What would you think if someone who had just heard you preach said this about your sermon: “Its breath-taking banality has thrown me completely off the track. So many words and nothing said! … Empty straw, all the cliches that just seemed to flood into the preacher’s head!
“And knowing that it was all pious blather–for the man is by no means stupid–he turned on the rhetorical explosions in order to dispel the boredom by pseudo-dramatizations … How this man, with all his probity in other respects, must despise the Word to be capable of dealing with it so sloppily.” Such was the reaction of Helmut Thielicke after hearing a particular sermon.
What about your preaching? Let me raise some questions that may point us all in a truer direction. Look at your preaching and think about these issues.
1. Does the sermon emerge from or move toward a Biblical text?
Whether a sermon is based on a text or moves toward one does not matter. What counts is this: Does the sermon leave a final and true impression that what has been said or concluded agree with the chosen scripture?
This broad possibility first struck me when I was a very young preacher, after reading a sermon by Russell H. Conwell, of “Acres of Diamonds” fame. He said in the first paragraph, “I will lead you up, if I can, to the text, and close with the text.”
A sermon that lays down implications and applications from the text that precedes it is, of course, deductive, and the sermon that explores and evaluates ideas on the way to a text, a text that settles or summarizes the whole trend of the sermon, is inductive.
Fred Craddock has recently argued for the inductive sermon. He says, “If one’s whole point has been stated in the introduction or fully made five minutes into the sermon, why should you continue to listen? Time drags the sermon like a dead body toward the noon hour, and restless children are assured it will soon be over.”
The problem Craddock deals with is not the text, but the arrangement of the ideas in such a way as to achieve anticipation. In 1930 Joseph Fort Newton published The New Preaching, a book that was in part on the inductive homiletical approach.
There was nothing new about inductive preaching; it simply had been ignored. Jesus used that very approach in his parables: the point came last and was, in fact, usually supplied by the hearers themselves.
Nevertheless, the deductive approach still has much to commend it. In the hands of a Spurgeon or a Fosdick it can make its mark with power. The message of some texts and teachings can be better communicated by drawing out lessons and implications in a definite, direct manner. The main idea, the central idea, comes early in the sermon, and argument, evidence, and application follow.
In any case, the biblical text is of first importance, even though it be stated last. As Spurgeon said, “The true minister of Christ knows that the true value of a sermon must lie, not in its fashion and manner, but in the truth which it contains.”
As you shall see, a single text from the Bible may not be the only important consideration in biblical preaching.
2. Does the sermon stay within the parameters of the leading biblical ideas?
What is our purpose in preaching? Is it to propagate ideas contrary to those that wind their way through pages of Holy Scripture? Obviously not. However, we know of preachers who sound forth doctrines so different from each other that no agreement is possible.
Someone may say that Paul taught justification by faith and James taught justification by works, and on the surface their views would seem contradictory. On closer examination, however, we see that Paul is emphasizing a faith that will produce good works, while James is emphasizing the good works as necessary evidence of the very faith that Paul has emphasized. What Paul and James have done is quite different from the heresies that have no true biblical foundations.
The sermon may go outside some specific biblical concern, but the sermon must be vitally related in some way to biblical concerns if it is what a sermon is supposed to be!
Theologian John Knox begins his definition of biblical preaching with the statement that “biblical preaching is preaching which remains close to the characteristic and essential biblical ideas: the transcendence, the holiness, the power and sovereignty, the love of God; His demand of ethical righteousness; His judgment upon sin; man’s creaturehood, his plight as a sinner; his need of forgiveness and release; the meaning of Christ as the actual coming of God into our history with the help we need; the availability of reconciliation and redemption, of life, joy, and peace, in the new community of the Spirit which God created through Christ and into which we can enter upon the sole condition of penitence and faith.”
3. Does the sermon show the one-sidedness of the text?
The special emphasis of a particular text may lawfully point toward a general theme that the preacher will expound in a sermon, without making much of the special emphasis. Just as properly, the preacher may present two different emphases, such as Paul’s teaching on faith and James’ teaching on works, and do it in the same sermon, drawing them both together in a synthesis.
This is all well and good. However, truth does not ordinarily come to us in neat packages, but piece-meal. Life itself demands now one emphasis or preoccupation, now another.
