Practical Pointers on Preaching
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Practical Pointers on Preaching

From Series: The Pastor’s Study, Volume 2

Selected Scriptures  (ID: 2158)

Pastoral ministry often raises practical questions about preaching: How do I properly prepare a sermon? What methods should I use to make the text relevant? What delivery strategies make a sermon spiritually effective? While answers to these questions vary, Alistair Begg points us to one central truth: It is God’s Word, not the preacher’s ability to “market” the Gospel, that opens the ears of the hearers and brings them to an awareness of His grace.


Sermon Transcript: Print

We’re now at, I think, sort of “The Nature of Expository Preaching II: Some Practical Pointers,” and so on. And the presence of this board here ought to alarm all of you, because as soon I start drawing on this board, there’s no saying what can happen. And so we’ll look forward to this.

Responses to Criticism of Preaching

Let me, before I start to draw on the board and impress you with my art, address just a couple of questions about preaching and the kind of reactions that we get. This is not to preempt any of your questions at all. But one of the things that we’re up against at the moment, as being preachers, is this statement: “Preaching doesn’t do any good. Preaching just doesn’t do any good.” And the notion is that monodirectional communication—right?—is able to reinforce attitudes and beliefs presently held but can only very rarely effect change in people’s opinions. Now, that is fairly common psychological theory. The implication, then, is clear: if you want, then, to be able to change people’s opinions, then you’re gonna have to give up on the monologue and move at least to the dialogue if not produce a talking dog. And if we are prepared to accept that proposition, then we have to admit that both Jesus and the rest of the apostles were involved in a complete faux pas. Because their responsibility was as heralds, the kerux, a one-way communication; any kind of dialogue was supplemental to but did not replace the actual preaching ministry.

Now, the flaw in this kind of thinking is not actually in the psychology of it so much—although we can debate that—as it is in the theology. And people who argue in this way—and they roam around the country arguing in this way; I could name them but I’m not going to… he said very self-righteously, thereby losing the blessing. But some have not gone the whole hog, but they’re going around telling young guys that they gather together for conferences that, basically, you ought to think about speaking for maybe eighteen or nineteen minutes, because the context in which we now live, it is totally impossible for any normal human being to be able to endure anything beyond that, and they give you all these statistics about the USA Today newspaper and the average teenager, etc., all of which may be perfectly clear and true, but where the flaw lies is in the theology. Because the people who argue in that way are assuming—many of them—that Christian preaching is analogous to a marketing exercise. That we have a product; it’s the gospel. That we have consumers: the congregation. That we have a salesman: the preacher. And therefore, the job of the preacher is the same as the job of the salesman: to overcome consumer resistance and to influence people to buy the product.

Now, according to the apostle Paul, there is one overwhelming reason why that analogy is not a good one: the preacher does not overcome consumer resistance; he cannot. He cannot. So if you set your stall up that way—that you have a product, the gospel; you have a consumer, namely, your listening congregation; and that you are a salesman, and your job is to overcome consumer resistance—welcome to hell. You don’t have a hope in the world. And if you don’t go insane, then it’s just because you’ve become one of the finest conjurers that the Western world has ever seen. The “gospel is veiled”—we read it this morning, 2 Corinthians 4:3—the gospel is “veiled to those who are perishing.” So how in the world are we going to remove the veil? We’re not.

The parable of the sower, as Jesus gives us it, is one sower and four soils,[1] right? A communications expert telling this story today would tell the story the completely other way around: There is one soil and four sowers. The first sower came along and tried his technique, and it wasn’t very good. The second sower tried a different technique, and it was a little better, but not particularly good. And eventually, the fourth technique finally worked. Christian conversion is not the result of human persuasion; it is a manifestation of divine grace. 2 Corinthians 4:6: “Let light shine out of darkness.”

Now, it is for this reason that the monologue is actually the ideal communication technique. For the function of the Word of God is to make the person in whom God is already secretly at work by his Spirit, to make that individual self-conscious of their need of a Savior. As a preacher, you and I are merely instruments whereby people who are being saved become aware of the fact. Now, some of you want to say amen, some of you want to say, “Let me think about that; we’ll hear you again on that matter,” and some of you want to say, “You’re out of your mind”—Acts chapter 17.[2] But I want to tell you this: that after twenty-five years of preaching the Bible, if I did not believe that, I don’t think I could get up to my feet to preach the gospel at all. That it’s my job to overcome consumer resistance? What am I going to do? “God kindles spiritual life in souls by his Spirit,” says one “and then rejoices in their free, uncoerced, spontaneous response to the Word when [it is] preached.”[3]

Much of the trouble with contemporary evangelism is that it is built on the fallacious assumption that anybody can and will respond to the gospel if it is only presented to them in a proper fashion. That’s not true. In the preaching event, it is the quality of the soil, not the quality of the preacher, that’s being displayed. So when people believe, it doesn’t exalt us; it says God has done a wonderful work in preparing the soil. The “sower went forth to sow; and when he sowed…”[4] I mean, what is this story of the sower? There’s a tremendous amount of seed going to waste here. Don’t you feel like that? I’m preaching and preaching and preaching, and there seems to be so little. And when there is any little, what do we know? We didn’t do it. Because we can’t even get the seed in the right place, let alone make it germinate.

