The following is a thoughtful response by Brad Bigney (pastor of fast growing Grace Fellowship in Florence, KY) to the exegetical dogmatism of many Reformed Christians who think exegetical preaching is the kind of preaching that is most faithful to the Bible itself (e.g. Mark Dever includes exegetical preaching as one of the marks of a healthy church and trains other pastors after this standard). After sitting under Brad’s preaching for 3 months, I’m starting to think that a good measure of topical preaching is actually a mark of a healthy church.
Why Do You Preach More Topical Sermons than Exegetical (Verse by verse through books of the Bible)?
From time to time people will ask me why I do so many topical sermon series instead of picking a book of the Bible and preaching through it verse by verse.
Here are some of the reasons why I preach the way I do here at Grace Fellowship:
1. Jesus preached topical sermons – if Jesus thought it was effective… so do I! Seriously… when you read through the Gospels you don’t see Jesus gathering a crowd and then starting to preach or teach verse by verse through one of the Old Testament books of the Bible they had at that time. He used visual illustrations, and He met the people right where they were and taught using just a verse or two for the basis of His teaching. It was hard hitting, and did not compromise God’s truth, but it was not an in depth explanation verse by verse through a book of the Bible.
2. There is no biblical record of the Apostle Paul or any other disciples ever preaching exegetically, verse by verse, sermons from a book of the Bible. You can see examples of this with Paul’s sermons in the book of Acts (on Mars Hill and other places).
3. There is no command in the New Testament instructing pastors to preach or teach verse by verse through books of the Bible. In Paul’s letters to Timothy, he doesn’t take time to exhort him to preach in a certain manner. He simply says to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2).
4. Many times the emphasis on preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible is driven by a belief that Bible information is the key to changing lives. Paul tells us that knowledge alone puffs up, but love edifies (cf. 1 Cor. 8:1). Not always, but many times the preachers and churches that are characterized by verse by verse preaching through books of the Bible are heavy on information or Bible facts, and much lighter on how those Bible truths apply to your life. I think that Bible application is the key to changing lives. Sheer volume of Bible information is not what changes lives. In-depth Greek or Hebrew word studies is not what changes lives. Understanding how to apply God’s Word practically in our everyday lives is what produces a love and passion for changing & growing.
Too often the goal of exegetical preaching is simply “What?” “What does the Bible say?” Our goal at Grace Fellowship is not just “What?” but “So what?” and “How?” “How does that apply to your life today?” “How would you start doing what God’s Word says to do in that verse?” “What needs to happen for you to start obeying what is being taught there?”
The clear and practical application of God’s Word to a person’s life, in the power of the Holy Spirit, is what changes lives. As a communicator I certainly benefit from word studies, but I rarely choose to pass all the details of my study on to my listeners. Believe it or not… my goal is not the preaching or teaching itself… my goal is changed lives. I want to connect real people to a real God, through His life-changing Word.
5. Be sure you understand what I’m not saying. I’m not saying it’s wrong to preach verse by verse through books of the Bible, but I am saying if you choose to do that, be careful. Make sure you don’t get caught up in your exegesis, and the details of your word studies, and lose sight of the main thing… communicating for changed lives.
6. There seems to be an arrogance among Christians who prefer exegetical verse by verse teaching of the Bible… as if they’ve got the corner on the market… they love God more… and they honor God’s Word more. This isn’t true of everyone, but I run into it frequently when this question of preaching style comes up. I rarely hear any topical preachers criticizing exegetical preachers, but I do hear quite a bit of criticism from exegetical preachers, and Christians who prefer that format, towards preachers who preach more topical or expositional sermons.
7. Look at the end result. I can’t speak for every other pastor who’s chosen to preach topical sermon series, but God has been very good to us here at Grace Fellowship. People are changing and growing because of what they’re learning from God’s Word. So if changed lives for the glory of God is the final goal, then look at the fruit of our ministry. Are people being saved? Is the Gospel being preached? Is Christ being exalted? Is the cross central in the preaching and teaching? Rather than backing away or watering it down, do we preach and teach the whole counsel of God’s Word – even the hard places? Are believers being fed and grounded in God’s Word to know how to handle life effectively by handling God’s Word accurately? Are people more devoted followers of Christ? Is the Bible our source of authority for making decisions and setting direction in our church? Is sin being exposed?
If all of that is happening effectively, I see no reason for alarm or concern. The comment I hear more than any other at our church from new people is “I’ve never grown this much in my life at any other church.” If changing and growing more and more into the image of Christ is the goal (see Roman 8:29) then it appears that God in His mercy has been pleased to use both topical and exegetical sermons to get us there.
8. It could be that this question regarding the style or format of preaching is centered around a personal preference more than it is the issue of “right” or “wrong.” It is the same as people who want to argue hymns versus choruses. I’m aware of people that leave our church for this and other matters of personal preference, and they are not wrong to do so. However, God has been using the topical or expositional style of preaching here at Grace Fellowship to bring people to Christ and root them in His Word and His grace.
