TGC Asks Don Carson: When Has a Preacher Crossed the Line into Plagiarism in His Sermon?

Note from Collin Hansen, TGC editorial director: This week we’re examining the thorny issue of pulpit plagiarism. We’ll hear from pastors, ethicists, scholars, and researchers to work toward common understanding on this pressing, perennial dilemma. First up is TGC president and New Testament scholar Don Carson.

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First: 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. The wickedness is along at least three axes: (1) You are stealing. (2) You are deceiving the people to whom you are preaching. (3) Perhaps worst, you are not devoting yourself to the study of the Bible to the end that God’s truth captures you, molds you, makes you a man of God and equips you to speak for him. If preaching is God’s truth through human personality (so Phillips Brooks), then serving as nothing more than a kind of organic recording device in playback mode does not qualify. Incidentally, changing a few words here and there in someone else’s work does not let you off the hook; re-telling personal experiences as if they were yours when they were not makes the offense all the uglier. That this offense is easy to commit because of the availability of source material in the digital age does not lessen its wickedness, any more than the ready availability of porn in the digital age does not turn pornography into a virtue. (Occasionally preachers have preached a famous sermon from another preacher, carefully noting their source. That should be done, at most, only very occasionally, but there is no evil in it.)

Second: Taking over the structure, perhaps the outline in exact wording, and other significant chunks, while filling in the rest of the substance yourself, is not quite so grievous but still reprehensible. The temptation springs from the fact that writing a really good outline is often the most creative and challenging part of sermon preparation. Fair enough: if you “borrow” someone else’s outline, simply acknowledge it, and you have not sinned.

Third: In the course of diligent preparation, you are likely to come across clever snippets and ways of summarizing or formulating the truth of a passage that are creative and memorable. If you cite them, you should acknowledge that they are not yours, either with an “As so-and-so has said” or an “As someone has said.” This discipline keeps you honest and humble.

Fourth: If you read widely and have a good mind, that mind will inevitably become charged with good things whose source or origin you cannot recall. Often such sources can be tracked down fairly easily. On the other hand, do not become paranoid: a well-stocked mind is the result of decades of reading and learning, and ought to overflow easily and happily with gratitude toward God to the blessing of God’s people.

Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752): “Apply yourself wholly to the text; apply the text wholly to yourself.”

* * * * * * * * * *

See also:

Pastoral Plagiarism Is an Integrity Issue

Read other responses from:

Sandy Willson

Tim Keller

Matt Perman

Glenn Lucke

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  • Ivan Lambert

    We are all so tempted, aren’t we?
    I recall a year ago listening online to a HUGELY Recognizable preacher preach his sermon. He never once said, “As _____ says”
    but I sure was following him really well…
    right through John Stott’s commentary!!

  • Aaron Britton

    Here is my comment from Collin’s post today:

    I echo some other commentors here in wondering about “teetotaling” on this issue. With the hundreds of hours of sermons I’ve listened to, hundreds of study bible notes, and commentaries, etc. . . . alot of things have come into my verbal world that were not mine “originally”. I, however, have no idea and do not remember from whence they came.

    I”m not talking about re-preaching sermons or lifting a story and telling it as your own (that’s just flat out lying) but in giving a perspective on a text or on church history. . . . who’s to say where I got it from? Should we take detailed bibliographic notes as we read our study bibles?

    Thanks to Dr. Carson for addressing this and giving helpful hints on how to “cite” in instances like this.

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  • Amanda Smith

    I remember how strange I felt the other week when, during a Christmas program at a local church, I heard a guest speaker quote a very large passage of a fairly well-known sermon as if it were his own. To those who were unaware, it seemed a brilliant and moving oration, but to me, it cheapened the message. Had he simply cited his source, I would have no issue, for it surely was a deeply moving message. Though his “plagarism” bothered me, I have to admit that many spirits were stirred and blessed by the message and inspired to worship. I suppose the Spirit still moves in spite of the weakness of man. We all do well to remember that, for we are all weak and prone to moments of falling. Let us lovingly confront our brethren with the truth. There are far fewer things more beautiful on this earth than humility and plain truth. Blessings and grace to you, brothers and sisters, as we strive to walk ever closer to the Savior.

