Ryle, the great Anglican Bishop, continues his advice on preaching for younger ministers:1
My first hint is this—If you want to attain simplicity in preaching, take care that you have a clear view of the subject upon which you are going to preach. I ask your special attention to this. Of all the five hints I am about to give, this is the most important.
Mind, then, when your text is chosen, that you understand it and see right through it; that you know precisely what you want to prove, what you want to teach, what you want to establish, and what you want people’s minds to carry away. If you yourself begin in a fog, you may depend upon it you will leave your people in darkness.
Cicero, one of the greatest ancient orators, said long ago, “No one can possibly speak clearly and eloquently about a subject which he does not understand”—and I am satisfied that he spoke the truth. Archbishop Whately was a very shrewd observer of human nature, and he said rightly of a vast number of preachers, that “they aimed at nothing, and they hit nothing. Like men landing on an unknown island, and setting out on a journey of exploration, they set out in ignorance, and traveled on in ignorance all the day long.”
I ask all young ministers especially, to remember this first hint. I repeat most emphatically—”Take care you thoroughly understand your subject. Never choose a text of which you do not quite know what it means.” Beware of taking obscure passages such as those which are to be found in unfulfilled and emblematic prophecies. If a man will continually preach to an ordinary congregation about the seals and vials and trumpets in Revelation, or about Ezekiel’s temple, or about predestination, free will, and the eternal purposes of God—it will not be at all surprising to any reasonable mind if he fails to attain simplicity.
I do not mean that these subjects ought not to be handled occasionally, at fit times, and before a suitable audience. All I say is, that they are very deep subjects, about which wise Christians often disagree, and it is almost impossible to make them very simple. We ought to see our subjects plainly, if we wish to make them simple, and there are hundreds of plain subjects to be found in God’s Word.
Beware, for the same reason, of taking up what I call “fanciful subjects” and “spiritualizing texts”—and then dragging out of them meanings which the Holy Spirit never intended to put into them. There is no subject needful for the soul’s health which is not to be found plainly taught and set forth in Scripture. This being the case, I think a preacher should never take a text and extract from it, as a dentist would a tooth from the jaw, something which, however true in itself, is not the plain literal meaning of the inspired words. The sermon may seem very glittering and ingenious, and his people may go away saying, “What a clever parson we have got!” But if, on examination, they can neither find the sermon in the text, nor the text in the sermon, their minds are perplexed, and they begin to think the Bible is a deep book which cannot be understood. If you want to attain simplicity, beware of spiritualizing texts.
When I speak of spiritualizing texts, let me explain what I mean. I remember hearing of a minister in a northern town, who was famous for preaching in this style. Once he gave out for his text, “He who is so impoverished that he has no oblation, chooses unto him a tree that will not rot” (Isa. 40:20). “Here,” said he, “is man by nature impoverished and undone. He has nothing to offer, in order to make satisfaction for his soul. And what ought he to do? He ought to choose a tree which cannot rot—even the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
On another occasion, being anxious to preach on the doctrine of indwelling sin, he chose his text out of the history of Joseph and his brethren, and gave out the words, “The old man of whom you spoke, is he yet alive?” (Gen. 43:27). Out of this question he ingeniously twisted a discourse about the infection of nature remaining in the believer—a grand truth, no doubt, but certainly not the truth of the passage.
Such instances will, I trust, be a warning to all my younger brethren. If you want to preach about the indwelling corruption of human nature, or about Christ crucified, you need not seek for such far-fetched texts as those I have named. If you want to be simple, mind you choose plain simple texts!
Clear Sermon Outlines
Furthermore, if you wish to see through your subjects thoroughly, and so to attain the foundation of simplicity, do not be ashamed of dividing your sermons and stating your divisions. I need hardly say this is a very vexed question. There is a morbid dread of “firstly, secondly, and thirdly” in many quarters. The stream of ‘fashion’ runs strongly against divisions, and I must frankly confess that a lively undivided sermon is much better than one divided in a dull, stupid, illogical way. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.
He who can preach sermons which strike and stick without divisions, by all means let him hold on his way and persevere. But let him not despise his neighbor who divides. All I say is—if we would be simple, there must be ORDER in a sermon as there is in an army. What wise general would mix up artillery, infantry, and cavalry in one confused mass in the day of battle? What giver of a banquet or dinner would dream of putting on the table the whole of the viands at once—the soup, the fish, the entrees, the meat, the salads, the sweets, the dessert, in one huge dish? Such a host would hardly be thought to serve his dinner well. Just so I say it is with sermons.
By all means let there be order—order, whether you bring out your “firstly, secondly, or thirdly,” or not—order, whether your divisions are concealed or expressed—order so carefully arranged that your points and ideas shall follow one another in beautiful regularity, like regiments marching past before the Queen on a review day in Windsor Park.
For my own part, I honestly confess that I do not think I have preached two sermons in my life without divisions. I find it of the utmost importance to make people understand, remember, and carry away what I say—and I am certain that divisions help me to do so. They are, in fact, like hooks and pegs and shelves in the mind.
If you study the sermons of men who have been and are successful preachers, you will always find order, and often divisions, in their sermons. I am not a bit ashamed to say that I often read the sermons of Mr. Spurgeon. I like to gather hints about preaching from all quarters. David did not ask about the sword of Goliath—”Who made it? who polished it? what blacksmith forged it?” He said, “There is nothing like it”—for he had once used it to cut off its owner’s head. Mr. Spurgeon can preach most ably, and he proves it by keeping his enormous congregation together.
We ought always to examine and analyze sermons which draw people together. Now when you read Mr. Spurgeon’s sermons, note how clearly and perspicuously he divides a sermon, and fills each division with beautiful and simple ideas. How easily you grasp his meaning! How thoroughly he brings before you certain great truths, that hang to you like hooks of steel, and which, once planted in your memory, you never forget!
My first point, then, if you would be simple in your preaching, is, that you must thoroughly understand your subject, and if you want to know whether you understand it, try to divide and arrange it. I can only say for myself; that I have done this ever since I have been a minister. For forty-five years I have kept note books in which I write down texts and heads of sermons for use when require. Whenever I get hold of a text, and see my way through it, I put it down and make a note of it. If I do not see my way through a text, I cannot preach on it, because I know I cannot be simple; and if I cannot be simple, I know I had better not preach at all.
1 J.C. Ryle, Simplicity in Preaching: A Few Short Hints on a Great Subject (London, UK: William, Hunt and Co., 1882), 13-22.
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He’s also an Investigations Program Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?