Chapter 58

Getting the Gold from the Text

How do you capitalize on the inexhaustible riches of Scripture in your preaching-without sounding like a Bible commentary? An interview with author John Koessler.

If you haven't applied the text, you haven't preached. If you apply without the text, you haven't preached either. John, you are strongly attuned to how well the preacher uses the text in developing the sermon. What role should the text have in a sermon and why?

The text has to be the foundation of the sermon. The sermon grows out of what the text says, so it's the controlling factor. My goal, then, as a preacher is to help the audience understand the meaning of the text, to help them interpret it, and then to understand what the implications are for them.

The text is critical not only because it's a source of applicational ideas, but also because the power of the sermon is rooted in the text. Second Timothy 3:16-17 says the Scriptures are inspired, they are God-breathed, they are useful for equipping the believer for every good work.

We work so hard on our sermons that we sometimes forget the power of the message is the Word. We have to do the work, but the power is in the Word itself.

What are some of the imposters that get in the way of Scripture being the driving force of the sermon?

One imposter is where the text is simply a springboard for the rest of the message, where you start out with a text and then it disappears from the message. I heard a sermon a number of years ago where the preacher began by reading Romans 6, but then he closed his Bible, put it underneath the pulpit, and that was the last we heard of what the text actually said. So in that case, the Scripture was ornamental. It had no meaningful role in the message.

By that you mean the main points, the sub points, the main idea of the sermon didn't come out of Romans 6.

Right. He never showed how the main points and the sub points related to the text. The text gave the appearance that he was preaching from the Bible, but when you listened to what he said, it didn't come from it.

Another imposter is the kind of sermons I sometimes hear in a seeker context. This sermon spends a lot of time establishing common ground with the listener, which you have to do, but perhaps because of an oversensitivity to the way the audience is going to respond, the preacher doesn't even use the Bible. It's biblical in the sense that what's said is consistent with biblical truth, but there's no explicit biblical content in the sermon. That's not a sermon. That's a motivational speech. That has no place in the church.

So in that case the authority for the sermon is not made clear.

Correct. The authority for the sermon becomes primarily the experiences described in the message.

Or the charisma of the preacher.

Or the personality of the preacher, the ethos. All of that is important, but as a preacher my authority and my power is in the Word. It's not in my persuasive ability or in the cleverness of the stories I use. When you remove the Bible from the sermon, you don't have a sermon anymore.

What about the argument, " If I quote from the Bible, my hearers won't respect that authority; if I quote from a current celebrity, they'll believe that " ?

You don't find the apostle Paul or Peter or even Jesus steering away from God's Word. They're not afraid to base what they say on God's Word or to identify biblical truth as the basis for their authority. Now you do find, with the apostle Paul in particular, a sensitivity to his audience. For example, when he is preaching to the Jews, there is a Jewish flavor to his preaching. And when he's preaching to the Gentiles, he's sensitive to their culture. In one case he even quotes a Greek philosopher. But he always goes back to biblical truth. He preaches the gospel, the message of Christ.

There may be a false fear that because they don't respect that authority I can't lean on that authority. It does give me a greater responsibility to, number one, understand their assumptions so I can address the objections they might have, and number two, to communicate what biblical truth says in a way that connects with the audience. The fact that the text is the foundation of the sermon doesn't relieve me of the responsibility of exegeting my audience or applying the text.

I can't use the Bible like a magic spell where as long as I just read the text, it's going to have this magical impact on the audience. If that were true we wouldn't need to preach a sermon at all. We'd just read the Bible on a street corner, and when the sound comes out over the audience something magical will happen and people will change. It would be good in churches if we did have more reading of Scripture. But a process of argumentation and reasoning and understanding the audience is necessary. In his epistles, Paul is always anticipating how his readers are responding. He raises the questions for them: " Some of you will say this. " " Some of you will say that. " " But what about this? " and " What about that? " We have to do that. But his anchor is always God's truth.

I would use a less pejorative word. Many who wouldn't say the Scripture has a " magical " effect would say it has a supernatural power to it that will supersede anything else. You're saying Paul, who knew a lot about the supernatural, used the Word, but he also knew you have to appeal to people, you have to understand them, you have to deal with their culture.

