Imagine writing a sermon that must be original, insightful, useful, challenging, comforting . . . once a week. That's exactly what most preachers are called upon to do while seeing to all of the other responsibilities that comprise their vocation.

Book four in The Preacher's Toolbox series tackles the art and craft of sitting down to face a blank computer screen and coming up with a message that feeds and even entertains the listener. Expert ...
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Sermon Preparation

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Imagine writing a sermon that must be original, insightful, useful, challenging, comforting . . . once a week. That's exactly what most preachers are called upon to do while seeing to all of the other responsibilities that comprise their vocation.

Book four in The Preacher's Toolbox series tackles the art and craft of sitting down to face a blank computer screen and coming up with a message that feeds and even entertains the listener. Expert preachers, speakers and teachers share the results of years of doing just that.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781619700864
  • Publisher: Hendrickson Publishers, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 12/1/2012
  • Series: Preacher's Toolbox, #4
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 468,732
  • File size: 2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Sermon Preparation

By Craig Brian Larson

Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC

Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today International
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61970-086-4



Here are the fundamentals to move from a biblical text to a message structure that speaks to today's listeners.

Jeffrey Arthurs

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a great preacher of London in the mid-twentieth century, knew that structuring the sermon is one of our most difficult homiletical tasks:

The preparation of sermons involves sweat and labour. It can be extremely difficult at times to get all this matter that you have found in the Scriptures into [an outline]. It is like a ... blacksmith making shoes for a horse; you have to keep on putting the material into the fire and on to the anvil and hit it again and again with the hammer. Each time it is a bit better, but not quite right; so you put it back again and again until you are satisfied with it or can do no better. This is the most grueling part of the preparation of a sermon; but at the same time it is a most fascinating and a most glorious occupation. (Preachers and Preaching, 80)

This article can't (and shouldn't) stop the sweat and labor, but it can help you strike skillfully. When pastors begin their sermon prep (and, unfortunately, sometimes when they end their sermon prep), the text often seems to be, as Hamlet said, "words, words, words." The relationships among the words—the ideas presented—are hard to discern and even harder to package for the congregation. The purpose of this article is to help us make sense of the words and structure them in a way that makes sense to the listeners. As homiletical blacksmiths, five strokes of the hammer help us structure our sermons.

First stroke: state the exegetical outline

Summarize the flow of thought in your text. We call this the exegetical outline, and it is part of basic exegesis. If you have gotten away from that discipline, get back to it. Charting the flow of thought with a mechanical layout, grammatical diagram, or semantic structural analysis is an indispensible step in creating an expository sermon. Simply identifying a general theme is not enough to reveal authorial intention. Laying out the major ideas and their relationships will help you identify the unifying core of the text, what Haddon Robinson calls the exegetical idea.

Once you articulate that idea, then you can turn it into your sermon's "big idea." In essay writing this is called the thesis. In public speaking it is called the central idea. The big idea is the distilled essence of the message. Compare the exegetical idea (the text's central truth) and the big idea (the sermon's central truth):

Exegetical idea
Big idea

Purpose—to summarize the
Purpose—to communicate the
passage in a single sentence message of the passage in a
single sentence so that it aids
comprehension and lodges in

Sounds like a commentary
Sounds like a proverb

As long as necessary for
Fifteen words of fewer
accuracy and thoroughness

Third person
First of second person

Past tense
Present tense

Example from Psalm 32:
Example fro Psalm 32:
The psalmist praised God for
Cover or be covered.
the forgiveness he received
after confessing his sin,
because blessing attends the
one whose sins are covered by
God, but woes attend the one
who tries to cover his own sin.

I believe that every sermon should have a big idea for two reasons. The first relates to sound hermeneutics. Conservative exegetes believe in authorial intention—that the biblical authors intended to convey ideas to their readers. In any thought unit such as a paragraph in an epistle or a scene in a narrative, the author wanted to get a point across. To be sure, texts have many ideas, but our job in exegesis is to discern how those ideas relate to each other. They swirl around a central point. Texts are not a random hodgepodge. Stating the exegetical idea helps us articulate authorial intention. My second reason relates to communication. Sermons are most effective when they are laser focused. When the preacher cuts extraneous fat, listeners comprehend clearly. Reducing the essence of the sermon to one idea will increase its impact.

As you outline the text's flow of ideas, you can expect to see the following patterns of thought, common to human experience:

• problem-solution

• cause-effect

• contrast (not this, but this)

• chronology (first this happened, then this, then this)

• promise-fulfillment

• lesser to greater

• argument-proof

• explanation-application

• principle-example/amplification

Other patterns undoubtedly exist, and once you train your mind to think in logical categories like these, discerning flow of thought becomes second nature. Some of the patterns above use inductive reasoning, and some use deductive reasoning. Induction starts with particulars and moves toward a conclusion or principle. The first six patterns are inductive. Deduction starts with the conclusion or axiom and then explains, proves, or applies that idea. The last three patterns are deductive.

