Archive for the ‘Under Construction’ Category


Back from Buckie

January 30, 2008

It really was a great privilege and joy to preach at Buckie North Church this last weekend for their winter version of Keswick. Thank you for praying as I preached four times on the book of Jeremiah and once on Luke 18.


Reflecting on the weekend, a trio of encouragements come to mind. First, seeing a ‘healthy ecumenism’ in that part of Northern Scotland – one that is centred around Christ and His gospel and which overlooks denominational persuation. Second, the warm sense of community and a hospitality that in many respects evidenced the love of Christ. Third, a genuine hunger among many to hear God’s living Word was thrilling to see (not least by one who is a preacher!).

Continue to pray for the nation of Scotland. Lord, may there be a renewed desire across this land to hear and obey the gospel of Jesus Christ, as well as a renewed desire to preach it!


Parrying Common Preaching Objections

January 8, 2008

Its so in vogue these days to take pot shots at preaching. Before the turn of the year, the Think Christian blog ‘highlighted’ an article which does just that .

(Photo by Jordan, Creative Commons License)

Part of that article made the following statement: “Preaching as it is practised in modern churches is extra-biblical, a poor form of communication, and creates dependency.” Really? Here’s how I would respond – though you may have more to add:

First, preaching as is practiced in modern churches (if by that the author means a herald who proclaims and explains God’s Word) is not extra biblical. Such a suggestion is unfounded and easily refuted by just a cursory reading of Scripture. Moses restates, explains and applies God’s law in Deuteronomy. Ezra gives ‘the sense’ of God’s precepts when the temple is rebuilt. Jesus expounds God’s law and applies it more fully in the Sermon on the Mount. Paul’s life and teaching are replete with Old Testament exposition (even Acts 17 can be shown, in its ‘content’, to be founded on several key OT passages). Last but not least, the author of Hebrews performs detailed exposition from the Law, prophets and psalms. See some very basic support for all this here.

Second, even if preaching were a poor form of communication, this would be primarily a cultural, pragmatic and experiencial argument – not a biblical one. Having questioned the supposedly ‘monologue’ sermon myself in past years, looking back I can see that the underlying issue was that I didn’t want to sit ‘under’ God’s Word. Such would involve one’s mouth being shut, ears being open, and heart being ready to embrace whatever challenge or correction God would bring. Furthermore, I’m not sure that even the pragmatic argument works. On the one hand, I could point to secular audiences (congregations!) who listen to stand up comedians for an hour straight – and twenty somethings at the likes of Mars Hill, Seattle and Redeemer, New York who sit with rapt attention for long periods (at Mars hill, for an hour and a half). On the other hand, it can as easily be argued – ‘experiencially’ – that dialogue can be less than helpful. My common ‘experience’ of discussion without a firm lead has been pooled ignorance, not a growing understanding of God. That said, discussion and questions as a ‘response’ to God’s Word is imperative, not least if we are going to listen to the bible AND ‘do what it says.’

Third, preaching need not necessarily create dependence. Certainly it can do, especially if preacher’s only show the fruits of their study and never how they worked to get there. Also there is a kind of preacher who tries to assert that they have some special interpretive ability that no other in the congregation posesses. In such a situation congregants become like parrot’s: ‘pastor______ says…’ Nevertheless, in churches where clear exposition occurs, the opposite is often the case. Precisely BECAUSE good interpretation is modelled, church members become more able to handle the bible themselves. Almost without fail, Christians who transfer to our chrch from other good bible expositing churches are the most capable in handling their bibles.


More Living in Hope

December 11, 2007

Yesterday I mentioned two things learned from preaching through Jeremiah. Today let me add another two: “the extraordinary endurance of Jeremiah” and “a prophecy for preaching the gospel.”

