What Makes a Great Sermon?
What is the greatest sermon ever preached? (Think about it more a minute.)
I wonder which preacher your mind rushed toward, are you thinking of one of the early church fathers? Perhaps you are thinking of one of the Reformers. Or maybe your mind goes to the “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Spurgeon. All of these answers would be wrong. Certainly great sermons have been preached throughout church history, but one sermon stands above all others. The greatest sermon that has ever been preached (apart from Jesus Himself) is found in Acts chapter 2.
Peter’s sermon at Pentecost stands above all others for several reasons: 1) It is fully inspired as part of the Scriptures. 2) It handles Scripture with complete accuracy. 3) It is the spark that lights the fire of the church. 4) The preacher had been personally prepared by Christ. 5) The preacher was filled with the Spirit.
Peter’s sermon was not just based on Scripture, but became Scripture; something no preacher would be safe to claim today. Since this sermon is fully inspired, then it must also be instructional as I Timothy 3:16 famously states. This means that Peter’s sermon is not just extraordinary, but it is exemplary. In Peter’s Sermon we can see what truly makes a great sermon and what all preachers should strive to declare every time they enter the pulpit.
So What Makes a Great Sermon?
A Great Sermon is Expositional
When the Holy Spirit descends, indwelling the disciples, the miraculous happens. All of the disciples begin to speak in languages they did not understand, this brings both excitement and criticism from the crowd. Some were amazed, while others blamed alcohol for the phenomenon. Peter then, indwelt by the Spirit, gives his astonishing sermon. He goes back to the prophet Joel and expounds the meaning of his prophecy. Notice, Peter does not ground his sermon in the miraculous events unfolding in the present, but in sacred Scripture from the past. In doing so, Peter follows Jesus’ example in living by the Word of God. He exegetes sections of Joel and Psalm 16 with precision and power.
It is only when accurately explaining the Word of God that the preacher has any authority or power. This power flows from the Word and gives confidence to the preacher. As Iain H. Murray writes, "The expository preacher is not one who 'shares his studies' with others, he is an ambassador and a messenger authoritatively delivering the Word of God to men.” A great sermon will explain the text of the Word and will do so with power.
A Great Sermon is Experiential
While Peter’s sermon is grounded in Scripture, he is constantly using the experiences of the people to help them understand their position before a Holy God. Throughout the sermon Peter uses examples that they would know and draws upon their experiences with Christ to make his point. Peter uses the miracles of Jesus as an example of God’s favor being on Jesus and says “that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know…” Peter is saying you all know this, because you saw it. You saw the miracles God did through Jesus and then you killed Him. A great sermon will use examples that all can personally experience to drive home the message.
A Great Sermon is Exalting
The subject of Peter’s sermon is not hard to find. He says it at the beginning and repeatedly throughout the entirety of the sermon. Peter’s sermon is all about Jesus. If I were to title Peter’s sermon I would use his repeated phrase “This Jesus.” The sermon is about lifting up the glory of Jesus and calling those listening to make a decision on whether they believe this Jesus is the Messiah or not. Peter’s sermon is Christ exalting. A great sermon will have Christ at the center. As Spurgeon famously stated, "No Christ in your sermon, sir? Then go home, and never preach again until you have something worth preaching.”
A Great Sermon is Explicit
No, I don’t mean that Peter’s sermon is filled with graphic language, but that Peter’s sermon is direct. He doesn’t sugarcoat the guilt of the nation of Israel. Nor does he sidestep the issue, instead Peter boldly condemns the people for their responsibility in crucifying Jesus. He reminds them of their guilt in Jesus’ murder, twice (Once in verse 23 and again in verse 36). A great sermon will not shy away from speaking directly to the sins and personal guilt of its audience. A great sermon will point out sin and call its hearers to repentance.
A Great Sermon is Effective
Peter’s sermon certainly left an impact on his listeners. So much so that the Word says that they were “cut to the heart.” The crowd was deeply affected by what Peter had to say from the Scriptures. This led to their asking Peter what they could do in response to his message. This response of 3,000 people getting saved was the effect of the Word. While this type of response is rare, God’s Word will never come back void. It will always accomplish His goals, it will have an effect in the hearts of men. A preacher should have confidence in God’s Word to accomplish God’s purposes.
Is this the type of preaching that happens at your church? Do these characteristics fit the pattern of your preaching? Why not? After all, nothing is more relevant or impactful than God’s Word and nothing is more needed today than great preaching. Let us follow Peter’s example, preach great sermons and don’t settle for less.
Iain H. Murray, The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones 1899-1981