9. Preaching and teaching topical messages does not mean it’s lighter in theology or preparation time. My first priority is the sermon preparation; I spend more time each week preparing my sermon than anything else I do. Preaching a topical message does not mean that it was just thrown together at the last minute. Also, preachers who preach topical sermons are not more liberal in their theology, and they are not less committed to the authority of God’s Word. God has graciously used people to communicate His Word who have been more topical or expositional rather than exegetical. Charles Spurgeon was certainly not liberal in his theology or uncommitted to God’s Word, yet he rarely preached an exegetical sermon. However, he always preached a biblical sermon that was anchored by a verse or verses that he was driving home to the hearts of the people. He preached for changed lives, and God blessed.
10. Format or style of preaching is no indication of the level of love for God’s Word. I hope that my love for God’s Word and my submission to its authority is equal to any exegetical preacher. While my messages are not usually rooted in one passage that is being unpacked verse by verse they are rooted in the truth of God’s Word, and each point is anchored by a biblical truth or verse that from Scripture.
HT :: Grace Fellowship Sermons
“Our goal at Grace Fellowship is not just “What?” but “So what?” and “How?””
I love this statement. I happen to be a huge fan of exegetical expositional book studies as the predominant paradigm in a local church and I take the same approach that you describe in this quote:
Exposition: The What
Implication: So what?
Thank you for the sharpening thoughts in this post! Good stuff!
Paul / Jen,
What do you mean by “exegetical”?
What do you mean by “Expositional”?
Why are you a huge fan of these methods?
Why do you think they should be the “predominant paradigm” for all churches?
Hey Bradley – Good and very important questions. It’s all about defining terms!
Q. What do you mean by “exegetical”?
A. The nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of Bible study/sermon prep(Hebrew and Greek analysis, grammar, syntax, cultural/historical background study, word usage(biblical and extra-biblical). Really mining out what the passage meant in it’s original meaning. I can never mean today, what it never meant when it was written.
Q. What do you mean by “Expositional”?
A. Bringing the fruit of our exegetical study to our people of all ages and instructing/urging them in language they can understand. This, to me, is the What, so what? and How? component to our preaching. This should resonate with the premise of the post. I wholeheartedly agree that we aren’t to bring all the (sometimes extremely difficult to understand!) details of exegesis out into our exposition. Repels too many people, turns folks off, doesn’t encourage sometimes. Usually, only preacher-wanna-be’s like me, are interested in that stuff during a sermon. 🙂
Q. Why are you a huge fan of these methods?
A. These are the approaches to the sacred text that most allow the text to speak for itself as opposed to my own idea(even if a Biblically informed idea) speaking. I want to know what God says, how He said it, what words He chose, the flow of His thoughts. I want to think God’s thoughts after Him. I want to have the mind of Christ, so I need to let the Word of Christ dwell in me richly. I believe exegesis and exposition of passages, chapters and books of the Bible lends itself most to these goals.
Q. Why do you think they should be the “predominant paradigm” for all churches?
A. I think we are to feast on God’s word.
People are born again by God’s word(1 Peter 1:23-25)
We are sanctified by God’s truth (John 17:17)
We are to desire the pure milk of the word in order to grown up(1 Peter 2:2)
I’m not opposed to topical messages. I’m not opposed to preaching a theme of Scripture. I love Biblical Theology. We need sermons on prayer, Bible Study, evangelism, etc. I’m only concerned when a local church only preaches topically, all the time.
I have spent significant time in a local church that only taught topically. I would actually argue that growth among the members was/is severely inhibited when we don’t regularly walk through an entire book of the Bible together. I have also spent significant time in a local church that has taught predominantly using an exegetical/expositional approach. The growth in grace was strikingly different and the anchoring effect of the whole counsel of God being taught and urged on the people of God has had a profound, deepening and lasting effect.
Let me be clear. I’m not saying any church teaching only topically is in sin or not a real church. Just something I think could be done better. Having taken the journey from purely-topical to predom-exeg/expos I’m excited and love to engage in discussion on this topic.
Thanks for asking to define terms! Praise the Lord. If only everyone would do that before the debate begins! Things would be much more clear!
Grace to you,
Thanks for taking the time to define your terms so carefully.
According to your definitions, “exegetical” refers to sermon prep. You said: “The nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of Bible study/sermon prep” etc.
According to your definition, “expositional preaching” on the other hand, would refer to preaching the truth discovered in sermon prep.
Later in your comment, you mention that you are for exegetical/expositional preaching to be the predominant style of preaching, and your comments indicate you assume this is something distinct and different from topical preaching. But according to your definitions (see above), I don’t see how your understanding is “expositional/exegetical” preaching is any different from topical preaching, for topical preaching (when done right) is always the fruit of exegetical study.
I’m afraid I don’t really, therefore, understand why you would distinguish good topical preaching from exegetical/expositional preaching.
There is a clue, however, to what you perhaps intended to include in your definitions. The clue comes from the following comment: “I have spent significant time in a local church that only taught topically. I would actually argue that growth among the members was/is severely inhibited when we don’t regularly walk through an entire book of the Bible together.”
Here it appears that “walk through an entire book of the Bible” is assumed as part of what distinguishes exegetical/expositional preaching from topical. But preaching through book-by-book was not anywhere in your definitions.
