The Essential Elements of Text-Driven Preaching

 |  September 1, 2016

What is expository, text-driven preaching? Exposition is the translation and communication of a biblical text. This definition shows the two parts of preaching. Many will read this definition and wonder if I am really implying that preachers should actually translate from the biblical text. Absolutely. We must work through the translation using biblical languages and answer the question, “What does this text say?” It is only when we have answered this question that we can move on to the communication stage, which is, “How do I say it?” We will talk about this a little bit at the end but my experience has been that there are times in my life where I have found that I have fallen into one or the other side of this to the neglect of the other.

Have you ever experienced this? You walk into the pulpit and your translation and exegetical work is solid and scintillating, and you believe that it can basically preach itself because of the phenomenal exegetical work. The problem is that when you stand and preach the text, what you end up giving the people is something dry, a little boring. It just does not communicate. There are others who focus on the other extreme. Perhaps as Southern Baptists we have a lot of these. They really master the art of communication and are phenomenal story tellers. They give great illustrations, insights into people’s lives and wonderful applications, but it is not founded on solid exegesis. No matter what seems to happen or what they claim, all life-change will be short­ lived because it is not founded on the Word of God.

When we teach preaching, we break down classes in this type of format, 50 percent exegesis and 50 percent communication. I like to think about a pastor’s week in this way. lf you have 10 hours, you spend at least the first five hours answering the question, “What does this text say?” and you spend the rest of the time working out what God has worked in you by answering, “How do I say it?” We must find a balance so that our sermon reflects the substance, structure and spirit of the text. These elements define text-driven preaching.

The substance of a text is what the text is talking about, and this must be the focus and drive of the sermon. To call your sermon a text-driven sermon, you must nail the substance of the text. If you preach out of John 1:1-5, you are limited in your topic to talking about why Jesus is the Son of God. Why? Because this is the authorial intent of the passage. I recently read a Sunday school lesson on John 3:16 where the lesson was about why Christians should be faithful in tithing. What is the connection? God so loved the world that He gave, so dig deep? They took one word of the text and applied it to something unrelated. What is the problem with this? The first problem is that there are many texts that deal explicitly with giving. But the worse problem is that when we do not deal with what the text says, it is not that we are saying what the text does not, but rather that the text is saying something that we are not.

If we do this we are missing something that God wants everyone to understand in the text. But how do I know that I have the substance of a text? You know you are getting at the substance of the text when you can answer this question: “Can I state in one complete sentence exactly what the text is about?” If I can, I probably have a little bit of what the text is about. I was a pastor for four years before I got married. After I got married, my wife liked to ask me about my sermons. She would ask me how my studying was going and then she would ask me, “What are you going to say on Sunday?” At first I took a pseudo-spiritual, pious approach and told her it was between me and God and she would find   out on Sunday. I found that if I had to fumble with words or say “it’s kind of like this but not like this” then I was not ready to preach. I had not yet nailed  the substance of the text because I could not answer this question in one clear, concise statement. The people who suffered were the people in the pews because my ambiguity became their ambiguity.

A good text-driven sermon must also get at the structure of the text. What does this mean? What we are suggesting is that there is not meaning only at the substance level; there is also meaning at the structural level. If our definition of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture holds to verbal plenary inspiration, it means that God not only ordered the content of Scripture, but He also ordered the shape of Scripture. So if there are two driving points in a text, I should not preach a sermon with four points. If there is one big idea in the text, then our sermons should have one big idea. Our sermon structure should mirror the structure of the text.

Titus 3:9-11 is the last content portion of the letter that Paul is writing to the young pastor on the island of Crete because in verse 12 he turns to the benediction. As you look at this Scripture think about how you would structure your sermon, or perhaps more to the point, what is the structure of this text?

“But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned. ” (Titus 3:9-11)

How would you break this down? One way of potentially breaking this down is to see that there are three verbs, and since we are Baptists, there should be three points. There is something to avoid, something to reject, and there is a reason for doing so. In other words, a pastor should avoid things, a pastor should reject things and a pastor should know some things. But does this work? Is this what the text is getting at?

What is the one driving thing that this passage is trying to communicate? We know that Paul was writing to Titus, who was directing these churches in which there were major problems. We also know that the one driving thought is that pastors should handle difficult situations in their church in certain ways. This is what your sermon should deal with in reflecting this text, but what is the structure? Are there three points? In looking at the text you will notice that there are not really three points in the text. In fact, the verb that should be   driving our thought when we examine the structure is right up front in verse 9: “Avoid foolish controversies and strife…” Then there is a second imperative in verse 10, “Reject a factious man.” Why would we suggest that verse 11 is not a separate independent point? Because “knowing” is actually modify the rejecting. So a more faithful outline would be something   like:

  1. Pastors should avoid silly controversies in the church.
  2. Pastors should reject a factious man, knowing that he is already self-condemned.

