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Set Free from the Cookie Cutter

How the text can form the sermon

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We see it easily with English. We all carry this hermeneutical grid around with us. So if I start out by saying, "The party of the first part owes to the party of the second part," and I'm trying to establish a legal contract, but you take it as poetry, we're going to have trouble in court.

So one of the things I have to do is look at a passage and say exegetically, What's going on here? What is the genre? What is the writer doing? You have to assume the author didn't just choose this genre because any old genre would work. If Jesus tells a parable, then I have to be aware when I preach the sermon that I can't treat it as if it's didactic literature. To be true to the Bible, I have to understand the genre; that's part of exegesis. And different genres, different kinds of literature, have different rules.

We understand that in English, yet somehow when we get to the Bible we don't understand it.

So the first job of the preacher is to understand the text for what it says and how it says it, rather than my putting my own grid or mold on it.

One kind of grid we've put on texts for years has been the three points grid. If I go to a psalm, I get three things we learn about suffering from the psalm. But the first question you have to ask: Is the biblical writer giving you three things about suffering? We learned four things about stewardship from Matthew 18 in the parable of the unjust steward (about the man who was forgiven the several million dollars he owed but wouldn't forgive his brother's debt). You take something such as that and you can say, "There are three things we learn about our obligation to God because of his grace." But you have to think, Is that what the biblical writer is doing? Is he giving you three things? Once you say, Oh no, that's not what he's doing , then the question is, What is he doing? And how does this story carry what he is doing? That is an important part of taking the genre of the literature, then working to see how I can incorporate that in my sermon.

That is quite a different thing from the cookie cutter approach, where we always fit the content into three parallel points. We always make the text fit that way. Some texts will fit, but some won't. You've got to avoid the cookie cutter syndrome for two reasons. One is you get bored with your own preaching. And two, everybody can anticipate your message in terms of what form you're going to use.

Sequencing the movements

How should we sequence the movements in a sermon? Do we always start from the beginning of the text and work our way through to the end? Exegetically, of course, you start from the beginning and you work through. You've got to understand what the writer is doing. That's your homework. Whether you use that in the pulpit or not, you need to do that homework.

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Haddon Robinson:

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Paulson Pulikottil

January 05, 2012  1:14am

I am trained on the three-point structure, but have always questioned it. Now, I have a rational and practical explanation why this three-point neatly outlined stuff doesn't work. Thanks for the clarity!

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Kelly Taylor

August 30, 2011  6:44am

Great article, although I have been helped and blessed by Charles Stanley and John MacArthur Jr., they are both guilty of primarily using one sermon form; Stanley has a list of points on any and every passage and MacArthur preaches everything as if it were a New Testament epistle. It never hurts to learn how to preach from Jesus; example.

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Marcos Pazymino

November 16, 2010  8:32am

As a new pastor, I gained new insights by reading Dr. Robinson's article. I intend to follow his advice.

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Jimmy Orr

November 15, 2010  2:32pm

Although it would have made this article prohibitively long, it would have been more helpful if Dr. Robinson had given sermonic examples (or at least excerpts) of the suggestions he makes in the article.

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