How I Make a Sermon

The bread and butter of a pastor is preaching.  Most of my seminary training was directed towards preparing me to preach.  A lot of my time and energy are devoted to preaching or, more properly, preparing to preach.  In this post, I want to fill you in with some of the details of how I prepare a sermon.  I’ll divide it up day by day — Monday to Friday (I normally take Saturdays as my day off).  This is only about preparing a sermon on a particular biblical passage — preparing catechism sermons is a different process.

First, A Word About Text Choice

I usually plan my preaching schedule in three month blocks.  So, four times per year, I sit down and map out what I’m going to be preaching on.  As described here, I typically practice “serial expository preaching.”  I preach through books, verse-by-verse.  That makes text-choice fairly straightforward.  This past Sunday I preached on John 8:21-30; next Sunday I’ll be preaching on John 8:31-38.  Sometimes I do go elsewhere in Scripture or do a series of textual sermons related to a topic.  For example, this past year, I preached on a number of passages relating to “Building Community.”  Of course, there are also the extraordinary Sundays with special events like ordination, profession of faith, and so on.  For them, I usually select a text oriented to those occasions.  While I don’t follow the practices of Lent or Advent, I do preach on the agreed-upon “days of commemoration” and choose fitting texts for those too.  Whatever the case, whatever the occasion, when Monday morning rolls around I’m never casting about and wondering what I’m going to be preaching on in six days time.

Monday

My work begins with prayer.  I ask God to help me understand his Word and preach it faithfully for the benefit of his people.  Prayer is something that continues through the whole process, right up to and including the moment I’m on the pulpit delivering the sermon.  It’s vitally important to remember that sermon preparation is a spiritual matter.

I then read the text in the original language — Hebrew, Greek, or even, rarely, Aramaic.  I make my own translation of the passage.  As I do, I note features that stand out or questions that arise.

Next comes some study of the state of the text and its preservation.  As you may know, there are sometimes issues between various manuscripts.  A preacher has to study those and reach his own conclusions.

I have a look at the grammar and syntax of the passage.  Are there any noteworthy problems or special features that will have a bearing on the interpretation of the passage?

Tuesday

Tuesday is context day.  I pay attention to what’s called canonics.  Canonics is an area of study that deals with the books of the Bible and their authorship, purpose, date, themes, and so on.  When I’m doing serial expository preaching, this step usually gets skipped after the first few sermons.  For example, since I’ve preached dozens of sermons already on John, I’m quite familiar with these matters.

However, I never skip consideration of the literary context, both immediate and broader.  I study the relation between the passage and what comes before and what comes after (immediate context).  But I also study the passage in its connection to the rest of the book, and the rest of Scripture.

At times, depending on the text and what it involves, I’ll also study the historic or cultural context of the passage.

Wednesday

It’s Word Study Wednesday!  This is the day I focus in on particular words or phrases that appear to have some special significance for the meaning of the passage.

Once again depending on the text, I may also look at the literary structure.  Are there any special features that may help me in preaching?

Thursday

This is the day I try to get the meaning of the passage clear in my own mind.  My first step is to write out my own exegesis (or interpretation) of the passage, typically verse by verse.  So I have my own idea of what the text means and how it might be preached and applied.  I also think in terms of how the passage reveals God and how it speaks of Christ and the gospel.

Then it’s time to hit the commentaries.  One could spend all day reading commentaries, but after a while, they do start repeating each other.  One of my seminary professors recommended just selecting three commentaries, three that are quite different from one another.  This has been my typical practice — unless there’s a really thorny issue where I want to check out what some others have said.  The reason I consult commentaries is two-fold:  1) to check my own understanding against that of others.  If I’m standing alone in my understanding of what the passage means, that could mean that I’ve gotten it wrong.  2) To fill in the gaps of my own understanding of the passage.  Many times commentators will see things I missed in the passage.

Now I’m ready to start thinking in terms of crafting a sermon.  I develop a theme and (usually) points.  The theme and points form the structure for the sermon.  I used to write sermon outlines, and occasionally still do, but I’ve found that serial expository preaching often creates its own outline.