As preachers, you and I are merely instruments whereby people who are being saved become aware of the fact.

Now, what do you say? Well, we don’t use any logic, or we don’t appeal to people, or we don’t argue with them? No, of course we use logic and we appeal. When we go down to the businesspeople in the center of Cleveland, we try and be as logical as we can. We try and use as many biblical business illustrations as we can. We try and argue along the lines. We try and speak to the lawyer by saying, “Why don’t you check the small print on the issue of the resurrection?” Lawyers are all about checking small print. But that’s only a mechanism to get them to open up a little bit and put their chin up out of their sandwiches and see if they wouldn’t listen for a moment or two. But even in our best endeavors, we do it in the awareness of the fact that none of that, and its companions, will change a person’s receptivity to the Word.

If a person responds, it’s not a triumph of the preacher’s power of communication. It is a triumph of the Spirit of God, who has secretly transformed the person’s heart. Preaching may reveal the transformation, but preaching can’t produce it. Preaching will be effective not because by all accounts it’s the best means of communication but because it’s God’s chosen method by which he opens people’s eyes and brings them to an awareness of his grace. And so that’s why we preach. People say, “Well, you know, there’s a lot of other things you could do. You know, we could do dramatic things, and we could hang things from the ceiling, and we could dance around and attract attention and do all manner of things.” Yes, I understand that. And I think a lot more people may be immediately drawn to that; I understand that too. But I can’t do that at the moment. Why? Because that’s not what God has asked me to do. He’s asked me to be a herald of the Word. And it is a solemn thing to declare and to receive God’s Word. Now, that’s just some thoughts on the response to the notion, “It doesn’t do any good.”

And then the other one is, “People don’t like to listen to preaching. People won’t listen to preaching these days.” And so they tell the young men, “If you want to attract them, then dump the long sermons, bring in the drama team, fill it up with music, drop in a few film excerpts, and just have a wonderful celebration.” In short, think about how you’re packaging the gospel. Look at the world of entertainment, check the Johnny Carson Show, see how he did it, see what people like, look at advertising techniques, and then you’ll be able to put your presentation together accordingly.

Now, we can deal with some of this in Q and A. I’m not against all of those things, per se. I don’t think they’re all wrong, and I don’t think there is zero place for them in everything that we do in terms of outreach opportunities, etc. I don’t want to appear to say something that I don’t believe. But as useful as any of those constituent elements may be in certain controlled settings, they cannot ever be regarded as a substitute for preaching. And the reason is because we’re to be “setting forth the truth plainly.”[5] And the task of the evangelist is to press the truth on the minds of people and on people’s consciences in the plainest way. And the test of our effectiveness is not “How much did the non-Christians enjoy that?” That’s irrelevant. The test is “How much did they learn from that?” The test is not “How electric was the atmosphere?” but “How clear was the gospel?”

Now, I can personally sympathize with those who have invited their friends to attend church services, and they are just dreadful cliché-ridden exercises: people up there, all dressed up in a funny kind of way, speaking in a funny tone of voice; if you ever met them at Burger King, you would never expect them to speak that way, and they don’t speak that way. And I’m not talking about [pious mumbling], that kind of stuff. I’m just talking about those affected voices. And so the person comes, says, “Why’s the guy talking like that? What’s his problem? Does he got something in his throat or something? Why’s he doing that? And why doesn’t he just use normal words? Why doesn’t your pastor use normal words? Can’t they say a normal word?”

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking now about backing off propitiation, for those of you who want to ask that question. No. The word propitiation needs to be used ’cause it’s the only word that says what it says. The NIV translates it as “a sacrifice of atonement.”[6] But we really have to explain propitiation; it has to do with the wrath of God and the love of God, and we need to unpack it. I don’t care if my seventeen-year-old daughter’s friend doesn’t understand that when they come. But I do care if she doesn’t understand it when she leaves, because I couched it around in such stuff that made her think, “I don’t think he understands it himself.”

So I’m not talking about that at all. I’m talking about cliché-ridden stuff, and the “language of Zion,” and the things I’ve mentioned before. And some of our church services are so riddled with that, we ought to be taken out and beaten severely. And some of you aren’t brave enough to tell your deacons to go take a flying leap. They want that? Okay. “Go get somebody that’ll do that. But I’m not doing that anymore. They haven’t been talking seventeenth-century English now for three centuries, so why in the world do you want me to talk that way?”

It’s simply not true to say that people will not listen to preaching. It’s just not true to say that people won’t listen to preaching. They will! If people are being awakened spiritually to their need of God, they’re gonna listen. And if they’re not, no amount of gospel entertainment or evangelistic gimmickry will make them listen.

See, that’s the flaw in the whole method. See? If the people of God are being spiritually quickened, they will listen to the Bible being preached. If they are not being spiritually quickened, you can entertain them into oblivion, but it will not do one thing to remove the veil from their eyes. You see, at the root of this whole thing is theological conviction about the way in which the Spirit of God works in the life of a pagan. It’s not a marginal thing about style, and do you care what day Sunday is, and what happens on this day, or whether this is supposed to happen. These things are very superficial questions. The fundamental questions have to do with the mystery of

I know not how [God’s] Spirit moves,
Convincing men of sin,
Revealing Jesus through the Word,
[And] creating faith in him.[7]

And that, you see, underpins it. At least that’s what drives me to it.

