Preparing Gospel-Centered Sermons
There is one common pressure that every pastor feels regardless of the size of his congregation, the structure of his schedule, or the season of his ministry. This tension is felt in the reality that Sunday is always coming. Don’t get me wrong—I love Sundays, and I love what God allows me to do as a shepherd of His flock. But the fact remains the same, no matter what we experience during the week, when Sunday arrives our number one responsibility to God and to our people is to have carefully studied and faithfully prepared to teach God’s Word. I want to preach as if it’s the final opportunity I have to display God’s glory through the magnification of His Word.
Due to this responsibility, the greater part of our weekly schedules is busy in sermon preparation. There are certainly an array of personal preferences when it comes to where we enjoy studying, how we go about developing the text, and the tools we prefer to use to piece it all together. One thing remains true—we need to have a weekly strategy to open God’s Word and prepare ourselves to communicate God’s intended message to His people.
Here are five steps of my weekly sermon preparation. These are certainly not exhaustive or original with me. In fact, I was a student in Bible college when I first heard these points delivered by a veteran pastor speaking of his own sermon preparation. It so wonderfully summarizes my own sermon preparation process that I trust you will find them to be helpful in your personal preparation too.
STEP #1 — THINK YOURSELF EMPTY
This is where I begin. I open the text of Scripture and read it over and over again. While I read, I highlight, underline, and circle anything that stands out to me in the text. As much I enjoy utilizing technology, I still use a little blue journal and pen to handwrite every detail that jumps out at me while I think through each verse.
Another aspect of the process I enjoy is writing each phrase of the text in one column while writing down my own observations in an adjacent (a second) column. During this process of observation, I am allowing the text to shape the sermon while I observe and think through every detail of the passage. This stop is crucial to my understanding of the passage. Of course, there are observational questions I am asking—Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? I’m thinking through the context, digging deep, and challenging any presuppositions I may have about that particular text. I want to know what a word means in light of the phrase it’s in, and what the phrase means in light of the verse, and what the verse means in light of the paragraph, and what the paragraph means in light of the chapter, and what the chapter means in light of the book, and what the book means in light of the testament, and what that testament means in light of the entire Bible. I am thinking about everything, and writing it all down.
Scott Tewell once said to me, “All I ever want to see is only everything that God wants me to see.” This statement embodies what it means to think ourselves empty. We carefully think through every word, phrase, and sentence to clearly understand a the central theme and main idea of the text. I don’t consult commentaries or listen to others’ sermons at this point. It’s just me, the text, and a piece of paper.
STEP #2 — READ YOURSELF FULL
This step is where I educate myself on the text. I’m now moving from observation to research. I’ve done the foundational work, observing and interpreting what I believe is happening. Now, I want to check my work to ensure I’m not mistaken or, unknowingly inventing some heretical thought that goes against sound theology. This is where I bring out commentaries, sermons, and other resources to help us further research the meaning of the passage.
I enjoy using Logos Bible Software. The wealth of resources is more exhaustive than I’ll ever use in my lifetime, but it’s still extremely helpful. My favorite commentaries are the MacArthur New Testament Commentaries by Moody Publishers and the Preach The Word Commentaries by Crossway Publishers. Alistair Begg and Sinclair Ferguson are two of my favorite preachers to listen to, among many others. Regardless of who you like to read or listen to, just make sure that you’re diligent to check your work to ensure you have a true understanding of what’s happening in the passage. We’re not relying on these resources, just simply educating ourselves by them.
STEP #3 — WRITE YOURSELF CLEAR
At this point, I have thought extensively and researched carefully the passage. As a result, I should have a good grasp on the idea and theme of the text. By this time, you should be able to clearly describe the main idea of the text in one sentence. Now it’s time to put together the sermon. I’m not so much worried about titles or illustrations at this point. I’m simply focused on outlining the text in clarity and simplicity in order to explain and apply this passage to our people on Sunday.
Let me just add that the sermon is not the outline. The sermon is the Word of God. The outline is the means by which we clearly deliver the sermon. We work towards that goal by determining the natural divisions of the text and the message that needs to be communicated. In his book ‘What Is Biblical Preaching?’ Eric Alexander said, “The structure must never obtrude so as to be admired for its cleverness or originality…as if we are more concerned with the packaging than with the content. It is the finished building men want to see and not the builder’s scaffolding.”
There are differing preferences when it comes to writing out the sermon, but I prefer to manuscript my sermons for delivery. This keeps me focused in my study, avoiding unnecessary repetition. It also helps me to manage the length of the sermon by finding the right words that will best communicate the message rather than just shooting from the hip. However you choose to write your sermons, just be sure that you are writing things out clearly for your own benefit as well as the audience’s benefit.
STEP #4 — PRAY YOURSELF HOT
Perhaps, one of the most convicting things I’ve ever read about prayer and preaching was from Charles Spurgeon in ‘Lectures To My Students.’ Spurgeon said, “The minister who does not earnestly pray over his work must surely be a vain and conceited man. He acts as if he thought himself sufficient of himself, and therefore needed not to appeal to God. Yet what a baseless pride to conceive that our preaching can ever be in itself so powerful that it can turn men from their sins, and bring them to God without the working of the Holy Spirit. If we are truly humble-minded we shall not venture down to the fight until the Lord of Hosts has clothed us with all power. The preacher who neglects to pray…is a detestable hypocrite who loves the praise of men, and cares not for the praise of God. He will become merely a superficial talker and a vain show most admired. He cannot be one of those who plough deep and reap abundant harvests. He is a mere loiterer, not a laborer. As a preacher he has a name to live and is dead…for his praying is shorter than his preaching.”
Friend, we cannot divorce our preaching from our praying. Acts chapter six is very clear—we are to give ourselves to the ministry of the word and prayer. Pray yourself hot. Pray over the text. Pray over the sermon. Pray over the people. And just when you think you have prayed sufficiently, pray again!
STEP #5 — BE YOURSELF IN DELIVERY
I’ll not belabor this final step, but when we get up to the pulpit and deliver what we have prepared, it’s important to simply be who God has created you to be. I do believe it is inevitable that we will reflect our influences, but we cannot allow our admiration for another speaker to lead us to imitation. Be yourself, always remembering that substance is more important than style. Don’t fall into the trap of using preaching as a subtle form of entertainment. Let the text speak for itself and just be yourself.
Sunday is coming! Open that text. Think yourself empty. Read yourself full. Write yourself clear. Pray yourself hot. Be yourself in delivery. And always remember, we are responsible for faithfulness while God is responsible for fruitfulness.
Jonathan Blankenship (M.A., West Coast Baptist College) lives in his hometown of Charlotte, NC where he revitalized and has served as Lead Pastor of the Laurel Baptist Church since 2008. He is also the host of the Preach The Word Podcast, a podcast on expository preaching. Jonathan and his wife, Kathleen, have 3 children.