Sermon Preparation – Expository Sermons Have a Specific Structure – by C. Matthew McMahonSermon Preparation and Guidelines for Expository Preaching
The Form of the Sermon
My wife and I have visited various churches throughout the Eastern US when we have occasion to see relatives and such. We visited a church not long ago where the minister had a hard time simply putting his thoughts together in the form of a sermon. It was noticeable. It seemed that he just didn’t know how to do it, and he’s been ministering in his church for a few years, (and we heard him speak a few times). Pastors should never be novices, especially in delivering God’s message. He should not be trying to get the message out of his head at the pulpit. Instead, he should have been trying to get it into mine.
While working on translating some works by Westminster Divine John Strickland, Strickland takes a brief moment to show the reader the “form of a sermon” in his introduction to a sermon he gave on Isaiah 30:18. He says the following:
“In this text of Isaiah we have set before us the just lineaments and properties of a sermon, viz.
1. The Text, and Doctrine, “The Lord waits to be gracious.”
2. Its two reasons, viz, because,
- a). He will be exalted in his mercy.
- b). He is a God of judgement.
3. And an application or use of the doctrine, “Blessed are all they that wait for him.””
This is the typical form of sermonizing from the period of the Reformation up to and through the Puritans. You will find this type of outline in church history also in the writings of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Harvard Presidents like Samuel Willard and Thomas Shepard, the Princeton preachers, and theologians who taught hermeneutics like R.L. Dabney, and various others. You will find this explained in almost every good expository preaching book.
Generally, sermons taken from holy Scripture are constructed in this manner:
1. The Text Opened (i.e. explained).
2. The Doctrine pulled from the text.
3. The Application of the Text and Doctrine to the people.
The question for our present day is, Should a theologian, preacher or minister have a hard time in setting up the basics of a sermon to the people of God on the Lord’s Day? I’m not alluding to having a difficult text to work through. There are a great many texts throughout the bible that are hard to deal with. But it does not matter if one deals with a hard text or easy text there is still the same sermon structure and result. In delivering God’s word to the people they should be able to set up the sermon as Strickland outlines it. This should be a standard as it is set down in the Westminster Directory for Public Worship, under Preaching of the Word.
It is my opinion (following Augustine, Chrysostom, the Reformers, Puritans, etc.) that ministers (true ministers who are skilled) should not have a problem outlining a text from the Bible and creating a sermon structure for it. The people of God should not get a dry theological lecture from a seminary theologian, nor should they get the distraught nature of a mind that can’t form propositions in some distinct order to relay the truth of Scripture in the basics of a sermon. Oftentimes preachers struggle to get ideas out of their own heads while preaching, instead of having their minds set with the form and manner of the sermon, and its precise delivery, in order to screw God’s truth into our mind. They should be working to get the truth into our minds instead of trying to get it out theirs.
Such “church speakers” (who give up preaching to “speak” instead) ought to take leave of their pulpits and get back into the pew. They have missed homiletics at the expense of anything they might get in hermeneutics, and that’s only if they put in time to study in exegesis! They must rely on the Spirit of God and His ability to guide them into all truth. They, then, must be able to “communicate” that truth.
Even in passing, Strickland knew the solid case for a biblical sermon (what a sermon should look and sound like) and assumed his hearers, which in this case were Parliament and the Westminster Divines, knew it as well. I’m sure, upon his statements and delivery, they did not heckle him, agreeing with him fully as to what constitutes a sermon since they all did the same. Might such a passing comment in Strickland’s writings resonate deep in the hearts of all preachers – that they should rely on God’s gracious provision of His Holy Spirit to work in those men the power, ability and skill to form that which becomes the food of the church. They are, in fact, delivering Christ to the people…if they can only get those thoughts out of their heads into ours.
The outline of every expository sermon will basically have the same structure. The number of points, sub point, and sub-sub-points will vary and differ depending on the content, depth and message. The introduction (which is done after the text is READ) is constructed for many reasons, yet it is derived from the coherence of the text of the bible. Introductions are not stories about Uncle Melvin’s moonshine operation or the preacher’s sudden interest in poetry. It should, first, cohere with the matters in a theological unit, its substance cohering most nearly either with what precedes or with what follows. It is introducing the text in the clearest possible manner. Introductions should not seem prideful, far-fetched, long, or foreign to the text previously read. Peter van Mastricht correctly states, “it [is] most useful to construct for the introduction a brief and meaty analysis of the whole chapter, by which the text is divided up so that, with respect to your hearers, not only would the analysis more easily follow the coherence of the text, but it would also draw out a summary of the whole of any chapter.” Yes, I quite concur. Preach the text.
After the introduction of the text, the preacher will explain, in laymen terms, the relevant data of the text that is essential to understanding the passage and intent of the Holy Spirit. This is the meaning of the text in all ages.
After the text is explained, and the preacher can say with certainty, “and this is what God meant for us to understand in this text,” the preacher will then fill out his theological, doctrinal, or didactic teaching from the text. This is the second part of the sermon, the doctrine of the text. It may certainly be that the text has a number of possible doctrines, but the preacher should be sensitive to time and material to chose the best doctrine or teaching for the current congregation. This is the doctrine or biblical truth to be believed in all ages.
The third part of the sermon is the application, which teaches what the text means to the hearers here and now. It is applied to various kinds of people in the congregation, and clearly present to each class. The preacher should be able to rightly apply the meaning of the passage to each kind of hearer (i.e. unbeliever, believer, hypocrite, doubting believer, those in need of assurance, etc.)