What Makes a Good Sermon?
A few months ago I wrote a similar post on this topic. In that article I showed what Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 teaches us about preaching great sermons. In this article, I want to shift a little to focus on what good preaching is not and then we will look at what is good preaching. Again, I don’t claim to be an expert. After 15 years of preaching, I am still learning. That being said, I have learned a considerable amount through my failures behind the pulpit. I give God the glory for that growth. As I have grown in my understanding of how to preach, I have also grown in my understanding of what fails to meet the mark of good preaching. Unfortunately, the vast majority of sermons I have heard would be unfit for that category of good preaching. Although this post will be harsh, as James 3:1 demands, my heart is that some would take the Word of God and its exposition more seriously while examining themselves honestly.
Let’s begin by stating what good preaching is not:
Good Preaching is Not Aimless
So much of the preaching I have heard, both from liberal churches as well as doctrinally sound churches, is not preaching. Rather, the pastor has chosen to go up to the pulpit with little more than a list of Scripture references. So while he may begin at a certain text, he quickly moves to another and then another and then another. I’m not saying that moving beyond your text is wrong, of course one should have have a wholistic approach for understanding the text in the context of Scripture, but must we read every possible cross reference in order to understand that? Certainly, not. This type of preaching is often devoid of any context for the texts read, which is the major fault. This usually means that the preacher was either unable to understand the meaning or aim of the text at hand or did not take the necessary time to study the text in order to have a clear meaning and trajectory for the sermon. As a general rule, if you need to read 20+ texts in a Sunday sermon, you are compensating for something - either a lack of understanding or time. Yes, preach the whole counsel of God, but you don’t need to do it all at once.
Too many cross references are not the only the symptom of an aimless sermon. Constant word studies can also be the result of not knowing the aim of the text. Just as with the cross references, a few word studies may be helpful in a sermon, but if that is the majority of what the preacher discusses then he has failed to understand the aim or meaning of the text. Another symptom could be overuse of quotations, even if they are good ones. Even plagiarizing another’s sermon could also be a symptom of being aimless in your preaching. Rather, the preacher has a responsibility from God to study hard as I Timothy 2:15 shows in order that the aim of the text is clearly and fully represented in the sermon. If as a listner you have no clue where the preacher is going with his sermon, then most likely he has failed to understand the aim of the text.
Good Preaching is Not About You
Too many sermons today are focused on the preacher and what he desires to say rather than on the text of Scripture. Honestly, I don’t care “what’s on your heart today” preacher. I want to hear from God, not you. This is seen through preaching that would more closely resemble a Ted Talk rather than Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. They are filled with personal testimonies and illustrations. Rather than the text being the star of the sermon, the preacher has made their story the main thing. This goes against what the brilliant British preacher, Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones, wrote in his masterpiece Preaching and Preachers, “Illustrations are just servants, and you should use them sparingly and carefully.” This type of preaching may seem like a good sermon at the beginning, but the preacher quickly abandons their text, using it as a diving board to talk about what they really want to talk about. Some even go further by twisting God’s Word to fit into the shape of their soapbox that they then use to lecture the crowd about whatever hobby horse they’ve chosen this week. Instead of preaching the Gospel, they preach moralism.
This type of preaching also gives way to all sorts of preaching. When a pastor is unanchored from the Word of God, they like the Ephesians, could be tossed to and fro. They can easily fall prey to attempting to preach like that “successful” preacher who also happens to teach heresy. They can begin chasing after numbers thinking their perverted preaching will win an audience as if God’s Word will not. As Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones wrote “My contention is that...when the preaching is right, and the preaching is true, that it will attract and draw the people to listen to its message.” Personally focused preaching can also give way to manipulation of the congregation and even pastoral bullying. When a sermon can be anything the preacher wants to talk about, then the congregation will inevitably suffer and God’s Word will be rejected. A good sermon is not about you, it’s about the Word of God.
Good Preaching is Not A Dissertation
Preaching without studying is definitely wrong, but so is preaching overly technical sermons. Using words and terms that are over the heads of one’s listeners is not helpful for them. Yet, some preachers choose to fancy themselves scholars and use jargon that only seminarians would understand for their weekly sermons. What’s ironic about this phenomenon is that these types of sermons are usually preached by pastors who never went to seminary, so again some compensation might be the underlying motivation. Not only is this preaching unable to be understood by its listeners, its generally devoid of application. It doesn’t call the listener to do anything more than learn a new theological term. This is a major flaw, if you can’t communicate the Federal Headship View to your congregation in an understandable and applicable way then you shouldn’t step into that pulpit. Additionally, this type of preaching is often disconnected from the congregation. No one was arguing about this theological topic, yet a deep dive into the minutia of the subject was the result anyways. This preaching dosn’t help anyone except the preacher’s prideful ego.
So What is Good Preaching? (The 3 P’s of Preaching)
Good Preaching is a Proper Explanation of the Text
Paul tells Timothy to not preach what’s in his heart or what is relevant with outsiders. II Timothy 4:2 famously tells us to “preach the Word.” It is in these three words that we understand both the subject and the means of preaching. It is not up to the preacher to service a clever idea or new approach to a subject and then build illustrations that will intrigue his audience to follow through with his agenda. No, it is the responsibility of the preacher to properly or accurately communicate what God has said in His inspired Word. There are different ways to do this, but the most obvious solution is to simply walk the listeners through the context, letting the Word do the work in the peoples’ hearts. This is what we call expository preaching. This is what we see Jesus, Peter, the Apostles, Stephen, and Paul do in the Bible. It is what should be done today.
Now this requires hard work and study in order to be confidant that you have done your job in properly explaining what God has revealed in His Word. There are no shortcuts. You have to answer the question, “What is God saying here?” This requires honesty as Dr. Lloyd Jones expresses “...There is one golden rule, one absolute demand - honesty. You have got to be honest with your text.” A preacher must honestly set aside his preconceptions of a text and wrestle with that text in order to let God’s Word inform their mind so that they can express His desires, not their own. That is the only way that the preacher can express God’s message to God’s people.
Good Preaching is a Proclamation of Jesus Christ
All of Scripture points to Jesus Christ. All of the Old Testament looks ahead to the coming Messiah and the New Testament shows the glorious Messiah who paid the ultimate price to ransom His people from their sin. Jesus is the ultimate message of the Bible. Jesus is the Gospel as Sidney Greidanus explains in his classic work on hermeneutics, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, “Preaching Christ is the good news for people, and preaching Christ is as broad as preaching the gospel of the kingdom - as long as this kingdom is related to its King, Jesus. More specifically, to preach Christ is to proclaim some facet of the person, work, or teaching of Jesus of Nazareth so that people may believe him, trust him, love him, and obey him.”
Therefore, every sermon must lead the listener to a better understanding of the Biblical Jesus Christ. Good preaching must cause the listeners’ souls to savor Christ. Timothy Keller writes it this way, “To present the Bible in its fullness was to preach Christ as the main theme and substance of the Bible’s message.” If you have not done that, then your preaching is flawed. Just look at every sermon in the New Testament, these sermons are bursting at the seams with Jesus Christ. Paul says Jesus is his only message to the Corinthians. Charles Spurgeon famously said, “No Christ in your sermon, sir? Then go home, and never preach again until you have something worth preaching.” Spurgeon is that harsh because it is that great of a mistake to leave Christ out of a sermon. Good preaching shows how every passage, every book, and every theme points to Jesus.
Good Preaching is a pleading with the listeners’ souls
Not only must a preacher explain what God has stated in His Word while showing Jesus to his congregation, but he must then call the listeners to action. Preaching a sermon without application undermines the first two aspects of good preaching. In other words it cannot be a good sermon without application. I like the way Bryan Chappell wrote it in his Christ-Centered Preaching, “Preaching without application may serve the mind, but preaching with application requires service to Christ. Application makes Jesus the center of a sermon’s exhortation as well as the focus of its explanation.” The preacher has a responsibility to not just explain the text and simply speak about Jesus, but to directly apply it to his listeners’ context. It’s not just about what the Bible says, but it’s also about what you’re going to do with that knowledge.
This is the example that Christ Himself gives us throughout the Gospels. He is constantly calling His listeners to make a decision based upon the information He gave them. He did this with passion, something many preachers fail to communicate to their listeners. Paul says that devotion is required for good preaching in I Timothy 4:13. A preacher must be so consumed and overwhelmed by the glory of Christ as found in the context of Scripture that he passionately shares what He has learned with his listeners, showing them how it applies to their daily life. This requires the preacher to have already applied it to their own life before preaching it to their congregation. If you are not moved by your study of the Word then why should your congregation be?
A danger in this may be to attempt to force that change by one’s own power. This is wrong in many ways, one of which being that it is a denial of the power of God’s Word. As Adam Dooley writes in his recent Passion in the Pulpit, “Emotional appeals that bypass rather than engage the intellect minimize the sufficiency of the Word to effect change in people.” If we really believe Hebrews 4:12 then we must trust God’s Word to do the work as we passionately and honestly explain the glory of Christ in the context of Scripture.
So what is good preaching?
I would summarize all of this by stating that good preaching is public and passionate proclamation of Jesus Christ as found in the proper context of Scripture. As congregants, we should not settle for anything less. As preachers, we must strive to hit that mark consistently. Of course there will be moments of failure. Every preacher has a bad Sunday every once in a while. I’ll conclude with some encouragement from H.B. Charles, “Every sermon does not have to be a home run. Every sermon will not be a home run. But you can make sure you get on base each week.” Let’s strive to get on base this Sunday.
1. Preaching and Preachers by Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones
2. Preaching Christ from the Old Testament by Sidney Greidanus
3. Preaching by Timothy Keller
4. Sermon #2899 by Charles Spurgeon
5. Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell
6. Passion in the Pulpit by Jerry Vines and Adam B. Dooley
7. On Preaching by H.B. Charles
**Any of these books would be extremely helpful for preachers to read, especially Lloyd Jones**