At this point, I’ll also go back, look through my notes, and see if there’s a natural Bible reading that goes with the passage.  For example, last Sunday when I preached on John 8:21-30, Jesus calls himself the “I am.”  It made sense to read from Exodus 3 and Isaiah 43, both passages where God describes himself with those words.

What about the introduction to the sermon?  I think good intros are really important.  Sometimes it’ll come to me at this stage on late Thursday morning, but many times it doesn’t until I go for a walk on Thursday afternoon, or, sometimes, while I’m in the shower on Friday morning.  Weird, eh?

Friday

Now it’s crunch time.  I shamelessly preach from a full set of sermon notes/manuscript.  I always have and, though I’ve experimented with preaching from notes/dot points, I doubt I’ll ever do it again.   To me, it’s not worth it.  Maybe more on that some other time.  Anyway, on Friday morning I’m in my study writing out that sermon in full.  It usually takes me until about lunch or maybe just past.

Friday evening comes and it’s time to finalize everything.  I always aim to be done by 8:00 PM.  I give the sermon a practice run — I speak it out loud.  My notes get marked up as I’m doing this and then I make the necessary edits.  Then it’s done and dusted, ready to go for Sunday morning.  I normally don’t look at it again until I’m on the pulpit.  But I’m certainly thinking and praying about it!

A Final Note

Please note that this post is entitled “How I Make a Sermon.”   That’s intentional.  It’s not “How to Make a Sermon.”  This is my way of doing it and has been for a long time.  It works for me.  It’s not necessarily going to work for everyone because we’re all different.  But here’s the thing:  almost all the bits and pieces of my process have been cobbled together from learning what others do.  If you’re a preacher early in the game, or perhaps a seminary student, maybe one or two of my bits and pieces will be helpful for you as well.  For the rest of you, you get a little idea of what this particular minister spends a good deal of his time on.


RCN Synod Goes 2020 — Course Reversal?

Though it’s not yet 2020, Synod 2020 of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands has begun in Goes.  The first press release has been issued and can be found here (in Dutch).  The big question many are wondering is whether Synod Meppel’s decision to admit women to all the offices of the church will be reversed.  Certainly efforts are being made by some local churches — you can read here about Urk and its request for revision, and also its bold refusal to send delegates to classis in the meantime (a classis which recently gave preaching consent to a woman).

What are the prospects for a course reversal?  The Synod has already been discussing the topic.  The Synod spent some time first discussing the topic “Dealing with Diversity.”  A couple of professors from the Theological University in Kampen came to make a presentation on that.  Saturday November 23 was spent discussing explicitly the topic of “men and women in the church.”  The deputies who wrote the report for the last Synod advocating for women in office came and gave introductions and workshops.

Reading the press release, one certainly doesn’t get the sense that the Synod is starting off on the right foot towards a course reversal.  Moreover, one detail is easy to miss in the press release:  the synod delegates consist of thirty brothers and two sisters.  So this synod apparently has two female office bearers as delegates.  Does anyone realistically think that this synod will come around later and say, “Sorry, sisters, the RCN made a mistake at Meppel and you really shouldn’t have been around this table”?  Really?

I can’t help but think of a vivid Dutch expression that Klaas Schilder used at a certain point in his discussions with Herman Hoeksema:  de kous is af.  Literally, “the stocking is finished.”  In English we would say, “It’s game over.”  After this, I pray Urk and other concerned believers still in the RCN will see it and move out and move on.


The Sad Case of Francesco Spiera

There was a time when the name of Francesco Spiera (or Francis Spira) was well-known throughout the Reformed churches of Europe.  His story frightened, inspired, and motivated many.  It was a story repeated numerous times in all the languages of Europe.  His story caught the attention of John Calvin and many other Reformed theologians.  Spiera became an example and a warning.  Yet today his name is all but forgotten.  I’d never heard of him until I came across a reference to him in a book written in the seventeenth century.  I doubt you’ve heard of him.  But I think you should know, because his life and death are still instructive, as are the reactions that followed.

