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Jonathan Edwards on “the nature and design of the ordinances and duties, which God hath appointed, as means and expressions of true religion.
To instance in the duty of prayer: it is manifest, we are not appointed, in this duty, to declare God’s perfections, his majesty, holiness, goodness, and all-sufficiency; our own meanness, emptiness, dependence, and unworthiness, our wants and desires, in order to inform God of these things, or to incline his heart, and prevail with him to be willing to show us mercy; but rather suitably to affect our own hearts with the things we express, and so to prepare us to receive the blessings we ask. And such gestures and manner of external behaviour in the worship of God, which custom has made to be significations of humility and reverence, can be of no further use, than as they have some tendency to affect our own hearts, or the hearts of others.
And the duty of singing praises to God, seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned, why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections.
The same thing appears in the nature and design of the sacraments, which God hath appointed. God, considering our frame, hath not only appointed that we should be told of the great things of the gospel and the redemption of Christ, and be instructed in them by his word; but also that they should be, as it were, exhibited to our view in sensible representations, the more to affect us with them.
And the impressing of divine things on the hearts and affections of men, is evidently one great end for which God has ordained, that his word delivered in the Holy Scriptures, should be opened, applied, and set home upon men, in preaching. And therefore it does not answer the aim which God had in this institution, merely for men to have good commentaries and expositions on the Scripture, and other good books of divinity; because, although these may tend, as well as preaching, to give a good doctrinal or speculative understanding of the word of God, yet they have not an equal tendency to impress them on men’s hearts and affections. God hath appointed a particular and lively application of his word, in the preaching of it, as a fit means to affect sinners with the importance of religion, their own misery, the necessity of a remedy, and the glory and sufficiency of a remedy provided; to stir up the pure minds of the saints, quicken their affections by often bringing the great things of religion to their remembrance, and setting them in their proper colours…. God has appointed preaching as a means to promote in the saints joy.” (Religious Affections, I.II.9)
And if this be the case then…
“If true religion lies much in the affections, we may infer, that such means are to be desired, as have much tendency to move the affections. Such books, and such a way of preaching the word and the administration of ordinances, and such a way of worshipping God in prayer and praises, as has a tendency deeply to affect the hearts of those who attend these means, is much to be desired. … Indeed there may be such means, as have a great tendency to stir up the passions of weak and ignorant persons, and yet have none to benefit their souls: for though they may have a tendency to excite affections, they have little or none to excite gracious affections. But, undoubtedly, if the things of religion in the means used, are treated according to their nature, and exhibited truly, so as tends to convey just apprehensions and a right judgment of them; the more they have a tendency to move the affections, the better.” (I.III.2)
“Surely those things which Christ and his apostles chiefly insisted on in the rules they gave, ministers ought chiefly to insist on in the rules they give. To insist much on those things on which the Scripture insists little, and to insist very little on those things on which the Scripture insists much, is a dangerous thing; because it is going out of God’s way, and is to judge ourselves, and guide others, in an unscriptural manner. God knew which way of leading and guiding souls was safest and best for them; he insisted so much on some things, because he knew it to be needful that they should be insisted on; and let other things more alone, as a wise God, because he knew it was not best for us, so much to lay the weight of the trial there. As the Sabbath was made for man, so the Scriptures were made for man; and they are by infinite wisdom fitted for our use and benefit. We should therefore make them our guide in all things, in our thoughts of religion, and of ourselves. And for us to make that great which the Scripture makes little, and that little which the Scripture makes great, tends to give us a monstrous idea of religion; and (at least indirectly and gradually) to lead us wholly away from the right rule….” (Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, III.XIV)
This is a good reminder, especially as we think about preaching.
Our aim in expository preaching is not to use the text to preach our own thoughts, ideas, applications, hobby horses, opinions, or to trampoline off the text into some topic or application we want to emphasize, but to dig into the text and let our emphasis and focus proportionally reflect that of the text (while of course contextualizing for pastoral concerns of our particular church and setting). Let’s be honest; we are not that wise (Prov 3:5-6). Our ideas are utter foolishness compared to what God has to say. Moreover, to insert our agenda or displace the emphasis of scripture is actually somewhat quite audacious — to hijack the very purpose that God had in given that passage.
The following is a general outline of the process I follow when preparing sermons:
Sermon Preparation Process
** Prayer throughout **
- Understanding the text:
- Read the text including its broader context.
- Read the passage slowly, meditatively, and prayerfully – Compile notes.
- Exegete and interpret – Look at text in original language; look at various translations; attend to text critical matters, grammar, syntax, word studies, structure, purpose, relevant parallel passages, theological analysis, etc.
- Consider the passage’s relationship to redemptive history, the Gospel, Christ, and mission.
- Anticipate sermon development: formulate passage’s purpose; develop initial conception of sermon structure; consider illustrations and applications.
- Use resources (e.g., commentaries, sermons). Compile notes on key
- Sermon construction:
- Determine main point/purpose.
- Develop sermon structure.
- Fill-in sermon substance: introduction, prayers, explanations, illustrations, and applications, and conclusion.
- Final matters:
- Refine/complete sermon.
- Practice sermon.
- Preach the sermon to yourself.
- Pray for sermon delivery and effect.
The following is my personal check-list I developed for consultation when preparing sermons:
- True to the passage’s…
- Authorial intent?
- Passage structure or form?
- Context and book?
- Aim (affections, belief, trust, obedience, thoughts, actions, etc.)?
- Biblical theology:
- Redemptive-historical context considered?
- Relationship to Christ?
- Passage interpreted in light of the Gospel?
- Inspiring vision of God set forth?
- Sermon quality:
- Main point—clear and frequently stated?
- Well organized—clear and helpful structure?
- Simple—avoids unnecessary complexity?
Selective—on what will you choose to focus?
- Brief—the “less is more” principle; distinguish what is important vs. what is merely interesting?
Perspective—don’t miss the “forest for the trees” or the “trees for the forest.”
- Concise—high quality to quantity ratio?
- Use of pithy, memorable phrases?
- Helpful illustrations, introduction, and conclusion?
- Practical? Down to earth? Thoughtful, engaging, quality applications
- Audience consideration:
- Sermon oriented specifically to this audience?
- Clear, understandable language?
- Clear explanations of theological issues?
- Answers given to questions the average person may have of the text?
- Audience’s translation(s) considered?
- Conscientious of nonbelievers? Gospel presented?