Christian preachers, the world over, place a portion of Scripture at the head of the sermon, and call this "the text." The custom dates back to Origen, who was the first to base a formal and orderly address on some longer or shorter portion selected from the Scriptures. The advantage of preaching in this fashion has been universally recognized, with the result that at present only a few men with odd minds venture to preach even as much as a single sermon without employing a text.
The answer to this question depends on what the preacher expects of his text.
If he expects the text to furnish him only a subject for his sermon, he will, of course, define the text accordingly. It will then be the Biblical nail from which he suspends the string of his sermon thoughts. Expecting so little from the text, he will get little more out of it.
Some preachers are after a text that furnishes a key thought, and not merely a subject, for their sermon. They are especially pleased to find a text in which this key thought is expressed in a striking phrase or sentence, around which they can group their reflections. So they ring the changes on that phrase or sentence, repeating it again and again as the sermon proceeds. These, too, expect too little of a text.
We may arrive at what a text really is, and should be, by studying the etymology of the word. "Text" is derived from textus, genitive textus, a web. The verb is texo, texui, texere, to weave. Etymologically a text is that section of Scripture which is woven into the sermon. Dropping the figure, a text is that section of Scripture upon which the sermon is built.
There is a connotation in this idea of a text. The portion of Scripture that is fit to be used as a text must be one that forms a unit in itself. It may be a single verse or a sentence. Generally it will be a paragraph, or the main portion of a paragraph. Again it may comprise more than a paragraph. Always, however, it must be a unit in thought and a unit rich and weighty enough for the purpose of a sermon.
With this conception of a text, we have little difficulty in answering the question,
The sermon which rightly uses a text is always superior to the sermon which uses no text.
Of course, there is no divine commandment for using texts. Abstractly speaking, the Gospel can be preached with or without a sermon text.
When Jesus preached at Nazareth, Luke 4:16 etc., He used a text. Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost was based on a text from Joel. These are good precedents for using texts.
At Athens, and at Antioch in Pisidia, Paul had no text. Jesus had none for the Sermon on the Mount. One might say, these are equally good precedents for dispensing with texts. In the early Church, too, no texts were used.
However, Justin Martyr's account of the services in the early Church states that when the writings of the apostles had been read by the lector, the address that followed instructed and admonished the people to take to heart what they had heard read. Thus a text was virtually used.
As far as the preaching of Jesus to the multitudes is concerned, and the two addresses of Paul at Athens and at Antioch, these were of a general missionary character, apart from a set service, and thus in their very nature different from our regular Sunday sermons in established forms of Christian worship.
Our question is fully answered when we consider
1. The preacher is to preach the Word of God, that is, something definite out of the Word of God. It is obvious at once that the simplest and most direct way to meet this requirement is to take a text, a portion of the Word of God, and expound that.
It is true, the mere employment of a text does not guarantee that the sermon will be Biblical. Very unbiblical sermons are preached this very day from the choicest Scripture texts. In the heyday of Rationalism a preacher once preached a Christmas sermon on Luke 2:1-14 and used the theme, "The Advantage of Stall-Feeding Cattle."
When the preacher thus abuses his text, or turns his back upon it, the text itself already judges the preacher and his sermon. And there are always some hearers who are aware of that judgment. Often enough their verdict is, "The preacher had a good text, but he did not preach on it!" If he abuses his text, the hearers will likely raise the question, whether the preacher really said what the text means.
2. The preacher is to preach on some Biblical theme. Every proper text offers one or more good themes. There is no better way to arrive at such a theme than to draw it from a definite text. A simple way is to summarize what the text says. Another way is to present a central thought of the text, in a formulation which opens up the entire text.
But let us suppose I have a theme for which I cannot find a suitable text. Either there is no text for my theme—then I ought to drop it entirely as really not proper for the pulpit,—or I do not know my Bible sufficiently to find the proper text readily. I have been too indolent in thorough Bible study.
It is an excellent homiletical rule, always to begin with the text, not with thoughts evolved by myself or picked up at random. If, however, some theme suggests itself for which a really fitting text cannot be found, drop the theme entirely—nothing of special value will be lost thereby. Learn to attach more value to intensive text study and its results in Biblical themes than to your own or other men's ideas.
