Getting to the good news

Reintroducing Four Pages for a new season

As the lecture came to an end each week, after moving through another challenging doctrinal discourse, Reinhard Hütter would often say with his characteristic gentle tone, “Fear not, brothers and sisters: Sunday is coming.”

He meant this to be encouraging–that somehow, in the mysteries that Sunday worship would bring, God would give a word to soothe those whose theological explorations had left them splintered and speechless.

And yet maybe these words don’t have the same comforting tone, given the twists and turns preaching has taken over the past two years. Starting back in March 2020, the sermon increasingly became simultaneously essential and deeply exhausting. Preaching was one of the few things that we maintained during the shutdowns and shelter-at-home orders–in many ways becoming the essential task for the week–and the need for a hopeful word of grace became even more crucial. Our exhaustion simultaneously manifested as we found ourselves preaching that hopeful word to empty rooms and unresponsive camera lenses, week after week. Maybe you are among the clergy who found their creative capacities completely consumed sometime last year.

As we emerge from that crisis period and the triage-style preaching it brought about, maybe you are starting to take stock of what this essentiality and exhaustion means for your work as a preacher going forward. Maybe that essentiality has awakened in you a hunger for new practices, modes, and forms of preaching. Maybe the exhaustion has brought out a craving for more spiritual meat in your preparations for preaching, nourishment to aid your spirit as you go about reading scripture and constructing a sermon from it. Hopefully, in the past few years especially, we have rediscovered a need for a spirituality and a grammar for preaching: a spirituality to sustain us as we go to scripture and come back to the people with a word; a grammar to help us make sense of what we are saying in a world where words are both a dime-a-dozen and incredibly fraught.

Maybe, in our search for such a spirituality and grammar, it helps to clarify some foundational assumptions. First, preaching needs to actually be good news. Maybe that seems obvious, but it is as crucial as ever, and yet I think so many sermons are still missing that basic mark. Too many aren’t especially newsworthy, and it’s questionable that the vision they impart is “good.” Secondly, preaching needs to be focused on God and especially on God’s graceful acting in our world. Again, that may seem obvious–and yet preaching continues to fall too easily into the trap of being religiously window-dressed self-help. We need a spirituality and grammar for preaching that will hold us to both of these assumptions: that our sermons should get to good news by centering our focus on God’s gracious acts, in scripture and in our own moment here and now.

Available from MinistryMatters

Over two decades ago, Paul Scott Wilson articulated a structure for preaching that aims directly at these assumptions. Wilson’s Four Pages of the Sermon initially appears to be a method for constructing a sermon in terms of four “pages” that correspond to the trouble and grace–in the text and in the world–that together comprise the gospel.[1] And Wilson’s approach is certainly not less than that; indeed, Wilson’s book takes preachers through a process step-by-step, even practically tying these steps to particular days of the week. But Wilson’s homiletical vision is broader than a mere model. These Four Pages are a powerful set of grammatical principles that are at work, implicitly or explicitly, in every sermon–even ones not explicitly written using Wilson’s process–helping preachers discover exactly how thoroughgoing our commitment really is to the challenge and hope of the gospel, of genuinely good news. 

Here’s how that works: each of the four “pages” corresponds to the components of a simple equation that should guide our preaching: trouble + grace = gospel. Wilson is beautifully clear: the gospel is God’s action, experienced as news that is good, and with a double edge. Gospel condemns and liberates, demands and frees. Gospel is trouble: it focuses on our responsibility and how we are called to repentance, as well as awakening us to the suffering and injustice wrought by sin’s effects on creation. Gospel is also grace, the unmerited action of God on our behalf and the Spirit’s graceful presence that empowers, guides, and even cajoles us to respond.

As Wilson describes it, a sermon can be divided into four theological “pages”: 1) the trouble revealed in the text, 2) the trouble in our world, 3) the grace in the text, and 4) the grace in our world. These pages can become a literal structure for a sermon manuscript or outline, or at least working metaphors for a sermon’s balanced structure. Trouble and grace, in the text and in the world, should find a balanced presentation in our preaching, in order to give the gospel its fullest expression.

To this end, after spending some time in prayer and study with the biblical text, the preacher will find it helpful to begin by writing a theme sentence for the sermon as a whole. The subject of this sentence is God (in one of the Trinity's three persons) paired with an action verb along with any necessary modifiers. This sentence, describing God's gracious action, will also be the theme of Page Three—Grace in the Text. Wilson uses his strongest admonition here: this sentence should be concise, highly active, and with one of the three Triune persons as the subject. No weak verbs—”God is love” is a wonderful phrase, but not active and specific enough to name grace in our sermons on Sunday morning—and no conditionalities. You can begin to see how this form is not merely a grammar, but also a spirituality—training your eyes to seek out the gracious action of God in a sermon text. Starting there can be a radical reorientation for many of us who are better trained to break apart and see the troubling issues in the text and in our communities. Then, the sentences guiding the other three “pages” of the sermon can be distilled as the preacher names the trouble in the text that God’s action is rising to meet as well as contemporary experiences of both trouble and grace.

The grammatical and spiritual benefits can be seen even more clearly in Wilson’s funny little acronym: The Tiny Dog Is Now Mine, a mnemonic device for remembering that a sermon’s unity comprises one text, one theme, one doctrine, one need, one image, and one mission. A preacher who keeps a clear focus on each of these pieces–which can seem a lot at first, until you discover in practice how mutually reinforcing they are–will find themselves crafting a sermon that actually proclaims the gospel with clarity and conviction. All of these pieces that Wilson describes, and the other strategies he includes in his book, are meant to keep a clear focus on the transformational movement from trouble to grace, to form a preacher’s spirituality for better seeing and naming how God is at work in our world even now in the midst of an all-too-cruel and death-dealing world.

We hope this (re)introduction to Wilson’s Four Pages gives you a sense for how powerful a form it can be, both in helping you prepare your sermon each week and in helping sustain your spiritual life through the inevitable fatigue that comes with that work. And because we know that worship matters, we are going to help you put the Four Pages into use in your ministry! Starting in the next couple of weeks, you will start to see articles appearing here on MinistryMatters, weekly reflections on a lectionary text for the coming Sunday that will directly engage with Four Pages.

In those pieces, you will find: 

  • The guiding sentences for each page

  • Some key illustrations or considerations for a given page

  • Insightful questions that can help you craft your own version of that page, using your own images, stories, and deeper understanding of your community’s context

These reflections will not be heavily exegetical; we’re sure you’ve got plenty of commentaries on hand, and we know there are other resources out there that already offer those pieces. The reflections you will find on MinistryMatters are intentionally written to help you move from your exegetical work with a text toward the act of preaching the text–to help you move through the trouble and the grace toward the gospel of Jesus Christ! Fear not, friends–Sunday’s coming, and that is good news indeed.

[1] Paul Scott Wilson, The Four Pages of the Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching, Revised and updated (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018).

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