3. A Clear Sermon Structure
Hopefully you have now reached the stage where you have a clear title that summarises the single idea that you want to preach, with a Bible passage that explains this truth, and also you will have worked hard to grasp the intended meaning of the passage. What is needed next is the third stage, the development of a clear sermon structure.
Imagine a wooden stool in your mind. How many legs are there? This is a good illustration for a sermon structure because the minimum number of legs that normally support a table or stool is three and a maximum of four. Aim for three or four headings because we all have memories that forget easily. It is much easier to remember a sermon with three simple points and this method has proved to be extremely effective for many preachers over the centuries. Here are some guidelines to help you.
A. Use a natural and an unforced structure that flows from the chosen text. An illustration that explains this idea is the peeling of an orange, because each orange segment separates naturally in preparation for eating.
B. Develop three or four points.
C. Have clear headings for each point and these should link to the main point of the sermon, as explained in our first stage.
Determine a clear sermon structure from these three passages with a clear sermon title and three headings.
1. Ephesians 1:3–14.
2. Ephesians 2:1–10.
3. Ephesians 5:21–6:4.
4. Doctrines, Illustrations and Applications
The human body is an example of how we can explain this fourth stage. A human skeleton has a vital place in supporting and strengthening the frame of a human being but it is lifeless without the flesh on the bone. So far, we have hopefully applied these principles to form a good skeleton structure but we now need to make sure that the substance of the sermon to be preached includes doctrines, illustrations and applications.
In the New Testament letters, especially in the epistles, doctrine always seems to come before application. For example in the book to the Ephesians, Paul discusses gospel doctrine for about the first three chapters and then he deals with applying these truths to the daily lives of the first-century Christians for the next three chapters. This is a good pattern for our sermons to follow. The famous British theologian and Puritan John Owen explained it this way: ‘It would be an uncouth [strange, clumsy and lacking in polish] sermon that should be without doctrine and use [application].’
Illustrations abound in the New Testament, especially in the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. Read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1–7:29) and make a list of the illustrations and applications that Jesus uses (salt, trees etc.). Now write a list of every day contemporary items your listeners are familiar with that you could potentially use to illustrate truths in your sermons (for example: farming, animals, rice etc.).
Each heading of your structure should include the following.
A. Make sure that you explain a single doctrine for each point.
B. A doctrine needs to be correctly labelled and explained, like coat pegs or hooks on which our thoughts can be hung.
C. Use biblical or contemporary illustrations for each point.
Work on developing applications for the hearers for each point and ensure that these are clearly expressed. Try to avoid making applications into one continual challenge because our pastoral desire is to help the sheep to apply the truth of God. Also there may well be non-Christians who need to be pointed to Christ’s command to ‘repent and believe in the gospel’ (Mark 1:15).
Now go through the same Ephesian passages from Exercise 3 and identify the doctrines, illustrations and applications that you could use for each of the three headings you have chosen.