The Difference Between Topical and Expository Preaching

by Keifer Navey

I want to begin by stating that this article is not polemical in nature. It is not my intent to give you a bulleted list of why expository preaching drops the preacher’s elbow on topical sermons. In fact, I hope to show the worth of both methods, and how you can use both to your advantage for God’s glory.

Expository preaching and topical preaching need not be like the familiar buddy-cop story we find often in movies like Lethal Weapon, Men in Black, or most of Bruce Willis’s catalog. In these common stories, it feels as if the old school must be vitriolic towards the new school and the new school pridefully insolent toward the old school. Such characteristics should not be applied to the preaching methods of expository or topical. In fact, both have been around for centuries.

Topical preaching has its dangerous pitfalls, but it can be greatly beneficial for hitting a topic that needs immediate addressing. Together, you can preach God’s Word faithfully and carefully. You can be sure that as a shepherd you’re not starving your sheep.

Expositional and topical preaching need not be at odds and can work together easily. For the purpose of this article we will look at the differences of the two under these two working definitions: Expository preaching is exegeting the text while systematically working through an entire book of the bible or a portion of a book of the Scriptures; Topical preaching is selecting a theme or topic and then exegeting texts to amplify, define, or prove one’s thesis.

How The Two Differ:

Expositional Preaching can be marked by long excursions through books of the Bible but that is not always the case. For instance, Capitol Hill Baptist Church and Mark Dever will do an expositional sermon on an entire book of the Bible. Others, such as the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones spent 14 years in the book of Romans. Both are expositional preachers, both are examples of expositional sermons.

Topical preaching can be marked by short series or even a string of one-off messages. These can address a specific topic-at-hand such as marriage, money, worship, or the attributes of God. There are great pastors in history who have done this such as Spurgeon who we’ve already mentioned, up to modern-day preachers such as Luke Walker.

How The Two Can Be Unhelpful:

Expositional preaching can be used wrongly. That can sound sharp to the ears at first, but expositional preaching done wrongly can actually be harmful. Some pastors can spend so long in a chapter of a book just giving out background details, parsing the Greek or Hebrew words, and explaining the grammatical landscape that the congregation comes away with nothing more than an English lesson and no application for the material given. The pastor’s church pulpit is not a teacher’s classroom lectern, but many well-meaning preachers make this mistake.

Topical preaching has more dangers than you think. The most obvious being that you only preach on what you want to preach on or what’s easy. You’re not likely to hear a clip on Instagram from an influencer-type pastor condemn same-sex marriage. You’re not going to see many megachurch preachers swim against the cultural stream. Instead, you’ll find series and sermons on self-esteem, victory, dating, marriage, and money. Expositional sermons mining the depths of God’s glorious word have been commonly replaced with shallow observations of human happiness.

How The Two Can Work Together:

As I stated above, this is not a polemical argument, but I needed to show you the differences and dangers to better show you how the two can work together and ultimately how they’re not that different when used correctly.

Expositional preaching and topical preaching don’t have to be at odds with each other. Thinking back to my earlier analogy of the buddy-cop film structure, the old school and new school don’t have to fight back and forth to defeat their villain. In fact, they must utilize both of their strengths and work together in order to vanquish their foe. Expositional and topical preaching can be the best of partners and can work together to achieve a common goal.

I would like to offer to you that preaching exegetically through books of the Bible should be your primary teaching structure. How quickly you get through the book is up to you. You can do ground floor excursions through entire books over the course of years, or you can fly over an entire book in a matter of months. What’s vital is that you’re systematically working through every verse without skipping what’s difficult or unpopular and that you’re letting the Holy Spirit ultimately take the lead.

What’s vital is that you’re systematically working through every verse without skipping what’s difficult or unpopular and that you’re letting the Holy Spirit ultimately take the lead.

However, there are times a topical sermon or series of sermons can be beneficial. For example, if you’re working through a larger book of the Bible such as Isaiah, Matthew, or Genesis, it could be helpful to take a brief break and address some specific topics that the church may need to hear at that point and time. It could be that in this season you’re preaching through Romans, but the majority of your flock has been deeply affected by COVID-19 and they are out of work. It could be helpful to teach on suffering for two weeks out of James 1. Maybe there’s been an unexpected death in your church that has shaken the congregation and you need to preach on eternal hope. Possibly you’ve just taken over a church and while preaching through Luke, you realize that the previous pastor had never addressed basic doctrines such as the attributes of God. It would be beneficial to take a month and cover some of the attributes.

However, just as there is a danger in overcomplicating your expositional preaching, you can exaggerate your topical preaching. You must be aware of the dangers of forcing a text to fit the topic. You have to be on guard against letting yourself preach what’s most important in your mind. Topical preaching must still be expositional preaching. As a preacher, you have a responsibility to rightly divide the Word of God. Whether that be a 6-year dive into Galatians or 6 weeks on God’s holiness from the entire Bible. You must preach God’s Word faithfully.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, expositional and topical preaching can be the best of friends. You can use these tools to your advantage to God’s glory. It’s not uncommon for pastors to preach through books for the majority of the year, but take the summer off to teach through something like God’s attributes, specific systematic theology doctrines, or highlighted biblical theology points. God’s Word is for preaching and teaching and it’s your responsibility as a pastor to do that well.

Expositional preaching is by no means the easier route. You will spend long hours examining one verse in your studying just to make one point in your sermon, but by systematically walking through a book you will be sure to teach the whole counsel of God.

Topical preaching has its dangerous pitfalls, but it can be greatly beneficial for hitting a topic that needs immediate addressing. Together, you can preach God’s Word faithfully and carefully. You can be sure that as a shepherd you’re not starving your sheep.

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Keifer is the Founder and book reviewer for Nerdy Theologians—a digital resource dedicated to recommending the most edifying theological literature. He is also a husband, father, preacher, and elder mentee at his local church. When he’s not reading or writing, he’s playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

More by Keifer

After reading this article, what is your opinion? Do you have any questions or comments? Maybe you have something to add to the discussion? If so, let us know in the comments below.

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