Sermons develop in three major ways: deductively, semi-inductively or inductively. In the deductive arrangement, the idea is stated completely as part of the introduction to the sermon, and then the sermon develops out of that idea. In the inductive development, the introduction leads only to the first point in the sermon, then with strong transitions each new point links to the previous point until the idea of the sermon emerges in the conclusion.
Induction and deduction may be combined in a sermon. Your introduction may state only the subject of your sermon (what you are talking about), and then each point in the sermon presents a complement to the subject. Another variation of the inductive/deductive development is that in your introduction, you lead up to your first point and develop it inductively. You may do that for the second point in the sermon where you will, for the first time, give the complete statement of your idea. Once your idea is stated, the sermon must proceed deductively to explain or prove or apply the idea.
All of this may seem as clear as the instructions on the income tax form. With this overview in mind, let’s look more closely at the deductive arrangements. Basically our homiletical ideas expand in line with the broad purposes of the sermon. Just as any statement we make develops through explaining, proving or applying it, so sermon ideas, too, demand explanation, validation or application. Deductive sermons, therefore, can take three different forms.
Deductive Arrangements
An Idea to Be Explained
Sometimes an idea must be explained. That happens when you want your congregation to understand a doctrine of the Bible. A truth correctly comprehended can carry its own application.
For example, if your car comes thumping to a halt because a tire has blown out, you must change the tire. If you do not know how to change it, your greatest need is for a clear explanation. Standing beside the highway, aware of the flat tire, you will actively listen to instruction on how to fix it. Having understood the explanation, you will presumably be motivated to get out the tools, jack up the car, and go about the business of trading the flat for the spare. All of this is to say that offering an audience a clear explanation of a biblical passage may be the most important contribution you can make through your sermon.
One well-worn formula for sermon development says: “Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them what you are telling them; then tell them what you have told them.” When our purpose requires that we explain a concept, that is splendid advice. In the introduction to such a sermon we state the complete idea; in the body we take the idea apart and analyze it; and in the conclusion we repeat the idea again. Certainly such a development wins through clarity anything it loses in suspense.
As an example, Alexander Maclaren preached a sermon to explain Colossians 1:15-18: “Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in Him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through Him, and unto Him; and He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things He might have the preeminence.” Trying to make sense of this passage is difficult. You can’t help but ask, “What does that mean?”
Within the sermon Maclaren states his purpose: “My business is not so much to try to prove Paul’s words as to explain them, and then press them home.” His subject is, “Why is Jesus Christ supreme over all creatures in everything?” and his complement is, “Because of His relation to God, to the creation and to the church.” Bringing his subject and complement together, the statement of his idea for the sermon would be, “Jesus Christ is supreme over all creatures in everything because of His relation to God, to the creation and to the church.” In developing this idea through explanation, Maclaren purposes to motivate Christians to make Christ preeminent in their lives.
How then does Maclaren go about the sermon? He offers his idea twice in the introduction. “Christ,” he declares, “fills the space between God and man. There is no need for a crowd of shadowy beings to link heaven with earth. Jesus Christ lays His hand upon both. He is the head and fountain of life to His church. Therefore, He is first in all things to be listened to, loved and worshipped by men.”
The entire sermon will say nothing more than that. In the next paragraph Maclaren presents the idea in an abbreviated form a second time: “There are here three grand conceptions of Christ’s relations. We have Christ and God, Christ and the creation, Christ and the church, and built upon all these, the triumphant proclamation of His supremacy over all creatures in all respects.”
In the body of the sermon, Maclaren explains what those relationships involve. Reduced to its outline, the sermon proceeds in this way:
I. The relation of Christ to God is that He is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).
A. God in Himself is inconceivable and unapproachable.
B. Christ is the perfect manifestation and image of God.
1. In Him the invisible becomes visible.
2. He alone provides certitude firm enough for us to find sustaining power against life’s trials.
II. The relation of Christ to creation is that He is “the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15-17).
A. Christ is the agent of all creation, and the phrases Paul used imply priority of existence and supremacy over everything.
B. Christ sustains a variety of relations to the universe; this is developed through the different prepositions Paul used.
III. The relation of Christ to His church is that He is “the head of the body” who is “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18).
A. What the Word of God before the incarnation was to the universe, so is the incarnate Christ to His church. He is the “firstborn” to both.
B. As “the head of the body,” He is the source and center of the church’s life.
C. As the “beginning” of the church through His resurrection, He is the power by which the church began and by which we will be raised.