Here is an exegetical outline for James 4:13–17, with commentary on the flow of thought in italics:

I. Some of James's readers boasted about tomorrow (v. 13).

Effect: The passage begins inductively with an example of boasting. This is the effect of the cause James will identify later in the passage (arrogance). The author places a hypothetical speech in the mouths of the readers to show them what arrogance sounds like.

II. James rebukes such boasting (v. 14).

Contrast: In contrast to the wealth of knowledge implied in the boastful opening speech, the readers actually know little. They do not know the future. They are as fragile as mist. The logical flow from verse 13 to verse 14 is contrast: not this, but this.

III. James contrasts boastful speech with submissive speech (v. 15).

Contrast continued: The author continues with the logic of contrast by creating another hypothetical speech. This second speech shows proper words that are submissive and humble, in contrast with the opening speech.

IV. The readers boast because they are arrogant (v. 16a).

Cause: The author has described and illustrated the effect (boasting), and now he reveals the cause: arrogance. Westerners normally think in terms of cause-effect, but the reverse, effect-cause, is also possible.

V. Boasting is evil, and anyone who knows this, but persists in boasting, sins (vv. 16b–17).

Summary: James pulls the camera back to present the broad landscape. He ends by summarizing the previous exhortation about boasting. (Another possibility is that he provides further argumentation why the readers should not boast.)

Here is an exegetical outline for Psalm 32:

I. Blessed is the one whom the Lord has forgiven (vv. 1–2).

Announcement of theme: David summarizes the whole psalm with this headline.

II. When the author tried to cover his own sins, the Lord disciplined him (vv. 3–4).

Problem: David describes the trouble his silence brought—the Lord's heavy hand of discipline. Tradition says that this psalm grew out of David's personal experience—his sins of adultery and murder, and his attempt to cover his own sins. After the announcement of the theme, he describes how miserable he was when he refused to confess.

III. Then the author confessed, and God forgave (v. 5).

Solution: After experiencing the discipline of God, David finally confessed and experienced the blessings described in verses 1–2. The logical (and somewhat chronological) flow moves from trouble to grace, problem to solution.

IV. The author urges others to follow his example and experience God's deliverance (vv. 6–11).

Exhortation: David exhorts the readers to learn from his experience. The wicked experience sorrow, but the love of God surrounds the ones who trust him. Therefore, confess!

Clear structure of the sermon depends on crystal clear understanding of the flow of thought in the passage. Do not rush this foundational step in your exegesis.

Second stroke: rephrase (and possibly reorder) the points as a homiletical outline

Using John Stott's metaphor of "standing between two worlds," the exegetical outline resides in the world of the text, and the homiletical outline resides in the world of the listener. Compare:

Exegetical outline
Homiletical outline

Past tense
Present tense

Third person
First or second person

Summarized the author's
Summarized your thought from
thought the text for the congregation

Follows the textual order Usually follows the textual order,
exactly but can also follow "thought

I'll illustrate the last item in this chart in a moment, but first let me illustrate the top three items. In the examples that follow, notice that the outline no longer sounds like a commentary ("James told his readers to do such and such"; "David did this or that"). Rather, it sounds like a living soul addressing living souls.

Here is a homiletical outline from James 4:13–17:

I. Sometimes we boast about tomorrow (v. 13).

II. We should not do this, because our knowledge is limited and our days are short (v. 14).

III. Big idea: Rather than boasting, we should speak with humility and submission to God's will (v. 15).

IV. The cause of our boasting is arrogance (v. 16a).

V. Now that you know this, if you continue to boast, you sin (vv. 16b–17).

Here is a homiletical outline from Psalm 32:

I. Big idea (summary): Blessed is the one whom the Lord has forgiven (vv. 1–2).

II. Problem: When we refuse to confess our sins, we bake in the oven of discipline (vv. 3–4).

III. Solution: Confess your sins, and God will forgive (v. 5).

IV. Exhortation: Listen to God's wisdom and experience God's deliverance (vv. 6–11).

To return to the issue above—the issue of textual order and thought order—consider this helpful example from Donald Sunukjian (summarized from Invitation to Biblical Preaching, 56–64):

Textual order: "Don't get mad when the paperboy throws your paper in the bushes." The arrangement is response (don't get mad) to cause (the paperboy throws your paper in the bushes).

Thought order: A sermon from this "text" could rearrange the textual order into the more natural thought order of cause-response. This would help the listeners follow the sequence of ideas. Thus:

I. Cause: Sometimes the paperboy throws your paper in the bushes.

II. Response: When that happens, don't get mad.

Although expository preachers usually adhere to textual order, rearranging the points of the expository outline can sometimes help us stand between two worlds. Rearrangement can help us clarify the meaning of the text.

Here are two examples from the texts above. First is a homiletical outline from James 4:13–17, rearranged for inductive thought order:

I. Our knowledge is limited, and our days are short (v. 14).

Transition: Yet ...

