proclamation of the Word of God through the lives of Bible characters in a biographical
sermon has had a lively history of practice. In the nineteenth and early part
of the twentieth century, the biographical sermon was highly esteemed, and congregations
thronged to hear the colorful biographical sermons of such preachers as Dwight
L. Moody, Thomas DeWitt Talmage, F. B. Meyer, Frederick W. Robertson, Alexander
Maclaren, Joseph Parker, and Alexander Whyte.1
for a study of contemporary biographical preaching, Walter Kaiser identified
Charles Swindoll, noted for his preaching on Bible characters, as an exemplary
model for contemporary expository preaching of the Old Testament.2
Swindoll was cited in a 1994 Baylor University study as one of the twelve most
effective preachers in the English-speaking world.3 More
recently, Swindoll was chosen in a Leadership journal poll as one of the most
effective preachers today.4 Swindoll’s “verse-with-verse”
expository preaching on biblical characters has had wide and popular appeal.
Many of his biographical sermons on Bible characters have been published.
has made Swindoll’s biographical sermons so popular? I believe that it
has to do with how Swindoll treats the exposition of the biographical narrative
and how he shapes the narrative text into an interesting and powerful communicative
form. The focus of this article will be to uncover some of the key features
of Swindoll’s use of the text and sermon design based on an analysis of
selected sermons. From the study I will suggest a homiletical approach for preachers
to develop biographical narrative texts into biographical sermons that communicate
with biblical integrity and contemporary relevance. The analysis of Swindoll’s
sermons as well as the approach to developing biographical narratives is suggestive
rather than exhaustive.5
sermons reveal that he depends on a variety of texts within a larger narrative
section. His sermon texts often span several or more chapters of narrative material.
The textual framework of Swindoll’s sermons is dictated usually by the
particular event or subject being treated. In what Roy De Brand termed the “life-portion”
approach,6 Swindoll favors the strategy of bringing out
a distinguishing characteristic of the Bible character as he or she interacts
in the biblical narrative. The distinguishing characteristic brought out in
the sermon is usually presented as one worthy of emulation. An example of this
“heroic” narrative is Swindoll’s sermon on David and Goliath,
“David and the Dwarf,” in which 1 Samuel 17:1-50 serves as the textual
framework.7 Sometimes a distinguishing characteristic
is presented which the hearer is admonished to avoid. Swindoll’s sermon
on Moses, “A Moment of Rage,” based on Exodus 2:10-2; 32; Numbers
20 is indicative of this type of “tragic” narrative.
opening text in Swindoll’s sermons is often related to the theme of the
sermon and serves as an entry point into the subject to be presented. For instance,
in Genesis 37:1-3 Jacob’s favoritism shown towards Joseph established the
theme of the sermon and title “Favored Son, Hated Brother.” In some
sermons Swindoll begins the sermon with texts other than the primary Bible character
narratives to establish a particular theme that will be illustrated in the Bible
character’s life. Often these thematic incursions will highlight a vital
doctrinal subject illustrated in the life of the Bible character.8
use of the text may be best viewed as “verse-with-verse” exposition
with contemporary application throughout the sermon. He often incorporates a
complete verse-by-verse narrative in his sermons. However, he does not always
provide a balanced exposition of every verse; that is, Swindoll treats the text
in a “verse-with-verse” style in keeping with his overall purpose
and theme. Even though he does not treat every verse in a passage of Scripture,
he usually follows the chronological flow of the narrative plot.
primary means of explanation that Swindoll employs is narration. His method
is to state the text and then recreate the scene with vivid and contemporary
details. Sometimes with a touch of humor, Swindoll will use what Richard Eslinger
calls “contemporary cues” to bridge the relevance gap.9
Describing Goliath as a guy the NBA would love and comparing Joseph’s robed
appearance to his brothers as the equivalent to “sending a welder to a
construction site wearing a full-length mink coat,” are two examples of
this kind of narrative imagination.
statements are a common feature in Swindoll’s sermons and often are phrased
as indirect applications. For example, in a sermon entitled “God’s
Invisible Providence” (to explain the overall message of the book) he states
“though God may at times seem distant, and though He is invisible to us,
He is always invincible.” Furthermore, “God never knows frustration.”
Al Fasol observed that the technique of using theological statements “achieves
‘explanation’ by revealing doctrinal truth in a statement of a summary
and conclusive nature.”10
bolsters his explanation of the text with the occasional use of word studies,
comparisons with other Bible translations, stories from history, and the use
of commentaries, especially commentary from other writers of biographical sermons
such as Alexander Whyte, Clarence Macartney, and F. B. Myer.
application occurs throughout Swindoll’s sermons but especially in the
body of the sermon which contains the retelling of the story through the narrative
texts. Equally, direct application is scattered throughout the body of the sermon
and especially noticeable by the prolific use of second person personal pronouns.