Conclusion: “The apostle concludes that in all things Christ is first — and all things are, that He may be first. Whether in nature or in grace, the preeminence is absolute and supreme…. So the question of questions for us all is, ‘What think ye of Christ?’ … Is He anything to us but a name? … Happy are we if we give Jesus the preeminence, and if our hearts set ‘Him first, Him last, Him midst and without end.'”1
In this entire sermon Maclaren does little else but answer the question, “What does this passage mean?” In explaining it, he applies it. In one major way Maclaren’s sermon could have been stronger. In his introduction, he could have done more to show his listeners why they needed to understand this passage. Aside from not understanding it (which is a need, but not a strong one), a modern audience would wonder, “Why bring this up?”
One other thing is essential in a sermon about an idea explained: your introduction is crucial to its success. You must find a need for the explanation. This sermon form works only if you scratch your people where they itch. No one listens to instructions on how to make a souffle if he or she has never even boiled an egg.
A Proposition to Be Proved
Deductive sermons take other forms, however, and sometimes an idea requires not explanation but proof. When this is the case, the idea appears in the introduction as a proposition you will defend. Because your stance as a preacher resembles that of a debater, your points become reasons or proofs for your idea. You’re answering the developmental questions, “Is that true?” and “Why should I believe it?”
An example of a sermon in which a proposition is proved can be taken from 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, where Paul argues for the resurrection of the body. In the context Paul has contended that the Corinthians cannot believe that Jesus rose from the dead and continue to maintain that there is no such thing as resurrection. A sermon from verses 12-19 will defend the proposition, “The Christian faith is worthless unless Christians rise from the dead.” The preacher aims to convince the hearers that the doctrine of resurrection lies at the center of Christianity. The idea is stated in the introduction, and the major points defend it as a series of arguments. In outline form the sermon would look like this:
I. If Christians do not rise, the Christian faith lacks valid content (vv. 12-14).
A. If the dead do not rise, it follows that Christ did not rise.
B. If Christ did not rise, then the gospel is a delusion.
C. If the gospel is a delusion, then our faith in that gospel has no substance.
(A second reason why the Christian faith is worthless unless Christians rise …)
II. If Christians do not rise, the apostles are despicable liars (v. 15).
A. Since the apostles all preached the resurrection of Jesus, which could not have taken place if there is no resurrection, then they are “‘false witnesses.”
B. They are guilty of the worst kind of falsehood, since they gave false testimony about God, whom they claimed raised Jesus from the dead.
(A third argument why the Christian faith is worthless unless Christians rise …)
III. If Christians do not rise, then the Christian faith is futile (vv. 16-17).
A. If Christ’s resurrection did not happen, which would be the case if there is no resurrection of the dead, then the effects ascribed to it are not valid.
B. Christians therefore are still dead in their sins. A dead Savior is no Savior at all.
(A fourth argument to be considered …)
IV. If Christians do not rise, then Christians have no hope (vv. 18-19).
A. If there is no resurrection, then Jesus was not raised and His death accomplished nothing.
B. It would follow then that dead saints “have perished.”
C. Christians suffering for Christ in anticipation of life to come are to be pitied. Without resurrection, the hope that sustains them is only wishful thinking.
Conclusion: The resurrection of the dead stands as a crucial doctrine of Christianity. if it falls, the entire system of Christian faith crumbles with it, and the Christian gospel and its preachers offer nothing to the world. Since Christ has been raised, however, the belief in resurrection and the Christian faith rest on a strong foundation. We live in hope.
At first the idea explained and the idea proved appear to be identical because both sermons set forth the sermon idea in the introduction and then develop it. What must be recognized, though, is that the sermons expand in different directions to accomplish different purposes.
A Principle to Be Applied
A third form that deductive sermons take grows out of the question of application: So what? What difference does this make? In this type of sermon you establish a biblical principle in either your introduction or your first major point; then in the remainder of your message you explore the implications of the principle.
An outline of a sermon designed to apply a principle is drawn from 1 Peter 2:11-3:9. The introduction to the sermon discusses how our attitudes determine action and then asks the question, “What should be our attitude as Christ’s men and women in a world that is no friend of God and grace?” The purpose behind the sermon is to have Christians develop a submissive spirit in their social relationships. The principle to be applied appears in the first point.
I. We are to be subject for God’s sake to every human institution (2:11-12, 21-25).
A. Subjection brings glory to God (2:11-12).
B. Christ illustrates submission even to institutions that worked evil against Him (2:21-25).
1. He was completely innocent (v. 22).
2. He remained silent and trusted Himself to God (v. 23).
3. His sufferings were redemptive (vv. 24-25).
(What difference should this principle of submission to human institutions make in our daily lives?)
