Convictionless churches are empty churches. Sure, it may be cool these days to be noncommittal. Sure, backing off and saying that you “could be wrong” is transparent and will gain you some respect among a skeptical audience. Of course, giving all the possible interpretations of a passage of Scripture or a theological position is educational and disarming. But there is something different about preaching that requires the preacher to present a more anchoring hope. Standing behind the pulpit meant something to the Reformers. It mean much more than, “I am going to stand behind this block of wood and give you some options about what to believe.” Simply put, that lacks conviction. And even if you are a diehard pragmatist who is only about getting the numbers in your pews to go up, this is not the way to go about it. Because, frankly, if you have little or  no definite convictions, then you are neither a preacher nor a pastor.

“Give them something to believe.” I am told that every time Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, ended his theology classes, he would say, “Men, give them something to believe.” People are looking for something to believe. They want to rest the weight of their anxiety upon something stable. They have enough instability in their lives. They don’t want to go to church to hear the preacher teach. They want him to preach. What do I mean by that? Well, teaching and preaching are not the same thing. They share quite a bit in the semantic domain of discipleship, but they also are very distinct and need to be used very intentionally. How are they distinct? Let me give you a few ways:

Preaching is exhortation; teaching is education.

Preaching is the discharge of the Gospel of hope; teaching is discipleship of the Gospel of hope.

Preaching puts wind in the sails; teaching put an anchor in the ground.

Preaching raises our eyes to the things we know with great conviction; teaching helps us to understand what things we can have legitimate conviction about.

Preaching tells you which option is correct; teaching gives you all the options.

Of course, there is overlap, but it is important to see the distinction so that you can follow what I am about to say.

If this is true and preaching is about giving people something to believe, rather than giving them the options of what they can believe, what do you do when you come to a passage of Scripture and you are unsure about what it means? And, let’s be honest here – this happens quite often. You are preaching through a book of the Bible and you come to a place where the commentaries are not in agreement, there seem to be multiple legitimate options concerning its interpretation, and you are left scratching your head.  You don’t know how to preach this passage. You don’t want to be dishonest and just choose an option. And you don’t want to turn this into a drawn-out sermon on, “This is what the Calvinists believe, and why”…”This is what the Methodists believe, and why”… “This is what Lutherans believe, and why.” “In the end folks, you are going to have to make up your own minds. Now let us pray. Dear God thanks for this lesson, whatever it was . . .” This does not really make for a good sermon and it does not give your hearers anything to believe.

But again, we don’t want to be dishonest and just choose one option for the sake of staying faithful to the preaching venue. So what do we do? First, my advice (then I will illustrate the issue).

1. Briefly let people know that there are multiple options, but don’t go through all the options in detail.

2. Briefly tell people which one you are most convinced about and why.

3. Preach with unashamed confidence the principles of the chosen option, giving them something to believe. So long as the principles are true, your integrity before the Lord will be covered.

“But how can I preach with ‘unashamed confidence’ something that I am not that confident about?” Because it is the principles which put confidence in your voice, even if you remain unsure about the exact understanding of this particular passage.

For example (this may not be the best example, but it is the first one which comes to mind), in John 3, there is a very confusing passage about Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. Jesus is waxing poetic about the new birth and how one must be twice-born to make it to the kingdom of God. Nicodemus is confused about this teaching and says, “How can these things be?”  Jesus responds with a stern rebuke, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things? (John 3:9-10).

Jesus comes down hard on ol’ Nicodemus here, stating emphatically that he, someone who was responsible for the education of Israel (Nicodemus was a Pharisee), should have already known about the new birth. This should not be something new to Nicodemus. The problem for the interpreter/preacher is that we are not really sure why Jesus comes down so hard on Nicodemus. After all, when we look back into the Old Testament, even with our fancy Bibleworks and Logos electronic study tools, it is hard for us to find the new birth in the Old Testament. Now of course, there are a lot of options. Some people find the new birth in the New Covenant, but that seems problematic since it was yet future. Some people see it in Psalm 87 in reference to the gates of Jerusalem, but this seems entirely too obscure for Jesus to give Nicodemus such a strong rebuke.

In the end, I don’t know with certainty the answer to this, but I think Jesus is talking about the death that came after the fall. You see, being “born again” has to do with our spiritual life being revitalized through the Gospel. God told Adam that the day he ate of the fruit of the Garden, he and Eve would die (Gen. 2:17). Of course, we all know how that went. He ate. He died. However, we know he did not physically die that day. Physical death became a part of his physiology as he and Eve were restricted from the tree of life (Gen. 3:22). That day, he died spiritually. His relationship with God was cut off. This is death of the soul. It is spiritual separation from God. And in order to enter into God’s kingdom, that spiritual death has to be remedied. The only way for this to occur is for the spiritually dead person to be reborn with regard to his relationship with God. So there you have it. Rebirth as a prominent theological theme in the Old Testament, even if we don’t have it explicitly mentioned as such anywhere in the Old Testament!

Now, that is the interpretation I lean toward. Am I right? I am not sure, but, like I said, I feel that it is the best of the possible options. Therefore, that is the one I preach. Now, my integrity is held fast even when I am not as sure as I would like to be. Why? Because even if I am wrong about this particular passage teaching the restoration of the failures of the Garden, I am sure that the principles of the reality of spiritual death before God and the restoration of spiritual life are true. Therefore, I am still preaching truth, even if this particular passage is not meant to preach that particular truth. As Robert Chisholm, an old seminary prof of mine, used to say, “Good sermon; wrong text.”