So, the use of drama. Someone said, “Well, what about drama?” We don’t use drama in our services. “Would there be ever occasion when you might?” I haven’t thought of one yet. But I have been involved with dramatic presentations in evangelistic contexts, particularly in universities in the United Kingdom, and drama was used to tremendous effect in that environment. I don’t think that’s the issue. Or particular approaches to music, or the use of film. All of these things may complement the preaching of the Word of God, given the right parameters. But they cannot replace it. And the reason they cannot is because they cannot possibly communicate the Christian message as plainly and as unambiguously as you can by preaching. That is why, says Paul in 2 Corinthians again, “setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience.”[8]

If people are not being spiritually quickened, you can entertain them into oblivion, but it will not do one thing to remove the veil from their eyes.

So away with this notion of “It does no good.” God has pledged himself, as, I think it was… I don’t want to attribute it to Calvin unless it was, but… “How amazing,” said one of the Reformers, “that the soul of one man rests on the voice of another man.” That God has chosen in this way. If “it doesn’t do any good”? Under God, it does eternal good. “People won’t listen to preaching anymore”? Yes they will. Yes they do. Try preaching; see what happens! Most people think they won’t listen to preaching because they never tried it. They never preached. And when they preached, they stunk. And so they decided it’d be easier to bring in the dancing girls than do the hard work necessary in proclaiming the gospel. That seems very unfair, doesn’t it? Well, I can be unfair every so often.

Now, I want to go to the drawing and some of the wonderful, practical stuff that I know you’re all greatly waiting for. That’s all three of you. Incidentally, this session is now called “What I Have Received from the Lucas, I Now Pass on to Thee.” Okay? And those of you who’ve heard the name Dick Lucas being mentioned, this wonderful biblical expositor from St Helen’s Bishopsgate in London, an evangelical Anglican all of his life, who has had a great impact on a number of us, has been so helpful in providing—thank you—in providing the materials that I’m now about to share with you that I thought, at least, having benefited from them myself, I might be able to be an encouragement to you in the same way.

So, these are all directly related to the question of practical pointers, and let me just take them as I have them here, somewhat randomly, in front of me. Which is a euphemism for “in complete chaos in front of me.”

Framework and Text

All right. Now the first one. Okay, can you all see that? That’s an F in a box and a T in a box. There are two things that are indispensable to the preacher and teacher. One is that he would have a framework with which he comes to the Bible, and then two is that he would be dealing with the text of the Bible when he comes to the people.

Now, there are all kinds of theological frameworks that are helpful; there are others that are not so helpful. But each of us has a certain understanding of how the Bible works; otherwise, we cannot come to it with any sense of logic at all. Some have been brought up with a dispensational framework, which provides them with the hermeneutic necessary for discriminating in the Scriptures. Other will have been brought up with another framework—perhaps a covenantal view of things—which allows them to approach it in a different way.

I’m not so much referring to those things, nor am I referring to sort of the basic understanding of the Bible: that the Bible is, if you like, like a two-act drama, where, as in going to a two-act play, if you miss the first act and you come in only for the second half, you really annoy your wife by constantly asking, “Who’s he? And who’s she? And why are they saying that?” Her answer is, “If you came at the beginning, you wouldn’t have to ask all these silly questions.” In the same way that if you come for the first act in the play and you leave because of some commitment, when your wife finally comes home, you have to plague her again: “How did this end, and how did this end, and how did this end?” Now, in the same way, the Bible is, if you like, a two-act drama between the Old and the New Testaments, and these two things live in cohesion with one another. Or perhaps you’d like to say that the Bible is a book with the answers at the back—although that’s not so good, I don’t think. Or perhaps that the Bible is like a detective novel, where, when you’re reading an Agatha Christie book, there are all of these themes and strains that begin to emerge, and you know that they will all finally be pulled together in one final denouement at the end of it all, when it all becomes crystal clear. So in other words, we do not simply open our Bibles and say, “Oh, I wonder how this fits with that.” We have been provided with some kind of framework. And the theological, doctrinal framework actually holds the text in place. So, for example, a belief in the miraculous determines how we read the Gospels.

But here’s the point, and it is a simple point: the key issue is that the content of the sermon is determined by the Scripture itself, that Scripture is a self-interpreting book, and that the text must always predominate over the framework. So in actual fact, one of the great dangers is that we possess a large F and only a small T, and that what we need to do is to bring our frameworks into subservience to the text and not the Bible into subservience to our frameworks. Nor are we to preach our frameworks. Because if we preach from the framework, it will eventually run dry, whereas when we preach from the text, it will constantly change, it will develop, and it will reconfigure the framework. And as I said this morning, whenever we go into neutral, we will be tempted, then, to immediately default to our framework, and we will start to give people the framework.

