Discernment in an Undiscerning Age

Several months ago, we added another member to our family. Jack was a yellow Labrador puppy who lacked discernment. It didn’t seem to matter to Jack whether he was eating the inner sole of a shoe, a dirty sock, or the expensive dog food we had purchased for him. It all went down just the same. If a sock went missing, we’d sometimes find it again when Jack would cough it up on the kitchen floor. The reality of Proverbs 26:11 played out right before our eyes. It says, “Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who repeats his folly” (NASB). Thankfully, our socks and shoes are safe from Jack these days. He’s grown in size, weight and discernment.  

When it comes to making wise and sound judgments, the Bible speaks about the naïve and the fool. The naïve are like children who have not honed their senses to be able to discern what is harmful and what is not. The fool lacks sense because he may know what is harmful, but he still rushes into danger with little fear of the consequences. Both of these types of people, the naïve and the fool can be found in the world we live in, as well as in the Church.

Children and fools lack discernment. The former because of a lack of teaching, inexperience and immaturity. The latter lack it because they will not listen to their teachers, nor will they learn from their experience.

In the wisdom literature, it is the wise person who is discerning, while the transgressor and fool walk in darkness, unwilling to discern the way of the Lord. According to Hebrews 5:14, maturity comes when the senses are trained to discern through practice. This reference to practice is a clear reference to the “Word of righteousness,” the Scriptures (Heb. 5:13). Broadly speaking, this idea of discernment is closely connected to the concept of wisdom and as such is a major theme throughout Scripture.

So how does one grow in maturity so that they are not a naïve babe in their understanding? Hosea 14:9 says, “Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; Whoever is discerning, let him know them. For the ways of the Lord are right, And the righteous will walk in them, but transgressors will stumble in them” (NASB). This text speaks about the need for understanding and knowledge of the ways of the Lord. Knowing the ways of the Lord is necessary because they are just and righteous. Therefore, those who strive to be wise, must first know the ways of the Lord and then they must walk in those ways. This is wisdom and discernment. We cannot grow wise and mature in the Lord if we remain ignorant of the ways of the Lord as described in the Scriptures. One who is lacking discernment is this way because they do not avoid the ways that are not of the Lord and may even rush headlong into them. The one who transgresses the Law is the one who will stumble in many ways. He does not care to discern, and so is indiscriminate in how he walks in life.

Philippians 1:9-10 also connect the idea of knowledge and discernment. It says, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ” (NASB). Paul had seen the evidence of the love of the Philippian church, and he prays that it would abound more. But his prayer does not disconnect it from discernment, but rather includes knowledge and discernment so that the love of the Church is approved by God. Sincere and blameless love will be discerning and will withstand the day of Christ because it was not a foolish love of mixed or impure things. There are many people in the church that act as if discernment is unloving. They don’t like it when someone says that the book they are reading is from a false teacher, or that the song they love singing in church or listening to in their car in has bad, unbiblical theology. Like little children who see no problem playing in a pig sty, they want to continue blissfully ignorant of those things that oppose God, while still claiming that they do not themselves partake in the sins of those they promote. But discernment is not unloving. The truth is that willfully remaining undiscerning and immature and gullible to lies and deception is irresponsible and dangerous.

As mentioned above, Hebrews 5:14 speaks of solid doctrinal “food” that can be absorbed by the mature—those who have made it a practice to train themselves as to what is good and evil through their growing sense of discernment. Maturity is a product of discernment. The means to such maturity is knowledge and application of the Word of God. Bible reading is just the beginning, just like putting the food into your mouth is only a means for nourishment to be received into the body. We must begin by choosing the correct spiritual meals, but we must also make sure that it is digested and becomes fuel for the spiritual life through wise practice of the precepts and commandments of Scripture.

