How Shall We Then Preach?

If you think the subject of “preaching” is for preachers only, you would be mistaken. With the reformation taking place in American churches today, there has been a new emphasis upon expository preaching. Many “laymen” now consider expositional preaching one of the marks of a healthy church, and those who have been exposed to it are often reluctant to return to topical preaching again.

Not surprisingly, this has raised something of a backlash from those who prefer topical preaching, and thus in some places, we’ve added “preaching wars” to “music wars”—which raises the question, is expository preaching a necessity, or only a preference? Does the reformation of our churches require it, or can Biblical Christianity thrive under topical as well as expository preaching?

Like many issues, this is more complex than it first seems, and deserves more than a surface treatment.

More than thirty years ago, I was invited to a preachers’ conference sponsored by my alma mater, with forty men, fellow-alumni, who were all under the age of forty. The meeting included a round table discussion among the attendees who were considered to be potential future leaders of Biblical Fundamentalism.

One of the questions was, “What is needed to strengthen the cause of Fundamentalism today?” When it was my turn, I said, “I think we need more expository preaching.” You could have heard a pin drop. Then, several of the most outspoken expressed strong disagreement. Privately, two or three whispered concurrence, but it was clear that expository preaching was a controversial subject, almost a taboo in the 1980’s.

“That’s not the kind of preaching we heard growing up, nor the kind we do, and we’re not about to change,” seemed to be the prevailing attitude. I am happy to report that this sentiment has now completely changed, so much so, that expository preaching is virtually a given with most of the alumni of that same school today, at least among those who are under the age of fifty. Thirty years can make a huge difference.

But, is expository preaching necessary, or is this new emphasis something of an over-reaction to weaknesses of the past? Unquestionably, Fundamentalism has been largely dominated by topical preaching during most of its more than one hundred year history. Here and there you will find exceptions, but the prevailing style was topical, and that seemed to work just fine, if success is calculated by numbers.

Furthermore, when we examine other periods of Christian history, including times of great renewal, we often find topical preaching widely represented. It is incontrovertible that God often anointed topical preachers in the past. Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers of all times, was not an expository preacher. He wasn’t exactly a topical preacher either. Some have labeled his style “textual.” Be that as it may, Spurgeon was more of an evangelist than a pastor-teacher, but who can deny his amazing influence and spiritual power, not to mention the enormous church built under his preaching. Other examples could be cited.

Therefore, it is unwise to insist that expository preaching is the only method God blesses. Obviously, that is not true. Human history records continual shifts in custom and style, and the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward expository preaching after a period of neglect among Bible believing Christians. The Protestant Reformation, undoubtedly the greatest revival in history, was accompanied by a renewed emphasis upon expository preaching, and those who long for a new reformation today often conclude that expository preaching will accompany such a renewal, if God is gracious to grant revival once again.

You can count me as one who strongly favors expository preaching, and though there are many reasons for this, space allows me to address only one at this time. I believe the dearth of Bible knowledge in America today requires a return to expository preaching.

America has enjoyed a strong Christian heritage in the past, and in a former era, when the basic contents of the Bible were widely known by many Americans, topical preaching was an effective option. Moving around the Bible in a topical fashion was suitable because most hearers knew the basic contents of their Bibles. This is no longer the case, as numerous polls make painfully clear. It is impossible to understand what the Bible means until first we know what it says.

Expository preaching, properly done, best communicates both the contents as well as the meaning of Scripture. Although it is possible for topical preaching to accomplish this as well, observation demonstrates that it fails more often than it succeeds. It is true that good topical sermons are better than poor expository ones. But all things being equal, and especially when one particular preacher endeavors to choose between these two styles, I am convinced that his church will be more beneficially helped if he learns to deliver good expository sermons. Good exposition will surpass good topical preaching most of the time. That’s an opinion, I know, but one formed over the course of fifty-five years of listening to and analyzing sermons, and I am stronger in this opinion today than I was forty years ago.

However, in debating the merits of competing methodologies, we must not lose sight of the primary task, which is to preach God’s Word. Any manner in which that is done is beneficial to men and can anticipate the blessing of God. God uses a variety of personalities and styles in preaching. No two men are the same, and no two preaching styles are identical. Even among expository preachers, no two are exactly alike. Each has his own way of studying, organizing, and delivering sermons. Where the Word of God is truly proclaimed, the Spirit of God can be expected to work. We cannot require a particular method since the Bible does not define any specific preaching style. The preacher’s task is to understand what God has spoken, and deliver God’s Word to his hearers. When that is done, God is honored and human hearers will be blessed.

Greg Barkman 2018 bio


G. N. Barkman received his BA and MA from BJU and later founded Beacon Baptist Church in Burlington, NC where has pastored since 1973. In addition, Pastor Barkman airs the Beacon Broadcast on twenty radio stations. He and his wife, Marti, have been blessed with four daughters and are expecting their ninth grandchild.

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josh p's picture

Thank you for this. As you point out, no two expositors are exactly the same. The pastor at my last church was probably the best preacher I have consistently heard. I learned an enormous amount from him. My current pastor is also expositional but his style is way different. I think I am more spiritually challenged under his preaching. Both men are saying what the text says but in their own way. To take two examples familiar to fundamentalists, Dave Doran and Mark Minnick are both expositional but have different approaches. To me, Minnick spells it out very plainly while Doran teaches the meaning of the passage without necessarily explaining every exegetical decision. Personally I think I prefer the latter. Whatever the case, praise the Lord for the current emphasis on expository preaching. 

Aaron Blumer's picture

There doesn't seem to be a really strong consensus on what the definition of "expository preaching" is... Or, at least, it's fair to say that there's quite a bit of variation as to where the lines are between expository and not expository.

Everybody agrees that guys who go through texts verse by verse are engaging in exposition, but not all agree that what they are doing is preaching.

For my part, I'd put CH Spurgeon in the category of expository preaching, because what it's all about is legitimately deriving your message from a properly interpreted text or texts. So my definition is pretty broad.

Whether "expository preaching" is the right word for it or not, preaching should always be legitimately derived from a properly interpreted text or texts...   for so many reasons.

But can this be done topically? Certainly. All systematic theology is deriving propositions from multiple texts. And if you're going to teach a congregation any kind of systematic understanding of the Scriptures, you'll have to do some "topical" preaching.

The key is to base it all on properly interpreted texts. It's true that the topical message has a certain gravity toward certain kinds of abuse of Scripture (and abuse of audiences!). But preachers can be trained to recognize and compensate for these temptations.

A genuinely high view of Scripture -- and a clear understanding of the implications of that high view -- is the key. When that has really sunk in, you don't play fast and loose with isolated verses in order to rant on your pet peeves. You always rely on exposition, regardless of how the message delivery is structured.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Excellent analysis, Aaron.  I totally agree.

G. N. Barkman

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