Sometimes we are going to have to settle for good sermons with wrong texts. Sometimes we are going to be unsure of the exact interpretation of a passage of Scripture, but we don’t have to sacrifice “giving them something to believe” due to the obscurity of our text. We can still “preach the word” with full integrity by focusing on the principles that are universally true even if we end up being wrong about our interpretation. It is important that you let people know that there is some legitimate debate and what you are about to preach could be wrong. But assure them that the principles that you preach are not wrong as they are found in other places in Scripture. That is how you preach a sermon when you are not sure what the passage means.

Give them something to believe.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    15 replies to "How to Preach a Sermon Even When You Are Not Sure What the Passage Means"

    • Clint Roberts

      I once heard televangelist Jesse Duplantis spend 45 minutes telling ridiculous stories of his personal visit to heaven where he high-fived & exchanged miracle stories w/ the apostles as they escorted him to his mansion. No truths were heralded & nothing of substance learned. So it wasn’t preaching and it wasn’t teaching. What was it?

      My general response to that & other ‘sermons’ like it is, more or less, …

    • Don Sartain

      I just have to say, I approve of Clint’s response, lol.

    • cherylu


      This isn’t the main point of your article, but rather a comment or question on the illustration you used.

      I have always thought that Ezekiel 36:26-27 was a reference in the OT to the new birth: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

      Yes? No?

    • C Michael Patton


      The problem with the New Covenant option is that it is yet future. Christ said that no one will enter unless that are born again. If this is the case, what of those who come before the fulfillment of the prophecy in Ez?

      But the reason why that option could still be on the table is that God, I suppose, could have given the before Christ Saints a new heart/rebirth at their death or sometime after Christ.

      • C Michael Patton

        And then there is the debate about whether the Ols Testament saints were even born again.

    • cherylu

      Thanks Michael.

      I don’t at all want to derail your thread. Guess I don’t understand what those Ezekiel verses are about if they aren’t about the new birth.

      But I reckon that is a discussion for another time and place.

    • C Michael Patton

      Those verses are about the New Covenant. I think that there was a shift in the New Testament to where the presence of the Spirit was different than it was before. For example, look at Pentecost, look at Christ’s message about the coming “helper,” look at the gifts of the Spirit, etc. So the New Covenant brought about a tremendous change. I just don’t think that this change brought about the “new birth” as Christ implies that all people who are God’s people, Old and New Testament, must be born again.

      Of course, like I said, there are ways to overcome this. But I am comfortable with my understanding of the New Birth as expressed in this post. Anyone standing beofre God had/has to be born again, having their broken relationship with God healed.

      As a side note, this does give very strong support the the doctrine of a legal imputation of the adamic sin which Eastern Orthdoox reject as well as, I think, N.T. Wright. This is all futher clarified in Romans 5:12ff.

    • theoldadam

      I like what Luther said, “If you’re not sure of the meaning of a passage, or verse, then skip it.” (paraphrased).

      Preach on the ones that you know the meaning of.

    • C Michael Patton

      I would have to skip too many! 🙂

    • theoldadam

      Me too.

      But the sermons on the ones that we know would be barn burners!

    • Pete again

      John Chrystostom’s Homily 10 on Romans 5:12

      “As the best physicians always take great pains to discover the source of diseases, and go to the very fountain of the mischief, so does the blessed Paul also. Hence after having said that we were justified, and having shown it from the Patriarch, and from the Spirit, and from the dying of Christ (for He would not have died unless He intended to justify), he next confirms from other sources also what he had at such length demonstrated. And he confirms his proposition from things opposite, that is, from death and sin. How, and in what way? He enquires whence death came in, and how it prevailed. How then did death come in and prevail? “Through the sin of one.” But what means, “for that all have sinned?” This; he having once fallen, even they that had not eaten of the tree did from him, all of them, become mortal.”

      In summary: death is imputed onto us because of Adam’s sin, not the guilt of the sin itself.

      The Roman Catholic tradition’s understanding of “original sin” occurred when Augustine took Paul’s phrase “ἐφ᾽ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον”, “in quo omnes peccaverunt”, to be “in whom [Adam] all sinned”.

      The Augustinian interpretation of Paul’s “ἐφ᾽ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον” as meaning “in whom all sinned” is a disastrous translation of this preposition. All modern translations agree that its proper meaning is “because.”

      So, according to Augustine all sinned “in Adam”, which he understood as meaning that because Adam sinned every other human being, each of his descendants, is counted as a sinner. This where Augustine’s doctrine of “original sin” – that every human is born a sinner and deserves death because of it – comes from.

      By the way, “original sin” is also the cause of the need of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

    • Carrie Hunter

      Hmmm, here I was thinking that every human is born a sinner and deserves death is where the crucifixion came from.

      But oh well.

      Michael great post. Fortunately at both Faith Bible and Bridgeway we have men that know how to preach. Honestly, and with authority.

    • Pete again

      Carrie Hunter,

      There is a big difference between

      1) being born INTO a world of sin and INTO a world of death; in other words, into a life where sin and death are a certainty (aka ancestral sin, what the eastern church believes)


      2) being born ALREADY GUILTY of the horrible sin of rejecting God (aka original sin, RCC and some Protestants)

      Big difference.

      Roman Catholic dogma such as “Limbo” (which has been retracted during recent years as the RCC has “evolved on the issue”) and the IC of Mary are direct results.

      And this “original sin” mess was all started from a very poor Latin translation of Romans, because blessed Augustine couldn’t read the original Greek translations of Scripture.

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