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Plagiarism – What It Is and What It Is Not

Category Articles
Date June 15, 2010

Let’s admit it, many, many preachers have preached borrowed sermons taken from others, sometimes to good effect sometimes not. If it is the result of laziness to prepare thoroughly, it is both wrong and sinful. Is it always out of place? I think not.

In my first pastorate after I had read Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Its Cure by Dr M Lloyd-Jones, I was fascinated by his handling of Philippians 4 verses 6 and 7. It seemed to me to bring out the essence of the text brilliantly. In my youthful enthusiasm I made my own notes of the chapter and preached it including the excellent illustration towards the end. When I did preach it I seemed to enjoy unusual liberty to a congregation which warmed to the sermon. One of the men in the church came to me afterward and said to me ‘We need that in print!’ I never had the courage to tell him that it was in print but under the name of a far greater preacher! I had also failed to acknowledge my source, which is always only right and fair.

Occasionally a sermon by someone else seems such a perfect exposition of truth that it becomes an irresistible urge to preach it and so to share it with God’s people. John Reisinger once announced to his morning congregation that he wanted them back in the evening to listen to the greatest sermon they had ever heard! When they arrived for the evening service he had lined the pews with J C Ryle’s book on Holiness,1 and he then proceeded to preach one of the chapters! He did this in order to whet the appetite of the people in order that they would read the entire book. This seemed to work! Was what he did wrong? It was an exception to the rule as far has his ministry was concerned, but it was perhaps a wise approach to awakening the need for people to read.

Normally, preaching is the result of thorough preparation. As a rule, it is doing thorough research when the preacher wades through as many excellent commentaries that are available on the text, an in-depth translation of the Hebrew or Greek original, studying as many other sources as possible and then taking time to make as many notes as are required for the final result. Since preaching is truth preached through the personality of the preacher and in the power of the Holy Spirit, it may come over as somewhat artificial and unreal if he preaches another man’s sermon. Take the authors of Scripture. The book of Amos is unique because while it is the inerrant Word of God it was delivered through a man with an agricultural background. It is Amos and no one else, Amos delivering God’s truth in his unique way. The same holds true for other authors in the Bible such as John and his very special fourth gospel and then Luke who makes his own particular contribution to the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus. However, do we not use these very sources to bring the Word of God home to the hearts and minds of people?

I wrestled with the problem of plagiarism for many years, understanding on the one hand that it can be dangerous, dishonest, insincere and artificial but on the other hand robbing both the preacher and the congregation of an exposition of truth which may do untold good to their souls. I asked Dr Gerald Griffiths, a great preacher in Canada, about this, to which he replied: ‘No problem, just make it your own.’ His simple but wise reply was an enormous help.

Taking another man’s sermon and preaching it should not be practiced as a rule. However, it is not always wrong. Much preaching is so feeble, so weak that it would perhaps be better for the preacher to use another man’s sermon than to dish up the dish-water moralization so many congregations have to put up with. It was once reported to Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who never disappointed his hearers, that one of his students had preached one of his sermons. The student was called in. Spurgeon asked him whether this was true. The student replied in the negative. ‘Then where did you get it from?’ asked Spurgeon. When the student told him his source, Spurgeon chuckled and admitted: ‘Well, as a matter of fact, so did I!’

In a real sense our expositions consist of words and truths that are borrowed from other sources, whether they are commentaries or sermons read. All truth is from God, whoever the vehicle through whom it is declared. If George Whitfield said it better than I can ever wish to say it, then is there any harm if I repeat his words truthfully, heartily, passionately, sincerely and humbly while acknowledging the source and giving credit to whom credit is due? If a preacher should want to declare a sermon preached by another the following is important:

1. Make it your own.

2. Extract all words and phrases that make it foreign to you and to your hearers, and express the truths preached in your own way and with your own words.

3. If possible use your own illustrations. I once preached the content of Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s outstanding exposition of James chapter 1 verses 2 to 4, but in my own words and with my own illustrations. His exposition of those verses was so good that I could never have done it better. Why rob the congregation of such a masterly treatment of the text?

4. Always, always acknowledge your source. That is only right and fitting. It will also prevent you from taking another man’s sermon content and preaching it too often, for then the congregation will suspect you of laziness to do your own hard work in preparing to preach.

At the end of the day our goal in preaching is so wonderfully summed up by Nehemiah with reference to the ministry of the Levites of whom it was said: ‘The Levites helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense so that the people understood the reading.’ (Neh. 8:7b-8). Years ago a lady visiting from another city shared in a Bible study group I was leading that she thanked the Lord for a pastor who taught her to love the Word of God. What she said was both tragic and encouraging. Tragic because she had been a Christian for many years and I happened to know of a number of ministers who had served in the church successively of which she was a member. Why only now late in life could she testify about a godly, faithful expositor of Christian truth who, as she put it, had ‘taught her to love the Word of God.’ When all is said and done, that is what preaching should do. Use all means possible to awaken such a love amongst the people of God. Be sincere and do not forget that what you do you will do in the presence of God who is the author of truth and who wants his people to know it, and to whom you will one day give account.

Using another man’s sermon wisely and making it your own must be the absolute exception and not the rule.


    • Holiness

      Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots

      by J. C. Ryle

      price From: $15.00
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      Let’s admit it, many, many preachers have preached borrowed sermons taken from others, sometimes to good effect sometimes not. If it is the result of laziness to prepare thoroughly, it is both wrong and sinful. Is it always out of place? I think not. In my first pastorate after I had read Spiritual Depression: Its […]

Taken with permission from Preaching & Preachers, Volume 5, Edition 1, edited by Martin Holdt, Johann Odendaal and Dereck Stone.

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