How I Prepare An Expository Sermon, Part 3

Part 3: Outlining the Sermon

How do I outline a sermon? I really don’t know how it happens. After preaching a few hundred sermons, habits become ingrained, both good and bad. When I think about how I actually prepare my sermon outlines, I realize that it is a combination of different approaches which I have been exposed to over the years. Sometimes, as I noted in the previous post, the sermon outline comes easily like a piece of wood that splits into three equal parts with only one blow from the axe. Most of the times this has not been my experience. Instead most texts require much sweat and tears before a preaching outline emerges.

The exegetical (textual) outline and the homiletical (preaching) outline must be distinguished. The exegetical outline is usually fairly easy to determine. It is the basic structure of the text in a narrative passage it is the major movements from one scene to another, one individual to another, etc. In Paul’s letters it is the way in which Paul builds his argument (Ex. In Galatians 3, Paul argues for justification by faith alone by i. the Galatians own experience in vv. 1-5, ii. the life of Abraham in vv. 6-9, and iii. from various Old Testament Scriptures in vv. 10-14.) . The difficulty, however, lies in determining what is the best way to communicate to your congregation the meaning of the text. In Paul’s letters, it is often best to follow Paul’s argumentation and make your case as the Apostle Paul made his case. But in the narrative sections of Scripture it is sometimes necessary to move away from being merely descriptive to being prescriptive. An exegetical outline will by definition be descriptive, it will describe what the text says. The homiletical outline though should declare what the contemporary hearer must know, believe and do. Thus, a good way to think of the homiletic outline is as being prescriptive rather than merely descriptive.

I rarely, if ever, get my preaching outline while sitting at my desk working hard at the text. I get the exegetical outline that way, but not the homiletical outline. I usually get the homiletical outline while driving down the road, mowing the lawn, taking the shower, or sleeping. After studying the text in depth in my study, it is important for me to have an opportunity to step away and clear my head. During these times, the brain amazingly sorts and organizes material subconsciously (I’ve heard this is true and I believe it based upon my experience.). I sometimes have to hurry to find a pen and paper (or my Palm Pilot) in order to jot down the ideas that come to me at unexpected times. This is a good reason to start your sermon preparation early in the week. If you do so, you will have more time for your mind to digest the material that you are feeding it. The result will be a more carefully thought through sermon which has first become a part of who you are.

Although the outline may come to me at times when I am away from the desk, there are a few things which I do that often helps me to understand the point of the text and thus to break it down into more manageable portions. The first is by simply asking the question of what the text is about. This seems fairly simple, but sometimes in the course of study you start seeing only the trees and not the forest. After asking what the text is about, I then ask what the text says about what it is about. For example, Romans 5:1-5 is about justification. What does Romans 5:1 say about justification? It lists several benefits or privileges of justification. Asking those two simple question opens up the whole text and gives you both a title “The Benefits of Justification” and an outline (the various benefits listed). Another method I use to crack a text is to ask what the text reveals about Christ. Does it reveal something about God or man which makes Christ’s work necessary? Does it describe the person and work of Christ in some way? Does it show the results of Christ’s work? Another related question is to ask where the particular passage under consideration fits into the larger story of the Bible. Sometimes the best way to understand a passage is to back away from that passage and see it in light of the progress of redemption revealed in Scripture.

I try to make the wording of my major points parallel in some way. There should be some commonality grammatically such as the same basic word order (Ex. noun, verb, adjective, noun). I will try to use words that begin with the same letter or end similarly to show a cohesive structure and to increase the memorability of the key points of the sermon. I try not to be in bondage to alliteration (making key words start with the same letter), but that can be a helpful mnemonic device if it isn’t abused (as it often is). If you have to stretch the meaning of the text in order to use a word that starts with the same letter of your other points, then you’ve taken alliteration too far. An outline is useful as far as it allows me to focus my thoughts and the hearer to have a logical structure to follow.

In the next post, I will explain why, how and when I consult the commentaries. Future posts will focus on writing the manuscript, and preaching the sermon. Stay tuned . . .


  1. Spurgeon urged preachers to keep pen and paper continually with them for when the Spirit may open the meaning of a text to them, cross reference scriptures, etc.

    Good series

  2. And if you don’t have paper, napkins at restaraunts or good, too! Thanks for these words, they are very encouraging and reassuring in a time when expository preaching is talked about more than done.

  3. I am always happy to read more about your materials. the materials helps me alot in my studies at JETS in Nigeria. My field of studies is Biblical Studies (New Testament). Thank you Sir.

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