II. This principle of adopting a submissive spirit for God’s sake must govern us in our social relationships (2:13-20; 3:1-7).
A. We are to submit for God’s sake to civic leaders (2:13-17).
B. We are to submit for God’s sake to our employers (2:18-20).
C. We are to submit for God’s sake to our spouses (3:1-7).
1. Wives should have a submissive spirit toward their husbands (vv. 1-6).
2. Husbands should have a submissive spirit toward their wives (v. 7).
Conclusion: “All of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kind-hearted and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing” (3:8-9).
The three sermon forms we have discussed — an idea explained, a proposition proved and a principle applied — are deductive arrangements of the sermon. In all three, your idea is stated in the introduction or the first major point of the sermon. Everything within the sermon, then, relates back to the idea.
There are also semi-inductive sermons. These sermons fall in between deduction and induction.
Semi-Inductive Arrangements
A Subject to Be Completed
The first semi-inductive form presents only the subject in the introduction, not the entire idea, and the major points complete the subject. This subject-completed form of development is the most common one used in our pulpits, and many preachers never vary from it.
In the hands of a skilled preacher, a sermon patterned this way can produce tension and strong climax. James S. Stewart, in an exposition of Hebrews 12:22-25, provides a case study, in his introduction, Stewart establishes his subject. The writer of Hebrews, he tells us, “is saying five things about our fellowship of Christian worship in the church.” The purpose of the sermon is, in his words, “to make us realize the riches of our heritage when we assemble in our places of worship.” With the subject “What makes our worship rich?” being stated in the introduction, each point in the body helps to complete it.
I. It is a spiritual fellowship: “You are come unto Mt. Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (v. 22). Christians have direct touch with that invisible spiritual world which is the only ultimate reality.
(“I pass on to the second fact our text underlines concerning the fellowship of Christian worship.”)
II. It is a universal fellowship: “You are come to the church of the first-born who are written in heaven” (v. 23). Christians are members of the greatest fellowship on earth, the Church universal.
(“I pass on to the third description he gives of our fellowship in Christian worship.”)
III. It is an immortal fellowship: “You are come to myriads of angels in festal array, and to the spirits of just men made perfect” (v. 23). When Christians are at worship, their loved ones on the other side of eternity are near to them and a cloud of witnesses surrounds them.
IV. It is a divine fellowship: “You are come to the God of all who is Judge, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant” (vv. 23-24). In your worship, he tells them, reaching now to the very heart of the matter, you have come to God as revealed in Jesus.
(“One other fact about our fellowship in worship he adds, and so makes an end.”)
V. It is a redeeming fellowship: “You are come to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh of better things than that of Abel” (v. 24). “When our sins cry out to God for punishment and vengeance, something else also happens — the blood of Christ cries louder, overbears and silences the very crying of our sins, and God for Christ’s sake forgives.”2
Stewart has no formal conclusion, but rather, his final point serves to bring the sermon to an effective close. Notice that in his transitions, he relates each separate point not to the previous point but only to the subject that it completes.
This sermon form depends on a key word that holds the points together. In Stewart’s sermon, it is the generic word things. Each of his five points is a “thing” about our fellowship when we come together to worship. One complaint about the subject-completed form of semi-inductive sermons is that it can be boring. It bores the preacher and, when it is used constantly, it can bore the audience. More important, there is a danger of imposing on the thought of the biblical writer what the writer himself is not saying. We force the thought of the passage into a previous mold. The advantage of the form, however, is that it is simple and easy to use.,
Induction and deduction may be combined in your sermon. The idea is stated some place in the middle of the sermon. The introduction and first or second point will lead up to the idea, then the remainder of the sermon proceeds deductively to explain, prove or apply the idea.
One specific way the inductive-deductive sermon can be developed is to explore a problem. Within the introduction and first point you identify a personal or ethical problem, explore its roots and perhaps discuss inadequate solutions. At the second point you propose a biblical principle or approach to the problem, and throughout the remainder of the sermon, you explain, defend or apply it.
This inductive-deductive arrangement also applies to “life situation” preaching. In the introduction you discuss in personal terms a question, problem or bewildering experience such as depression or grief. You may then demonstrate that the specific case you have brought up actually reflects a more general theological or philosophical problem. Finally, you offer a positive biblical solution in a practical, usable manner. Your sermon, therefore, becomes a bridge-building project that spans the gulf between personal needs on one side and scriptural truth on the other.
