By Michael Gowens
It would be admittedly presumptuous to address this important, yet essentially subjective, topic without a preliminary disclaimer. Beyond the instructions regarding what the gospel minister should preach (i.e. “…preach the word…” – 2Ti 4:2), the command to study (2Ti 2:15), and a few recorded examples of how Jesus and the apostles delivered sermons (e. g. Mt 5; Ac 17; etc.), Scripture specifies no right or wrong way of sermon preparation and delivery. The Bible simply defines the general principles of the preaching act. It does not mandate the details.
Aside from these general principles, then, no one really has the authority to insist that one method of preaching is right and another is wrong. In fact, these general principles of preaching notwithstanding, the subject of sermon preparation and delivery falls rather into the category of preference or practicality than the category of morality—of what is good, better, and best, instead of what is right and wrong.
With that thought in mind, the best that I can do in this chapter is to offer suggestions based on personal experience and preference about a discipline in which I am still a student. The things that I will say in the following pages are nothing more than an attempt to outline how I study, prepare messages, and proceed to try to deliver the sermon. Others, no doubt, have ideas that are equally plausible, if not better than mine. My suggestions, in other words, are just that—suggestions. They are not intended to be construed as ex cathedra pronouncements or criteria by which other ministers should be judged. I offer these thoughts from my own experience and personal preference, then, in the hope that they will help someone who, like myself, wants to profit from the experience and insights of others with a view toward more effective ministry in Christ’s service.
At the risk of stating the obvious, every opportunity to preach and teach God’s word is an inscrutable privilege. No aspect of ministerial function is higher on the scale of importance than the act of preaching. The responsibilities on the preacher, consequently, to handle God’s word accurately and reverently, and to communicate His truth with clarity and relevance are tremendous. Every minister should desire to improve the gifts and opportunities that God has entrusted to him. Ongoing personal growth and inward renewal is crucial, for preaching is essentially an act of worship. I have frequent occasions to bemoan the clumsiness with which I handle such holy things and to feel a sense that I have let my Lord down. Though He deserves better than my typical offering, He mercifully “allows” me to continue to try and entrusts His treasure into this earthen vessel—a container with numerous character flaws, physical weaknesses, personality idiosyncrasies, and personal struggles (1Th 2:4; 2Co 4:7). The honor of speaking in his name, coupled with the seriousness and urgency of the message, compels me to give Him my very best and to pursue excellence in ministry with passion and intensity.
With that thought in mind, I proceed to offer the following suggestions for sermon preparation. I will begin with some broad brush strokes and general comments, proceeding from there to discuss more specific concepts.
Make daily study a priority
The study of God’s word is the happiest part of gospel ministry. I’ve noticed a tendency, however, to allow my study to become an office, spending the bulk of my time on the administrative side of pastoral labor and limiting the study I do to sermon preparation.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with study geared toward the sermon, but I believe that the best sermons are born from the regular, daily habit of comprehensive study. Warren Wiersbe says that good sermons are not made—they grow over a period of time. It is in the disciplined habit of daily study, consequently, that the seed of the plant that is the sermon is sown, germinates, begins to grow, and develops to maturity.
Sustained, intensive study is a spiritual necessity—not a luxury—to effective pulpit ministry. It is a necessity, not only at the beginning, but also at every stage of the minister’s development. Even in prison, the aged apostle Paul requested Timothy to bring his books and, especially, parchments, implying a keen awareness of the need for ongoing study lest his mind atrophy, his affections cool, and his zeal stagnate.
Granted, the effort involved in preparing a message (as a rule) is less strenuous as a minister gains experience, merely by virtue of the arsenal of knowledge and familiarity with the Scriptures he has gleaned over the years. Tracing support texts, cross references, and narratives that illustrate a particular point, in other words, is generally less time-consuming than in the initial stages of ministry. But although such familiarity with the Scriptures is something positive and healthy, it carries with it a very subtle danger, i.e. the temptation to give people the stale fare of yesterday’s study. Ongoing study of God’s word, even after years of pulpit experience, makes for personal spiritual growth, conveys an enthusiasm for the word to others, and insures the kind of freshness in preaching that is truly worthy of the One who makes all things new. Perhaps Paul had this in mind when he encouraged Timothy to study diligently “that [his] profiting (prokope, i.e. pioneer advance|) may appear to all” (1Ti 4:15).
