Step Six – Sermon Planning

Now that you have studied the text in its various contexts and have reviewed commentaries and other relevant literature, you are ready to plan the sermon.

1. Write out the main thought of the text.

Your goal at this point is to boil down all of your study of the sermon text. You want to identify the main thought or idea the writer meant to convey to his original audience when he wrote the text. Accomplishing this can be difficult and will probably require careful thought.

Greidanus calls the main idea or thought the theme. He writes:

“The theme is a summary statement of the unifying thought of the text. In formulating the theme, therefore, one tries to lay hold of the dominant idea that encompasses all others. The question here is, What is the overriding thrust of the passage? What is the single point that not only dominates all other points in this text but encompasses them while deriving (part of) its meaning from them?”[1]

For Haddon Robinson, the main thought is the big idea. He explains that an idea consists of a subject and a complement. The complement tells us what is being said about the subject.[2] As we study the biblical text, we must be asking, “What precisely is the author talking about?” and “What is the author saying about what he is talking about?”[3]

According to Robinson, when you have come up with a possible subject, you should ask, “Does the subject fit all the parts? Is it too broad? How would you narrow it? Is it too narrow? Is there a large subject that accounts for all the parts? Is your subject an exact description of what the passage is talking about?”[4]

After determining the subject, you seek to determine the complement. Ask, “What is the author saying about the subject?”

2. Write out the purpose of the text.

It is also wise to try to identify the text’s goal or purpose. Robinson writes, “As part of your exegesis, you should ask, ‘Why did the author write this? What effect did he expect it to have on his readers?’”[5]

Jay E. Adams emphasizes the importance of this. He writes:

“There are few deficiencies in preaching quite so disastrous in their effect as the all-too-frequently occurring failure to determine the telos (or purpose) of a preaching portion. The passage, and therefore the Word of God itself, is misrepresented, misused, and mishandled when its purpose has not been determined, with the direct result that its power and its authority are lost.”[6]

Bryan Chapell also stresses the need to discern the purpose of the text. He writes, “We do not fully understand a biblical passage until we have determined why the Holy Spirit included it in Scripture.”[7]

Sidney Greidanus gives some guidance on discerning the purpose of a sermon text:

“In order to discover the text’s purpose, one ought to ask basically why the author wrote the text in the way he did. This question can be answered only by studying the text in its literary and historical contexts. Biblical authors frequently answer this question themselves with a statement of purpose for either the whole book or a section….”[8]

Chapell relates the purpose of a passage to what he calls the “Fallen Condition Focus,” which we mentioned in Step Two: Introductory Survey. If the text has a “Fallen Condition Focus,” then the purpose of the text is to address that aspect of our fallen condition.[9]

3. Review legitimate ways to preach Christ from the text.

This step is especially important when you have and Old Testament text, but it is relevant for New Testament texts as well.

Some would argue that one should not preach Christ from any text that does not explicitly refer to him. I believe that Greidanus in his book Preaching Christ from the Old Testament has shown that as Christian preachers, we should preach Christ in the sense of having a redemptive focus, no matter what passage of Scripture we are using as our text.

Greidanus identifies seven ways to preach Christ from the Old Testament. These are: (1) the way of redemptive-historical progression; (2) the way of promise-fulfillment; (3) the way of typology; (4) the way of analogy; (5) the way of longitudinal themes; (6) the way of New Testament references; and (7) the way of contrast.[10] As Greidanus himself points out, “These ways are not scientifically precise and overlap considerably.”

An article by Greidanus that describes each of the seven ways can be found here.[11]

4. Decide how you will apply the text to your audience.

Application is a key part of any sermon. Hearers need to know what difference the text should make in their lives.