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  • PJ King

    Don, I appreciate your theme that the issue is not the re-use of material, but the unacknowledged re-use of material. Indeed, “As someone has said,” is an excellent way to keep yourself honest, even when you cannot recall your source properly.


  • Chris

    While I agree that a pastor standing up and preaching a sermon and fully implying that it was developed only between him and God when in reality he pulled it off the internet or some other source not originating with him is a fully reprehensible act, I do not see the connection to pornography. I feel that making that comparison when trying to make a valid point re: a somewhat non-captivating topic only serves to hurt the argument while trying to make it noticeable.

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  • Robert

    This was a very interesting article and a subject I have often wrestled with. I think on point 1 I would agree there is a lack of ethics that certainly hurts a pastors testimony. And I think if you need to use another sermon, and claim it as your own is at the least sad. However one thing I ask myself often, “who can claim ultimate originality?” After studying many commentaries over the years I find that most people are saying the same thing. I find that sermons preached even by some legends are borrowed from someone of a previous generation. After all how original can you get on certain subjects? If you are preaching on the parable of the sower, how original can you possibly be? In fact there are times when after preparing my own outline, I read several commentaries only to find that men of God had the same idea! And what is wrong if a pastor is struggling to get a good outline and gets some good ideas from another servant of the Lord? I confess in my early year of preaching I took some liberty in this area I am not proud of. Since my expository skills have sharpened I rely less on other men’s work and when I do, I am sure to give credit and quote the person. But just recently the tables were turned. I discovered someone borrowed my materiel and claimed it as their own. At first I was horrified. But then I let it go. I guess I felt that if that person benefited and it benefited the church.. than to God be the glory.

    • aart hilberts

      well said . Its not our material if it is HIS spirit anyway. and Satan can not be devided against himself

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  • James

    There’s much to be said for a resourceful person. One who is well-read, who knows where to go for good relevant material, etc…

    @Aaron Britton makes a great point as well.

    There only original person was Adam. The rest of us are an amalgamation of borrowed material. Like most thing, plagiarism, in the context of this blog, should be defined as a heart issue, and contained within the limitations of those who purposefully take credit for someone else’s work or otherwise mislead the people while trying to gain credit or accolades. That said, some very fine contemporary speakers use resourced material throughout their message.

    The sermon should not be a competition as to who can be the best and most creative (though the discipline and work that goes into it, and the desire to communicate The Message to others motivates us to excellent), but the chief end is to reach the people with the message of God.

    Some are guilty of plagiarizing. Some are guilty of turning the craft of preaching into a contest, promoting themselves for their own sake and not necessarily the Gospel’s.

    Don’t deceive. Cite sources as a habit. And I disagree that this must be rare. Use and do what needs to be done.

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  • aart hilberts

    your forth point is the most important one. I tend to retain words and quotes because of its beautiful truth and how it is a part of GODS character of holiness. We are all borrowers of the TRUTH. In our borrowing let our heart be delighted for HIS glory (not ours) and it will all be used by HIM.

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  • David Baker

    Hi, I have two questions relating to this:

    (1) Does this mean that you regard websites such as as unhelpful?

    (2) What about preachers who place their texts online explicitly for others to use?

    Best wishes,

    David Baker

  • Mike Warren

    “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” (The Apostle Paul, ‘The Epistle to the Philippians’ Chapter 1 verse 18, c.A.D.62, Rome. Quoted from the English Standard Version, 2008, Crossway, Wheaton).
    [I trust my acknowledgement of someone else’s material is sufficiently detailed to have avoided grievous sin]. ;-)