Since regular, detailed study is so crucial to the preaching dynamic, it would be a good idea to select a regular place to study—a room so designated, or a favorite chair, etc. Set apart, also, a certain time each day devoted to the happy privilege of searching the Scriptures and learning God’s word.
Consider the use of a notebook
In the course of daily study, various thoughts, insights, and ideas for sermons emerge. It is a good idea to write these down as potential topics for further development in the future. I purchase inexpensive notebooks from a local retailer for this purpose.
Each page is a potential sermon, with the main thought captured by the title on the top line. A sampling of pages from one of my completed notebooks, for example, reveals the following titles and Scripture texts: “Learning to Think Like a Pilgrim” (Heb 13:14); “Divine Desertions” (Isa 50:10-11); “The Believer’s Thought-Life” (Php 4:8); “Comfort for the Tempest-Tossed” (Isa 54:11-17); “The Discipline of Endurance” (Heb 12:1-3). Once the initial thought is recorded, I develop the respective outlines for each sermon beneath its title.
Organization is not the preacher’s enemy—it is his friend. When a sermon proceeds in a series of consecutive thoughts to a well-defined goal—i.e. a purpose statement expressed by the title—the pastor-teacher actually helps the congregation to assimilate the message and satisfy the goal of worshipping God by learning about Him from His word. God does not despise man’s mind. He, in fact, made it. Neither is he opposed to structure and order. His very orderly and structured creation teaches us that much. It is my conviction that, like every other activity in the life of the church, preaching should be “done decently and in order”.
The use of a notebook, while not a requirement for authentic gospel ministry, has proven a significant help to me. So many times when ‘the well was dry’, I have thumbed the pages to a thought recorded during a more fruitful season, and developed a message for current use. Had I failed to write down the initial insight, I would be hard pressed in the present spiritual malaise to secure anything but a random idea here, or a stray thought there.
Yes, I realize the danger of becoming mechanical, academic, and Spiritless. The danger is real and the minister is wise to remember both that he is called to preach, not lecture, and that his best efforts to organize and present the fruit of his study will necessarily stymie without heavenly endorsement. But I am not talking about randomly selecting a topic and presuming to give a talk on it. Obviously, a decision must be made when selecting preaching portions as to whether or not the Lord is leading. A good ‘rule of thumb’ is to only record subjects for potential study toward which you feel a kind of magnetism, attraction, or sense of intrigue drawing you to it. Still further, I concede that all preparatory work should be bathed in prayer, asking the Lord for direction regarding the subjects and themes He would have us to preach, to bless with understanding in the course of study, to direct our minds to know when to preach what message, and to bless the proclamation with the unction of the Holy Spirit.
No; I’m not encouraging cold, arid intellectualism. God is certainly able to bless an ill-prepared and disorganized sermon—a message that is “without form and void”. But it is my studied opinion that such a blessing is the exception rather than the rule. My experience suggests that when a man prepares both himself and his message in advance—that is, when he “take(s) heed to himself and to the doctrine” (1Ti 4:16)—the Lord, more often than not, honors such effort with His blessing. This principle, expressed in Jas 4:8a (“Draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you”), is indigenous to every aspect of Christian discipleship, even preaching.
Selecting potential sermon topics
What is the source of the headings for these potential sermon topics? From whence do the various ideas for potential messages arise? First, ideas for sermons come from the regular and consistent reading of Holy Scripture. I try to read through the Bible at least once per year. The use of a lectionary, or Bible Reading plan, provides an external structure for staying on task. The consistent act of reading God’s word not only enhances familiarity with its content, but invariably stimulates fresh thought and potential sermon material.
Secondly, the seeds for future messages are frequently sown while listening to the preaching or reading the insights of other men. I am not, either by natural temperament or spiritual endowment, a “self-starter”—if such a thing even exists. It takes a steady stream of godly input to sustain the demanding pace of gospel ministry. Audio messages by other ministers help to fill that need. My automobile, hence, tends to become my second “study”. There have been numerous occasions when I have reached for the closest piece of scrap paper while driving down the road and penned a sudden insight that might be developed later into a message.
Good books and godly literature are another source of input that frequently yields insights for pulpit ministry. It is not wrong to read the writings of other men, any more than it is inappropriate to listen to the preaching of another man. Sir Joshua Reynolds, speaking to the students at The Royal Academy of Arts, said, “He who resolves never to ransack any mind but his own will be soon reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations: he will be obliged to imitate himself.”
