John Wylie is a pastor in Oklahoma and a frequent commenter here.
There is an ongoing debate in the SBC and in fact, many evangelical circles concerning the the superiority of expository sermons over topical messages. There are a number of things to take into consideration, in my opinion, if one wants to have a productive discussion on this topic.
1.) It’s Important to have a cogent definition of the various classifications of sermons.
The reason I say this is because you can look in various texts on homiletics and each one will vary slightly in its definition of the classes of sermons. We used Braga’s book when I took homiletics in Bible college and quite frankly, his distinction between a textual sermon and an expository sermon always confused me. So we must agree on these definitions or else we can have no basis for a productive discussion. Since we are only discussing expository versus topical sermons we need only define these two classifications.
I’m not saying that we must follow my definitions for topical and expository, but I wanted to submit them for your correction. Who knows, I might actually get it right. As the old saying goes, even a blind hog still finds an acorn every now and then.
To me an expository message in its most basic meaning is a sermon that seeks to draw out the meaning of a particular passage in the Bible. Things like context, word definitions, tense, mood and voice are all brought to bear in order to get at the meaning and message of that particular text. We look at such things as authorial intent, the meaning to the intended audience, and then we extract an application for us today. In expository sermons all points are derived from the text in question, but at least in my mind cross references do not disqualify a sermon from being considered expository.
A topical sermon is a homily that follows a specific topic through the scriptures. Sometimes the topic is extracted from a single verse or passage, and sometimes it is chain referenced throughout the Bible. In such a sermon the key concern is more about addressing the topic than it is about exhaustively explaining the verse or passage.
2) It’s important to take a look at sermons recorded in the Bible as at least for some sort of model.
What types of sermons do we find preached in the scriptures? What bearing does this have on preaching today? How does preaching today differ from preaching in the Bible? These are all valid and essential questions in getting to the bottom of a discussion on this. I will not answer all these question in this article, but we can discuss this in the comment section.
I personally see topical and expository teaching/preaching in the Bible. It appears that Ezra and the Levites taught in at least semi-expository manner in Nehemiah 8. But then, all the sermons of the book of Acts were topical flowing narratives. Our Lord’s sermons were in category all their own because in some instances new precepts were being introduced that had not been broached before.
3) It’s important to recognize that there legitimate differences of opinion on this matter.
If you engage in this debate in order to win an argument this will be a waste of time. It is my opinion that both types of messages have their place and neither one should be exclusively used. I think that there are inherent strengths and weaknesses to both expository and topical sermons. We can debate the merits of each others arguments, but what we must not do is marginalize one another.