Commandments for Biblical Preaching Part 1: Keep These Words in Your Heart

Emilie Bouvier, "Fertile Soil." (Split Rock Lighthouse State Park; Two Harbors, MN)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

I offer here ten commandments for biblical preaching.

As I do so, I also offer both apologies and appreciation to my teacher and colleague, Gracia Grindal, whose “Fifteen Commandments for Preaching” inspired this imitation.

But as with the law in general, there is a paradox when it comes to laws for preaching: Salvation does not come through the law! In our case, this means nobody can become a preacher by following a set of rules;especially somebody else’s rules! And yet, the law is necessary and helpful, a very constant guide through troubled waters. which, in our case, means that those who are already preachers can grow in their preaching by reflecting about the craft of preaching.

In a way, the relationship between preaching and commandments for preaching is analogous to the relationship between a dancing and learning the steps of a dance. Just learning the steps for a dance won’t make someone an accomplished dancer. But if one already is an accomplished dancer, learning the steps to a new dance will enable the dancer to add it to his or her repertoire.

These commandments are offered for all of you who are struggling down the road to better preaching from a fellow sufferer who travels the same path.

1. You shall proclaim God’s Word.
What does this mean? Preach the text. Expound on it, teach it, wrestle with it, argue with it, hide behind it, exposit it. When you start your sermon, get to the text as fast as possible. As one friend says, “When you come to the end of what you think was the start of your sermon, that is where you really should start.”

2. You shall not proclaim yourself.
What does this mean? Do not use the text as a point of departure to talk about yourself, your issues, your views, your congregation, your politics, your view of current events, the books you have read, or anything else that is, as Paul says, “a different gospel–not that there is another gospel.”

3. You shall not proclaim the season of the church year.
What does this mean? Do not use the text as a point of departure for talking about Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Pentecost, All Saints, Mothers’ Day, Fishing Opener, or the Commemoration of St. NOBODY CARES! Easter and Christmas are okay to mention frequently, but do not trump the biblical text with the liturgical day. Let the rest of the liturgy be the place where the movements of the liturgical season shape the community of faith. I am not against the liturgical year. In fact I fully embrace it. But preach the text! If the preacher constantly refers to the liturgical season, the season becomes the de facto text for the sermon. That is not biblical preaching.

4. You shall have (at least) one point!
What does this mean? Too many sermons don’t have one memorable point. Have at least one thing to say. That is all I ask. Have a point. At least one. Please.

5. You shall reflect on the implicit as well as explicit content of your preaching.
What does this mean? Every sermon preaches not only an explicit message, but also an implicit one. For example, a student who has a medical condition with his feet once was forced literally to lean on the cross while he was preaching. Afterwards, someone said, “That was powerful how you leaned on the cross for support.” He didn’t know he was sending that message, but he was. And he found out by accident that this message was being sent. In, with, and under your posture, your choice of language, your stories, your grammar, your emotional level, and your delivery are hidden implicit messages. Find ways to be aware of the implicit messages that you are proclaiming, so that you can know whether you want to be sending them.

6. You shall never be the hero of your own story.
What does this mean? It is pretty simple. Never be the hero of your own story. If you use a story that shines positive light on yourself, change it to third person. If you use a story that casts negative light on another, change it so that you are the dolt of the story. Why not? Because if you are the hero of your own stories, you will be proclaiming yourself (Commandment #2), and the implicit message of your preaching will be, “Gee, I am really great. Can’t you all see how great I am?” I learned this from reading the books and listening to the sermons of my teacher and mentor, Jim Limburg. He is never the hero of his own stories. On the odd occasion when he needs to use a story in which he might come off even just a little bit well, he changes it to be about someone else.

7. You shall love the sermon you preach with all your heart and have passion for it.
What does this mean? If you are bored with your own sermon, everyone else will be, too. Have some passion. No, you don’t have to jump around or wave your arms or try to be Pentecostal. Stay within your own voice, but communicate passion for the Word of God.

8. Your sermons shall have structure.
What does this mean? During your sermon, people will tune out and then tune back in. This is just natural; it doesn’t mean people can’t listen. When the toddler’s cheerios spill, or when your illustration about your house reminds them that they didn’t change the furnace filter, or when the siren from the passing ambulance distracts them, they’ll tune out. Then they will try to tune back in. Offer those who tune back in some help in the form of some kind of rhetorical structure so that they can have a clue. This structure might take the form of a three-point sermon, or an expository sermon that goes through a text linearly, or a sermon with one idea that is developed, or (here’s an idea!) have ten commandments! Offer mileposts to the listeners that offer hope and answers to the congregation’s inner child which is asking, “Are we there yet?”

9. You shall not structure every sermon the same way.
What does this mean? Being repetitive and predictable is boring. Being repetitive and predictable is boring. My teacher, Dan Simundson, once commented, “Many preachers have one good sermon, which they give every week.” This is true not only for the content of sermons, but for the structure. The most common sermon structure I hear develops like this:

  • A couple of minutes on an opening illustration that frames the text
  • A turn to the text for about two minutes
  • About five to ten minutes of developing and applying the text
  • A turn back to the opening illustration
  • A wrap up of the sermon

There is nothing wrong with this structure. It is pretty effective. But every week?

10. You shall read a snippet of the text on which the sermon is based at the start of your sermon.
What does this mean? People need to know which text you are preaching on, in order to know how to listen. If your habit is to start many sermons with an illustration in order to offer a frame for the text (see Commandment #9), people may not know what biblical text the sermon is based on.

Nobody can become a preacher by following rules, especially somebody else’s rules. So make up your own. Print out this essay just for the sheer joy of being able to feed it to the shredder. Then write your own. That’s what I did after reading Gracia Grindal’s commandments (write my own commandments, that is, I didn’t feed hers to the shredder).

Stay tuned for next’s month’s Commandments for Biblical Preaching, Part 2: Break All the Rules!