Jonathan Leeman and I interact with a recent blog post titled “Maybe I Do Want Topical Preaching.” Jonathan is editorial director for 9Marks Ministries and author of several books, including Reverberation: How God’s Word Brings Light, Freedom, and Action to His People. A transcript of our interaction is below.
Trevin Wax: One of the things that I often say in reference to The Gospel Project is that we don’t want to short-circuit the power of the biblical text by rushing to application. We don’t want to rush to application and miss the Bible’s teaching in a number of areas. But sometimes in churches that prize expository preaching, we pull the pendulum back to where we don’t make good application.
You wrote a blog post a few months ago called “Maybe I Do Want Topical Preaching.” Explain what motivated you to put that together.
Jonathan Leeman: The title of the blog post was tongue in cheek. Ultimately, I affirm expositional preaching in which the point of the biblical text is the point of the sermon. I wrote a whole book about the fact that the power of change, the power of death to life, blindness to sight, is through God’s Word re-revealed. So there is nothing in my intelligence or creativity or new, interesting ideas that are going to bring life to the dead. The power of God’s Word alone is what gives life.
So people who have that conviction will often go in and do a good job of exegesis and may even draw some doctrinal conclusions, but they won’t do as good of a job in applying it to the lives of people. And what I was trying to communicate in that post is the advantage of topical preaching as it’s conceived by many people: it finds where people are at and meets them there. And what I’m trying to say is you need to do the work as a preacher to get where they’re at so that, as I’m preaching through books of the Bible, over time, I should get to all of those same topics of people’s lives that topical preaching is going to get to and more because the Bible’s going to draw us to even more.
Trevin Wax: So what do you say to the person who says, “I just present what the Bible says and I don’t need to worry about applying it because that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. The Holy Spirit’s going to apply this in a variety of ways. I couldn’t possibly think of all the ways to apply this text within the congregation. So why should I even try to do what is the Spirit’s work, to apply this to hearts and lives”?
Jonathan Leeman: On the one hand, that is absolutely right. Your instinct that it’s the Holy Spirit who finally does this work through the Word is absolutely correct. He’s going to apply it in all sorts of ways that you can’t predict. That’s awesome. Keep preaching that way.
On the other hand, you’re depriving people of the wisdom God has given you to show them how the text can work itself out into different areas of people’s lives.
So take some truth like Jesus is Lord. There’s a biblical truth, right? I can expound that. Applying that means: What does that mean to you as a doctor or lawyer or struggling at-home mother? What does that mean to you as a retiree? What does that mean to you who struggle with licentiousness or you who struggle with legalism? What does Jesus, as Lord, mean to you in those different domains?
It’s biblical wisdom that helps Christians, as pastors shepherd them along, to know what this text means in all those different areas. So to the preacher who says that, I’m going to say yes. I appreciate your convictions, but you’re depriving your people in helping them see how this works through the different areas of their lives.
Trevin Wax: Do you think it’s also depriving people of the opportunity to make those connections in their own mind and heart? Let’s say you’re taking a doctrine like Jesus is Lord and you want to apply this to the workplace. And you do it in a very specific way that might not be applicable to everybody there, but sometimes just doing that, being that specific, will trigger these thoughts in the minds of people and the Spirit uses that to then make them think: Well, that’s not my situation, but in my situation it would look like this in the workplace. And they begin thinking already of how I would apply this in the workplace, even if it’s not the specific example that you laid out. Do you find that to be a common thing that the Spirit will use to trigger ways of applying the text in different spheres and settings?
Jonathan Leeman: I think that’s exactly right. So whenever I’m preaching a text and I have a meaning or theological truth that I want to then apply, I’m going to pick one or two examples that I trust are going to demonstrate, exemplify for them, how they might do it in their own situations.
Trevin Wax: You’re a stickler for this because in one of the lessons you did for Gospel Project, we were talking about the role of Christians in society. And I was trying to do my editing responsibilities of paring down the text. I pulled back some of the application. And when I sent you the edits, you came back and said no. Cut something else. That’s got to be there, otherwise we presented a biblical theology of this topic and haven’t gotten to some real specific ways that it lays out. And if we don’t do it here, where else are we going to do it? What has given you this passion, as a preacher yourself, to make sure that the Bible’s applied well in the hearts and lives of your people?
Jonathan Leeman: Two things: one, an examination of my own heart and life and know that I need help. I need a preacher to help me know what these awesome truths mean in this area. And the preaching that I’ve benefited from is a combination of rich theological, God-centered, gospel-driven, and specific to show me what this means in the world today. It’s John Stott’s bridge between two worlds. So okay, so there you are standing there with the Israelites in the Book of Judges or whatever. But I need you to help me build a bridge into my world as I’m doing this or that work. So I need that help. So that’s led to this conviction.
Then, of course, the other area is just being a husband or being a father or being a friend or being a fellow church member trying to help others knowing that as I’m trying to shepherd my wife or shepherd my children or my friends – oh how beneficial it is for me to take justification and show them how justification helps you in this struggle right here, right now.
Trevin Wax: What are the dangers of approaching the Bible only from a topical point of view in sermons?
Jonathan Leeman: The danger is that a preacher starts by looking at his congregation and says what are they interested in, what needs need to be met, what’s my assessment of where they’re at? And he applies his wisdom to their needs, and then he goes searching for texts that address either their perception of their needs or his perception of their needs. Whereas, the Bible knows precisely what our needs are in ways that we don’t always recognize. And so the advantage of just preaching through a book of the Bible and making the point of my sermon – I’m going through the book of Mark; what’s the point of Mark 1? Let me preach that.
