Thursday, March 05, 2009

Scriptural preaching, without notes

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.

Some objections.
“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 these 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)


Stephen Garrett said...

Dear Brother Vaughn:

I agree.

I read Broadus' book many years ago.

Most good extempore preachers have an outline already in their minds.

God bless,


Will Fitzgerald said...


There was much good to read in this essay, and I'm very glad you wrote it. And I believe deeply that every preacher and teacher should carefully consider the leading of the Spirit even as they preach or teach.

It seems to me, though, that it is not of place, as one is studying and praying, one can be thinking of one's audience and needs and how the word they might need to hear, and, relying on the leading of the Spirit, to 'taking notes' that one could bring into the pulpit. I typically type out my teachings, partly because that is the way my mind works. I certainly don't read them, and sometimes I only have an outline. I do glance down at my words some, but I don't think this is a big obstacle.

I have another reason to do so--although our fellowship is small, several members are unable, due to heath or work duties, to come on many Sundays. Sending them out to folks via email has been a useful thing (and it's something that we put on our website and even Facebook).

Still, these notes are just a tool, and if the tool gets in the way, it should be discarded. We are not there to show off our erudition or even our ability to write a decent English sentence, but to bring the good news of Jesus.

Again, I'm very grateful for this essay, especially its irenic spirit (which I've come to expect from you). It helps me to understand some of my brothers and sisters better, and it is a good admonition to "preach... 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."

R. L. Vaughn said...


I wrote this several years ago, and decided to post it on the blog. I still agree with what I wrote, but it limited and doesn't cover the full scope of the subject. I certainly do not intend to go on an "anti-" campaign against those who use notes, or study for a particular lesson.

What I find particularly objectionable is not the writing down of notes or thoughts, but that it seems to me that a lot of what goes on in the pulpit is more about the speaker than the hearers. Preaching should not be about devising a cunning format, or delivering a stunning discourse. It should be about communicating the truth of the gospel and God's word. If someone uses notes they made while studying to communicate God's Word, I think that is pretty far removed from what I object to most.

Plus, I am still studying and considering these things. For example, when I read the sermons of the apostles in Acts, I see no verse-by-verse studies, nor what in area would be called an expository sermon. But most of their communication was designed to communicate Jesus and the resurrection to those who did not know Him. Perhaps we should make a difference between that form of communication and that of gathered believers deliberately coming together to study together God's Word. For example, taken to an extreme, what I wrote in this post might condemn a planned verse by verse study through a book of the Bible. I do not intend to do that.

I will be glad to hear more of your and others' thoughts on this matter.

Will Fitzgerald said...

It's good to read the context in which you wrote this, and I didn't take you to go to an extreme at all.

As it happens, Mt 10 came up for commentary this morning on a simple desire, and I pointed people to your essay.

I also tried to be much less dependent on my 'notes' this Sunday, for what it is worth, but I'm not sure I would call it a success. Which is not to say much; I already knew I wasn't an apostle :) Mostly, it reminds me how much there is to learn.

Ralph Dale said...

Dear bro Vaughn,

I enjoyed your article on Scriptural preaching without notes. I personally do not like the practice of announcing a title and topic by preachers before they preach. It seems to me that titles are for giving a speech not for preaching the gospel.

Ralph Dale

Anonymous said...

My question is this? Why can't God prepare me a week in advance of preaching as much as prepare me in the pulpit? Is God limited in advance kowledge of who will be listening?

I always think of the preacher who arrived at morning service only to discover he forgot his sermon notes. He said, "I forgot my notes this morning. I shall have to trust the Lord, but I will be better prepared this evening...."

I always have a sermon title, and I always have sermon notes from which I preach. I write my sermons out in full, in point form and often aliterated. I believe God fully expects us to use all the telents He has blessed us with to reach the people.

This is not to say we cannot preach on a moments notice without prior preparation. These sistuations do arise from time to time, but still no excuse for failing to properly prepare in advance.

If I should appear bofore my students unprepared for a lecture, I should expect some ridicule, and deservedly so. So much more when we stand before a congregation expecting God's word to be fully preached.

The Holy Spirit gets blamed for a lot of man's failures, and preaching is no exception.

There is nothing mystical about being prepared. God expects it os us, no He demands it of us. We are to preach as if it all depends on us, knowing full well, it all depends on Him.

Following Luthers admonition: Stand up! speak up! Shut up!



R. L. Vaughn said...

I appreciate all the comments made thus far. I find them challenging and helpful. Will, I appreciate your kind comments made on "A Simple Desire", and also appreciate the link so we can read your thoughts there. Ralph, like you, I find a sermon title "strange" to my ears and experience, but realize it is probably the more common experience for most church-goers who would find the lack thereof strange. Jim, I hope to not be waging any war against study and preparation, but I guess I do have a much different concept of preparation of sermons than the average Baptist. I really don't think anyone here questions the power of God to prepare someone a week, month, year or even a decade in advance. Neither do I question His advance knowledge of who will be listening -- He has known that forever if He is omniscient. To me it is more a matter of asking "How do the scripture examples show us we should operate in this area of practice?"

Within the past few years, I have come to question just how much "sermonizing" is actually appropriate and necessary for the gathering body. Now, I am not opposed to sermons, and usually try to preach on Sundays (which is expected in our tradition). But I am also reminded of how Paul talked of "the first" being quite when something was revealed to another. The type of meeting that Paul described in I Cor. 14 seems much more open and informal than the average Baptist meeting. Is it possible that there should be both much more teaching and interactive dialogue in a regular gathering of believers, with most of the sermons (discourses by one person with everyone else listening) being more for preaching the gospel to others? This is a question, not an answer. Please give your input.

Those of you who know me or read what I write, know that I am a strong advocate of following the "form" of the New Testament church. This to me finds expression in such things from plurality of elders to immediate baptisms to unsalaried ministry. So the approach to preaching without notes. But I realize it is much easier to adopt the New Testament form than the New Testament spirit. Adam's body, fashioned by the Lord out of the ground, was perfectly formed. But in its perfection it was nevertheless an inanimate form until God breathed into it the breath of life. In some cases we may be guilty of ecclesiologically recreating a lifeless form and calling it spirit and life.

BTW, I realize some probably find me "out on a limb" on a lot of issues, as this one. But even professor Charles W. Koller at Northern Seminary wrote a couple of books on preaching without notes. (This is not to imply that he reached the same conclusions for the same reasons, or advocates the same methods).

Looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts...

Ralph Dale said...

Brother Vaughn,

I believe that interactive dialogue and discussion of the Scriptures among believers when they gather for worship can be profitable and should be encouraged.

Ralph Dale