Help me understand your thoughts: Did you intend to include this aspect of preaching (through a book) in your definitions and just forget it? If not, I’m not sure how topical preaching differs from your notion of exegetical/expositional preaching.
Indeed, let us get our terms straight before we assume that we even disagree, for I believe that any sermon not based on solid exegetical study is bound to distort the meaning of the text to a preachers personal opinion.
Hello brother, Bradley!
Outstanding dialogue. Well thought through and Christ like discussion. Praise the Lord!
You make an excellent point. I was sloppy in my defining of terms.
I also must admit that I should have gone back and carefully read and re-read your original post to ensure I wasn’t responding to a position you weren’t even espousing. I think I was. 😦
To me, we are arguing from the abuses of our positions, not from the balanced uses of them. Here’s what I mean. When I read ‘topical’ I (my fault) read into that a very different concept than what you may be arguing for. I may think of a sermon entitled “marriage” or “money” or “work”. This sermon would then go on to be extremely heavy on story, illustration, alliterated points and subpoints with only a few Scriptures quoted(rarely explained in context) to “support” the topic or points. What Dever sometimes calls the “Springboard sermon” (you either start with one Scripture and then launch off into some idea relatively foreign to the meaning of that text or you haphazardly hop around the Bible quoting passages that might support your points)
I don’t think this is what you mean(if I understand your post correctly). You seem to be arguing for good solid exegesis during study of any topic in the Scripture. If so, amen! If this is the case, I should not have read into your term like this and if I have, I apologize.
Now, in all fairness, you may(MAY! 🙂 ) be arguing against the abuse of exegetical approaches and not against the actual position and practice I hold. When I say exegetical, I simply mean serious, rigorous and thorough study of context, grammar, syntax, cross references, commentaries, etc. When I say expositional, I simply mean preaching in a way that allows the text to speak for itself(an in a way that does not major on transferring all the details of exegesis to your people). I see the exegetical/expositional approach as a contrast to coming to the sacred desk with an idea or concept or topic and simply pulling in some Scriptures that may or may not actually support the topic being preached.
For instance, this past Sunday I preached from Matthew 11:28-30. “Come unto me and I will give you rest…”
Now, I could have come with a topical sermon on “Rest”. I could have majored on the topic and pulled in Matthew 11:28-30 somewhere along the way as a proof that God wants us to rest. But if I don’t stop and make sure to basically exegete that passage so that people understand what kind of rest Christ is giving to those who come to him and what kind of rest they find as they walk yoked to him, I’ve done a great dishonor to God’s word and disservice to God’s people.
Now, to balance my point here. I preached from the passage and when I got to verses 28-30, I didn’t stop and belabor the meaning of “weary” and “heavy Laden”. Those terms are rich! But, I only mentioned their original meanings and moved on. I didn’t quote any Greek and I didn’t throw out in verb tenses. I simply said “Weary means this…” and “heavy laden means this…” and moved on. This is exegetical exposition in my mind.
I guess I also struggle to really see an example of what you are talking about. You mentioned Dever and he certainly does talk about exegesis, exegetical and expositional preaching. However, have you ever heard him preach? He certainly doesn’t share/preach all the details of his exegesis from the pulpit.
Is there someone out there that you see preaching exegetically/expositionally that you think is giving the impression that the only thing that matters is giving out information and doesn’t really seem to be concerned with transforming lives with applying that information?
This post specifically mentions the Reformed movement, but I struggle to find one leader of the modern reformed movement (Piper? Sproul? MacArthur? DeYoung? Parsons? Duncan? Mohler? Mahaney?) that is simply giving out information and not emphasizing transformational application. If anything, I think these men (especially CJ Mahaney!) are exceptional at both solid exegesis and profound and transformational application.
Perhaps we’re both throwing out the baby with the bathwater here. I’ve listened to gobs(highly technical measurement) of sermons and I do know what you’re talking about with some preachers just belaboring points with the minutia of grammar, syntax and more.
BUT – The abuse of a thing does not negate it’s proper use.
So this is why I must say that we should still strive to do exegesis/exposition and application by reading, studying, teaching and preaching the Bible as it was written – book by book. Just as the predominant meal, not exclusively. We preach topical sermons in our church. Just not all the time.
I, like you, would give a similar warning:
I’m not saying it’s wrong to preach topically, but I am saying if you choose to do that, be careful. Make sure you don’t get caught up in your own ideas, your cleverly alliterated points, your own personal interests as a person, and lose sight of the main thing… communicating God’s Word, properly and fairly interpreted in original and historical contexts and drawing out clear applications for changed lives. 🙂
Sorry to ramble on and on…great discussion. Hope you are as sharpened as much as I’ve been. – Paul
Ahh! I forgot to post this good little article slightly related to our discussion:
Grace to you!
(1) Thanks so much for your true humility and patience in this dialogue. Your humility and grace are in fact exemplary and much appreciated.
(2) I read your comments aloud to my wife the night you wrote them, and both of us were doing the “mmmmm” thing (you know, where you think that what someone is saying is insightful and you go, “mmmm” to express your delight in the truth they are expounding?). 😉 My wife and I both use to go to a church where the pastors preached springboard style. That sort of preaching can often be very inspirational, but doesn’t “stick” well if you know what I mean, and doesn’t really conform a persons thinking to solid biblical truth in the long-haul. It’s like baby food.
