The Anatomy of a Sermon

“So what was the fallen condition focus of your sermon?”—yes, I actually had a church member ask me at lunch this past Sunday.  Maybe it’s my fault for giving him a copy of Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching.  Of course, this is a man who believes God has called him to be a pastor, and I have been mentoring him in various things including building a sermon.

One day, he came into my office and was looking at my book shelf.  Counting Chapell’s book, I have twelve about preaching.  He asked me which one was the best…I gave him a blank stare for a moment.  “You know, I don’t really follow any of them as a whole, but…”  I pointed him to Chapell.

As a preacher I find preaching books rather, um, interesting.  Each has their own way of doing things, and of course each seems to think their way is best.  From Chapell to MacArthur to Shaddix to Kaiser to Vines to…the list goes on…I have learned one thing above all else: preaching is truly more of an art than a science.  True, there are some scientific aspects to preaching and preparation, but largely it is an art.  You have to take everything these books say and figure out what works best for you.

According to most of them (and what my seminary professor tried to teach me about preaching), I am a terrible preacher.  I typically don’t have much in the way of an introduction or conclusion, and I rarely illustrate my points with stories and anecdotes.  But that’s who I am, and it works for me.

I am curious, though—here at Voices we have a mixed audience, some pastors and seminary students looking to be pastors, and some church members who serve their churches in various capacities.  For the pastors—what do you do for your sermon prep?  For the “lay people”—what do you think is necessary for a good sermon?

At present, I am preaching through Hebrews.  Unless something changes, I’m anticipating about 25 total sermons.  This past week, I finished up my studies and preparation for the end of chapter 10, and on Sunday I preached 2:10-18.

Preparation for me changes depending upon the genre of biblical literature.  For example, while I am going through Hebrews, I read through the Greek and I diagram each passage.  When I preached through Acts, I looked at the Greek where I thought it might be significant and did no diagramming whatsoever.

Below is a picture of my diagram for Hebrews 2:10-18 (you can click it for a larger version).  I don’t use the method taught in my Greek classes in seminary, diagramming each word with a different notation based on grammatical usage.  Instead, thought-for-thought I diagram the general flow in English based on my knowledge of Greek grammar.  Then, when needed, I will make a grammatical notation.  In this picture is also my rough outline based from my initial thoughts from the diagram.  The rough outline somewhat resembles the finished product, but further consideration and thought led me to modify it.

After diagramming the passage, I use a method of tracing—a hybrid of what I was taught, when some standard categories and notations and some of my own.  I’ve also included a picture of my trace of this passage (part of a broader trace of the entire second chapter).

Being a geek who likes to work ahead, I will take my diagram, take my trace, and take my thoughts and lay it out into an outline, usually a good 3-to-4 months before I preach the sermon.  Then I file it away until the week before I preach it (breaking it out only if I need it to refer to something as I prepare another passage).  At this time, I read back over the passage and my outline, and read through my commentaries on the passage.  I make any changes I feel the sermon needs and send the outline to print via my secretary.

When I first started preaching, I hand-wrote my entire manuscript on half-sheets of paper and took the entire thing with me to preach.  Probably the most positive thing to come from my preaching classes and books was the encouragement to never do that!  And for good reason.  Starting out like that, I would mostly have my eyes focused on my manuscript, careful not to miss a word I had crafted.  The few times I glanced up, I would find half the congregation staring out the windows.  Eye contact does help keep their attention.

Now I get up with a modified form of what goes into our weekly bulletin—the outline, throw in some extra whitespace, and some hand written notes (which I can read, most of the time…)

I know some preachers still write out their manuscripts and only take an outline or a handful of notes with them.  I don’t even write out a manuscript anymore.  I basically produce my manuscript in my head, mulling over the outline, the diagramming, and the tracing.

So what about you?  How do you produce your sermons/what do you think a good sermon needs?

Below I’ve included my outline for Hebrews 2:10-18, and for fun—a link to the audio of the sermon.

