At first glance, it might seem that textual preaching ought to be the same as expository preaching. Both involve the faithful opening up and application of the biblical text.
So, when Clarence S. Roddy writes that…
‘a textual sermon is one in which both the topic and divisions of development are derived from and follow the order of the text … the text controls and dominates both topic and development in this type.’
…his definition would apply equally well to the expository sermon.
So also, when R.L. Dabney found fault with pastors who…
‘confine themselves, according to our unfortunate fashion, to texts of a single sentence, instead of explaining the Scriptures in their connection; where they wrest or accommodate the meaning to cover their human speculations; where they employ a fragment of the Word as a mere motto’ (Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric, p75)
…he was distancing himself from much that does actually pass for textual preaching, both in his day and ours.
In practice, then, there are often importance differences between what we call ‘expository preaching’ and what we call ‘textual preaching’. The most obvious difference is that a textual sermon is generally based on a short section of Scripture (often just a single verse), whereas an expository sermon is usually based on a longer section (a paragraph or more). Another significant contrast is that in expository preaching the text – short or long – is dealt with in its original context, whereas in textual preaching the biblical context is given little or no prominence. Another way of looking at the difference is to say that in expository preaching the preacher looks into the text to see, understand, explain and apply what is there, whereas in textual preaching he uses a fragment of Scripture as a starting point for thoughts which may or may not be themselves scriptural, but which are not derived from the text itself.
Dabney (p77) maintains that it is often appropriate for the preacher to take as his text a single verse or proposition of Scripture. This should still be ‘a true exposition, an evolution of the meaning of God in that sentence, with constant and faithful reference to its context.’ Such texts may be ‘capital texts’, setting forth fundamental doctrines such as original sin, justification by faith, the divinity of Jesus Christ, and so on. Or they may be ‘epitome texts’, which sum up the entire argument of a section of Scripture, or the meaning of a parable.
Al Fasol regards the difference in the length of Scripture passage as fairly arbitrary and trivial. He seems to be saying that a good textual sermon is really an expository sermon in disguise. But, again, the contrasts are often profound in practice.
Truth is, a unit of thought is not a sentence, or a single verse, but a paragraph. If a preacher’s text is a single verse, then he will be pulled towards using it as a motto, devoid of context. And the more he approaches his preaching task in this way, the more he will fall into this habit.
At best (e.g. in the hands of a Puritan, or of a Simeon, a Ryle, or a Spurgeon) a textual sermon will faithfully preach biblical truth.
At worst, a textual sermon will use the text merely as a peg upon which to hang the preacher’s own thoughts.
In both cases, the text is used as a starting-point, rather than as a focus.
Broadus cites the following as an example of an outline of a textual sermon:
Acts 9:4 (KJV): “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”
- It is the general character of unconverted men to be of a persecuting spirit.
- Christ has His eye upon persecutors.
- The injury done to Christ’s people, Christ considers as done to Himself.
- The calls of Christ are particular.
Broadus observed that this was a rather loose structure.
A further example given by Broadus:
Galatians 5:6: What it is that in Christ Jesus avails?
- Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision.
- But (a) faith, (b) which worketh, (c) by love.
In The Theory of Preaching (1881) Austin Phelps distinguished between the topical, the textual, the expository, and the inferential, sermon. He illustrated how each of these might be used to preach from Phil 2:12f – ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.’
A topical sermon might deduce from the text (a) ‘The Sovereignty of God in the Work of Salvation’, or (b) ‘The Activity of Man in Regeneration’, or (c) ‘the Duty of Earnestness in Seeking Salvation’. In a topical sermon, any of these might be developed without further use of the text itself.
A textual sermon might follow the following line of thought:
- The duty enjoined in the text, “Work out salvation;”
- The individual responsibility for the soul’s salvation implied in the text, “Work out your own salvation;”
- The spirit with which salvation should be sought, “With fear and trembling;”
- The dependence of effort to be saved upon the power of God, “It is God which worketh in you;”
- Dependence upon God for salvation is the great encouragement to effort for salvation, “Work, for it is God which worketh in you.”
An expository sermon might explain the text, by enquiring:
- In what sense is a sinner commanded to achieve his own salvation?