(3) No need for apologies for “rambling on and on.” This is what comment threads are for. ☺
(4) I agree with much of Dever’s critiques of bad topical preaching. The “springboard sermon” is not paradigmatic for all topical preaching, but is especially found in non-Reformed churches.
(5) I agree with the maxim you make use of in your comments: “The abuse of a thing does not negate its proper use.”
(6) There is one thing I would like to point out about something you said. You said: “When I read ‘topical’ I (my fault) read into that a very different concept than what you may be arguing for,” but actually, I wasn’t arguing for anything. My post was simply a cut-and-paste from Brad Bigney’s arguments. (Perhaps you are confusing me with Brad, since my name is Bradley?)
(7) The only claim I actually made in my post was that after sitting under Brad’s preaching for several months, I am starting to thing some measure of topical preaching is a mark of a healthy church. Exactly what that “measure” is will be determined on different grounds depending on your assumptions. This is different than saying all preaching should be topical.
(8) With that said, in light of your comments, I would now like to make an argument and see whether you can refute it. It consists of two premises and a conclusion. The two premises are:
1) There is not one example in the Bible of anyone preaching through book-by-book (NOTE: if your definition of “exegetical/expositional” includes such a notion, then there is no example of “exegetical/expositional” preaching in the Bible).
2) The Bible alone must be our ultimate authority for answering the question: “How should Christian pastors preach?” (NOTE: This means the Bible should be sufficient for deciding this question).
My conclusion is this: Book-by-book preaching (no matter what you call it, exegetical, expositional, etc.) should probably not be a pastors dominate style of preaching since it is not “biblical.”
(9) I would like to know what you think of this argument. Try to find some examples of book-by-book preaching in the Bible if you think you can find them. You might also ask the question: What kind of preaching did Jesus do? What kind of preaching did the Apostles do?
(10) Ultimately, in evangelical circles, I expect questions about preaching method to revolve around biblical teaching and examples. After all, regardless of our appeals to “experience” (i.e. the experience of being a part of a congregation that grows more through this or that type of preaching, or has their growth stunted by this or that type of preaching) would seem to bear little weight compared to biblical teaching. If the Bible alone is our authority for church life, the best arguments for this or that style of preaching should come from the Bible right?
I look forward to more of your insightful comments.
With warmness of heart,
P.S. The numbers before each of my thoughts are for your convenience, as you might wish to refer to them by number. 🙂
Thanks for posting this. I was edified by reading it. I’m not a pastor, but I teach NT Greek to 10th-12th graders, Epistles to 11th graders, and Apologetics/ Ethics to 12th graders at a Christian high school. So I am necessarily teaching topically, and sometimes exegetically verse-by-verse. I thought the points in favor of topical preaching were well-made. Thank you.
I’m glad you still visit here! Glad you were edified by this post! Thanks for your perseverance in your labors with the minds of young people! I pray the Lord will give you clarity and power as you communicate.
Hey Brad! Sorry for the loooong delay in replying. The more I read your last post, other resources(Including some sermons on preaching paradigms, etc) and thought through the issues, it seems that actually (bit of embarrassment here, for me) we would agree more than disagree here. Here’s what I mean:
The bottom line for me is solid, grammatical-historical, sound exegesis, done consistently. As long as that is done, the approach to the preaching paradigm, doesn’t matter as much. So I concede, topical is fine, as long as the topic being preached is soundly supported by solid exegesis built upon trusted hermeneutics.
I have just seen the dangers of loosey-goosey(highly technical term, I know) topical preaching and the potential it can create to slip into completely culture-driven crowd pleasing that I’m gun shy of anything that smells topical, ya know? I need to take my own advice and follow what I was trying to argue for in this post: http://allthyngs.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/the-abuse-of-a-thing/
Grace to you, my brother in Christ. I hope you had a wonderful holiday season and are back into the grace filled routine of a new year.
Glad to finally hear back from you. It’s been a pleasure thinking through things with you. I think the bottom line concern is that people interpret scripture correctly, not sloppily (I just made up that word).
Grace back to you my brother, and I hope your days are filled with much grace.
Is this article a joke? This can’t be serious.
Why yes! It is! Or … at least, those who find it funny can take it that way if it amuses them.
Do you agree with this quote Bradley?
This is especially true when He talks about entering the kingdom of heaven. Yes, we do not enter the kingdom of God without works. But we do NOT enter the kingdom of God BECAUSE OF our works, either. Turretin describes it well when he says that our good works are necessary for salvation not in a causative sense, but in a resultative sense. They necessarily follow. So, they are necessary. But they do not cause our salvation. Neither does our love for God or neighbor. Our good works are the result of God’s sanctifying work inside of us. And, to give a glimpse of where I’m going in the next few posts: the passages that connect good works to the final judgment are evidentiary in nature, not causative. The world will want to know whether our faith is genuine. At that point, God will trot out our works and show the world that our faith was genuine, and that the verdict already rendered in our lifetimes is a true verdict. That’s what our works will do on Judgment Day.
I think you meant to post this comment on another thread? It is off topic for this post, which is about preaching style.