Of course, because no extra-biblical writer speaks by Divine inspiration, discernment is essential. Every human production beyond the canons of special revelation, in other words, must be subjected to the scrutiny of Biblical authority. No man either speaks or writes inerrantly. Read every book and article, therefore, by the rule (as Elder Sonny Pyles inimitably says), “Eat the chicken and throw away the bones.”
It is important to emphasize the fallibility of human authors simply because of the resident tendency in fallen sinners to “glory in men” (1Co 3:21). Though I buy books on the basis of benefit I’ve derived from certain authors, I must admit that I cannot endorse everything that any of my favorite writers believes. Each has emphases—whether dispensationalism, double predestination, gospel regeneration, human agency in eternal salvation, infant baptism, as well as other respective idiosyncrasies—to which I cannot in good conscience subscribe. Every man, myself included, has feet of clay; therefore, it is always a mistake to become infatuated with any fellow mortal.
It is not a mistake, however, to glean insights from others. In fact, the concept of “fellowship” (Gr. koinonia) in the New Testament suggests that personal spiritual growth to maturity is only possible in the community of the saints. Koinonia involves both giving and taking. Because no single individual possesses a monopoly on Bible knowledge, each must be loving enough to share with others the things that God has taught him, and humble enough to take from others the things that God has taught them. Certainly, I cannot give anything to men like Sylvester Hassel, Wilson Thomspon, or C. H. Cayce, but I can take from them and pass the insights I glean from their studies on to the benefit of my contemporaries.
Extensive reading of biographies, systematic theologies, commentaries, reference works, books on contemporary issues, church papers and religious periodicals, and Christian “classics” never fail to provide a source of ideas for potential sermons. “Give thyself to reading” was Paul’s counsel to Timothy, and it is God’s word to every minister of the word.
Make every sermon an exposition of the text
I am convinced that every sermon should be expository—i.e. an explanation and application of the text. I was never so relieved as the day when I realized that the minister’s job description does not require him to be an expert on science, sociology, politics, or philosophy. His one responsibility is to teach and explain the Bible.
Contrary to popular thinking, expository preaching is not necessarily synonymous to a series of consecutive messages through a book of the Bible. In the strict sense of the term, an expository sermon is simply an exposition of the text. Whether the preaching portion is a single verse, paragraph, chapter, or entire epistle, an expository sermon aims to extract and expound the meaning of the selected passage.
Let me add that there is nothing inherently wrong with a series of consecutive messages through a chapter or book of the Bible; in fact, such a format is my personal preference for the pastoral ministry. Of course, every minister does not share my opinion of the value of preaching through a book of the Bible. Spurgeon descried the practice as mechanical, but Alexander Maclaren, one of his contemporaries, practiced it throughout his entire ministry. In my opinion, a systematic and sequential format to pulpit ministry serves to connect one worship service to another and foster a mindset of “growth to maturity” in the members. It communicates the point that public worship should be more akin to the construction of a brick wall (i.e. keeping and adding on) than refueling an automobile (i.e. consuming and replenishing).
Several important guidelines regarding preaching a series of consecutive messages are important, however. First, I think it is safe to say that such a format will only be possible in a pastorate in which the same man is in the same pulpit on a weekly basis. Secondly, it is important for the minister to be sensitive to the capacities of his hearers. Several years into my current pastorate, I delivered ninety-three messages on the book of Ephesians. I would not have attempted such a sustained effort in the first year or two of my labors here. People must be conditioned to sustain such a long-term focus by shorter series’ early on. Thirdly, I think it is important never to begin a consecutive study unless I have experienced a prolonged burden and consistent, inward compulsion toward the passage or topic. Like water set on the burner to boil, the initial impression to address a certain book or theme must build in intensity until it is a fire in the bones. Finally, I want to be sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Spirit in the course of an extended study. Inevitably, I will break away from the series to address random topics or another passage if I determine that God is in it. There have even been a couple of occasions when midway through an extended series of messages, I abandoned the project because I sensed either that the well of preaching liberty had run dry or that I was taxing the patience of the people I had been charged to feed. How crucial it is to remember that my primary calling is to edify the church, not to finish a study just for the sake of finishing!