- What is the spirit of fear and trembling in the work of salvation?
- In what sense does the text affirm God to be the author of salvation?
- What connection does the text affirm between the earnestness of the sinner and the agency of God?
An inferential sermon might take the process of exegesis more or less for granted, and move swiftly on to a series of inferences drawn from the text:
- That salvation is a pressing necessity to every man.
- That every man is responsible for his own salvation.
- That every man who is saved does in fact achieve his own salvation.
- That dependence upon God is a help, not a hindrance, to salvation.
- The guilt of trifling with religious convictions.
- the unreasonableness of waiting in impenitence for the interposition of God.
- The uselessness of lukewarm exertions to secure salvation.
- The certainty that every man who is in earnest to be saved will be saved.
Returning to the theme of textual sermons, Blackwood cites F.W. Robertson as a fine example:
‘When he dealt with Matt 5:48, “Be ye therefore perfect” he would bring out two aspects of the subject.… “The Christian Aim—Perfection,” and “The Christian Nature—because it is right and Godlike to be perfect.” When he started with John 8:32 “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free,” he dealt first with “The Truth That Liberates,” and then with “The Liberty That Truth Gives.”’
Blackwood also cites the approach of William P. Merrill:
The Practical Value of Religion
- ‘They shall mount up … as eagles’—strength for keeping up ideals;
- ‘They shall run and not be weary’—strength for meeting crises; and
- ‘They shall walk and not faint’—strength for the daily routine.”
Ryken states that ‘expository preaching is not so much a method as it is a mind-set.’ I should like, therefore, to distinguish between what I might call the ‘textual mind’ and the ‘expository mind’. It seems to me that Merrill has approached his sermon very much with a ‘textual mind’, for which the principle question is, ‘What help does this text offer for people today?’ An ‘expository mind’ asks, first of all, ‘What is the meaning of this passage of Scripture in its original context?’ and then seeks to build from this foundation an edifice useful to contemporary life.
Because the ‘textual mind’ treats Bible verses as it they were mottoes, it follows that there is a limited number of texts that can be preached in this way. Someone has suggested there might be as few as a hundred (although a pulpit genius like Spurgeon could find many more).
Mention of Spurgeon prompts me to say that in some of his sermons he has been accused of ‘textual vivisection’. Here is Spurgeon’s outline of a sermon on Mk 10:45:
- “The Son of Man”—humanity;
- “came”—antecedent existence;
- “Not to be ministered unto”—vicarious life;
- “But to minister, and to give his life a ransom”—vicarious death;
- “For many”—amplitude.
Such preaching (declared Ilion T. Jones) ‘consists of taking passages apart rather than expounding them’. I would add that any faithful exposition of that text ought to take good account of the context and of the primary purpose of our Lord’s saying (to teach his disciples servant-mindedness).
Is there no place at all for textual preaching? If ‘all Scripture is God-breathed, and useful…’ we dare not exclude any part of it from our public ministry. And I would say that a biblical proverb or aphorism could (and possibly should) be preached in this way. But there is a danger that the preacher with a fertile mind will see more in an isolated verse than is really there, and take the text in directions not suggested, let alone intended, originally. (For an example of this, see Spurgeon’s sermon on Job 6:6 – ‘Can what is unsavoury be eaten without salt? or is there any taste in the white of an egg?’; noting that after just two paragraphs the great preacher says, ‘We may now forget the much-tortured patriarch Job…’). Even more remarkable is the same preacher’s sermon on 1 Sam 12:17 (“Is it not wheat harvest to-day?”), which begins with the words, “I shall not notice the connection; but I shall simply take these words as a motto.” Spurgeon’s textual approach is somewhat mitigated by his practice of including expositions of biblical passages during services. We are left wondering, however, why it did not seem occur to him to combine the two approaches (expository and textual) into a single message.
Based largely on Al Fasol, ‘Textual Preaching’ in Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, ed. Michael Duduit, Broadman Press, 1992). I ought to say that my main focus differs from that of Fasol: his intention is to show that textual preaching does not differ very much from expository preaching. I have tried to show that, although there may be overlap, the way the biblical text is used is very different in these two forms of preaching.