I wouldn’t have thought that is a need of theirs – whatever the point of Mark 1 is. But the Holy Spirit knew it was and that’s why He inspired Mark 1. So I need to trust the Holy Spirit and what He has revealed that that is what my congregation needs. And so I want to work hard to get the point of the text to them. And that’s going to lead me into topics that I wouldn’t choose.
Trevin Wax: But don’t you do that anyway even when you choose books of the Bible? You’ve got topical preachers choosing passages of the Bible. But then expository preachers, they’re going to look at the needs of their congregation when they choose which book to preach next: if they’re going to go through Mark or if they’re going to go through Galatians or they might look at their congregation and say, you know, we really could use Proverbs right now, some wisdom. So isn’t that even in the nature of how you make choices as to which, unless you preach straight through the entire Bible – Genesis to Revelation – like W. A. Criswell and some others. Don’t we have to make that choice anyway? What’s the difference between making the choice when it comes to books of the Bible versus making the choice when it comes to specific passages based on needs?
Jonathan Leeman: Don’t hear me saying you shouldn’t account for where your congregation is. There is a time and a place for that. You might choose, to some extent, about where they are at and what they need. But to guard against what you’re describing, I think it’s good for a preacher to rotate between, go back and forth between, different genres and different Testaments.
So in one church where I was preaching over the course of several months, I did several Psalms and I decided to go to the New Testament and do Colossians. Right? So you’re going to move back and forth between different genres and over time try to preach or try to expose your congregation to different genres of Scripture – trusting all of it is God-inspired and helpful, useful for the congregation to be built up.
Now here’s what I do in every sermon I preach. I will start by looking at our church directory. And I’ll skim through the faces and I’ll think about, oh, there’s Judy and this is going on with her. And there’s Chuck and I’ll think about him. And I’ll kind of pray through the directory, look at their faces, and that just reminds me of these people and where they’re at and what they’re struggling with and so forth. And then I’ll do my sermon. And then as I’m praying, after I’ve completed my preparation time, I’ll look through the directory again and pray through it again. So that those people and their needs, their felt needs, and their real needs, and their challenges, and their joys are fresh on my heart so that I’m taking that text and applying it a little bit more sensitively to them.
Trevin Wax: So you’re paying attention not just to the text but also to your congregation.
Jonathan Leeman: Absolutely.
Trevin Wax: You’re exegeting the congregation to a certain extent…
Jonathan Leeman: Absolutely.
Trevin Wax: …as you bring the text to bear. One last question: When you deal with a systematic topic that needs to be presented. Let’s say, you want to teach people on the Trinity and that’s something you’re going to have to do kind of topically in a sense that, I mean, you could point to Jesus’ baptism or you could choose a foundational text. But you’re probably going to want to go to some other texts as well, if it’s Ephesians 1 or lots of places.
Some of the doctrines of Scripture that we do need to present and people need to know are not seen as leading to immediate application. So how are you going to take something like the Trinity, which is absolutely foundational for Christianity, and preach in a way that you present that but then also will bring some application out of that that would be beneficial to the hearts and lives of people in the congregation?
Jonathan Leeman: Well first and foremost, you’re going to look for how Scripture itself uses that particular doctrine and where it makes connections with people’s lives. So in the Trinity, I’m looking at the relationship, for instance, between the Father and the Son.
And I’m asking the question, why the language of Father and Son. And then I’m looking to the epistles which, you know, describe God the Father as the pattern after which all human fathers are modeled. And so then I’m thinking, well, obviously the Trinity has something clear to teach the fathers in this church.
So there is a scripturally warranted place to apply in the parenting relationship the doctrine of the Trinity. What about male and female? He created them and in God’s image. I don’t think we have to go all the way and say that to be in the divine image means that we’re relational creatures. That would be an over-reading of the text.
Nonetheless, I think part of what it means to be made in the image of God is to be in a life of relationship just as the communion of the Trinity is in relationship. So then I’m going to look for applications in marriage between husband and wife.
And I might find applications in the church. And Jesus saying in John 17, Father may they be one as We are one. Again there’s a scripturally warranted place for me to apply the doctrine of the Trinity to very practical ways of people’s lives. And then I’m going to dig in even further. Congregation, what does it mean for us to be one as the Father and Son are one? Well, Jesus submitted Himself entirely to the Father. And the Father poured Himself, communicated Himself entirely to the Son and put all things under the Son’s feet and gave His Son a people.
So what does that mean for us as a church? Well, what does that mean our relationships look like with one another? It means we’re looking to submit to one another out of holy reverence and fear. It means we’re looking to build our lives together after the Word of God, just as the Son said He didn’t do anything or speak anything other than what the Father had told Him.
So now I’m looking at the example of the Trinity and I’m looking at our lives in the church and I’m trying to find very concrete ways that on Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning when you and I are having breakfast together, Trevin for instance, what is that relationship then going to look like based on what I’ve learned in the Trinity?
Trevin Wax: That’s great. So there’s no theological truth that doesn’t have application for the congregation. You can draw out application because the whole purpose of theology and the Scriptures is to equip God’s people to be God’s people.
Jonathan Leeman: It’s God’s truth applied to the lives of the people who are there. So if you’re not doing that hard work of investigating, asking how does this apply, I think you’re only doing a part of your job.