When I set out to write on the craft of sermon preparation, I didn’t get far before realizing that isolating the mechanics of preparing a sermon from the biblical teaching on a pastor’s calling runs the risk of reducing this tremendous responsibility to a list of techniques. Paul does tell Timothy to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). And Ecclesiastes reminds us that “The Preacher sought to find words of delight” (Eccl 12:10). So good communication is a biblical priority for any one charged with proclaiming the word. But it’s not the only priority. More has to be said.
In his treatise on The True Nature of a Gospel Church, the 17th century pastor-theologian John Owen explained eleven distinct responsibilities of pastors, including preaching, prayer, and the administration of the sacraments. Under the mandate “to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word,” Owen listed five requirements for “the work and duty of pastoral preaching.”[i] I find Owen’s words to be challenging, biblical, and helpful in providing guidance for preaching that doesn’t focus mainly on technique.
1. Know the Scriptures
The first requirement is “spiritual wisdom and understanding of the mysteries of the gospel,” so that we are equipped to declare “all the counsel of God” and “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Acts 20:27; 1 Cor 2:4-7; Eph 3:8-11). If we are heralds of God’s word, we must know the Scriptures. Sadly, I’ve known ministers who have never read all the way through their Bibles. But shouldn’t someone charged with proclaiming the truth of Scripture make it an ongoing priority to read, meditate on, and study it well? Every preacher needs a broad working knowledge of God’s word and a commitment to read through both Testaments with regularity. But Owen wasn’t thinking merely about grasping the Bible’s content, but also “spiritual insight” into scriptural truth.
2. Experience the power of the truth
This naturally led to his second requirement, an “experience of the power of the truth which they preach in and upon their own souls.” It’s not enough to know the truth. We must also experience its saving, sanctifying influence in our hearts.
The 19th century Scottish pastor, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, was a great example of this. His biographer said that M’Cheyne “fed others by what he himself was feeding upon. His preaching was in a manner the development of his soul’s experience.”[ii]
That’s exactly what Owen was after. “A man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul,” he said. “And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them…If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us.”
3. Prepare the message
But this emphasis didn’t lead Owen to neglect the rigor and discipline of careful study. Owen’s third requirement is, “skill to divide the word aright” (2 Tim 2:15). This consists “in a practical wisdom, upon a diligent attendance unto the word of truth, to find out what is real, substantial, and meet food for the souls of the hearers.” As someone suggested in an illustration that’s as heart-warming as it is quaint, it’s like a father skillfully carving the Sunday roast, to give the proper portion to each member of the family.
This is the place to highlight the craft of sermon preparation. While whole books have been written on this, I think we can compress the process into three phases:
(1) The task begins with selecting the preaching passage and studying the passage and its theological themes. (This presupposes, of course, my conviction that true preaching must be both expositional and theological.) This often involves heavy reading, though the longer you preach, the broader your knowledge of both Scripture and theology should be. But even so, we need to stay fresh and sharp. And that means reading.
(2) As you study, you gather a large amount of raw material. I’ve found it helpful to compile as much as possible into a single file devoted to the specific message I’m preparing. This usually includes the text of the passage I’m preaching on; written observations about the passage; important cross references; notes from commentaries; potential outlines for the sermon; as well as possible illustrations and ideas for application.
(3) Finally this material must be shaped into a message. This requires determining the main theme and focus of the sermon, crafting a clear structure with a smooth flow of thought, and developing a “homiletical plot” for the message that seeks a deliberate intersection between our fallen condition and God’s redemptive grace revealed in the gospel.[iii]
4. Know your flock
Thinking through the fallen condition of our hearers naturally leads to Owen’s fourth requirement, “a prudent and diligent consideration of the state of the flock… their strength or weakness, their growth or defect in knowledge…their temptations and duties, their spiritual decays or thrivings.” Owen saw an integral relationship between a pastor’s care for the flock and his feeding of the flock in the ministry of the word. But even when our context today involves a less personal relationship between pastors and people, we should remember that preaching is not merely teaching or motivational speaking. It is the work of a shepherd charged with guarding, tending, and feeding the flock. Therefore, we must do our best to understand the spiritual conditions of our hearers.
5. Check your motives
Finally, Owen reminds us that all these duties should be “constantly accompanied with the evidence of zeal for the glory of God and compassion for the souls of men.”Motivation is all-important. With a nod to the old catechism, the “chief end” of preaching “is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” But zeal for God’s glory necessarily includes love and compassion for people, born of a deep recognition of both our shared need for the good news of God’s saving word. In the words of Richard Baxter, I should “preach as never sure to preach again, as a dying man to dying men.”[iv]
What a high calling!
Reading guys like Baxter, Owen, and M’Cheyne help me feel something of the gravitas I should always feel when approaching the pulpit. It makes me say, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor 2:16) I know that I’m not. But that realization, too, is part of the preparation process. For, in the words of Paul,
What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Cor 4:5-7)