What Counts as Plagiarism in a Sermon?

Posted by Pastor J.D. on April 13, 2012

Here’s an article from Piper on plagiarism I ran across recently.

The question of plagiarism in sermon preparation is rather tricky, primarily because we are interpreting a document (the Bible) which has been interpreted by thousands of people for the last 3000 years. Almost everything we say has already been said elsewhere. If not, we have reason to worry! If you come up with “something no one has ever seen before,” there might be a reason. The faith was committed “once for all” to the saint.

A while back I did a study of the official “rules” of plagiarism in preaching. They’re really hard to nail down. There are lots of articles written about it–people seem to agree that you don’t have to acknowledge every single instance when you gain an insight from someone else. On the other hand, we can’t copy another’s work and ideas and represent them as our own.

“Jesus paid a debt He didn’t owe because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay.” That’s not a verse… but does that idea need to be cited to Anselm and the phrasing back to my middle school camp speaker (who I’m sure just plagiarized it from someone else)?

“Jesus is the true Noah, the ark in which we find shelter from God’s wrath.” That idea is not directly spelled out in the Bible. I heard it first from a Baptist preacher in high school, and most recently that idea has been popularized by Tim Keller. Do I need to cite either of them when I say it?

Does John Piper need to cite Jonathan Edwards when he advances the idea that God’s glory is demonstrated by our delight in him?

Generally, I operate by the following rules for myself:

1.     If I ever preach the gist of another person’s sermon, meaning that I used the lion’s share of their message’s organization, points, or applications, I give credit. I don’t ever think it’s a good idea to preach someone else’s sermon… but in those rare times when you feel like you just can’t help it, you have to give credit. A sermon is a major thought unit. If it’s not yours, you have to acknowledge where it came from.

2.    If I glean an interpretation of a passage from someone, but the organization of the points, application and presentation are my own, I generally do not feel the need to cite. After all, if it is a ‘new interpretation,’ it is probably heresy. We should be generally clear, however, that we are learning from others (this is the tricky part—how much and how often so to be honest and yet not overly cumbersome). Usually, I do not cite which commentary or author gave me the interpretation of a Greek or Hebrew word. Thus, I did not feel the need to explain when I learn a Hebrew or Greek nuance from MacArthur, Carson, Keller, Kidner, Kittel, or whomever.

Should you ever credit someone who illumines your mind to the real meaning of a passage? I think sometimes you should. For example, I learn a lot from Tim Keller and sometimes I’ll hear him interpret a passage in a way that blows my mind, but one that seems so natural and obvious to the text that I’m sure it is right–and it is so obvious that I wonder how everyone doesn’t see it that way. Often I’ll acknowledge my indebtedness to him, but if the title, organization, and wording of points  and application are my own, often I won’t.

Piper says it this way: “To base the structure of your sermon on someone else’s sermon, but to use your own words, is plagiarism. The author on whose work you are basing the structure of your sermon would need to be cited.” That is tough, because sometimes I feel like someone’s outline cannot be improved on, or it flows so logically out of the passage that you wonder how you could be faithful to the text and use any other outline! When I come up with the exact same outline they did, I feel like that outline is now mine and the texts, not just theirs. But, I try to be zealous and cite… though, admittedly, probably not often enough.

My manuscript, which we publish each week along with the sermon, is much more robust in its citations than the spoken word. Putting citations in manuscript does not mean you never have to cite, but it can serve as a good “safety measure” for those instances when you just aren’t sure.

3.     When I take a direct point or a line or the creative wording of a truth from someone, I feel like I should cite. I obey this rule… usually. The first 19 times I said “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him,” I cited Piper.  Now I only cite him on that phrase every other time. People at my church know where I got it from. A newcomer might think I am trying to imply that I made it up. But I would annoy my congregation to death if every time I mentioned it now I said, “As John Piper says…”

4.     When I give a list that someone else has come up with or offer some piece of cultural analysis, I feel like I should cite. Again, a list or an organizational scheme is a thought unit. The truths inside that structure may not be unique to that person, but the organization of the presentation of those points is.

5.     If I hear a story told by someone else that reminds me of a story of your own, and I tell that story from my own life, I don’t think I need always to identify where I got the idea for that story from originally. I frequently hear intros and applications for which I find corollaries in my own life. Sometimes I feel the need to cite where the idea originated, and sometimes I don’t… it’s kind of a gut thing that depends on on how truly unique the idea was. For example, Tim Keller tells a story about how he hated classical music in college and only studied it to graduate college to get a job to make money, but now he uses his money to go to classical music concerts because he has learned to love it. He uses that to explain the difference between Gospel-change and religious change. I found an analogy to that in my own life with a Drama/Theatre class I took in college. I didn’t make that up. I really took the class. Should I cite Keller as the inspiration for that story? Not sure. Probably. The first time I told that to my church, I noted that I had heard that explained by Keller. The 2nd and 3rd times I did not. Maybe I should have. It is a pretty unique story, but one I find corollaries to in my own life and that illustrates a very non-unique point quite well.