Now, people always ask in the question and answer session, “Well, where are you in relationship to all these frameworks and everything else, and your own systematic theology?” And I always hedge just a little bit, not because I’m unclear or want to be unhelpful in any way; actually, because I would like to be more helpful, and I’m frightened that people, in determining the framework, then they use that as a means of negating much else that goes on. Quite honestly, I was brought up in Scotland in a highly dispensational context, and the Scofield Reference Bible that was given to me by my girlfriend, who’s now my wife, at the age of fifteen became my standard text for the next four and half years. And the Scofield Reference Bible then led me into all of the labyrinths and passages that I had discovered were so clearly there—things that Scofield, in true American fashion, had managed to market into wonderful appeal after J. N. Darby, in true English fashion, had invented them and couldn’t do very much with them. So it’s the story of British and American business, you know. It’s the same thing. You guys have got it running in five cities, and there’s a little Englishman going, “I wonder if anyone ever thought of using this,” you know. It’s a bit of a disservice to the great J. N. Darby lovers and all the Plymouth Brethren that are here, so…

But this is essentially what happened to me. When I went to the London Bible College and was taught by Donald Guthrie New Testament, and by a number of other fairly good old boys before they passed into their dotage or into heaven, or both—dotage only momentarily, then reaching heaven into a whole fresh discovery of things… But anyway, when I was taught by them, first of all, they made me study the English text in the Revised Standard Version. So I studied in the Revised Standard Version. Soon as I got the RSV of the Bible—you know, the one with “expiation” instead of “propitiation” and so on[9]—when I studied that, I suddenly found that—this is the whole Bible here—I suddenly found that the sections just weren’t as clear to me as they once were. That, you know, I couldn’t find that line, and I couldn’t find that line, and I couldn’t find this one, especially with the middle section in it there, and then I couldn’t find the way you got over there to that section there, which so clearly bore no resemblance to that section there, which, of course, was because of the fact that the Sermon on the Mount was totally irrelevant for everybody except the kingdom church.

So I said to myself, “You know, this is starting to perplex me just a little.” So I should have written a book called Who Moved the Dispensations? But I said to myself, “No, I’m a dispensationalist. There was before the fall, there was after the fall, there was before the cross, and there’s after the cross. There’s at least four.” And I said, “What about the rest?” Then my uncertainty gave way to further study, and then suddenly the people I began to read were not the champions of this system anymore: guys like Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Jim Packer, Guthrie himself—although he was from a Plymouth Brethren background—and so on. And without it unsettling my faith in any way or removing my convictions about the Bible in any way, it just spun my head for me, and I said, “You know, once I get away from my props and my diagrams, I’m not just as confident that this thing all fits together in that way.” So all of the stuff that I’d been nurtured in began to leak. And it was like [blows raspberry]. Got that on the tape? There will be a little lady going, “I want to buy the tape where you go [blows raspberry].” Okay, I’m not saying any more about that. I’m getting in trouble there. Why would I answer questions that no one is asking? That was my first drawing.

Finding the Melodic Line in the Text

The second one is this. No, and I can’t do that. Oh, wait a minute. Wait, I can do that one, right? Is that a bass clef, Nancy? Looks like an embryonic substance. Wait a minute. You know how you do that? Treble clef and the bass clef, or whatever? Okay. Let’s get that off there immediately. That’s Scottish art, yes. I fear some of these shapes, now that you’re away from your wife, may cause you to stumble, so I’ve gotta get that off there. That’s the equivalent of the large West Indian, you know.

Here’s the point. (Yeah, I made three of them already, and none of them are any good. I understand that.) Finding the melodic line in the passage is the place I want to go. Finding the melodic line in the passage. Some of you are hi-fi enthusiasts. And for those of us who are not—have not had our ears cauterized in the way that yours have been done—we’re just basically listening to see if we can hear the words or maybe the melody line; you’re sitting there having an experience all of your own that has to do with tweeters and woofers and so on. And you said, “Did you hear that there, that woofer?” And the average person said, “No, I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.” “Well, that was not the woofer. That was the tweeter.” You know? And so the person says, “Okay, fine, I’m just trying to listen to the melody line here. You sit over in the corner and do as you choose. All right?”

Now, theologians, biblical teachers, are in grave danger—we are in grave danger—of becoming the tweeters-and-the-woofer guys, okay? And our congregations are trying to find the melody line. “What is all this about?” they’re saying. Somebody writes a letter to their friend saying, “I will be coming to San Antonio next Thursday, and I will meet you for dinner.” The letter contains all kinds of other important but extraneous information about how his cousin was doing and how he had just graduated from college in Dallas and so on, but the letter is essentially that: “I will be coming to San Antonio next Thursday, and I will meet you for dinner.” Years later it is unearthed, and people get PhDs with various theories about the names of the nieces and other minuscule details, but in it all they miss the melody line. And they get into all of these other elements.