For Christians, discernment and wisdom are not spiritual options for a few believers, while all others can remain in a perpetual state of spiritual infancy. Rather, the natural course of spiritual life comes as the result of biblical discipleship that is required by the Great Commission when one teaches all that the Lord has commanded. All Christians are to hear and understand the Word of God, and then are to grow into maturity, which is marked by a proper practice in life that can process daily decisions, questions, dilemmas and scenarios through a biblical grid. This biblical framework of thought will allow the wise believer to narrow down his or her responses and come to one or more conclusions on how to act in a God-honoring way.

This, of course, takes time to develop. Nobody ever grows wise after hearing a few sermons or reading their Bible through one time. Discernment, as all spiritual and natural growth, is incremental and grows over time. A new Christian will have less discernment than a mature believer. The steps to growing in discernment and maturity are: 1. Growth in the knowledge and understanding of the Word, 2. Growth in application of the Word through the empowerment of the Spirit of God in several situations, 3. As success and failure comes in application or failure to apply the Word, the discerning Christian who seeks to grow in biblical maturity will add these successes and failures to his wealth of knowledge so that he can either repeat or avoid them in the future. This process is both linear and cyclical. It is linear in the sense that the steps need to happen in this order. But they are also cyclical in a process that must go through several repeated cycles in which former biblical lessons are built upon newer ones, and each layer of spiritual lessons contribute to a richer life of growing maturity. This process cannot be shortened, although it can be accelerated or slowed. This is what leads to a person who may be chronologically younger being quite mature beyond his or her years and an elderly person who still acts like a fool.

The poor spiritual state of the Church in many places lends itself to the fact that it is largely undiscerning. The Church’s inability to tell truth from error shows that it has lost its discernment. Like the loss of the human body’s immune system, the loss of discernment in the Church means that all sorts of wickedness and false teaching has come to roost in the pulpit of the Church all over the world. The root of this epidemic can be largely traced to the fact that the church has failed to clearly teach the Bible and doctrine. By skipping doctrine and teaching shallow sermons in a desire to rush to application and tips for living, the church has become poorly equipped to handle much of life through a biblical lens. What many have thought was the cure for moral ills has actually disarmed the Church to handle life in a truly biblical way. Additionally, the pablum of what is most popular in many pulpits has ill equipped our churches to handle the growing onslaught of false teaching. The only remedy is to return to a hearty, biblical pulpit that dispenses strong doses of the Spirit empowered Word of God. Watering down messages will only continue to exacerbate the problem as the spiritually starving in our churches continue to feast on cotton-candy sermons when they actually need to be satisfied with the meat of the Word. Warnings are needed, as are large doses of doctrinal lessons.

Where can we begin? First, by admitting our part in this epidemic that has resulted in the loss of discernment. Whether it is the pastor that has taught shallow sermons, the layman that has not spoken up when she is spiritually starving, or those that have purchased the best-selling Christian books that are full of spiritual poison. The reality is, if nobody listened to Joel Osteen, his ministry would die overnight. If nobody purchased Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling or Bethel Music, then they would never be given a chance to produce more of their products filled with bad theology. But the reality is that simple economics are why these books and music CD’s are carried in every retailer all over the world. 

Second, we must go beyond recognition of our own part to prayer. We need to ask the Lord to forgive us in as much as we have been a part of the problem. We need to pray that He will help us as we seek to discern what is edifying and what is not in our homes, churches and schools. We also need to be patient and to have a spirit of grace as those that are more mature guide the less mature into understanding and growing aware of the things that they have net previously seen. After all, who among us does not still need to grow in some area?

Where there is biblical discernment, the Scriptures will guide and direct us. Where it is lacking, another inferior source of authority will take the place of Scripture in informing our understanding. May we seek to live lives saturated by biblical thinking so that in all things, Christ will have preeminence.   

Fundamentalism, Modernism, and the Dangerous Middle (part 3)

In my last two posts (read them here and here), I laid out the danger of those that seek a middle ground between biblical fidelity (biblical fundamentalism) while also chasing acceptance by the liberal/modernist/progressive church and academy. Those that have sought acceptance in this way often find that they have made a deal with the devil that brings about either a theological slide, or forces them to abandon the hope of ecumenical cooperation because the stakes are too high.