I once read Spurgeon to say that you should master a few authors to the point that you can predict what they will say before they say it. I heard Peter Kreeft and Keller say the same thing. And I have done just that. My dilemma is that I have listened to Tim Keller now so much that I tend to plagiarize him before even hearing him teach through a particular passage! By that I mean I know how he’ll spin a passage even before I hear him do it, and I will sometimes end up doing that even without hearing him teach on it. There’s a reason for that–I think he’s right in how he interprets the Bible. BTW, I told him that once, and he laughed and said he was the same way with Ed Clowney. And Ed Clowney was personal friends with Savanarola, and used to steal from his sermons, too.

I try to be as transparent as I can with my congregation that I am heavily indebted to some particular theologians and teachers, and even some friends. Recently these have included Keller, Lewis, Piper, Kreeft, Packer, MacDonald, Luther, Edwards, Powlison, Welch, Stanley, Driscoll, and others. We also publish a manuscript each week in which I try to be a little clearer about sources I am drawing from about various points. I’ve found that most of these guys are heavily indebted to their own set of people they draw from.

I want to be zealous so as not to represent myself as more brilliant and original than I really am. The truth is I have had only 3 truly original ideas in my life, and they were not really that good. Almost all the others have been learned from the historic church, both ancient and modern.

What are your thoughts? Can you help me think through this?

Pastor J.D.


J.D. Greear is pastor of The Summit Church, in Raleigh-Durham, NC and author of Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (2011) and Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved (2013). More

18 responses to What Counts as Plagiarism in a Sermon?

  1. J.D., I think you are pretty sound in your thinking here. I follow the same basic principles in the development of my messages. Couple thoughts:

    Any and all of those who have gone before us should be honored that their material (in proper context) is being used beyond their own sphere of influence.

    At the risk of sounding simplistic, I would argue that expository preaching is basically “plagiarism.” So, the question is really; who can/should we plagiarize besides the Holy Spirit and to what extent?

  2. Great insight Pastor. Am thankful for the way you have thought through this. This really helps me as I prepare messages weekly!

  3. Great Post! This is something I think about quite a bit.

    Quick question, though: Do you always cite while preaching, or do you leave that for the manuscript?

  4. Hey Bro its good to hear someone else’s thoughts in working through this. I think I line up pretty much along the same lines. There are some people that are so influential that you just can’t help but be influenced by them even in the structuring and delivery of a message. Like you in those cases I generally try to convey my indebtedness and not cite every single thought individually. The sticky thing is when you start with someone else’s thought and then develop it further and more fully until it becomes your own. For example, The Story was a concept of mine 2 years ago when I wrote a chapter for Nelson & Ashford’s book. I started with the meta-narrative concept gleaned from Chris Wright and then started working through the evangelistic implications. I wrote out 4 worldview questions to transition the conversations and a general outline for the tract – then I ran into the guys at Spread Truth who had literally just done the same thing. We both acknowledged indebtedness to several men and then decided to collaborate to take the concept further and make it better. But do we need to cite Wright in the booklet? I didn’t think so since he didn’t conceive of the meta-narrative concept. In fact Newbigin wrote about it 30 years ago and many more have over the course of church history. So we simply quoted people when their thoughts were heavily leaned upon. All that’s to say – I feel you on this bro. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Boy am I glad to have read this. This issue in particular is something that has been a point of tension in my own soul as I listen to certain preachers and then prepare sermons myself. I try to give credit whenever I’ve taken something directly from another, whether a sentence, idea, or structural framework. I’ve heard numerous pastors, however, who preach entire sermons that belong to other “famous” pastors and never once give credit, even turning that pastor’s personal illustration into their own (which I think is a whole other level of delusion).

    I recognize that there has to be pride in me for trying to be as “original” as possible and wanting to point out when someone else steals entire sermons without even a hint of credit given. But this is something that I really have a problem with. This type of blatant plagiarism wouldn’t fly in any other profession, yet so many pastors seem ready and willing to engage in this. Even typing there’s some indignation welling up. Peace brothers, and how do you all handle when you know someone is straight up plagiarizing?

  6. These are very helpful points that provide liberty and guidelines at the same time. One practice I’ve gotten into the habit of doing is scripting or (at least) outlining my messages each week, footnoting all references to some degree. If I fail to mention certain things from the stage, at least I know that in print, I’ve worked to give full credit where credit is due. Our website allows us to upload documents with our sermon audio, so listeners are able to see these references at their leisure.

    As for your question about handling it when you know someone is plagiarizing, a quick story. A potential interim pastor candidate at a former church I served in gave a trial sermon that he sold to the search team as a “word from God for our church.” It was Ortberg’s “It all goes back in the box.” Were it not for a visiting family sitting in front of me recognizing the sermon and outlining it on a bulletin before the sermon was 5 minutes in, no one in the congregation would have caught it. That family never returned (and neither did the potential candidate). We handled it by taking it to the search team, who took it to him (gently).

