Determining a sermons subject is half done when a preacher has discerned what
the biblical writer was saying. We do not fully understand the subject until
we have also determined its purpose. It is too easy to preach on a doctrinal
topic or an exegetical insight without considering the spiritual burden of the
text for real people in the daily struggles of life. In doing so, preachers
relieve themselves of having to deal with the messiness and pain of human existence.
The greater intellectual and spiritual task is to discern the human concern
that caused the Holy Spirit to inspire this aspect of Scripture so that God
would be properly glorified by his people. Consideration of a passage’s purpose
ultimately forces us to ask, Why are these concerns addressed? What caused this
account, these facts, or the recording of these ideas? What was the intent of
the author? For what purpose did the Holy Spirit include these words in Scripture?
Such questions force us to exegete the cause of a passage as well as its contents
and to connect both to the lives of the people God calls us to shepherd with
Until we have determined a passage’s purpose, we are not ready to preach its
truths, even if we know many true facts about the text. Yet as obvious as this
advice is, it is frequently neglected. Preachers often think they are ready
to preach when they see a doctrinal subject reflected in a passage, though they
have not yet determined the text’s specific purpose. For example, simply recognizing
that a passage contains features that support the doctrine of justification
by faith alone does not adequately prepare a pastor to preach. A sermon is not
just a systematics lesson. Why did the biblical writer bring up the subject
of justification at this point? What were the struggles, concerns, or frailties
of the persons to whom the text was originally addressed? Were the people claiming
salvation based on their accomplishments, were they doubting the sufficiency
of grace, or were they afraid of God’s rejection because of some sin? We must
determine the purpose (or burden) of a passage before we really know the subject
of a sermon.5
We do not have to guess whether there is a purpose for a particular text. The
Bible assures us that every passage has a purpose, and it clearly tells us the
basic nature of this purpose. The apostle Paul writes, “All Scripture is God-breathed
and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,
so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim.
3:16-17). The Greek terms that Paul uses to express our need to be thoroughly
equipped convey the idea of bringing to completion. God intends for his Word
to “complete” us so that we can serve his good purposes.6
That is why the translators of the King James Version interpreted verse 17 of
the passage as “that the man of God may be perfect.” God intends for
every portion of his Word (i.e., “all Scripture”) to make us more like him so
that his glory is reflected in us.7
Since God designed the Bible to complete us for the purposes of his glory, the
necessary implication is that in some sense we are incomplete. We lack the equipment
required for every good work. Our lack of wholeness is a consequence of the
fallen condition in which we live. Aspects of this fallenness that are reflected
in our sinfulness and in our world’s brokenness prompt Scripture’s instruction
and construction.8 Paul writes, “Everything
that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance
and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).
The corrupted state of our world and our beings cries for God’s aid. He responds
with the truths of Scripture and gives us hope by focusing his grace on a facet
of our fallen condition in every portion of his Word. No text was written merely
for those in the past; God intends for each passage to give us the “endurance
and the encouragement”we need today (cf. l Cor.10:13). Preaching that is true
to these purposes (1) focuses on the fallen condition that necessitated the
writing of the passage and (2) uses the text’s features to explain how the Holy
Spirit addresses that concern then and now. The Fallen Condition Focus (FCF)
is the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those for
or by whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage to manifest
God’s glory in his people.
By assuring us that all Scripture has a Fallen Condition Focus (FCF), God indicates
his abiding care and underscores his preeminent status in preaching. The FCF
present in every text demonstrates God’s refusal to leave his frail and sinful
children without guide or defense in a world antagonistic to their spiritual
well-being. However, the FCF not only provides the human context needed for
a passage’s explanation but also indicates that biblical solutions must be divine
and not merely human. Since fallen creatures cannot correct or remove their
own fallenness, identification of the FCF forces a sermon to honor God as the
only source of hope rather than merely promoting human fix-its or behavior change.
In technical terms, though the FCF requires a sermon to deal honestly and directly
with the human concerns of the text, this focus simultaneously keeps the sermon
from being anthropocentric. The acknowledgment of human fallenness that undergirds
the text’s explanation and the sermons development automatically requires the
preacher to acknowledge the bankruptcy of merely human efforts and to honor
the wonders of divine provision.
Because an FCF is a human problem or burden addressed by specific aspects of
a scriptural text, informed preaching strives to unveil this purpose in order
to explain each passage properly. Obviously, there may be more than one way
of stating the purpose for a text since the biblical writer had various mechanisms
for stating or implying his purpose. There may also be a variety of purposes
within a specific text. Still, a sermon’s unity requires a preacher to be selective
and ordinarily to concentrate on a Scripture passage’s main purpose. The FCF
determines the real subject of a message because it is the real purpose behind
the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of a passage.9 Ultimately, a sermon
is about how a text says we are to respond biblically to the FCF as it is experienced
in our lives – identifying the gracious means that God provides for us
to deal with the human brokenness that deprives us of the full experience and
expression of his glory.
