Preach the Word! — Chapter 9

When Does Sermon Preparation Begin?

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.

In giving the limited commission, Jesus told his disciples that they did not need to “take thought” about what they would say when they were delivered up because he would give it to them in that hour. Given the agonizing hours that preachers spend just in determining the subject upon which they shall preach, not to mention the additional hours in developing that subject, being “delivered up” may seem to some a small price to pay for receiving sermons without having to “take thought.” Could it be that, for many, preparation is made more difficult than it should be because it starts too late?

Sermon preparation begins long before that moment when the preacher retires to his study to put pen to paper. The preacher who does not understand this will find that time spent in the study is a dreadful and depressing experience. Sermon preparation begins with the preacher’s heart – how he lives; involves the preacher’s ears – how he listens; and considers the preacher’s congregation – how he loves.

Preparation begins with the life of the preacher. That which comes from the preacher’s heart is more apt to go to the hearer’s heart. The preacher cannot share what he does not possess; he cannot reveal what he has not seen. Lives cannot be changed by eloquent hearsay. Isaiah was a great preacher because his eyes had seen the King, the Lord of Hosts. (Isaiah 6:5.) The apostles were great preachers because they preached that which they had seen and heard. (1 John 1:1-3.) Their preaching was not a theoretical dictum but a declaration; it was not an argument but an announcement; it was not propaganda but an infecting contagious proclamation that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.

Once the preacher has the fire of God burning within him, it is time to listen to the sounds of life. Understand people; understand what is happening in the world; understand the circumstances in which people find themselves; understand the relation of God’s Word to both the people and the world. Like a mighty Colossus, with one foot in God’s Word and the other in God’s World, the preacher brings the Word of God to bear upon the needs of man.

Finally, before a preacher puts pen to paper, he needs to love his hearers. He needs to place himself in their place. He needs to stand in the pulpit in an empty building, see the folks who will worship there Sunday, and ask what will help them in their struggles. Can the preacher who honestly loves his hearers really conclude that they will be helped by a debate over the authorship of some Biblical book, a browbeating about the preacher’s pet peeve, or a lecture on the technicalities of the Greek or Hebrew? Can the preacher who honestly loves his hearers really conclude that they will be helped by doctrine without application?

The efficacy of preaching diminishes in relationship to the size of the “great gulf fixed” between the preacher and the pew. According to one poll, common complaints about sermons from hearers were: 1) too many complex ideas; 2) too much analysis and too little answers; 3) too formal and too impersonal; 4) too much theological jargon; 5) too propositional and too few illustrations; and 6) too many sermons reach a dead end and give no guidance to commitment and action. These are problems that can’t be solved without preparation prior to retiring to the study.

“Many ministers . . . . get into the pulpit and begin to spout sermonic material. Then they get out and it is over. But real preaching does not work this way. . . . Real preaching grows out of the counseling session, the [elder’s] meeting, the [visitation] call, the casual encounter in a restaurant or a grocery store. It speaks of and to what the minister has learned in all of his . . . dealings with the people during the week. It relates the gospel to human situations and works back and forth between them like a weaver’s shuttle.

Preaching that does not do this is not true preaching. It has not understood the nature of the gospel. . . . The gospel addresses and assumes the forms of real people’s lives or it does not exist at all. It is not theoretical or academic; it is blood and bone, gut and marrow. It speaks to human hurts and hopes, to specific needs and possibilities, or it does not speak at all.” (John Killenger, Fundamentals of Preaching, Fortress Press, 1985, p. 23.)

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)