It happened again to me last week. Just one day after I posted my essay on sermon plagiarism, I was sitting in my church, listening to my pastor deliver the Wednesday night message and something caught my ear. I had read the passage he was preaching from many times before and had passed over the obvious in the text . . . three times God spoke of Caleb as a man who wholly followed the Lord (Josh 14:8, 9, 14). What a commendation for any man of God . . . to wholly or completely, fully, with every ounce of one’s being, follow Yahweh—Jehovah, the “I AM.” Here was a description of a man devoted to God, used by our pastor as an example for us to consider and follow.
As I sat in the service that night, I divided my mind between hearing the Word and its thoughts about Caleb and thinking about what I had just written. As it turns out, I needed three messages for the coming Sunday, having been asked to fill the pulpit for a brother who was to be out of town during the week. Maybe I could use this great idea for one of those sermons. But would I be violating what I had just written? If I preached a message out of Joshua 14, would I be plagiarizing my pastor’s message?
Since this recent iteration of the discussion on using someone else’s sermons, there has been a fair bit of conversation on the internet about this topic, (e.g. here, here, here, and here) with people resurrecting essays from writers in the recent past who have weighed in. I asked the question last week, Can I preach another man’s sermon? Clearly some men think that the answer is an absolute yes! As I was looking at conversations on this topic past and present, I discovered an essay by a brother Baptist from Kentucky that argues that sermon plagiarism is nearly impossible. Looking at the sermons of others? Who doesn’t do it? All preachers should do it to become better preachers.
Wise pastors are doing just that. They’re viewing the best preachers in the world on a weekly basis. As they do, they become better preachers. They’re also finding great content that will bring transformation to the lives of the congregants God has placed under their teaching ministry.
He then offers six reasons why it is nearly impossible to plagiarize a sermon—no one’s thoughts are original, repeating what someone else has taught us is the preacher’s responsibility, preachers are called to be effective not original, preaching sermons is not the same as writing a book or an article, those who are being plagiarized aren’t considered to be plagiarizers, and there is no concrete definition of sermon plagiarism. Wow! I guess the adage, “if my bullets fit your gun, then fire them,” is ok after all. This is apparently what JD Greear told Ed Litton, the preacher at the center of the most recent plagiarism dust up.
But other Christian scholars are not so charitable. D. A. Carson suggests that sermon plagiarism is “wickedness” and one who is guilty should be terminated, immediately. “Taking over another sermon and preaching it as if it were yours is always and unequivocally wrong, and if you do it you should resign or be fired immediately.” Note the seriousness of this in Carson’s mind—“always and unequivocally wrong.” Not much room there for disagreement. To back up this statement, Carson lists three reasons why sermon plagiarism is “always and unequivocally wrong.” First, the preacher who plagiarizes is stealing; second, he is deceiving his audience; third, the plagiarizing preacher is not devoting himself to the Bible to allow it to transform him. Tom Rainer calls sermon plagiarism one of the four stupid things for which a pastor can be fired.
With such widely differing views, wherein does the truth lie? Is this just a matter of personal opinion—I think you are stealing, you think this is acceptable? Let’s go to my opening narrative of thinking about using the sermon of my pastor for a sermon I needed to preach in the near future. First, let’s consider how one might preach this section of Joshua in the first place. From a reading of the narrative, we see Caleb being marked out for his extra ordinary commitment to Yahweh at a time when such commitment was rare in Israel. Three times in the space of a few verses, the phrase “wholly followed the Lord my God” (יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהָֽי) is found in the text. Anyone reading the Scripture carefully can see that there is a clear emphasis on this aspect of Caleb’s life. By my listening to the faithful exegesis of the passage by my pastor, I can draw inspiration for a sermon of my own from his good message. This isn’t plagiarism but it could be if I am not careful.