Various subdivisions and dimensions of the FCF may be developed as a sermon
unfolds, but the main theme should remain clear.This agenda makes sense when
we remember that a text’s contents are God’s response to and provision for an
aspect of our fallenness. The FCF sets the tone, determines the approach, and
organizes the information in a sermon to reveal this divine provision and direct
our response to it. Thus, the FCF is usually directly stated or strongly implied
in the introductory portion of a sermon.
Proper understanding of a passage and formation of a sermon require a clear
FCF If we do not determine the FCF of a text, we do not really know what the
passage is about, even if we know many true facts about it.10
The FCF reveals the Spirit’s own purpose for the passage, and we should not
presume to preach unless we have identified his will for his Word. We must ask,
What is an FCF that required the writing of this text? before we can accurately
expound its meaning. This FCF will enable us to interpret the passage properly,
communicate its contents, and give the congregation the Holy Spirit’s own reason
The more specific the statement of the FCF early in the sermon, the more powerful
and poignant the message will be. An FCF of “not being faithful to God” is not
nearly as riveting as “How can I maintain my integrity when my boss has none?”
A message directed to “the prayerless patterns of society” will not prick the
conscience or ignite resolve nearly as effectively as a sermon on “why we struggle
to pray when family stresses make prayer most necessary” Generic statements
of an FCF give the preacher little guidance for the organization of the sermon
and the congregation little reason for listening. Specificity tends to breed
interest and power by demonstrating that Scripture speaks to the real concerns
of individual lives.
Specific sins such as unforgiveness, lying, and racism are frequently the FCF
of a passage, but a sin does not always have to be the FCF of a sermon. Grief,
illness, longing for the Lord’s return, the need to know how to share the gospel,
and the desire to be a better parent are not sins, but they are needs that our
fallen condition imposes and that Scripture addresses. Just as greed, rebellion,
lust, irresponsibility, poor stewardship, and pride are proper subjects of a
sermon, so also are the difficulties of raising godly children, determining
God’s will, and understanding one’s gifts. An FCF need not be something
for which we are guilty or culpable. It simply needs to be an aspect or
problem of the human condition that requires the instruction, admonition, and/or
comfort of Scripture. Thus, an FCF is always phrased in negative terms. It is
something wrong (though not necessarily a moral evil) that needs correction
or encouragement from Scripture.
The personality of the preacher, the circumstances of the congregation, and
the emphases of a particular sermon can cause the statement of the FCF to vary
greatly. A passage whose central focus is learning to trust in God’s providence
may equally well address the need to lean on God in hard times, the responsibility
to teach others about God’s abiding care, or the sin of doubting God’s provision.
There is more than one proper way of wording a passage’s FCF for statement in
a sermon. This is why preachers can preach remarkably different sermons on the
same passage that are all faithful to the text. A preacher must be able to demonstrate
that the text addresses the FCF as it is formulated for this particular sermon,
not that this sermon’s phrasing of the FCF is the only way of reflecting on
this text. The truth of the text does not vary, but the significance of that
truth can vary greatly and be stated in many different ways that are appropriate
for difficult situations.
Since the FCF can vary greatly from text to text and from sermon to sermon preached
on the same text, a preacher needs to make sure the purpose of a sermon remains
evident in the passage. An FCF will remain faithful to a text and identify powerful
purposes in a sermon if a preacher uses these three successive questions to
develop the FCF:
1. What does
the text say?
2. What concern(s)
did the text address (in its context)?
3. What do listeners
spiritually share in common with those for (or about) whom it was written
or the one by whom it was written?
By identifying listeners’ mutual condition with the biblical writer, subject,
and/or audience, we determine why the text was written, not just for biblical
times but also for our time. We should realize, however, that the Holy Spirit
does not introduce an FCF simply to inform us of a problem. Paul told Timothy
that God inspires all Scripture to equip us for his work (see 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
God expects us to act on the problems his Spirit reveals.
concept: Without the “so what?” we preach to a “who cares?”
No passage relates neutral commentary on our fallenness. No text communicates
facts for information alone. The Bible itself tells us that its message is intended
to instruct, reprove, and correct (see 2 Tim. 3:16; 4:2). God expects scriptural
truths to transform his people. Faithful preaching does the same. The preacher
who identifies a passage’s FCF for a congregation automatically moves the people
to consider the Bible’s solutions and instructions for contemporary life. Therefore,
biblical preaching that brings an FCF to the surface also recognizes the need
Memorable in my own homiletics training was the Air Force colonel turned seminary
professor who challenged students, no matter where they preached in future years,
to imagine him sitting at the back of the sanctuary. With a benign scowl the
professor growled, “In your mind’s eye look at me whenever you have said your
concluding word. My arms are folded, my face holds a frown, and this question
hangs on my lips: ‘So what? What do you want me to do or believe?’ If you cannot
answer, you have not preached.”
