Expository, Thematic, or Topical Preaching: Yes!

The labels “expository preaching” and “topical preaching” are often used to contrast two different ways of preaching.  For example, sometimes people are so adamant about expository preaching that they make strong statements against all other preaching.  I, on the other hand, agree with Greg Scharf that these terms aren’t overly helpful.  Here a few things he says about the taxonomy of different kinds/types of sermons:

“The titles themselves, including ‘topical’ and ‘expository’, have become, on the one hand, epithets of derision, and on the other, badges of honor.  Instead of helping preachers know what to do when deciding how much text to preach, they have become fortresses behind which lazy preachers hide or toward which others fire their missiles.  They have become associated with various preachers, as if each of us should unthinkingly embrace the method of one or another popular preacher.”

“…These titles have become caricatures.  The result is that some preachers wrongly despise topical or thematic sermons that are in fact thoroughly biblical and pastorally helpful.  Others criticize so-called ‘expository sermons’ that those of us who aspire to expound Scripture would also find equally – or perhaps more – inadequate as sermons.  That is, they take such sermons as typical of this category of sermon and vilify the whole group on the basis of the shortcomings of sermons they put in that category.”

Scharf goes on to echo John Stott’s point that all biblical preaching should be expository.  However, this doesn’t mean “expository-and-not-topical-or-thematic.”  By “expository” Scharf means “bringing out what is there, as opposed to ‘impository,’ imposing our ideas, presuppositions, and biases on the text.”

Expository sermons can be thematical, topical, or more of an explanation of a single section of Scripture (we might call this a “sectional” way to preach; it is preaching on a section of Scripture).

Citing Walter Liefeld, Scharf lists what expository preaching is not:

  1. Expository preaching is not verse-by-verse exegesis.

  2. Expository preaching is not simply a running commentary.

  3. Expository preaching is not a captioned survey of a passage.

In other words, good, biblical preaching expounds (or exposes) the truth of Scripture in a thematic, topical, or sectional manner.  We shouldn’t think in terms that exclude these different kinds of preaching.  A topical sermon can be solid and biblical; so can a thematic one or sectional one.

I’ll come back to this helpful book on preaching later: Let The Earth Hear His Voice by Greg Scharf (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2015). The above quotes came from chapter 5 of this book.

Shane Lems