In a previous post, I mentioned that I am an advocate of biblical, expository, text-driven preaching. Former NOBTS preacher professor, V. L. Stanfield, captured the spirit of this type of preacher with his concise statement, “Preaching is giving the Bible a voice.” I also love the simple description of preaching that I have heard Paige Patterson give on more than one occasion that perhaps is more of an explanation of preaching’s aim than a formal definition. “Preaching is teaching your people to read their Bibles.” Maybe, however, the definition that espouses this type of preaching most closely is the one provided by Steven Smith in the book Recapturing the Voice of God: “Text-driven preaching is the interpretation and communication of a biblical text in a sermon that re-presents the substance, structure, and the spirit of the text.”
This concept of preaching not only derives what is preached from the substance of the text, but it also borrows the means and manner of delivering the sermon from the structure and spirit of the text. Now to be clear, this definition did not originate with me, but I both adhere to and teach these ideas.
It is clear to see in this type of preaching that it is an absolute necessity for the preacher to get the text right. I believe most of us understand the importance of this and work hard in our studies to make sure that we do so. But, the question is “are there any guidelines or principles that can help us accomplish the task at hand?” I offer four below.
1. Start with the Text, Not Your Audience, Idea, or Situation
This does not mean that we give no thought to our audience, their lives or situations, or a current event. In preaching, we must bring God’s truth need to bear on these things. And, the application section of our messages is the appropriate and necessary place for us to do this. What I am arguing for here is to make sure that the topic you are intending to address is actually and validly addressed in God’s Word – and for that matter, in the way you plan on addressing it. “Starting with the text” also means, as much as possible, we must minimize our presuppositions about the text and subject as we begin the initial interpretation of our passage. Therefore, practically, if you plan to preach on a topic or situation, and you initially believe your chosen text does address this subject, but then later discover through the interpretation process that this is not what the text is about, what do you do? In expository preaching, you basically have two options. Number one, find a different text that does address the topic. Or number two, preach on the subject that the text does actually address.
In order to get the text right in preaching, we must be steadfast and unyielding in our commitment to employ one of these options every time we face this situation. My friend and mentor Dr. Steven Smith has often said, “Every sermon is a topical sermon. But in expository preaching, God picks the topic.” We need to preach in such a way in which we are sure God is indeed picking the topic!
2. Explore the Text in Context
There are a couple of steps that help me “explore the text in context” with each sermon I prepare. First, I analyze the structure of the text I am intending to preach. In this step, you are looking for all the independent clauses contrasted with the dependent clauses of the passage and the main verbs of your text. The best way to accomplish this is to line all of your independent clauses up on the left of your page and indent all of your depended clauses, going further right based on levels of subordination. I also suggest charting all the verbs in your selected passage, paying special attention to the imperatives (commands). If possible, complete this step in the original biblical languages. However, if you are not to do so, there is still value in walking through this process with a good English translation.
The reason why this first step is important in getting the text right is because in linguistics independent clauses and imperative verbs carry more weight than their counterparts do. This is not to say that there is not good or even important material in the dependent clauses and indicative verbs in your text, but they are not the main thrust that your author is communicating and thus God through His Word is emphasizing. Therefore, if we want to get the text right in our sermons, we must pay attention to and build our sermon based on the independent clauses and the main verbs, especially the commands, in our passage.
Second, I note the immediate and larger context. After you determine from the independent material and verbs in your text what you believe to be the subject and main point(s) of your text, there are several contextual layers to consider represented by asking the following questions. How does what I discovered as the main idea(s) of this passage fit in with the argument of the paragraphs immediately before and immediately following my passage? How does what I discovered as the main idea(s) of this passage fit in with the argument of the entire chapter in which my passage is located? The book my passage is in as a whole? The context of the Testament (Old or New) in which my passage is located? The context of the entirety of the canon of Scripture?