People have a right to ask, “Why did you tell me that? What am I supposed to
do with that information? All right, I understand what you say is true –
so what?” The healthiest preaching does not assume listeners will automatically
see how to apply God’s truths to their lives; it supplies the application people
need.11 If even the preacher cannot tell (or
has not bothered to determine) how the sermon’s truths relate to life, then
people not only are unlikely to make the connection but also will wonder why
they bothered to listen.
Need for Application
The Bible’s instruction and pattern indicate the importance of application in
preaching. When Paul told Titus, “You must teach what is in accord with sound
doctrine” (Titus 2:1), the Bible students of that day probably echoed the chorus
of enthusiastic “Amens” today’s seminarians voice at such a statement. But Paul
did not mean that Titus was simply to teach theological propositions.12
In the next sentence, the apostle begins to unfold what preachers should teach
that “is in accord with sound doctrine”:
Teach the older
men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith,
in love and in endurance.
Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to
be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they
can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled
and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands,
so that no one will malign the word of God.
the young men to be self-controlled. (Titus 2:2-6)
Paul expects Titus’s “doctrine” to give the people of his congregation specific
guidance for their everyday lives. Such instruction does not merely characterize
this one passage; it reflects the pattern of Paul’s epistles (cf. Rom.1-15;
Eph.1-6). The apostle typically begins each letter with a greeting, moves to
doctrinal instruction, and then applies the doctrine to a variety of circumstances.
Paul refuses to leave biblical truth in the stratosphere of theological abstraction.
He earths his message in the concerns of the people he addresses.13
Preaching that is true to the pattern of Scripture should do the same.
Biblical preaching moves from exegetical commentary and doctrinal exposition
to life instruction. Such preaching exhorts as well as expounds because it recognizes
that Scripture’s own goal is not merely to share information about God but to
conform his people to the likeness of Jesus Christ. Preaching without application
may serve the mind, but preaching with application results in service to Christ.
Application makes Jesus the source and the objective of a sermon’s exhortation
as well as the focus of its explanation.
Clear articulation of an FCF drives a message’s application and ensures the
Christ-centeredness of a sermon. The FCF marshals a sermon’s features toward
a specific purpose and therefore helps a preacher see how to apply the information
in the text. At the same time, the fact that a message is focused on an aspect
of our fallenness precludes simplistic, human-centered solutions. If we could
fix the problem with our own efforts in our own strength, then we would not
be truly fallen. Application that addresses an FCF clearly rooted in the textual
situation necessarily directs people to the presence and power of the Savior
as they seek to serve him.
Early statements of an FCF in a sermon may open the door to application in a
number of ways. A preacher may open a spiritual or an emotional wound in order
to provide biblical healing, identify a grief in order to offer God’s comfort,
demonstrate a danger in order to warrant a scriptural command, or condemn a
sin in order to offer cleansing to a sinner. In each case, the statement of
the FCF creates a listener’s longing for the Word and its solutions by identifying
the biblical needs that the passage addresses.14
The surfacing of these scriptural priorities compels a preacher to tell others
how and why to do something about them. This compulsion becomes the spiritual
imperative that leads a preacher to discern the text’s answers and instructions.
When these crystallize, applications that are true to the text’s purpose, focus,
and context naturally develop.
Consequences of Nonapplication
However well selected is the meat of a sermon, the message remains uncooked
without thoughtful, true-to-the-text application. This rare meat is not at all
rare in evangelical preaching, as Walter Liefeld attests:
earlier years (I hope no longer) I often did exegesis in the pulpit, in large
measure because I was conscious of the deep and wide-spread hunger for teaching
from God’s Word. I finally realized that one can teach, but fail to feed or
inspire. I think (and again hope) that my sermons today are no less informative
but much more helpful.