“He Is Not Ashamed To Call Them Brothers—Jesus brings us into the glory of God’s family and delivers us from sin and death” Hebrews 2:10-18
So Great a Salvation (Hebrews Series, 5)

Jesus lived and died as a man to be our Lord and Savior, as well as our Brother.  As our brother:

  • Jesus brings us into glory (2:10)
    • Glory is the splendor and majesty of perfection as opposed to the darkness and stain of sin
    • The glory of Jesus and the glory of his people was God’s ultimate purpose in creation
    • Our glory came through the suffering of Jesus
      • Suffering made him “perfect”—the fullness of his obedience that set his name above all (Phil 2:8f)
      • The cross is a stumbling block for Jews and folly for Gentiles, yet power for those being saved (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)
    • The promise of glory fuels our hope (Romans 5:2)
  • Jesus makes us a part of God’s family (2:11-13)
    • The sons and daughters of God are marked by the holiness of God (sanctification)
      • Holiness is a command (1 Peter 1:15-16)
      • Holiness is a promise (1 Corinthians 1:30)
    • As our Brother, Jesus gladly tells us of God’s name
      • This leads us to praise as he praised
      • This leads us to trust as he trusted
  • Jesus rescues us from fear in death (2:14-16)
    • Jesus became flesh and blood to die
    • Jesus died to destroy Satan
      • Satan has the power of death (he is a liar and a murderer by nature—John 8:44)
      • Satan rules this world through fear (1 Peter 5:8)
      • Yet Satan flees from those who resist him and submit to God  (James 4:7, 1 Peter 5:9)
    • Jesus died to deliver us from the fear of death
      • “Tragically, human beings, destined to rule over creation, are slaves paralyzed by the fear of death”—Peter O’Brien
      • Jesus takes us from slavery to promise (as Abraham’s children)—thus we have nothing to fear!
  • Jesus delivers us from our sin and helps us in our temptations (2:17-18)
    • Jesus is the High Priest who made the sacrifice of propitiation
      • He is merciful and faithful
      • He is the one who removed our sin to turn away God’s wrath (propitiation)
    • Jesus knows our weakness and helps us in temptation (4:15, 1 Corinthians 10:13)—thus we are not left to fight alone


  1. says

    I’d probably do the same in recommending Chapell’s book, and I’m also glad (relieved?) to know that I’m not the only one who has the same approach about intros, conclusions, and illustrations.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. says

    I’ve got a basic file I put together called Sermon Builder with various sections to help guide my study in a passage. I also have a standard layout in Logos Bible Software I always use for sermon prep. Starts with some language study, more or less depending on the passage, then comparing translations, then hitting the commentaries. Throughout these steps I’m jotting down thoughts on the passage and things that come to mind that I might want to include in the sermon.

    For my sermon outline, I always try to focus on one major theme from my passage (and I choose my passages accordingly – preaching through 2 Peter right now, did 2:1-3 a couple weeks ago: warning that false prophets will come; 2:3-10 this past Sunday: God’s promise of protection and judgment; 2:10-19 this coming Sunday: God’s view of the false prophets) and shape my sub points around the content of the passage.

    I also have a (very) basic outline to get my sermon outline started, the basic framework I want to follow: introduction, read the passage, pray, body of the sermon, conclusion; sometimes will include a separate section for application but I usually work that into the points. I always have some sort of introduction to present in some way or other the Big Idea, the main point I’m drawing from the passage. My conclusions are usually a bit fuzzier.

    I preach the outline rather than a manuscript, but it’s usually a pretty thorough outline and at times might as well be a manuscript.

    • says

      I preach the outline rather than a manuscript, but it’s usually a pretty thorough outline and at times might as well be a manuscript.

      Yeah, I did that for a while too, after I ditched taking my manuscript w/ me… I’d have a bullet-point outline that may have been 3 or 4 pages long, so practically a manuscript.

      My outlines now (from bulletin constraints) are limited to one page (landscape w/ 2 columns). But I usually don’t fill up the whole space and can usually add some study questions for the week or something.

      I figure at the rate I’m going, give it another 5 years and I’ll be up there w/ a sticky note and a single sentence… :)

      • says

        I think I did the sticky note and a sentence thing at some point.

        I have never been the organized sort when it came to preaching. The sermons tend to get crafted in my head and the outline to paper is more of an after the fact thing to sort out the points and to keep me on track when I am actually preaching the message. My outlines are typically fit onto one half page in that landscape format (w/2 columns), and I tend to preach using one of the same inserts that I put in the bulletins. Sometimes I add extra notes to mine for key things I want to be sure and not miss.