Inductive Arrangements
Sermons can also be developed inductively. Inductive sermons move toward a complete statement of your idea at the end of the sermon. In your introduction, therefore, you do not state the complete idea of your sermon. You will relate your introduction only to the first point of the sermon.
Following that point, you must raise another question, directly or indirectly for the audience to consider. Your second point, then, grows out of your first point. When your second point is developed, you must raise still another question coming out of that point, which is answered in your next point. Only when all of your points have been developed will you state the idea of your sermon.
Obviously, transitions are crucial in an inductive sermon. Your audience cannot refer back to your central idea because you have not stated it. They’re completely at your mercy. If your transitions do not remind them of where they have been, and the question that emerges that still must be answered, your audience is lost. If you are a fledgling preacher, proceed with caution. Congregations who have been exposed to an inductive sermon at the hands of an amateur may still be wandering around, trying to find their way home.
At the same time, inductive sermons have advantages. They produce a sense of discovery in listeners. As preachers, we often see ourselves as going to the Scriptures and finding truth and delivering it to our listeners. The sermon becomes show-and-tell. In the inductive sermon, listeners can have the experience of learning truth for themselves. It can produce a strong sense of discovery.
Inductive sermons are particularly effective with indifferent or even hostile audiences. They work well with hearers who might reject your sermon idea out of hand. Through induction you can present a series of ideas that the audience will agree with until you come to your major idea, and they are forced to accept it. This has been called the “yes-yes” approach. You will get the audience to say yes to a number of things with which they agree before you present a concept with which they will disagree.
When Peter addressed the throng at Pentecost — a crowd which had recently crucified Jesus — he employed an inductive approach. In his introduction he answered the questions in the minds of his hearers about the phenomena of Pentecost. By quoting from the prophet Joel, he then went on to prove from their Scriptures and from experience that Jesus is the Christ and Lord they had murdered, the one who alone could save them from judgment. He stated his idea at the conclusion of his message: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). Had he offered that idea at the beginning of his sermon, his listeners might have killed him. Through his inductive approach, he turned a suspicious and antagonistic audience into people who asked, “What must we do?”
It is difficult to sketch the structure of an inductive sermon using a traditional outline. Because all outlines have to be deductive (a main point stated and then supported), it is easier to map an inductive sermon in a series of movements that leads up to the sermon’s one major idea. Start with an honest human problem and work toward a biblical solution. Your sermon may unfold something like this:
The mess someone is in. Develop a problem in personal terms. How does a particular individual experience it? How do they actually talk about what they are going through? All theological questions show up in life somehow, somewhere, or they aren’t worth the bother. Start your sermon in someone’s life.
But look! This personal mess is really part of something larger. The individual’s situation is really a single case of something much wider. Provide examples of where the problem shows up in different ways in people’s experience. What are the consequences this larger problem creates in ourselves or in people we know? What questions does that raise?
Not only that, but the mess didn’t start with us. We are talking about something fundamental to human experience. Talk about the problem as it occurred to people throughout history and particularly to someone in the Bible.
That raises a deeper question: how did anyone get into this mess? Was it deliberate? Do people stumble into it?
Folks don’t go down without a struggle. What solutions have they tried to dean up the mess they were in? How did people in the Bible respond? Did the solutions work or simply make matters worse?
Finally, there must be good news. There is a way out of the mess! Expose the biblical principle at work in your passage. How did it work in men or women in the Bible? Then relate the principle to the individual you introduced in your introduction. Apply it to others wrestling with the same kind of problem.
Not all of these moves in your sermon get equal space. While it is tempting to talk about the problem, you must spend enough time showing your listeners the solution in the biblical account and the solution at work in life.
The inductive sermon is closer to a conversation than to a lecture. To make it work, we have to know how people actually think and act. Listeners have to feel “that could be me.” We also have to feel our way back into the scriptures. The difference between a religious discourse and a sermon throbbing with life is the difference between reading a book on poverty and standing in line with a mother and her three hungry kids waiting to get some food stamps. Share Paul’s fury as he wrote to the Galatians. Feel a knot in your stomach over Asaph’s faith-shaking doubts in Psalm 73. Smell the stench of Job’s sores. Feel Timothy’s anxiety in feeling overmatched and undermanned by his assignment at Ephesus.
