On the Choice of a Text

There are over 31,000 verses in the Bible. How do you pick one for your sermon? Where do you start? For Spurgeon, the selection of the passage for the next sermon was a major part of sermon preparation. Indeed, it can be a herculean task – perhaps even more difficult than the actual writing of the sermon.

So how can we assure ourselves victory in this weekly battle? Spurgeon gives us his answer in the chapter titled “On the Choice of a Text” within the book titled Lectures to My Students.

Here are seven lessons I learned from reading this chapter:

First, the choice of a text should be an important matter. Spurgeon said, “I hope we all make it a matter of very earnest and serious consideration, every week, what shall be the subject upon which we shall address our people on Sabbath morning and evening; for although all Scripture is good and profitable, yet it is not equally appropriate for every occasion.”

Spurgeon continues to show how important it is to choose an appropriate passage by sharing several comical examples of what not to do. For instance, he said, “Most manifestly idiotic was he who selected “Judge not that ye be not judged,” for a seron before the judges at an assize.”

Secondly, avoid preaching the same sermons over and over. Spurgeon warned, There are persons in the ministry who, having accumulated a little stock of sermons, repeat them ad nauseam, with horrible regularity…As we, my brethren, hope to live for many years, if not for life, in one place…we have need of a far different method from that which may suit a sluggard or an itinerant evangelist.”

We must vary our sermon topics and avoid the temptation to preach on the same subjects no matter the verses we use. Some preachers are one-trick ponies, and though they may scour the Bible from end-to-end, they can’t seem to cover more than the same three topics every time they preach.

Third, don’t feel bad if you struggle with finding the right passage for your next sermon. On this Spurgeon admitted, “I confess that I frequently sit hour after hour praying and waiting for a subject, and that this is the main part of my study.”

Be encouraged, then, that you are not alone in this battle, and your weekly battle with sermon writer’s block is no evidence that God has not called you, but a similarity you share with some of the greatest preachers who ever filled a pulpit.

Fourth, and to the root of the matter: how do you know when you’ve found the right verse? The way Spurgeon answers this question is so good, I’m going to share the entire paragraph instead of distilling it down to a few of my own words. Listen:

What is the right text? How do you know it? We know it by the signs of a friend. When a verse gives your mind a hearty grip, from which you cannot release yourself, you will need no further direction as to your proper theme. Like the fish, you nibble at many baits, but when the hook has fairly pierced you, you will wander no more. When the text gets ahold of us, we may be sure that we have a hold of it, and may safely deliver our souls upon it. To use another simile: you get a number of texts in your hand, and try to break them up; you hammer at them with might and main, but your labour is lost; at last you find one which crumbles at the first blow, and sparkles as it falls in pieces, and you perceive jewels of the rarest radiance flashing from within. It grows before your eye like the fabled seed which developed into a tree while the observer watched it. It charms and fascinates you, or it weighs you to your knees and loads you with the burden of the Lord. Know then that this is the message which the Lord would have you deliver; and, feeling this, you will become so bound by that scripture that you will never feel at rest until you have yielded your whole mind to its power, and have spoken upon it as the Lord shall give you utterance. Wait for that elect word, even if you wait till within an hour of the service. This may not be understood by cool, calculating men, who are not moved by impulses as we are, but to some of us these things are a law in our hearts against which we dare not offend. We tarry at Jerusalem till power is given.”

Understand this: the greatest part of our sermon study is prayer – praying for our sermons, praying over our sermons, and trusting the Holy Ghost to lead us and direct us in all these things. Spurgeon quotes William Gurnall on this, “Ministers have no ability of their own for their work. Oh! how long may they sit tumbling their books over, and puzzling their brains, until God come to their help…If God drop not down his assistance, we write with a pen that hath no ink: if any one need walk dependently upon God more than another, the minister is he.”

Fifth, along with prayer, “we are bound with much earnestness to use fittest means for concentrating our thoughts, and directing then in the best channel.” Here’s what he means: consider the sins that appear to be most rife in the church. On this Spurgeon cautions that we do not tailor-make sermons for certain individuals, but that we are to think of the congregation in general.

Sixth, if you are still struggling to find the starting point of your next sermon, Spurgeon encourages us to simply trust that God will give you what you need – “If you trust in God, he will not, he cannot, fail you.” Now if that sounds over-simplified to you, then I encourage you to read the accounts that Spurgeon gives of when God providentially supplied the text for a few of his sermons. The stories are in the chapter titled “On the Choice of a Text.” They are amazing stories.

Seventh, along with praying and considering our congregations, Spurgeon encourages us to find our sermon ideas developing three habits:

  1. The first is the habit of scripture meditation. Read a chapter and concentrate on a verse. Develop the ability to focus like a laser on a small passage.
  2. The second habit we should develop is the habit of reading. Spurgeon especially recommended reading the Puritans. “Reach down one of the Puritans, and thoroughly study the work, and speedily you will find yourself like a bird on a wing, mentally active and full of motion.”
  3. The third habit we should develop is the habit of always training for text-getting and sermon-making. Never waste a minute but always be ready to write down some verse or line from the Bible that captures your attention. 

Spurgeon pleads, “Students, I tell you solemnly, nothing will excuse you from the most rigid economy of time; it is at your peril that you trifle with it.” He then recommends to us that we should follow the example of Thomas Spencer who said, “I keep a little book, in which I enter every text of Scripture which comes into my mind with power and sweetness.” We are to live our lives, as preachers, always searching for sermon material. 

I close with this quote from Spurgeon: “Always be thou, O Man of God, foraging for the pulpit, in all provinces of nature and art, storing and preparing at all hours.”


For the video version of this article, follow this link: https://youtu.be/G0yVdFJXsFE

%d bloggers like this: