Category Archives: Preaching

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.


Pastoral Q & A: Is Catechism Preaching Biblical?

Reformed churches have historically practiced catechism preaching, typically in the afternoon or evening service.  This practice dates back to the Reformation.  However, in today’s milieu the practice is under threat.  Some Reformed churches have long abandoned catechism preaching while others are heading in that direction.  Sadly, even in churches that maintain it (like the Canadian Reformed and Free Reformed of Australia), there are members who not only question it, but actively repudiate it.

One of the chief objections often raised against catechism preaching is that it isn’t preaching on the Word of God.  Instead, churches doing this are preaching on a human document.  In so doing they’re actually repudiating the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura.  The infallible Bible alone should be our “text,” and yet Reformed churches are preaching on a fallible Catechism.

Such an objection arises either from a caricature of catechism preaching or a misunderstanding of it.  The caricature portrays a Reformed pastor who dryly exegetes the Catechism, perhaps even referring at length to the original German vocabulary and grammar, but who fails to open the Bible or even mention the Bible.  In this caricature, the Catechism has indeed replaced the Bible.  I say this is a caricature because I’ve never once encountered this type of “catechism preaching,” nor have I heard of it anecdotally.  I doubt it exists.  If it does, may it soon become extinct.

The common misunderstanding relates to the notion of what biblical preaching is.  Nowhere does the Bible indicate that preaching must be on one isolated text, a verse or perhaps a series of verses.  There’s no reason to conclude that preaching can’t exposit or explain the doctrine found in a number of Bible passages.  In expository preaching, the preacher focusses on one isolated passage (naturally taking context into account as well) of Scripture.  In catechism preaching, the preacher teaches the “whole counsel of God” on a doctrine while taking the whole Bible into account.  If there ever is such a thing, catechism preaching that doesn’t work with the Scriptures is not worthy of the name “preaching,” and it isn’t biblical.   However, done properly it too is the preaching of the Word of God.

In a lecture several years ago at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary, I heard Dr. Jason Van Vliet suggest we think of the relationship between regular Bible-text preaching and catechism preaching in terms of nouns, verbs, and adverbs:

The nouns are the same — if done properly, in both instances our subject material is the Word of God.

The verbs are the same — if done properly, in both instances we are preaching the Word of God.

The adverbs are different — in the first instance we are preaching from a single text of Scripture (in what I would call an expository manner); in the second instance we are preaching catechetically from a broader range of God’s revelation in Scripture.

When things are put in this manner, no one should have a difficulty in agreeing that catechism preaching can and should be biblical preaching.

Hosea 4:6 says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…”  Lack of knowledge, including knowledge of the doctrines of Scripture, is destructive.  Catechism preaching aims to build up God’s people in their knowledge of what his Word teaches.  Catechism preaching is constructive — and so why wouldn’t any Reformed believer cherish it?

(Adapted from chapter 13 of my forthcoming book Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship)


Open Your Bible

Imagine a morning worship service.  The pastor reads the text for his sermon.  Then everyone closes their Bible.  Dangerous – I can think of no other word to describe this situation.  Let me explain why.

The Bible teaches us that the preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word.  Nowhere is this made more explicit than 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”  When the Thessalonians heard the preaching of men like Paul, they heard the voice of God speaking to them.

This is implicit in Ephesians 4:17, “And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”  The Holy Spirit says that Jesus came and preached to the Ephesians.  But we know that the Lord never traveled to Asia Minor to preach.  So, how can it be said that Jesus preached in Ephesus?  He preached through Paul and others.  When they preached, it was as if Christ was preaching through them.  The preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word.

However, there is a crucially important biblical qualification.  The preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word when it’s done faithfully according to God’s Word.  If the words of the pastor are contradicting God’s Word, they can’t possibly be God’s Word.  The preaching has to be in line with intention and meaning of Scripture.  We see this from the example of the Berean Jews in Acts 17.  Acts 17:11 says, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”  The Holy Spirit commends these Jews for hearing the preaching of the apostles and comparing it with the written Word.  Because the two lined up, “many of them therefore believed.”

There are three reasons why it’s dangerous for believers to close their Bibles when listening to preaching.

First, it’s dangerous for you.  What if the pastor is just feeding you his own opinion instead of preaching the text to you?  How will you tell if you don’t have your Bible open?  When you have your Bible open, you can better discern whether the pastor is preaching the Scriptures or his own ideas.  You can better discern whether the preaching you’re hearing is God’s Word.

