To say that some sermons reach the pulpit half-baked would be unfair to bread. Some sermons are barely dough; some little more than a collection of dry ingredients. The sermon, as a sermon, is barely begun, largely unappetizing, not particularly nourishing, lacking the enticing taste and texture of a fresh-baked loaf.
What is the problem? Perhaps the preacher is a recent seminary graduate rehearsing his lectures on a certain book of the Bible. Perhaps he has lacked teaching or had poor teaching and example. Perhaps the preacher has not thought about what preaching is and what it involves. As a result, he is not actually preaching, even if sincerely persuaded that he is.
He may be delivering a lecture rather than a sermon, even if warmer rather than cooler in tone. He may offer “hot systematics” — an accurate treatment of a theological topic delivered with deep conviction. He may provide a biblical-theological survey, tracing the sweep of revelation along a particular line, but not anchored to any one part of it. Perhaps he is offering, in fact, a single technical treatment of a portion of Scripture or a biblical topic that actually lasts about forty hours, delivered in chunks between thirty and sixty minutes.
Sometimes fire in the pulpit masks a lack of warmth in the material, like delivering a frozen pizza in a heated bag. Often the context is provided, all the words are explained, the strict sense is given. By the end of such a sermon, the congregation might know much of what a text says. At the same time, they may know nothing of what it actually means for them.
Better to Taste the Orange
The eminent Baptist theologian and minister Andrew Fuller criticized some sermons this way:
The great thing necessary for expounding the Scriptures is to enter into their true meaning. We may read them, and talk about them, again and again, without imparting any light concerning them. If the hearer, when you have done, understand no more of that part of Scripture than he did before, your labor is lost. Yet this is commonly the case with those attempts at expounding which consist of little else than comparing parallel passages, or, by the help of a Concordance, tracing the use of the same word in other places, going from text to text till both the preacher and the people are wearied and lost. This is troubling the Scriptures rather than expounding them.
If I were to open a chest of oranges among my friends, and, in order to ascertain their quality, were to hold up one, and lay it down; then hold up another, and say, This is like the last; then a third, a fourth, a fifth, and so on, till I came to the bottom of the chest, saying of each, It is like the other; of what account would it be? The company would doubtless be weary, and had much rather have tasted two or three of them. (Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:712–13)
It may be that the preacher has exhausted his technical commentaries and himself and is now ready to exhaust his congregation (often allied to the assertion that it takes a good forty hours to prepare a single decent sermon). It may be that he is a slave to the historical-critical approach. Whatever the reason, he thinks he has finished his preparation when in fact he has only just begun.
Preaching Like a Puritan
So, how might the preacher correct himself? The Puritans provide help. The simplest point of departure might be the outline of the typical Puritan sermon. The three main divisions of such a sermon consist in the doctrine, the reasons, and the uses of the text.
Bear in mind that, separate from the sermon, the Puritan minister might already have given himself to “exposition” of a longer portion of Scripture (Matthew Henry’s commentary, for example, reflects his morning and evening expositions of the Bible, whereas his sermons were of a different order altogether). In other words, if a Puritan could hear you speak, he might commend you for your exposition, and then politely ask when you intend to preach!
This may be a slight exaggeration, but all our exegetical labor really only gets us to the point at which we can accurately explain the text and state its doctrine or doctrines. It is the first and most basic building block of the text. The typical modern preacher may invest ninety percent of his sermonic time and matter in providing what the typical Puritan may offer in ten percent of his sermonic time and matter, or less.
Once the text has been explained in context and the doctrine stated (perhaps with some additional scriptural evidence for its substance), the Puritan proceeds to reasons and uses. We might call this approach “pastoral preaching.” The aim is not merely to instruct a gathering of students, but to feed the souls of the flock of Christ.
The reasons develop the doctrine that the text of Scripture has supplied, bringing it to bear upon the particular congregation to which the preacher is speaking. While the doctrine itself might be universal, it is not just the context of the text that is important, but the context into which the text is preached. The doctrine means something to the people in front of the preacher. They need to understand how and why it is true, and what it means for their thinking and feeling and willing. Men and women, boys and girls, need to be convinced of this doctrine; it needs to be brought close, brought home. This truth is not abstract, but concrete. It intrudes into their lives; it fashions their thought processes; it forms and informs their responses. God is speaking to them in his word.
Often, when a Puritan moves into the phase of uses, or application, the modern preacher is stunned: What did these men think they were doing up to that point? A faithful Puritan would get closer to the heart in his reasons than many preachers today do in their most pressing applications. This is where the Puritans excelled as physicians of souls. William Perkins, for example, suggested an application grid that extended across seven possible groups in the congregation, to whom the truth could be applied in various ways.
The truth makes a difference to those who hear it, individually and congregationally, in relation to God, to themselves, to one another (in their several different relations), and to the world at large. It speaks to them as believing or unbelieving, as needing doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16–17). The Puritan knows that he cannot make someone think or feel or will or act in a certain way simply by his eloquence, but he lays his spiritual charges carefully and closely, dependent on the Holy Spirit to operate in his own convincing and convicting and converting divine power.
The whole sermon would be bound up with reiterations of the truth and appeals to the conscience, rising to a crescendo of pastoral intensity and affection. No hearer need doubt that a living man speaks the living word to living men in the presence of the living God. No hearer need doubt that this man speaks God’s truth to me, because he loves me, and that he expects and desires this truth to change me.
Bake the Bread
Preachers beyond the Puritans have excelled in such an approach. If you read Spurgeon’s sermons, you will often see just this kind of structure lying in the background (not surprising, given his affection for the Puritans). The comical old “three-pointer,” so easily mocked and dismissed, is not just a casual or clever division of the text, but is often a simpler presentation of the same basic mode. The same could be said of the sermonic method of other gifted and effective preachers of the past and the present. They do more than simply state the text. Having grasped its truth, and considered and felt it for themselves, they bring it to bear upon the congregation with the desire and expectation that it will have its God-intended impact upon them (Isaiah 55:11).
So, how can we improve? Don’t just hold up the oranges; let the people taste the fruit. Don’t merely trouble the text. Commit to understanding not only God’s word but also people’s hearts, and knowing their lives. Love your people enough to preach like a pastor, not just teach like a lecturer. If need be, spend less time analyzing and more time meditating and praying. Study to preach heartfelt sermons rather than to deliver tame and toothless homilies. Read good preachers (including various Puritans) and commentaries that suggest lines of lively application. Physically sit in the seats of particular people in the building where you meet, and pray for wisdom to speak to them in their situation. Look people in the eye as you speak to the congregation. Be willingly subject to the Spirit’s influence in the act of preaching.
To return to the bakery, mix the ingredients of your sermon, let it rise in contemplation, knead it thoroughly in prayer, let it prove in meditation, bake it well in your own heart, and serve it warm from the pulpit. In dependence on the Spirit, nourish the very souls of the hearers.