  3. says

    I think the most important thing for me (personally) is having an overall plan for going through a book or a topic. This always helped set limits on each week’s teaching, knowing that some topics I would be hitting the week ahead and didn’t need to explore yet.
    As most of my teaching experience is with students, I would often seek to find one main driving point and then reverse engineer that into a question form that the Scriptures would answer for us.
    But preaching a narrative would look much different for me than preaching a psalm or an epistle or Proverbs. Some I would lead with a question, others we would walk through the story and encounter it (with explanation) the way the author laid it out.
    For those interested in learning more about preaching from Chapell, ItunesU has an entire semester of his preaching class free online (search for Covenant Seminary). Never hurts to refresh and think about your preaching, especially if you have a lot of commuting and need something to listen to.
    I had Dr. Awbrey at MBTS and I believe he has a book out as well.

    • says

      For those interested in learning more about preaching from Chapell, ItunesU has an entire semester of his preaching class free online (search for Covenant Seminary).

      The guy I mentioned in my post who asked me about my FCF is listening to those, taking notes, and even doing assignments (I think they’re questions from the book, and he turns them in to me). Kinda makes me think I need to go back and read the book again at least… :)

  4. says

    Also meant to mention, it sickens me to know there are pastors out there so organized, they have a lot of sermon prep finished months in advance! Makes us week-by-week folks look downright shoddy.

      • says

        Only slightly, since you’ve still got me beat on Sunday morning. I typically have a long-range preaching plan with the next few months worth of sermons mapped out and if I’m preaching through a book there is work that carries from one sermon to the next, but most of Sunday AM takes place throughout the week before. Sunday PM is afternoon of. :)

    • says

      I don’t know if I could do outlines and diagrams so far in advance like Mike, but I can say that taking a morning or an afternoon once every month or quarter to plan out a series or break up a Bible book into teaching units ahead of time did wonders to free up the rest of the week-by-week preparation. Plus, a little structure is necessary for spontaneity in my book.

  5. Greg Buchanan says

    Your tracing looks a bit like arcing. I’ve heard about it and have tried to learn it from Lots of emphasis on the Greek & Hebrew which I’ve yet to learn.

    It seems, to be really helpful, though; since, neither language “had” developed punct-uation:


    • says

      Yeah, tracing and arcing are the same thing…

      It might technically be called arcing, but I took a greek exegesis of 1 peter class in seminary and the prof called it tracing, so I flip-flop the vocabularly with it sometimes…

      I actually prefer diagramming. Tracing can certainly help with the flow, but I think diagramming provides a bit more of an objective look at the passage, imo…

      • Greg Buchanan says

        i can learn (eventually) the tracing/arcing thing from the web-site. Do you have any suggestions on the diagramming technique?

        My preaching class was basic 3points & a prayer format. The prep was to do a generic outline with everything from world events & historical setting to the context of the passage within the paragraph within the book withing the etc. But nothing like your diagram.


        • says

          Greg–I don’t know what books you have. My version of Chapell’s Christ-centered preaching (2005 edition) has a brief discussion of diagramming in chapter 5. MacArthur in Rediscovering Expository Preaching and Vines in Power in the Pulpit also devote space to it.

          The two best books, imo (and which I also have), that teach diagramming would be Walter Kaiser’s “Toward an Exegetical Theology”–I have the 2003 version and it has an entire chapter filled with diagramming illustrations from both the Old and New Testament; and Hershael York’s “Preaching with Bold Assurance.”–which also has a chapter dedicated to diagramming.

          You say you’ve yet to learn Greek and Hebrew–when you do that will help a lot w/ diagramming, but if you have a good english translation, a good diagram can still be done just using english.

  6. says

    Your “outline” appears to be more of an exegetical outline than a homiletical outline. And from my preaching prof’s view, that is certainly more of a descriptive outline (MacArthur-esque) than a applicational outline.

    In my experience & study of preaching (under Hershael York @ Southern), the most difficult part of the preaching-preparation process is going from the exegetical to homiletical. I currently find this more of an art than science (maybe I should read Robinson or Chapell again!).

    The way the Homiletical Outline developed this week for me, was really thru continual prayer & meditation on the Scripture(‘s exegetical outline)…and while walking to the church office, it pretty much “came” to me. Something I read from Spurgeon also helped :).

    That’s my two cents. Good outline bro….preach on :)>

    • says


      …I had Dr. York for Ministry of Proclamation and Preaching Practicum. I respect the man, learned a lot from him, and even spent several years fitting all my sermons into his applicational/homeletical main points scheme.

      The more I preached, the more I felt like doing that unnaturally strained the text at times.