Haddon Robinson writes:

“While it is essential that you explain the truth of a passage, your task is not finished until you relate that passage to the experience of your hearers. Ultimately the man or woman in the pew hopes that you will answer the questions, ‘So what? What difference does it make?’ All Christians have a responsibility to ask these questions because they are called to live under God in the light of biblical revelation.”[12]

The modern application of the sermon text will normally be related to the purpose for which the biblical writer wrote it. Thomas Long quotes from an article by David Buttrick, who wrote: “True ‘biblical preaching’ will want to be faithful not only to a message, but to an intention. The question, ‘What is the passage trying to do?’ may well mark the beginning of homiletical obedience.”[13]

Robinson suggests some questions to ask as you seek to apply an ancient text to your modern audience:

  1. “What was the setting in which God’s Word first came? What traits do modern men and women share in common with that original audience?
  2. “How can we identify with biblical men and women as they heard God’s Word and responded—or failed to respond—in their situation?
  3. “What further insights have we acquired about God’s dealings with his people through additional revelation?
  4. “When I understand an eternal truth or guiding principle, what specific, practical applications does this have for me and my congregation? What ideas, feelings, attitudes, or actions should it affect? Do I myself live in obedience to this truth? Do I intend to? What obstacles keep the people in my audience from responding as they should? What suggestions might help them respond as God wants them to respond?[14]

Some additional questions can sharpen the application and make it more specific:

What does God now require of us?

Where does he require it of us?

Why does he require it?

How can we do what he requires?

5. Write out the main thought and purpose of the sermon.

Now you are ready to write out the main thought and the purpose not of the biblical text, but of your sermon.

In the case of New Testament texts, the main thought and purpose of the sermon will often be similar to the main thought and purpose of the text. This is because the original audience and modern hearers are living in a similar redemptive historical situation. Both groups live after Christ’s first coming and are looking forward to his return.

In the case of Old Testament texts, the main thought and purpose may have to be modified in light of the fact that the original audience and modern hearers are in different places in the history of redemption. The original audience was looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. They could not look back to the cross and resurrection as we can today.

According to Thomas Long, the main thought of the sermon should be expressed in a “focus statement:”

A focus statement is a concise description of the central, controlling, and unifying theme of the sermon. In short, this is what the whole sermon will be ‘about.’”[15]

Long says the purpose of the sermon should be expressed in what he calls a “function statement:”

A function statement is a description of what a preacher hopes the sermon will create or cause to happen for the hearers. Sermons make demands upon the hearers, which is another way of saying that they provoke change in the hearers (even if the change is a deepening of something already present), The function statement names the hoped-for change.”[16]

Bryan Chapell calls the main thought of the sermon the “proposition.” According to him, “A proposition … is not merely a statement of a biblical truth, nor is it only an instruction based on a biblical principle. It is both.”[17] Chapell thus includes application as part of the proposition. He gives the following example: “Because Jesus commands his followers to proclaim the gospel, we must present Christ to others.”[18]

It is important not to skip over this step of determining and writing down the sermon’s main thought and purpose.

As Haddon Robinson says: “A sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot. Ideally each sermon is the explanation, interpretation, or application of a single dominant idea supported by other ideas, all drawn from one passage or several passages of Scripture.” [19]He quotes the oft repeated words of J. H. Jowett:

“I have a conviction that no sermon is ready for preaching, not ready for writing out, until we can express its theme in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as crystal. I find the getting of that sentence is the hardest, the most exacting, and the most fruitful labour in my study.”[20]

6. Develop a coherent sermon outline.

Bryan Chapell calls an outline “a logical path for the mind.”[21] Some pastors downplay the importance of having a coherent outline for the body of the sermon, but a clear outline is helpful both for the preacher in preaching the sermon and for the hearer in listening to it. As Haddon Robinson says, “Although content may exist without form, structure provides a sermon with a sense of unity, order, and progress. Certainly no sermon ever failed because it possessed a strong outline.”[22]

Bryan Chapell’s discussion of sermon outlines is helpful and I recommend reading it in Christ-Centered Preaching, or listening to his lecture on outlining and arrangement in his online preaching course.[23]

Chapell advocates what he calls “harmony:” “Main points should echo one another, and the subpoints supporting a single main point should harmonize with one another. Usually this is accomplished through parallelism.” He provides the following example of an outline with parallelism:

“I. Pray, because prayer will reveal your heart.

