Remember John R. de Witt’s comment regarding Calvin’s sermons, “The feature that struck me most powerfully is just their immediacy” (John Calvin’s Sermons on Genesis, Chapters 1-11, xvii). Here are three hints to help achieve this immediacy and sharpen your gospel arrows, whether teaching a class or preaching a sermon. First, use the present tense when describing or speaking about past events. In doing so, you bring past events into the present. Using the present tense in this way is more direct. It is more forceful.
Second, use active voice rather than passive voice. Speak about what characters do rather than about what is done to them. Using active voice rather than passive voice is more direct and more forceful. For example, you might say, “When Jesus had been arrested He was led away to the chief priests by the temple guards.” Present tense and active voice are more direct. “The temple guards arrest Jesus and lead Him away to the chief priests.”
Consider the story of Jesus healing the paralytic. You might tell the story using the past tense. After all, the incident took place centuries ago. You might also frequently use passive voice. The story might sound like the following.
When the ministry of Jesus was begun, towns and villages in Galilee were visited by Him. He preached in local synagogues. Demons were cast out by Him. When He returned to Capernaum, a host of people were gathered at His home. There was standing room only. A paralytic was carried on a pallet to His rooftop by four men. Desperately, the men removed part of the roof. They lowered the paralytic right in from of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith He declared, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” This statement caused no small uproar. But Jesus proved His authority to forgive sins. He turned to the paralytic, “I say to you, get up, pick up your pallet and go home.” The man stood upright. He picked up his pallet. And the astonished crowd was parted as the paralytic passed through.
Now, rehearse the same story with present tense and active voice, which are more direct, more forceful, and less wordy. Read it aloud.
When Jesus begins his ministry, he visits the towns and villages of Galilee. He preaches in local synagogues. He casts out demons. When He returns to Capernaum, a host of people gather at His home. There is standing room only. Four men carry a paralytic on a pallet to His rooftop. Desperately, they remove part of the roof. And they lower the paralytic right in front of Jesus. When Jesus sees their faith, He causes no small uproar by declaring, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” But Jesus also proves His authority to forgive sins. He turns to the paralytic, “I say to you, get up, pick up your pallet and go home.” The man stands, picks up his pallet, and passes through the astonished gathering.
Third, use the second person, “you,” in approaching the congregation rather than always using “we.” In teaching at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, one of my homiletics students who was supplying a pulpit determined to follow my suggestion. He came back to class and reported, “I am amazed at the difference it made to speak directly to the congregation using the second person. I was much more connected to the people. The people were much more responsive to me.” The rationale for using “we” is that the teacher or preacher includes himself in the exhortations. You achieve the same purpose by using the second person and on occasion adding, “This exhortation applies both to you and me.”
These three hints are simple. Use present tense and active voice as much as possible. Use the second person where you are able. Try them; you will like them. They will help sharpen your gospel arrows and make them more direct and forceful.