II. In our arrogance we boast (vv. 13, 16a).

Transition: Therefore ...

III. Such boasting is sin (vv. 16b–17).

Transition: In contrast ...

IV. Big idea: We should speak with humility and submission to God's will (v. 15).

The flow of thought in the outline above moves inductively. Starting with the assertion that we are fragile creatures, limited and ephemeral, the sermon's final point is the big idea. The sermon has driven toward the big idea.

Another homiletical outline could be arranged deductively, stating the big idea first. For example, here is a homiletical outline from James 4:13–17 rearranged for deductive thought order:

I. Big idea: We should speak with humility and submission to God's will (v. 15).

Transition: Why? Because ...

II. Our knowledge is limited, and our days are short (v. 14).

Transition: Yet ...

III. In our arrogance we boast (vv. 13, 16a).

Transition: Therefore ...

IV. Such boasting is sin (vv. 16b–17).

Here is a homiletical outline for Psalm 32 rearranged for deductive thought order:

I. Big idea (solution): Confess your sins (v. 5).

Transition: As a result ...

II. Result: Experience God's deliverance (vv. 1–2).

Transition: In contrast ...

III. Problem: When we refuse to confess our sins, we bake in the oven of discipline (vv. 3–4).

Transition: Therefore ...

IV. Exhortation: Listen to God's wisdom, and experience God's deliverance (vv. 6–11).

The example above states the big idea early in the sermon and then returns to it in the last point. The next example, a homiletical outline of Psalm 32 rearranged for inductive thought order, saves the big idea until the last point:

I. Problem: When we refuse to confess our sins, we bake in the oven of discipline (vv. 3–4).

Transition: In contrast, what we truly desire is ...

II. Contrast: When we allow God to cover our sins, we know peace (vv. 1–2).

Transition: Therefore ...

III. Big idea (solution): Confess your sins (v. 5).

Transition: As a result ...

IV. Exhortation: Listen to God's wisdom, and experience God's deliverance (vv. 6–11).

The examples above demonstrate that expository preachers have latitude when it comes to structure. Our normal procedure, once again, is to follow the exegetical outline when creating the homiletical outline, but pastoral wisdom will sometimes suggest that we rearrange the points into a different order.

Third stroke: develop the points

Now that you have summarized the text's flow of thought and have rephrased (and possibly reordered) the points, put flesh on the bones. Develop the ideas by addressing the questions the listeners will ask. (See Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 2nd ed., 75–96.) If they ask:

Listener's question
Preacher's response

What does that mean? You must explain. The preacher
takes the stance of a teacher.

Is that true?
You must defend/prove. The
preacher takes the stance of an

So what?
You must apply. The preacher
takes the stance of an equipper
or exhorter, urging behavioral

This stage of structuring a clear and effective sermon demands audience analysis. You have to know the listeners' level of knowledge, belief, and submission to the text. Listen to the points of your outline through the ears of your listeners.

Furthermore, these three developmental questions are psychologically sequential. That is, people will often believe what has been clearly explained to them, and they will often do what they believe. Conversely, they are unlikely to believe what they do not understand; and they will not act upon what they do not believe. I have discovered that many people will respond to the gospel in faith and repentance if we simply explain it clearly. But if we cloud their understanding, they will neither believe nor respond. Our Lord says in this regard: "When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart" (Matt. 13:19, ESV, italics added).


Excerpted from Sermon Preparation by Craig Brian Larson. Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today International. Excerpted by permission of Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. Five Hammer Strokes for Creating Expository Sermon Outlines (Jeffrey Arthurs),
2. How Prayer Transforms Prep (Michael Lawrence),
3. The Spiritual Importance of Being an Emotionally Healthy Preacher (Peter Scazzero),
4. Simply Profound (Duane Litfin),
5. If You Dislike Sermon Prep (Bill Hybels),
6. Confessions of a Manuscript Preacher (Mark Mitchell),
7. A Week in the Life of an Extemporaneous Preacher (Dave McClellan),
8. How Teamwork Enriches a Sermon (Dave Stone),
9. Four Ways to Get Out of a "One Pitch" Preaching Rut (Matt Woodley),
10. How to Plan and Package a Year of Sermon Series (David Daniels),
11. Psyched to Preach (Lee Eclov),
12. Liking the Lectionary (Timothy J. Peck),
13. Writing a Good Message in a Bad Week (Scott Wenig),
14. Facebook™ Sermon Prep (Bill White),
15. Preparing More than One Sermon per Week (Steve Mathewson),
16. Timothy Keller,
17. Steve Mathewson,
18. Mark Driscoll,
19. Justin Buzzard,
20. Ligon Duncan,
21. Matt Chandler,
22. Lee Eclov,
23. Mark Buchanan,
24. Bryan Wilkerson,
25. Dave Stone,
26. Kevin Miller,
27. Bryan Loritts,
28. Leith Anderson,
29. Mark Mitchell,
30. Bill White,

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