Now, for example, let’s just go to something very straightforward. First Corinthians 15: “This is the gospel,” he says, verse 1: “This is the gospel; it is the foundation upon which we build,” and “our abounding in the work of the Lord,” verse 58, “derives its impetus from the gospel.”[10] That’s the melody line of 1 Corinthians 15. And substantiating all of that is the truth of the resurrection. Isn’t that what he says? I better look at it myself. First Corinthians and 15: “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel [that] I preached to you, [and] which you [have] received and [up]on which you[’ve] taken your stand. [It is] by this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.”[11] Go to verse 58: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. [And] let nothing move you. Always give [yourself] fully to the work of the Lord.” What’s the melody line? “The gospel upon which you’ve taken your stand.” And so he uses the intervening fifty-six verses to underscore the foundation, the historicity of it all, in this amazing fact of the resurrection. It’d be possible for us to do a series on 1 Corinthians 15, do wonderful things on the resurrection and all manner of little sidenotes that are all good and they’re all biblical, and miss the whole melody line. We’ve got people all tied up with their tweeters and their woofers.

The same thing: What is the melody line of the book of Romans? What’s the melody line of Romans? Romans chapter 1? No, I don’t think so. Romans chapter 1. It’s the gospel, isn’t it? “I[’m] not ashamed of the gospel, because it[’s] the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, [and] then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”[12] And so what does he do? He spends the first three chapters explaining that “all have sinned,”[13] he then goes on to explain that all may believe, he then explains that the nations are going to be gathered in—in 9, 10, and 11—on the basis of the gospel, and then he says, “There are some practical implications of living out this gospel. It is a gospel to be believed, and it is a gospel which will manifest itself in our behavior.” Now, I think that makes it clear enough.

You go to 1 Peter chapter 1: What is the melody line here, in relationship to the book of 1 Peter? He writes to scattered Christians. Verse 10, he says, “Concerning this salvation…” It’s really a book about salvation, the implications of salvation. And that’s why at the very outset he gives them three facts that are true of every Christian: chosen by God the Father, sprinkled by the blood of Christ, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.[14] Now, he says, “I want to write to you about the nature of salvation—what it is going to mean for you as you engage in your Christian pilgrimage in a world that is completely pagan.”

So the book of Romans is an apology—apologia—for world evangelization. It’s not a wonderful cupboard of great doctrines. And I think he’d be a little surprised at the way in which we disentangle it and make it all those things—say, “Fellows, you’ve missed the melody line. Don’t you remember what I said right at the beginning, when I wrote it? That’s why I said it at the beginning. I thought it would dawn on you. It’s the salvation for everyone who believes. It’s the nature of the gospel.” Now, sure, all those things are in it—and I overmake the point for effect.

From Corinth to Chicago

Now, let me go to another. This one is much more effective. Corinth. We’ll change it to Chicago, in case you think we’re becoming too parochial. But we’ll keep it in the Midwest—despite all of our friends from California, whom we’re glad to see. Okay? So, here’s the point: How do we get to Chicago with the material that’s in 1 Corinthians?

Well, first by going to Corinth. First Corinthians chapter 2: “I determined [to know nothing] among you,” he says, “save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”[15] Within four years of Paul’s work there in Corinth, the Corinthians had turned from the cross and from the resurrection, and so he calls them back to the cross and to what he’d resolved: the cross and how it had been used to see them changed. And so it is important for us not to belabor the issue, not in a unhelpful way, but to constantly make sure that we recognize that in the preaching of 1 Corinthians, it was given in an historical context to a certain moment in time, and therefore, it has to be applied in that way.

You take, for example, the people, they’ll go to 2 Timothy chapter 3: “Timothy, in the last days, there will be perilous times.”[16] And that’s all they need to see is the phrase “the last days,” and off they go. “Last days! Whoo! Space shuttle is leaving! We can go anywhere now on the strength of this.” No, because our congregation is going, “What does it mean, ‘the last days’?” Is this material, then—are these opening verses—totally irrelevant to Timothy? Is he writing about a period in time that is so far removed that, really, we would wonder why he even wrote it to Timothy at all, because if he really wanted it for the church at the beginning of the twenty-first century, maybe he should have just put it in a section that said, “Keep this for the twenty-first century.” No, it was clearly for Timothy, wasn’t it? Because he says, “These are the kind of people who will be there,” and in verse 5 he says, “Have nothing to do with them.” That sounds like immediately applicable to Timothy, doesn’t it?

Of course, it was immediately applicable to Timothy. And we want to let our people know that “in the past and in various ways, God spoke of old by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us in his Son.”[17] “These are not drunk with wine as you assume, but this is nothing other than that which was prophesied by the prophet, that ‘in the last days, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.’”[18] So we want to say to our congregation, “You need to understand that the last days were ushered in by the appearing of Jesus and will be brought to their finality by the return of Jesus.” Clearly, there will be last days to the last days, with the arrival of the son of lawlessness and all that is there.[19] We understand that. But we do not go immediately there just because we come to a phrase like that. We need to say, “Who was Timothy? What was going on in Ephesus? What did it mean that all these people were bailing out?” and so on. And we will open up the eyes of our congregation quite dramatically and wonderfully as we get diligent about doing that. And it is the great corrective to “what this means to me.” “What this means to me.”

Stay on the Line of Scripture

Now, let me give you just a couple more. This probably is the finest art displayed by the Reverend R. C. Lucas. I think this is his favorite. It always brings a gasp from the group. Yeah? Wouldn’t you say? I mean, I can take no credit for it. I mean, this is an obvious copy, and not a very good one. This is a line. And the message here is, “Stay on the line.” What is the line? Scripture.