In fact, if you look in verse 9 you will see the preposition “form,” which functions the same way as the participle in verse 11. You avoid certain things because of this reason, and you reject certain people because of this reason. Therefore your sermon structure must mirror the structure of the passage.

Some people see this as too “tight” or “legalistic” because not only are we   saying that sermons should say a certain thing, but we are also saying that   sermons should be structured in a certain way. Does it really matter how we structure our sermons? It makes tremendous difference. Why? Because if you do not see “knowing” as modifying “rejecting” then “knowing” has to modify all things. But you do not avoid things because you know something; you only reject people because you know something. When we understand this, I believe this passage is the key to unlocking other New Testament passages like Galatians 6 and Matthew 18, which talk about confrontation in the church. It says you go to a man once, a second time, and if you go a third time, you reject him. What passage does this sound like? Matthew 18. Why does he say that he is self­ condemned? It is the same sense as Matthew 18; you treat him like an unbeliever because he probably is. If he is a believer, then he will come back into the fold in repentance and brokenness. Either way, you have won because you have told him the truth about his life and character. Where do we get this idea? We get it from the structure of the text.

In the sermons I once preached, I found my points in the text, possibly from a word or phrase, and called it an expository sermon. But, in reality, you can pull all your points from the text and never come close to it being an exposition because we must aim at what the author says in the substance and structure of the text. How do we know if we have the structure? If all of our textual divisions go back and directly relate to the main idea, you probably have the structure of the text. This is not fail-safe, but it is a hint to whether or not you have really nailed the structure to the text.

Our sermons must also seek to reflect the spirit of the text. The language and literature of the Bible is not just scientific, it is also artistic. Because it is artistic some of us who are left-brain, cerebral thinkers love preaching Romans and the epistles, but we would die before we would preach through the Song of Solomon, and not for the obvious reason but because it is art. We really struggle with the Psalms because they are songs. Those of us who love expository preaching really get infatuated with the outline. If you take an Old Testament narrative with its genre, you do not have four principles.  There are not five points in the story of David and Goliath. In fact there are not any points; there are scenes. It is not a Bible lesson; it is more like a movie.  You, then, are not the didactic Bible teacher; you are the cinematographer, and you make choices on what people see by how you paint the scenes, and at the end you make your application based upon the scenes that you have seen. Is this is really important? You may question this, but in reality about 70 percent of the Bible is narrative. If the Bible is shaped that way, could not we shape our sermons around narrative? That is the spirit and feel of the text.

When we say spirit, we are not talking about the Holy Spirit. This is the author-intended “feel” of the text, and that “feel” is borne of the genre. You could sit down with someone and ask him to give you four principles of courage. But if you did so, you would probably be asleep on the third one. But if you   ask someone to tell you a phenomenal story, you would be hanging on his every word. That is the God-intended genre of the text. When we look at a text, we ask ourselves if it is narrative, hortatory, didactic or procedural? Since we just looked at Titus 3:9-11, where do you think we should categorize it? Narrative, is it a story? No. Hortatory, is it giving some list of commands? Somewhat. It is also a bit didactic because there is teaching, but it is more procedural. It is my guess that as a pastor, this is the reason I shied away from the Pastoral Epistles, not because there were not great insights in the text, but because they were just so plain, and when you preach the Pastoral Epistles, you are not saying, “Look at these amazing insights   in the text.” You are saying, “Here is the procedure. I have to do it, and you have to do it.” This does not sound like a great spirit in the pulpit, but that is the spirit of the text.

Our preaching should reflect the genre of the text. This is where preaching moves from the realm of science into the realm of art. If we get the structure and feel of the text but miss the spirit, what might fall through the cracks? It may be that the one thing that we miss is the application of the text. Many preachers who deal with nuances and linguistic details of the text miss the application   because they miss the spirit of the text. The voice of application is imbedded within the spirit of the text. Can you take the genre of narrative and let people   feel the rising tension in the story instead of five or six principles? Can you take   the book of Revelation and let them feel the impending doom or impending glory that is coming from Jesus Christ? Is this important? If you get the substance and structure but miss the feel of the text, I believe you may miss something.