Swindoll freely employs first and second person singular and plural pronouns
throughout his sermons. He favors the use of the more direct “you”
and “your” pronouns in his sermon conclusions.
sermons contain a blend of inductive and deductive elements. The basic shape
that Swindoll’s biographical sermons take is that of a story told.11
Some of Swindoll’s sermons are completely inductive with the exception
of a deductive “lessons” section in the conclusion. A common feature
in some of Swindoll’s sermons is the use of the traditional “key word”
method, popularized by Charles Koller and generations of later homileticians.12
A typical example of the “key word” design was the sermon “Every
Crutch Removed” in which “crutches” is the key word for five
major deductive movements in the sermon body.
form of outline was present in most of the sermons analyzed. The number of divisions
ranges from three to six. Usually, Swindoll’s outlines were unobtrusive
and followed the flow of the narrative as exemplified in the sermon “Riding
out the Storm.” In this sermon David’s four responses to the storms
of his life chronologically traversed the narrative of 1 Sam. 12:15-25. In the
sermons that did not contain a stated outline, the flow of the sermon followed
the plot of the story and was easily distinguishable through the various scenes
in the story.
for Developing Biographical Narratives
Focal Verse(s) For Contact and Direction
for a “narrative-directing” verse or focal verse within a larger narrative
as a way to discover the theme and entry point into the story. The focal verse
often provides the entry point into the story and may be a crystallization of
the sermon theme, or it may represent the climactic turning point in the story
of the Bible character. The focal verse allows the preacher to obtain an immediate
point of contact with his or her audience’s needs. In the language of story,
this aspect of the plot will often be either the tension/stress or resolution/new
situation in the narrative.
Biographical Narration for Explanation and Application
the vivid retelling of the biographical narrative be the significant means of
explanation of the text. In “biographical narration” the text of the
larger narrative is viewed through the lens of the focal verse(s). The narrative
provides the framework for the sermon. The Bible story may be retold and selected
Scriptures may be treated expositorily using the traditional functional elements
of explanation, application, and illustration.
argumentation as a functional element is seldom used in a biographical sermon.
Generally, argumentation is woven indirectly into the sermon through the various
scenes of the story as characters are developed and inner motives are explored.
Thus, the indirect unfolding of the story itself becomes the argumentation.
Narration and carefully worded theological statements are the primary means
of explanation in a biographical narrative.
Indirect and Direct Application for Impact and Life Change
the retelling of the biblical narrative, look for ways to include indirect application.
Carefully crafted theological statements may serve a dual purpose, that of explanation
and application. According to Daniel Baumann indirect application applied throughout
the biographical sermon may have a more profound effect than any kind of direct
application that is “tacked on” at the end of the sermon. He noted
that biographical sermons were particularly adept for using suggestive or indirect
application throughout the sermon. Furthermore, he believed that the biographical
sermon was significantly weakened when points of application were appended to
caution must be raised when making application in biographical narratives. The
preacher should resist the impulse to simply look for an ethical behavior to
be imitated or shunned in every biographical narrative.14 Nevertheless, when
the preacher enters fully into the narrative world of the biblical text he or
she discovers a world of worthy indirect applications of the story/text for
sermon plot or story design sermon need not preclude the use of direct application.
Swindoll freely scatters direct applications throughout his sermons. However,
as a general rule begin the sermon with a more indirect approach and gradually
move to a more direct approach, especially in the conclusion. First and second
person pronouns are an effective way to communicate indirectly and directly
and every sermon should contain both.15
Narrative Structure for Movement and Interest
the narrative direct the over-all movement of the sermon. Biographical narratives
may be designed with traditional deductive rhetorical forms such as a key word
or analytical; however, even when these forms are employed there must be a sensitivity
to the narrative flow of the text. Most biographical narratives do not conform
to three points. If any pattern may be detected, biographical narratives distinctly
follow a five-fold division of situation, stress, search, solution, and the
deductive structure has been one of the hallmarks of expository preaching, a
satisfactory expository method for approaching biographical narratives is to
combine both the deductive and inductive methods, a mediating solution that
Swindoll does so eloquently and effectively in many of his sermons. Hybrid sermon
forms (combining deductive and inductive elements) are many; however, an increasingly
popular model (that Swindoll often employs) is to treat the biographical narrative
in the first part of the sermon inductively while the latter part of the sermon
reflects a more deductive form. In this way the preacher has the ability to
be true to the narrative form, he or she invites the listening congregation
along for the journey, and the traditional rhetorical structures that have served
the church well historically do not have to be sacrificed.
plentiful biographical narratives of the Bible certainly merit every preacher’s
attention to develop and preach. Biographical narratives are biblical texts
that uniquely communicate God’s revelation. As such, biographical sermons
that incorporate insights from Swindoll’s biographical method and the best
of today’s homiletical wisdom may allow today’s preacher to communicate
biographical narratives with biblical integrity and contemporary relevance.
influential biographical preacher Clarence Macartney once wrote about the glory
of the preacher’s task in preaching the great biographical narratives.