3) The Extraordinary Endurance Of Jeremiah

It has only been throughout this series that I have really appreciated the extraordinary perseverance of the prophet Jeremiah. No doubt we should think of him as the OT ‘apostle Paul’ (2 Cor 11:16-30). Outlasting four kings, enduring opposition over a four decade ministry and facing a constant and unchanging rejection of the Word he preached, the prophet maintained his bold stand. Jeremiah also survived numerous death attempts, the brutal fall of Jerusalem and even a kidnapping to the nation of Egypt. None of this was easy. In several passages we read of the prophet’s internal anguish even as he put on a bold face publicly (see Jeremiah 20). But through it all the weeping prophet was also the persevering prophet. (How fewer the trials – in number and severity- cause many a spineless minister to quit today?) No doubt what kept Jermiah was the constraining sense of his calling (Jer 1), the compelling word that he preached (Jer 20) and the grace of God that rescued him time and again (see Jer 38).

4) A Prophecy for Preaching the Gospel

Oh how easy it was to preach the gospel from this prophecy! The dark clouds of judgement in Jeremiah are almost invariably tinged with the silver lining of grace. These glimmers of hope make it easy for the preacher to find a straight road to the New Testament where Jesus fulfills all that Jeremiah promises and bears God’s judgement for the sins so damningly outlined. To hear – as I did a few weeks ago – that someone had turned and trusted in Christ after hearing a sermon on judgements on the nations (Jer 46-49), reaffirmed that a clear description of the nature of sin and the threat of judgement provides the best overture to the main melody of God’s grace.


Jeremiah – Living In Hope

December 10, 2007

With a tinge of sadness, I had the priviledge of preaching the final sermon in our Jeremiah series yesterday: We three Kings. (In case you’re wondering, the three kings were Zedekiah, Nebuchadnezzar and Jehoiachin!) Today let me share two things learned whilst preaching alongside Peter Grainger through this book. I have two more to share tomorrow.

1) All Scripture is God Breathed and Useful.

Preaching for twelve months (with a few breaks) on a challenging Old Testament book like Jeremiah really tests one’s faith in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Although truly evangelical preachers affirm the inspiration and usefulness of the totality of Scripture, our preaching programmes can belie this fact. Let’s face it: aren’t we all more likely to preach through John’s gospel than Jeremiah, Luke rather than Lammentations, Ephesians rather than Ecclesiastes?

Of course, there could be some theological reason – our view of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments – which makes us gravitate more toward OT than NT. But I imagine for many preachers the problem is practical: aren’t most of the Old Testament writings, especially prophecies, ‘hard for our people to get at’? Will our congregants ever see the relevance of such a series? Will they ever forgive us?!

To the contrary. We have found our church family inspired as we have trekked through a less familiar part of Scripture’s terrain. This has been valuable for at least two reasons. First, it reminds people that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is no empty rhetoric. They can see Scripture is useful as week after week it is applied to them from Jeremiah. Second, it encourages believers to read books like Jeremiah from themselves. With a little bit of patience and prayer – not even to mention the plethora of study resources now available – there is no reason why Christians shouldn’t be reading these books in their own devotions.

2) God’s Justice is Measured and His Judgements are NOT Severe.

In his overview sermon of Jeremiah, Mark Dever (of Capitol Hill Baptist, Washington) titled the message of the book “Justice.” This is a very appropriate designation. True, Jeremiah pervades with ‘hints of hope.’ It promises a future restoration and most of all a coming Messiah. Nonetheless, the backdrop for this hope is a rather enormous black canvas of judgement.

Confronting a God of justice week by week (or is that, being confronted by a God of justice) is a great challenge for any congregation. It faces us with an attribute of God’s character that is worthy of praise and essential for understanding the context of the gospel. On the other hand, God’s justice – and the judgement it provokes – is uncomfortable ground to tread even for many Christians. One thing I discovered is that believers may accept God’s judgements theologically but struggle to compute them emotionally.

Considering our struggles with God’s justice, Jeremiah helped us in our struggle. It constantly showed us the correlation between our sin, God’ anger and finally God’s judgement. For example, in my sermon on judgement to the nations (Jer 46-49), we learned that God knows the specific sins of individual nations – right down to the names of their particular gods. The reason Jeremiah’s prophecies spend so much time describing sin in detail, I pointed out, is so that when judgement is outlined in principle and then worked worked out in practice (eg. Jer 52) no one can accuse God of being harsh.

