Known as the Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon preached thousands of sermons over forty years of pastoral ministry. But preaching was only one part of his ministry. He also pastored a church of 5,000+ members, led his elders and deacons, performed membership interviews, chaired church meetings, gave oversight to two orphanages and the Pastors’ College, and much, much more. So, when did he ever find time to prepare his sermons?
One answer is that Spurgeon never really stopped preparing. He was always thinking about his sermons, meditating on Scripture, on the lookout for good content, and, in general, working on his craft as a preacher. Spurgeon warned his students, “We ought to be always in training for text-getting and sermon-making . . . the leaf of your ministry will soon wither unless, like the blessed man in the first Psalm, you meditate in the law of the Lord both day and night . . . I have no belief in that ministry which ignores laborious preparation.”
In other words, sermon preparation has to do not only with a sermon manuscript, but also the preacher’s self. Spurgeon reminded his students that preachers are “our own tools, and therefore must keep ourselves in order.” This included not only cultivating the right skills and abilities, but also keeping one’s heart and soul in nearness to Christ and love for the lost. Such preparations did not begin and end in the study but marked the preacher’s entire life.
More specifically, however, Spurgeon did have a sermon preparation process that usually took place on Saturday evenings after 6:00 p.m. He once gave the following description of his process to his students:
Brethren, it is not easy for me to tell you precisely how I make my sermons. All through the week I am on the look-out for material that I can use on the Sabbath; but the actual work of arranging it is necessarily, left until Saturday evening, for every other moment is fully occupied in the Lord's service. I have often said that my greatest difficulty is to fix my mind upon the particular texts which are to be the subjects of discourse, on the following day; or, to speak more correctly, to know what topics the Holy Spirit would have me bring before the congregation. As soon as any passage of Scripture really grips my heart and soul, I concentrate my whole attention upon it, look at the precise meaning of the original, closely examine the context so as to see the special aspect of the text in its surroundings, and roughly jot down all the thoughts that occur to me concerning the subject, leaving to a later period the orderly marshalling of them for presentation to my hearers.
When I have reached this point, I am often stopped by an obstacle which is only a trouble to those of us whose sermons are regularly printed. I turn to my own Bible, which contains a complete record of all my published discourses; and, looking at these I have preached upon the text, I find, perhaps, that the general run of thought is so similar to that which I have marked out, that I have to abandon the subject, and seek another. Happily, a text of Scripture is like a diamond with many facets, which sparkles and flashes; whichever way it is held, so that, although I may have already printed, several sermons upon a particular passage, there is still a fresh setting; possible for the priceless gem, and I can go forward with my work. I like next to see what others have to say about my text; and, as a rule, my experience is that, if its teaching is perfectly plain, the commentators, to a man, explain it at great length, whereas, with equal unanimity, they studiously avoid or evade the verses which Peter might have described as ‘things hard to be understood.’ I am very much obliged to them for leaving me so many nuts to crack; but I should have been just as grateful if they had made more use of their own theological teeth or nut-crackers. However, among the many who have written upon the Word, I generally find some who can at least help to throw a side light upon it; and when I have arrived at that part of my preparation, I am glad to call my dear wife to my assistance. She reads to me until I get a clear idea of the whole subject; and, gradually, I am guided to the best form of outline, which I copy out, on a half-sheet of notepaper, for use in the pulpit.
Spurgeon did not intend this description of his sermon prep process to be prescriptive for his students. Indeed, he recognized that his process was influenced by his unique circumstances and abilities. While he was glad to share his approach, each preacher must figure out what works best for them. Still, from Spurgeon’s description, we can learn at least a few wise principles.
Prayerful Dependence on the Spirit
Week-by-week, Spurgeon selected a Scripture text from which he would preach. He found this to be “the greatest difficulty” of his preparations. This process involved not only careful study and pastoral consideration of his congregation’s needs, but he looked to the Spirit’s leading. He shared with his students, “I confess that I frequently sit hour after hour praying and waiting for a subject, and that this is the main part of my study.” But this was not a passive waiting. Even as he labored “in manipulating topics, ruminating upon points of doctrine, making skeletons out of verses,” he depended on the Spirit to guide him to a text.
Spurgeon did not forbid his students from planning a sermon series ahead of time and preaching through books of the Bible. But he warned them that a long series could end up being wearisome to a congregation. Part of the issue was that Spurgeon generally followed the Puritan model of preaching, which took one verse as its text and meditated on that text deeply. So, to preach through a book of the Bible one verse at a time could prove to be difficult, even for the most gifted of preachers.
Many preachers today plan out sermon series by simply preaching on longer passages through books of the Bible. While this presents many benefits, we must still learn the same sense of dependence on the Spirit as Spurgeon. Preachers must approach every Scripture text with the conviction that this is the word that God has for his people this week, praying “to know what topics the Holy Spirit would have me bring before the congregation” from that passage.
Rigorous, Personal Bible Study
After selecting a text, Spurgeon studied his text intensely, examining it in the original language, considering the surrounding context, and jotting down all his thoughts and reflections on the text. Having done that work, he then went back to see if he had already preached on this text and compared his notes to make sure there was not too much overlap. Spurgeon believed Scripture to be “like a diamond with many facets” and thus, he often preached multiple sermons on a single verse.
