Simplicity in Preaching

by Tom Wells

The two chief things in preaching are having something of importance to say and having the accompanying power of the Holy Spirit in saying it. The two ideas are closely related in this way: the Word of God provides the content of Christian preaching, and it is God's Word that the Spirit has promised to honour. Neither of these things, content and power, comes automatically. We must study to know the truth and we must cry to God for power.

To neglect these things is to court failure. Nothing else compares with them. Yet they do not exhaust the category of preaching, as though all else were without value. Every public speaker and teacher must strive for simplicity. In Amerrca this is known as 'putting the cookies on the lowest shelf'  that is, making the delectable things found in the Word of God available to those who do not have vast education or great intellectual gifts.

Such people may not be able to give a dictionary definition of simplicity but they know it when they hear it. They speak in terms of liking to hear a certain pastor because they always know what he's talking about. What a grand compliment to any preacher! What a marvellous gift to cultivate!

As with everything worthwhile, cultivating simplicity means avoiding snares and traps that fall in the path of the preacher.

The first temptation to think that simplicity is beneath the man of extensive education. Somehow the congregation must know that the man before them is a man of learning. But this misses the point of education. It is the truth that must be displayed, not the man.

Charles Spurgeon once wrote: 'Brethren, the whole process of interpretation is to be carried on in your study; you are not to show your congregation the process, but to give them the result; like a good cook who would never think of bringing up dishes, and pans, and rolling pin, and spice box into the dining hall, but without ostentation sends up the feast. " 1.

You may or may not admire C S Lewis, but you will have to admit his written ability as a communicator. Often the secret of his success was the simple way he wrote of difficult matters. In fact, I have a sample from his Mere Christianity that is written at a thirdgrade level on the readability testing scale that I use. Think of it - grammar, vocabulary and sentence length that can be understood by ordinary children of 8 or 9 years ! I have never been able to write below the flfth-grade level.

The second temptation we must avoid is to think that being simple means dealing only with very simple matters. No, the calling of the preacher and everyone else who teaches Scripture is to take very difficult matters and speak of them in simple terms. Many of the words one meets in the Bible need a good deal of explaining in a simple wa1l, if our people are going to grasp them. Here I can use myself as an example. I preached for almost 20 years before I could remember the meaning of 'propitiation'. Every time I came across the word I had to look it up ! And I was a preacher, a man who dealt in these things day after day, week after week. What of mY dear PeoPle? Did they take words like propitiation in their stride? Perhaps, but I doubt it. We must rather imitate the example of one of P G Wodehouse's characters, an English curate, who in getting ready to preach struggled to find a one-syllable word that means 'supralapsarianism ! ' (Incidentally, if you come across that monosyllableI would like to have it from you.)

A good habit to develoP is this: when you have to use words like propitiation, justification and sanctification, pause briefly to explain them. Sometimes it is said, 'We must stretch the minds of our people.' And so we must. But we do so with wisdom. When a long and difficult word is the main building block of an important sentence, we lose the entire thought for those who do not know that word.

A third temptation to avoid is to pass over words that have one meaning in theology and a number of meanings in the Bible. This is more conlmon than one might think. It comes about in this way: when theologians want to describe a single doctrine theY like to use a biblical word to describe it. But the word they choose may have more than one meaning in Scripture. An example is the word 'sanctification' and the words like 'saint' , 'sanctifY' and 'sanctified'that are related to it. In theology these words are most often used to speak of our Progress in the Christian life. And that is a scriptural use. But it is not the only use and, in this case, not even the most frequent use. More often than not, when used of persons and not things, these words speak of a position that God has bestowed on his people at the outset of their Christian lives.

Other words are also ambiguous. We often must explain them as well. Recently I took down the dictionary by my desk and looked up the word 'mean'. In the dictionary, which is not a particularly large one, I found 27 meanings for that one word. That will give you some sense of the task before the writer and preacher.

This last illustration, however, leads to a fourth enemy of simplicity. The truth is, you must not concentrate on words at all. Yes, you must explain obscure

words, but I repeat, You must not concentrate on words for their own sakes. A little history here will help you to grasp what I mean. As recently as the last century many did not understand the nature of the Greek used in the New Testament. They thought of it as 'Holy-spirit' Greek, that is, as a language that the spirit prepared especially for the NT. The reason was this: NT Greek was clearly not classical Greek. Where did it come from, then? One popular answer was: it must have been invented just for the NT! We now know, however, that the language of the NT was roughly speaking the language of the day.  2.

It is the kind of language that has turned up in personal letters and bills of sale from the first century. It is the 'koine' or 'common' language of the day. The effect of thinking of NT Greek as a special language invented by the Spirit was to treat too many of the individual words as technical terms that had theological meanings of great depth and significance.

To be sure, there are such words, but they are far fewer than was once thought. Fewer of them, then, need individual attention.

Another development of the last hundred years also has led to less emphasis on individual words. More and more, students of communication have come to recognize that meaning resides in sentences and paragraphs much more than in individual words.

Does that make the words less important or what is worse! – less inspired? Not at all, it just means that the way the words are put together in larger units is the chief clue to meaning

Earlier I mentioned looking up a common word with many meanings. If you put yourself in my place at that moment, you will know that I could have stared at the dictionary forever without knowing what the word meant in the context before me. The dictionary showed me the possibilities, but only the passage could give me the meaning. The moral? Explain only the words that really require it. Instead, get on with the larger units.

This leads to a couple of final points that contribute to clarity and simplicity.

First, beware of diversions. They kill clarity of thought. Drive straight through your passage without looking to the right hand or to the left. Every time you say something that is not directly pertinent to your main point, you invite your hearers to leave you and explore the siding for themselves while you return to the main track. If you

must cite 3 or 4 other passages where the same word or phrase is used elsewhere in Scripture, make sure that those citations really clarify something connected with your passage. It is easy to fill up time with parallel passages. It is also easy to distract your listener from the passage at hand.

Lastly, be sure that the points of your outline are among the simplest parts of your sermon. My experience suggests two things that have affected my preaching in recent years.

 First, men and women do not like repetition. If you have said something once in a serrnon, going back over it irritates some people.

Second, there is an exception to this rule, the repetition of the main points of your outline. Ideally, of course, one would not need an outline since, in theory, a single point well made is the best method of driving truth home. But very few passages make a single point. So we use major points, plural. If they are quite simple, and if you enumerate them again as you move from point to point, your hearers will appreciate the repetition.

One last word: as with all non-moral advice, do not treat this as the law of the Medes and the Persians. Every such rule is made to be broken. But keep in mind, that if you break these often, your hearers will be less appreciative. Unless, of course, you are a genius !


This article first appeared in Reformation Today

Tom Wells – Copyright


1. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries, reprint, Kregel, Grand

Rapids, 1954, p 30.

2. Scholars will recognise that my remarks on 'koine' in the main text are overly

simplified. For a broad discussion of the subject see Daniel B Wallace, Greek

Grammar Beyond the Basics, Zondetvan,, Grand Rapids, 1996, pp 20-30.

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