For this reason I asked for forgiveness in a recent sermon. Several times early in the Jeremiah series I had described God’s judgement as severe. ‘But God’s judgement is not severe’, I concluded. ‘His judgements are God’s measured, fair, and righteous response to sin, arising from his justice.

Related Posts
Jeremiah’s Journey Concludes
The Dovetailing of Sermon Series


Gifting, Character, Encouragement, Opportunity

December 7, 2007

“About eleven years ago in my former church an elderly gentleman tapped me on the shoulder after a service. He began a discussion on preaching and, to my suprise, suggested that I might have the gift for it. Weeks later I was given the opportunity to actually preach. While this was no doubt painful for the congregation I was ‘inflicted’ upon, it nevertheless began a confirmation process that eventually resulted in the recognition of a spiritual gift… I’ve come to believe that many younger, middle aged and even older men are spending their lifetimes in the pew, when they could be preaching in the pulpit, for the simple reason that no-one has ever tapped them on the shoulder.”

So began The Preaching Course yesterday evening during our social get-together before Christmas. Let me expand on my opening gambit a bit further and suggest that prospective preachers may actually require four things to get going.

1) Character

One criteria we had for attendees of The Preaching Course is that they be relatively mature Christians. Someone who might otherwise be gifted for the task might still be precluded from consideration (temporarily or permanently) because of a lack of godliness in their lives. While no expositor is perfect, preaching especially requires a ‘blameless’ character to underpin its credibility. This was confirmed powerfully last evening when our group answered a question about their ‘most influential preacher.’ Though household names were mentioned, a great many godly and relatively unknown pastors were also touted. These faithful men had deeply impressed their congregations with a combination of careful preaching and careful living.

2) Gifting

Clearly pastor-teachers are a ‘gift’ to the church (Eph 4) and therefore they do require divine ‘gifting’ for the task. The level of gifting will vary from person to person, however, though I suspect that we can readily set the bar too high as well as too low. Lets face it, not all of us can be Don Carson. A great many of us, though, could be faithful, clear communicators of God’s Word. But how will such a gifting be evaluated without prospective preachers being tried, tested and encouraged? This leads us to the last two points.

3) Encouragement

Often we make the category mistake of assuming that because God calls preachers (and he does) we humans should not meddle in someone’s rise to the pulpit. As a result, we may do little to encourage nervous young men to take their first steps up those intimidating steps. When we consider Jesus ‘hands on training’ of his disciples, however, as well as Paul’s patient nurturing of Timothy, it seems that there was much by way of human involvement in the development of these preachers. Do we need to get better at finding ways of ‘tapping men on the shoulder’?

4) Opportunity

Let me state the obvious: prospective preachers need pulpits to preach from. This need not involve proclaiming God’s Word before 1000 people on attempt number one; in fact this would be positively unhelpful! However, it could mean preaching to 30 or 50 people in a smaller congregation. In our little course, therefore, apprentices will preach in a ‘live-setting’ in within smaller churches within a reasonable radius of Edinburgh. Whatever way we do it – whether during a less formal evening service, other midweek church activities, or with assistance from smaller churches – we need to find opportunities for testing the gift.


Not Working Hard Enough?

December 5, 2007

Next year I’m facilitating a preaching course for some men in our church. Amongst the many challenging quotes I’ve noted down in preparation is a frank but factual comment from Jay Adams. Not only do I agree with the sentiment, I repent. Too often I feel that ‘lure of laziness’ when another sermon passage confronts me. Though I will never fail to work on a given passage, it is certainly possible not to work hard.

Oh that we preachers might be that ‘hardworking farmer’ (2 Tim 2:6) and ‘unashamed workman‘ (2 Tim 2:15) in our efforts to sow God’s word!

“I have had the opportunity to hear much preaching over the last few years, some very good, some mediocre, most very bad. What is the problem with preaching? There is no one problem of course…But if there is one thing that stands out most, perhaps it is the problem I mention today. What I am about to say may not strike you as being as specific as other things I have written, yet I believe it is at the bottom of a number of other difficulties. My point is that good preaching demands hard work. From listening to sermons and from talking to hundreds of preachers about preaching, I am convinced that the basic reason for poor preaching is the failure to spend adequate time and energy in preparation. Many preachers – perhaps most – simply don’t work long enough on their sermons.”

