In his letter to Timothy, Paul admonishes his young mentee to give his life to “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15, ESV). There are surely many layers and nuances to what Paul means by this phrase, but one point is clear: this “word of truth” must be read and presented with clarity.
Rightly handling the word of truth is no easy task in today’s age (not that it has ever been, of course). Today’s preacher is faced with the challenges of communicating the Gospel in a way that imparts understanding to the simple without merely performing “information transfer.” He cannot give himself over to lofty speech of wisdom, neither can he be ashamed of the Gospel. He must preach to adolescents and first-time churchgoers and old sages of the faith all the same. Again, clarity is the word that comes to mind.
As someone who preaches, I have felt the burden to chase clarity throughout the preparation process. Every time I preach, I want to be able to exit the stage with the confidence that I rightly handled the word of truth, and nothing more.
Everyone has a method, a vehicle, for how they hope to achieve this. After many trials and errors, I found the sermon manuscript to be a fitting vehicle for me.
When I say “sermon manuscript,” I am referring to the writing out of one’s entire sermon, word-for-word. Of course, there are variations on the sermon manuscript, with many preachers adapting it to something smaller. In my own experience, however, I have been helped enormously by taking the time to write out and wrestle with every word I hope to say on the stage, and it is in the full-length sermon manuscript that I do my sparring.
At its core, a sermon manuscript is a mighty weapon to wield when fighting for clarity in preaching. Whether one uses them in the study, in the pulpit, or both, manuscripts are a way to for preachers to prioritize clarity in their thoughts, their words, and in the reception of the message for those who will hear. When I preach or prepare to do so, I think of my sermon manuscript as a wise sherpa, a guide to lead me both Monday through Saturday and on Sunday morning.
There are many ways in which a full-length sermon manuscript aids the preacher in the quest for clarity. First and foremost, it helps to keep the main thing the main thing. It is easy to see, after writing out an entire sermon, what one has emphasized the most. Which sections are longer on paper—the ones spent on explaining the text, or on anecdotes and illustrations? In a sermon manuscript, you can observe real-time where your attention will be spent most.
Sermon manuscripts are also valauble because they help preachers favor the precise word throughout a sermon. After I type out a rough draft of my sermon, I spend some time self-editing what I’ve written. It is amazing how much I end up editing at this stage! This practice isn’t so much about impressing with lofty speech. (The idea, again, is to be clear.) Instead, I ruminate over words: Is this word the right one to use here? Or will another one better convey this thought?
The Puritans were masters of word choice, using picture-perfect metaphors to teach difficult or abstract theological concepts. Jonathan Edwards, for example, once wrote about the difference between knowing of God and knowing God, comparing it to the difference between a man who knows all about the facts and properties of honey and one who has actually tasted honey. Edwards’s carefully constructed word picture helped his hearers understand the added dimension of actually knowing God, of being able to taste and see that the Lord is good for themselves—not just to observe it.
Finally, Sermon manuscripts aid in clarity by helping the preacher present the good news specifically as an announcement. As we have witnessed in our culture, bad and false reporting is the result of poor preparation and fact-checking. As preachers of the “Good News,” we have an obligation to handle this word as news. This is God’s Word revealed to us, and we are its messengers. Our preparation practices should be a reflection of this; we should prepare to report to the body of Christ what God’s clear and present Word says.
Every preacher will march to the beat of his own drum in getting ready to handle God’s Word each Sunday. We all have our own methods, whether tried-and-true or still in the process of becoming habit. And yet, we all have the obligation Timothy had: to rightly handle the word of truth. Perhaps a sermon manuscript will help you with preparing and delivering sermons, to let the unfolding of His words give light to us all.
Zach Barnhart and his wife Hannah live in Lago Vista, TX, where Zach currently serves as Student Pastor of Northlake Church. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Middle Tennessee State University, and is currently studying at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, seeking a Master of Theological Studies degree. You can follow Zach on Twitter @zachbarnhart_ or check out his personal blog, Cultivated.
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