It’s also dangerous for your pastor.  Every human being needs accountability, including pastors.  When pastors face a congregation where everyone has their Bible closed, the likelihood they’ll get away with preaching their own opinions is far greater.  In 1 Corinthians 9:16, Paul wrote, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”  In Galatians 1:8, he wrote, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”  Accursed means “damned.”  In other words, damned be the pastor who preaches another gospel.  As a preacher, those words make me tremble and bring me to beg for the accountability of my listeners.  I want them to hold me accountable to preach only God’s Word.  They can do that far better when they listen to me with an open Bible.

Finally, it’s dangerous for the gospel.  All Christians want the gospel to move forward.  We all want the gospel to touch hearts and transform lives.  But if God’s Word is not being preached faithfully, how is that going to happen?  Preaching is a means of grace.  It is a way through which the Holy Spirit graciously brings people to Christ.  Yet it only does that as the preaching is faithful.  If we love the gospel, if we long to see people saved through it and lives transformed through it, then we all have a vested interest in ensuring that the preaching we hear is the preaching of the Word of God.  That’s done best when you have your Bible open in front of you.

It’s not just the responsibility of elders to ensure that the preaching is faithful.  All believers have a calling to hear preaching, but also to think about whether it is faithful, biblical preaching.  When we close our Bibles and blindly trust our pastor to do what’s right, we’re actually not too far off from the medieval church.  In the medieval church, many people just uncritically trusted what the priests were saying.  Look where that led.  The Reformation put preaching front and centre.  But the Reformation also put the Bible in people’s hands.  Regular Christians could again follow the example of the Bereans.  Not only would it be sad, it would also be dangerous if we would dial back the Reformation’s gains by listening to preaching today with a closed Bible.


Listening As If For the Last Time

In his book Expository Exultation, John Piper describes how he prays right before preaching.  As an elder is reading the text for the sermon, Piper pleads with God for strength and effectiveness in the pulpit.  He understands the significance of what he’s about to do and so he begs God for help.  I can relate to that.

I’ve been preaching now for over 20 years.  In earlier times, I’d usually pray beforehand, but back then it was mostly because of nervousness and fear.  My first time on a pulpit in a Canadian Reformed Church was in my home congregation in Edmonton.  At that time (1999), it was the largest Canadian Reformed Church – over 600 members.  I was petrified.  What if I said something wrong?  What if I messed up the order of worship?  I had everything I had to say written down, just in case.  And I prayed and prayed.

As time went on, I became more comfortable with preaching and leading worship.  Only then did the momentous significance of what I was doing on the pulpit begin to really grip me.  It was a process.  Somewhere along the way I read the words of Richard Baxter, “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”  Along the way, I experienced more than once that a person heard me preach on one Sunday and then, by the next, they were no longer there.  God had called them out of this life.

The event that most impacted me was how God called home a United Reformed colleague, Rev. Eric Fennema.  I didn’t know him personally.  But I heard about him from a close friend who did.  One Sunday he was preaching as a guest minister in the URC in Lynden, Washington.  He preached a powerful, amazing sermon on the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13).  You can still listen to it here.  He exhorted the congregation to always be ready to meet the Lord.  If you were to make one sermon your last, you would want it to be that one.  It was his last.  Late the following week he was playing golf and had a heart attack.  He never preached again.

Thus I gradually learned the urgency of preaching.  Preaching is life and death.  I now approach each sermon with two thoughts in mind.  First, what if this is the last sermon I ever preach?  Second, what if this is the last sermon someone in the pews will ever hear?  Those thoughts drive me to make sure I preach the gospel each time.  They also drive me to prayer far more than my early nervousness ever did.

Late last year and early this year, I enjoyed a sabbatical of several months.  I love preaching, but having that burden of urgency off my shoulders was refreshing.  I was blessed to have my old pastor, Rev. Richard Aasman, on the pulpit for a good portion of my sabbatical.  I could just sit and listen – and ponder.  I then learned there’s a flip-side to the urgency of preaching.

Listening to the preaching of God’s Word is also a matter of momentous significance.  If you knew that this was the last sermon you would ever hear preached, how would you listen differently?  But you don’t know.  It could be your last sermon – and that’s how you ought to approach it.  You should approach it prayerfully.  Ask God to help you treat it as the life-and-death proclamation of his Word to you.  Ask for the Holy Spirit to help you listen as if your life depends on it.