(Jay Adams, “Editorial: Good Preaching is Hard Work”, the Journey of Pastoral practice 4, no 2, 1980: 1)


10 Questions – Paul W Martin

November 22, 2007

Today Paul W. Martin kindly shares with us the latest installment of our 10 Questions for Expositors. Do take time to read his detailed and very helpful answers. Paul shepherds Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto Canada and also lectures at Toronto Baptist Seminary. Spare a thought for Paul, who along with preparing expositions every Sunday also has the daunting challenge of pastoring Tim Challies!


1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
Preaching defines, drives and feeds the life of the church. “Expository exultation” establishes our vision of who God is and that feeds our delight in Him. The more we delight in Him and not the world, generally the more we live for Him moment by moment. My observation has been that churches spiritually thrive where there is a man faithfully digging deep into the Word and delivering that Truth as best as he can week by week. On the other side, I have seen many churches (even full ones) slide into spiritual decline as the preaching of the Word of God is ignored or forgotten.

2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
I was naturally quiet and avoided crowds as a young man, but I felt my soul come alive when I studied the Word. I found it nearly impossible to study Scripture privately and not start talking to someone about what I had seen there. That seemed to lead to different teaching opportunities in small groups.

Strangely, I had always thought I would be a pastor – long before my conversion. But my vision of pastoral ministry was a reflection of the bizarre activities of the liberal church circles I ran in as a boy. Once I began to teach and study the Word, I laboured hard over whether I was called to the ministry. Spurgeon’s chapter in Lectures to My Students broke this camel’s back – I could not imagine being content doing anything else other than loving God’s people through the preaching of His Word. I began to pursue opportunities to preach and the Lord’s people confirmed me in it. (That was two paragraphs!)

3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
When I first entered the ministry I would spend a minimum of 15-20 hours of preparation for one sermon. Now that has been refined into something closer to 10-12; depending on the text and a host of other factors.

4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallise it?
I find most of my sermons drive to one major point, but this has more to do with the structure of the text itself than being constrained to any one homiletic model. Rightly understood, most texts have a singular, over-arching point. If I can, I try to distill that major point into one sentence – usually something in the sermon-writing process that I cannot do until the very end. That thought/point then determines much of the introduction to the sermon and functions as the skeleton to the sermon body.

5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
I had one of those epiphany moments in this regard while eating lunch with Geoff Thomas of Alfred Place Baptist Church, Wales. In asking him about preaching (something I think every preacher should do with other preachers!) he noted that it had taken him many years to “find his own voice.” If you have heard Geoff preach, you know that his voice is very unique to him – I could listen to him preach all day long! But I think this is perhaps the greatest battle every preacher faces. Learning to be yourself, to say things in your own words, to genuinely “connect” with your hearers – no doubt this is part of what makes men from John MacArthur to Mark Driscoll so endearing to so many. The preacher is genuine and he seems to give you himself as he gives you the Word. In the category of things to avoid, besides the obvious “don’t jingle loose change in your pockets,” or “don’t read your manuscript” I would add: Don’t be content with “sleepers.” I cannot understand a preacher that tolerates disinterest in the Word of God. It is the Truth! We ought to do all that we humanly can to make that Truth alive to sinner and saint alike!

6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I carry a handwritten manuscript into the pulpit. I find by using the pen and not the keyboard that I can shape things on the page to reflect their place in the sermon. I experimented with a typed manuscript (full and partial) last year for six months. I thought it took away from my freedom so I reverted to the old-school method! I strive for liberty in the pulpit and there is something about handwritten notes that makes this easier to attain.

7. What are the greatest perils that preacher must avoid?
All the horrible heart sins of pride, envy, bitterness and jealousy. Those can birth themselves in many different ways depending on the man and the areas in which he is prone to sin. I find envy an area I have to battle more and more. I may hear of the Lord growing a work of a man who’s preaching does little for me, or who’s theology is suspect in some large ways and it bugs me. Such pride! I am praying for more of Paul’s heart as seen in Philippians 1:18 “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” I think most of us preachers are prone to think far too much of ourselves. Then again, maybe it is just me.

