The Art and Science of Preaching, Part 1

   Though the purpose of preaching is to communicate biblical truths, there is a sense in which homiletics is both an art and a science. The study of principles of homiletics, as they apply to the techniques of preaching, makes the discipline a science. It becomes an art when one shifts the focus to the appropriate manner for delivering the message.

    The broad body of truth that is the concern of homiletics, however, extends far beyond the preacher's use of it in the pulpit. Disciplines of study including rhetoric, composition, public speaking, and communication in general have much in common with homiletics. Scholars have diligently studied this extensive area of knowledge for centuries. As a matter of fact, during the period of history when oratory contributed so much to the cultural and political life of the great Roman Empire, rhetoric was about the only significant form of higher education offered. A Roman youth studied several subjects in his primary schooling, which continued to age fourteen. Then secondary education centered on rhetoric for another ten years. During that course of study, students from affluent Roman families learned the theory of rhetoric; had training in the inflection of the voice, the selection of words, and the development of an argument; and were even taught how and when to introduce a joke in their address.

     Because scholars have committed much of what they have learned about effective communication to written form, preachers would be foolish not to derive as much information as possible on the subject from printed sources. While they should seek to read everything available concerning the subject, they must remember that some of the material reflects the fact that sermonizing is influenced by the times and culture in which one lives. For example, Lloyd Perry says, "During the seventh and eighth centuries allegorizing was rampant and the faithful exposition of the scripture was almost nonexistent. During this period there was very little emphasis upon the doctrine of the atonement."[1]  Currently, there is a call from some quarters for moving to a "narrative" approach to preaching altogether. This series of articles contains more about that subject elsewhere. Of course, most able preachers view homiletics as a good servant but a poor master. Accordingly, they accept and use everything from the discipline that proves helpful toward communicating an unadulterated Gospel with greater clarity.

    Homileticians speak generally of three types of sermons: the topical, the textual, and the expository. These three types, however, represent only the broadest categories. In his original text on preaching, Perry offered seven sermonic forms to provide variety for pastors in crafting their weekly messages.[2] In a later book, though, he says, "In more recent years sermons have been classified from the stand-point of the manner of handling the text into topical, textual, inferential, and expository."[3] In yet another of his books, Perry lists a total of twenty-four patterns for structuring sermons![4]

    As to the history of the expository pattern for preaching, Perry says, "Origen (184-254) has been regarded as the ‘Father of Expository Preaching.'  It has been said that he gave form to the sermon. Athanasius (297-373) employed Origen's concept of expository preaching. Augustine (354-430) possessed real expository skill."[5] Perhaps these facts provide one reason why he reports, "Dr. Charles Koller, who taught homiletics at Northern Baptist seminary for fifteen years, states that the only preaching worthy of the Christian pulpit is expository preaching."[6]

    If a minister prayerfully selects a biblical passage for an expository sermon, guidelines from homiletics scholars require that all main points of the sermon, as well as sub-points, come from that portion of the Bible. Further, the minister must not leave out anything that appears in the passage. Perhaps the best way to make these facts clear is to demonstrate the process in the building of an actual sermon delivered by this writer. The rest of this article attempts to do that, using Eph. 1:15-23, which lends itself well to use in an expository sermon. The passage focuses on the progress Paul desires the Ephesian believers to make in their Christian walk.

    Following the pattern suggested by the homileticians, the first step in crafting a sermon is to determine the subject. I prepared this address for delivery to an audience of collegians. I had sensed that this generation was drifting away from a concern for doctrinal material and toward an unhealthy focus on experience. Further, they were being influenced by their peers in this post-modern world even to the point of rejecting the idea that propositional truth does exist. Thus a pastoral concern in my heart served as the impetus for selecting the passage in the Book of Ephesians.

