The Art and Science of Preaching, Part 4

    Common sense suggests the value of biographical preaching. A minister may preach a sermon on the doctrine of apostasy, or that preacher may cover the same subject by using the life of Judas to show the steps of his backsliding, steps that no one should follow. It is probable that the biographical approach would attract greater interest from the congregation than the purely doctrinal sermon would. Concerning biographical preaching, Lloyd Perry says, "This material may deal with the entire life of an individual or it may be concerned primarily with one incident in his career."[1] Accordingly, the preacher may present a character sketch, a life principle, a significant contribution made by example or otherwise, an interesting incident, or a family experience of the person of focus.[2] Concerning the "life principle" approach to preaching, John Bisagno lists forty-seven Bible characters that one might use for this type of sermon.[3] The pattern allows the minister to draw a principle from incidents in the lives of these characters in preaching a sermon. In doing so, however, he may use the foundational, illustrational, or analytical sermonic form. 

    A similar storytelling approach for a sermon is the recent emphasis on "narrative" preaching. James Thompson, referring more to other ministers than to himself, explains, "We heard the call for a new approach to preaching almost three decades ago, and we exchanged the ‘old wineskins' of argumentative preaching for the ‘new wineskins' of narrative."[4]

    The claim is that early Gospel preaching was narrative in nature. It remained that way until the pulpit was gradually overcome by the influence of Aristotelian logic. Narrative proponents declare that the post-modern congregations of today have been schooled against authoritarian communication. Today's audiences demand a more democratic approach to preaching, one that allows them to experience what the preacher did in preparing the sermon. The preacher should communicate more indirectly than in earlier periods. He or she should allow the listeners to draw their own conclusions about what has been discussed. Thus, according to Thompson, narrative preachers declare, "We find narrative texts easier to preach than sermons from prophecy, apocalyptic, or epistles because we assume they are more likely to sustain listener interest than the more direct and authoritative means of communication."[5] Donald Hamilton declares that "many narrative homileticians seem to have chosen the narrative method particularly because they wish to divorce themselves from a rationalistic hermeneutic."[6]

    Thompson recognizes the value of including narrative in preaching. He draws attention to it as a part of the ministry of Paul. He writes, "The New Testament attests to the presence of both narrative and rational persuasion. Even the narrative portions of the New Testament have sub-genres of argumentative discourse. Despite Paul's disclaimers (1 Cor. 2:1-5), his listeners would have noticed elements of Aristotelian rhetoric in his own preaching."[7] Thompson reminds his readers, however, that twenty-one of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are not narrative in form. Thus to use narrative exclusively would be to depart from the biblical pattern for preaching. Early Gospel ministers used both kerygma (proclamation) and didache (teaching) in their efforts to communicate life-saving truths. Therefore, Thompson rejects a call to use an exclusively narrative approach to preaching, declaring, "Narrative preaching is reluctant to speak with authority or to make concrete demands for change in the listeners' lives."[8] Certainly Paul used a much more direct approach in his early ministry at Thessalonica. Luke describes it, saying, "As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead" (Acts 17:2-3).

    Perry writes from a more "common sense" point of view concerning biographical preaching. For him it is a most acceptable way to provide some variety in the style of ministry the pastor uses. On the other hand, Thompson recognizes that the current call to preach almost exclusively using the narrative approach goes far beyond anything Perry has in mind. In my own experience, when I realized the fact that every believer faced the temptation to turn away from God for various reasons, my pastoral concern led me to consider preaching about the matter. In the beginning of prayerful consideration to that end, my first step in sermonizing was to conclude that the biographical approach would serve well in accomplishing my goal of warning those in my congregation against backsliding.