Expository preaching is not simply a running commentary. By this I mean a loosely
connected string of thoughts, occasionally tied to the passage, which lacks
homiletical structure or appropriate application…
Expository preaching is not a captioned survey of a passage. By this I mean
the typical: “1. Saul’s Contention, 2. Saul’s Conversion, 3. Saul’s Commission”
(Acts 9:1-19). In my own circles I think I have heard more sermons of this type
than any other. They sound very biblical because they are based on a passage
of Scripture. But their basic failure is that they tend to be descriptive rather
than pastoral. They lack a clear goal or practical application. The congregation
may be left without any true insights as to what the passage is really about,
and without having received any clear teaching about God or themselves.15
A grammar lesson is not a sermon. A sermon is not a textual commentary, a systematics
discourse, or a history lecture. Mere lectures are pre-sermons because
they dispense information about a text without relevant application from the
text that helps listeners understand their obligations to Christ and his ministry
A message remains a pre-sermon until a preacher organizes its ideas an the text’s
features to apply to a single, major FCI? We might represent the concept this
(pre-sermon material) -> addressing a textually rooted FCF + relevant textual
application = sermon
A message that merely establishes “God is good” is not a sermon. Howe when the
same discourse deals with the doubt we may have about whether God is good when
we face trials and demonstrates from the text how handle our doubt with the
truths of God’s goodness, then the preacher h a sermon. A pre-sermon message
merely describes the text. Such a “speech may be accurate, biblically based,
and erudite, but the congregation know it falls short of a sermon even if the
preacher does not.
A former student recently telephoned me for assistance because his congregation
seemed to be growing less and less responsive to his preaching. “Last Sunday
during the sermon,” he said, “they just looked at me like they were lumps on
a log. I got no feedback whatsoever. What am I doing wrong?”
I asked him to describe his sermon to me. He responded by giving me the main
points of his outline:
Noah was wise.
Noah was fearless.
Noah was faithful.
understand,” I said. “Now, why did you tell them that?”
There was a long pause on the other end of the phone line. Then he groaned.
“Oh yeah. I forgot!”
Information without application yields frustration. This old adage rings true
for preachers as well as for parishioners. Preachers who cannot answer “so what?”
will preach to a “who cares?” Later in this book we will see that one way to
help keep the Bible’s truths from seeming disconnected from life today is to
state main points and subpoints as universal principles rather than simply as
descriptions or recitations of the facts in a text (such as “Noah was wise”).
The reason is that only when we can demonstrate that the facts of Scripture
were recorded for a purpose and have practical application for the lives of
God’s people today do our sermons warrant a hearing. This is not simply because
people have no reason to listen to what has no apparent relevance to their lives
– though this is certainly true. We must also recognize that sermons that
do not spell out the purposes and applications for which they were written fail
to fulfill God’s stated will for his Word.
We are not simply ministers of information; we are ministers of Christ’s transformation.
He intends to restore his people with his Word and is not greatly served by
preachers who do not discern the transformation Scripture requires or communicate
the means it offers.
Chapell is President and Professor of Preaching at Covenant Theological Seminary,
St. Louis, MO.
Preaching with Purpose, 27.
6. See the
Greek term artios (complete) in v. 17.
7. Some exegetes
understand the “man of God” in 2 Timothy 3:16 to refer to the Christian minister,
in which case the “work” for which the Word equips refers to ministry rather
than the sanctification of believers. This interpretation does not undermine
the conclusion that God intends “all Scripture” to “complete” believers, since
a minister’s duties of “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”from
“all Scripture”will convey God’s perspective on the hearers’ inherent need of
the scope of biblical truth.
Robinson refers to this as the “depravity factor” in “The Heresy of Application,”
Leadership Journal 18, no. 4 (Fall 1997):24.
Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching
Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1988),128-29.
11. See chap.
8 for a full discussion of application in preaching.
Fabarez offers this additional insight: “It can be demonstrated that the common
usage of the word ‘doctrine’ today is more narrow than in biblical usage. The
words lequach, sbemuab, and mucar in the Old Testament,
and didaskalia and didache in the New Testament (all of which
are translated ‘doctrine’ in various English translations) represent both abstract
propositions and practical directives” (Preaching That Changes Lives
[Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002], 215-26).
R. W Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1988),140.
14. A “biblical
need” may or may not be a “felt need.”In recent years, much criticism has been
offered of preaching that focuses on felt needs in order to make the gospel
appealing (see Terry Muck, “The Danger of Preaching to Needs.” cassette [Jackson,
Miss.: Reformed Theological Seminary, 1986], responding to such works as Charles
H. Kraft’s Communicating the Gospel God’s Way [Pasadena: William Carey
Library, 1979]). Such criticism rightly assumes that a steady diet of preaching
focused on felt needs can make faith and worship purely matters of self-concern.
At the same time, the gospel often helps people to see their biblical needs
through felt needs (John 4:4-26; Acts 17:22-23). Preachers should not be afraid
to help others see their biblical needs in order for such persons to discern
their biblical obligations.
L. Liefeld, New Testament Exposition: From Text to Sermon (Grand Rapids:
Preaching with Purpose, 51; and reiterated with even more force by
the same author in Truth Applied: Application in Preaching (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan, 1990), 33-39. See also Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections,
in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Perry Miller, vol. 2, ed. John
E. Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 115-16.