Tag Archives: preaching

The Anatomy of a Sermon – Writing the Sermon

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

A daunting task: writing a sound, expository sermon to be delivered to the Lord’s people. That’s why it’s so daunting. They are His people. He bought them with His own blood. It is His word. He gave it as a good gift, without a jot or tittle of imperfection. And yet it is also exhilarating work, where so often the preacher can sense being helped in a unique way.

Without question, the hours I spend writing a sermon are among my favorite hours of the week, usually including Saturday evening and then early Sunday morning. Here are a few thoughts about how I spend these hours:

  • I write the sermon with an open Bible and a keyboard. Yes, I have a detailed, multi-page study file, but I set it aside. I refer to it at end, to make sure I haven’t missed something I really wanted to include, but I don’t want to be directed by it in the sermon writing process. I want to prayerfully pour over the sermon text and work to express what I’ve learned in a clear, compelling way.
  • I limit myself to three pages. Three and only three, with virtually no exceptions. I have backed down to that from double that number over the past four years, but I am very committed to this limitation, at least for now. That means I am preaching from a skeleton, trusting that the flesh is in my head and ready for use. That means I am working from words and phrases, not sentences and paragraphs.  I find myself freer in my preaching taking this approach.
  • I generally use the same format. The format is this: introduction, including a quick review of the preceding text, prayer, a careful exposition of clearly delineated subsections of the text, then applications. I am very systematic when I preach. You can tell I am preaching from an outline. Engineers usually like it. Artists not so much.
  • I am conscious of finding Jesus in the text. Since Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the promises and prophecies of Scripture, and the ultimate source of life for all the people of God, I always try to find the most direct path to Him from the sermon text – Old Testament or New. There are gratuitous and unsound ways to go about this, by the way, which encourage further misuse of Scripture by the hearers, so I work hard not to stretch texts just to get to Christ. The sound paths to Jesus are more than sufficient.
  • I try my best to stay focused on the main point of the text. I am amazed at how easy it is to miss the mark on this – and how many times I have! When I was preparing to preach my first sermons, my mentor Scott Brown would ask me this question early in the week: “If you had to boil this text down to one irreducible sentence, what would it be?” We always need to have a good answer for that question, and then our hearers should be able to give that answer at the end of the sermon.
  • I work to come up with a very fitting title. The title matters. I used to think otherwise, but I have definitely changed my mind. This goes back to having the main point crystal clear in my mind, and being able to boil the text down to the most critical essentials. I know I have a good title when it makes sense to refer to it a couple of times during the sermon. With a not-so-good title, there won’t be much point in referring to it after the first 30 seconds of the sermon.

Most of these have little or no theological importance, and I’m confident there are better preachers who use very different approaches. Again, I offer what I do to stimulate thought.

For this series of posts, I continue to use a recent sermon that I preached on Nehemiah 13:10-14 titled “Forsaking the House of God” as an example. Here is what my sermon file looked like:

Sermon Pg 1

If you want to see the whole file, you can access it here.

On an average week, writing the sermon requires 3-4 hours of work.

One post remains: “Thoughts on Preaching”.

The Anatomy of a Sermon – Bible Work

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

Does it even need to be said that sermon preparation should start with the Bible work? By “Bible work” I mean the direct study of the sermon text itself, and the related cross-references, as opposed to what others say about the sermon text.

It is a great temptation to just skip to what Matthew Henry says (for instance), but a temptation which must be resisted. What quicker way can we imagine to quench the Spirit than an unhealthy – borderline idolatrous – reliance on men? Sermon preparation should begin with a quiet room and a Bible. The most important work in preparing a sound, expository sermon happens then.

Week in and week out, this describes my Bible work:

Men’s Bible study. At Sovereign Redeemer, the men and boys who are willing and able meet for an hour on Monday morning to discuss the text that will be preached on the upcoming Sunday. Leading that discussion gets me into the text at the start of the week, and gives me exposure to the thoughts of a variety of men regarding the text. If there are particular interpretive challenges, I become aware of them right away.

Searching out the best cross-references. The most important principle of Bible interpretation (or hermeneutic) is that Scripture interprets Scripture. Other related texts of Scripture are always the best commentary on the sermon text, and always the best source of explanation for difficulties in the sermon text. Always. So, after reading the sermon text slowly several times, and earnestly seeking the Lord for help, this is where I start. I look up every cross-reference from four sources (three study Bibles and Matthew Poole) one by one, looking at each in context and considering the bearing of each on the sermon text. My guess is that 75% of the finished sermon comes from this exercise. I cannot stress enough how invaluable this step is.

Comparing translations. Years ago, at an expository preaching conference, Dr. Andy Davis gave a message in which he said that if a preacher hasn’t studied the original languages (Hebrew in the Old Testament, Greek in the New), the next best thing is a comparison of reliable English translations. At points of translational agreement, the English word uniformly selected by the translators is a close equivalent to the word in the original language. At points of translational variation, the underlying Hebrew or Greek word is worth researching. Having never studied Hebrew or Greek, this has been very valuable advice for me. I use Bible Gateway, an online tool which allows for side-by-side comparison of selected translations. Here is the link that I use, which compares NKJV, KJV, NASB, ESV, and NIV.