  7. JD…really like the thoroughness here. I probably cite a bit more based on my own issues and desire for transparency (James 4:10), but I preach far less. Simple phrases like “commentators have said…” or “I’m indebted to J.D. Greear for his insight here…” go a long way towards the spirit of honoring others and obeying the law.

  8. I think that if we are overly concerned with plagiarism, we likely need to confront either 1. our pride, or 2. our idol worship of man. If the sermon flows out of a pure heart desiring to teach/preach and serve as God’s “microphone/interpreter” for His glory, then who really cares what rhetoric God uses at that point to speak into the hearts of the hearers. The only place it could be a problem is when someone’s intent is to deceive, much like the interim pastor candidate mentioned above. Even in that situation, however, both the man and the church share responsibility. Maybe God did reveal to the candidate that he should preach Ortberg’s sermon. Maybe not. The problem was either his pride or his idolatry. Or both. The church, directly or indirectly, likely communicated to him that his “one shot” at a sermon would determine his fitness as their pastor. Again either their pride or their idolatry contributed to the issue.
    At this point, I should probably say KELLER, since I used the word “idolatry” more than once.
    – With love, hope, & grace in Christ

  9. As to the question of the sinning brother; I have a difficult time calling someone out on a matter of personal integrity when I have not earned the right to speak into their lives. Speaking as a pastor, I would deal with anyone on my staff who was blatantly “hocking” someone else’s stuff without giving credit. However, I don’t know that I have a responsibility to the “preacher down the street” who may be doing the same thing. I may be wrong on this…

  10. I would just like to second Matt B’s post. I think there is humility in giving credit where it is due but on the flipside, I don’t think it’s anything but pride when one feels they have not been given proper credit. The interpretation is so much more important than the interpreter.

  11. I was recently at a ministers’ fellowship meeting where my pastor was one of the speakers. He said that the most hits on his sermon resource web site happen between 6 p.m. and midnight on Saturdays. I would guess other sermon resource sites see similar spikes.

    I should probably cite sources more on the occasions I preach (I teach structured classes on subjects more than I preach, and in teaching I think it’s a little more expected that what you’re presenting is the result of research and reading multiple sources, as opposed to direct insight from studying the Biblical text). On the occasions I do preach, if anyone says anything about liking a particular point I made or illustration I used, I try to make sure I tell them it wasn’t original, and where I got it from.

  12. JD,
    I’m glad you turned your thinking on this topic into a blog post.

    If Keller weren’t around things would be much easier. He screws everything up for us because his interpretation and content is so good, so illuminating. :)

  13. Steven Watkins April 14, 2012 at 5:20 pm


    Hey JD, I saw this and thought it would help.


  14. Plagiarism is not required for teaching in church. If you’re a student or teacher in an educational institution (or any institution that makes you promise to properly cite the works of scholarship you use in writing), then obviously plagiarism is required. To plagiarize in those settings makes you dishonest. However, in Church we’re supposed to be led by the Spirit of God. If the sermon will have a better flow and teaching impact without a bunch of breaks for citations of previous sources, then drop the citations. Or even if you simply feel led to drop the citations by the Spirit for whatever reason… feel free to drop them. After all, the church should know better than anyone else that God is the source of all knowledge, and people are just His mouthpiece.

  15. oops… above I meant to say “citing your sources” is not required for teaching in church. What I mean is that plagiarism can only occur in institutions that make you promise to properly cite the works of scholarship that you use.

  16. Thanks for this blog JD! I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately, and even talked to a friend about it last night. In Matt Chandler’s talk last night, I felt like I heard at least 4 things he said that I have heard before, word for word. Especially this one: “on the best days, you need just as much grace as on your bad days”. The general idea i have heard before. But then he continued on a tangent thought, describing the best day to be one where we have “our quiet time, read My Utmost for His Highest, and play the acoustic guitar”….which is basically verbatim in the way I had heard it before. I don’t know who originally writes these sermons, but they are being used word-for-word, to a T, by a lot of great pastors who know how to write them off as if they were their own illustrations. Don’t get me wrong, they are great! I love them, and it actually helps me memorize and understand the concepts better (which is the end goal right?); however, its sometimes amusing when I can finish the sentence before the preacher does. haha. I mean, yes, the illustrations and such will always be new for most people, but you will always have some people who remember. And its not a bad thing at all when one pastor recycles his own stories, but when a lot of pastors are recycling each other’s stories, illustrations, etc and then proceed to not cite, it presents a shaky feeling in the hearts of those who have heard it before from another source. And without citing, you might appear to be lying when you tell a story, since it isn’t really your words or your experience or your story. You know what I mean?

    Sorry for the long response, but I really appreciate you making a blog about this, JD. I love all you guys, all the pastors–God has used y’all to make such an impact in my life, and i am incredibly blessed to be influenced under y’alls ministry. But being one who listens to a lot of sermons, and who has a fairly good memory of sermons and such, I have picked up on this phenomenon, and thought I would just add my 1 cent. Not even 2 cents. For what thats worth. ha. Thanks again, JD, so blessed by your influence and your willingness and desire to tackle these hard topics. It really is an inspiration!

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