Spurgeon was a topical preacher.” You can do it.6
The point of all this isn’t to say expository preaching, or what I believe is more clearly defined as verse-by-verse preaching, isn’t good.7 It is very much so. In fact, I just preached through Romans 9:1-27 this past Sunday. There are some things verse-by-verse and Bible book preaching does that topical cannot do. Yet, that shouldn’t move us to short-change or vilify topical preaching. One must still exposit the texts correctly – giving them the right context and interpretation – no matter how many are used in any given message.8 Topical preaching also does things verse-by-verse or Bible book preaching can’t do. That’s why my own preaching strategy employs both: sermons through Bible books (or big sections within them) and topical messages.
And why not? I consider both expository. So for using the former, I’ve got tons of wonderful Christian leaders today cheering me on. For the latter, well…I’ve got Spurgeon. 😉
- To be fair, some might promote a more generous definition of expository preaching but, on the whole, the one offered is primarily defined by working verse-by-verse through biblical passages, letting the structure of the text control the structure of the sermon, etc.
- I’d be happy to be proven wrong in this assumption and gladly admit my error.
- Feel free to compare Spurgeon’s style of preaching with the definitions of expository preaching given by these church leaders.
- Though I would say he was often creative with how certain texts pointed to the gospel. A hermeneutics prof might fail him a time or two.
- Johnson makes the point that topical preaching was the norm in Spurgeon’s day and thus, he was a man of his times.
- Update: In Sept. 2022 I ran across Steven Mathewson’s article which said that Spurgeon (along with Rick Warren), was technically a textual preacher moreso than topical. It seems a fine nuance when looking at his actual sermons, but I’ll acquiesce to the good doctor. So say it with me: “Charles Spurgeon was a Non-Expository Preacher.” ;)
- I personally regard both verse-by-verse and topical as types of expositional preaching provided texts in either style are given contexts and interpreted in light of those contexts.
- I recognize that many, including myself, would say those characteristics alone would make it also an expository message. However, just as many would disagree because the sermon isn’t determined by the flow of a primary biblical text.
2 thoughts on “Charles Spurgeon: Topical Preacher”
I think we also need to be careful to delineate between how a preacher handles an individual sermon, and how they prepare a series of sermons.
“Lectio continua” (preaching verse-by-verse) usually refers to over an extended period of time, i.e. a series of sermons. But it is possible to preach verse-by-verse in a single sermon. That being said, most of the definitions of expository preaching tend to be less about specifically verse-by-verse, and more about whether or not the point(s) of the sermon are the same as the point(s) of the text. Thus it is technically possible to preach verse-by-verse and not actually be preaching expositorially.
Likewise, there is a difference between a topical series and a topical sermon. You can preach a topical sermon in a non-topical series. Likewise you could preach expostiorially each week in a topical series.
Personally, my preference (both practically and theologically) is to weight the bulk of my preaching towards expository series (and expository sermons), with some topical series sprinkled lightly through the year.
All that being said, I think you’re right – Spurgeon mostly preached topically (both in individual sermons and series-wise), although he was at least unerringly Christ-centred.
Ben Thorp, I believe you are spot on…
I’ve sat through verse by verse teaching and left scratching my head, asking my self, where did this guy come up with this message, because it sure didn’t sound like the Lord’s message. When we see eisegesis, it can leave one confused and bewildered, however with exegesis, one walks away with a spirit filled message that feeds the soul.
For some time now, I have felt the call to preach and when I try to go about the verse by verse way. I tend to get writers block. However when I venture into how Spurgeon preached and write to give glory to God, my thoughts tend to flow like living waters…
This is how I was lead to this site, searching on whether Spurgeon was Topical or Expository. God clearly gave me the answer I was seeking for. It eases my mind to see how the Lord is working in me and through me to bring forth the message of His Son, Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior.
Yancey, thanks for a good article!
May our Lord of glory, bless you in all you do in His glorious name.