Looking at the original language. For very prominent, important words in the text, and for places where significant translational variation exists, I look at the Hebrew or Greek. I use the online tool Blue Letter Bible. By entering the text, then selecting the verse, then selecting the Strong’s number for the word in question, a multitude of information is made available. Not only is information from the Lexicon very valuable, but the other places where the same word is used is displayed. Looking at the other usages of the same word is often pure gold.

Creating a basic outline. At this point I make a first attempt at creating a high level structure for the sermon. Having done the Bible work, I should have begun forming a view of how the text could or should be preached, and this forces me to begin articulating that. This first outline usually represents no more than fifteen minutes of scribbling on a legal pad, but it moves my thinking from what I am learning to how I might communicate what I am learning, which are vastly different things.

When all of this is complete, I have the beginnings of my study file, which I continue to populate throughout the week. For this series of posts, I am going to use a recent sermon that I preached on Nehemiah 13:10-14 titled “Forsaking the House of God” as an example. Here is what my study file looked like after having completed the Bible work I have been describing:

Study File

If you want to see the whole file, you can access it here.

A few things to point out:

  • I start by separating the verses of the sermon text, so that each verse of the sermon text begins a section of the material related to that verse.
  • Within the verse of the sermon text, I note any translational variations and/or facts about the original language in brackets and red text.
  • The cross-references are below each verse of the sermon text.
  • On an average week, the Bible work requires 3-4 hours.
  • As the week progresses and I continue to study, new material goes below the cross-references.

In my next post, I will discuss the outside helps – the study Bibles and commentaries – that I utilize to help me better understand the sermon text.

* As a side note, fantastic Bible study tools exist that are not even referenced in this post. I have not invested in these yet, but I have no doubt of their tremendous value. If you are interested, here is a detailed review of two of them.

The Anatomy of a Sermon – Introduction

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

In my last post, titled “A Preacher’s Building Blocks,” I argued that every time a preacher undertakes the painstaking task of preparing a sound, expository sermon, that preacher gains a rich deposit for his use in the future, a “building block” so to speak. I closed that post by threatening to write about the methods I use to prepare and then deliver what I hope are sound, expository sermons. I now attempt to make good on that threat.

Two preliminary comments:

1. I know that I have many, many superiors in this category.

2. None of this is “secret sauce” which should be employed by everyone or which guarantees success.

Still, these are methods employed by one man (me) who has been doing this week in and week out for several years now, and I hope that many will find that this stimulates thought, whether or not the methods themselves are emulated.

These are the posts that will follow:

Stay tuned.

A Preacher’s Building Blocks

Dear Sovereign Redeemer and other friends,

Every sound, expository sermon becomes a building block for the man who preached it. What I mean is that the preparation required to preach a sound, expository sermon becomes a rich deposit which is then at the disposal of the one who did that work.

Having preached most Sundays for the last four years, I know this is true. You can listen to my early sermons and my later sermons and tell that I have more building blocks at my disposal now than I did then. Every week that a text of Scripture is studied to the depth required to give a faithful exposition, so much is learned, so many connections in Scripture are uncovered, so many applications are considered. And this accumulates week by week, and all things being equal, causes sermons to have more depth and breadth over time.

Here are a couple of implications:

Preaching rotations have their “cons”.  There are some “pros” to ongoing preaching rotations, but a definite disadvantage is that each preacher has less building blocks. Any preacher will tell you that only a fraction of what is learned in preparing to preach a sermon can possibly be learned in the hearing of it. The preparation for a sermon might easily consume ten to fifteen intensely focused hours, while the hearing of it rarely exceeds a partially focused one. When one man has the primary responsibility to preach sequentially through a book of the Bible, he has the definite advantage of acquiring building blocks all along the way, and building blocks that are closely related to upcoming sermons at that. For each new sermon, he is reaching back and pulling forward things learned in the preceding weeks and months.

Setting aside a man reaps a harvest. Consider again my opening premise: “Every sound, expository sermon becomes a building block for the man who preached it.” A lot goes into that premise. A sound (careful, faithful, precise), expository (true explanation of the Scripture text) sermon doesn’t drop out of the sky. It comes from diligence, prayer, study, thought. It comes from time. When a church buys a man’s time and sends him off to go deep into the text, in order for him to bring them into the depth of it on Sunday, week after week, month after month, and year after year, that church is looking to reap the benefits of that, and they generally do. The ministry of the word is one of the core needs of a local church, and it is hard to imagine that it could be too lavishly provided for.

Church planting multiplies this effect. When Hope Baptist planted Sovereign Redeemer over four years ago, the number of men who were acquiring a new building block each week doubled from one to two. What is the value of that over time and many church plants? Priceless. That is the tragedy of short-circuiting that effect through satellite campuses which pipe in preaching over the jumbotron. Depth that could have been added to the Lord’s people is lost, and we become more dependent on personality and the most gifted communicators. Don’t get me wrong. There is no virtue in bad preaching, and we should praise God for gifted communicators if they are also leading godly lives, but the sound preaching of a truly local shepherd is to be preferred to John Piper on the jumbotron every time.

I hope these thoughts are useful, and I plan for them to be the introduction of a short series of posts titled “The Anatomy of a Sermon,” where I will outline the methods I use to prepare and then deliver what I hope are sound, expository sermons.