I would concede that exegetical preaching is unbiblical if you concede that Jews in the OT and NT knew the books largely by memory. Think about it, you can’t obey the law if you don’t know it. On the flip side, if your main means of teaching bible to a bible illiterate generation is topical, then you have a greater chance of promoting an emotional Joel Olsteen type response to a message as opposed to one in harmony with the bible. Isn’t it strange that abortion and divorce rates are nearly as frequent within the church as outside? What about gay marriage? Seriously, how did we get here with the most effective “topical preaching method” since it is the one most used.
If you have a church where people read their bibles cover to cover and memorize verses then I say you’re one of the lucky few and there may be value in topical preaching. Overall I would say remember the first words of Jesus teachings on many occasions “you have heard it said” and think of how that audience would have known. I would also challenge you to think of the confusion that topical preaching allowed on the issues of circumcision, sabbaths, feasts, etc… Remember that Paul had to clean up many messes because uneducated Christians did not know how Scripture affected them. The well educated Jewish nobodies had few problems in causing chaos for the new believers. The well educated philosophical liberals seem to have few problem throwing 20 year church goers into chaos these days. I wonder how?
Okay, I’m off my soap box…
Your welcome to stand on your soap box as long as you want here in my thread, and you are raising a variety of great questions (even if you intended them as rhetorical) that could be pursued all on their own merits.
In terms of the topic of my post (and the discussion here in the thread), however, I would say a few things: 1) Jews (and most if not all ethnicities) were mostly illiterate up to and long after the time of Jesus and the apostles, and only a small minority of the Jewish population would’ve been able to quote long portions of any written document,, 2) blaming all of what you see to be the church’s problems on topical preaching presumes a very specific cause and effect relationship that hasn’t been established, and doesn’t fit well with Scripture (since Jesus and the apostles taught topically, not exegetically). 3) If everybody in the Bible taught topically (including Jesus and the apostles) why would someone who believes the Bible is the standard of all truth and church practice want to say such a method is the cause of all sorts of sin problems in the church today? 4) Just because certain aspects of the law were popularized so that Jesus could say “You’ve heard it said…” doesn’t mean the common people didn’t acquire their knowledge of such things via topical “preaching” (although they wouldn’t have called it preaching back then). Finally, 5) don’t forget that when Paul was “cleaning up” messes, there was no such thing as the Christian Scripture, it was still being written, so the church was going off Old Testament teachings seen through the eyes of Apostolic Tradition.
It just seems like your making “topical preaching” (something Jesus did let’s not forgot) your scapegoat for the issues you are raising on your soap box without having any case for the cause-effect relationship other than your own bias for exegetical preaching (however piously that bias was acquired, and I do assume it was acquired in just such a way).
I don’t usually get in on this kind of thread but I have something to say regarding the point that there’s no biblical example for exegetical preaching and that Jesus didn’t do it. (disclaimer: I’m not a theologian and I also might have missed someone else commenting on this with their own thread.)
I believe one of the reasons primarily exegetical preaching is important to us Today is because we have the whole narrative. We can see what the Old Testament pictures and foreshadowing of things were pointing to because we now have the whole story, the New Testament, which was being lived and literally fleshed out and written during the time of Christ and the apostles. Jesus was speaking largely to people who knew their Torah, and He WAS the rest of the meta-narrative so exegetical preaching wouldn’t exist yet. Paul, Peter, Luke, John, they were writing the meta-narrative we now have so it wasn’t necessary (or existent) for them to preach in exegetical form either- they still had an oral history and personal gospel account of what had happened. We get the whole narrative, and we don’t have the apostles here, and we live in an different age, with different customs so knowing to who, and why, and what was written, and understanding the old testament in light of the new, and the new testament in how it’s supported by the old has a different and even new necessity then it would have had for the apostles and new Christians I wonder what it must have been like for the first Christians to be finding in the Old Testament these writings in such new light. Exegetical preaching is something birthed out of a new time and for good reason I believe. Just my two cents.
I will say though that I’m convicted by the portion about criticism and arrogance. As a proponent of exegetical preaching I tend to think it’s the best way and this article shed light on sinful pride, so thank you.
Thanks for taking the time to read the post. I appreciate your thoughts and I’m glad it helped you think through some things. Just so you know – I’m not even disputing that we can think of good reasons to preach exegetically. I used to be a proponent of them. For example, without exegetical preaching, the standards of interpreting a passage in light of its context can quickly degrade, resulting in eisegesis. Preaching through a particular book gives the listeners a better sense of how to approach the Bible as literature. Exegesis also helps the pastor to study the Bible more carefully, etc. I could go on.
However, while I recognize all these may be good reasons inasmuch as they spell out the benefits of the exegetical method and vulnerabilities of the topical method, there is still a problem if you adhere to classic interpretation of sola scriptura. All of these reasons are not biblical reasons, but practical advantages and extrabiblical arguments. My only argument is this: *If* we are supposed to base our church practices on Scripture alone as Protestants and not allow practical considerations and extrabiblical arguments to trump biblical ones, then when we turn to the Bible for guidance on how to preach, we get the topical method, not the exegetical method.