8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (eg. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)
“Fight to balance” rather answers the question, doesn’t it? It really is a fight. On a practical level, I give priority to study. That is what I am called to do and that is what my little flock expects out of me week by week. I need to be in the Word for most of Tuesday and then I can come at it through the week again as it simmers in the back of my brain. I write the actual sermons on Friday which allows another full day for thoughts to percolate before sermon delivery. We also have many able and gifted men in our church leadership, so our deacons and my co-elder all take up many different duties.

Finally, I try to learn my limitations and the limitations of my family. If I was single I would more than likely work 22 hours a day – but that is not good for a marriage or children and I am so incredibly grateful God blessed me with both! With four kids at home still, I am happy to invest much time into their lives now.

9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
• George Whitefield for calling sinners to repentance from sin and faith in Jesus, and for the freedom to “colourize” the Truth with illustration and story.
• Dr. Lloyd-Jones for modeling how a text must press on the hearer’s conscience.
• John MacArthur for book-by-book exposition and the willingness to keep at it when everyone else seems to jump over to more “pragmatic” means.
• C.J. Mahaney for careful and thoughtful application of the text.
• Alex Montoya for preaching with passion.
• Michael Haykin for wedding historical fact to living truth.
• And my favorite living preacher, Bob Hueni; also my father-in-law. A man who never had the blessing of seminary training but stayed true to the text, preached it with passion, lived it in his life, read it daily, illustrated it creatively, prayed it privately, exhorted with it publicly and gazed from it with piercing eyes from the pulpit right down into your soul. Years and other duties keep him from preaching from the pulpit now – but he still preaches with his life daily.

10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
I teach pastoral theology at Toronto Baptist Seminary which means I am always around young preachers. Many of my students attend my church and I meet with them weekly in a small group aimed to work on their sanctification and preaching skills. Each man takes a turn to teach us for 5 minutes and then we all say what we liked about it… and maybe one or two suggestions for improvement. I have always had little groups like this running. Stuart Olyott once said that there is little point in this kind of group unless you allow them to critique you as well, so I try to invite their ideas about my preaching, too. (That tends to help on that envy and pride thing I was talking about earlier!) I also keep an eye on the future men in our church. We try to identify possible future preachers early and give them age-appropriate opportunities to try that possible gift.

Previously on 10 Questions
* Tim Keller
* Philip Ryken
* Voddie Baucham
* Liam Goligher
* Vaughan Roberts
* Thabiti Anyabwile
* Peter Grainger
* Derek Prime
* John Brand
* Steve Cole
* A young Scottish expositor!


Too Clever, Too Crafty, Too Systematised

November 21, 2007

I’m indebted to the blog Daylight for referencing some thoughts of Simon Manchester (St Thomas Church in North Sydney) on four common preaching errors. These comments are taken, I believe, from the monthly journal The Briefing.


Error 1. Clever beats Substance

There is a strange idea around at the moment that clever beats substance. Put more crudely, this view seems to think that the Bible is pretty dull and hard to sell, but with some marketing, we can sneak it past people’s guard. This loss of proper confidence in the Bible confuses the power of the clever gimmick with the substance of the powerful Word. But once a preacher has grasped the way God works (by his word) and the impact of his message (in the Word), it lights up everything he says, and people learn quickly who to trust. 20 minutes of straw followed by five minutes of wheat at the end is a strange way to feed your listeners. Somewhere the preacher has to think (and say), “Here is the book that will explain your life and the God behind everything. Now listen!” It’s embarrassing to treat Scripture as weak or dull.