3. The text is to be the real source from which the substance of the sermon is drawn. Once this is fully settled, there will be no question about employing a text and using it in the right way after it is selected.
Whatever else we may use in the sermon, other passages of Scripture, elucidating thoughts, illustrations, applicatory ideas pertinent to our circumstances and times, everything must be amalgamated with the central contents of the text. The thoughts furnished by the text are always chief and supreme. Whatever leads away from these thoughts is unsuitable material.
4. The text limits the sermon. It gives the sermon point. The preacher is kept in line, he cannot deviate from the true course. The text before him is his monitor.
A well chosen text presents one grand Biblical idea, the textual elaboration of which constitutes the sermon. That is why we have texts.
5. A real text prevents the sermon from degenerating into a lecture. There is a place for lectures, namely the platform; sermons alone belong in the pulpit. Church members rightly decline to hear one or two lectures a week by the same man, yet they flock to hear a continuous line of sermons by him.
A sermon unfolds the heart of a text. A lecture unfolds a man's own thoughts and conclusions. The number of good lectures any one man is able to produce, even on Biblical subjects, is limited. Many preachers have produced good sermons for half a century. They were able to do so because they preached on texts.
The freedom of thought and of form offered by the lecture is delusive. It is freedom indeed, of a kind that uses up a man's resources so fast that he never can replenish his fund rapidly enough to keep on indefinitely. A man with all outdoors before him may indeed run freely in all directions, but he will soon run out of wind.
Texts confine a man to definite limits. But that is really a blessing, although it may be a blessing in disguise to some. The text marks out a limited course for the man to run, and puts a goal at the end of that course. Every text has a new course and a new goal. The preacher never becomes exhausted.
Perhaps you have heard of the young preacher who ruefully came to the conclusion that he must give up preaching. He had used about all the subjects he could handle and did not care to repeat himself endlessly. An older man advised him to preach on texts, and to cease delivering half-hour lectures on subjects.
6. Thus texts open up an inexhaustible fountain for sermons. They prevent a man from "preaching himself out."
No man can possibly preach on all the texts in the Bible, though he took a new text every time he preached. You cannot pick all the flowers that grow.
Most texts can be preached on repeatedly with great profit. They are so full of life and power that one effort always leaves a great abundance of material for future use. This is due to the fact that the Scriptures are divine. No human book is like them. The last commentaries have not yet been written on even the smaller books of the Bible.
1. If one or two sentences are plucked from the Bible and made to adorn a religious address, we have a mere motto, not a text at all. To use mottoes of this kind means not only to lose the advantages of a text, it means something worse. It amounts to a degradation of the Word of God. That Word in all, even its minutest parts, is not intended for ornament, but as food for the soul.
A discourse, for which at best only a motto can be found in Scripture, by that very fact proves its own unfitness for the pulpit.
2. Scrap texts are sham texts, not real texts at all.
When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, some preacher perpetrated what he thought was a sermon on the words in John 8:52, "Abraham is dead." The thing was not even catchy.
3. Allegorizing turns a text into a sham. It passes by the real meaning of the text, and imposes on the sacred words some fancy of the preacher.
Sometimes this thing becomes ludicrous. At a high school commencement a preacher of national prominence used as his text the words in John 11:44, "Loose him, and let him go." Jesus ordered the men to remove the linen wrappings from Lazarus who had been brought to life after being dead four days. This preacher used the sacred words allegorically for his own cheap idea, that when our young people reach a certain age their parents must give up their parental control and allow them to shape their own lives.
It is always out of place to allegorize a text. A preacher once chose Ex. 17:8-12 as a text on missions. Joshua smote the Amalekites while Moses held up his hands. When Moses grew tired, Aaron and Hur supported his arms, until the victory was complete. The preacher imposed on this holding up of the arms of Moses his own cheap fancy that thus we ought to hold up the hands of our missionaries by our prayers, interest, and contributions. But killing off the Amalekites is by no means like rescuing men from heathen darkness.
