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Volume 15, Issue 3: Presbyterion

Sermon Prep

Douglas Wilson

If the preaching of the Word is as important as the Scriptures seem to indicate, then it would seem to follow that how we prepare to undertake this task is just as important.

But in some quarters, sermon prep is minimized, or even dismissed, as an unhealthy reliance on the "arm of the flesh." After all, didn't Jesus tell His disciples not to prepare before they spoke? "It shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you" (Matt. 10:19b-20). The problem with this view is that Jesus isn't talking about preaching at all, but rather about the apostles' legal defense when they were hauled before "governors and kings." One suspects that adherents of the spontaneous school of preaching would not be careful to give these instructions to their lawyers when they go to court.
When it comes to the ministry of the Word, the Bible says quite a bit about the need for study. "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). Handling the Word properly is not easy and automatic. Laboring in word and doctrine is true labor, requiring a monetary reimbursment. "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine" (1 Tim. 5:17).
Timothy himself had been steeped in the Scriptures since he was an infant. "And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 3:15). This was an essential part of his qualification for ministry, Paul says, going on to add that "all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The phrase man of God here does not refer to Christians, generally considered, but rather to ministers of the Word. The Scriptures are the minister's tool chest, and he must be given to the use of his tools—otherwise he is not equipped for the good work he is called to do. And as is the case with all tools, the use of them must be mastered. This requires diligence and study.
With this as a scriptural foundation, how should ministers today give themselves to sermon preparation? I would want to divide the task into three basic parts: preparing your schedule, preparing yourself, and preparing the message.
Crises and problems to be solved multiply to fill the time allotted for them, and pastoral crises in the church are like the mercies of God—they are new every morning. Unless a certain part of time is set aside in your schedule for sermon preparation (and that time is defended by a competent church secretary), it will fill up with other things. These "other things" can either be scheduled some other time, or someone else can take care of them. Of course, as with everything like this, there are exceptions. The point of the parable of the Good Samaritan would not have been altered if instead of a priest and Levite, the Lord had a preacher hurrying by, on the way to his office.
Ministers must also prepare themselves. The formal time of composition is the last part of sermon preparation. A large part of what comes out in messages is the result of what went into the formation of the "leaf mold of the mind." In plain English, the general reading and study that a minister undertakes should be eclectic, apparently irrelevant, and broad. This provides applications in all kinds of sermons. There is nothing wrong with reading a boatload of commentaries on Galatians if you are preaching through Galatians, but to do nothing but this will result in a truly narrow vision. And when the vision gets too narrow, you can't see anything anymore, not even Galatians. Broad reading should include fiction, poetry, history, cultural analysis, philosophy, theology, and politics. Some days it should be in that order. Other times it shouldn't be. And try to finish one to two books a week—this is done without any particular plan for tying what you learn in with the sermon. In this you are not preparing the message, you are preparing the messenger. Let God sort it out.
The sermons themselves should be broadly expositional. And it was my father who taught me, "When you run out of things to say, go on to the next verse." Expositional preachers have the advantage of not having to be "creative" or "original" from the ground up. In many ways, the goal is to not be creative, but rather faithful.
Different gifts gravitate to different styles of organization, but I have found it best to prepare an outline (which is distributed to the congregation) and to preach from that outline. I prepare the outline earlier in the week, and then read over the outline again on Sunday morning before church.
One last thing, back in the category of preparing the messenger. I have also found it helpful to spend an hour and a half Sunday morning reading books not directly related to the message, but books of a devotional nature—I would recommend the Book of Common Prayer, Matthew Henry's Method of Prayer, a book of poetry called A Sacrifice of Praise, and so on.

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