One of the preacher's roles is to mediate God's truth to the audience. There's often application explicitly in the text. There is a cultural context the passage deals with. But it may not be the application my audience has to deal with, and it is often not the immediate cultural context my audience finds itself in. So here I have this recorded truth. It is inerrant. It is inspired. Everything it says is true. And then I have my audience. I'm in the middle, and I'm trying to take that biblical truth and show them the implications. But they have to understand what it says, and the things that I urge them to do and the authority of that has to come from God's Word.

What if we begin with the authority of someone they respect and then move into Scripture and say, " This is the authority for what I'm saying to you " ?

That's a valid approach and is often the function of the introduction, to start with common ground. You start with their experience, or you start with some authority that they recognize.

So you quote a statistic on marriage or cohabitation that says cohabitation is a bad idea for a number of reasons.

Or you might quote it to show that most people think it's a good idea, to get them to think about it. And then you take them to a dissenting voice in the Scriptures. But your goal is to move the focus to the Word.

I want my audience to be thinking about what the Bible says and what its implications are going to be for them. I want to anchor it to the text. I don't want to baptize the sermon with the text just because it's a sermon and has to have the Bible in it. We want hearers to be dwelling on what this says.

Grant Osborne talks about a hermeneutical spiral where you go back and forth throughout the sermon: text to audience, text to audience, text to audience.

But ultimately what you say in the sermon is God's claim on that person's life. That person needs to know that it comes from Scripture.


What would cause a preacher to stray from having the text in that central driving role for the sermon?

No one I know sets out to compose a sermon that's disconnected from the text. I suspect if you asked preachers on any given Sunday what they were preaching, they'd answer that they're preaching God's Word. But there are several factors that inadvertently move us away from the text.

One of the most common is that we're driven by application. It's important for me to be relevant to the audience. So I spend a lot of time thinking about the audience and their life situation. But the more I move towards the audience and the more I move out of the life situation that the text explicitly addresses, the greater the temptation to disconnect from the passage.

One common pattern in expository preaching is to begin with the text and talk about what the text says, to provide a kind of commentary for the audience. We'll talk about the grammar, the syntax, and maybe the cultural background. And then we move to application. But often, when we get into application, we forget about the text. The danger is that the further I remove myself from the text, the more likely I am to press home an application that is inconsistent with what the passage says.

In addition, there's a danger when we're overly familiar with the text to assume that we already know what the text means and what implications it has for the audience. But then I may not do the work of the exegesis, because I think I already know what it says. My handling of the text becomes clichd and shallow.

There's also the temptation to ride a hobbyhorse. Sometimes there's an issue in the life of the congregation we want to address, and that's appropriate. That's part of my role as a preacher, a prophetic responsibility to focus on issues in the church and say things that people don't want to hear. The problem develops when we're so focused on addressing an issue that we fail to notice the passage we're using doesn't really address it.

Recently I was preaching in a church I have attended, and I had become concerned with what seemed to me to be a spirit of legalism. And my text was 1 Samuel 16, Samuel's anointing of David where the Lord looks on the heart not on the outward appearance.

In one of my points I started down an applicational path that I thought was pretty good. I liked it because it zoned in on my concern in that context. But the more I reflected on what the text was saying, I realized that the passage didn't address the issue I was bothered about. I had inadvertently turned the message of the text inside out to make my point. I had to go back and rewrite it, and I didn't end up saying what I wanted to say.

But that's a good thing. That's letting the text control what the message says. It has two advantages. First, if you let the text control the message, sooner or later every problem issue in your church is going to be addressed. Secondly, nobody can blame you for it. Nobody can say that you're picking on them, that you've singled them out. And so it also protects you.

In your screening of sermons for Preaching Today you often write, " He's preaching his illustration. " What do you mean by that?

Illustration is an important part of the sermon. I spend almost as much time thinking about finding the right, illustrations for the message as I do the exegesis of the text. But there's tremendous energy in a good illustration, particularly a story, and we can get caught up in this great illustration and feel the power of it, and then we move to application, but the application may be grounded in the illustration rather than the text.