Several years ago, Eduard Schweizer responded in this way to a question I raised with him: “A too well-balanced sermon does not really convey its message.”
We can spend so much time and energy on qualifications and exceptions, pursuing “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” that our message gets swamped in confusion and frustration.
Dietrich Ritschl puts the matter like this: “The preacher will have to make up his mind very clearly whether he will preach Mark’s or Luke’s account or Matthew’s report when he preaches on a synoptic passage, for the different accounts will create different sermons …. It is worthwhile to study the texts with the awareness that each text was spoken (and written) to a specific situation.”
4. Does the sermon make ample use of the concrete elements in the text?
Theologian H. H. Farmer said flatly, “I believe that abstractness in some ways is the greatest curse of all our preaching.” Then he went on to confess, “I speak as a great sinner in this respect.”
Portions of the Bible itself are rather abstract. The Apostle Paul himself pursued such a line of thought to the point that he seemed to give up in frustration, saying, “O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!”
The Scriptures as a whole, however, are quite concrete. They can be called “story” from beginning to end. One sweeping story embraces many smaller stories that in turn embrace still smaller ones: the Christ event, which overwhelms every other event of time; incidents; parables; miracles; and apocalyptic.
In Jesus’ incarnation, God said, “Here I am concretely.” Did this demean God or did it glorify Him? It is strange, is it not, that we would take a text brimful of life and drama and boil out of it most of its flavor and nutrients, contenting ourselves with an unappetizing residue of abstractions?
What distinguishes the sermons of such preachers as David H.C. Read and John Killinger is that they bring theology out of the clouds and put it where people live. They discuss religious questions that people are actually raising.
Such an approach makes preaching easier to listen to and clearly more helpful–and no doubt far more exciting for the preacher. Which, do you think, would be more interesting and useful, an academic discussion of repentance or a sermon on Simon Peter’s actual repentance after he had denied his Lord?
Related to this, the advice of Clyde T. Francisco to young preachers is important: Share with your people, if you can find it, something striking and unusual in your text.
5. Does the sermon use illustrations and examples from various parts of the Bible?
Seminary students who know how important illustrations are to the sermon, who envy preachers that are masters of the art, often ask, “Where can I get illustrations for my sermons?” My answer is, “The best ones may come from the Bible.”
If I am preaching from a dramatic incident in the Bible, I may not need to go outside my text for supportive material. The concrete details of the text are in themselves supportive of whatever ideas have come to expression in the text. Shakespeare said it:
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.
A sermon on the story of The Prodigal Son, if developed with insight, feeling, and imagination, can carry the weight of ideas on the strong wings of the story itself.
On the other hand, if I am preaching a sermon from a short, non-narrative text, a sermon that develops a theme or that supports a thesis, I may need to survey the terrain of the entire Bible to find clarifying analogies and convincing examples. These materials are old, it is true, but they have in them the ring of reality.
You can relate these ancient incidents in such a way that people can identify with their characters and transport themselves into the dynamics of the situation. Markus Barth was right: “Even in sophisticated suburbs and on egghead campuses a comparatively small number of people, if any, would despise the charm of a well told story.” Frederick Buechner, in his Peculiar Treasures, can be our challenging mentor here.
6. Does the sermon use illustrations and examples from contemporary sources with which or with whom the hearers can identify?
While our best illustrations and examples may come from the Bible, the Bible is not our only source, nor should it be. It is only natural to choose some present-day experience or observation to illuminate or exemplify a point we wish to make.
The parables of Jesus were right out of the life and experiences of the people to whom he spoke. Why should we not get materials for our sermons from like sources?
Preachers who enjoy reading widely may mistakenly assume that their hearers will enjoy hearing about the latest books. Preachers who love to hunt and fish may overdo stories from their sport. A preacher who pilots a private airplane may take an unwilling congregation on an anecdotal flight every Sunday. Of course, some persons can identify with any of these activities and most persons can profit from an occasional reference to any one of them, but enough is enough.
The preacher needs to use a variety of materials that will not gorge even the heartiest appetite for a good thing, that will not crassly display wide reading, that will not compel the hearers to pursue the preacher’s hobbies for which they have no taste. Stories having to do with a variety of people in general, rather than with preachers, will be most helpful to lay people.