    Concerning this process of selecting a subject and the proper text to illustrate it, Perry writes, "One of the best ways to determine the subject of a passage and thus to discover the subject of the sermon to be constructed, is to read the portion of scripture several times, while asking oneself this question: ‘What is the one main center of attention for this whole passage?'"[7] Hershael York and Bert Decker write, "The best place to locate the author's intent and emphasis is always in the verbs."[8] In preparing to minister from a passage, then, I like to read it in as many translations as I have in my study. As York and Decker say, "The best way to prepare to preach a book of the Bible is to fall in love with it by reading it several times and in several translations. Choose accurate translations to really understand the author's meaning and include a paraphrase or a highly interpretive translation or two . . ."[9] Only then do I allow myself to consult the commentaries. This procedure led to my listing the subject for this sermon as "Spiritual Growth."

    Since the subject of Spiritual Growth is a big one, my next step was to select a theme that would help me in narrowing it down to a manageable size for the time limits of the coming chapel service on campus where I would speak. For the theme of the sermon, I finally decided on "The Means to Spiritual Growth" as set forth in the passage.

    Of the two basic types of sermon propositions, obligation and ability, I chose the latter. Its key word was prayers, stemming from the fact that the focus of the passage is the prayers Paul offered on behalf of the Ephesians. My proposition, then, was, "We can experience spiritual growth, and thus become better acquainted with the Lord, by responding to the prayers Paul offered for the Ephesians in 1:17-23."

    Using the key word as intended, I would focus each of my main points on one of the prayers of the apostle in the passage. I chose to write a sentence outline for the sermon. In the later years of my ministry I have tended to do that rather than use single words or phrases for my outlines. Since the prayers of Paul in this passage total four, I would have that same number of main points in the sermon. Thus the main points of my outline became:

I.  Paul's first prayer was that God would grant the Ephesians spiritual illumination so they might comprehend more fully what has been revealed in Jesus.

II.  The apostle's second prayer was that his readers fully realize what is involved in the hope of their calling.

III.  The third of Paul's prayers in the passage was that the believers at Ephesus would understand better the riches of their inheritance.

IV.  Finally, Paul asks that the Ephesians may know the exceeding greatness of God's power.

    According to accepted homiletics guidelines for expository sermons, in developing the sub-points of each of these four, I referred specifically to every aspect of every verse in the passage. That becomes clear in the complete outline for the sermon, given below.

    In the introduction to the message, I quoted from J. I. Packer's classic work, Knowing God.

    It assists greatly in defining oft-repeated references among us about how to know God. Packer's words also turn the careful reader from misconceptions concerning a knowledge of God to a much more biblical view of spiritual growth.

    In the conclusion I used the standard procedure of restating the proposition at first, then recapitulating the main points. After that, in closing this sermon, I put a bit more than the usual emphasis on the application part of the conclusion. By that point in the actual delivery of the message, I would be praying from the soles of my shoes up that the students would act upon the truths from the scriptural passage for the sermon.

    Finally, I considered possible titles for the message. Two of the possibilities were "Growing in Grace" and "Spiritual Growth." I finally decided on the title, "Getting Better Acquainted with God." The detailed outline for the sermon follows:

Getting Better Acquainted with God

Intro.  It is a foolish and unlearned question, but, "How many in this room would like to get better acquainted with God?"


1.  I wonder, though, what does the subject of "knowing God" suggest to us?

2.  J. I. Packer writes, "What are we talking about when we use the phrase knowing God? A special sort of emotion? Shivers down the back? A dreamy, off-the-ground, floating feeling? Tingling thrills and exhilaration, such as drug takers seek? Or is knowing God a special sort of intellectual experience? Does one hear a voice? See a vision? Find strange trains of thought coursing through one's mind? Or what?"[10]

Prop.  We can experience spiritual growth, and thus become better acquainted with the Lord, by responding to the prayers Paul offered for the Ephesians in 1:17-23.

I.  Paul's first prayer for the Ephesians is that God would grant them spiritual illumination so they may comprehend more fully what has been revealed in Jesus (vv. 17-18a).

A.  He asks (literally, "keeps asking") that they may have wisdom; but note it is the "spirit of wisdom" and not just wisdom (v. 17a).


We usually say wisdom is the ability to use knowledge correctly. As such it is something like common sense. Packer defines wisdom more ably, saying, "Wisdom is the power to see and the inclination to choose, the best and highest goal, together with the surest means of attaining it." (90).

B.  The apostle asks that they may have knowledge which has been revealed about Jesus, (v.17b), "that you may know Him better."

1.  The "knowledge" he seeks for them certainly includes the acquisition of facts, the mastery of information, the comprehension of  principles, and the understanding of concepts.

2.  To know means to gain knowledge, to acquire content.

3.  Beware of the danger in concluding modern man is so concerned about relationships that he cares not about "dry" truth!

The most frequently used title of Jesus while on earth was "Master," literally "Teacher," and the best known title for His followers was "disciples," literally "students." Thus the emphasis in the relationship between them is certainly that of learning, or acquiring knowledge, and that requires a focus on content. You want to get better acquainted with God? Then master the teachings of Scripture, and learn well the concepts of the theology courses on this campus!

You say you are not interested in doctrine but will simply preach Christ; that's Christology, and so it is with anything else you say from the Bible!

C.  Yet the apostle desires that the eyes of the "hearts" (literally) of the believers at Ephesus might be opened (v. 18a).

1.  Heart understanding is often superior to that of the head.

2.  Still, we must not emphasize the one to exclude the other.

3.  To expect something in the heart without something also in the head is to look in the wrong direction!

II.  Second, Paul wishes his readers to fully realize the hope of their calling (v. 18b).

A.  Hope is one of the most essential qualities of life.

B.  With it one can stand up in the face of the most severe trials.

C.  Without it any human being is a "goner."

For the severely ill person to give up hope is a clear sign that the end is approaching.

D.  That hope includes eternal life, but the details of what that involves, of everything that goes with it, require a lifetime of study.

III.  Next, the apostle wants them to understand better the riches of their inheritance (v. 18c).

A.  Some interpret this to mean that believers are viewed here as the inheritance of Christ.

B.  The other way to look at it is to view it as focusing on the inheritance we have in Him; the parallel passage in Col. 1:12 supports the latter.


In Col.1:12 Paul declares that he regularly engages in giving thanks "to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light."

C.  It will take eternity for us to learn this, as the apostle declares in Eph. 2:7!

Discussing the purpose of our salvation, in that verse the apostle says that we have been saved specifically ". . . in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus."

Such truth is mind-boggling!

IV.  Finally, Paul asks that the Ephesians may know the exceeding greatness of God's power (v. 19a) as He manifested it in the mighty works of:

A.  The Resurrection of Jesus (vv. 19b-20a), the greatest demonstration of the power of God.

The Cross gave man the greatest possible demonstration of God's love; in the same way, the resurrection of Jesus provided man with the greatest possible demonstration of His power.

When President Nixon's referred to man's first walk on the moon as the "greatest event since the creation," Evangelist Billy Graham responded with, "No, the greatest is the coming of Jesus into the world!"

B.  The Exaltation of Jesus (vv. 20b-23) as the risen Lord. He was exalted to sit at the Father's right hand in the position of Chief Officer or Prime Minister.

1.  He is over all principalities, power, might, and dominion, any and all organizational or governmental agencies, whether of spirits or men in the universe.

2.  His Name is greater than any in this or the world to come.

3.  All things are subject to Him, under His feet (v. 22b).

C.  His specific executive assignment is that of being the Head of the Church.

1.  It is His body.

2.  Through it He fills all creation with the knowledge of, and information about, Himself.

These are facts about Jesus that we need to know; otherwise He would not have told us, nor would Paul have prayed continuously about them. If they seem dry or unimportant to us, maybe we need to examine the whole matter of our relationship with Him!

Forget about the traits of the X-Generation or whatever title sociologists give to the one you belong to. After the New Birth, you belong to the C-Generation, the Christian One!