Your argument that times have changed, and therefore we should use exegetical preaching instead of the exclusive method of preaching used in the Bible is problematic for you inasmuch as the structure of the argument, if valid, would justify the abandonment of more than just topical preaching, but for anything for which we can find extrabiblical and practical arguments for abandoning, even if it’s “unbiblical” (i.e. not taught in Scripture or exemplified in Scripture). I don’t think most evangelicals who are pro-exegetical preaching would be the type of Christians comfortable setting such a precedent for determining which biblical examples to follow and which ones to abandon.
Hope that helps make more sense of what my argument is. If and only if our intention is to follow only what the Bible teaches and nothing that contradicts it do we end up with a problem for exegetical preaching as a church practice. If we take that criterion out of the picture and just ask (without reference to following whatever is in the Bible): What’s the best method for preaching? Perhaps then we could make a case for exegetical preaching. But the kind of Christians who promote exegetical preaching (usually conservative evangelicals) are usually wholly committed (at least in theory) to sola scriptura.
Many thanks for the article and the very interesting replies. This is a topic that has only become of interest to me lately and am encouraged by how the Lord uses you all to spur one other in finding scriptural foundations for the kind of preaching that would most edify His flock by pointing them to Jesus.
If I may be permitted with an observation though, it seems that the article tends to pigeon-hole “exegetical” preaching as being primarily preaching-through-the-Bible-verse-by-verse-chapter-by-chapter.”
Exegetical means to interpret by drawing out the meaning of the text, from the text itself. This is the opposite of reading a meaning into the text, from outside the text, which the inspired author did not mean for his audience to read into the text (eisegesis). Preaching then, whether it follows a “verse-by-verse-chapter-by-chapter” format or not, can still end up being either exegetical in its understanding and application of the text or eisegetical in its misunderstanding and misapplication of the text.
Exegetical preaching should first aim to find the meaning of the text, as closely to what the inspired writer of the text wanted it to mean to his original audience, in addressing their concerns at that particular time in redemptive history.
Because the inspired Word of God is true for all eternity, what was true for the writer and his original readers back then would still be true to us, today. Exegetical preaching then must impress upon today’s hearers the timelessness of God’s truths, by explaining how these truths still have very valid implications to us today as it did to its original recipients back then, even as we appreciate the vast differences in culture, language, idioms, values, situations, etc, between us today and them back then.
A passage cannot mean something to us today, that it did not mean to the original author and his recipient/s back then. To give a passage a meaning which its inspired author did not intend it to mean, is tantamount to misrepresenting the author. In the case of Holy Writ, misrepresenting the inspired human author is tantamount to misrepresenting the Divine author who inspired the human author to write to his original audience.
Exegetical preaching takes the passage, then exposits or explains the occasion for which the passage was written, the situation that the original audience was going through, the point that the inspired author of the passage wanted to convey, its significance in redemptive history and its inevitable implications for God’s flock today. Life transformation in the believer then becomes an inevitable result of faithfully studying God’s Word exegetically.
Did Jesus preach verse-by-verse-chapter-by-chapter? Probably not. We have no record in Holy Writ to support that he did.
Did Jesus preach exegetically? He most definitely did.
Almost every time Jesus preached or taught, he sought to correct the people’s misconceptions of what God announced through His prophets generations ago: misconceptions on the Kingdom of God, the coming Messiah, how to treat one’s enemies, who are one’s neighbors–misconceptions that most likely were all born out of centuries of eisegetical misinterpretation of the scriptures by rabbinical preaching that were far from exegetical.
Jesus countered the people’s misconceptions by preaching the true meaning of the ancient Jewish texts, as they should have been correctly interpreted. Jesus then is the Master Exegete even if he did not follow a “verse-by-verse-chapter-by-chapter” format.
Now, by pigeon-holing exegetical preaching as being primarily a verse-by-verse-chapter-by-chapter exercise, all we might be achieving is to present a straw man. Most exegetical preaching probably follow the verse-by-verse-and-chapter-by-chapter format, but this format does not and should not define what exegetical preaching is. Verse-by-verse-chapter-by-chapter preaching can be very helpful for the preacher and his congregation in gaining a much deeper appreciation for the inspired author’s original intention for addressing his original audiences, by helping place the verses in their proper literary context. But it is not what defines exegetical preaching.
Once we make clear that exegesis is all about drawing out eternal truth from canonical text, which the inspired author wrote to address his original audiences’ problems and concerns (and NOT about going through the Bible verse-by-verse-chapter-by-chapter), we can come to this amazing realization that the best TOPICAL sermons today are actually those that are the most exegetical. And that the “exegetical preaching vs topical preaching” debate may really just be a straw man bashing himself with a red herring.
Grace and peace.
Verse by verse is not necessarily exegesis. The point is: drawing out the true meaning of the scripture using proper hermeneutics, history and language in order to understand what is being said. If you teach topically you still must use exegesis. Nothing wrong with topical if it matches up with scripture. The Only way to know what scripture says is through exegesis.
