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Jonathan Master (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of theology and dean of the School of Divinity at Cairn University. He is also director of Cairn’s Center for University Studies. Dr. Master serves as executive editor of Place for Truth and is co-chair of the Princeton Regional Conference on Reformed Theology.

Article by Tim Bertolet

Writing the Sermon and the Use of Systematic Theology

September 25, 2015 •

Not many of us will have the privilege and the opportunity in our lives to write out an entire systematic theology. However, because the Christian life is built on doctrine (starting with the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord), we all have need and use to understand the whole counsel of God, a systematic theology. Nowhere is the need for systematic theology often lacking in our day then in the preparation and writing of a sermon.

First, I whole heartedly believe that a sermon should be exegetical. It should derive from the text of Scripture and make the text plain. It is not a wandering lecture into the minutia that sometimes thrives in academia. However, no individual ever approaches the Scriptures as a blank slate. Your present understanding of the Word of God and all that it says will shape the way you read the text. We must always be willing to bend our minds and doctrinal understanding to the text itself and not the reverse of bending the text to our doctrine. Yet faithfulness to the Word of God entails letting Scripture interpret Scripture.

The pastor must rely on informing systematic and biblical doctrine as he writes his sermon. Let us consider some practical applications of what this looks like.

(1) The preacher is not saying anything new. A good rule of thumb when you are preaching a passage is if you find some truth in the text that no one has ever found before it would be wise to rethink your approach the text. Of course, we may find some new or unique application of the text to our lives that we have personally never considered but in preaching we are passing on the faith that has been handed down to the saint once for all. This is a particular challenge to us in our twenty-first century American context. We live in a world that cherish the new and the innovative. In certain circles the models for the pastor comes more from the upstart entrepreneur or the radical innovator. The pastor becomes more of a guru spouting of creative new ideas designed to impress, inspire imaginations, and generate ‘momentum’. Creativity and originality become prized more than the passing on timeless wisdom and digging deep into the whole counsel of God. In this respect, consider what your goal and calling really is. Writing the sermon is like traveling well laid paths that the saints who have gone before have travelled.

(2) The pastor should write his sermon in such a way that it is informed by systematic theology. We can never say all that we might want to say in one single sermon. I often cram too much into one sermon and explore every little rabbit trail. Nevertheless, while we cannot say everything in one sermon, what we do say is magnified when it has the weight of the whole of Scripture behind it. For example, the pastor might write out one sentence related to a particular text, but in his private devotion and study it will be good for him to have informing theology behind it. Think of it like an iceberg: your people will only see the small amount on the surface, but you are accountable to preach the whole counsel of God and weight is brought to the sermon by the whole mass of the iceberg that is yet under the water.

(3) Encourage believers to engage not only with the text but the whole of Scripture. In my first pastorate, I had a friend and congregant who had one of the most inquisitive minds I have encountered. He approach me on his way out the door and say something like “Pastor you said this, but how does that fit over here with this?” He would then lay out several texts of Scripture. This man had a passion to understand things in light of the whole. This kept me on my toes as a pastor. I may not have written a systematic theology but foundations of it were laid down in this man’s life because of our engagement.

(4) Writing a systematically informed sermon can temper rhetorical flourish. I am not opposed to good rhetoric in a sermon. Sometimes things in a sermon need to be said in a way that will awaken the heart of a listener or drive home a certain point. But sometimes rhetorical flourish can get the better of us. For example, on occasion I have heard a pastor say, “God loves us more than his own Son because he sent the Son to die for us.” The pastor was trying to so emphasize God’s love that God sent the Son of God to die for us. Yet, such a flourish of rhetoric, would not have been indulged if this preacher had allowed systematic theology to temper his sermon. The intra-Trinitarian love has no comparison. God did not curse the Son because he loves us more. The point is, every pastor has said something he later regrets, or looks back and wishes he had added a particular nuance. In the process of writing one’s sermon, running what we intend to say through a grid of systematic theology can save us later embarrassment.

Some basic question one might ask in your preparation: (1) Does what I say anywhere contradict other passages of Scripture? (2) Does what I say show that it is informed by a system of doctrine and good theology? (3) Are my applications driven not only by the immediate text, but the whole counsel of God? (4) Do I make an open ended statements that might appear to violate good theology if taken a certain way? (5) In light of what I am about to preach, are then any questions of a systematic nature that might arise? Would they be helpful to the listener to briefly answer?

True, the pastor does not write a systematic theology text every week. But the pastor does write a systematically informed sermon every week. A long term goal of a preacher's preaching should be to build people’s understanding of systematic theology and bring the whole counsel of the Word of God to them. Each sermon then, needs to bring elements of systematic theology to bear in our exposition, the doctrines it contains, and the applications it drives home.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as Interim Pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.

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