There's a dimension where that should be the case. It's legitimate to move from illustration to application when the illustration is reflective of what the text says and I'm either pressing home a principle from the text, trying to show you what that looks like in real life, using the illustration as an analogy, or using it to motivate. In those cases, you even want to use the language of the illustration to make the application. Bryan Chappell talks about having the words of an illustration " rain down " through the application.

But when we get caught up in the illustration itself, and the illustration is the focal point, then that's what we're preaching. The text then becomes a pretext to introduce the story, and the application points the audience back to the illustration.

" How-to " preaching is driven by a legitimate desire to connect with people where they are and to lead them to where God is. But can how-to preaching lead us away from text-driven sermons?

Not every text gives a how-to formula for responding to the issues in the text. In fact, few do. If every text gave me a formula, then I could slap it on the sermon and everybody would go home happy. But because the text, in an overwhelming majority of cases, deals on a principle level, I'm left with the responsibility of thinking about the implications for the audience.

I may, as I'm thinking about that, try to translate the implications into a methodology, a step-by-step response. The danger, though, is that it becomes formulaic. The preaching becomes trite. The listener quickly senses that your formula is not a construct that grows out of the text. Often the formulas are superficial.

I like to think of it in terms of diagnosis and remedy. When I look at the text and my audience, and when I am trying to give them something concrete to walk away with, it may not be a step-by-step process. Instead, I urge my preaching students to think in terms of diagnosis. How does the truth of this passage help the audience to understand the nature of the problem? When I preach on a problem that I could point out in myself, I usually already know I have that problem. So then the question is, Why do I have that problem? Try to diagnose the nature of the problem.

Then, in view of that, how should I respond? What is there in the text that helps you to understand the nature of my need for God's grace? And what is there in the text that helps me to understand God's remedy?

Once I've worked through that, maybe I want to think about a concrete strategy for responding to it. That strategy doesn't have to be explicitly mentioned in the text, but it has to be consistent with what the text says.

One of the missing dimensions in relating text to audience is motivation. We often go for the formula, and we don't think about why. Ask the question, Why should the listener respond that way? The text won't necessarily give a step-by-step formula, but it frequently addresses the issue of motivation.

What steps should we take to insure that the text has its proper place in our sermon?

It begins with exegesis. You study the text. You're trying to understand what the author wanted to communicate to his original audience and trying to understand what application he had in mind for them, either explicitly or implicitly. You have to do the hard work of exegesis before you think about any other issues of style or application.

Secondly — and I found this to be the most challenging thing as a pastor — you have to try not to rush. When you think of how many messages the typical pastor has to produce on a week-by-week basis, the pressure to produce is phenomenal. But I've found I have to live with a text for a few days before I can really understand it. Discipline yourself so your exegetical work doesn't take place the same week as your sermon preparation. I recommend trying to incorporate that into your devotional life so that you study God's Word for yourself on a deep level before preaching through it.

Because most pastors have multiple preparations to do, you have to prioritize. When I was preaching several messages in a given week, I would do full-blown exegesis, textbook style the way I learned in seminary, on one message. The second one I had to do a bit less. You do the best you can. But the more time you take with a text, the more careful you are, the more likely your sermon is going to be consistent with what it says.

Is it possible to have too much text in a text-driven sermon?

In one sense, the text can never be too foundational to the message. But when your handling of the text never moves to application, then there's a problem. My role as a preacher is not to function primarily as an exegetical commentary or a Bible handbook, but to take biblical truth and apply it to the audience. If you haven't applied the text, you haven't preached. Now if you apply without the text, you haven't preached either. You must have both.

It seems as though the central issue is not the form or style of the sermon. It boils down to making sure people understand that what God wants them to do came from this text.

Yes, my confidence as a preacher is in the power of God's Word. That's one of the most exciting things about preaching. It's not because we like to lecture. It's not because people are staring at us and waiting for us to say something. It's because we are driven by the conviction that God's truth, that those truths recorded in human language, have the potential to transform people's lives. And that's the most exciting thing, isn't it? When you proclaim that and you see God work through it? That's what gets you hooked. And once you're hooked, you never go back.

This article is a transcript of the Preaching Today audio workshop #238. To order this Preaching Today audio tape, e-mail your request to