There are basically two types of preaching: expository and topical. Expository preaching is when you preach verse-by-verse through a book of the Bible. Topic preaching is when you take a topic and find Bible verses that seem to correlate with the topic you want to preach on.
There has always been a debate on which type of preaching is better, that is, what benefits the congregation more. I wholeheartedly say that expository is more beneficial than topical, but that doesn’t mean anybody can’t ever preach a topical sermon.
With that being said, what makes expository better than topical?
The Whole Counsel of God
Because expository preaching goes verse-by-verse, you are forced to cover all issues. In other words, the whole counsel of God will be preached. God in His fullness will be proclaimed (if the text is handled biblically). You are not able to avoid weighty doctrines or controversial issues when you preach an exposition. You will have to address the theological elephant in the room.
For example, say you start a series on the Book of John and you arrive at John 6. John 6 is a chapter known for its emphasis on the sovereignty of God. For instance, John 6:37 says that “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” This has massive implications! If you preach verse-by-verse, you will have to at least address it—whether you interpret it right or not.
Derek Thomas, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, and Teaching Fellow for Ligonier Ministries wrote extensively about this topic:
In an age of relative biblical illiteracy in many parts of the world, the need to preach the whole Bible, rather than serendipitously picking a text from here and there, is all the more urgent.
We preach verse-by-verse because the people of God need to know the whole Word of God. This is not some mundane argument; this topic is not superfluous—it is extremely important. The people of God need to be fed!
The Dangers of Topical Preaching
It should go without saying that topical preaching isn’t bad in itself. When done correctly, topical preaching is fine and can be very beneficial. It’s good to address specific topics when needed. But, when done poorly, topical preaching can treat the Bible unfaithfully.
One of the issues with this type of preaching is that they preach texts of Scripture as If they are by themselves and not in a bigger context.
Again, Derek Thomas chimes in by saying that,
Few passages are complete in themselves, requiring little, if any, reference to preceding verses or what follows.
The vast majority of the time, you will need to explain the one text by explaining the broader context that is around it. You can maybe preach a verse from a Psalm or Proverbs, but you start walking in muddy water after that.
Take, for instance, Philippians 4:13. This is a well-known verse, even known by non-Christians. If you do a sermon of just this verse, you could easily preach a self-centered message about how you can do anything (through Christ who gives you strength).
- Ace that test because Christ gives you strength
- Throw that touchdown because Christ gives you strength
- Eat your cereal because Christ gives you strength
Okay, I admit that last one was just my bad attempt at humor. But the point remains. All of these, in and of themselves, are actually correct—but they don’t apply to Philippians 4:13! Philippians 4:13 has to do with being content in any situation—because Christ gives you strength. It doesn’t have to do with willpower, but contentment. We can be content in any situation–whether in little, in abundance, or anything else–because Christ gives us strength!
That is just one verse among many that can be quickly taken out of context when preaching topically. Another risk is having the preacher cater the topical sermon to his own agenda. God forbid, the preacher could have his own agenda of making his name known or distorting a text in order to make himself look popular.
Feed Your Sheep
For pastors, the most important thing you are to do is feed your congregation. You must “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2 ESV).
By preaching an exposition—and doing it faithfully—you can be assured that the congregation will be well-fed.
Soli Deo Gloria