  • ed elliott

    Thank you @Mike Warren. This is a touchy subject in this digital age. I’d like to address this issue of plagiarism from the point of view of those of us with full-time “secular” careers who volunteer to preach in prisons, jails, assisted living centers, and back-up our Pastors. For many years, I preached weekly in the local jail while holding down a 40+ hour a week job, preparing “original material” for adult Sunday School, and raising a family. Without some honest digital theft, my messages would have lacked depth, wisdom, and insight. When I entered the jail to preach each Wednesday night, I could have maybe made the time to sit down with bible passage and commentaries-in-hand like full-time pastors, but there was no way I could bring the men I loved the rich, Christ-exalting content of Spurgeon, Piper, MacArthur,Carson, Calvin, Edwards, and the Puritans. So, I chose topics that would appeal to prisoners, like perseverence, deception, desire, and heart-work and created the best amalgamation I could of what Spurgeon, Piper, MacArthur, and a smattering of Puritans had to say on a topic. Nothing I could have originated would have been as rich as the already-organized material of my teachers. However, week after week, I told the men the originators of my material as I extolled “my teachers” (this had the further advantage of the men asking for books by them). I even stole CJ Mahaney’s phrase often to remind them that nothing I say tonight is original with me — “in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had an original thought.” The digital age combined with honest theft, allows the Gospel to be proclaimed more richly and more deeply by more men, IMHO.

  • Mitchell Hammonds

    Ed Elliott,
    I completely agree. Most of what we hear today is nothing more than what has already been given anyway. Whether it is Calvin, Luther or Sproul… it’s all paraphrased ideas of what has already been said. If it makes biblical sense… use it. Give credit when you can… but preach the gospel… get over yourselves folks!

  • Mike Warren

    I’m a massive fan of D.A.Carson, but I have to disagree with the vehemence of his answer. Surely the logic of this would be that the authors of the Synoptic Gospels are guilty of plagiarism – after all, they copied large amounts word for word!

  • David Baker

    It seems to me the defining question is whether the sermon passes through our hearts in prayerful preparation.

    If it does, then use of someone else’s material can be a helpful part of that process; if it doesn’t (whether it’s our own material or anyone else’s) then it probably doesn’t count for much.

  • Steve W

    A few thoughts if I may offer them.

    Speaking as a lawyer it concerns me to hear the word ‘stealing’ being thrown arounding in this debate as though the 8th commandment were being broken. Are we sure we understand what ‘stealing’ meant in the bible?

    The idea that abstract concepts, ideas, designs, etc, can be the subject of proprietary rights and interests is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. When I say modern, ideas of copyright first arose round about the time of the invention of the printing press.

    In the ancient world, the notion that a song, poem, speech, etc could be owned did not exist. Can anyone point me to the idea of proprietary rights vesting in abstract ideas in the Bible? If such ‘rights’ are not biblical but purely arbitrary and cultural, can we really call their violation ‘stealing’?

    When the Lord through Moses gave the commandment prohibiting stealing, I think it’s clear Moses was thinking of tangible forms of property, for these were the only kind. If you went up to Moses, and said, ‘This guy in the next town has copied exactly my song/psalm/prayer/design for a plough (or whatever) from my original idea, and is not acknowledging me as the source. Has he stolen from me?’, I don’t think Moses would have even understood the reasoning behind your question. They just didn’t have a category for intellectual property rights.

    I am not saying that violating other people’s IP rights is OK. But is it really breaking the 8th commandment?

    I would be concerned if my pastor were preaching other people’s whole sermons as though his own, not because this makes him a thief, but because there is a deception involved whereby he is passing off someone else’s spiritual maturity, insight, devotion to the Lord, knowledge of scripture, time spent in preparation, etc, as though it were his own. He is misrepresenting his own spiritual character.

    This kind of misrepresentation occured once in a church I was part of (though the issue was not plagiarism). A pastor who subsequently fell rather publicly and tragically went through a stage, a while before the whole situation exploded and everyone found out what he was involved in, whereby he started regularly re-preaching, word for word, his own old sermons. Clearly no ‘plagiarism’ was involved, but the fact he was bypassing the need to study, seek God, and prepare fresh sermons was linked to his own spiritual state at the time. This is the reason I would be concerned about someone preaching material they have not freshly prepared. It is not about ‘stealing’. It is about why are they not doing their own fresh preparation? What spiritual reason(s) might lie behind the fact they prefer to take a short cut instead of seeking God?

    Don, I am very grateful to God for your preaching and teaching, but you say this: ‘Fair enough: if you “borrow” someone else’s outline, simply acknowledge it, and you have not sinned.’ By implication, according to you, if someone ‘borrows’ an outline and does not acknowledge, then they have sinned. Don, where in scripture do you get this rule that such behaviour is sin? Is this not your own invention/definition/distinction? Do the human authors of scripture not quote without necessarily acknowledging sources, and doesn’t this point the argument very strongly the other way?

    Also, given we are to contend for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints, it seems to me that the ‘outlines’ we have been given are the same for all of us. Can anyone claim to ‘own’ a gospel presentation outline?? If someone is pursuing novelty, maybe they can claim to own something new, but then I would say their theology is suspect if they have deviated from the faith once for all given to the saints. If what they preach is sound, it will by definition have been preached many times before since the Great Commission.

    I have been plagiarised in a secular context, and I’ll admit at first I was really annoyed when I found out. All my hard work and research passed off by someone else as their own. But then I realised my reaction was sinful. It had to do with my own pride. God used the situation to teach me some humility. Just a thought.

    As to the use of ‘snippets’, and the preaching of the gospel, perhaps we need to check our own hearts if some line of ours which we thought was a really great ‘snippet’ gets used by someone else without us being acknowledged. Isn’t the important thing that Christ is being preached? If the motive/heart of the preacher who uses a snippet is to glorify the Lord, and point people to Him, not desiring or attempting to draw attention to himself, then does it matter whether the original writer gets acknowledgment of authorship of that one line? What is going on in our hearts if the issue is that important to us?

    • Mitchell Hammonds

      Thank you Steve! Well stated response!

    • Young

      I wish I read Steve’s reply before stating my own. The second half of his post is what I tried to express, but he has done it much more clearly!

  • jackflash

    I find myself a little worried when Don decrees what is sin and what’s not. Sounds a little like the Pharisees. So many passages have structures that are just so obvious. The issue that Don ignores, and some bloggers too, is why others may use thoughts and explanations that others have expressed. Perhaps there are some good reasons we should considerate of.

    There is also an issue of pride perhaps in some people expecting attribution. Anything I have said or written that is useful, Sola Dei!

  • Andy Hunter

    I wonder if Mark felt quite so uptight about Matthew & Luke?

  • Tony Cobb

    I really appreciate this article. I have had a hard time with this at points in my life, not necessarily with failure to give credit where credit is due, but in the fact that there are principles and ideas that I have come to adopt over time of thoughtful study that I am unable to recall where the idea originated.

  • Young

    I’ll echo the words of Mike Warren. Paul says in Philippians 1:18, “Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”

    On the one hand, I agree with Dr. Carson that a person who is plagiarizing sermons word-for-word or claiming substantial illustrations as his own is sin. On the other hand, I think it is a bit naive to think that any preacher nowadays is coming up with radically new and authentic ideas in his sermons. We’ve all borrowed ideas and perspectives somewhere along the line (whether we are aware of it or not) and have simply rehashed them into our own words. It would be a bit silly to try and cite everything.

    For me, this is a matter of conscience. I will take the preacher who doesn’t cite a source but whose main goal in his preaching is to glorify Christ over a preacher who seeks to be an excellent bibliographer.

    PS: With that said, I do cite my sources because it would violate my conscience.

  • Chris Van Allsburg

    (Part-time pastoral assistant): I preached a 1st person narrative from the Gospel of John on the man born blind, and I got the idea from Mark Driscoll. It was a shortened version (about a third of his), but I’d say most of the content was his. I told a few people, “I got this idea from a different preacher,” and “this wasn’t really my own.” But I didn’t mention it from the pulpit, only to the church people as individuals. I’m wondering if I’ve done wrong here? I could mention it again next time I preach, and I’m happy to do that. I just don’t want this on my conscience. I’d appreciate any advice. Thanks.

