Most preaching seems to be done from a full outline of what is to be preached, or a printed manuscript of the entire sermon. Preaching without notes is to enter the pulpit with only a Bible -- no notes, manuscript or predetermination of what will be said. In his book A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, John Broadus asks, "How can a man pray that God will guide him through a forest, when he has already blazed the entire path, and committed himself to follow it?"
What it is not (or ought not be).
Preaching without notes is not preaching without preparation. Some who preach without notes advocate preaching without any preparation whatsoever. If they mean by this not preparing an outline or manuscript, I agree. If they mean by this not studying the bible, I emphatically disagree! No man should enter the pulpit without prayer (Acts 6:4) and Bible study (II Tim. 2:15). Both of these are commanded by God. God by His Holy Spirit will direct a man of God in what to say, but failure to pray and study the Bible is disobedience and presumption -- not faith.
Preaching without notes is not inspired preaching. In the early days of the church, God inspired men to preach, prophesy and write correctly without any mixture of error. No preacher today has that kind of inspiration. But we do have the Bible and the divine guidance by the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. Though a preacher cannot speak with inspired apostolic authority, he can speak for God from the Bible as he is guided by the Holy Spirit.
Preaching without notes is not memorizing a manuscript and reciting it. It is extemporaneous preaching -- preaching with a head full of study, a heart full of prayer, a spirit full of confidence in God seeking the divine guidance of the moment to bring the message of God rather than the message the preacher wants.
What it is (or ought to be).
Preaching without notes is preaching following the New Testament example. No example can be found of Jesus Christ, His apostles or preachers speaking while reading notes, outlines or manuscripts. Shouldn't biblical Christians prefer to develop the style of preaching found in the Bible?
Preaching without notes is liberating to the preacher. It frees his mind from following his own predetermined course. It allows for the principle that the Spirit helps us with our preaching. It even frees the preacher's eyes from a written page and allows him to look up at his hearers rather than down at a page.
Preaching without notes is consistent with the call to preach. Preaching is of divine appointment (I Tim. 1:12; II Tim. 1:11; et al.). Most anyone can read a manuscript, and with training most people can arrange an orderly discourse. If preaching is no more than that, why is there a divine call and gift to preach?
Preaching without notes is practical. Preaching without notes is adaptable to all times and situations. Preaching with notes or manuscript may be done only when one has previously prepared. If called on unexpectedly, the noted preacher must frequently decline. But we are to be instant out of season as well as in season, always ready to give an answer to any man at any time.
"I might forget what I want to say." Certainly you might. If I forget something I want to say and say something God wants said instead, we will be none the worse.
"By using notes I can organize my thoughts, as well as control the length of the sermon." Yes, but it was not organization of thought, but the power of the Holy Spirit that blessed Peter's sermon on the Day of Pentecost. God never emphasized organization and education -- but yield to Me and preach My Word.
"I know godly men who preach with notes and have been blessed of God in their work." Yes, I agree. In July of 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon titled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. He reputedly stood motionless in the pulpit, holding a candle in his right hand and his sermon manuscript in his left hand. As he read, he was interrupted by outcries -- some sinners fell to the floor, some clung to the church pillars fearing they might slip into Hell. Yet if we reason that we should use a manuscript because Edwards did, we could also reason that we should become Protestants because Edwards was. God will do as He pleases. But we should seek the best light we have and obey it.
Scriptures that might apply.
One cluster of scriptures often submitted to the discussion are: Matthew 10:19-20; Mark 13:10-11; Luke 12:11-12; & Luke 21:12-15. "It is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost." A careful examination shows that they have a more specific application than a pastor preaching to his flock. Those who were delivered up to the authorities would have words given to speak by the Holy Ghost without having taken any forethought as to how they would respond to the charges. Yet these passages can yield to us a principle of God speaking through His people in this age. Matthew 10:19-20 applies this principle to the limited commission to the church during Christ's earthly ministry; Luke 21:12-15 applies it to the destruction of Jerusalem and possibly the time before Christ's return; Mark 13:10-11 applies it to the time preceding the coming of Christ; Luke 12:11-12 speaks in broader and more general terms. Therefore a principle of God giving words to speak to His people runs the gamut of the church age.
A few have suggested Luke 24:29 (Tarry ye...until ye be endued with power from on high) in connection with preaching without notes. Though power from on high is needed in our preaching, this verse refers to what would transpire on the day of Pentecost.
Some of Paul's passing remarks concerning his preaching have some import on the matter. "...the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe." I Cor. 1:21. "And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power." I Cor. 2:4. "For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God..." II Cor. 10:4. It is inevitable that it must be admitted that arranging notes, outlines and preparing manuscripts (as well as the theories of proper speech, pulpit manner, etc.) arise from the wisdom of men rather than biblical precept and example. Preaching is not considered foolishness when it meets the required forms and procedures of modern speech. Practically the same materials are found in secular colleges and universities as in seminaries concerning how to prepare and deliver speeches/sermons. Let it be admitted that these materials and methods are drawn from secular sources, and it is therein admitted that carnal rather than spiritual weapons have been chosen. "Which things we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth..." I Cor. 2:13.
Another implication for preaching without notes is the evidence of the sermons of the New Testament, especially the book of Acts. The sermons are lacking the telltale signs of the modern sermon. None have a title, and can hardly be understood to have developed from an outline format reminiscent of modern scholarship.
I Peter 4:10-11 clearly identifies speaking as a gift from God entrusted to stewards to use to minister to others. It is this God-given gift that separates preaching from other forms of oratory. "Without the power of the Spirit, human rhetoric accomplishes nothing of eternal value." (Jarred Edgecombe) If scriptural spiritual preaching can be arrived at by exclusively human means (such as homiletics, speech classes, practice, imitation, etc.) do we not nullify the need of a God-given gift?
Many honest and godly men put in much time studying and preparing sermons. By doing so, they learn much and have something to say to their congregations. On the other hand, sermon preparation can degenerate into studying sermons in order to speak to others, rather than studying the Bible for God to speak to us. In the hands of some, sermons sink into the mire of catchy titles, strange stories, amazing outlines, unbelievable alliteration, and a host of other attention-getting gimmicks.
Preaching without notes is not without its abusers. Some lazy preachers use it as an "easy-out". They excuse their slothfulness, refusal to study the Bible, and neglect of improvement and hard work with an insincere "God will give me something to say." But God abhors laziness, and the Bible commends labour, diligence, and perseverance.
Profitable preaching without notes is possible through frequent study of God's Word, much time spent in prayer, and openness to the leadership of God's Spirit. It is thoroughly biblical, as well as quite practical. May we search and see whether this be so.
(Originally printed in The Baptist Waymark)