Earlier this summer I had a conversation with David Prince and he mentioned to me that he was thoroughly enjoying H. Grady Davis’ Design for Preaching. Davis was a Lutheran pastor and then homiletics professor at Chicago Lutheran Seminary, and he published this work on preaching in 1958. Even though the book was written over a half-century ago, I have resonated with Davis and his ideas on preaching. His plea for preachers to unleash the “gospel” and the “Word of God” is still needed today. For example, paragraphs like this have been convicting and inspiring:
The Word of God differs from all our habitual outlooks. It speaks of Another, whereas our first and last interest is in ourselves. It declares that Other to be the center of our existence, whereas we make ourselves its center. The Word reveals what we could never discover or guess. It affirms God’s uncaused and unconditional love for every man, while the world of nature and culture seems indifferent. It discloses our condition as so wrong and desperate that God must take its deadly consequences upon himself, while our instinct is to vindicate our condition. The Word of God calls us to a way we would not choose to go. It tells us the self we are must die that the self God wills may be born. Yet all the time we are struggling to preserve at any cost the self that is. The Word calls us to a life by trust in him, when we can reasonably expect success only through our own wisdom and power…it offers us his life and glory, while our dream is always of our own.
Central to Davis’ thesis is that the “form” of the sermon must be driven by the text itself so that the sermon is intricately wedded to the “gospel” and “the Word of God.” In other words, preachers should not approach the text with a prescribed grid (a “three-point outline” or a “running commentary” etc.). But rather the form of the sermon should arise from the text itself. Davis’ point in insisting on the “form” of the sermon arriving from the “form” of the text, is that it gives the preacher the power of speaking the text rightly and in a sense getting out of the way for the Word of God to do its work. He writes:
The only way one can improve the form [of the sermon] is to shape it more exactly to the thought [of the Word]. Once the right thing is said rightly, there is a feeling of finality about it, as if it could never be said so well in any way but this. The thought does not have that feeling of finality until it is said rightly.
Have you ever heard a sermon, where afterward, you thought to yourself that you couldn’t imagine that text being preached any other way. Sermons that so explain the text that they transform that passage of Scripture in your mind forever. For example, I will always remember listening to John MacArthur on the armor of God in Ephesians 6:10-11, R.C. Sproul on Isaiah 6 and the holiness of God, Alistair Begg on the Rich Young Ruler in Mark 10, my father-in-law, Carl Broggi on being filled with the Spirit in Ephesians 5:18, Tim Keller on seeking refuge in God from Psalm 91, Louie Giglio on the name of God in Exodus 3, Hershael York on mocking the Devil in 1 Kings 18, and Ligon Duncan on the transfiguration in Matthew 17. I could go on and on.
I am talking about sermons that alter your life because they transform how you understand the Word of God itself. They shine such a bright light on the text, that the image of the Word is forever ingrained in your heart. Spurgeon said of such preachers:
You always bring something away when you hear them. They trade in precious things; their merchandise is of the gold of Ophir. Certain passages of Scripture are quoted and set in a new light, and certain specialties of Christian experience are described and explained. We come away from such preaching feeling that we have been to a good school. Brethren, I desire that we may each one exercise such an edifying ministry!
The power of these sermons is not in a good illustration or a compelling story per se, but in the way, the Word of God speaks to you informing your mind and penetrating your soul. That’s good preaching. That’s what Davis is getting at. And I think he’s on to something in how to get there. Obviously, I can’t explain the book in complete detail (it’s over 300 pages), but here are three insights Davis gives in how preachers can practice at arriving at the “form” of the text in their preaching.
1) “Read good books on writing and speaking.”
Admittedly, of the three points Davis mentions, I actually thought this was the least helpful. That is not to say that reading good books on “writing” and “speaking” is unimportant. It is very important. It just seems somewhat tangential at helping the preacher arrive at the “form” of the text itself. But it is true, and the point that Davis is getting at is that the preacher must become adept at the “how” and “what” of communication. In other words, the way we communicate is pivotal to what we communicate. And we can all strive to get better here. We need to get better at understanding the “idea” of the text of Scripture and articulating that idea in the exact and precise way that it is said in the Word of God.
2) “Study the sermons of other men.”
This point is extremely beneficial. Much of what is learned is caught rather than taught. Babe Ruth said that he modeled his left-handed swing by watching “Shoeless” Joe Jackson at the plate. The same idea applies to preaching. If ministers of the gospel want to become better at arriving at the proper form of the text they should study how the experts do it. This is easier said than done because the “craft” of the sermon in the words of Davis “is usually the last thing noticed.” In other words, when we listen to preaching we are normally focused on what we are learning in the Word, but we need to take a step back and try to discern how the text is being presented. What is the skeleton underneath the flesh?
Davis uses the illustration of a sports car that catches our attention. We know we like it when we see it, but we need to take a step further and understand why. What are the contours and the angles of curvature that we appreciate that contribute to the beauty of the car? These aren’t always articulated by those who appreciate nice cars, or even by those who buy them; they just know they love the design. But good car designers and engineers must know and study car design and perfect how to do it. They know why every curve, line, and angle matters. As preachers, the same standard applies to us. We must be able to present the “form” of the text in a way that listeners are transformed by the text itself, yet where the form seemingly disappears behind the text because it is innately a part of it.
Davis is right. This means listening to how good expositors form their sermons. How they articulate the main “idea” or proposition of the text. How they craft a homiletical outline that sits behind the text. This means understanding how the preacher uses biblical theology as a foundation for the context of the passage. All that to say, there is much to be learned from understanding how really good preachers “form” their sermons by the Word itself.
3) “Learn the craft by hard and unremitting practice.”
Preachers must practice, over and over, at arriving at the form of the text. This means writing and delivering a lot of sermons. I once heard Kevin DeYoung say that you have not hit your stride as a preacher until you have written and preached 500 sermons. I think he’s on to something (that assumes we are getting better and progressing as we gain experience – but that’s a different blog post). As someone nowhere near the 500 sermon mark, this is a skill I am working hard to develop. But to follow Davis’ advice, we must plow away at our work and strive to get better at forming our sermons by the text itself. He says:
Craft does not exist in a vacuum. In every case it has to do with some particular message he hopes to deliver, has to do with its content and its form in relation to each other and to the people to whom he will speak it…There is no hope of learning the craft, then, except by designing actual sermons, and no hope of its being the craft of preaching unless these products are real sermons. The beginner should plunge in and do them as fast as he can do them with care, for everyone will be different.
I think even the best preachers alive right now still work hard at getting better: spending time in study, critiquing their own preaching and listening to suggestions, praying that the Lord would continue to use them, and striving to understand the Word of God better. Davis’ challenge to us is this:
Preaching offers the same full scope to all the gifts of thought and imagination you have in you. In preaching as in the arts, high achievement calls for a lifetime of sustained and dedicated labor, and is worth it.
Charles Spurgeon, An All-Round Ministry, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1960, 238.