In doing all of this, we must never forget about application. We all have our favorite preachers. My wife likes the preachers who encourage you. She thinks the preachers I listen to are absolutely boring because they are all the left-brained, didactic guys who take a big chunk of text and challenge me, stretch me, take me deep and show me something I have never seen before. But something I have noticed by observation is that a lot of guys who are phenomenal at handling the text do not spend too much time on application. Have you ever noticed this? I think it is partly because guys who excel at exegetical work happen to be those who are wonderful thinkers and love the nuances in the text, but they pay too little attention to the spirit and feel of the text. Application rests in the spirit of the text.

The voice of application is embedded in the spirit of the text. If you look at Psalm 23 it is easy to see the driving force, “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want”. God provides. The structure is easy because it lays out the explanation of how God provides everything we need. But what is the spirit of this text. It is a psalm, but not only that, it is a song drawing attention to the fact that David was once himself a shepherd. There are obvious allusions to the New Testament where Jesus is the good shepherd. It is a sweet psalm. If you preach Psalm 23 and your people leave feeling guilty, downtrodden, or worn out, you may have hit the substance and structure, but you have not hit the feel.

How do we do this? When you want to give spirit-driven application, address the immediate application first. When preaching Titus 3, you must say, “As your pastor, I have a responsibility to check you if you try to bring factions into the church.” Should we be this explicit? You have to be because   the text is. With all the grace, love and tenacity in your heart, you must say what the text says. If you preach Luke 16 on the rich man and Lazarus, at some point in the sermon you will have to say that those who live for the present life will die and go to hell and in hell regret that decision. But here is the irony: Have you ever noticed that in churches that have expository preachers, people still do not know or live the Word of God? I am not saying that this is because the pastor is not walking through the Word of God. It may be that he is not stopping and saying, “Do this because this is what the text says.” In your efforts to be creative or interesting and to connect with the culture, do not miss the immediate application that is jumping off the page.

Be Specific. You must take the things that are in the text and deal with the immediate application first, but sometimes the immediate application is vague. Psalm 23 is vague. The shadow of death is a metaphor for fearing impending death. I think you would do an injustice to the text if you spent the rest of your time saying, “Do not fear death, do not fear death, do not fear death.” That is the immediate application that you should deal with first, but you then have the freedom to make subsequent applications. Talk about how we should not live in fear. Discuss all the things that we fear, and make it absolutely specific. The secret is that you must make it absolutely specific in your life. If you have a fear in your life, deal with it, and as you work through it during the week, this will be a model for the people.

Applications may be woven throughout the message or they may all come at the end. Many have learned the formula: explanation, illustration, application. The problem is that texts are weighted toward application differently. If you force this formula, you may find yourself sticking it in on some points that do not warrant a whole lot of application and you will break the flow of the sermon. It is good to have a little application here and some there or to have five ways to apply the text at the end. We must preach the Pastoral Epistles, with their strings of imperatives, differently than we preach Colossians 1 on the supremacy of Christ.

Applications often move from the general to the specific. Take Philippians 2, for example. Christ was humiliated, then exalted. The spirit of the text has a tremendous crescendo from low to high, explaining how Christ was exalted. But we know that this text is rooted in a very simple application. What does  verse 6 say? “Have this attitude in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” I want to suggest that if you paint the glories of Christ in a way that no one could ever reach but never tell people how to change their lives, you stop short of solid exposition. Paint the glories of the cross to the best of your abilities, but if you do not tell them explicitly what type of attitude they are to have, you have missed something. Do not do your people the injustice of not showing them how the exaltation of Christ makes them repent from their personal behavior because that is the text’s intended purpose.

Application may also move from the specific to the general. Take the Titus 3 passage, for example. What is the problem with preaching this text of Scripture? The problem is that you are only preaching to one person, yourself. We know from 2 Timothy that all Scripture is profitable, so why did God include this? You must deal with the immediate application to yourself, but there are some obvious secondary applications. If there are factious people in the church, they should stop. It would be very appropriate to say, “Do not be factious. It makes my job harder, and I will be faithful to Scripture and do what I need to do.” Once you have dealt with the immediate application, you have tremendous freedom to deal with secondary applications that may be going on within the life of your church or sphere of influence.