7. Does the sermon contain a prophetic word?
By “prophetic” I mean a timely word, perhaps a word of judgment. This suggests a sharp message from God that penetrates the humdrum, the complacent, the oppressive, the unjust, the sensual with a note of alarm, warning, threat, or condemnation.
Such a sermon may occasionally be necessary–and just as painful to the preacher as to the hearer. However, every sermon need not be prophetic in the sense of judgmental.
After all, the gospel is good news, and our hearers may bring with them to church a sense of the out-of-jointness of the times or a personal feeling of guilt and condemnation. If so, something different may be required. Place and circumstances can make the difference.
Consider this. Several years ago I raised these questions with Professor Markus Barth: “What do you think of the preaching of judgments and threats in a sermon? Shouldn’t the accent be always on the positive rather than the negative, and shouldn’t judgment be always enclosed within grace?”
His answer: “Yes. Several of the students of Union (Theological Seminary) have gone to places in Harlem to preach. There is overcrowding … there is rape, stealing, and what not. What does the minister preach?
“One minister told me that he had a rule: he never mentioned sin in his sermons, but only in his prayers where he and the congregation confessed their sins and asked for forgiveness. These people know what sin is, and they are constantly threatened for it by the cops. Threats in the sermon won’t help, but something else will.”
Be assured, however, that grace does not ignore or exclude judgment and that grace itself may in an extreme circumstance require a word of rebuke like that of the prophet Nathan to King David.
8. Does the sermon contain a constitutive word?
At least a part of the preceding discussion could be included here, for it has to do with the constitutive word as well as the word of judgment. Be that as it may, the constitutive word assumes that the hearers have received of the Lord’s hand double for all their sins (Isa. 40:2), or that they are among the oppressed, the excluded, the sorrowing, or the penitent. The word of the Lord in such cases is clearly, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (Isa. 40:1, RSV).
“The book of Job,” notes James Anders, “stands as a loud ‘no’ against using prophetic theology in dealing with an individual who is suffering beyond all possible notions of justice.”
Jesus’ inaugural sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth ought to give us a clue as to the purpose and general style of our preaching. He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).
9. Does the sermon contain a helpful personal word?
The personal word is inevitable. What the preacher says in the pulpit is self-revelatory. We may never use the first personal pronoun yet even our apparently objective utterance tells us who we are, what are our preoccupations, what are our attitudes on a host of subjects. Preaching at its best is, as Phillips Brooks characterized it, “truth through personality.”
I knew a preacher who eschewed confessional preaching and personal references from the pulpit, yet whose own sermons fairly bristled with his personality. He could not hide himself, even behind the cross, if he tried!
Of course, the use of stories of one’s private struggles can be overdone, but occasional personal examples, tastefully and discreetly told, can help create a comradeship in grace that imparts hope and courage. The Christian world is far richer because people like Augustine, John Bunyan, and Anton Boisen told the stories of their personal pilgrimage.
The preacher needs to word pulpit confessions with care, for, as Garrison Keillor noted, if the preacher says, “I am only human,” the congregation will think he has committed adultery!
10. Does the sermon address both mind and heart?
Peter Gomes entitled one of his sermons “Thinking Hearts and Loving Minds.” Ideally, this is the audience to which we preach: people who both think and feel.
The Christian faith has to do with the solid facts of God’s revelation of himself on the plane of human history. Theology is the rational reflection on the significance of these data. Laws that relate to historical evidence and to logic come into play.
Even though what we are dealing with here has to do with a transcendent realm and many mysteries, what we say about these things has to make some kind of sense.
The Christian faith deals also with the deepest feelings of which we are capable. The Bible speaks of salvation in terms of love, joy, and peace, fruit of God’s own Spirit in us who believe. If we touch these emotions with the truth of God, they will be catalysts transforming the dry bones of history and theology into vibrant, dynamic fellowship, obedience, service, and worship.
The demands of a well rounded ministry call for a wide spectrum of sermons. Some of them will apply more to the intellect, others more to the heart. No matter. The needs of people vary from time to time. Wise are the preachers who know that, and shape their sermons to meet those needs.

Share This On: