A Biblical Bullet Fired at the Life of the Listener

Chris —  June 30, 2015

One of the points I stress to our church family in an ongoing way is that a sermon should be a biblical bullet fired at the life of the listener. In the preaching from our pulpit, we are praying that sermons will be:

  1. Biblical – Clearly true to the text, centered on Christ and the gospel.
  2. Bullet – Focused on a central thought that is an engine powerful enough to pull the freight of the passage. Every sermon needs a clear focus.
  3. Fired – which is to say preach with unction or the power of the Spirit. We are praying that our preaching will go out with the power of the Spirit.
  4. At the life of the Listener – Significant for life in the 21st century.

Most authorities on preaching recognize the importance of a clear central thought. Below are some classic quotes including my mentor’s (Haddon Robinson) memorable quote, “a sermon should fire a bullet not buckshot.”

Haddon Robinson:

Rhetoricians emphasize the necessity of a clearly stated central thought so strongly that virtually every textbook devotes some space to a treatment of the principle. Terminology may vary – – central idea, proposition, theme, thesis statement, main thought – – but the concept is the same . . . 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.[1]

Duane Litfin:

. . . a speech to be maximally effective, ought to attempt to develop more or less fully only one major proposition. . . Any unit that does not contribute to the whole should be eliminated, regardless of how interesting it may be in itself.[2]

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. To compel oneself to fashion that sentence, to dismiss every word that is vague, ragged, ambiguous, to think oneself through to a form of words which defines the theme with scrupulous exactness – – this is surely one of the most vital and essential factors in the making of a sermon: and I do not think any sermon ought to be preached or even written, until that sentence has emerged, clear and lucid as a cloudless moon.[3]

John MacArthur:

. . . make sure that every expository message has a single theme that is crystal clear so that your people know exactly what you are saying, how you have supported it, and how it is applied to their lives. The thing that kills people in what is sometimes called expository preaching is randomly meandering through a passage.[4]

Keith Willhite:

. . . I am convinced that preaching with a single proposition is the best way to learn to preach . . . A single bullet is much more powerful than a small piece of shot or even the collective effect of many shots. A disjointed comment on words or phrases will be of little value in changing lives since propositions of God’s Truth, not minutiae, move people to think and act differently.[5]

Sidney Greidanus:

Whatever word we use, the theme or idea of the sermon ought to state as clearly and succinctly as possible the point the sermon seeks to make.[6]

Samuel T. Logan:

But a sermon, to be great, to be effective, whether it is long or short, must be focused. . . The aim must be precise and good preachers recognize this, often instinctively.[7]

Bryan Chappell:

State each idea in such a way that it directly develops the overall purpose of the sermon or immediately supports a point that does.[8]

Chappell’s “3 A.M. test” is especially vivid.

The 3 A.M. test requires you to imagine [someone] awaking you from your deepest slumber with this simple question, ‘What’s the sermon about today Pastor?’ If you cannot give a crisp answer, you know the sermon is probably half-baked. Thoughts you cannot gather at 3 A.M. are not likely to be caught by others at 11:AM.[9]

Robert Lewis Dabney:

Affirmatively, rhetorical unity requires these two things. The speaker must, first, have one main subject of discourse, to which he adheres with supreme reference throughout. But this is not enough. He must, second, propose to himself one definite impression on the hearer’s soul, to the making of which everything in the sermon is bent.[10]

Tony Merida:

At the heart of classical expository preaching theory is the conviction that the sermon is mainly about one big idea or theme.[11]

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[1] Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 35-36, 35.

[2] Litfin, 80, 153.

[3] Jowett, quoted in Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 37.

[4] MacArthur, “Frequently Asked Questions About Expository Preaching,” 347.

[5] Willhite, 13, 22.

[6] Greidanus, 137.

[7] Samuel T. Logan, “The Phenomenology of Preaching,” in The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art in the Twentieth Century, ed. Samuel T. Logan (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1986), 129.

[8] Chapell, 133.

[9] Ibid., 39.

[10] Robert Lewis Dabney, Sacred Rhetoric: Or, a Course of Lectures on Preaching (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1870), 109.

[11] Tony Merida, Faithful Preaching: Declaring Scripture with Responsibility, Passion and Authenticity (Nashville: B&H Publishing Company, 2009), 76.

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