I learned a method called the “key word” method. The method served me fine for many texts, but I found great difficulty coming up with new and unique key words, and I also found difficulty preaching narratives or parables. While at Southwestern Seminary, I learned a new philosophy of preaching that doesn’t implement a particular “method,” but allows the text to determine the structure of the sermon—we call this text driven preaching.
While examining a text, you determine whether the passage dictates a deductive, inductive, or inductive/deductive approach. I’ll explain the different approaches in another post, but it would sidetrack this discussion so just stay with me for now. My point for today is to show the differences between a text driven sermon versus three points and a poem.
Let’s briefly look at Matthew 18:21-35 the parable of the unforgiving servant.
This story is a parable. It answers Peter’s question, “How many times should I forgive?” Jesus redirects the question away from how many times and focuses on our motivation for forgiveness. The motive doesn’t come from within us, but from the incredible grace God has demonstrated in forgiving our sins. Perhaps your title for a sermon on this passage could be “Forgiven to Forgive.”
Could you make three points and a poem out of this? Yes, easily in fact.
Point 1: The Mercy of the Master (v23-v27)
Point 2: The Wickedness of the Servant (v28-v30)
Point 3: The Final Judgment (v31-v35)
You could even focus on the three scenes of the parable: 1) The King calling in his debts; 2) the servant unwilling to forgive; and 3) the final judgment of the King.
The ultimate question is what allows the text to speak most clearly. The main point of the passage is not three scenes but one main point about what happens if we fail to forgive. Look at Matt 18:35:
“35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
What do you want people to take away from a sermon on this passage? That the parable has 3 scenes, or that if they don’t forgive they won’t be forgiven? Would you prefer the hearers know that the King was gracious and the servant was wicked, or that they need to forgive from their hearts anyone the Holy Spirit brought to mind? I suspect the latter in both cases and that’s where text driven preaching helps.
By letting the text drive the sermon, you only need one main point for this particular passage. You can read the text leaving out the summary statement in verse 35 to give it the same effect it would have had when Jesus told it. You can explain the parable so that the listeners understand how wicked the servant is for not granting forgiveness after receiving such mercy and grace. After the listener has been drawn into the story, release the full effect of verse 35 before walking them back through the parable, explaining that the King represents God and the unforgiving servant represents us when we fail to forgive.
Preaching this passage with one point allows your focus to be the text’s focus. It also allows more time in preparation for studying the text and finding specific application. Sometimes we spend too much time creating alliterated or catchy outlines and fail to accomplish what should be the primary goal of preaching—explanation and application of the text. But remember, not every passage should be preached like this one. The text determines the sermon structure.
If you try to make too many points from a parable like this one, then you may end up stepping on theological landmines like whether the servant was truly forgiven or not. And since he eventually lost that forgiveness does that mean we can lose our salvation? While you should address eternal security in passages that deal with this important theological doctrine, this passage does not deal with that doctrine. Making it do so is akin to hijacking the passage for your own theological purposes and it will cloud the main idea to the listener. Allowing the text to drive the sermon structure will prevent the preacher from becoming side tracked on secondary issues and allow a clear presentation of the main idea.
Allowing the text to drive the sermon structure has brought creativity and freedom to me. I hope it will do the same to your sermon or lesson preparation while increasing faithfulness to the text.