Spurgeon was remarkably original as a preacher of thousands of sermons. Some have accused Spurgeon of being open to plagiarizing other’s sermons, but that charge is ill-founded. It is true that Spurgeon read widely and drew from others’ insights, especially earlier in his preaching career. But the heart of Spurgeon’s sermon preparation was his original work and meditations on the text. He despised repeating himself, let alone another preacher.
Before preachers consult commentaries or even their own previous work on the text, they should aim to study the biblical text afresh, for themselves. The heart of our sermons must come from our personal meditations on the text, otherwise, our sermons may simply be the regurgitating of other people’s work. Such sermons based on other people’s insights will not be delivered with power. To be sure, Spurgeon was constantly studying the scriptures throughout his life, and his sermon prep certainly built on his ongoing personal Bible reading. Even so, in his sermon prep, Spurgeon examined and studied each sermon Scripture text anew, looking for new insights that the Spirit might illumine for him and his people.
Consulting Other Sources
Only after having studied the text for himself, Spurgeon consulted other sources, both academic commentaries and devotional writings. He found academic works less useful in his preparation. He consulted them particularly for difficulties in the text, but too often, commentators evaded those difficulties. More helpful were devotional works and sermons.
For this portion of his preparation, Spurgeon would often employ help from another. He would lay out select books from his library (commentaries, sermons, devotional works) dealing with his text, and his wife would read from those works, while Spurgeon reflected on what he heard. Susannah was always amazed at her husband’s knowledge of his library and cherished these times for her own spiritual growth.
While the heart of our sermons must be based on personal study and meditation, like Spurgeon, we would also do well to consult the insight that God has given to others in his word. The Spurgeon Library, located on the campus of Midwestern Seminary in Kansas City, MO, is evidence of Spurgeon’s wide reading throughout church history and in the latest scholarship of his day. And yet, with so many books out there, Spurgeon also reminds us that we need to be selective. His library clearly shows that his preference was for the works of the Puritans, who combined theological depth with devotional warmth.
We should also note that Spurgeon’s sermon prep was not performed alone, but involved others, namely his wife. Often, the preacher will find greater clarity and insight as they involve not only other books, but other people in their sermon prep process. This might involve discussing biblical insights, illustrations, applications, and much more.
Preparing Your Notes
Finally, he took all he had studied, and he organized his sermon, writing down his thoughts onto a half-sheet of paper. Earlier in his preaching career, Spurgeon tended to write out his sermons in fuller outlines or even manuscripts. Some of the sermons found in the Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon series can span several pages. But as he grew more experienced, Spurgeon forced himself to preach more extemporaneously, reducing his sermon preparation to a simple outline.
This final step mattered because Spurgeon believed in the importance of well-arranged sermons. He taught his students that rather than simply letting truths fall at random from the pulpit, the sermon should proceed logically. “The thought must climb and ascend; one stair of teaching leading to another; one door of reasoning conducting to another, and the whole elevating the hearer to a chamber from whose windows truth is seen gleaming in the light of God.” Even though he only took an outline into the pulpit, it represented a disciplined process of preparation and prayer.
Whether a preacher uses an outline, or a manuscript will depend on one’s giftings, circumstances, and many other factors. Each preacher must figure out what works best for them. However, Spurgeon’s emphasis on a well-ordered sermon is exactly right. Whether outline or manuscript, the preacher must bring into the pulpit whatever will help them to deliver the message both with power, but also with clarity and order, so that the truth can be seen “gleaming in the light of God.”
Spurgeon was truly a one-of-a-kind preacher. Yet, what strikes me about Spurgeon’s sermon prep process is how similar it is to my own process, which I learned from other faithful preachers before me. To be sure, there are aspects of Spurgeon’s process that I would not dare to imitate. If I began to earnestly prepare at 6 p.m. on Saturdays, I would be in trouble! And yet, in his prayerful dependence upon God, careful meditation on Scripture, consulting of other sources, and ordering of his sermon outline, Spurgeon gives us basic principles that all pastors ought to follow.
Personally, I find the way Spurgeon forced himself to depend on the Spirit in the selection of a text the most challenging aspect of his process. I am not convinced that is the right practice for me or my congregation. But even if I believe that God has a message for his people out of a scheduled sermon text, how am I cultivating prayerful dependence on the Spirit in my preparation? How do I keep my sermon preparation from simply being a mechanical and academic process? As much as I may grow in my preaching, I pray that I will always remain in complete dependence on the Spirit’s work in my own heart and in that of my hearers.
As exceptional and gifted as Spurgeon was in his preaching, he understood that there were no shortcuts, but he gave himself to a diligent process of preparation week after week. So, pastor, go and do likewise. Give yourself to prayer, the study of God’s Word, and the preparation of faithful, excellent, gospel-rich sermons. And may the Lord use those labors for the blessing of his people.
Editor’s Note: This article is based on Geoff’s book Spurgeon the Pastor: Recovering a Biblical and Theological Vision for Ministry. Learn more about this book at spurgeonthepastor.com.
 C. H. Spurgeon , C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography: Compiled from His Diary, Letters, and Records, by His Wife, and His Private Secretary. Vol. 4 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1900), 65-68.
Geoff Chang is an associate pastor at Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, OR.