Error 2. Craft Beats Meaning

Another (similar) idea around today is that craft beats meaning. No-one would put it this foolishly, but there is more attention paid (in this error) to the presentation than to the meaning. What is the long-term benefit of a passage used devotionally (without proper biblical theology) if its packaging is better than its truth? What is the point of abusing a text to sell a clever idea? Some sermons are so formulaic in their presentation, only a discerning person realizes that its all ‘form over facts’ – and that’s the sad problem! Sermon craft is a great servant in preaching; it helps the communicator and the listeners. But its a bad master when it pretends that there is an only way to do things (clever story to begin, three points and a bombshell to finish). The Bible is bigger than our craftiness

Error 3. System Beats Text

Even more common than this manner-over-matter preaching is the system-beats-text preaching. This is the widespread danger of dragging every text through the grid of one doctrine that ignores the point of the original passage. For example, one overseas preacher seems to put every passage through the ‘justification by faith’ grid. He is clever and insightful and searching – you’re on the psychiatrist’s couch in no time! – but there is this sa/bad taste left in your mouth that the biblical book was in the service of an idea. ‘Bible-combing’ preaching also has its systematic strengths but often seems to neglect each biblical writer’s specific point in favour of the biblical overview. For example, if Jesus is teaching on people in prison (Matt 25:31-46), it is dangerous to start collecting ‘prison’ references and miss the point in the passage that Jesus will one day announce those who took his ‘brothers’ seriously. Much better to stay with the text in hand until the main point is clear.

Error 4. Teaching Beats Learning

A final danger I would mention is the teaching-beats-learning syndrome. This is the style – often picked up by the pew more than the pulpit – that the message has had no effect on the communicator. When the word of God is passed from an unaffected preacher to some unaffected listeners, the result is unworthy of God and discouraging to people. We must cry to God to search us because if the word of God that is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16) does none of these things, who has the problem? There is an arrogance in some preaching that imagines that the preacher is ‘up there’ with the word of God, not ‘down there’ with the humble listener. To preach cold food every week (and not warm transforming food) is proof that something is wrong. May God help us.


Four Fruitful Questions – pt 2

November 14, 2007

Continuing on from last week’s fruitful questions, (what is the content of the passage? what is the context of the passage?) let me conclude by adding another two. These, I recognise are straightforward enough, but every expositor must surely answer them of every text.

3. What is the structure of the passage?
I need to say that this question yields more fruit for me than almost anything else. Here I try to examine the passage in terms of its divisions, connections, and logical flow. Often I simply summarize each verse, highlighting what it contributes to the overall picture and how it connects to what is before and after. This is obviously productive when studying close argumentation (such as in Romans), but I find it can be as beneficial with a narrative account. For example, why does Luke place the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) immediately after the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)? Is it not because Jesus is explicating both the first and second commands (see Luke 10:27; the Good Samaritan the latter, Mary and Martha the former)? Asking the question, how is the passage organised? – helps me see that Luke is ensuring that these two commands are seen in balance, not to the exclusion of each other. Therefore my sermon title on this section was ‘Deeds and Devotion.’

4. What is the author’s purpose in writing the passage?
Here I’m not just asking what did the author say but why? Another way of posing it would be: what was the biblical writer trying to achieve? So for example, in preaching from John’s gospel, I will want to know about how Jesus first miracle in Cana contributes to his overall purpose of bringing unbelievers to faith (see John 20:31)? Or over in Luke, what is the author hoping to communicate to Theophilus (a young Gentile Christian) when he conveys the Father’s glad reception of his outcast son in Luke 15?


10 Questions For Expositors – Steve Cole

November 13, 2007

Its our great priviledge today to have Steve Cole of Flagstaff Christian Fellowship answer our 10 Questions for Expositors.


By the way, if you happen to personally know any other relatively well known expositors who have not yet filled in the 10 Questions, could you help me twist their arm – ‘in a sanctified way’ – to answers the questions and have them send them my direction? The likes of Dever, MacArthur, Piper, Begg, Lawson and Mahaney would be especially welcome! For us ‘less-gifted’ preachers in the kingdom… Colin

1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
Preaching is very important, in that it elevates the authority of God over the entire congregation. It sets the tone and agenda for the church. If people do not honor God’s Word, they will not grow and the church will be tossed around by every wind of doctrine. And there are plenty of strong winds blowing these days!

2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
When I was in college, I tried teaching the Bible and found, much to my surprise, people seemed really to be helped by it. I never actually preached to any extent, though, before I began in the pastorate 30 years ago.