The Bible is great literature, but literature is not life. “The printed page is too free of blood and tears,” Ernest Campbell noted, “to be even a reasonable facsimile of reality.” Inductive sermons work best when, from beginning to end, from current problem to biblical solution, we are talking about actual people, not about cardboard characters in tissue paper plots.
A Story Told
Inductive sermons have special appeal to inhabitants of a culture dominated by television and motion pictures. We have become a storied culture. Whether it is a mystery drama, a comedy or even a sports contest, there is a large element of induction. The drama isn’t solved until the end of the last act, and the joke leads up to the punch line, and the sports event moves toward the final score. Inductive sermons fit that way of thinking. That is particularly true of a specific type of inductive sermon — a story told. You connect with a modern audience when you tell a biblical story with insight and imagination.
Unfortunately, through some tortured reasoning we have persuaded ourselves that stories belong to children and that mature adults take their principles straight, without any sugar coating. Therefore we relegate stories to the nursery or we carry a novel with us on vacation only as a way to pass the time.
The low marks we have given to the story must be revised upward if we observe the impact stories make upon us all. Television abounds with them — some shoddy, some shady, some shaky, some worthwhile — but TV dramas attract audiences and shape their values. The future of our culture may depend on the stories that capture the imagination and mind of this generation and its children.
Anyone who loves the Bible must value the story, for whatever else the Bible is, it is a book of stories. Old Testament theology comes packaged in narratives of men and women who go running off to set up their handmade gods, and of others who take God seriously enough to bet their lives on Him. When Jesus appeared, He came telling stories, and most of them have entered the world’s folklore. In fact, so brilliant a storyteller was Jesus that we sometimes miss the profound theology disguised in His tales of a rebelious delinquent and his insufferable brother, a pious Pharisee and a repentant tax collector, buried treasures, and a merchant who had an unexpected appointment with death.
Narrative preaching however does not merely repeat a story as one would recount a pointless, worn-out joke. Through the story you communicate ideas. In a narrative sermon, as in any other sermon, a major idea continues to be supported by other ideas, but the content supporting the points is drawn directly from the incidents in the story. In other words, the details of the story are woven together to make a point, and all the points develop the central idea of the sermon.
Narratives are most effective when the audience hears the story and arrives at the speaker’s ideas without the ideas being stated directly.
Motion picture director Stanley Kubrick discussed the power of the indirect idea in an interview reported in Time: “The essence of dramatic form is to let an idea come over people without its being plainly stated. When you say something directly, it is simply not as potent as it is when you allow people to discover it for themselves.”4 Whether the points are stated or only implied depends on your skill as the preacher, the purpose of your sermon and the awareness of your audience. In any case the story should unfold so that listeners identify with the thoughts, motives, reactions and rationalizations of the biblical characters, and in the process acquire insight into themselves as well.
We have looked at several forms sermons can take. Some are deductive, others are inductive, and still others fall some place in between. What we have surveyed should not be considered exhaustive but suggestive.
In the final analysis, there is no such thing as “a sermon form.” God’s truth would be better served if we didn’t think about preaching a sermon at all. When we have arrived at what we believe is the meaning of a passage and have thought about the needs and questions of our audience, then the question is: What is the best way for this idea to be developed? The shoe must not tell the foot how to grow; therefore, ideas and purposes should be allowed to take their own shape in your mind. To test a form, you should ask at least two questions: (1) Does this development communicate what the passage teaches? (2) Will it accomplish my purpose with this audience? If your development communicates your message, by all means use it; if it gets in the way of your message, then devise a form more in keeping with the idea and purpose of the Scriptures and the needs of your hearers.
When an architect designs a building, he or she begins with a concept derived from function (what the building is to do) and form (how the building will look). To construct the building, the architect turns the idea into a blueprint showing in detail how the concept will translate into steel, stone and glass.
Taken from Biblical Preaching, 2d ed. by Haddon W. Robinson, (c) 1980, 2001, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI. All rights reserved.
1An outline is not a sermon. To read this sermon with its supporting material, see Faris D. Whitesell, ed., Great Expository Sermons, pp. 68-77.
2The complete sermon, with its sturdy language and effective supporting material, may be found in Faris D. Whitesell, Great Expository Sermons, pp. 138-46.
3For further elaboration on this form, see Charles W. Koller, Expository Preaching without Notes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1962) or Faris D. Whitesell and Lloyd M. Perry, Variety in Your Preaching. Whitesell and Perry give several pages of different key words that can be used to achieve variety.
4In Martha Duffy and Richard Schickel, “Kubrick’s Grandest Gamble,” Time, 15 December 1975, p. 72.

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