    In that case the subject had already been determined--"Backsliding."  I chose Judas as the character from whom to draw lessons as a negative example. The focus was on most of what we know about his life, rather than on a single incident from it. This becomes clear as you read the completed outline of the sermon below. The theme I selected was "Steps to Backsliding."  My proposition was one of ability. It declared, "We can avoid going down the road to apostasy by refusing to take the steps to backsliding that Judas took."  Thus the key word was steps.  Each main point, then, identified a step which followers of Jesus should refuse to take in order to avoid backsliding. I chose to use the full sentence form in my outline. Indeed, Hamilton declares, "Main points should be stated as complete sentences, not as single words or phrases, even on an outline."[9] The main points were:

I.  Judas became ungrateful in forgetting the facts of his thoughtful, prayerful selection both to salvation and to apostleship.

II.  Judas's backsliding came in gradual steps, rather than in running off a cliff in a moment of time.

III.  Judas's tragic end came only after he refused last minute opportunities to be restored in his fellowship with Jesus.

    I followed the story of the life of Judas by using most of the facts recorded of him in Scripture as I developed the sub-points of each of the main points. Then I developed the introduction and conclusion according to the suggestions from authorities on homiletics. As Hershael York and Bert Decker say, "The conclusion and introduction cannot be written well until the body of the sermon is complete."[10] For a title I chose "The World's Most Hated Bounty Hunter."

The World's Most Hated Bounty Hunter

Intro.  Considered a greedy "snitch" by the culture of his times, the bounty hunter of the Old West was a despised person.

1.  Judas gained the unenviable position of becoming the world's most hated bounty hunter because he turned Jesus in for thirty pieces of silver.
2. However, he didn't come overnight to that place where a few dollars meant more to him than a Man's life.

3.  Nor does anyone else backslide all of a sudden; backsliding is a gradual thing.

4.  Thus it has happened with far too many during the years of the history of our church.

5.  If all the people who had known the Lord through the ministry of this church were still here, our building would not begin to hold us all.

Prop.  We can successfully resist the many temptations to travel down the road to apostasy by refusing to take the steps to backsliding that Judas took.

I.  Judas became ungrateful in forgetting the facts of his thoughtful, prayerful selection both to salvation and to apostleship.

A.  He failed to recall and express gratitude for the wonders of his salvation experience.

1.  Some may wonder if Judas was ever really saved.

2.  However, he was among those who received Jesus and was born again.

a.  John reports, "He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God" (John 1:11-12); in the next verse the apostle declares that all such persons were born again.

b.  Further, Judas was among those to whom Jesus declared, "Rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (Luke 20:10).

c.  With such testimony I can't help but conclude that Judas indeed became a genuine believer.

B. Judas also seems gradually to have forgotten the highest of all privileges on earth of being selected as one of the Twelve.

1.  Certainly, Jesus would not have chosen an unsaved person to be one of His apostles.

2.  The Lord spent the night in prayer as He selected the Twelve one by one before including them on the list.

Luke records, "One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles (Luke 6:12-13).

3.  No doubt the Master selected him because he was a promising young man.

4.  His fellows recognized his leadership abilities when they elected him as treasurer of the group.

5.  Yet, Judas failed to be grateful for all of this and chose to count as nothing the high privileges that were his.

C.  Judas seems gradually to have become ungrateful that he experienced an anointed       ministry equal to that of any of the Twelve.

Peter took note of this when he said of Judas, "He was one of our number and shared in this ministry" (Acts 1:17).

II.  Judas's backsliding came in gradual steps, rather than in running off a cliff in a moment of       time.

A.  Doubt crept into his heart early.

Jesus likely had Judas in mind when He said, "Yet there are some of you who do not believe" (John 6:64).

B.  He learned to live the life of the hypocrite.

Noting that Judas protested the "waste" at Mary's anointing of Jesus with expensive perfume, John reports, "He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it" (John 12:6).

C.  He toyed with the idea of betraying Jesus until it took hold of him.

John says, "The devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus" (John 13:2). This was before he committed the actual deed.

D.  Judas disregarded the warning of Jesus at the table during the Last Supper.

1.  Mark records, "While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, ‘I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me--one who is eating with me'" (Mark 14:18).

2.  The betrayer had the audacity to say with the rest, as Mark reports, "They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, "Surely not I?" (Mark 14:19).