Eric Fennema’s passage from Matthew 25 certainly warns us, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (v.13).  You don’t know when the Bridegroom will appear with the clouds of heaven, but you also don’t know when he will call you to himself.  Therefore, you need to be watchful.  Part of being watchful is giving heed to his every word to you.  Urgently hang on his words as he speaks to you through preaching.  As our Lord says in another place, “Pay attention to what you hear…” (Mark 4:24).

To drive home the urgency of listening to God’s Word preached, we could rephrase Baxter’s dictum:

I listened as if never sure to listen again, and as a dying man listening to a dying man.”

It’s a lesson better learned sooner rather than later!


Fighting Truth Decay

Truth has fallen on hard times.  As I read the headlines each day, I can’t help but wonder:  “What happened to truth?”  Then I think of all the ways God’s people are bombarded with lies every day.  They’re carefully crafted lies and they so easily deceive.  Satan, the head trafficker of lies, is doing booming business.  Though it comes from an entirely different context, Isaiah 59:14-15 seems to have been penned just this morning:

Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter.  Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.

How can we as Christians continue to stand in the face of this truth crisis?  How will the church survive?  It’s going to be like it always has:  on the basis of the public, objective truth of God’s Word.  Let me point out four ways we need to work with God’s Word to battle truth decay in our day.

The Preaching

When you come to worship each Lord’s Day, you’ll hear your pastor proclaim God’s Word as steadfast, eternal truth.  You can’t underestimate the impact that has.  When you hear a man himself firmly convicted of the truth he’s preaching, that’s going to be a boost for your own grasp on the truth.  Moreover, if that preaching is faithful to God’s Word, it’s not merely a man you’re hearing.  In fact, Scripture teaches that the preaching of God’s Word is God’s Word (1 Thess. 2:13).  It’s a word from him who will never lie (Titus 1:2).  Faithful preaching is the Word of Christ, who is not only the way and the life, but also the truth (John 14:6).  There’s a reason why the Holy Spirit tells believers not to forsaking gathering together (Heb. 10:25) — the Spirit of truth drives home the word of truth in our gatherings.  So come each Lord’s Day and get your truth supplement.

Regular Daily Family Worship

Imagine if every family in the church were to gather regularly for the reading of God’s truth.  Imagine the good that would do not only for our children, but also for parents.  To listen to the truth of God’s Word each day and then to reflect on it together is going to be powerfully reinforcing its message for us.  A super helpful resource for reflecting and discussing every chapter of the Bible together is the Family Worship Bible Guide.

Regular Daily Bible Reading

One of the biggest regrets of my pastoral ministry is that in my first congregation, I didn’t teach the importance of developing the discipline of reading through all the Scriptures — that was so foolish!  God taught me this in my second congregation through a godly elder in a home visit.  More than ever, we need to be imbibing the truth of Scripture for ourselves every day.  It’s not enough just to read a Bible devotional.  Bible devotionals are selective — they only give you a verse or two chosen by the author of the devotional.  Bible devotionals are sometimes defective — too many of them neglect the fact that the Bible is first of all about Jesus.  Bible devotionals are always subjective — as you read it you only get the limited viewpoint of that author.  Bible devotionals can be helpful, but it’s not the same as doing the hard work of reading and studying the Bible for yourself.  It’s through that hard work that you appropriate God’s truth for yourself.  Developing that habit means that every day we’re letting the Holy Spirit speak truth to our hearts through the Word.  There are all kinds of Bible reading plans out there — you just need to pick one and starting running with it.  It may be hard at first, but if you persevere for the long haul, you won’t regret it.

Studying the Bible with Others

Finally, the truth gets reinforced as we study the Scriptures with one another in the communion of saints.  We have brothers and sisters who have seen truths in the Bible that we have not yet seen.  We need them to share that with us.  Similarly, we may have grasped truths from the Scriptures that they haven’t yet.  They need us to bring those truths to them.  Getting a better handle on the truths of God’s Word needs to be a communal effort.  Together, we can see and grasp more of the truth we need for life in this world in the grip of lies.

Let me leave you with Phil. 4:8, where the Holy Spirit says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true…think about these things.”  What is more true than God’s own Word?