[…] “You should be preaching expository sermons.” – This statement normally comes from someone who follows church trends and the current trend is expository preaching. If God has called you to or you have found topical preaching to be the most effective way to make the power of the gospel and the love of Jesus known in your culture, go for it and rest easy knowing that no one knows your situation better than you do. Click here for a great blog post on topical preaching. […]
I think you mean to say that if we examine the etymology of the Greek word from which this English word derives, we will find the meaning to have been rooted in a very broad notion of “drawing out” what’s in the text, but that’s not how the word is used today in certain Reformed circles. The important thing here is not what a word *should* mean, but how it’s being used to define a certain genre of preaching today, and trying to define that genre without it being indistinguishable from the “topical” preaching is often confused unless it’s defined as verse-by-verse, chapter-by-chapter, etc.
Brother Brad, thank you for your insightful note on line-by-line exegetical teaching. In addition to your scope, you said this,
“In-depth Greek or Hebrew word studies is not what changes lives. Understanding how to apply God’s Word practically in our everyday lives is what produces a love and passion for changing & growing.” That is a dichotomy, a one sandal on, one sandal off dilemma. In order for us to “…. apply God’s Word practically in our everyday lives,” we must have a Pragmatically clear view of what the 1st and 2nd century author said in his time, in his language, an under the Spirit actually, and emphatically, meant.
Assuming that 21st century Semantics will cover the Pragmatics of the 1st century is uniformed and misguided. Yes, brother, yes, sir, we need to take the words of Jesus and apply them as a blue print to our daily lives, but at the same time, we need to be absolutely certain that we are not ready the prints up-side-down. Brother, you show me a Christian who is all tied up in knots and I will show you a Christian who is reading the Blue Print up-side-down.
Today’s Christian can take a computer apart, upload a programme and even text their friend on Mars, but they are “offended” by the idea of learning the meaning of a handful of grammar terms so that they can stand over Matthew’s, or Mark’s, or Luke’s, or John’s and see what they actually wrote. Frankly brother, I know Christians who can tell me who hit the most home runs in 1933, but they don’t have a grasp of any grammatical terms, which is just a language that we use to communicate our understanding of the papyri, that are used to convey meaning.
Sir, why is it okay, and who set it up, that it is okay to learn the language of baseball, the language of football and soccer, and the language of cricket so that we can talk about who is the best hitter, forward, or “bowler,” but we cannot learn, and are not supposed to learn, the language of grammatical terms that a teacher might use to covey the meaning of what it is that we are going to apply?
Jesus came from Israel. That wasn’t a coincidence. Nor was it a coincidence which language God chose to communicate that story.
Brother, we are living in a world where it is perfectly normal for a Christian to watch sports for 10+ hours a week, but it is “the work of the devil” to spent 15 minutes a week on learning just the grammatical terms so that the church-goer can understand the power of what is actually being said?
[…] If you go to certain conservative seminaries these days, you’ll probably see a heavy emphasis on what’s called “expository” preaching. This is taught in contrast to “topical” preaching, which is often considered, implicitly or explicitly, inferior to and less God-honoring. Such criticisms have ruffled feathers of pastors who practice topical preaching, and some have shot back by calling expository preaching arrogant, disconnected, and sometimes even unbiblical. One such article is this one here that was written a few years ago. […]
“that’s not how the word is used today in certain Reformed circles. The important thing here is not what a word *should* mean, but how it’s being used to define a certain genre of preaching today” — Theo.philogue
Thank you for the reply and apologies for the late response.
From what you have written then, it is not true Exegetical preaching that is the problem, but the “genre” of preaching that has been mislabeled as “exegetical” in “certain Reformed circles,” characterized mainly by going through passages “verse-by-verse-chapter-by-chapter.”
If that is the case, shouldn’t we need to question how fair it is to claim that it is Exegetical Preaching that is Unbiblical, when in fact, we are referring to a totally different kind of preaching that isn’t necessarily Exegetical at all?
Wouldn’t it have been closer to the truth to have a headline saying, “Verse-by-Verse-Chapter-by-Chapter” Preaching is Unbiblical?”
Why must Exegetical preaching be wrongly accused of being unbiblical when the problem isn’t exegetical preaching at all, but the misuse of the term?
If “certain circles” use the term Exegetical Preaching incorrectly, then the solution isn’t to label Exegetical Preaching as unbiblical. Rather, the incorrect use of the term Exegetical Preaching should have been pointed out and differentiated from what “certain circles” erroneously refer to as Exegetical Preaching.
Again, verse-by-verse-chapter-by-chapter is not Exegetical preaching. Why should true exegetical preaching pay the price (accused of being unbiblical) because certain circles wrongly use the term?
Verse-by-verse-chapter-by-chapter preaching can be just as eisegetical than the worst topical sermons. At the same time, the best topical sermons are those that are the most exegetical.
It is a great encouragement to see the many other posts and replies to your article. May we all work together in helping brothers and sisters in “certain Reformed circles” see the light and help them realize that there is a big difference between true Exegetical Preaching and the many ways that preaching today can be eisegetical, such as in verse-by-verse-chapter-by-chapter preaching.
Thank you very much!
The problem is the same with many theological terms: there is no way to really enforce one definition of a term. Theology is notorious for having words that are very flexible in definition depending on the denomination or adopted theology of the pastor or theologian. Think of what varied uses the term “biblical” has, and when we say something is “biblical” what do we mean? If we try to explain it as “that which the Bible teaches” the meaning will still be ambiguous depending on the hermeneutical approach of the person explaining.
