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In Defense of Topical Preaching

There is one type of preaching that pleases God: biblical preaching. Biblical preaching can be done through various sermon methods such as textual, expository, and topical. Expository preaching is a helpful way to preach where one takes the text of scripture and develops the sermon based on the way the verses are outlined. It involves digging into the words, syntax, meaning, and overall context and structure of the book as the sermon is written and preached. 

There has been an overall resurgence of expository preaching in recent years, which is a good thing. Some have even heralded it as “the way” preaching is to be done. Expository preaching is helpful at getting preachers in the book and helps members to see how the Bible is to be read, studied, and applied. Expository preaching has its place and should be in every preacher’s toolbox, but this article is being written to say we should not completely discard other methods, namely topical preaching. 

All preaching should be expositional in the sense that texts should be unpacked and discussed without making them mean things they never did or were never intended to communicate. Yet, there is something to be said about the value and place of topical preaching in a preacher’s toolbox and in the local church. Here are a few things to consider about topical preaching and why it is still needed, valuable, and biblical. 

Jesus and the Apostles Taught Topically

Jesus, in his sermon on the mount (Matt. 5-7), and throughout his earthly ministry, preached biblically saturated sermons. He was often unpacking the Old Testament and teaching his audiences how to faithfully read the Hebrew Bible the way God always intended. However, as you read Jesus’ sermons it is interesting to see that he was often topically driven in his preaching method. For example, the sermon on the mount focuses on righteousness and the kingdom of heaven as Jesus uses the ten commandments of Exodus 20 along with other passages throughout the Torah to make his points. Jesus’ favorite way to teach seems to have been topical. 

When you turn to the book of Acts, the apostles learned well from their Master. The first sermon in Acts 2 quotes from Joel, Psalms, and alludes to passages in Daniel and elsewhere in the Old Testament; Peter’s sermon was topical (Acts 2:17-36). It is interesting that Peter saw no need to go back and explain in exhaustive detail every passage he referenced or give a summary of the Old Testament book before he quoted or referenced the passage. 

He does the same thing in his second sermon in Acts 3:12-26. He quotes from Deuteronomy and Genesis. Stephen provides an overview of the Old Testament and God’s people failing to properly receive God-approved messengers as he quotes from Genesis, Isaiah, Exodus, Genesis, and Deuteronomy (Acts 7:2-53). 

Someone may say, “this was only done because they were preaching to Jews who knew the Bible well.” That may be true, but we need to know the Bible equally well today and this does not explain why Paul did the same thing in Gentile areas when he preached (Acts 13:16-47). It becomes apparent when you read books like Romans and Hebrews that the Holy Spirit approves of Paul and others using the Old Testament topically without doing harm to the original context or proof-texting their way to the truth. 

 Why Topical Preaching is Necessary

As much as I love and see the value in marching through a book verse-by-verse there are some things that topical preaching accomplishes in ways that book-by-book exposition may not. Certain topics like the nature/character of God, the Holy Spirit, Christian worship, and other topics need to be preached on and discussed, but the truth on these topics is not located in any one book. There is no one passage that addresses all these issues and yet they need to be tackled. 

Topical preaching allows preachers to wisely address things in our current cultural moment by looking at the Old and New Testament and gathering the inspired principles that may address social media use, depression/anxiety, and other issues that God has fully equipped us to tackle with the scriptures that fully equip us (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Topical preaching provides healthy variety in the pulpit and may keep one from getting bogged down in Leviticus or Luke for two years. The whole counsel of God must be preached, and topical preaching serves as a helpful way to do so (Acts 20:26-27). 

Answering Objections

Here are some objections sometimes against topical preaching that are worth answering:

“If we don’t preach expository sermons members won’t learn the Bible.”

The pulpit is one avenue of instruction but not the only avenue. Most congregations take an expositional approach to Bible class and walk verse-by-verse through books of the Bible. Members can and should hear expository sermons regularly, but if one is worried that members will not learn entire books all the way through in their context with occasional topical preaching, one should consider the value of Bible classes and how they can often fulfill this need. 

Also, Christians should be studying and reading their Bibles throughout the week. In personal reading and study, Christians should be getting the overall context of scripture down pat. Preaching serves a unique purpose as public heralding, but isn’t necessarily designed to be a running lecture that unpacks every detail of every passage/book of scripture. There were some things Jesus’ disciples had to ask him privately that were not explained in public preaching (Matt. 24:3; Mark 4:10).

“Expository preaching can lead to one preaching their opinions instead of the text.”

This is true, but just because something can be done badly doesn’t mean it should not be done at all. Again, topical preaching is the favorite and main way preaching is done in the book of Acts. While we are not inspired apostles, if we are going to follow their pattern in Christianity there is something to be said for the way they went about their preaching. 

“People in the first century would not have heard sermons with countless cross-references because many times they only had the one book written to them and delivered to their congregation.” 

This is a claim often made by many, but not necessarily backed up by scripture. The New Testament shows pretty early on that books were written, copied, and circulated among congregations (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; Rev. 2-3). We should not assume that congregations never got the other books in the New Testament or knew nothing of other passages, not to mention the Old Testament.

The letters in the New Testament were in circulation from the time they were written, and churches would have been made aware of other teachings from the apostles through them and inspired preachers in the early church. Paul’s letters seem to be known to churches Peter wrote to earlier and were making their way around the Roman Empire in the first century (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16). 

“Expository preaching lets God set the agenda, but topical preaching involves the preacher setting the agenda.”

There is a subjective element to all preaching in that the one preaching decides which text will be preached. As long as one faithfully explains the text and does not misapply the passage, God is setting the agenda. Expository preaching and other methods can be abused just as topical preaching can be. 

A Warning About Topical Preaching

This article was written to encourage preachers to think about preaching topically if you haven’t done so in a while, but we should be careful. Be sure to diversify your topical preaching with other methods. All the methods of preaching are helpful and no one method should be championed above the others. Be a regular and thorough Bible reader from Genesis to Revelation so that when you are citing verses you can be familiar with the book and original context of the passage, even if you are not going to explain it in your sermon. 

Realize that human reasoning has limits and be careful not to allow your opinion of a topic to become synonymous with God’s authoritative word. All the topical preaching in the Bible always ended up pointing to Jesus because he is the focus of the scriptures (Luke 24:44; John 5:39)! Be sure not to simply offer people life hacks or a running commentary but introduce them to the one their heart is looking for even if they don’t know it yet. Make sure Jesus is the hero of the sermon and not your helpful how-to tips. Topical preaching can be helpful, but like all preaching it should be done carefully, humbly, and in balance with other approaches. 

Whatever your preferred method of preaching, be sure to preach the word (2 Timothy 4:2)!

Hiram Kemp

Hiram is a graduate of the Florida School of Preaching, Freed-Hardeman University, and is working on his Ph.D. from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He currently serves as one of the ministers at the Lehman Avenue church of Christ in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He and his wife Brittani have two children, Nadia and Andre.

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