The Life and Death of Francesco Spiera 

Francesco Spiera (ca. 1504-1548) was an Italian.  We know nothing about his childhood or upbringing.  What is written about him focuses entirely on the last years of his life.  He appears out of the blue as a lawyer working in the region of Venice.  He was an intelligent man with a solid reputation and a faithful Roman Catholic.  He was married and had eleven children.

Spiera’s world was turned upside down in the early 1540s when Reformation writings appeared for sale in his area.  He apparently purchased some of these writings.  He compared these writings with the Bible and became convinced that Reformation theology was biblical.  Moreover, he didn’t keep his new faith to himself.  He taught it to his family and his friends and to whomever would listen.

In November of 1547, some of his neighbours denounced him to the Roman Inquisition.  The Inquisition existed to stamp out heresies and errors and whatever challenged the authority and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.  Spiera was put on trial in Venice in May of 1548.  Among other things, his possession of an Italian Calvinistic classic, Beneficio di Cristo, was evidence that he had set out on a road away from Rome.  The trial lasted into June of 1548 and at the end he was commanded to retract his Protestant beliefs publicly and to buy an altar-piece for his local Roman Catholic Church building.  He appears to have followed these instructions.

Problems set in almost immediately afterwards.  Spiera had second thoughts about his abjuration.  He reportedly heard the voice of the Son of God accusing him for having denied the gospel and telling him that he was now a reprobate condemned to hell.  He fell ill and spent most of his time in bed suffering from physical pain and emotional despair.  Friends and family tried to reason with him.  Roman Catholic theologians and priests made an effort to convince him, and when that failed, they attempted to exorcise whatever demon was tormenting him.  Spiera continued to despair.  He died in that condition on December 27, 1548.  Some say that he died of despair, others that he took his own life.

The Danger of Apostasy

We live in a comfortable age at the moment.  Stories such as the one about Spiera seem entirely disconnected from our reality.  We would never face an Inquisition for being or becoming Reformed.  At least not at the moment.  However, we should not assume that things will always continue to be the way they are.  A day could come when you are dragged before a court and pressured to repudiate the gospel and your Saviour.  Spiera’s story reminds us that betraying our Saviour comes at a cost.

The story of Francesco Spiera was used by both Protestants and Roman Catholics to advance their agendas.  Roman Catholics used Spiera’s story to warn their people about the dangers of even departing from Rome in the first place.  Protestants used the story to warn people what could happen if they were to abjure their biblical faith.  Historians recognize that the historical accounts are coloured by these agendas.  Yet both Roman Catholics and Protestant reports of Spiera’s demise highlight the enormous suffering and despair that he endured because he did not stand strong one way or another.  I think we can say with certainty that this is a historical fact and it’s something instructive for us.

Protestant Reflections on Spiera

It’s also instructive to survey the different ways in which Protestants have treated the case of Francesco Spiera.  One of the earliest commentaries comes from John Calvin.  In 1549 Calvin wrote a preface to an account of Spiera’s despair.  Calvin used Spiera as an example in his struggle with the Nicodemites.  The Nicodemites, like Nicodemus, were secret believers.  They were people who held to Reformed theology, but continued to remain in the Roman Catholic Church.  Spiera was an example of what could happen to such people.  But Calvin went further than this and explicitly declared judgment on Spiera.  Calvin referred to him as an example of the reprobate who “never fail to proceed from one sin to another.”  His despair was God’s justice on him, a justice that came to full fervour after his death.  Calvin essentially asserted that Spiera had been consigned by God to eternal destruction and his betrayal of the faith gave evidence of his reprobation.

Subsequent Protestant theologians and authors took a similar line.  The English Reformer and martyr Hugh Latimer (ca. 1487-1555) asserted that Spiera had sinned against the Holy Spirit – committing the unpardonable sin.  In 1865, a book of poems was published by the Englishman James Hain Friswell.  The first one is about Francesco Spiera and its opening lines clearly indicate where the author believes Spiera ended up:

The words of Francis Spira, man of Law,

A man in sin begotten and conceived,

Reaping damnation, which he much deserved,

Dying with friends about him whose vain words

Would comfort him whose doom is fix’d past help!