One more observation is necessary at this point. It is my opinion that variety is crucial to any pulpit fare. Periodically, I try to analyze the subject matter of my preaching labors to see if there is an appropriate blend of the basic doctrines of grace, Christian experience, and practical godliness. Congregations are not only healthy but happy when their minister, over a reasonable period of time, gives them a variety of biographical sketches, historical narrative, experiential application, and didactic instruction, with a consistent and hearty helping of the good news of Christ and Him crucified. Variety may be the spice that seasons life; even more, it is the spice that seasons the pulpit.
Meditate on the idea or text in advance of the study
Meditation, the discipline of talking to oneself, is integral to pulpit preparation. In my experience, those occasions when I have experienced a lack of focus in the pulpit was due to a personal failure to spend adequate time in the discipline of meditation. Meditation makes poor sermons good and good sermons better.
I’ll return momentarily to this idea of the importance of meditating on the finished product of study, but, here, I need to stress the importance of advance meditation. With every potential sermon topic, it is important to “question the text or the topic”. Some initial questions might include, “What is the main thought conveyed by the text? What thought did the writer intend to convey? How does the text fit into the flow of thought in the immediate context? How does it fit into the larger context? What doctrines might be extracted from the text? Who is speaking and to whom? How did the concept revealed here apply to the people who originally heard or read it? In what way might the truth contained in this verse help or instruct the people who will listen to my sermon?”
Allow me to illustrate. Let’s say that I run across a quote on the subject of “Divine Providence” that peaks my interest and intrigues me once again with the importance of and need for this subject. I then head a new page in my notebook in prospect of preaching on this subject at some point in the future. From this point forward, the subject is added to the arsenal of potential messages in my mind. Over the next few days, weeks, or months, I keep the subject in the back of my mind, simmering like a pot of water heating on the back burner. Every verse of Scripture I encounter during the course of each day that relates to the verse—every quote I read that might be applicable to the topic—I write down. As the content of the message begins to come together, I begin the query: “How might I define ‘providence’? What Biblical illustrations of God’s providence can I recall? What effect do I want this message to have on my hearers—a pastoral effect (encouragement, a strengthened faith), an academic effect (growth in knowledge), or both? When a potential sermon reaches this point, I am ready to move from generalities to specifics.
Exegete the passage
To exegete means “to draw out meaning”. It is the opposite of “reading meaning into” the text, or eisegesis. The minister’s goal is to let the text speak for itself, not to make it say what he wants it to say.
Exegesis begins, then, with the question, “What was the author’s original intent? What thought was in the mind of the author as he wrote?” The exegete’s task is to think himself back into the mind of the writer.
Other helpful questions in the exegetical process include the following: How does the passage fit into the larger context and flow of thought in the book? What are the major doctrines taught? How does the passage use grammar, literary forms, figures of speech, and verb tenses? What are the key words?
The etymology and definition of every key word should be investigated by the use of a lexical aid. Zodhiates’ Word Study Dictionary, Kittle’s Theological Dictionary, Robertson’s Word Pictures, Vincent’s Word Studies and Strong’s Dictionary are staple references in my personal lexical studies.
Of course, every exegetical effort depends on sound principles of Biblical hermeneutics. Because others in this work have addressed the dynamics of Biblical interpretation, I will not elaborate in any detail. I will say, however, that once the principles of interpreting a passage have been applied, it is important to then run cross references—i.e. to look up other verses and passages that use the same word or deal with the same subject. The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge is an excellent help in cross referencing.
The final step I take in the exegetical process is the consultation of various commentaries and books from my library shelves that address the subject under consideration. Again, I cannot exaggerate the importance of exercising discernment when reading the thoughts and insights of other men. A credulous approach to uninspired works may very well prove disastrous to a minister’s soundness in the faith. Just because a man has been dead for five hundred years does not necessarily mean that he speaks authoritatively on any text and it is not an act of arrogance to disagree with someone who possesses a more public forum. A good rule of thumb to follow is: Consult uninspired men only with your personal convictions intact. On the other hand, many helpful insights on a text may be gleaned from the use of those commentaries that are generally sound. My ordinary practice is to formulate my own basic conclusions on a text, then to read everything in my library that addresses it, picking and choosing those thoughts and insights that might lend themselves to a fuller and more accurate comprehension.
