More–On Purpose

In the previous article in this series I wrote about the crucial place of purpose in preaching. I should like to add a word or two more at the outset.

The Preaching Portion

Purpose becomes the basic means for determining a preaching portion. There are many types of literature in the Bible—narrative, poetry, proverb, parable, letters, apocalyptic, to name some of the principal literary types. The proverb can be one sentence long, the narrative several pages. How then does a preacher determine the size of the portion from which he will preach a given sermon? The answer is simple, and it avoids the arbitrary way in which so many ministers make the choice: a section of Scripture becomes a preaching portion when—and only when—it is a purpose unit. That is to say you don’t arbitrarily select a portion of a certain length as your preaching portion because (presumably) it appears to have enough (and not too much) material in it. Blackwood used to tell us in class, “The paragraph ordinarily will be your text.” But the arbitrary nature of this rule (which in a rough way often works) is apparent when preaching through Proverbs (especially from chapter 10 on) or (on the other hand) when preaching from a parable two or three paragraphs long or from a historical narrative in 1 or 2 Kings. There, you see, the rule falls apart. Better is the rule that I am suggesting—always choose a unit of material that the Holy Scripture has given to achieve a particular purpose.

The unit may be large with a correspondingly large purpose (containing sub-purposes). But what holds it together as a unit is the fact that it was intended to achieve one particular purpose. There may be smaller sub-purposes (all of which contribute to the larger, umbrella purpose), but when preaching from this larger unit, the smaller purpose units must serve the larger one throughout the sermon. Such a larger purpose unit may consist of an entire book like 3 John or Jude.

The danger here is to get sidetracked into preaching on one or more of the sub-purposes in the book (e.g., in 3 John, vss. 6–8 may turn the sermon largely into a missionary message, whereas the overall thrust of this stopgap letter is to let Gaius know that he, not Diotrephes, has done the right thing, and that he should continue to do so). If you find your sermon becoming unbalanced, over-weighted toward one or more subunits, then that is the sign that (1) you should break it up into a series of sermons, or (2) you should save the other units for later sermons, or (3) you must resist the temptation and stick to the larger overall purpose.

III John can be preached either as one sermon or as a series of eight or nine sermons (I have done both), depending upon whether you preach the overall purposes or the sub-purposes. Of course, when you do the latter, you must never forget the general purpose that the specific purpose units were intended to support. That means they may not be preached in isolation but always in relationship to the larger thrust.

When preaching from the book of Jude (which was intended to get believers to contend for the faith when the church is invaded by apostates and libertines), it is not proper (for example) to preach a sermon on “soul winning” from verses 22, 23. If, in a series of 11 or 12 messages, you mark off these verses (rightly) as verses containing a sub-purpose, then this sub-purpose must be understood in the light of the overall purpose and preached that way. Accordingly, verses 22, 23 would be seen as instructions to the faithful believer about how to rescue from the fires of apostasy others who have been (or are in danger of being) trapped in them. Each of the three types of persons (the continued occurrences of triplets in Jude settles the textual question for me) demands a different approach, as Jude points out. It is possible, of course, to develop even three sermons on these three approaches—after all, the Holy Spirit’s purpose was to distinguish three such problems demanding three distinct approaches. If your congregation needs such information in detail, it might be important to take the time to develop each approach fully. Yet, in doing so, you must recognize what you have done. You have opted for preaching each of three sermons from a sub-sub-purpose. That is OK, because these are clearly purpose units (i.e., preaching portions). But there is always even a greater danger of preaching these in isolation than if verses 22, 23 formed your preaching portion. You must be careful, therefore, to preach these under the double umbrella of the larger purposes:





In emphasis, in the first of these three sermons, you will continue to talk about contending for the faith (overall umbrella), by rescuing from the fires of apostasy (sub-purpose umbrella of vss. 22, 23) persons who doubt (sub-sub-purpose umbrella of vs. 22).

The Outline

Having exhausted that question (hopefully not you) let’s move to a second matter—the outline. I’ll want to say much more about outlines in future articles, but for now just let me handle one or two issues.

What basically determines the form of the outline? The preacher? The congregation? The text? No, although all three of these elements contribute something to it, as we shall show in another article. But basically the form of the outline is determined again by the purpose of the Holy Spirit in the preaching portion.