E.  Thus the day came when he gave in to Satan

1.  John says, "As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him" (John 13:27).

2.  Upon Judas's giving in to the devil, it is not surprising to read the continuation of John's account when he reports, "As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out" to betray Jesus (John 13:30).

F.  With greed finally overcoming him, Judas committed his dastardly deed.

Matthew writes, "Then one of the Twelve--the one called Judas Iscariot--went to the chief priests and asked, ‘What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?' So they counted out for him thirty silver coins" (Matt. 26:14-15).

G.  Peter reports that it was through willful transgression that Judas fell (Acts 1:25).

III.  Judas's tragic end came only after he refused last minute opportunities to be restored in his fellowship with Jesus.

A.  Judas rejected all efforts of Jesus to turn him from the way of backsliding when He handed His betrayer the "sop."

According to John, in pointing to Judas as the one who would betray Him, Jesus declared, "‘It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.' Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon" (John 13:26).

1.  Scholars report that such a gesture demonstrated a special interest in the person receiving the sop.

2.  It is as if the Teacher said, "I am concerned about you Judas. Let me help you."

3.  Instead of responding to this last effort to save him, the betrayer stormed out of the room to commit his awful crime against Jesus.

B.  Even after his backsliding to the point of betraying Jesus, he could have been forgiven and restored.

1.  The Lord forgave Peter for denying Him.

2.  Only the sin of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven (Mark 3:28-29).

3.  Judas did recognize that he made a mistake in betraying Jesus and felt   remorse over it (Matt. 27:3-4).

4.  He returned the bounty money, but the religious leaders took it and bought land for an ancient cemetery, a "Boot Hill," with it (Matt. 27:6-7).

5.  Yet, unlike Peter, he was not repentant.

6.  In a fit of depression he finally took his own life (Matt. 27:5).

7.  Recalling the event as a gruesome affair, Peter notes that the suicide of Judas took place on the very plot of ground purchased with the blood money (Acts 1:18-19).

Concl.  Then, we can avoid going down the road to apostasy by refusing to take the steps to backsliding that Judas took.

1.  Judas became ungrateful in forgetting the facts of his thoughtful, prayerful selection both to salvation and to apostleship.

2.  Judas's backsliding came in gradual steps, rather than in running off a cliff in a moment of time.

3.  Judas's tragic end came only after he refused last minute opportunities to be restored in his fellowship with Jesus.

4.  We must avoid taking any of these steps; instead:

a.  Let us constantly attend to the state of our soul.

b.  Let us pray the Lord to be the keeper of our soul.

c.  Let us do our best to be the keeper of our brother's soul.

d.  Let us seek to restore the backslider lest his end be like that of Judas

    In conclusion, when Gospel ministers prayerfully consider a message for their congregation, they may face the choice between preaching a purely doctrinal sermon or a biographical one that presents that doctrine. Often today's listeners show more interest in the biographical model. Biographical sermons are closely related to the larger category of narrative, or storytelling, messages. Although ministers need to follow the New Testament practice of preaching both rationally persuasive and narrative messages, they will often find the narrative, and particularly the biographical, sermon the more effective choice for reaching their listeners with the truths of the Gospel.

Selected Bibliography

    Bisagno, John R. Principle Preaching: How to Create and Deliver Purpose Driven Sermons for Life Application. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2002.

    Hamilton, Donald L. Homiletical Handbook. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992.

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

    Thompson, James W. Preaching Like Paul: Homiletical Wisdom for Today. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

    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), 106.

[2]Ibid., 106-12.

[3]John R. Bisagno, Principle Preaching: How to Create and Deliver Purpose Driven Sermons for Life Application (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2002), 18.

[4]James W. Thompson, Preaching Like Paul: Homiletical Wisdom for Today (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 1.

[5]Ibid., 6.

[6]Donald L. Hamilton, Homiletical Handbook (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 105.

[7]Thompson, Preaching Like Paul, 14.

[8]Ibid., 13.

[9]Hamilton, Homiletical Handbook, .

[10]Hershael W. York and Bert Decker, Preaching with Bold Assurance (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2003), 147.