The following is a sample exegesis from a study in the book of James:
Exegesis of Jas 5:1-6
Jas 5:1 – the phrase “go to now” means “now, listen”; he addresses “rich men”. This pssg.echoes the tone of an OT prophet (compare Isa 3:14-15; Mic 2:1-2). James pronounces a future divine judgment on them – “weep and howl for the miseries that shall come upon you.” The word “howl” is ololuzw ololuzo. It describes a weeping accompanied by recurring shouts of pain. The word is formed by onomatopoeia, an imitation of the sound produced when one cries out.
Jas 5:2-3 – These verses define the charge that God levies against the “rich men”—namely, that they had hoarded their wealth instead of using it to minister to others and in their miserliness, their earthly possessions had lost their value. These verses are a parallel to Mt 6:19-21.
a. “Riches are corrupted” = wealth has decayed. Like the Rich Fool in Lu 12:16-20, these rich people had “heaped treasures together” to save for a rainy day, instead of utilizing their resources to help others in need. Eph 4:26 teaches that giving is the purpose of accumulating wealth. When wealth is not employed to that end, but hoarded, it spoils.
b. “Garments are moth eaten” = if clothes are worn, they will not become victim to moth larvae. Only clothes that are stored away and not used to their intended purpose will be devoured by moths. So, the thought again is the failure of the wealthy to properly use their treasures; instead, they squandered their riches by selfishly hoarding them.
c. “Gold and silver is cankered” = since gold and silver do not corrode or rust, this expression should be explained figuratively. Gold and silver that are not used are as valueless as rusted metal. So, once again, the thought is that of amassing wealth for their own selfish purposes, rather than to employ in ministering to others.
d. The judgment specified is harsh. James says that their corroded riches will “witness against” them—meaning that God will accuse them of poor stewardship of their resources—and will “eat [their] flesh [like] fire”—meaning that instead of bringing them pleasure and privilege, their wealth would bring pain and punishment. It will be their undoing – burning their hands, as it were, as if they held corrosive acid.
e. There is some obscurity in the expression “for the last days”. Is this merely a charge that they have saved and squandered, as we would say, “for a rainy day”, that is, for some potential personal crisis in the future? Possibly. Perhaps James means that the accumulation of wealth to the neglect of good works would be the charge against them at the final judgment, similar to the “rich man” in Lu 16. I lean toward the first interpretation.
Jas 5:4 – God further charges them with robbing from the poor. A covetous heart that hoards riches for its own selfish purposes will inevitably exploit others for its own further benefit. It is but a small step from greed to theft. The Lord highlights a particular instance in which “rich men” had robbed the poor: “The hire of the laborers who have reaped down your fields, which of you is kept back by fraud, crieth.”
a. The picture is this: the rich landowners had contracted with the poor to mow their fields and gather the harvest, but had refused to pay the laborers. This was a direct violation of the Law (De 24:14-15; Le 19:13).
b. The broken promises of the landowners brought hardship on the laborers. Because these poor men had no one to defend them but God, they appealed to him in prayer to rectify the injustice.
c. “the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth” – What does this expression teach about the character of God? First, that He is a Just God; Second, He is a Prayer-hearing God (see Ps 65:2); Third, He is Lord of the armies in heaven and on earth (viz. Sabaoth). This majestic God will vindicate the downtrodden. He is a God who stands up for the underdog by executing swift justice on their adversaries.
Jas 5:5 – “Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter”. Greed not only leads to exploitation, but also to self-indulgence. Prosperity leads to self-pampering. The rich had made “pleasure” their god. Indeed, covetousness is idolatry (Col 3:5). “Wanton” = sensuous luxury (cf. Ro 13:14). “Nourished” = fattened. James says, “Through your self-indulgent pursuit of pleasure, you have fattened yourself like you would prepare an animal for the slaughter”. How apropos is this passage to our modern society!
Jas 5:6 – How did the poor respond to the oppressive mistreatment of these “rich men”? They did not “resist”. Is this verse a justification of pacifism? No, it merely means that these individuals had taken Jesus words in Mt 5:39 seriously; they would rather suffer a personal injury than to engage in a conflict with a brother (cf. 1Co 6:7). The point of this passage is not concerned with whether or not it is appropriate to stand up for oneself against an injustice, but the focus is on the bully tactics of these wealthy people.