These historical examples are worthless if we don’t stop and take some time to consider what this means for the situation in the church today. Certainly some of those that tried the middle ground and failed would warn us if they were still living (You can read about some of Billy Graham’s regrets here). So, how can history help and warn us?

Considerations for Today

I wish I could teach this subject as an odd historical lesson that we have learned from we should now move one, but we have not. Today the same faulty logic is being promoted among many conservative Christians, churches, and denominations. 

Consider how many Christians today do not think that doctrine is important, but only what one feels about Christ? How many evangelicals see Roman Catholicism as basically compatible with Protestant Christianity, and say things like, “We believe the same things and worship the same God.” This same false idea is spoken of by some regarding Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals, and other aberrations of historic Christianity. The whole Charismatic Movement is driven by emotions over doctrine.

Fearing that they would be seen as judgmental, many Christians are content to accept all that come in the name of Christianity without question. The results have been disastrous. London pastor Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones spoke in 1966 about the dangerous middle-ground that Christians in the 20th century were mired in regarding the idea that doctrine divides and we mustn’t judge people’s faith by what they believe:

I argue that people who do not believe the essentials of the faith, the things that are essential to salvation, cannot be guilty of schism. They are not in the church. If you do not believe a certain irreducible minimum, you cannot be a Christian, and you are not in the church. Have we reached a time when one must not say a thing like that? Have evangelicals so changed that we no longer make an assertion like that?[1]

–D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Seeing what was on the horizon of the theological compromise in America, J. Gresham Machen said in 1924:

Paganism has made many efforts to disrupt the Christian faith, but never a more insistent or insidious effort than it is making today. There are three possible attitudes which you may take in the present conflict. In the first place, you may stand for Christ. That is the best. In the second place, you may stand for anti-Christian Modernism. That is next best. In the third place, you may be neutral. That is perhaps worst of all. The worst sin today is to say that you agree with the Christian faith and believe in the Bible, but then make common cause with those who deny the basic facts of Christianity. Never was it more obviously true that he that is not with Christ is against Him.[2]

–J. Gresham Machen

I certainly agree that the Bible speaks against a brawling, pugnacious spirit (1Tim 3:3; Titus 1:7). This is good and true, but the Bible also calls us to fight for some things, including doctrine (1Tim 1:18-20; 6:12; 1Cor 10:4-6). This is the basis or our spiritual war.

Like the modernists who followed Friedrich Schleiermacher, many in conservative Christian churches affirm his idea that Christianity is less about what you believe and more about what you feel in your heart. This dangerous idea sets the stage for the outright rejection of all orthodox doctrines of our faith. We are seeing the ravages of this idea among our young people leaving the faith because they have no doctrinal anchors for their souls. They are adrift upon a sea of subjectivity and the church has aided that.

Today, the church and denominations often function like big money corporations that are very slow to change and reluctant to put at risk the surface sense of unity for fear of putting at jeopardy the large amount of financial giving that benefits it. Because of this, “statesman” leaders arise within the church and denomination that seek to walk the middle ground and keep peace among all parties. This is a long cry from Jesus words:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. (Matthew 5:10–13 (ESV) 

Many have lost their saltiness because they refuse to suffer hardship, persecution, and being reviled for their faith. The middle ground has proven to be not only ineffective, but deadly. May the Lord raise up more courageous Christians who are not afraid to speak up for truth, even if it may cost them friends and influence in this life.


[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Evangelical Unity: An Appeal,” in Knowing the Times, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 254.

[2] Quoted in Beale, 159.

Fundamentalism, Modernism, and the Dangerous Middle (part 2)

In my last post, I laid out an abbreviated history of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy and a working definition of what I mean by fundamentalism. You can read my first part here. In part 2, I will give two historical examples of why this middle ground is a dangerous compromise for those that desire to stay true to the biblical doctrines. My final post will address some considerations for what this means in the Church today.

Seeking the Middle with New Evangelicalism

Around the time of the establishment of the World Council of Churches, the inauguration of a new movement was underway. Seeking to leave the separatistic fundamentalism that seemed to be more insulated from the world, conservative evangelical men such as Charles Fuller, Carl F. H. Henry, E.J. Carnell, Harold Lindsell, Harold J. Ockenga, and Billy Graham sought to influence the liberal denominations and scholars while still maintaining conservative evangelical doctrine through what they called “new evangelicalism.” All these men held to fundamental doctrine but felt that more needed to be done to reunite the churches, win back the denominations, and engage the liberal church.

The New Evangelical movement established (among other things) Fuller Theological Seminary (1947), the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (1950), and Christianity Today magazine (1956). Graham sought a kinder, gentler evangelicalism as evidenced in his vision for Christianity Today, a magazine begun by Graham and his father-in-law Nathan Bell. Of CT, Graham said, “It was my vision that the magazine be pro-church and pro-denomination and that it become the rallying point of evangelicalism within and without the large denominations.”[1] Over time, and under the influence of Dr. Bell, Graham had moved from separating from apostate denominations to seeking their approval and cooperation in hopes of winning them back to conservative theology.

This also proved true for Graham’s crusades as well. In 1957, the year after CT was launched, Graham held his famous New York crusade in Manhattan where he fully broke with his fundamentalist roots and connections by cooperating with “a group that was predominantly non-evangelical and even included out-and-out modernists. It also meant sending converts back to their local churches, no matter how liberal those churches might be.”[2] Iain Murray notes that newspapers at the time of the crusade reported Graham saying, “We’ll send them to their own churches—Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish…The rest is up to God.”[3]

The mindset of new evangelicalism was such that if evangelical Christians could shed their embarrassing fundamentalism and its unwillingness to bend, then liberalism would be willing to let them sit at the table as equals. As someone has said this “deal with the devil” was such that if conservatives would call liberals “Christians,” then liberals would call conservatives “scholars.” 

Church historian George Marsden observes, “ Such successes in culturally influential religious circles were leading Graham toward the conviction that he could make marvelous inroads into America’s major denominations if he could jettison the disastrous fundamentalist image of separatism, anti-intellectualism, and contentiousness.”[4] That Graham was in fact moving in this direction is made abundantly clear in a letter written by Graham to Harold Lindsell, then a professor as Fuller Seminary, regarding Graham’s vision for Christianity Today, to “plant the evangelical flag in the middle of the road, taking a conservative theological position but a definite liberal approach to social problems. [Christianity Today] would combine the best in liberalism and the best in fundamentalism without compromising theologically.”[5]

Fuller Seminary, BGEA, and Christianity Today stand as the most obvious examples of this failed philosophy, and today each of them stand as a testimony to the bankruptcy of the idea that one can seek a middle ground without compromising, and the eventual theological slide is clearly seen not only upon these institutions, but upon evangelicalism today.

Seeking the Middle within Presbyterianism

This challenge to historic Christianity happened across denominational lines. Another important example of this was in the Presbyterian Church U.S. denomination (not to be confused with the later PCUSA denomination that emerged from it). The flagship school of the PCUS for many years was Princeton Seminary, and as other schools, it was deeply affected by the incursion of theological liberalism in its faculty. Among the few remaining conservative professors stood J. Gresham Machen, professor of New Testament. Seeing the influx of liberalism into Christianity as a whole, Machen wrote in his book Christianity and Liberalism (1923) that “it may appear that what the liberal theologian has retained after abandoning to the enemy one Christian doctrine after another is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category.” In other words, liberalism is not Christianity at all, but another religion altogether.

This stand for orthodox Christian doctrine at Princeton came to a head with the denomination and faculty in 1924-1925, when the Auburn Affirmation was signed by 1,274 ministers in the PCUS. The Affirmation made it clear that the fundamentals of the faith (particular the first five listed from page 1 of my notes) did not need to be affirmed by PCUS candidates for ordination. This allowed for new ministers to deny these core doctrines privately while being ordained for ministry, so long as they subscribed to the Bible and Westminster Confession of Faith.

Conservative in theology but seeking a middle road for the sake of unity, Charles R. Erdman, professor of theology at Princeton, sided with the so-called moderates in the PCUS General Assembly and created a peace commission to “study” the issue. The commission was to be made up of liberals and conservatives, but only conservatives that sought peace above all else.[6] Erdman himself was Premillennial, a Bible conference speaker, and a contributor to The Fundamentals. But all of these didn’t matter when it came to his alliances. Seeking the middle ground, Erdman held the door for liberals to walk in and overtake the denomination and seminary without question. As fundamentalist Ernest Pickering wrote, “This new evangelicalism approaches the liberal bear with a bit of honey instead of a gun.”[7]

Realizing that the PCUS was apostate and lost to modernism, Machen and the remaining conservative faculty members left and began Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA in 1929. In 1936 he began the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) denomination after being suspended by the PCUS regarding his establishment of an independent mission board that only supported conservative missionaries. The establishment of a new denomination and separation from the PCUS came at great personal cost to Machen who lost many friends for his abandonment of the PCUS. Was Machen overreacting? He didn’t think so. He wrote, “It is no wonder, then, that liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.”[8] Machen saw his actions as contending for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).


[1] Billy Graham, Just as I Am, (London: Harper Collins, 1997), 291.

[2] George Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 162.

[3] Murray, 29, fn. 2.

[4] Marsden, 159.

[5] Ibid., 158.

[6] David O. Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850 (Greenville, SC: Unusual Publications, 1986), 158.

[7] Murray, 31.

[8] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1923), 67.

Fundamentalism, Modernism, and the Dangerous Middle (part 1)

In the 2017 World War II movie, The Darkest Hour, Winston Churchill cries out in frustration, “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” Although these words are more than likely an artistic embellishment for cinema, they do fairly sum up Churchill’s frustration with the policies of Neville Chamberlain that sought to appease Adolph Hitler by ignoring his aggressions in Europe. Chamberlain truly believed that by signing the Munich Agreement and giving the Sudetenland to Germany along with Hitler’s promise not to continue invading other nations, that Europe would be saved. Chamberlain famously came home and declared that they he had achieved “peace for our time.” Chamberlain thought Hitler was a misunderstood man, when he was in fact the blood-thirsty tiger that would never be satisfied. Churchill understood this and knew that war was the only way to stop him.

The notion of appeasement is not only shared among politicians. Unfortunately, in a world that requires vigilance and sometimes engagement in theological battles, there are those who would seek appeasement and compromise for the sake of “peace in our time.” But as I hope to demonstrate with some examples from recent history, appeasement, and compromise in the face of theological liberalism are always the easier route, but they never achieve the promise they claim.

Setting the Stage: The Fundamentalist and Modernist Controversy

To be clear, we need to understand that prior to the mid-19th century, “evangelical” was synonymous with “fundamentalism.” All Christians who identified with the evangel, the gospel message of Christ, were “evangelicals.” Fundamentalism was a movement that derived its name from those evangelical Christians that sought unity across denominational lines but were committed to certain “fundamental” doctrines that have been accepted by historic Christianity. The number of these fundamentals varied at times, but they almost always included:

  1. The inerrancy of Scripture
  2. The virgin birth of Christ
  3. The substitutionary vicarious atonement of Christ
  4. The bodily resurrection of Christ
  5. The reality of miracles
  6. The imminent and physical return of Christ

Fundamentalists stated that a person had to minimally ascribe to these core doctrines to be within the historic Christian Church because a denial of these doctrines often leads to a wholesale denial of the faith. Modernists (theological liberals), on the other hand, wanted to focus not on the content of belief, but rather the feeling or spirit of Christianity. By denying the need to subscribe to core doctrines of the faith, they could cover the fact that they denied many or all of them, while still insisting they were a part of the Christian church and represented Christianity.

