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Book of James as Sermon Paradigm

Are you struggling with sermon outlines and structure? Here’s what we can learn from the Book of James.

In his commentary on the Letters of James and Peter, William Barclay uses the book of James as an example of classical sermon structure. He thinks the letter of James was likely a sermon originally. Here are the elements of James that were common in ancient sermons:

  1. “They frequently carried on imaginary conversations with imaginary opponents, speaking in what has been called a kind of ‘truncated dialogue.'”
  2. “They habitually effected their transition from one part of the sermon to another, by way of a question which introduced the new subject.”
  3. “They were fond of imperatives in which they commanded their hearers to right action and to the abandoning of their errors.”
  4. “They were very fond of the rhetorical question flung out at their audience.”
  5. “They frequently dealt in apostrophes, vivid direct addresses to particular sections of the audience. So James apostrophizes the merchants out for gain and the arrogant rich.”
  6. “They were fond of personifying virtues and ices…So James personifies sin (1:15); mercy (2:13); rust (5:3).”
  7. “They sought to awaken the interest of their audience by pictures and figures from everyday life.”
  8. “They frequently used the example of famous men and women to point their moral.”
  9. “It was the custom of the ancient preachers to begin their sermon with a paradox which would arrest the attention of the hearers. James does that by telling a man to think it all joy when he is involved in trials (1:2).”
  10. “The ancient preachers could speak with harshness and with sternness. So James addresses his reader as ‘Foolish fellow’….(2:20).”
  11. “They ancient preachers had certain standard ways of constructing their sermons: [(a) using antithesis, setting the right beside the wrong way, (b) using searching questions, (c) they often used quotations]”

If we boil all this down, you may have the makings of a pretty good sermon:

Big picture:

  • Start sermon with a paradox
  • Start individual points with a question
  • Structure for points: Points can be centered around: an antithesis, a searching question, or a quote


  • Create imaginary dialogue
  • Use imperatives
  • Ask rhetorical questions
  • Single out particular types of people for application
  • Use personification for big points
  • Use illustrations from everyday life
  • Use famous people as examples
  • Be harsh when you need to

Quotations from pp. 28-29.