Bullets or buckshot

An interview with Haddon Robinson on effective preaching

Derek J. Morris, D.Min., is senior pastor at Forest Lake Church, Apopka, Florida, and author of Powerful Biblical Preaching: Practical Pointers From Master Preachers.

Haddon Robinson, Ph.D., is the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Derek Morris: In Biblical Preaching, you emphasize that "a sermon should be a bullet and not buckshot." In other words, a sermon should present a single dominant idea rather than a collection of numerous unrelated ideas. In my preaching workshops, many pastors express the desire to understand the process of crafting a homiletical bullet. So perhaps we could explore that process together. Let's start with a working definition of biblical preaching.

Haddon Robinson: Biblical/expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept and that concept is derived from the historical, grammatical, literary study of a scriptural passage in its context. The Spirit of God takes that concept and makes it alive in the experience of the preacher and through the preacher applies it to the people in the congregation. In other words, biblical preaching is the proclamation of a concept derived from the scripture.

DM: With that as a definition, how does the preacher go about discovering the biblical concept in a passage?

HR: A preacher has to understand that the Bible is a book of ideas. In order to discover the main idea of a passage, you need to ask two questions. "What is the writer talking about?" That's the subject, and it always answers a question—who, what, where, when, why, how. When you've answered that question and determined the subject of the passage, you ask, "What is the author saying about the subject?" That's the complement.

DM: So subject plus complement equals the biblical concept, the exegetical idea. Let's take Psalm 117 as an example and see how the process works: "Praise the Lord, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples. For great is his love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord" (verses 1, 2).* First, we ask what the psalmist is talking about. If one says the psalmist is talking about "praise," or about "the Lord," how would you respond?

HR: Yes, the psalmist is talking about praise, but the passage is not telling you everything about praise. It's not telling where or when you should praise the Lord. What it is talking about is why you should praise the Lord.

DM: So the subject would be: why everyone should praise the Lord.

HR: That's right. The psalmist says, "Praise the Lord, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples. For great is his love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever." The complement, therefore, is because His love and faithfulness endure forever.

DM: Discovering the exegetical idea in that short passage of Scripture is perhaps simple because we've basically restated the text. But it becomes a little more complicated when you move into a larger passage of Scripture. Let's consider Luke 15. That's a familiar preaching passage. I suppose a preacher would have to determine whether to look at all three parables as a trilogy or just focus on one. What would you say?

HR: Whether you preach the whole passage or not, that's not your question when you first study. The first question is, "What is it that Luke is trying to get at?" The opening verses of the chapter give you the subject. "Now the tax collectors and 'sinners' were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, 'This man welcomes sinners and eats with them' " (verses 1, 2). The subject of the passage is the complete answer to the question, "What is the author talking about?" That is, How can Jesus welcome tax collectors and sinners?

DM: The rest of the passage completes that idea?

HR: Yes, the rest of the passage would be the complement. Verse 3 says, "Then Jesus told them this parable." That's a singular. He tells them three stories: one about a lost sheep, another about a lost coin, and then one about two lost boys. One parable, but three stories. Each of those stories is getting at a similar truth: God loves people, God seeks for people, God is merciful to people. In the last part of the par able, we have the elder brother, the key to the story in a sense. There are two audiences being addressed: the publicans and the sinners, and the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. And in the part that deals with the elder brother, Jesus is obviously speaking about the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. The elder brother is as lost as the younger brother because you can be lost out in a foreign country or you can be lost in the father's house if you're out of sympathy with the father's heart. You're as lost as the boy who's gone off and wasted a fortune. But in each case, it really isn't the story about the lost sheep, the lost silver, or the lost sons. The story is about the seeking shepherd, the seeking woman, and the seeking and waiting father. And in each of these stories, God is concerned about lost people because He loves them, values them, pities them. So that would be the complement to the passage and the answer to the subject question: Because God is concerned about lost people.