Fundamentalism rejected this minimalistic and emotion drive religion as inadequate at best, and heretical at worst. Several courageous defenders rose up in obedience to Scripture’s call to purify the church:

  • 2 John 9–11 (ESV): “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.”
  • Galatians 1:8–9 (ESV): “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
  • 1 Timothy 6:20–21 (ESV): “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. Grace be with you.”

By the middle of the 19th century, theological liberalism has already entered almost all mainline denominations. This was possible because liberal theologians subscribed to the biblical creeds of their denominations and institutions while at the same time teaching non-evangelical theology. Following German liberal Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), modernists asserted that Christianity was not primarily about doctrine, but rather a “feeling, intuition and experience.”[1] As such, Schleiermacher set the stage for the setting aside of doctrine in favor of a Christianity that affirmed a faith based upon feelings and experiences.

Along with the growth of liberal Christianity came a desire to put aside doctrinal differences among different denominations to bring unity around an ecumenical spirit. This led to the establishment of the World Council of Churches in 1948, made up of “churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior.”[2] That brief doctrinal statement was all that was required of those joining the WCC, and none were required to expand on what they meant by those words.

Often portrayed as ignorant, uneducated, backwards, anti-science, and anti-progressive by liberals, and “fighting fundamentalists,” uncharitable, ungracious, and divisive, by evangelicals, the fundamentalists stood their ground and called the church to put out of its churches, missions agencies, educational institutions, and para-church organizations all those that were unfaithful to Christ and His Word. But not everyone within evangelicalism agreed with them, thinking there was a better way—a middle way.

My next post will highlight two examples of this attempt to navigate a middle way.


[1] Iain H. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), 5.

[2] Murray, 3

Help for New Expositors: How to Find the Main Idea for Preaching (part 3)

In my last two blogposts (which can be found here and here), I walked the reader through the process of becoming familiar with the preaching text to the point where you should have a solid grasp upon what the preaching text says, although you still might not be sure how to preach it or organize the sermon.

The next step is to form the preaching proposition, sometimes called the “big idea.” That’s easier said than done, and a lot of well-meaning teachers assume that finding the proposition comes naturally. If it doesn’t come naturally to you, then you aren’t alone and I’ll try to help you here. Now, I need to say that if you haven’t first done all of the exegesis that I mentioned in my last two posts, then you won’t be able to do this, or you may come up with a preaching proposition, but it may not be the main idea of the text or accurately reflect the author’s meaning. Be the approved workman and don’t be ashamed that you preached a sermon that doesn’t reflect the meaning of your text.

Before we go down this road, some of you might be wondering, what is a proposition? In simplest terms, a proposition is a statement or assertion. So, a preaching proposition is a statement that you are making about your text that you are going to explain or prove. Some examples might be: “Jesus Christ is the Son of God” or “We are no longer under the Mosaic Law, but under the Law of Christ.” A “plural noun” preaching proposition would include a plural noun, and is probably familiar for anyone that has heard a sermon. Some examples of these might be: “Three Reasons Why Jesus Christ is the Son of God” and “Four Proofs that We are Not Under the Mosaic Law.” As you might be able to see, these examples of plural noun propositions are different forms of the same statement made earlier, and the content of the explanation would be the same, although each sermon might be organized differently.

Forming the Preaching Proposition

I’m going to walk through several steps to reach a preaching proposition. These steps are heavily influenced by a chapter in Wayne McDill’s book 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching. If you need more help, I’d recommend you pick up this book.