      York’s philosophy as he teaches it in class is very “do” oriented. But when we look at Scripture, different sermons there, different letters, and Hebrews (which I take as a sermon-letter), some of it is presented as application, other parts as description.

      I will still go with applicational points if I feel like they don’t strain the text. For example, when I preached Hebrews 2:1-4, the two “main points” were “We must not neglect our salvation” and “we must pay closer attention to the word.” After easter when I get to 3:7-14 they will be “Do not harden your hearts, so you will avoid God’s wrath and find his promises”, “Take care of one another, so you do not fall away from God”, and “Exhort one another every day, so you will not be deceived by sin.”

      But other times I go with the descriptive, which is more like the one in the post.

      I’ve come to believe that sometimes the best application isn’t necessarily telling people “do this” but letting their minds be consumed with the greatness of the glory of God (like what we see in the fullness of Hebrews chapter 1, which later leads to the application of “we must pay much closer attention” in 2:1! )…

  7. says

    I’m not a pastor, but I fill pulpits occasionally in my local area or as a guest speaker on mission trips. I’m not seminary trained, but have attended a Bible College and continued study on my own.

    I would say there’s a difference between being your church’s primary preacher and filling in. Even filling in, I do some investigation and get at least some surface-level understanding where the church is in their level of understanding the Bible and general spiritual direction. If they are in a series, then I may preach on something tangential to that series. Some churches I preach in are not Baptist and they follow the 3 year lectionary. Usually, I’ll select a text from the lectionary for that day in those churches.

    1. Once I have the text selected, I will refresh my understanding of the author, if known, and the book in general.
    2. Then I will analyze the flow of thought through the book and the role the passage has in that flow of thought.
    3. I will study the passage in-depth, outline it, researching unclear words and questioning clear words that have a significant bearing on the meaning of the text.
    4. I will go back through the passage and note ideas that come to mind on central meaning, level of interest, application, tangential meaning, etc.
    5. I will go back through the notes and toss out bad ideas.
    6. Then I’ll isolate the big idea of the passage from the tangential ideas and applications.
    7. I’ll open up the commentaries to see if I’m on track. If I am then I’ll proceed to write out my sermon.
    8. If I’m off base, I’ll analyze the hermeneutical principles I’ve applied so far for error or refinement and reformulate even from the beginning if necessary.
    9. If I think I’m still right and disagree with all the commentaries I’ve read, then I’ll seek counsel from someone better trained than myself who I generally agree with theologically.
    10. After settling on a refinement, correction, or affirmation of my hermeneutic, then I will write my sermon out.

    I write out sermons because I don’t do extemporaneous speech very well keeping in mind to write it like I might say it. I’m good about presenting a written sermon like I’m not reading it and maintaining good eye contact. That just works best for me.

    It’s also helpful when I’m preaching through an interpreter to check my language for figures of speech that don’t translate and also give the interpreter something written in the event that the interpreter didn’t understand something I say.

  8. says

    Interesting discussion. An important point is to find “what works for you”. This is only valid for those who are truly called, seriously engaged and approaching it prayerfully. I say that because there are some disengaged preachers who are just looking for whatever “works” to get out of work/study. But too many sincere serious preachers of the word are floundering because they are trying to do what works for someone else. Mike has a great Hebrews 2:10-18 outline, but using that I would preach for several days! I need three or four points jotted down paper (which I remember and don’t take to the pulpit) or an outline visible in the text and develop the themes and thoughts in my head. But that’s not something that would work for everybody. When I was in seminary we used a book by Haddon Robinson. It laid out the practice of expository preaching. Later I found Charles W. Koller’s How to Preach without Notes helpful, though I already preached without notes and didn’t buy into all he advised. Also, we should spend more time studying sermons in the Bible in relation to the time we spend studying what people write about sermonizing.

    What does a good sermon need? Obviously it needs to be Christ-centered and biblically-based. Textual/expository is great, and topical sermons (and others) are good if they’re biblically-based on Bible topics (not just hobby horses). Finally, I think too many times as preachers we are studying the Bible for sermons (or looking for a sermon) rather than studying the Bible for God to speak to us. When He does, we don’t lack for something to say.

    • says

      *smacking palm on forehead*

      Robert, aside from your main point, which is great, you also said this:

      “…and approaching it prayerfully.”

      Alex also mentioned prayer.

      Add “prayer” before and after each of the steps I use. How could I have forgotten this important factor? Thanks for you and Alex mentioning it!