DM: Let me summarize what you've said. The subject of the passage is "How can Jesus welcome tax collectors and sinners?" And the complement is "because God is concerned about lost people." So the exegetical idea of the passage would be a combination of subject + complement: Jesus welcomes tax collectors and sinners because God is concerned about lost people." Once we have discovered that biblical concept, a combination of the subject and complement, does that become the bullet?

HR: Sometimes, but often it has to be restated. Some ideas, when you state them, are as applicable to people today as they would have been 2,000 years ago.1 Other ideas are directed at the people of the first century because the biblical writer was talking about people in that age. Then you have to work with the exegetical idea and ask, "What does this mean to people today? How would I state it in terms that would be meaningful to the folks sitting in the pews? And that's where your homiletical idea, or bullet, comes in.

DM: Let's look at another example. In Colossians 4:1 we read, "Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven." Now if we're working the process that you just described, we might suggest that the subject of the text is, "Why masters should provide their slaves with what is right and fair," and the complement would be "because they know that they also have a Master in heaven." But I'm not going to be able to preach that as it stands to a 21st-century congregation. I can't just stand up and say, "Masters treat your slaves fairly because you know that you also have a Master in heaven." In itself that's irrelevant in a culture in which there are no slaves!

HR: Right, because the difference between the first century and the 21st century is that we're not dealing with masters and servants. You could say that masters could be employers and slaves could be employees. That isn't quite bringing it into the 21 st century, but what is there in this text that would apply to those who work with people under them and what motivation do they have to be just and right and fair with people? The answer is that if you're an employer, just as the people in the first century were masters who had slaves, it's important to remember that God is your Master and that therefore you should treat your employees as God treats you. So you might say, "You ought to deal with people around you, that work for you, in a way that is right and just and fair, because you don't work for yourself, you work for the Boss in heaven and you have to serve Him."

DM: So in crafting the homiletical idea, you are staying as close to the exegetical idea as you can, but still wanting to make it relevant. Let's look at another passage to illustrate the process of restating the exegetical idea as a contemporary homiletical idea. 1 Corinthians 8 is a well-known passage about meat offered to idols. How would the exegetical idea of this passage be relevant to people in the 21 st century?

HR: This passage speaks to a problem that some people still face, because they still have to deal with the issue of food offered to idols. But it's not an is sue in many countries of the world. So at first glance it would seem that the passage would not have anything to do with us today because we don't have to deal with food offered to idols.

DM: So, I suppose we have two options at this point: One would be to just delete the passage from our preaching calendar and choose another preaching passage; or to work the process and ask, What is the subject? What is the complement? What is the biblical concept here and how can I state that exegetical idea in a contemporary way? Let's take the second option. Let's work the process. What do you see as the subject of this passage?

HR: Paul states the subject in his opening comment: "Now about food sacrificed to idols." Of course, he's not telling us everything about food sacrificed to idols. I think what he's telling us or the question he's answering is, How do you deal with the problem of whether or not to eat food sacrificed to idols? And he is saying in the passage that there are two ways of coming at this: one is by knowledge, and knowledge would tell you that you could eat anything that's offered to an idol, because an idol is nothing. But secondly, I think, he says that love for those who are weaker brothers and sisters is an important consideration. So if I were going to put it into a subject and complement, the subject is "How Christians should deal with food offered to idols," and the complement is "with knowledge, limited by love." I think, that's what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 8.

DM: So the exegetical idea would be "Christians should deal with food offered to idols with knowledge, limited by love." But let's say we're going to share this sermon in a setting where meat offered to idols is not an issue. What might we do with that exegetical idea, which seems locked in the first century, as we craft it into a homiletical bullet that will make an impact in the 21 st century?

HR: I have to work with the exegetical idea and ask, "What is Paul dealing with when he talks about meat offered to idols?" You have to under stand what this meant to people in Corinth 2,000 years ago. It was a problem, a social problem. At the center of the town there was the temple to the goddess Aphrodite. People who went to worship Aphrodite brought a sacrifice. A part of the sacrifice was put on the altar, another part was given to the priest as an honorarium, and another part was given back to the worshipers so they would have a splendid meal as a result of the worship. So the question being asked was, "Could Christians eat the meat that had been offered to an idol?" Sometimes that was the only meat available in town. Or if an unbeliever invited them over to a feast on the day of worship, could they go and eat the food given to them? Would there be a social problem? There's also a psycho logical problem, because some of these Christians were tied into idolatry, and all of this was part of the worship of idols and thus it became a spiritual problem for some people to eat that meat offered to an idol.

