For years now I have told my students that on Sunday morning if I were to awaken them at 3 o’clock and ask, “What is the general purpose of your sermon today?” and at 3:15 a.m. I were to ask, “What is your specific purpose?” they ought to know the answers so well that they could spit them out in a crisp, one-sentence response (“My general purpose is to inform”; “My specific purpose is to inform the congregation about the facts of death and resurrection listed in 1 Thessalonians 4”) and roll over and go back to sleep.
“You’re kidding!” you say. “Is purpose all that important?” You’d better believe it. Unless a preacher knows the purpose of his sermon, all is lost. He himself is lost, the congregation will soon get lost, and the sermon would be better if it were lost. “Well, if purpose is so important, why didn’t they teach me about it in my seminary homiletics courses?”
Let me answer that question by telling you a fact. The truth is that I have actually done what I am about to suggest to you. Stand in the homiletic section of the stacks of the library of any large theological seminary, and with eyes closed reach at random for several volumes of sermons. Then open those volumes, again at random, and study the sermons on those pages. You will discover two things:
- No discernible purpose will be present in half or more of them.
- Where there is a purpose, it will be the preacher’s own purpose rather than the purpose of the biblical writer whose words are “used” for a purpose different from the one that he has in mind.
The importance of discerning and preaching according to the Holy Spirit’s purpose has not been emphasized in exegesis or in homiletics courses. Yet, nothing is more fundamental to solid biblical preaching.
Consider this point: if you don’t discover the Holy Spirit’s purpose in each preaching portion and make it your purpose too, in preaching from that passage you will:
- distort the meaning of the Scriptures,
- lose the authority of the Scriptures in preaching, and
- confuse congregations while failing to feed them.
Suppose I were to write you a letter of application for a position as the assistant pastor of your church. And suppose, upon receipt of this letter, you were to begin investigating all the facts you could about me and the letter itself in order to understand exactly what it said. You studied the time and place of writing. You did a background study on my life and activities. You compared vocabulary, word usage, and the basic theology of this letter with other materials written by me. Finally, after some time doing such things, you concluded that you understood precisely what the letter was all about-and stopped with that! Why, the purpose of the letter would be frustrated, wouldn’t it? I wanted you to give me a job; not merely study all the facts about me and my request. This study would be fine, if at length it led to a consideration of the purpose of the letter. But of what use is all that if it doesn’t? Yet, much study and preaching of a passage of the Scriptures is just like that—everything about the passage is carefully weighed, but the Holy Spirit’s purpose in writing it is ignored.
When I speak of the Holy Spirit’s purpose in writing a portion of the Scriptures, what I have in mind by “purpose” is what He intends to do to the reader. In every passage that He inspired, the Holy Spirit (unlike many preachers) had some intention, some purpose, in view. It is the preacher’s task to discover not only what He intended to do to the reader, but also to make that same purpose his own in preaching to the listener. The preacher has no right to use a portion of the Scriptures for his own purposes; he must discover the Spirit’s purpose and preach from that passage to achieve that purpose and that purpose alone. When preachers begin to take this matter seriously there will be more power in their preaching (the Spirit blesses His Word) and more understanding of the Scriptures by the congregation. There will be less heresy, less scripturally detached essays, and less wasted effort and time.
“But,” you insist, “why hasn’t someone told me about purpose before this?” Well, remember the books in the stacks? It has been the preachers who have taught the preachers to teach the preachers over the years. And false views of preaching have prevailed as the same errors have been perpetuated from generation to generation. You can’t expect men who have been guilty of the practice of using the Scriptures for their own purposes to teach others to do otherwise, can you?
But it is time for this general practice, with all of its attendant evils, to be brought to an end. One thing and one thing alone can do so—a focus on purpose as the controlling factor in the study and delivery of every sermon.
Purpose is not only the controlling factor in selecting and studying a passage of Scripture for preaching, it is the unifying factor in all that is done. Anything that doesn’t contribute to the furthering of the purpose should be eliminated from the sermon; everything that does should be retained. Purpose determines the kind of outline. If the purpose is informative, the outline should protrude; if it is motivational, it should recede. Purpose influences language too. So, it is clear, purpose is the controlling factor in preaching. No wonder all is lost without a clear purpose.
There are two kinds of purpose (as my earlier comments indicated): general and specific. Every sermon, just as every preaching portion, has a general purpose. and a specific purpose. But what is a “preaching portion”? It is any unit of scriptural material (a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter) that has both a general purpose and a specific purpose. If you isolate a portion from which to preach that doesn’t have these purposes, it will be inadequate; it is not a preaching portion.“Jesus wept,” though many sermons have been preached on it, is not a preaching portion for this reason. Purpose, then, is the first factor in selecting a passage from which to preach. These may be larger portions with larger purposes (of course) or smaller ones that are actually portions containing sub-purposes or even sub-subpurposes. The Bible has purpose (cf. 2 Tim. 3:15–17), each book of the Bible has purpose (cf. John 20:30, 31), each section of each book (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13–18), etc.
General purposes in the Bible can be reduced to three: to inform, to persuade, and to motivate. Any one of these three will seldom appear alone, but usually there will be an emphasis on one or the other. When Paul says, “I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning …,” his general purpose is informative. But upon concluding his remarks, he says, “So, comfort one another with these words” (a motivational purpose). Incidentally, the Bible abounds with these purpose cues (“These things are written that …,” “I write to stir up your …,” etc., etc.). Look for them. But purposes also occur without such cues.
Specific purposes are the particular objects of general ones. When Paul writes,“I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning …,” it is that “concerning” which he would not have them to remain ignorant that constitutes his specific purpose. So, a motivational purpose means to have as one’s purpose to motivate one to. Whatever one fills in the blank is the specific purpose. A persuasive purpose could be stated this way: “I want to persuade my congregation to believe (disbelieve).” Again, fill in the blank with the specific purpose.
Without purpose, one simply preaches, but with no aim in view. The old saying that “If one aims at nothing he is sure to hit it,” holds true of preaching. Let me encourage you, therefore, to write out at the top of every sermon (not a proposition, not a thematic statement, not a central idea, but) a purpose statement. Its form may look something like this:
|I want to||persuade||my congregation to||believe, disbelieve|
(fill in the specific purpose).
This article may be brief, but I believe it is the most important word I could speak to you about preaching. If you take it to heart, it could change your whole ministry.
Start working on this matter today. It will take some time to develop fully your ability to discover purpose and preach with purpose, but unless you begin working at it prayerfully and carefully it will never happen on its own. Instead, you must determine to preach with purpose, on purpose, of course.—J.E.A.
Each Friday we are posting an article by Dr. Adams on the subject of preaching.