“What? Do you mean that I am not supposed to find the outline form in the preaching portion itself?” That’s exactly what I mean! And it isn’t heresy to say so, either. In what New Testament sermon (Acts is full of them, and some of Paul’s epistles obviously contain sermonic material) do you ever hear the preacher say to his congregation, “This passage naturally falls into three points”? That isn’t how you ought to preach a text, unless it is sermonic material to begin with.

Unless working with material already in sermonic form, what you do when you allow the textual form to determine the outline form is to let non-sermonic form dictate how a sermon is to be preached! That doesn’t make much sense, does it? Evidently the New Testament preachers didn’t think it wise to do so, because they didn’t.

If there are narrative forms, apocalyptic and letter forms, poetic, proverbial and parabolic forms, etc., then you are going to have to learn to “translate” your material from such a form into a preaching form. After all, you aren’t in the pulpit to tell stories, recite poetry, or dictate letters! You are there to preach. Neither are you there to talk about the poetic or proverbial form of the preaching portion; a sermon is not a literary analysis of the Bible! Yet much supposed “exposition” is little more than that. Your form, then, must be verbal, not literary; it must grow out of and conform to the purpose of the portion as this best can be conveyed verbally to a given congregation.

That gives you great flexibility (and larger responsibility) in developing the preaching form in such a way that it best gets across the Holy Spirit’s purpose in the preaching portion. There is the same freedom for adaptation to circumstances that Paul exercised when preaching to different groups with slightly differing purposes in view. It is the freedom that is in evidence all through the New Testament, wherever preaching occurs or is discussed. In contrast, our arbitrary forms come not from the Bible but from Middle Age Scholasticism. Let’s not try to be more pious than Paul. We must not let the traditions of men limit the freedom of the Scriptures.

This freedom means that though in the preaching portion there were only two points (most Hebrew poetry and proverbial material is built by parallelism) you may want to have three, or one. Good! Go ahead, just so long as what you say grows out of the preaching portion itself. “Can I rearrange the order of the material?” Certainly! The order in the preaching portion may appear because you are preaching from an acrostic psalm, not because of logical or persuasive reasons. The acrostic order was intended to aid memory and recall and served that purpose. Unless that also is your purpose, feel free to change it.

Announcing Points?

“Well! I’m really shook up by all this! But since we’re getting so radical, let me ask one more question. Do I still have to announce each point to the congregation, or may I preach now and then with smoother transitions? You know what I mean—do I have to say, ‘My first point today is …’?” Of course you don’t. Where in the Bible do you ever see this happen? Did Paul on Mars Hill say, “Now my sermon falls into three points today. My first point is …”?

Let your purpose determine whether your points will be announced. For yourself, of course, you must have a solid outline, clearly worked out, but don’t ever announce your points unless that will help your congregation understand or more clearly remember the Holy Spirit’s purpose.

Purpose, then, again becomes the determining factor. If the general purpose of the preaching portion is to inform, it may be well to announce the points to your congregation (if in this way they can see that “there are two kinds—and only two—of people in the world: saved and lost,” or if there are “three steps to peace that must be taken in the following order”). Clearly, there is good reason for announcing your points in such cases. In other words, there is a good purpose for doing so.

But let’s say that your general purpose is to persuade to believe (or disbelieve) a truth (or error). Then there would be no special reason for announcing, “There are three reasons for believing.…” You are not concerned about whether the listener knows how many reasons there are for believing (unless that is the point); you simply want him to believe. The same is true if your purpose is to motivate: you aren’t concerned about memory; what you are after is action.

A good rule of thumb is this: if announcing points in a sermon isn’t helpful (and it isn’t unless it serves a purpose), then it gets in the way. Anything that doesn’t help, hurts. Everything in the sermon should contribute to furthering the purpose. If it doesn’t make it clearer, more memorable, more persuasive, it hinders. Do nothing to hinder. The regular, mechanical announcement of divisions in a sermon nine times out of ten is not helpful. It is better, therefore not to do so unless you can see a good purpose for doing it in a given message.—J.E.A.

Each Friday we are publishing an article by Dr. Adams on the subject of preaching.

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