This pssg. Is a warning against covetousness. It is comparable to Am 6:1-5. The NT warns against the tendency of riches to deceive and enslave (1Ti 6:9-10,17; Mt 13:22).
There is some question regarding the target audience of these words. Are these “rich men” a part of the Christian community? It is probable that they are, for James is writing to “the twelve tribes scattered abroad” (Jas 1:1). Elsewhere in this very practical epistle, he addresses ethical threats to the Christian witness—threats that tended to undermine their testimony to Christ. For example, consider Jas 2:1-9 where he addresses the problem of giving preferential treatment to the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Further, consider Jas 3:9-12, a pssg.in which he targets the subject of impure speech within the context of the fellowship of blvrs. Again, in Jas 3:14-4:1, James cautions them against internal strife and contention among themselves. And, in Jas 4:11, he exhorts them to abstain from gossip and slander. There are also numerous warnings against the sin of worldliness in this general epistle. So, it is likely that James is here highlighting a particular problem that threatened to undermine the integrity of the church – namely, the problem of class envy and exploitation. There is no caste-system in Christianity, so Christians must learn to see beyond the superficial and the material. There is a case to be made, however, that these “rich men” were not a part of the Christian community, but were simply oppressing poor believers (cf. Jas 2:6). But it seems that Jas 2:6 calls upon the rich people in the church to realize that they were behaving toward their brethren just like the unbelievers behave toward them.
He indicts the rich with three particular charges: 1) The charge of materialism (Jas 2:3b); 2) The charge of hedonism (Jas 2:5a); 3) The charge of exploitation (Jas 2:4,6a). Covetousness is always connected to a hedonistic, or pleasure-oriented, approach to life and it will always lead to the exploitation of others. Such behavior, says James, has no place within the communion of saints. The old adage fits here: “We are supposed to love people and use things, but most people love things and use people to get the things that they love.”
Compose an outline
The exegetical process may very well provide the outline for the message (as the example above illustrates). Were I to preach from Jas 5:1-6, I would likely entitle the sermon, “A Bold Warning to Wealthy Believers”, organizing my message around the three indictments or charges mentioned in the last paragraph from the sample exegesis above.
The main points of the outline should flow from the passage. Once the main thoughts are in place, each point will be developed by various cross-reference texts and sub-points. The following is an example of a simple sermon outline from the same passage in James.
A Bold Warning to Wealthy Believers (Jas 5:1-6)
II. Three Indictments
A. Charge of Materialism (Jas 5:3b)
1. Definition of
2. Biblical Principles concerning
3. Biblical Examples of
B. Charge of Hedonism (Jas 5:5a)
1. Definition of
2. Biblical Principles concerning
3. Biblical Examples of
C. Charge of Exploitation (Jas 5:4,6a)
1. Definition of
2. Biblical Principles concerning
3. Biblical Examples of
Make it Christ-centered
It is important to make every sermon a “gospel” sermon. Where the name of Christ is not mentioned, the sermon is a mere lecture or academic exercise. Yes, the preacher’s task necessarily involves teaching the Bible, but he is primarily called to be a herald of the good news of Christ crucified. It helps me to remember the request of Joh 12:21 as I mount the pulpit: “O sir, we would see Jesus.” God’s hungry sheep need the spiritual food and drink derived from the simple story of the Savior’s finished work.
Just as Paul frequently interrupted the most didactic sections of his epistles with a note of doxology, so the preacher should look for every opportunity in the course of his sermon to redirect attention to the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. While the word informs the mind, the view of Christ inflames the heart. Both are essential to a truly robust discipleship.
Paul made a deliberate decision to preach Christ (1Co 2:1-5). Of course, that does not mean that he never preached on any subject but the crucifixion, as the topical variety in the Pauline epistles demonstrates. It does mean that Christ was the very heart and center of all that he taught. Like spokes converse on the hub of a wheel, the Lord Jesus Christ and his sacrificial merit on the cross was the very core of all that Paul taught—the epicenter from which all of his ethical instruction proceeded and the common theme tying both doctrine and duty together.
I find it necessary to think in advance of the actual delivery of the sermon at which points I might be able to elevate the focus to the Lord himself. With this intention in mind, the Holy Spirit also supplies opportunities in the course of a message to direct people more specifically to the Savior. Even if such opportunities take the shape of a thirty-second excursion from the main line of thought, the preacher cannot go wrong to—shall I say—“climb every mountain” when it comes to bragging on the Lord.