Why are these questions important? This step safeguards your interpretation. It helps you make sure you are finding the main thing the biblical author is addressing. The Bible does not contradict itself. It has an inter unity and consistency. Therefore, if your main point(s) contradicts something in the immediate or larger context of the Bible, you know the problem is with you and not your text. “Exploring your text in context” will go a long way in helping you get the text right in your preaching.
3. Continue in the Text
Every text you are preaching has a specific substance, structure, and spirit. By “substance” I mean the subject matter, content, and point(s) of a text. By “structure” we are talking about the design, flow, or shape of the text – how the author arranged and argued for his subject matter. There are two basic designs of a text: deductive and inductive. A deductive development begins with the main idea and then develops from it by explaining, illustrating, or applying the idea. An inductive development, on the other hand, begins with specific ideas and works its way to the general main idea of the text. Finally, by “spirit” I mean the tone, the feel (sometimes we might say “emotion”), and intent of the text. Often, this is indicated by passage’s genre.
So how does the substance, structure, and spirit of a passage help us continue in the text? Predominantly, you can and should allow them to drive not only the design but also the delivery of your message? Essentially what you will preach and thus the valid, legitimate, and authoritative applications you can make to a contemporary audience should be determined by the substance of the text. Furthermore, our subject, main point(s), and emphasis should be derived from what we find as the actual main point(s), emphasis, and thrust of the text. Also, for all intents and purposes, the outline you will use and the order of that outline can come directly from the design and structure of the text. God has embedded in some text more of a deductive structure (epistles) and in some more of an inductive structure (narratives). And, He has addressed some of the same subject matter in both structures (i.e. the subject of “adultery” in very different ways in Matt 5:27 and 2 Samuel 12).
So, if we allow the structure that God has already embedded in the text to drive our sermon development, we are trusting God’s sovereignty, Scripture’s sufficiency, and not elevating a style of outlining over how God has designed the text.
Finally, the spirit of the text should effect our delivery (pathos). Did God give and preserve His Truth to us in a monolithic way? The obvious answer is no! He gave it to us in a variety of ways: proverbs, poetry, stories, parables, letters, prophecy, and apocalyptic literature. And often, as I have already illustrated, the same truth is delivered in different places in a different style. Why do you think that is? Perhaps there are many reasons, but one reason is because He understands people and audiences and knows that different people receive the message’s content (logos) and the tone or “style” of communication (pathos) differently. So, if we simply allow the tone, style, and emotion of the text to drive our preaching, we won’t fall into a pattern of repeating a “style” of preaching that gets tired and fails to impact our audience. “Continuing in the text,” then, not only carries benefits helping us get the text right but also helping us stay fresh and interesting to our audience.
4. Finish with the Text
Here we are not only focusing on the meaning of our sermon but also its intent or aim. From the context, purpose and occasion, and the design and genre of the book from which you are preaching, can you see not only what the text means, but also why God gave it, and gave it the way He did, to the original audience? There is value in attempting to answer this question and adding this type of exploration of your text as a part of your sermon process. The reason why is because words do not simply mean something, they do something! What I mean by “finish with the text” is to craft your objective or major appeal to your audience from the intent of the original audience. This is another great way to make sure you get and use the text right in your preaching.
While commenting on the book of Romans, John Calvin wrote, “It is an audacity akin to sacrilege to use the Scripture at our pleasure and to pay with them as with a tennis ball, which many before have done. . . . It is the first business of an interpreter to let his author say what he does say, instead of attributing to him what we thing he ought to say.” So, there are basically two ways to preaching: We can either use the text to say what we want to say or we can allow the text to use us to say what God has said. Hopefully, this article has given you a few practical steps to practice the later!
Steven W. Smith, Recapturing the Voice of God: Shaping Sermons Like Scripture (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), 17.
See http://www.nobts.edu/rogerscenter/documents/PreachingGuide_Jude.pdf for several examples in both Greek and English of structuring a text in this manner from my prep work on the book of Jude. Preached in chapel at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Spring 2017.
Quoted from Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. “A Short History of Interpretation,” in Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning, rev. and exp. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 270.