In this case, the problem is most easily resolved if you allow a word to have more than one use, and just clarify which meaning is being used or intended.
[…] Interesting article arguing that topical preaching better Biblically defended than exegetical. Not submitting to advocate but it’s an interesting read. https://theophilogue.com/2010/09/12/exegetical-preaching-is-unbiblical-topical-preaching-is-transformational/Link Submitted March 05, 2017 at 11:00PM by moby__dick […]
First of all, the primary point is in error. Jesus preached expositorily when he read from Isaiah in his home town of Nazareth. He re-used the Parable of the Vineyard from Isaiah 5 on multiple occasions. And He WAS the Word of God. It would be a matter of faith to say that anything Jesus said was, by definition, expository.
But, perhaps easier to argue, there’s a real problem in this argument of recognizing the dramatic difference in target audience. All of the sermons of Jesus, the sermons of Paul–except when he got to the Gentile cities–all of the preaching of the apostles (or as much as we can guess from the writings we have in scripture), were preached to people who had had the Bible read to them from childhood on a frequent basis at synagogue, and continued reading the Bible as adults. The common Jews were fluent in the Word of God already, setting a VERY different context for preaching than what we face in our ignorant and godless country today. Let’s add the fact that the Jews also had been worn out by rabbis who had berated them continually with traditional and legalistic treatments of scripture. Far different from people in the USA, the Scripture was foundational to the grassroots Jewish people educationally, socially and religiously. In the USA, for a time our people knew the Word. The McGuffey’s Readers prove that, as do our Founding Father quotations. But, now our whole nation is deeply ignorant of the Bible and most people give it no special place and have no reason to trust it. In Jesus’ time, it was certainly meaningful for Jesus to preach topically using the Isaiah 5 parable of the vineyard when everyone in the crowd not only already knows the parable, but what its original context intended, and being able to see the many ways Jesus changed that text on the different occasions he re-used it.
In America for more than 60 years, Bible reading has been going out of fashion, and it is clear that the topical preaching of the last five decades–the majority of preaching in the United States–has done a terrible job of grounding Christians. The Church is declining at a spectacular rate since the 1960s with all this topical preaching and lack of adult Bible classes. Paul clearly told Timothy, “until I come devote yourself to the public reading of scripture”. In Hosea 4:6 God says clearly through his prophet that his “people are destroyed from lack of knowledge (of His Word).” In John 12:44-46 Jesus warns that the people will in fact be judged by the Word. In Isaiah 55, God makes that wonderful and amazing description of the power and effectiveness of the Word of God:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12 “For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
The people of the United States are not like the Jews preached to by Jesus and the apostles and Paul when he was preaching in Palestine or to the Jewish synagogues of Europe and Asia Minor who already knew the whole Old Testament very well. Our nation has suffered a vanishing of the Word of God and the Church at large has been unfaithful, seldom providing places for adults to mature well in the Word or Bible teachers competent to mature a congregation. Our churches and people are now deeply ignorant of scripture and they show it in their mean spiritedness to one another and unconverted behaviors (see 1 Peter 2:1, sandwiched in between discussions of the importance of the Word in our lives). Multiple denominations now do not consider the Word authoritative in any meaningful way any more, because they’ve lost the experience of knowing it and learning to trust it. The people of the US need to be introduced to God and His Ways, and recovered from disaster all over again. Our preaching. should be that of Ezra, who did extensive expository preaching and was tasked with recovering a nation that once knew God and knows Him no more. As for Paul, he couldn’t very well do expository scripture to the Greeks who had no interest in the Hebrew Bible.
So, this argument for topical preaching misunderstands the audience context of Jesus and the apostles, and clearly does not recognize the rapid destruction of the church in the US under the effects of topical preaching in the vast majority of pulpits.Conversion is one thing–the making of babies–topical preaching will do that. But, if not left behind, it leaves the people perpetually immature spiritually. The apostle warns of the necessity of maturation in the Word when he writes:
11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5)
So, as Paul told Timothy, “until He comes”–a little license there–“devote yourself to the public reading of scripture!”
I stumbled upon this article, “ “Exegetical” Preaching is Unbiblical; Topical Preaching is Transformational” and after reading it, I can only come to one conclusion, heresy!!
To R Mark Colburn ; Thank you kind sir for speaking TRUTH!
I think it is honorable for you I defend topical preaching, but I also believe that you had an incorrect view of your arguments from 1 and 2, see Jesus WAS the word, he needed no words but his own, and as for the disciples, they are inside the canon of Scripture. Furthermore, we are told to preach the word, not our words but his. If we want to be held accountable to God’s words we must take our application from the word, not use a topic of our choosing, and apply scripture to it. I apologize to you and any that I may offend with my statements, to mend the fence I will say that topical sermons are useful at times, I just believe that exegetical ones do the job better. If the Gospel is being preached in a biblical way that doesn’t contradict the Bible then that’s fine. And I do understand that expository is a lot to take in at times but It gives you more than feeling, it gives sustenance so that we truly can feast on the word, but haughty people can get out of hand and misrepresent both sides.
In Christ with all sincerity -Jacob