At what point would inspiration, which is acceptable, become plagiarism which is sinful for at least the reasons Carson mentions? This topic has been recently discussed by others but I offer my two cents also. I hate to admit this, but it would be nearly impossible for me to preach my pastor’s recent message to others, for several reasons. First, he passed out no notes and I took none. Plus, the message wasn’t recorded, so it would be really challenging for me to reproduce anything like what he said. Second, he used a rather extensive illustration of the Amazon river, the world’s largest river, describing it from its headwaters in Peru to its mouth in Brazil. He cited some amazing stats about the river, which I am sure he got somewhere. But frankly, I was listening to him and thinking about my future sermon needs, wondering how I could use Caleb in a sermon without merely plagiarizing the sermon, and thinking what a mighty river God had created. I couldn’t begin to reproduce his illustration as he uttered it and any attempt I might make to do so would fail miserably. It was uniquely his. Even as I write this essay, I cannot exactly tell you what the point of the illustration was (not his fault but mine as my own mind was a bit divided at that moment). If I were to preach a similar sermon, I would likely say that I heard my pastor preach a message on Caleb, but why would I need to do so? He was preaching the text and showing what the text meant. By my doing similarly, I would be merely being faithful to the Scripture. It would be easy to derive inspiration from his message without being guilty of plagiarism.
I have a sermon that I developed a few years ago, and which I preach on occasion, on the single word AMEN. What a great word, derived from the Greek word, derived from the Hebrew word, all pronounced similarly. In Romanian, the word is AMIN. Same word. It means “truly, certainly, so be it, verily.” I start my message with the statement “This morning, I will preach another man’s sermon.” That will wake up most sleepy-eyed saints! The sermon I allude to is one by Abraham Booth, pastor of Little Prescot Street Baptist Church of London, who with his fellow London ministers at the beginning of the 19th century were preaching a series of messages on the Lord’s Prayer. His assignment—the final word Amen. Just one word. When I preach my message on this word, I look at the idea in Hebrew and Greek, citing its usages in the Bible and then when it comes to application, I rehearse some of Booth’s implications that he drew out for those who use the word in their prayer. So, in doing this, while I may be using the content of another preacher, I give full credit in the application portion, unless I go beyond what Booth said with application of my own, but no one could accuse me of merely plagiarizing Abraham Booth. This does not constitute plagiarism because I give credit where credit is due. I have done my own study in the Scripture on the concept of Amen, so no one could suggest I am being lazy or not allowing the text to speak to me.
Someone has suggested that sermons cannot be plagiarized because there is no pecuniary gain by doing so. And we all plagiarize to some extent. But plagiarism amounts, at minimum, to the use of someone else’s intellectual property as one’s own. The advantage to the user may not be financial, it may be intangible. I am increasing my reputation through false pretense. As I said last week, preaching is not a performance art. The power of the sermon rests not in its structure, its content, its delivery, or even in its deliverer. The power of the sermon rests in its biblical fidelity and the breath of God which takes the preached Word of God and applies it into the soul of the hearer. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.”
Sermon plagiarism is a much talked about issue today. Here is a recent podcast by 9Marks and Mark Dever. It is something we may be tempted to do, even for good reasons. Why preach a weak message when I can preach a strong one? Well, if God has called us to serve Him and his people, and regular preaching is a part of that duty, should we not do our part to prepare his Word for the instruction of his people? If it’s a case of being too busy to have sufficient time to prepare, then are we doing the right things in the first place? I knew of one chap who was planting a church, working on an advanced degree, teaching in a Bible institute, working a full-time job AND had a wife and several children. When did he sleep? If anyone could justify “borrowing” someone else’s sermon, he seemed like a good candidate. But rather than doing that, he began to realize that he was over extended. He cut back from some of the good things he was doing to concentrate on the better things. Preaching is good, hard work. Preparing yourself as well as your message is an important part of the task. Do the hard work as a faithful minister of Jesus Christ. You may look back on your early sermons as works in progress. But in time, the joy of the pulpit will be yours as you amass a knowledge of the Word that makes sermon preparation later in life a rich joy.
I decided not to preach on Caleb after all. I prepared a new message on Daniel 1. Having spent nearly fifty years doing sermon work, I have a reservoir of knowledge to work with and was able to prepare what I hope was a suitable study for the Lord’s people. Daniel was also a man who wholly followed the Lord his God, even if the text doesn’t use those words.