3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
I manuscript all of my sermons, which are available for people to pick up as they walk into church. I also post them on our web site. To do this level of teaching/preaching takes me about 15 hours per week. Some weeks it takes longer if it is a difficult text or if the sermon just doesn’t flow together. On a few rare weeks, it flows together much more quickly. But usually I have to sweat and agonize through the entire process.

4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallize it?
Yes, I sat under Haddon Robinson at Dallas Seminary, and if you are familiar with his method, he teaches that every sermon must succinctly drive home one major idea. Crystallizing this idea is the hard work of preaching. But I find if I’m not clear about it, I probably don’t understand the text as well as I need to. Sometimes in the middle of preparing the sermon, I realize that I am still not clear, so I go back and rework it. The main idea governs the entire sermon outline, with all of the points supporting or explaining that one idea.

5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
He must be authentic (i.e, not copying someone else’s style). He must not preach what he is not attempting to practice, and he must not falsely imply or convey that he is living a certain way if it is not true. In other words, if I’m struggling with my prayer life, I need to let people know that it’s a struggle, not convey that I’m a great prayer warrior.

6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I take my full manuscript into the pulpit, with key words highlighted or underlined with a colored pen. But I do not read it. I glance down at each paragraph and due to having written it and editing it several times and going over it several more before the sermon, I pretty much know where I’m going. The only part I read are quotations.

7. What are the greatest perils that preacher must avoid?
We must avoid neglecting our own walk with the Lord and just preaching as a performance. In other words (1 Tim. 4:16), “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching.” Your preaching must flow out of a genuine, fresh walk with Christ. And I am continually overwhelmed with a sense of my own inadequacy, both in the preparation and delivery of sermons. But that keeps me dependent on the Lord (2 Cor. 3:5).

8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (eg. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)
It’s always a struggle, but the church knows that my preaching preparation time is important and they leave me alone (for the most part) unless there is an emergency or crisis. I am not a strong visitation pastor, in the sense of Richard Baxter. I admire the man, but I could never come close to his routine.

9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
Haddon Robinson’s “Biblical Preaching” consists of his classroom lectures, which were my training. I don’t follow him to a tee, but he helps you be clear about the process. I found T. H. L. Parker’s “Calvin’s Preaching” to be very helpful. As far as examples, I really enjoy John Piper’s preaching. I also have read many of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ sermons, as well as his book on preaching. While I don’t follow his style very closely, I have benefitted immensely from his careful analysis of Scripture.

10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
I don’t have any set of “steps” that I follow. I have often met with small groups of young men who are interested in the things of God, discussing various aspects of ministry. We have read books like J. I. Packer’s “A Quest for Godliness,” about the Puritans. Also, they have my weekly example of Bible exposition, and often we have discussed a recent sermon. I often share with them the struggle I’m having with a text or putting a message together, and we interact on it. Sometimes I will help them if they are preparing a sermon. Many of these young men have gone on to seminary and into ministry.

Previously on 10 Questions
* Tim Keller
* Philip Ryken
* Voddie Baucham
* Liam Goligher
* Vaughan Roberts
* Thabiti Anyabwile
* Peter Grainger
* Derek Prime
* John Brand
* A young Scottish expositor!


A Letter On Sermon Preparation – Steven Cole

November 8, 2007

An expository preacher I greatly admire is pastor Steve Cole from Flagstaff Christian Fellowship, Arizona. Along with commentaries I read, often I turn to one of pastor Cole’s sermon to glean further insights into the passage and how I might communicate it. Find his massive sermon database here. I’m grateful to Steve for allowing me to publish online a letter he wrote to a fellow pastor on the theme of sermon preparation.


Regarding sermon prep, I had Haddon Robinson at DTS, and his course is basically contained in his book, “Biblical Preaching.” I don’t follow his method to a T, but I do generally follow it, with many shortcuts that are necessary for ministry survival. I begin just with the old observation, interpretation, application process that we learned in Bible study methods. I try to jot down any issues that need to be resolved, to figure out why the Lord included this passage in this context, etc. I try to determine what the subject of the passage is, and what it is saying about the subject (Robinson explains this process). If I can, I take an initial stab at a main idea.