Late nineteenth century, early twentieth century in Britain, they’re under the line in liberalism: “The Bible doesn’t mean that, it doesn’t say that, the miracles aren’t true, Jesus isn’t alive,” and so on. What’s happened is, they’ve all gone down underneath the line. The line of Scripture runs all the way through. Don’t go down underneath the line.

Don’t go above the line. Don’t claim for the Bible more than the Bible claims for itself. I don’t want to upset any, but one of the challenges that I face with some of my brethren is that they are constantly offering to their congregations things that are so clearly going to be our own in heaven. They keep suggesting to them that, actually, they can have this heaven now. I understand the motivation in it, I understand the sense of optimism in it, I understand the desire to believe God in it, but it actually takes everything above the line. And therefore, it is absolutely crucial that we stay on the line.

Yep, that’s enough on that. It makes the point. You didn’t need to belabor it, so don’t.

Instruction, Illustration, and Application

Let’s do this one. Actually, I can do this two ways; now I thought of another way of doing this. Gonna impress myself, if no one else. Hmm. Okay? This line… we’ll make the middle line I for instruction or information, we’ll make this one IL for illustration, and we’ll make this one AP for application. Okay. Now let me do it this way. Let’s do it as a Venn diagram. One, two, steady now, three. Okay? So one circle equals each of the things, and in the Venn diagram you have to find the place where all three circles are at the same point, which is right in here, I think—at least standing as close to it as I am.

And one of the questions people always have, especially young guys: “How do you do illustration? How do you do application? Do you do all the teaching up front and then have a closing section? How do you use an illustration?” and all that kind of stuff. And they’re all good questions, and I’m not sure there’s any brilliant answer to it, except that my approach to it has been—and I didn’t learn this from Dick, but I thought the diagram was helpful—my approach to it has always been in the interweaving of all three elements, rather than having the thing in a truncated fashion where you have information section, you know, followed by illustration section, followed by application section. And I apologize if that is just so simple as to make you feel as though I’m wasting your time. We can talk maybe more about some of these things in a moment.

Now, let me just say one other thing, and then I think we’ll go to the Q and A, because I’m getting tired of the sound of my own voice, and I’m sure you must be as well. I said to my wife the other evening after she’d been at this conference with me, as we crawled into bed together, I remember I said something to her, and she said that she had a dreadful sore head, and I said, “And how did that come about?” She said, “Basically, listening to you all day.” So, that was pretty well it! So, I don’t want you feeling the same way.

Study and Preparation for Preaching

Now, here’s the little thing. People say, “How do you approach your study of the Bible and your preparation? How do you get to it?” And this is not unique to me; you’ve found this all over the place. But for those of you who have never come across it, let me just tell you what my approach is. This was given to me by a man called Leith Samuel, who’s now in heaven. I think he stole it from somebody called Griffith. Who Mr. Griffith got it from, I don’t know, but probably a member of your congregation, you’re about to inform us.

Anyway, you come to the passage; and if you can go to the Greek text, then that’s fine as well. If you can go to the Hebrew, that’s fine as well. I know a little Greek and a little Hebrew. The little Hebrew makes my suits; the little Greek has a wonderful restaurant. That is pathetic. I’m sorry.

No, I know enough Hebrew to basically to get through the alphabet. It never appealed to me. I’m not a linguistic scholar. Few of us are—and those of you who are will probably tell us about it later on. But most of us have managed at best to get a working knowledge of the languages. And we still really depend dreadfully on the scholars. A few of us are scholars. I am certainly not one, but at least when I turn it up, I know an alpha from a gamma and a few other things.

But anyway, you go to your texts and you read them. And you then think yourself empty.

So, our text this morning is:

The word of the Lord that came to Joel son of Pethuel.

Hear this, you elders;
 listen, all [you] who live in the land.
Has [ever] anything like this … happened in your days
 or in the days of your forefathers?
Tell it to your children,
 and let your children tell it to their children,
 and their children to the next generation.
[And] what the locust swarm has left
 the great locusts have eaten;
[and] what the great locusts have left
 the young locusts have eaten;
[and] what the young locusts have left
 [the] other locusts have eaten.

Wake up, you drunkards, and weep!

This morning we’re going to be dealing with the first five verses of Joel, and you have now read them, and you’re going to think yourself empty. For most of you, that has already happened—which is actually quite good news, because we’ve already completed the first part of the exercise. So when your wife comes in with a coffee, you can tell her, she says, “How’s it going?” you can say, “Wonderful, I’ve finished the first part: I just thought myself empty.” She said, “But you only came in here thirty-five seconds ago.” To which you reply, “Don’t be impertinent, get the coffee.”

So you think yourself empty, and then you read yourself full. Read yourself full. Incidentally, in the thinking of yourself empty, what I do is I write down anything that comes to mind. A lot of it I have to throw immediately away, because I shouldn’t be thinking things like that. Anything—songs, notes, references, quotes, anecdotes—anything at all, I put down. Anything that might be remotely helpful. In some cases, immediately some structure may come, a form of scaffolding to get at the text. And that begins to form up just immediately, and you’re able to jot that down, and it actually proves, even a couple of days later, to be the very framework that you use. Sometimes that happens, and it’s quite wonderful when it does, because you’ve got a line into the text. Which is what I’m always looking for. I’m not looking for an outline; I’m looking for the key that swings the door open into the text. And in thinking myself empty, that’s what I’m doing. I was a little facetious with that; I don’t mean to be. It is an important exercise. We should have background information that we’re able to bring to it.