Similarly, on a couple of occasions the Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) referred to Spiera and compared him to Judas Iscariot.  While he did not come right out and declare that Spiera was reprobate, there is a hint of it.

Another Line

However, there is another line in Protestant reflections on Francesco Spiera.  It’s found both among Reformed writers and Lutherans during the seventeenth century.  The post-Reformation was far kinder and sympathetic to Spiera’s case than many before and after.

Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676) is one of the giants of the Reformed faith in the seventeenth century.  He taught theology at the University of Utrecht.  He is remembered for his deft blending of serious academic thought with warm-hearted commitment to Christ.  Some of his books were written exclusively for an academic audience.  Others were written for the common Reformed person.  One of those was a book entitled Spiritual Desertion (Geestelijke Verlatingen), first published in Dutch in 1646.  In this book (which has been translated into English), Voetius mentions the case of Spiera twice.  The first time is in a discussion about the circumstances that most frequently accompany a feeling of desertion by God.  He mentions persecutions, diseases as well as considerable physical weakness which leads to death.  And he writes that an example of this is what happened with Spiera.  He adds, “This history ought to be read and can be read, since it available in more than one language.”

He comes back to Spiera later.  Voetius notes that when it comes to judging what happened to Spiera, he is in agreement with the assessment of the English Puritan William Perkins, the German Reformer Wolfgang Musculus, and even Arminius.  Voetius writes:

For certainly one must not give credence to their cries or confessions of despair, because that voice is not a voice of credibility or truth but of weakness; it is not making a statement but expressing a doubt…Finally, even if it were the case that they were not restored inwardly before their death but departed during a severe attack of insensibility and temptation, nothing certain could be concluded about their final and total impenitence and unbelief.  This could be done only if it were first established that actual, particular, and always ensuring repentance and remorse (renewed after every sin) is absolutely and indispensably necessary to salvation. (Spiritual Desertion, 53)

According to Voetius then, it is inappropriate to claim that Spiera was reprobate because of the manner in which he died.

Johannes Hoornbeeck (1617-1666) was a disciple of Voetius.  Voetius actually never finished writing Spiritual Desertion, so he commissioned Hoornbeeck to complete it.  Hoornbeeck wrote a lot more about Spiera, but it was all along the same lines as that of Voetius.  A short quote will give you an idea of what he thought:

[Spiera] did want to return to God but thought that he could not do so.  We silently pass by the judgment that others have pronounced.  On the basis of his burning desire and his heartfelt longing for God and his grace (longing that he frequently displayed), we consider ourselves duty-bound to suspend our judgment – if not to speak in his favour. (Spiritual Desertion, 86)

Hoornbeeck considered Spiera to be a “frightening example” but yet he believed that Spiera’s despair and spiritual struggle could not be evidence of reprobation.  After all, the reprobate give no care to their standing before God.

The last author I can mention is Johannes Andreas Quenstedt (1617-1688), an orthodox Lutheran theologian from the seventeenth century.  He discusses Spiera’s case in an important academic work entitled Theologica Didactico-Polemica.  It comes up in a discussion regarding the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  This is what Quenstedt concluded:

Spiera must be held least of all to have sinned against the Holy Spirit, because: 1) he defected to the papacy, not from malice, but from weakness; not by his own will and initiative, but through the persuasion of friends.  2) He did not impugn or blaspheme the doctrine of the Gospel, but he was greatly pained that he had defected from the truth.  It was therefore assuredly despair, but not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit… (Theologica Didactico-Polemica (1715), Vol. 1, 1064, translation mine)

Thus also Quenstedt regarded Spiera as a sad case, but not one in which observers can make a definite conclusion as to the Italian’s eternal destiny.