Then I start reading commentaries. I start with the more technical ones first, trying to figure out interpretive issues, textual problems, history and background, grammatical matters, etc. After reading a half dozen or so, I generally know what the various problems are and what the major views are. I save the more devotional writers for last (Morgan, Spurgeon, Maclaren, Boice, etc.). With them, I’m looking to see how they applied this text to their congregations. All through this process, I’m throwing thoughts onto the computer screen in pretty much random order.

Eventually, I try to nail down the main idea in succinct form. For example, I just finished this Sunday’s sermon on the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-11), and I’m taking it in the direction of when unity is wrong. My main idea (I’m going here from memory) is something like, Unity is wrong when it compromises the gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Then my major points develop that theme. So I come up with an outline. Then I go back and move all of my notes around to fit under each point or subpoint. Some of my observations are interesting, but don’t fit, so I leave them out unless I determine that they really need to be said. Once I get my outline with my observations arranged, I print out those notes (usually one to two pages). I use these printed notes to work out my manuscript.

I type the whole thing out, as you know from looking at our web page. I find the discipline of manuscripting it forces me to be concise and precise. I usually have far more than I have time for, so I go back and chop out stuff that may be interesting, but isn’t crucial to the point. I’m always aiming at application–how should this affect people’s lives? I usually try to come up with an introduction that grabs attention, creates a need so that people want to listen, and introduces the body of the sermon. I also have an extensive illustration file (3×5 cards, a la Robinson). I began it long before computer days, so it’s all on cards, not on a computer data base. If I were starting now, I might figure out a way to scan them onto a computer. I’m always reading looking for illustrations and quotes (Reader’s Digest, books I read, etc.). I cross reference them, too, so that I can track them down.

Anyway, once I’ve typed out the manuscript and edited it to the right length (3500 words for a 35-40 minute sermon), I take the printed copy (face up, half sheet size, so I don’t have to be flipping pages in the pulpit), highlight and underline key words and quotes, and go over it several times, especially Saturday night, so that I know it well enough not to be tied to my notes. I do take the manuscript into the pulpit, but I never read it, unless it’s to give a quote verbatim. I glance at it and see the highlighted words and remember where I wanted to go, but I try to maintain eye contact with the congregation as I speak. I haven’t mentioned it either, but the whole process is shot through with prayer, both in preparation and prayer for delivery and the results.

I don’t feel very gifted at the process, like Spurgeon was. He was incredible! I have to work hard at it and it usually doesn’t flow easily. But that keeps me dependent on the Lord.


Four Fruitful Questions – pt 1

November 7, 2007

As yesterday I was researching my sermon passage for Sunday, I took about an hour asking questions of my text. Though I have often understood the importance of doing this, I have often wrestled with what questions to ask. These days I tend to stick to only a few basic queries – queries which I’ve found most fruitful. Today I’ll share the first two. Come back next Wednesday for questions three and four.

1) What is the content of the passage?
Here I’m simply trying to establish what the passage says. This is not always straightforward. Usually whilst ‘reading through’ in several translations, I have already noted any significant differences in terms of translation. It is then incumbent upon me to study the Greek text carefully and do word studies on anything debatable or significant. Obviously we don’t have time to examine every word in a lengthy passage (nor is there typically a need to). However, we must do some digging to ensure that the English translation we are using doesn’t have blind spots to the content of the passage.

2) What is the context of the passage?
This considers the immediate circumference of the text and the location of the passage within the sweep of the book. It is crucial for correct interpretation. For example, this Sunday’s sermon from Luke 15 requires my understanding that conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious establishment (Lk 15:2) has been ongoing since Lk 11:53-54. More immediately, Jesus has warned the Pharisees in chapter 14 not to miss out on God’s grace. Additionally, at the close of the chapter he calls for those who have ears ‘to hear’ (Lk 14:35). Yet from the outset of the 15th chapter it is clear that the Pharisees and Scribes are deaf to the gospel (v 2). At the same time, both ‘tax collectors’ and ‘sinners’ (v 1) are all-ears to this message of grace. All this informs my interpretation of Luke 15.