Single Verse Sermons

The site received this comment from Peter D:

I have been studying Charles Spurgeon’s sermons. He would often take one scripture and expound on it from every direction he could, would that be thin blooded? I’m preparing a message for later this month and want to focus on one verse within Psalm 63 – it sticks out to me and brings the whole psalm to life, for me at least. In your opinion is it best when dealing with psalms to preach the whole psalm in it’s entirety or can focusing on one part bring it to life for the members?

This is a good question.  Regarding the Psalms I would suggest it is always important to study a Psalm in its entirety, but it may be effective to focus on one part if that seems appropriate for the situation (i.e. when covering the full text in a longer psalm would prove overwhelming or unachievable). 

But what about single verse sermons? Certainly in the past there were many more preachers who preached on single texts, often going from those texts to a sometimes comprehensive canon-wide presentation of the pertinent doctrines suggested (or sometime not suggested) in that text.  Sadly there are many who try to copy the approach of a Spurgeon without achieving a comparable level of personal spirituality and biblical maturity.  There is certainly a place for doctrinal preaching, as well as better and worse ways to do it.  Perhaps there should be a post on that subject sometime . . .

But what can we say about single-verse sermons?

1. If a single verse is a complete unit of thought, great!  For instance, many proverbs stand alone as a complete unit of thought and can be profitably preached as such.

2. If a single verse conveys the main idea of the unit of thought, great!  In some passages there is a single thought that encapsulates the main idea of the passage and it might be effective to preach the verse, while choosing how much of the context to refer to at the same time (depending on situation of sermon, listeners, etc.)

3. If a single verse conveys a significant proportion of the main idea of the text, this might be effective.  As above, the surrounding context will need to be brought into the message in some way or other, but appearing to preach a single verse may work well.  In Peter’s comment above, I noticed how he still tied the single verse to the message of the Psalm as a whole, which makes me think it might be very effective.

4. In a topical message, a single verse may act as sectional manager for that section of the message, but that manager must not act autonomously from the influence of the full unit of thought.  That is, the verse must be understood in its context.

5. If a single verse is used without awareness of context, or to preach a point it wouldn’t give if understood in context, or if preached without studying the context . . . well, please don’t.

3 thoughts on “Single Verse Sermons

  1. I appreciate the question and the responses offered here as I am an avid reader of Spurgeon’s sermons as well. From what I have read, I tend to think that most of todays more conservative preachers (including me) would be a little uneasy about Spurgeon’s methods, yet I’ve never experienced greater content. Spurgeon could have taken the English alphabet as his text and I would have received more true teaching about Christ that I have in most of “biblically based” evangelical churches out there.

    Case in point…

    Spurgeon preached a sermon called “Little Sins” (Sermon number 13 – which you can probably find on Google Books Open Domain) on Genesis 19:20 which reads,

    “Behold, this city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one.”

    The opening sentences in his sermon read as follows…

    “These words we shall take for a motto, rather than a text, in the ordinary acceptation of that term. I shall not this morning attempt to explain the connection. It was the utterance of Lot, when he pleaded for the salvation of Zoar; but I shall take it altogether away from the connection in which it stands and make use of it in another fashion.”

    What? You’re going to do what with that little phrase? You’re going to take it away from the connection in which it stands (context) and use it in another fashion? Basically you’re going to make “little one” mean “little sins” instead of the “little town” that this passage is obviously referring to.

    I think that Spurgeon would have effectively violated almost every aspect of point number five above (save studying the context, as I’m sure Spurgeon knew it quite well).

    So there you have the Prince of Preachers using a text as a springboard to talk about something obviously not intended by the context.

    Now, most people would say, “Well, Spurgeon can do that, but we shouldn’t.” Which is probably true in many respects.

    However, I would like to submit, that we should read that sermon (Little Sins) among many of his others ones, where he clearly breaks most of our rules for expository preaching, and ask ourselves why they are still such faithful and effective messages.

    I believe it’s because there’s something at the core of every faithful and effective message that even trumps our handling of a particular text–and that is Christ. You can take a lot of liberty and even make a lot of mistakes, but if you preach Christ and Him crucified, as clearly reflected in the comprehensive witness of Scripture, then your sermon will ultimately glorify God and feed His people. However, if we miss Christ and fail to exult the glory of God as it is seen in the face of Jesus, then I don’t care how faithfully you think you exposited a text and its context, your sermon is a failure.

    I believe we must be convinced that Christ is the context of every single verse of scripture. It’s not a pericope, it’s not a chapter, a whole book, or even an entire Testament–it’s the Savior.

    I think Spurgeon understood this better than most.

    Sorry for the long comment. Thanks for the great blog.

  2. Great post! Love the thoughts that cause me go go hmmm. I am preaching this coming Lord’s Day. The evening message is Psalms 63. At least part one, which will include verses 1-4. Any one of those verses could give meat for weeks however.

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