    • Mitchell Hammonds

      I find your concern (whether you have done something wrong) to show your heart. I think much of D.A. Carson but I feel he has missed the mark… at least to some degree. If ones motive is to be deceitful by passing the borrowed material off as their own it would qualify as an issue of concern… however this would be extremely hard to prove. I am a musician (not by trade) and have reproduced songs written by someone else (although not for monetary gain). I’m sure there are those in the audience who have assumed my work was original when it was not. Were they to ask I would credit the work to the appropriate individual… but I have never lost a wink of sleep over it… Unless you are convicted by your conscience I would not worry over this.

      • Chris Van Allsburg

        Thanks, Mitchell.

        Dr. Carson’s words here were hard-hitting that is for sure. And I certainly don’t want to be counted with those who commit deeds of wickedness, as he asserts in this article. I think next time I do something like that (which I’m thinking–is never!), I’ll give credit from the pulpit at the beginning. That way, there’s no bones about it. Thanks again, and the Lord bless you.

      • Chris Van Allsburg

        Also wanted to say that I work full time and have a family with a new baby, and the pastoral assistance work is my 2nd job. Perhaps this is excuse-making. I do find Dr. Carson’s words really rough here: if someone has a penitent heart, and feels guilty of plagiarism, shouldn’t he be forgiven? Like I said, I didn’t read Mark Driscoll’s sermon from the pulpit. I listened to it, reduced a 45-minutes sermon to 15, and followed his basic line of thought. Anyway…

        I am glad for this article, because I listen to preaching while at work, and I think “Wow! That’ll preach!” But now I wonder: maybe I shouldn’t listen to preaching because I’ll be tempted to steal from other men? On the other hand, it’s good to listen to good preaching, and to glean from it. Definitely next time, I’ll say something up front. I do wish Dr. Carson had been more graceful in this article. Plagiarism is indeed wrong, but that a man should be fired immediately seems extreme. It leaves no room for repentance and renewal.


    • Richard

      If we desire to impress people with what great preachers we are and want them to go away wow-ed by us, then we shouldn’t even be in a pulpit. Our hearts are totally wrong. Regardless of who wrote the material, us or someone else. Conversely, if we desire that people would look to Jesus, that unregenerate sinners would turn to him in genuine faith-repentance, that believers would be moved to worship and love and adore and obey him more, if our attitude is “he must increase, I must decrease”, then I dont think there’s anything much to worry about, regardless of who wrote the material. I suppose though that a heart attitude like this is more likely to be present in someone whose preaching is likely to be flowing out of their own walk with the Lord. D.A.Carson is surely a brilliant theologian and preacher. He does have a tendency to use words in a very hard-hitting way though. Sometimes this is necessary, but a problem is that sometimes this can unnecessarily wound someone with an over-sensitive conscience. And, yes I think its possible to have an over-sensitive conscience, our hearts condemning us even when God does not. Pastorally I have encountered people who would beat themselves up for matters that they really shouldn’t, often because they heard (or mis-heard) some message that heaped condemnation on them.

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  • Mark Simpson

    This is brilliant – I’m going to preach it this Sunday!

    Slightly more seriously, I confessed to a well-known preacher that I’d preached his sermons many times. He replied, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that – do you think they were original to me?!’ I’m sure his work is largely original, but I was refreshed by the attitude of ‘Just preach the word – if someone else’s sermon helps, great.’ Are we so precious about our sermons that no-one else must use them?

  • DW

    I wonder what Carson would say to a professor who has people do all of his research before he “reworks” their sweat into a book? It may not be plagiarism…but a not to distant cousin. I appreciated Keller’s take much more. If someone is blatantly copying your sermons and feels no obligation to give credit to his source then he clearly has an issue, the least of which is that he didn’t study enough. Outside of that I think we need to be careful to call those actions “reprehensible” or call for someone to “quit or be fired”. Given the number of horrible sermons I have heard in my life I would prefer some of them copy sermons verbatim and give no credit to the source.

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  • rockingwithhawking

    Steve Hays (a former TA for John Frame) has written a post titled “Pastoral plagiarism” which makes several good points as well.

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