Expository Preaching vs. Topical Preaching; What’s the Difference?


In this submission, Pastor Jared Helms compares expository preaching vs. topical preaching so you know the difference. Check out Jared’s YouTube channel and two blogs: A Light in the Darkness and Blind Faith Examples. Lord’s Library’s Ministry Leaders Series is a collection of contributed articles written by ministry leaders on key Christian topics.

Ministry Leaders Series BadgePreaching is the central act in weekly worship services. Biblically defined preaching is the proclamation of God’s Word by approved workman. The New Testament places an incredible emphasis on this act of preaching; it is important, and it is our concern. So, we ought to know something about it. As one wades into these waters, they are likely to encounter the term exposition, and the contrasting approaches of verse-by-verse exposition and topical preaching. Understanding the term helps us to view the methods; all of which will clear these waters for us.

Expository preaching is very simply preaching directly from the text, drawing out and expounding on its meaning. This is precisely what Paul tells Timothy to do in 2 Timothy 4:1-2:

“I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.”

The reason is given in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”

However, what we often have in mind when we speak of expositional preaching is verse-by-verse exposition, as opposed to topical preaching. These two methods lie at the center of controversy amidst a growing resurgence of verse-by-verse expositional preaching. Why? What is it really about? To answer those questions, we will need to compare expository preaching vs. topical preaching to learn the difference.

The Gospel

Expository Preaching vs. Topical Preaching

In verse-by-verse expositional preaching, the text determines the subject or subjects. Expositional preaching typically works through books of the Bible verse by verse, chapter by chapter. This approach keeps verses in their original context and makes it more difficult to skip-over passages. Paul admonishes preachers to preach the text, and we are given to understand he means all of it

However, where the verse-by-verse expositions of whole books is the sole method of preaching, it can be difficult to fully develop key doctrines, disciplines, and issues in the minds and hearts of a congregation. Another weakness of verse-by-verse exposition is that it may become tedious as a series can keep a church in a single book for years. It is also possible to become bogged down in dense passages and lose the momentum of a text.

An example of verse-by-verse exposition can be found here:

In topical preaching, the subject determines the text or texts. Topical preaching series typically revolve around a life issue, a specific doctrine, or spiritual discipline. The immediate applicability of topical messages and series, combined with a thorough survey of related biblical texts can be very helpful to believers trying to understand a particular issue. Where topical preaching is the exclusive method of preaching and teaching, there is a real danger of ignoring certain parts of scriptures, or failing to cover unpleasant topics: even when the preacher has the best of intentions.

An example of topical exposition can be found here:

Topical preaching sometimes gets a bad rap, as some who follow this method abuse the text, taking verses out of context, playing with the language, and generally forcing the text to say what they want to say. Sometimes, the scriptures are used only as a springboard to launch into other materials and ideas. These same abuses can be found in verse-by-verse series as well. The real opponent of exposition is preaching which is unfaithful to the original text.

So, why the apparent conflict over methods? Because, we are prone to oversimplify the issue, especially when trying to break away from the mistakes of the past. We like to make good preaching a matter easily discerned by noting if the series is verse-by-verse or topical, rather than listening and examining to see if the text is being exposited.

As we have seen both verse-by-verse and topical exposition have value in the lives of believers, and the greatest benefit is to be found in the responsible combination of both methods within an expository approach. If God’s Word remains the central driving force in shaping the sermons it is good preaching.

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Jared Helms
Jared Helms

Jared Helms

Jared received his Bachelor of Arts from Bryan College in 2012, and his Masters of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2017. He has pastored churches in Kentucky and Tennessee. Most importantly, Jared has walked with Christ most of his life. His interests extend from theology to church history, but he is particularly passionate about ecclesiology and homiletics.

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