  1. Write out the main subject of the text you have studied in one word. For example, if you were preaching 1 Cor. 13, you might write down, “Love.” This I can be hard to do because it requires that you crystalize your thoughts from study down to this one idea. Don’t give yourself more words. Limit it to one word only. This will assure that you are certain about the main idea of the text.
  2. Next, find a word that clarifies and narrows your one word main idea. For our example, “love,” you need to narrow down this large subject. Does 1 Cor. 13 speak about romantic love, brotherly love, Jesus’ love, marital love? How about “Christian love?” That fits. Let’s move on.
  3. Write out a sentence that includes the two words you chose from steps one and two. We can consider this a sermon title, or maybe something you’d put on a church sign. Make this a single sentence or phrase only. How about, “What Christian love looks like?” Sounds good.
  4. In this step you will need to expand your sentence again, using the same two key words (for our example, “love” and “Christian”). This time, you will write a sentence that includes what I’ll call “Bible dress.” This refers to the human author, his audience, and the scenario that is taking place in the context. Make sure it is only one sentence again. For our example, we might write about 1 Cor. 13: “Paul is concerned that the Corinthians are failing to show Christian love to each other and so he teaches them what this looks like.” Notice how we have the writer, audience, and even a little about the context (failing to show…”). This could of course be expanded to refer to the greater argument of chapters 12-14, and we could mention the place of spiritual gifts involved. But hold back the need to include so many details because we are only trying to get a crystalized summary for now–the details will come out as we unpack our proposition in the sermon.
  5. Now we are going to do a little trimming. We need to figure out what we want to leave in the last sentence because it is universally true, and what we want to remove because it is contextually true, but doesn’t fit our context. This new sentence will be stripped of the Bible dress (context, specifics, etc.) so that it becomes a universally true statement for today. For our example, it might look something like this: “God is concerned when the Church fails to show Christian love and He shows us what it should look like.” Notice that I replaced “Paul” with “God” because God is also the Author, and I replaced “Corinthians” with “Church” because the Scriptures written to the Corinthian church were also written to be applied to the whole church. Is this new sentence universally true and unbound by time and context? I’d say, yes! Let’s move ahead.
  6. Now, we are going to change our sentence into a questions: “God is concerned when the Church fails to show Christian love and He shows us what it should look like” becomes “What happens when the Church fails to show Christian love, and what should it look like?” We turn this into a question to test our propositional statement. Can we find the answer in our text? If not, we have made a mistake somewhere and need to go back and see where we went off track. If we can find the answers to our question in our text, we got it right. Make sure you choose the right words to form the question: Who, what, where, when, why, or how?
  7. Next, we will look for those answers in the text by choosing an appropriate plural noun–if we asked “Why?” we might find “reasons” in our passage. Maybe we will find steps, examples, reasons, examples, ways, proofs, thoughts, questions, prayers, solutions, etc. For our 1 Corinthians 13 passage, we might choose “Ways:” “Ways the Church fails to show Christian love, and what it should look like.” Another possibility might be, “Ways the Church fails to show Christian love, and Ways we can love like Christ would.” When we find these “ways” in our text, this makes up our outline and gives us the number of “ways.” We might find Four ways the Church fails to show Christian love, and Five ways we can love like Christ.” Each “Way” would be a sermon point, and with each point we would prove our propositional statement and explain the text before us. At this point, we might even see that we have two sermons here and would break it into two sections to be presented at two different times.

Why are we doing all this? I want you to understand a couple of things that are important. First, take your time to craft these sentences–refining your word choices so that you have clarity and an economy of words. But it is also important to know that this is a process, and so you don’t need to worry too much about each sentence being perfect. If you need to, go back and adjust if something doesn’t quite fit. Secondly, the reason for this process is to make sure that the preaching proposition is firmly based upon the text and its meaning. We are sticking with the heart of the text (the subject and its modifier) and building upon it, instead of what many preachers do–start with a sermon idea and find a text to make it say what they want.

Although this process does take a lot of time and effort, the results are satisfying and assure you that you are basing your conclusions on the text of the Word. take your time and learn to develop the skills needed to do it right, and over time it will become easier and you will move much faster through the steps. Of course, when we have the propositional statement we aren’t done. We still need to come up with an introduction, conclusion, illustrations, applications and transitional statements. But the meat of the sermon is now outlined and we are well on our way to preaching a biblically centered expositional sermon. Congratulations!