But I'm also aware that when Paul was dealing with this issue, he was dealing with the questionable. He was not dealing with adultery or stealing or coveting or bearing false witness. There's no question about these issues. In this passage, Paul was dealing with an issue that upset people. Thus the matter had spiritual overtones but it was not directly prohibited in the Scriptures. And so, in crafting the homiletical idea, I would have to ask, "Where do my people come up against similar questionable issues, issues that they have to wrestle with?"

For example, a businessman said to me, "I work at a business and we have conventions. Is it all right for me as a Christian to go to a party where they have an open bar and serve alcohol?" I can't answer that question as such from Scripture. So I would say to him, on one level, "Yes, there is nothing wrong in going to that party." But if he says to me, "I've got a fellow that's rooming with me who's a new Christian and an alcoholic, and this really bothers him. Now is it all right for me to go?" That's a whole different question, because now you brought in a new believer who could be affected by your going.

Paul tells us that first of all, you have to act according to knowledge. And by knowledge he means having a doctrinal understanding of why you are or are not doing something. And most of the time, if you really understand the Scriptures, you have a great deal of freedom. But then Paul says that freedom must be limited by love. Because, he says, if a weaker brother sees you, then even though you know you can do it, and you feel perfectly free to do it, you don't do it out of love and consideration for that brother.

DM: What principles do we use to shrink that fairly lengthy discussion into a single dominant thought, a concise memorable bullet?

HR: I would say, "Whenever you deal with issues that are questionable, you need to be sure you're operating on the basis of biblical knowledge but that knowledge has to be limited or conditioned by love." That's probably what I would use in my sermon.

DM: When the congregation leaves at the end of the sermon, we know that the listeners will not remember every thing. But we're hoping that at least they will remember the biblical concept, the single dominant thought. What are some of the ways that we can drive home that homiletical idea?

HR: The homiletical idea should be clearly in my mind when I preach the sermon. I would try to state that idea as succinctly as possible and I would prob ably repeat it eight or ten times in the sermon. And when I come to the conclusion of the message, I want to leave them with that single focus. I want to conclude in such a way that people think about the homiletical idea.

DM: In a written document, you can use a colored marker to highlight a key idea. But colored markers don't work in oral presentations. What are some other ways to highlight that key idea besides making it as succinct as possible and repeating it?

HR: Well sometimes, I will actually flag it. I will say to people, "Now listen to the principle."

DM: You actually give your hearers an indication that this is the key issue.

HR: That's right. I could say, "Get hold of this, because this is the way you have to think if you're a Christian.

Here's the principle." And then I would give it to them. And I would come back to it again, so they see the principle and see how it works. If my congregation left and they said, "I wonder what in the world he was talking about this morning," I'd feel like I had failed. They may not remember the outline, but they ought to remember the bullet. What you're really doing is trying to discover great biblical truths and drive them home into peoples' lives.

DM: Thank you for challenging us to preach sermons that are bullets rather than buckshot.

*Scripture passages quoted in this article are from the New International Version.

1. Robinson notes that when the biblical concept found in the text is a universal principle, the wording of the homiletical idea may be identical to that of the exegeticai idea. (Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980], 97). For example, "pray without ceasing"—the exegetical idea of 1 Thessalonians 5:17—could also be used as a homiletical bullet. It is just as relevant to Christians in the 21st century as it was to the Thessalonian believers in the first century.

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Derek J. Morris, D.Min., is senior pastor at Forest Lake Church, Apopka, Florida, and author of Powerful Biblical Preaching: Practical Pointers From Master Preachers.

Haddon Robinson, Ph.D., is the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

September 2000

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