More strange things have been taught concerning outlining than perhaps about any other aspect of sermon preparation. In this article I hope to set a few of these to rest.
“This text naturally falls into three divisions,” says the typical self-styled “expositor.” Well, isn’t that interesting? So what?
“What do you mean, ‘so what?’ If it falls into three divisions, then I will be most biblical when I divide my sermon into three parts that correspond to each of these three divisions—that’s what!”
“Hogwash? Do you mean that Jay Adams, the fellow who is always talking about being biblical, doesn’t believe you should allow the text itself to determine the outline? I can hardly believe that!”
Well, it’s true! And I’ll tell you why—because it is unbiblical to do so!
“You’ll have to explain that one to me—and it’d better be good!”
OK. Let’s begin by pointing out that nowhere—and I mean nowhere—in the N.T. (or O.T., for that matter) does anyone preach a sermon that way. No one ever dreamed of it until many years later, when the scholastics invented the method, with which we have been plagued ever since. Can you imagine Peter on the day of Pentecost getting up and saying, “Now this text from Joel naturally falls into, …” or something comparable? Not on your life! Neither Peter, nor Stephen, nor Paul, nor any other speaker or writer does any such thing. It simply isn’t biblical.
Think with me about this approach. To observe that a passage falls into so many natural divisions may be of importance as a literary analysis that may help in interpreting or understanding it. But how a passage naturally divides is no guideline for construction of the preacher’s sermon. Such an analysis, for instance, may reveal two divisions of a proverb or verse of a psalm. But what does that mean? It probably means that you will be preaching from Hebrew poetry, which is constructed in parallel form. Does that indicate that every sermon you preach from Proverbs will be two-pointed?
Actually, the Bible is constructed out of a number of distinct kinds of literature, each of which has its own peculiar form. There is the poetic parallelism (synthetic, complementing, contrasting, etc.) already mentioned, biography, narrative, proverb (akin to poetry, but with its own twist), parable, the letter, apocalyptic (some built around the number 7; does that mean nothing but seven-point sermons from Revelation? Heaven forbid!) sermon, and so on. Each type of literature has its own style.
That means that when you tell a congregation your text “falls naturally into … parts,” you are simply giving them the results of a literary analysis. Interesting, perhaps, but it isn’t preaching.
Why do you think that the form of a sermon should be determined by a narrative or a poetical form? You are not going to tell a story or recite a poem; you are going to preach. Preaching demands its own form, just as truly as parable or poetry. Like all of the preachers in the New Testament, you too must “translate” the particular form of your preaching portion into a preaching form. A proverb may fall naturally into two divisions, but your sermon may best take a fourfold form.
It is true that in some of Paul’s writings the preacher does well with the scholastic approach—but why? Because Paul—above all else—was a preacher of the Word (though he never used the “it falls naturally into …” method). And, as such, when he dictated his letters to an amanuensis, he often preached in those letters. So, many Pauline passages naturally lend themselves to preaching since they are virtually in preaching form. But that certainly isn’t true of all, or even most, biblical writing. Acrostic psalms (like the 119th) took their form for easier memorizing. But when you preach, you are not conducting a course in Bible memory (of course with a sermon good alliteration, for instance, can aid in remembering—e.g., “mutual ministry”); you are preaching! That is why I say that to be biblical, you must not simply give a literary analysis of the text. Rather, the sermon takes its form from a combination of the content, the occasion and the audience (for more on this, see my volume 2 of Studies in Preaching: Audience Adaptation in the Sermons and Speeches of Paul).
Now, let me move on to another matter. You will need to develop a preaching stance to which your sermon outline will correspond.
The “this passage naturally falls into …” approach grows out of a non-preaching stance toward the Bible and toward the congregation. It comes from the ivy-covered halls of isolated scholars; not from the work-a-day studies of pastors. Such scholarship is necessary to help us analyze and understand a passage; but it should not be carried into the pulpit.
Let me compare and contrast what I call a lecture stance with a preaching stance. A lecture stance stresses the long-ago-and-far-away (what happened to those Israelites, or David, or Solomon), it predominantly uses the past tense, speaks in the third person, preaches about the Bible, is abstract, and—in its best form—tacks on an application at the end. A preaching stance, however, stresses the here-and-now (what the passage says to the congregation about their lives), predominantly uses the present and future tenses, speaks in the second person, and preaches concretely from the Bible about the congregation in relationship to God and neighbor. Let me try to put this another way.
In the lecture stance the preacher talks to the congregation about the Bible and what happened way-back-when. He says, “David … he.”
In the preaching stance, the congregation is addressed directly from the Bible. The preacher says, “God says you …”
“But don’t you miss the biblical exposition in doing this?” No, no; a thousand times no! There is no less exposition of the text. All that happened to David (Paul, etc.) is brought out just as fully as in the lecture method. But it is brought out differently; not as abstract fact (that may or may not be applied when the preacher gets around to it). No! It is brought out from the outset in relationship to the hearer. The whole sermon (even when explaining what God did for Abraham) then is application. The preacher begins not with the text (explaining it without giving the listener the slightest hint about its relevance to him), but with the congregation. First, he raises some issue for them (by direct question, “Have you wondered why your teenagers are so hard to handle today?,” by story, “Last year in a town not many miles from here.…” etc.). Then, having caught their attention, raised their concern, etc. (i.e., having gotten them involved in the subject), he turns to the text and says something like this: “Well, then, if you are concerned about what God says to do about this matter, turn with me to Ephesians 6:4, where we read.…”
In harmony with the preaching stance, the congregation brings its interested concerns to the text from the outset, expectantly waiting for God to speak to their problem from it, instead of merely analyzing scriptural passages! All that David or Solomon did and what God did for them is taught just as fully as in the lecture stance; but it is taught in order to meet the congregation’s present-day concerns. The Bible becomes a vital Book dealing with their lives in 1978. They know this, are personally oriented toward the text from the outset, and therefore look at the passage in an involved way from the outset.
Corresponding to this approach is the concrete, personal outline of the preacher in contrast to the abstract, impersonal outline of the lecturer who (in the name of expository preaching) does a literary and historical analysis of the passage. Contrast the two (oversimplified) outlines:
- The Duty of Intercessory Prayer
- The Purpose of Intercessory Prayer
- The Results of Intercessory Prayer
- God commands you to pray for others
- God commands you to pray for others
- God commands you to pray for others’ needs
The outlines above cover roughly the same material. But the first is analytical; it discusses the “nature” of intercessory prayer. The second is motivational; it discusses God’s command to the congregation to pray for others. Do you see the difference?
As a very helpful exercise, go back through a number of your past sermon outlines and (1) notice how many are abstract; (2) translate them into preaching outlines by concretizing (get rid of abstractions like duty, purpose, results, nature, etc.) and personalizing (add “you” to each point). On the use of the second person go through the sermons in Acts and underline all the uses of the second person. You will quickly see how frequently the New Testament preachers preached personally to the members of the audience about their relationship to God, rather than simply stating objective facts. They preached the Bible, not about the Bible.
Following the simple advice in this article could transform your preaching; it did mine. And I have known a large number of preachers who, having caught on to it, have discovered that they too began to preach with results as never before.—J.E.A.