Preaching is a complex art form—at once creative, communal, and constrained. A preacher must do his own work, but always in conversation with Christ’s church and subject to God’s Word. This unique dynamic, together with our finitude and flesh, create openings for pastors to stray into plagiarism, taking another’s work as their own without proper attribution.
Avoiding blatant plagiarism is usually simple enough (even if too often a failed effort). But beyond the obvious stealing of words and ideas, there is a large gray zone for pastors to navigate as they labor over their sermons, consulting a host of secondary resources along the way.
Here it is helpful to consider a more fundamental question than rules about plagiarism—a question about good preaching and the use of secondary resources. Using such resources wisely and faithfully to produce a well-crafted sermon is the best defense against plagiarism.
The Questions: What, When, and How
Part of God’s design in instituting preaching as his primary means of gospel delivery is that a preacher’s individual personality and gifts are brought to bear on every sermon. This includes his unique preparation.
Because of this, bright-line rules for preparation are unwise, but a few questions may be helpful in considering secondary resources: (1) What resources am I using? (2) When am I using them? and (3) How am I using them?
There are differences between technical exegetical commentaries, application-rich preaching commentaries, and other pastors’ sermons, each helping (and potentially hindering) in different ways. Consulting resources early may jumpstart ideas or stunt original thought. And when a preacher does use resources, he should be clear on how he’s using them—whether primarily to source ideas or to confirm them.
Though each preacher’s approach to these questions will differ, they should always be answered with an eye to excellent preaching (not ease). To that end, consider four goals to guide our use of secondary resources in preaching.
1. Preach Originally
The best way to avoid plagiarism concerns is to write an original sermon. Preaching is inherently a creative act, and God intends to use a preacher’s unique personality and gifts to deliver his Word.
The best way to avoid plagiarism concerns is to write an original sermon.
Though secondary resources can create sparks of creativity, they may also hurt this process. For me, listening to another preacher’s sermon on the same text is unhelpful, but reading more technical exegesis gives me fodder for my creative paths. This will differ by preacher, but the goal should be an original, creative sermon that communicates in a preacher’s unique voice.
2. Preach in the Great Tradition
An original sermon that is heretical is a bad sermon. Secondary resources help us preach in conversation with all of Christ’s church throughout all of history. Checking your insights against commentaries is always wise. More generally, don’t limit yourself to consulting secondary resources only in the trenches of weekly sermon preparation. Reading good biblical theology today will help shape your instincts and intuitions months and years into the future. And listening to good sermons on other texts can sharpen your preaching skills without stifling your creativity this week.
3. Preach Pastorally
A preacher is called by God to preach to a particular people in a particular place at a particular time. As we use secondary resources, we should do so with an eye to writing a sermon tailored for the sheep God has placed in our care.
A preacher is called by God to preach to a particular people in a particular place at a particular time.
Other preachers’ sermons are designed for their people. You know your people better than John Piper or Tim Keller do—preach like it. Similarly, be careful with cut-and-paste cultural analysis. Social commentary can be quite helpful, but it can’t compete with the insights from your everyday pastoral work and relationships.
4. Preach Humbly
A good sermon glorifies Christ, not the preacher. Preaching well may impress people, but we should constantly point them to the beauty and authority of God’s Word, our primary source for preaching. And to the extent secondary resources have helped, let your people know—especially when such resources help you to make a point that’s particularly insightful. Don’t be afraid to say, “As John Calvin wrote” or “As one commentator helpfully explained.” This models humility and helps direct your listeners to Jesus and the great cloud of witnesses who also proclaim his excellency.
More Than Ethics
A plagiarized sermon represents not only a violation of ethics, but a dereliction of duty. Pastor, God has called you to use your particular gifts in the service of Christ’s blood-bought saints.
As you labor at this high calling, make wise use of resources to preach original, orthodox sermons that are both handcrafted for your people and reflective of your unique voice. Trust that God will use such sermons—and your labor in preparing them—for his glory and the edification of his church.