At this point in the preparatory process, it is helpful to ask oneself questions such as, “How can I make this message practical to my hearers? How does it apply? How can I bring these truths to bear on specific needs so that the people are actually helped by it? How can I turn these theological truths into pastoral resources to minister to the needs of this congregation?” Of course, these questions are always in the back of a pastor’s mind. He is always looking for opportunities to assist the sheep under his care.
A constant vein of application runs through every good sermon. The wise preacher is always looking for ways to make the truths he teaches personal to the hearers. It is unadvisable, however, to be so specific that people are embarrassed. The minister would not want to say, in other words, “One of the members of this church was just talking to me about the problems in his marriage this week…” In most congregations, the people will quickly decipher the identity of this individual and both he and his wife will be ready to crawl beneath the pew. It is not wrong to speak in more generic terms, however. To say, “Perhaps you are here today and you have suffered some great crisis recently. Maybe you’ve received the news that you have some debilitating disease, or you’ve lost your job, or are struggling in your marriage, or have been in a battle against powerful temptations or the old fallen nature. Well, this verse has something very poignant to say to you…”, is very appropriate and helpful.
As you consider preaching the message you’ve studied, consider ways you might bring the truths home to the hearts of your hearers. Ask yourself precisely what effect you desire this message to produce and then aim for that goal.
Also, at this point, consider the use of a few illustrations. Over the years, I have gathered a number of quotes, hymn poems, and stories that were especially meaningful to me. Every time I hear a story, run across a poem or quote, or encounter a personal experience that seems to illustrate a Biblical passage or principle, I add it to the ever-growing supply. A big box in the closet of my study houses these loose scraps of paper; however, recently, several people have helped me to store these illustrations in a more permanent, electronic format. I regularly scan these files as I’m preparing thoughts for a sermon and will try to weave in a quote, story, or two at a strategic point in the message. Spurgeon once said that illustrations are like windows to a house. One would not want a house only of windows, lest the structure lack substance. But neither would one want a house devoid of windows, lest the structure lack light. An illustration is to a sermon what a window is to a house.
Once the outline is complete, it is important to work through the message in your own mind—to spend additional time in meditation. I am convinced that the discipline of meditation is crucial to effective sermons. John R. W. Stott said that the problem with substandard preaching is the failure to spend adequate time in meditation. Meditation is that process in which a person forces himself to crystallize nebulous thoughts into coherent statements. It is the hardest of all the tasks in sermon preparation, but the most crucial. Without the fine-tuning discipline of meditation, the thoughts the minister wants to convey will remain cloudy and obscure.
I basically try to preach the message to myself several times prior to the actual delivery. As I work through the various points in the outline over and again, I commit the fruit of my study to memory. I picture myself introducing the message, repeating each point, and quoting the proof and support texts. Of course, the actual sermon may assume a shape all its own as the Holy Spirit directs, but still, the importance of assimilating the outline in the minister’s heart and mind cannot be overstated.
Deliver the sermon
As the time nears for delivery of the message, I try to remind myself of several things. First, I am preaching for an audience of One. Preaching is an act of worship, not a performance to be graded by judges. The goal is to glorify God and to lift up the wonderful name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Second, the Holy Spirit is in control. He knows what the people need better than I. It is a mistake, therefore, to insist on delivering my four-point sermon in a neat little package if He directs my mind to develop a single point more fully than I had anticipated. Third, I am a great sinner, unworthy of the privilege of speaking in His name. When I have done my best, I am still an unprofitable servant.
With God’s Spirit in my heart, God’s word before me, God’s people around me, and God’s glory as the goal, I mount the sacred desk to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ. I know of no happier employment or privilege. I know of no more solemn responsibility. May God help me and all who read these pages to fulfill this sacred calling with increasing reverence, dependence on Him, and efficiency, to the glory of His worthy name.
 What is the criteria for making this judgment, i.e. of determining a “burden” for a particular subject? I define a “burden” as a kind of visceral attraction—a sense of intrigue, or a sustained, inward inclination toward and excitement with a particular passage or subject. That Paul sometimes employed such a subjective criteria is evident by his claim that “all things [were] lawful, but all things [were] not expedient” – that is, timely. It seems obvious enough that his judgment of whether or not something was “expedient” was subjective.