He stated that “The goal of every earnest preacher is to make the word
which he proclaims become flesh, as it were, dwell among men. That is the great
purpose of biographical preaching. The truth is revealed in the personalities
of the Bible.”17
Alain is Pastor of First Baptist Church of Port Allen, LA.
See Faris Daniel Whitesell, Preaching on Bible Characters (Grand Rapids:
Baker Book House, 1955), 53-102; and Andrew Watterson Blackwood, Biographical
Preaching for Today (New York: Abingdon Press, 1954), 111-30.
2. Walter Kaiser, “Preaching and the Old Testament: An Interview with Walter
Kaiser,” interview by ed. Michael Duduit, Preaching 14, no. 2 (September-October
1998): 4, 6.
3. Megan Shelton, typed letter and photocopy of “Dimensions of Effective
Preaching” to Joe Alain, 11 April 1997, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas,
4. See Marshall Shelley et al. eds., Leadership (Winter 2002): 48.
5. For a more comprehensive study, see my “A Homiletical Approach for Developing
Appropriate Biblical Texts into Biographical Sermons.” Ph.D. diss., New
Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 2002.
6. Roy E. De Brand, Guide to Biographical Preaching (Nashville: Broadman
Press, 1988), 45-6, 53-6. De Brand’s “life-portion” and “whole-life”
categories was a simplification of Whitesell’s twenty-two particular types
of biographical sermons. See Whitesell, 30-49.
7. For a discussion on preaching “Heroic” and “Tragic” narrative,
see Donald Hamilton, Homiletical Handbook (Nashville: Broadman Press,
8. Advocates of biographical preaching have long extolled the biographical sermon
for preaching Bible doctrine. See Clarence Edward Macartney, Preaching without
Notes (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1946), 135; Andrew Watterson
Blackwood, Preaching from the Bible (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press,
1941), 63-6; De Brand, 25.
9. Richard L. Eslinger, Narrative Imagination: Preaching the Worlds That
Shape Us (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 153-60. See also Henry H.
Mitchell, “Preaching on the Patriarchs,” in Biblical Preaching:
An Expositor’s Treasury, ed. James W. Cox (Philadelphia: The Westminister
Press, 1983), 41.
10. Al Fasol, Essentials for Biblical Preaching: An Introduction to Basic
Sermon Preparation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 75.
11. See Henry Grady Davis, Design for Preaching (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg
Press, 1958), 139-62; Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: the Development
and Delivery of Expository Messages, 2d ed (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic,
2001), 115-31. Robinson’s “Shapes Sermons Take” followed and
expanded Davis’s earlier work.
12. Charles W. Koller, Expository Preaching without Notes (Grand Rapids:
Baker Book House, 1962), 52-5; Hamilton, 39-58; Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix,
Power in the Pulpit: How to Prepare and Deliver Expository Sermons (Chicago:
Moody Press, 1999), 153-62.
13. J. Daniel Baumann, An Introduction to Contemporary Preaching (Grand
Rapids: Baker Book House, 1972), 247-55.
14. This was perhaps the fault of the “pre-narrative-genre-sensitive”
era homiletical works. See works cited in notes 1 and 8 above. The long history
and abuse of moralistic preaching in the biographical narratives has been well
documented. For a thorough discussion of the issues of moralistic (exemplary)
preaching, see Sidney Greidanus, Sola Scriptura: Problems and Principles
in Preaching Historical Texts (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1970),
113-9; “Biographical Preaching Revisited,” Preaching 16 no. 3 (November-December
2000): 51-4; For one writer’s attempt to answer the charge that biographical
preaching leads to moralistic preaching, see Timothy Peck, “Salvaging the
Old Testament Biographical Sermon,” Preaching 15, no. 6 (May-June
2000): 28-30. See also, David L. Larsen, Telling the Old, Old Story: The
Art of Narrative Preaching (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1995; Reprint,
Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2000), 191-5.
15. Vines and Shaddix, 183-4. Calvin Miller believed that the overuse of “you”
in preaching has been associated with a rhetoric of power and should be exchanged
for a more indirect and conversational approach that favors the use of “we.”
See Calvin Miller, The Empowered Communicator: 7 Keys to Unlocking an Audience
(Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1994), 63-5.
16. Wayne McDill elaborates on his method in Wayne McDill, The Twelve Essential
Skills for Great Preaching (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1994), 222-41.
17. Macartney, 121.