The Take-Aways

The post-Reformation period showed a remarkable degree of mature, biblical analysis of the Spiera case.  There was much more hesitancy to jump to conclusions regarding Spiera’s ultimate destination, whether that be heaven or hell.  Instead, the post-Reformation theologians that we’ve surveyed believed that Spiera suffered despair, even a sort of depression.  While he brought it on himself through his betrayal of the faith, the fact that he was in so much pain up till his death does not disqualify him from the kingdom of God.

As mentioned above, today we don’t face the immediate possibility of persecution.  Yet there are still countless people in our churches who suffer with despair and depression.  Sometimes, sadly, we even hear about those who take their own lives – as Spiera may have done.  Spiera’s story and the way the post-Reformation writers worked with it teach us to be careful when making judgments about someone’s spiritual state.  Struggle, doubts and difficulties are not indicative of reprobation, even when they culminate in suicide.

Sometimes the post-Reformation is wrongly described as a period of aridity in Reformed theology, as a low point in our heritage.  The story of Spiera indicates that there is much that we can still learn from men like Voetius, Hoornbeeck and even Quenstedt (Lutheran that he was).  These were men who valued faithfulness and precision in their theology, but it never came at the cost of passion for Christ and compassion for those who suffer.  One can only hope that we’ll see more post-Reformation material coming into English translation.


Seven Wondrous Words: Update on International Shipping

Canadians can order this new book directly from the publisher, the Study.

Australians can order through Amazon.com.au

Americans (and other international buyers) can order through Amazon.com

 


How to Benefit from the Lord’s Supper

Before a recent Lord’s Supper celebration in my church, I took the opportunity to give a little extra teaching on how Christians can and should benefit from this sacrament.  Here are my notes:

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Before I read the Form, I just want to provide some extra instruction for a moment on how to benefit from the Lord’s Supper.  Have you ever gone to the Lord’s Supper and then walked away from it and wondered, “What was that all about?  What was I supposed to gain from it?”  Have you ever wondered, “What’s supposed to happen to me at the Lord’s Supper?”

Well, the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament designed to strengthen our faith.  It’s easy to think that this is something out of our hands.  We go and sit at the table, and then we just wait and see what happens.  It’s like we’re waiting for a spiritual bolt of lightning to hit us and recharge our spiritual battery.  It might happen and it might not, but it’s out of our hands.  But nothing happens.  We eat the bread, we drink the wine, but nothing changes.  We don’t feel anything.  Our faith isn’t strengthened.

Loved ones, we have to remember how this sacrament works.  It doesn’t work like magic.  It’s not like we’re just passive participants waiting for God to do his thing with us to strengthen our faith.  No, we’re meant to be actively involved.  You have to come to the table with your heart and mind engaged.  When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19) he meant for us to be conscientious about what we’re doing.  If you’re going to benefit from the Lord’s Supper, you have to be thinking about what’s happening.  Otherwise it’s just an empty ritual.  And an empty ritual has no benefit – quite the opposite!

Let me make that concrete and practical for you.  Watch me as I break the bread.  That’s an important part of the sacrament.  I’m really breaking that bread, and so Christ’s body was really broken to pay for your sins.  When the bread comes to you, take it in your hand and look at it for a moment.  It’s real.  So Christ’s body that bore your sins is real.  That body was really nailed to the cross for you.  Taste it.  Feel it in your mouth.  It’s real:  tell yourself, this is how real the gospel is.  Do the same thing with the wine.  Watch me as I pour the wine into the cup.  I’m really pouring real wine.  That’s how real the blood of Christ was that was poured out for your sins.  When you take the cup, look at it; smell it if you want.  Think about it.  It’s real – so Christ had a real crown of thorns pushed into his head and it produced real blood.  When you drink the wine, tell yourself:  this is real wine and the blood of Christ that poured from his hands, feet and side is just as real.  That real blood secured my salvation.  It’s all true, it’s all real.

Loved ones, that’s how your faith will be strengthened this morning.  See the real elements of bread and wine and through them, see how the gospel is real.