Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content

Skill Builders

Home > Skill Builders


How Ligon Duncan Prepares to Preach

PreachingToday.com: Tell us about your sermon preparation process.

Ligon Duncan: Before I begin planning a sermon, I look at the book of the Bible and break it into pericopes. Those pericopes change from time to time, though, depending upon how much I'm trying to bite off in the course of an exposition.

My sermon preparation process entails reading the text multiple times in different English versions, but my nose is in the original text from the very beginning. I use BibleWorks™ from start to finish (with its wonderful tools, lexicons, morphology resources, and so on), checking the Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic background to the text (looking for words and phrases that are especially important to the biblical author). I prefer an essentially literal English translation, but even with that aid, I want to make sure that I'm paying attention to the vocabulary and word order of the original, so that I don't allow the English to drive my understanding and exposition in an unhelpful (and inaccurate) direction.

The truth of the Bible is the most exciting truth in all the world.

After I've read the passage numerous times and have a feel for it in the original, I try and outline the text in my mind. In other words, I try and organize the passage as best I can from reading the propositional flow of the passage.

Once the text is outlined, I read about 15 to 20 commentaries on that particular passage. I sift through those commentaries looking for three things: (1) key exegetical or expositional insights, (2) key application insights, and (3) key illustrative insights.

I will then modify my outline based upon the input of my reading of all the commentators. Sometimes I think their outline is better than mine. Sometimes I don't. Either way, I come up with a final outline for the passage both exegetically and homiletically. That is, I create an outline that represents the flow of the passage, and then I turn it into a homiletical statement so that I'm not simply stating what the text says, but what God, through the writer of Scripture and that particular passage, is laying claim on hearers to believe, to do, to think, to desire, or to be.

Finally, I highlight the points that I'm going to be able to cover in the passage. Some have 3 points, some 5, some 7, some 23. Then I try and decide how much time I have to actually preach that material.

What are your personal study habits?

I carry around commentaries in my bag and read them at stoplights, at airports, in cars on the way to lunch, and while I'm waiting to pick up the children at school. I tend to do sermon preparation in the morning and late at night. I probably keep 7 to 10 books going at a given time outside of my sermon reading.

What research tools do you find most helpful?

I constantly use the BibleWorks™ software program. It's on my computer screen from the beginning of my sermon preparation to the very end. I use its Bible dictionaries, its word searches, its lexicons, its text analysis tools, and more. I regularly use the various versions of the Old and New Testaments (LXX, BHS, UBS, and so on).

I use a number of Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias in various parts of sermon planning—especially if I am working on introductory material. Say I'm getting ready to do a series on the Book of Numbers; I'm going to look at Old Testament Bible Dictionaries and Bible handbooks, looking for helps in doing overall outlines of the Bible book.

What general advice can you offer to other preachers?

The truth of the Bible is the most exciting truth in all the world, and so, while our job is not to make it exciting, our presentation of it ought not to diminish the excitement, practicality, and power of the truth of God's Word. We always ought to aim to do justice to the power and practicality of whatever passage we're preaching.

We should never look outside of the passage for something that will make the sermon especially attractive and compelling to the people—the Word of God itself is compelling and attractive to those who are regenerate. And it is compelling and attractive to those upon whom the Holy Spirit is working his convicting and converting work. If we have to go to something outside of the Word, then what we're trying to do is make the Scripture compelling and attractive to the natural man, who hates the Word of God, and thereby we starve the sheep and cut off the one hope of salvation to the unconverted.

What devotional material do you use for your personal growth?

I use a lot of different devotional helps. I read C. H. Spurgeon's Morning and Evening over and over again. M'Cheyne's Bible reading program is still very helpful (four chapters a day, in order to read through the Bible in a year—the New Testament and Psalms twice and the Old Testament just once). I have recently been using William Still's Through the Year with William Still, which Banner of Truth produced. I read a lot of 19th century Communion preparation books, like Edward Bickersteth's A Treatise on Prayer or A Treatise on Preparation for the Lord's Supper. I also read a lot of Puritan and Scottish Reformation material, like Thomas Boston and Thomas Brooks. A friend recently recommended that I try reading one sermon a day. To that end, I'm reading Mark Dever's marvelous two-volume set, The Message of the Old Testament: Promises Made and The Message of the New Testament: Promises Kept (both by Crossway). I just stumbled across a little gem called A Consuming Fire: The Piety of Alexander Whyte, by Michael Haykin and Joel Beeke (Reformation Heritage Books). It is excellent—convicting and encouraging.

How do you generate sermon ideas?

I typically preach through Bible books, so that keeps me from having to generate sermon ideas, because the next passage generates what will be preached the next week. That having been said, along with my preaching colleague, Derek Thomas (our minister of teaching), I do at least one topical-expository series a year—almost always at Christmastime and sometimes during the summer.

Naturally, the Christmas series is incarnation-centric. Sometimes it is working through the libretto of Handel's Messiah and preaching those texts while the choir sings the corresponding chorus. Sometimes I work my way through the Messianic texts of the Old Testament. Sometimes I preach through Luke's nativity narratives.

Apart from Christmas, I may take a look at the theological emphases of Nicea and Chalcedon on the person of Christ. Elsewhere, we have tackled marriage, biblical manhood and womanhood, money, and other hot topics.

Ligon Duncan is the Chancellor/CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary and the John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology.

Related articles

When Books Are More Than Just Books

Warming your heart and mind in your library

When Books Are More Than Just Books (part 2)

Warming your heart and mind in your library

Preparing More Than One Sermon Per Week

How to maximize your preparation time and keep sermon quality high