Christ's miracles are often allegorized. He heals a leper with a word or touch. Now Christ heals no lepers to-day in such a way. So we are treated to a sermon on the leprosy of sin. Christ heals a blind man with a word. He does nothing like that to-day. So we hear a sermon on the cure of spiritual blindness. The true sense of the texts is ignored, and instead we get something not in the text at all. In preaching on a miracle the preacher ought to focus our attention on Christ and how in that miracle He attests His divinity, shows His omnipotence, offers His love and help, etc. Martha and Mary at Bethany have been allegorized. Martha is forced to represent the Catholic Church, busy with works; Mary, the Protestant Church, contemplating His Word. Here the allegory itself is false. When the supper was made for Jesus in Bethany Mary not only served beside Martha and the other women, but rendered to the Master a service so high that Jesus said, wherever the Gospel would be preached her deed would be remembered. When Martha was cumbered with much serving she was making a mistake. For when Jesus speaks women should not rattle dishes but should sit with Mary and let Jesus serve them with heavenly food.
Jesus stilling the tempest is often allegorized. The tossing sea is the hostile world, the boat with Jesus and the Twelve is the Church, etc. But the allegory is fancy, not fact. Jesus is master over all the forces of nature—that is the burden of the text.
The effect of allegorizing is always bad. It leaves the impression that the preacher is able to preach almost anything on any text. People lose their appreciation of the native sense of the Word, and get to wondering what fancy can be inserted into this and that passage of Scripture. Scoffers are quick to fall upon this weakness of preachers, and use it for undermining the sense of Scripture generally.
If I need a mission text, I have scores of them in the Bible, all treating the subject literally. If I need a text for young graduates, the Bible has an abundance of such texts. This is true of every legitimate need of the preacher. Allegories are superfluities of naughtiness, turning the impregnable rocks and cliffs of divine truth into mere wreaths and flowers of human fancy.
A text constitutes a unit, one full and rich enough in itself to serve as the basis of a sermon. Naturally we need no second and no third text to combine with the first.
We are free to use in the sermon, for the full elucidation of the text, any other Scripture passages we may require. Sometimes a text presents only one side of the truth, let us say the positive side, or perhaps only the negative side. The side not specifically presented in the text itself must be set forth in the sermon. But this does not compel us to add a second text. The sermon freely adds the side that is needed and introduces the necessary Scripture passages.
If my text speaks of faith, I am free to contrast faith with unbelief in the sermon. Likewise, if my text speaks of salvation, life, light, pardon, peace, etc., I need not hunt for additional texts, but may freely contrast these positive truths with the corresponding negatives. Negatives are in no way different. Yet negative texts seem to cause preachers uneasiness. Some of them even preach sermons that are entirely negative, under the mistaken idea that this is "sticking to the text." I stick to my text when I fully elucidate it, and that means, when I illumine it with all the Scripture I need for the purpose.
The trouble, however, is that at times a preacher chooses an inadequate text for his purpose. Then he sees no way out except by adding a second and perhaps even a third text. He probably will base the first part of his sermon on the first text, and the other part or parts on the added texts. Such a procedure is a sign of helplessness. He does not know his Bible sufficiently, or he could readily find a text that covers all the ground he intends to cover in the sermon.
On rare exceptions the use of more than one text may be justified. The author once preached a series of sermons on certain evils that were rife in the community and were invading his congregation. One of these was drunkenness. For that sermon he used as his text about a dozen of the strongest passages treating of this sin, and after he had read them he concluded by saying, he would stop with these, since he lacked time to read all the many passages which condemned this sin. The purpose of this proceeding was not to supply by means of additional texts any lack in the first one, but to impress the congregation from the start with the overwhelming testimony of Scripture against this great sin. Of course, he might also have heaped up these testimonies in the sermon itself. It was more a question of personal preference than anything else.
When I employ an Old Testament text I need not read a corresponding text from the New Testament. When I use a gospel text, I need not supply a corresponding epistle text and vice versa. The sermon offers all the room necessary for bringing in, not merely one, but as many passages as are needed, from other grand sections of the Bible.
—The Sermon: Its Homiletical Construction