II. Pray, because prayer will reach God’s heart.

III. Pray, because prayer will conquer others’ hearts.”[24]

While such parallelism is appealing and should be used when it can be derived naturally from the text, sometimes parallelism can result in artificiality in explaining and applying biblical texts.

In my experience, outlines are more effective when they are determined by the contours of the text. David Helm writes: “The organization of your sermons should ordinarily follow the organization of the biblical text. Your preaching outline emerges from your exegetical and biblical and theological work. In fact, it becomes the contextualized mirror image of them.”[25]

Of course, at times following the form of the text may not be possible. Sidney Greidanus speaks of “respecting” the form of the text, while warning against “slavish imitation” of it: “What this means concretely will differ from sermon to sermon and from text to text. For example, a sermon on a narrative text can follow the plot of the narrative, while a sermon on a poetic text can follow the movement of its images.”[26]

Professor Jeffrey Weima provides an example of following the contours of the text. In dealing with 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, he first provides the following literary outline of the passage:

– v 13: Request/Goal: Do not grieve over believers who die before Christ’s return.

– vv 14-17: Reasons/Grounds:

– v 14: Ground #1: Christ’s resurrection is a guarantee of believers’ resurrection and presence at the Lord’s return.

– v 15: Ground #2: “Word of the Lord” guarantees deceased believers’ presence at the Lord’s return.

– vv 16-17 explain in further detail the events (four main clauses explain the four main events surrounding Christ’s return as recorded in the “word of the Lord”

– v 18: Result/Conclusion: “Comfort one another with these words.”

On the basis of this literary outline, he suggests the following sermon outline


I. The CONFUSION about Christ’s Return (v 13)

II. The CLARIFICATION of Christ’s Return (vv 14-17)

l. Appeal to Christ’s resurrection (v 14)

2. Appeal to “Word of the Lord” (v 15)

a. Explanation of 1st Event re. Christ’s Return (v 16a)

b. Explanation of 2nd Event re. Christ’s Return (v 16b)

c. Explanation of 3rd Event re. Christ’s Return (v 17a)

d. Explanation of 4th Event re. Christ’s Return (v 17b)

III. The COMFORT of Christ’s Return (v 18)

Conclusion: The CHALLENGE of Christ’s Return[27]

Sermon planning as described above is challenging work, but if you put in the time and effort required, you will preach strong sermons that bless and edify the people of God.

  1. Greidanus, Sidney. The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988. 134.

  2. Robinson, Haddon W. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Third Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014. 21-26.

  3. Ibid., 23.

  4. Ibid., 20.

  5. Ibid., 72.

  6. Adams, Jay E. Preaching with Purpose. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982. 27.

  7. Chapell, Bryan. Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2005. Digital. 48ff.

  8. Greidanus, Sidney. The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988. 129.

  9. Chapell. p. 50.

  10. Greidanus, Sidney. Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999. 227-276.


  12. Robinson, 57-58.

  13. Long, Thomas G. The Witness of Preaching, Third Edition. Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Digital. 125, quoting David G. Buttrick, “Interpretation and Preaching,” Interpretation 25, no. 1 (January 1981): 58.

  14. Robinson, 61-63.

  15. Long, 127.

  16. Ibid. 

  17. Chapell, 144.

  18. Ibid. 145.

  19. Robinson, 17.

  20. Ibid, 18, quoting Jowett, J. H. The Preacher: His Life and Work. New York: George H. Doran, 1912. Reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968. 133.

  21. Chapell, 133.

  22. Robinson, 91.


  24. Chapell, 136-137.

  25. Helm, David. Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. 100

  26. Greidanus, 20.

  27. Weima, Jeffrey A. D. “’Concerning Those Who Have Fallen Asleep’: An Exegetical Study of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.” [unpublished handout.]