Concl.  Then, we can grow spiritually, and thus become better acquainted with the Lord, by responding to the prayers Paul offered for the Ephesians in 1:17-23; here he desired that believers might:

1.  Gain more knowledge, understand the facts, acquire more information about Jesus.

2.  Comprehend more the magnitude of the hope of their calling.

3.  Acquire additional insight into the nature of their inheritance in Christ.

4.  Know and experience the power of God as demonstrated in the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus.

I personally knew E. S. Williams, General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God for twenty-five years and the person for whom this chapel is named, and I wish you could have known him, too. I wish much more earnestly, however, that you may know Jesus.

I don't mean to offend, but I fear some of us have only a shallow acquaintance with Him. Professor Dan Crabtree eloquently expressed a similar concern recently, declaring, "Some have felt Him but hardly know Him at all!"

Suppose you thought all that matters is just being "in the presence of" the one you are considering to become your lifetime companion. What if you thought that what that person said in your relationship didn't matter? Or what if you were so in love that you didn't really hear anything that individual said? You would be courting disaster, that's what!

It is by one's words that a person reveals who he or she is. That is no less true of God. If it means anything, getting to know God means acquiring knowledge, gaining information, mastering facts, learning things about Him.

Words matter. They did to Paul, when he focused on the number (singular rather than plural) of a word, seed, in Galatians 3:16. Grammar matters, as when Jesus spoke in Mark 12:26-27, reinforcing God's declaration that He is rather than He was or He will be.

To seek only mystical experiences that provide us with sensational testimonies is to have a mind akin to that of the Hindus and many others. What we believe, the truth about God that we know, understand, and apply in life is more important that what we momentarily feel at the altar!
Content matters. When a student asked Dr. Donald Johns, Sr., the late Academic Dean of our school, to pray that the Lord would give him the anointing in preaching, the good professor replied, "I'll do better than that. I'll pray that He will give you something sensible to say from Scripture!"

This concludes the sermon outline.

     In summary, developing an expository sermon requires a number of steps. First the minister must determine a broad subject in connection with a particular passage of Scripture. The second step is to choose one theme from all of the possibilities within the overall subject. From the scriptural passage, the minister needs to determine the key word or idea that is stressed in it. Once that is determined, the preacher must develop a proposition that will indicate the goal to be achieved if the congregation applies the principles suggested in the sermon. Finally, the minister decides on the main points of the message and crafts an outline and amplifying material to be used in preaching the message.

Selected Bibliography

    Packer, J. I. Knowing God, 20th Anniversary ed. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

    Perry, Lloyd M. A Manual for Biblical Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965.

            . Biblical Sermon Guide. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970.

            . Biblical Preaching for Today's World. Chicago: Moody Press, 1973.

    York, Hershael W., and Bert Decker. Preaching with Bold Assurance. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2003.

About the Author

      Dr. Charles Harris is a recently retired Profes­sor of Bible and Pastoral Ministries as well as Chairman of the Division of Church Ministries at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. He was associated with the college for thirty-eight years.

      In addition to his career as an educator, Dr. Harris is also an author. His writings have appeared in the Sunday School Counselor, God's Word for Today, and the Adult Teacher. Among his works are three books--What's Ahead, Proofs of Christianity, and Under the Glass: An Analysis of Church Structure--as well as a commentary on the Book of Second Corinthians in the Complete Biblical Library. He was a contributing author of Power Encounter: A Pentecostal Perspective.

      Dr. Harris holds a bachelor's degree in Bible, a master's degree in counseling, and a doctorate in education.

[1]Lloyd M. Perry, Biblical Preaching for Today's World (Chicago: Moody Press, 1973), 129.

[2]Lloyd M. Perry, A Manual for Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965), 65-105.

[3]Perry, Biblical Preaching for Today's World, 17.

[4]Lloyd M. Perry, Biblical Sermon Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970).

[5]Perry, Biblical Preaching for Today's World, 19.

[7]Ibid., 44.

[8]Hershael W. York and Bert Decker, Preaching with Bold Assurance (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2003), 107.

[9]Ibid., 35.

[10]J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 20th Anniversary ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 34.