Note-taking and the Purpose of Preaching

5 Dec

I’ve never heard anyone I really respected spiritually discourage note-taking during sermons before so when I heard Tim Keller in the Wilson Preaching Lectures at Covenant Seminary (thought-provoking lecture, by the way) mention that Martyn Lloyd Jones did, I had to check it out.

The main point isn’t not taking notes – (really, who is going to argue with a person who takes note because he wants to learn?) his main point, the important point, has to do with the nature of preaching.

Without getting lost in the details, what do you think?

“Let us now turn to Edwards’ method of preaching. We note at once that he preached sermons, and that he did not deliver lectures. Edwards did not lecture about Christian truths. I am told frequently these days that many preachers seem to be lecturers rather than preachers.
Preaching is not lecturing. Neither did Edwards just give a running commentary on a passage. That is not preaching either; though many today seem to think that it is. That was not Edwards’ idea of preaching; and it has never been the classical idea of preaching. He started with a text. He was always Scriptural. He did not merely take a theme and speak on it, except when he was expounding some doctrine, but even then he chose a text. He was always expository. He was also invariably analytical. He had an analytical mind. He divides up his text, his statement; he wants to get at the essence of the message; so the critical, analytical element in his wonderful mind comes into play. He does this in order that he may arrive at the doctrine taught in the verse or section; and then he reasons about this doctrine, shows how it is to be found elsewhere in Scripture, and its relationship to other doctrines, and then establishes its truth. But he never stops at that.
There is always the application. He was preaching to people and not giving a dissertation, not giving expression in public to his private thoughts in the study. He was always concerned to bring home the truth to the listeners, to show the relevance of it. But, above all, and I quote him, he believed that preaching should always be ‘warm and earnest’. I remind you again that we are dealing here with a giant intellect and brilliant philosopher; and yet this is the man who places all this emphasis upon warmth and upon feeling. This is how he states this principle:

‘The frequent preaching that has lately obtained, has in a particular manner been objected against as being unprofitable and prejudicial. It is objected that, when sermons are heard so very often, one sermon tends to thrust out another; so that persons lose the benefit of all. They say, two or three sermons in a week is as much as they can remember and digest. Such objections against frequent preaching, if they be not from an enmity against~-re1igion, are for want of duly considering the way that sermons usually profit an auditory. The main benefit obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind at the time, and not by an effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered. And though an after-remembrance of what was heard in a sermon is oftentimes very profitable; yet, for the most part, that remembrance is from an impression the words made on the heart at the time; and the memory profits, as it renews and increases that impression’ (Vol. I, 394).

I would add that I have often discouraged the taking of notes while I am preaching. It is becoming a custom among evangelical people; but it is not, as many seem to think, the hallmark of spirituality!
The first and primary object of preaching is not only to give information. It is, as Edwards says, to produce an impression. It is the impression at the time that matters, even more than what you can remember subsequently. In this respect Edwards is, in a sense, critical of what was a prominent Puritan custom and practice. The Puritan father would catechize and question the children as to what the preacher had said. Edwards, in my opinion, has the true notion of preaching. It is not primarily to impart information; and while you are writing your notes you may be missing something of the impact of the Spirit. As preachers we must not forget this. We are not merely imparters of information.
We should tell our people to read certain books themselves and get the information there. The business of preaching is to make such knowledge live. The same applies to lecturers in Colleges. The tragedy is that many lecturers simply dictate notes and the wretched students take them down. That is not the business of a lecturer or a professor. The students can read the books for themselves; the business of the professor is to put that on fire, to enthuse, to stimulate, to enliven. And that is the primary business of preaching. Let us take this to heart. Edwards laid great emphasis upon this; and what we need above everything else today is moving, passionate, powerful preaching.”

3 Responses to “Note-taking and the Purpose of Preaching”

  1. JP December 6, 2005 at 6:28 am #

    MLJ said, “It is the impression at the time that matters, even more than what you can remember subsequently.” I think I know what that means. This past Sunday I took some notes when my pastor preached, but I remember distinctly that I needed to act on a certain point of the sermon. I remember that more clearly than the points of his sermon.

    I teach in a little bible study. Are there any resources to help me “make such knowledge live” in my sermons?

  2. spencer December 6, 2005 at 5:00 pm #

    Hi Josh, Spencer DeBurgh here, I linked to your site from Phil Johnson’s and I loved your comment on note taking and preaching.

    We Bible teachers sometimes get caught up in teaching and forget that the Holy Spirit is not only “instructing” but also “reproving” and “correcting” and convicting with His sword as we speak.

    One of my favorite MLJ quotes on preaching:

    “I can forgive the preacher almost anything if he gives me a sense of God, if he gives me something for my soul, if he gives me the sense that, though he is inadequete in himself, he is handling something which is very great and glorious, if he gives me some dim glimpse of the majesty and glory of God, the love of Christ my Saviour, and the magnificence of the gospel.”

  3. joshuamack December 7, 2005 at 12:37 am #


    Great quote. I want to do that!

    Hope you are doing well.


    That’s a question I’ll think about. I don’t have all the answers that’s for sure. One thing that does come to mind though is, I think knowledge lives in sermons if knowledge lives in our lives first. When God has used a text to break me, challenge me, change me, it’s hard for it not to burst out. When I come to a text and just do the text in an academic, cold, how can this help others, distant from my own life kind of way, it usually does the opposite.

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