Then when we read ourselves full, essentially, we’re gonna read around the text and about the text to the extent that we’re able, given the time frame. Once we have begun to put together material, once I’ve begun to get some semblance of understanding of the text—realizing where it fits within the framework of the unfolding of God’s purposes, isolating from it any discoveries that would need to be dealt with very purposefully, whatever else it is—when I begin to get all of that material together—and I have it on sheets and sheets and sheets of paper, they’re all scribbles all over the place—I then move from that to my next process, which is to write myself clear. To write myself clear.

Now, in the olden days, this was a two-part process in writing myself clear. Today, it tends to be a one-part process. But I would be better served if I still kept it as a two-part process, in the sense that, I think, as in most works, the more we are able to work and rework the material, the better clarity we will have, and the better clarity our listeners will then enjoy. And it’s partly experience that allows us to cut out one of the steps, but it may also be simply the tyranny of time, and we may be fooling ourselves that we’re able to cut out the steps when, in point of fact, we may be doing a disservice both to the text and to the listener. So we have to be ruthless with ourselves in that.

The time to be most afraid as a preacher is when you can get up and say things without having anything to say.

But what I mean by this is that in the first writing of clarity, I may still not have a scaffolding for the structure of my sermon. But I would still want to proceed through the broad sweep of all of the material. Then I would come back to it again, and by this time I’d be crying out to God, “Help me to break this up so that I’m not throwing slabs of meat at these people and making them try and chew it down. Help me to arrange this on the plate in a way that does not do a disservice to the text that I’m seeking to be the servant of.”

’Cause, let’s face it: anybody can come up with an outline. I mean, and that’s what happens. When you tend to have the same kind of outline for every sermon, it erodes the thinking processes of your congregation. ’Cause they’re not really thinking now; they just know that it’s one main heading, two subheadings, one main heading, two subheadings. And when I speak at seminaries now, as I do every so often, I get myself in dreadful trouble over this, because I only find after they’ve asked the question and I’ve answered it wrongly that the guy who invited me in, who is the head of the department of homiletics, has just spent five weeks explaining to his students how it is they’re supposed to begin a sermon. And then some bright spark, knowing what he’s doing, asks me a question and gets me to overturn what his professor’s just said for five weeks. But probably it’s good for him and good for all concerned. Because what he’s doing is, he’s telling these young people, “This is the way you start a sermon.” No, I’m sorry, you can’t say that. Because there are times when you may want to start in a very different way.

You could start like this: “I’m not at all surprised that that lady was surprised that a man, and a Jew, would speak to her, let alone ask for a drink of water.” And all of a sudden, you’re into John 4. But you’ve arrested the attention of the people by simply entering the text partway down. Now, you’re gonna come back, and you’re gonna start off in a fairly legitimate framework from there—but it’s not illegitimate to do that. We’re not trying to do it for effect. But it may just be that as we think of the genre of the story, as you think about narrative and the way you deal with narrative, as you think about all of these things, that when you write yourself clear, I think it’s very important for us to be prepared to lean back on the text, to trust the text. Let it establish the framework and the outline. So what, it doesn’t have three words that begin with p, you know? Or five words that all have the prefix ab-, you know? Where you’re forced on the fourth point to introduce the concept of an ab roller, you know, just to keep the thing going, you know.

When young men ask me what the key is to fluidity and lucidity in the pulpit, under the anointing of the Spirit of God, it is write yourself clear. I cannot say that and emphasize it more. I’d emphasize that more than any other thing. You are being less than honest with yourself if you think that because you’ve got it relatively clear in your mind, you can go from a relatively clear understanding in your mind to verbalizing it with perfect syntax, with the appropriate use of words, with the right use of phraseology, and so on. There may be one in five thousand that can do that, but the journeyman amongst us, we cannot do that. Therefore, we must do the hard work. And the way in which you find out whether it makes any sense at all is by writing it down and reading it. And when you go away, you write a paragraph down, you go to the toilet, you come back, you read it, you go, “Oh, for goodness’ sake. That’s absolutely pathetic.”

But you see, if you hadn’t written it down, you would be now verbalizing it to your congregation. It’s now nine forty-five on a Sunday, and you just said your paragraph, and then a bell went off in your head, and it said, “Oh, that’s ridiculous.” So now you’re thinking at all these multiple levels. Now you come back around. “Oh, I didn’t manage to land the plane. Sorry, we’re going around, we’re going around. All right, pull it back, we’re coming around.” Congregation has to wait for you to come around again. “Okay, wait a minute, now. What I’m trying to say is… Not that I was trying to, but… Whoa! We’re going around again!”

The average guy in the congregation is going, “Does this guy prepare at all? I mean, if I did a sales presentation like this, they’d throw me out the door in five seconds flat! What does he think he’s doing? You gonna come in here and practice on me? If you don’t understand it, don’t show up! If you haven’t got it clear, don’t do us the disservice of standing up and performing your ignorance for all to enjoy, or endure.”

You gotta write your sermons out for the first five years of your ministry. Write your sermons out for the first five years of your ministry. I started doing that in 1975, and I’m still doing it. I write a complete manuscript for every sermon that I preach. Now, why do I do it? Because I have to? No. Just because it’s become an ingrained discipline with me. Because again, I’m afraid of what we just said last evening. The time to be most afraid is when you can get up and say things without having anything to say. And if you have any natural capacity for language, with a modicum of spiritual gift, you can get by for a very long time, provided you have an undiscerning congregation. Therefore, you have to make rods for your own back, that says to you, “No matter who thinks you’re finished in your preparation, you’re not finished in your preparation, because you have not written yourself clear, and you have not done the business.”

Think yourself empty. Read yourself full. Write yourself clear. Pray yourself keen. Pray yourself keen. This means not only praying while I’m thinking and while I’m reading and while I’m writing, but also praying when I’ve finished it all. Isn’t it in [Between Two Worlds] that John Stott says he always does the final moments of preparation on his knees?[20] He does it as a deliberate posture. Either when he has finished all of his notes and he’s doing his underlining, he takes his book, he lays it down on his chair, he gets down on his knees before his chair, and then he does his underlining in that way. I think that’s a good discipline—provided it is an expression of the posture of our hearts.

Because when you read that stuff through and you say to yourself, “Unless God comes and blows by his Spirit, I really don’t know. I’ve done my best, Lord Jesus, but frankly, I read it through just again for the fifth time this morning, and there were a couple of points at which it really stirred me. The pizza was stirring, and that thought I had about the monkey, but some of the rest of it…” You know what I’m saying? You know you’re in difficulty when you look at your sermon material and you’re thinking the high spots are probably gonna be your illustrations. You’re looking at your notes, and you’re looking at the congregation, you’re going, “Well, okay, we only got two pages to go till we get to that great one that I have about the dead dog on the railway. I know that always makes them cry.” Oh, you got that story as well, do you?

Think yourself empty. Read yourself full. Write yourself clear. Pray yourself keen. Get in the pulpit and let yourself go. Let yourself go. Prepare yourself and forget yourself. The worst times are when we can hear ourselves talking. The best time is when we can’t hear ourselves talking. You think about riding a bicycle: if I say to you, “Here’s a bicycle, go ride it,” you just get on it and you ride it, don’t you? It’s a long, long time since you ever went on a bicycle for the first time. You said, “Well, which foot do I put on the pedal first? Do I start off with it up here and push down? Or do I start off with it down? What do I do? And would you hold that?” That’s all in the past. Now you just jump on the bike and you cycle. You don’t think about it. That’s how you’re able to go.

That’s why a golfer who’s ingrained a golf swing just steps up, and he lets himself go. For the rest of us, rigor mortis sets in. The practice swing looks like a cross between Ben Hogan and anyone you want it to be. Ernie Els. Practice swing. Oh, good. So you got one of the best practice swings in the country. Fine. You want to try it with a ball in front of me for just a moment? And all of a sudden, because the brain sends messages—says, “Number one, the ball’s just showing up.” That’s an immediate problem. Because without the ball, I can convince myself that that shot, if it had been a ball in front of me, would, of course, have gone 285 yards with a slight draw and just dropped in perfect position, for nothing more than an eight or a nine iron, into the green. Yeah, we understand. But there’s a ball.

And we have to ask the Lord Jesus to help us to let ourselves go in the pulpit. Be yourself and forget yourself. You are you. You got your own DNA. God made you exactly the way he wants you: configured your life; providentially ordered your steps; brought you through all of the experiences, your experiences; put you down in a place for this time. He doesn’t want you to be anybody else. Nobody else! We can learn from one another, in the same way that we would look at somebody doing something excellently and say, “Now what are the principles that I can learn from that?” Sure, we can learn those principles. But we don’t mimic one another.


[1] See Matthew 13:3–9; Mark 4:3–9; Luke 8:5–8.

[2] See Acts 17:32.

[3] Roy Clements, The Strength of Weakness: How God Uses Our Flaws to Achieve His Goals (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 76.

[4] Matthew 13:3–4 (KJV).

[5] 2 Corinthians 4:2 (NIV 1984).

[6] Romans 3:25 (NIV 1984).

[7] D. W. Whittle, “I Know Not Why God’s Wondrous Grace” (1883).

[8] 2 Corinthians 4:2 (NIV 1984).

[9] See Romans 3:25.

[10] 1 Corinthians 15:1, 58 (paraphrased).

[11] 1 Corinthians 15:1–2 (NIV 1984).

[12] Romans 1:16–17 (NIV 1984).

[13] Romans 3:23 (NIV 1984).

[14] See 1 Peter 1:2.

[15] 1 Corinthians 2:2 (KJV).

[16] 2 Timothy 3:1 (paraphrased).

[17] Hebrews 1:1–2 (paraphrased).

[18] Acts 2:15–17 (paraphrased).

[19] See 2 Thessalonians 2:3.

[20] John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 257.

Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.