Preach the Word! — Chapter 10

Finding Sermon Subjects

This article is part of a series of articles on how to preach written by Jess Hall, Jr. and originally published in The Firm Foundation.

Sunday is over; two sermons have been preached; there’s no time for rest; it’s time to begin again. What shall I preach on next Sunday? With a dread that stifles both spirit and imagination, the preacher, head down and back slumped, trudges to the study wondering why his creative incubator seems to lay more eggs than it hatches.

Why do some preachers have more subjects than they can preach on in a life-time, while others search for hours, find nothing, and, like George Eliot’s Maynard Gilfil, resort to a stack of yellowed sermon outlines, selecting two in order without reference to topics or the needs of his hearers? (Scenes of Clerical Life, Penguin, 1973.) The need for two sermons every week can demoralize the preacher and result in “Saturday night specials” that are more deadly than the handguns that bear that name. How are sermon subjects found?

First, good sermon subjects are seldom found while looking for them. The preacher may be reading scripture, he may be reading some book, he may be listening to conversations on a bus, he may be fishing, hunting, or golfing, but, with a mind that is attuned to the needs of his hearers, a subject leaps off of the page or out of the conversation, and he says, “That is what my people need to hear.”

Second, the preacher is always ready to record the product of the creative spark. He may carry a small notebook, a 3x5 card, or a small recorder, but whatever device he chooses, he doesn’t let a moment pass before he records the thought, perhaps adding other thoughts when he can. Then, without fail, the sermon idea finds its way into a filing system where it awaits its selection. A filing system not only preserves ideas that would otherwise be forgotten, it provides time for ideas to mature and grow. The filing system may range from a loosely organized alphabetized-by-subject filing of the 3x5 cards or others scraps of paper on which thoughts have been hastily scribbled, to a sophisticated computer data base, but the important factor is that there is some system of meaningful recall that makes the information useful.

Third, the preacher plans his sermons in advance. The pressure of the last minute strangles creation. Last minute preparation is no more likely to produce well balanced nutritional sermons than a housewife can produce well balanced nutritional meals by going into the pantry at 5:30 and staring blankly at its contents trying to find something that she can have on the table by 6:00. Last minute preparation is most apt to wind up feeding those who are hungering after righteousness with spiritual junk food! Advance planning eliminates the arduous time spent searching for a subject. It reduces the likelihood of preaching on the same subject. Late preparation gives birth to repetition because it is easier for the preacher to deal with his pet peeve or favorite subject than with what the congregation needs to hear. It has been said that a business man who fails to plan plans to fail. Is it any different for the preacher?

Advance planning provides time for the sermon to ripen and mature. Events observed, papers, magazines, and books read provide information and illustrations that enliven a sermon just as spices enliven a gourmet dish. The observant preacher will find more material accidentally while the sermon is “in the oven” than he will on purpose when time is short and preparation is forced. Thus, he will be less likely to regurgitate stale thoughts from old sermons or sermon outline books.

Advance planning provides time for the preacher to carefully consider his approach to his subject. Is his approach designed to demonstrate his cleverness or to help his hearers? The greatness of a sermon comes not from the cleverness of the idea behind it, but from its ability to “strengthen . . . the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees” (Isa. 35:3) of the hearers.

Finally, advance planning enables the preacher to announce his subjects in advance. Knowing the subjects enables the congregation to be alert to comments, questions and needs of neighbors and to invite their neighbors when the sermon subject and the neighbor’s interests coincide. Additionally, it enables the song leader to select hymns that complement the sermon, giving both the sermon and the songs added meaning.

Sunday is over; two sermons have been preached; there’s no time for rest; it’s time to begin again. What shall I preach on next Sunday? No problem. I’ve been planning it for weeks.

God's Plan of Salvation

You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)

You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)

You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)

Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)