Second Reformed Church

Friday, February 21, 2014

Review: "How Sermons Work"

How Sermons Work by David Murray is a primer on how to write and preach sermons.  Murray explains that he wrote this book to aid seminary students, elders who preach, preachers who are looking for a refresher course, for all those who teach the Bible, and, perhaps mostly, for the average congregant to help him understand what the pastor goes through in using his heart and head to prepare the sermon that he hears (9-10).

I find it hard to believe – in my context – that I could get anyone to read this book.  The impression I have is that they don’t care so my as want it to be shorter and shorter still.

Murray begins by talking about what men are called to preach (ch 1).  Then he explains how to choose a text and the importance of varying texts in a preaching schedule (ch 2).  From there he explains how a text is exegeted – amidst prayer (ch 3).

Murray rightly emphasizes that sermon preparation is not merely skill, but reliance upon the Holy Spirit for understanding, preparation, delivery, and effect of the sermon.  I question his stating that with all the a pastor has to do, sermon preparation has to be limited to 8 to 10 hours (38).  It seems to me that the Scripture supports preaching being the primary work of the pastor, and it should take primary amounts of time.

In the fourth chapter, he explains the value of varying sermons among the Old Testament, Gospels, and Epistles – and I would add, as someone who preaches through books – between shorter and longer books.  He also looks at different types of sermons – apologetic, controversial, practical, etc.

In the fifth chapter, the pastor is ready to begin writing the introduction.  He explains what an introduction is not and should not include and how different types of introductions may be constructed.

In the sixth, he organizes the sermon and stresses simplicity relative to the congregation one is preaching to – as a sermon is not a seminary paper and the preacher wants to have God’s Word exegeted remembered and practiced.

Murray continues the organization of the sermon in the seventh chapter, looking at the use of types of words as well as styles of presentation – historical, apologetic, questions, etc.

Then he moves to application in the eighth chapter showing that the application is necessary to the sermon, or the people will walk away with nothing and change nothing in their lives.  He explains that we ought address the practical part of the sermon to “you” – the congregation – something I agree with and was taught never to do in seminary!  He ends this chapter arguing that the sermon must be Christ-centered – always connecting to Christ and His Gospel in order for it to be a true sermon.  The pastor will do this in different ways and to different degrees, depending on the text, but preaching on David and Goliath, for example, with no reference to Christ, will likely become moralism which one could get from a preaching of the text by any religion.

The ninth chapter continues the application by looking at twenty different ways one might apply the text.  He presents each of the methods, then gives a short scriptural example and a corresponding sermon example.  This is very helpful in understanding what he is suggesting.

The final chapter looks at preaching the sermon itself.  He begins by arguing that the pastor ought to be right with God before he ascends the pulpit – he ought to be in prayer before, during, and after the sermon – first praying the sermon to oneself for correction and repentance.  He argues that the pastor ought to preach like himself (not mimicking another), standing aright, speaking clearly, passionately – believing what he is preaching, plainly that he might be understood.  He argues that one should be minimally tied to paper that he might me focused on God and the congregation, though as one who uses a full manuscript, I would argue that some have need for a full manuscript for a variety of reasons, and one can learn and practice to become interactive with a manuscript.

I find this a very good primer – it was encouraging to me and re-emphasized areas that I need to work more on, and some that I hadn’t been doing – such as praying for the work of the Holy Spirit on the congregation after I return home – which makes sense to me.

As I said in the beginning, I’m not sure anyone in my congregation would be willing to take up Murray’s book to understand what goes into sermon preparation, but I do think it is valuable for those who preach.


My one other comment is that I find it very curious that, despite having references for many of his quotes, he has an equal amount of quotes which are not referenced.  For example, on page 107, he quotes Al Martin, but there is no footnote as to where this comes from – and this occurs through out the book.  It concerns me that so many quotes are left unreferenced, not just legally, but there were times I wanted to follow up by reading more of a text, and there was no reference to follow.

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