The illustration is the thing that weds the explanation to the application so that they are seamless. I had a student in class who gave a great illustration. He was talking about having a passionate heart for God, and he said if you take a poker and stick it in the fire and bring it out red hot, there are a lot of things   you can do. You can brand or burn things with it, but if you do nothing with it, the poker will eventually cool off. Here is what he said next, “That is kind of   like our Christian lives because if we cool off we are not as effective for God.” When he said, “That is kind of like” he built a wall between his illustration and the text. We do this when we say, “I think this is what Paul is saying,” “This is  a metaphor for this,” and so on. We tell our illustrations to stay in their place so that we abandon our illustrations, leaving them isolated so that we can go and deal with our text. But the purpose of the illustration is to wed the fabric of the text and the fabric of the application together. What if he had said, “You take that hot poker out of the fire, and it is effective only when it is hot.” And instead of divorcing illustration from application, what if he said, “The truth is God, through a very fiery time, has lit our hearts for Him, but we have let the cool winds of complacency blow across and make us ineffective for Him. Do you need to be thrust back in the fire, or is your heart still on fire for God?” Is that illustration or is it application? It does not matter because the illustration was the means by which you wedded the explanation of the text and the application to people’s lives.

I have read only a handful of novels in my life, and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is one that I read on a promise. The story line is that the Russian aristocracy had a beautiful female in it by the name of Anna. She is pursued by a man who wants her, she gives in, they consummate the relationship and commit adultery. They are so broken and ashamed of it that after they consummate it, listen how Tolstoy describes this moment.

She felt so sinful, so guilty, that nothing was left her but to humiliate herself and beg forgiveness; and as now there was no one in her life but him, to him she addresses her prayer for forgiveness. Looking at him, she had a physical sense of her humiliation, and she could say nothing more. He felt what a murderer must feel, when she sees the body he has robbed of life. That body, robbed by him of life, was their love, the first stage of their love. There was something awful and revolting in the memory of what had been bought at this fearful price of shame. Shame at their spiritual nakedness crushed her and infected him. But in spite of all the murderer’s horror before the body of his victim, he must hack it to pieces, hide the body, must use what he has gained by his murder. And with fury,   as it were with passion, the murderer falls on the body, and drags it and hacks at it; so he covered her face and shoulders with kisses. (Chapter  11)

Tolstoy said that this man was so broken over what he had done that he did not know what to do, so he just began to shower her with kisses even though he was trying to cover up his sin-like a murderer who has a difficult problem of what to do with the body after killing someone. This is a powerful metaphor. If Tolstoy had said, “Let me take a second and share an illustration about this,” the whole strength of the story would have been sapped. It is a great metaphor, but where did it begin and where did it end? If we think of the story in a linear fashion Tolstoy wove the metaphor and illustration into the story in a seamless way. After reading this passage I do not know more about murder, but I know more about the story. A good illustration will open up a window, not into the illustration itself, but into the story and allow you to build a bridge to application.

There are a couple of trends in application. One is the application-driven sermon. This is the sermon that says, “We are preaching for life change, and that is the main idea.” Therefore 50-70 percent of the sermon should be application. It will not deal with a lot of theology or get into the text too deep, but that is not what is at stake. The person advocating this will argue that people are coming to church with an incredible amount of baggage, and they want to know how to make their life count, so he will spend the bulk of his time telling them how to do that. This is a wonderful goal, but the ultimate question to ask is not, “What do people need?” but rather “What does God want them to do?” The problem is that if I tell people what to do without telling them why they should do it, that   life change will be short-lived. I do not want people to do what I tell them to do. I want them to do what they do because they believe what they believe. Is not that the kind of man you want to be and the kind of church you want to have? Paul called it the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness in Titus l.

Another type of sermon is the application-absent sermon. There is no application whatsoever. The guys who propose this will say, “Walk through the text, and the Holy Spirit will bring genuine life change. My responsibility   is to give them the Word of God. The Spirit works through the Word of God, and He will change the lives.” I could not agree more. But the problem is that this is not how Scripture was written. Do you realize that God gave us the Ten Commandments in seventeen verses, but it took three books-the rest of the Pentateuch-to unpack them? In Titus 2, Paul exhorts Titus to “speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine.” Teach them the theology and the nuances; nail the substance and structure; and then show them how it fits their life. The Apostle Paul started the next sections telling older men, older women, younger women and younger men to do specific things. Is it not beneath the exegetical dignities of Paul to deal with these practical matters? Not according to Paul. He taught them the theology, and he did not sit down until he told them what to do.

One of the problems that we face as a denomination is an unregenerate membership. I sensed this when I was a pastor, and I hear this from some of our students. Have you ever wondered how people could sit under Bible teaching and still live like they are lost, especially when there are multiple passages that already deal with the issue of unbelievers in the church or people who are acting like unbelievers in the church? I do not think the problem is that we have failed to preach those passages. But when we preach a passage like Matthew 25, we must be explicit and tell them that there are religious people who are going to spend eternity in hell just like those who have rejected Christ overtly.

If the text is explicit, we must be explicit. Honor the substance, the structure and spirit of the text because when you do, it will drive you to application.

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