Home > C. H. Spurgeon, hermeneutics, S. Lewis Johnson > Spurgeon and Textual Preaching

Spurgeon and Textual Preaching

December 28, 2011

I’ve recently learned (the terms at least) of the three styles of preaching:  expository, topical, and textual.  Expository is generally preferred for the “verse-by-verse” teaching through Bible books, exemplified by many preachers such as John MacArthur, Martyn-Lloyd Jones, and S. Lewis Johnson.  Topical preaching at its best, done by good preachers who generally do expository teaching, selects a topic and preaches from various passages that relate to the topic.  S. Lewis Johnson did several topical series including one about the leading figures at Golgotha, or the topic “Death and Afterwards.” 

Topical preaching is also common fare at a lot of evangelical-lite churches:  pick a topic such as “marriage and relationships” or “parenting” or some other perceived need of the congregation, and pick various passages to preach from that relate to that topic.  As noted, though, it can be done effectively, though certainly it should not be the primary preaching style, since such a method by its very design would skip some parts of the Bible in favor of other “more relevant” parts.

A third preaching style is called “textual preaching,” exemplified by Charles Spurgeon as well as W.A. Criswell:  preaching on a very short text of just one verse, or even part of a verse.  Having read Spurgeon sermons regularly for almost three years now, I was familiar with the style, though I didn’t know the term for it. Phil Johnson had noted that Spurgeon was NOT an expository preacher, commenting on a few cases where Spurgeon took a phrase of a verse and veered off elsewhere with it, to come up with ideas completely unrelated to the text itself.  I’ve observed that as well in my Spurgeon readings:  Spurgeon’s sermon on a given verse does not necessarily relate to the actual event or context of that verse, the manner in which it would be taught by an expository preacher.

S. Lewis Johnson, in his “Messianic Prophecies in Isaiah” series, mentioned textual preaching when he came to Isaiah 55, a passage great for textual preaching:

In fact, if I were a textual preacher — and there is nothing wrong with being a textual preacher if you are preaching the text of the word of God; I don’t think it’s the best way to do it, but it is at least preaching the word of God —  this would be one of my most used chapters.

Johnson went on to note that Spurgeon’s “Treasury of the Old Testament” (a collection of sermons) included six sermons from Isaiah 55.  Looking at the full Internet Spurgeon collection at Spurgeongems.org, I counted 16 sermons from Spurgeon on Isaiah 55.

This article from GotQuestions.org highlights the differences the three preaching styles.  I agree with its observation that “While exposition is not the only valid mode of preaching, it is the best for teaching the plain sense of the Bible.” Also, “in a textual sermon, the preacher uses a particular text to make a point without examining the original intent of that text. For example, someone could use Isaiah 66:7-13 to preach on motherhood, although motherhood is only peripheral in that text, being merely an illustration of the true theme, which is the restoration of Israel during the Millennial Kingdom.”

The differences in these preaching styles also relates to the differences in peoples’ approach to Bible reading.  Consider the following words reportedly from Spurgeon (though not contained in any of his sermons):  “Some people like to read so many chapters every day. I would not dissuade them from the practice, but I would rather lay my soul asoak in half a dozen verses all day than I would, as it were, rinse my hand in several chapters.”

Such an idea is indeed antithetical to the whole idea of expository preaching: to understand the plain sense of the Bible, by reading it all rather than just picking a few verses here and there “without examining the original intent of the text.”  Certainly, though, in our Bible reading we should strive to pay attention to what we read instead of just looking at the end goal of getting through so many pages or so many chapters.  I’ve noticed that very thing in my own Bible reading, that I can be reading the words on the page while thinking about something completely different, thinking about some recent incident or conversation with my online FB friends, for instance.  S. Lewis Johnson, in 1993 (during his Hebrews series) made it a point to read through the Bible during the year (sequentially from beginning to end), and accomplished his goal of three times through by mid-November.  At the end of that he too noted the wandering tendency, that he would often have to stop and go back and re-read, making extra effort to pay close attention to it.

  1. December 29, 2011 at 12:04 am

    Wow thank you for that gem of S. Lewis Johnson preaching through Messianic text in Isaiah! I also appreciated this discussion! I prefer Expository preaching in my own ministry and my own listening preferences, and after that would be topical. I haven’t been too favorable to “Textual” preaching.

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