Topical or Verse-by-Verse? The Confusion of Expositional Preaching

Over the years I get asked the question, “Yancey, do you prefer expository preaching or topical preaching?” I know what’s being asked. Do I fancy Bible book-driven or thematically-driven sermons? 1 However, in my humble opinion, the term “expository preaching” is a misnomer. I want to show why that’s the case and why we seek to utilize both approaches at Clear Creek Community Church.

Let’s begin with defining “expositional preaching.” While some tie it explicitly to preaching that works verse-by-verse through books of the Bible, the vast majority of scholars, church historians, and homiletical professors hold a broader definition. For example, John Stott, who was one of, if not the leading voice in the 20th century for expository preaching, wrote in his classic work Between Two Worlds,

Exposition refers to the content of the sermon (biblical truth) rather than its style (a running commentary). To expound Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view. The expositor opens what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted, and unfolds what is tightly packed. 2

Adding later,

I believe that to preach or to expound the scripture is to open up the inspired text with such faithfulness and sensitivity that God’s voice is heard and his people obey Him. 3

It’s fairly straightforward for Stott. Expositional preaching is about explaining the truth of the Scripture in a way that’s faithful to the Scripture. It’s about making sense of the text of Scripture for the congregants to understand. Thus expositional preaching is less about one’s approach to preaching the text than one’s commitment to the text preached.

Consequently, preachers may use different approaches to accomplishing this expositional end. From my own study, it seems three different categories of expositional preaching arise:

  1. Topical – sermons that begin with a subject and finds multiple texts to exposit which share the subject
  2. Textual – sermons that begin with a verse or two to exposit and might use other texts to explain original selection
  3. Literary Unit – sermons that begin with a paragraph or larger section that forms a complete unit to exposit (often with the continuation of the next unit in the following sermon until the Bible book is complete)

Notice that each category has exposition – a “making sense of the text of Scripture for the congregants to understand.” Confusion results when expository preaching is reduced to only literary unit preaching (also popularly referred to as verse-by-verse or book study preaching). But it should be noted again that, in the eyes of arguably most homiletical experts, this categorizing is a misnomer because both topical and textual are also expositional.

And yet the commitment in evangelicalism to verse-by-verse preaching is so strong as to lead many to believe it’s the only legitimate form of preaching – the one, true expositional type of sermonizing. Ironically, it’s the biblical witness that makes this absolutist position suspect. I’m not certain one can find a single “expository, verse-by-verse sermon” as modern-day proponents define it in the entire corpus of Scripture. The few preaching scenes we have in the New Testament (e.g., Peter in Acts 2, Paul in Acts 15) look nothing like the kind of “verse-by-verse” preaching many say is the only valid kind.

In 2 Timothy 4:2 Paul exhorts Timothy to “preach the Word” but paints no picture as what exactly that preaching should look like. In the Great Commission of Matthew 28, Jesus commands his followers to make disciples “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (v. 20) but, again, doesn’t command the exact form we’re to use. Frankly, if you were to look at Jesus’ preaching (or the apostles for that matter) there is no way you would be able to build a verse-by-verse model which many argue is the exclusive way to preach.

The reality is expositional preaching is expositional if it makes proper sense of the text and applies it, regardless of the form. Because this is the case, DTS professor and verse-by-verse proponent, Dr. Timothy Warren, can state, “There are different styles of expository preaching; topical is one of them.” He adds,

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. 4

Making a case the only biblical kind of preaching is verse-by-verse preaching is a stretch to say the least. Yet with that acknowledged, Warren gets to the real issue many have against topical approaches in the pulpit, because it’s worth noting,

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. 5

This is where the real rub should lie! The problem with topical preaching isn’t whether it is biblical or expositional but whether the exegesis in it is faithful to the Bible its expositing. But this would be true of any approach: topical, textual, or literary unit. I have heard many a verse-by-verse sermon that had poor exegesis and as such, had poor application. No particular style guarantees sound exposition. Each approach – topical, textual, and literary unit – must commit to preach the Bible with accuracy and fidelity by sound exegesis because they are all expositional by nature.

This is why when asked if I preach expositionally or topically, I take is as a question rooted in a misunderstanding. Do I have a personal preference? Yes. But it’s not a preference for exposition. It’s all exposition. At CCCC we have a diet of all three: topical exposition, textual exposition, and verse-by-verse/book exposition. There are benefits to employing each of these approaches to expositional preaching. Let me highlight the advantages of both topical and book study sermons:

  • Topical exposition focuses on a particular theme or issue the Scriptures address outside its literary structure, giving congregants the benefits akin to systematic theology. As such, it allows listeners to do a deeper dive on a particular subject or doctrine (e.g., the doctrine of the Holy Spirit) in a more holistic, well-rounded fashion without being compelled to change topics the next week. Topical exposition seems better equipped for addressing cultural issues or current events (e.g., social media, science, disasters, etc). Additionally, many consider topical series more attractional for the general listener, including the unchurched. If I were to pick out one weakness, I would say it’s easier to fall into the trap of proof-texting and bad exegesis.
  • Bible book exposition allows sermons on topics or ideas that pastors might not give an entire series to; by the nature of the approach, it forces preachers to explain the text at hand (e.g., interpret tough passages). Of course this kind of exposition also helps congregants better know a particular biblical book. Verse-by-verse approach makes it easier to maintain contextual fidelity since the preacher returns to the same book each week, taking up where he left off. If I were to pick out one weakness, book exposition might wear out its welcome by remaining too long on the same topic week-after-week. (You don’t see many sermon series on Numbers).

Though I wouldn’t begrudge preachers for preferring one style over another, since each has different strengths we, for wisdom’s sake, have chosen to employ both. For example, over the last few years, two of our most impactful sermon series at CCCC were the topical series ‘Faith & Science’ and the Bible book study of Revelation. Both were fantastic. Both edified the Body of Christ. Both honored God’s Word. Why? Because both series were full of sermons that made sense of the Scripture for the congregants to understand and apply.

In other words, both were also expositional.

Notes:

  1. I do have a preference. I’ll let you guess.
  2. As quoted here.
  3. A Definition of Biblical Preaching
  4. Can Topical Preaching Be Expository?
  5. Ibid.
Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

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