Ever since the Reformation of the 16th century, Protestants have been accused of rampant schism. We weren’t even out of the 1500s before Protestantism in Europe was divided into four religious camps. Churches splintered over issues such as the nature of worship, the sacraments, the relationship between church and state, the details of Christ’s return, and much more.
This “scandal of division” has produced 9,000 Protestant denominations today (if “denomination” is defined broadly enough). Catholics have their varying rites and “denominations” as well, though not nearly as many. But they would say their unifying factor is Rome. And they would say that unifying factor is what Protestants lack.
Yet for evangelicals, the unifying factor is the gospel. The reformers designated themselves as “evangelical” before terms like “Lutheran,” “Calvinist,” or “Zwinglian” arose.
The five solas of the Reformation are, in many ways, the bedrock on which evangelicalism is founded. They act like guardrails to keep us on the road.
Evangelical preaching, then, should bear the marks of the five solas: according to Scripture alone, we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.
Sola Scriptura in Our Preaching
Evangelical preaching must demonstrate that interpretation is not done in isolation. Scripture alone does not mean I interpret it alone. Individual interpretation does not carry equal weight with the consensus of a believing community. Creeds and confessions only have derivative authority, true, but they are vital nonetheless, since they represent an interpretive consensus.
The preacher is not the sole interpreter God has given the church. Therefore, mere exposition is not enough. We bear a responsibility before a priesthood of believers to demonstrate how we get our conclusions from the text. We model hermeneutics in our sermons because we are teaching a body of interpreters.
Sola scriptura means that we do not ask our congregations to simply take our word for it.
Sola Gratia in Our Preaching
Evangelical preaching must teach that we do not achieve righteousness; we are are declared righteous in Christ. Self-motivational preaching has no place in evangelical pulpits. If we were able to motivate ourselves we could survive under the law. But we can only live by faith. In his 26th thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther put it well:
The law says, “Do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “Believe this,” and everything is done already.
Self-help sermons are damnable since the self is incapable of providing the help we need. We are not sick patients in need of Christ’s righteousness infused along with ours for added strength. We are dead, in need of Christ’s righteousness imputed to our account, and we must draw on him at every pass to do any good (John 15:5).
Evangelical preaching accents our need for grace in every sermon. We are powerless in ourselves to rightly respond to any sermon.
Sola Fide in Our Preaching
Evangelical preaching must emphasize works and not shy away from them. In fact, gospel preachers proclaim works better than the moralist, because moralism demands what cannot be achieved. We demand what is now possible by faith. We declare that sinners are justified by faith apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:28), which means we can now uphold the law (Rom. 3:31).
Evangelical preachers mustn’t hesitate to preach the do’s and don’ts of God’s Word. We live by a faith that is alive and active.
While works will never get you to Jesus, Jesus will get you to work. Works that precede faith are useless; works that proceed from faith are proof of life.
Our sermons should first reach the head and heart with what Scripture demands we believe. Only then can we reach the hands and feet with how Scripture demands we live.
Solus Christus in Our Preaching
Evangelical preaching must make Christ the explicit object of faith. Some of the critiques leveled against Christ-centered preaching are fair—not every passage reveals a type of Christ. But that is not the heart of the matter. We must preach Christ as the explicit object of our faith because that is what the gospel demands.
We point to Christ in our sermons when we agree with John Owen: “We can receive no good, no benefit, by virtue of any office of Christ, nor any fruits of their exercise, without an actual respect of faith unto his person, whence all their life and power is derived.”
We can receive no benefit from Christ’s mediating work apart from faith in him. But true faith is not a one-time experience; it persists and matures (1 Thess. 3:2, 10). If my faith must persist and mature, and if there is no other object of faith that can benefit me but Christ, then my faith must continually persist and mature in Christ alone. Our sermons should explicitly orient us toward him, else we risk focusing our faith on our faith rather than on our King.
Soli Deo Gloria in Our Preaching
Evangelical preaching must make God, not man, the focus. There is nothing wrong with needs-based preaching as long as it centers on our need for God and his gospel. Sermons that focus on making us a more improved version of ourselves betray the gospel. Evangelicals believe man’s value is extrinsic, derived. Our value is in the fact that we bear our Creator’s image (James 3:9). What we need to learn from every sermon is how to better function as mirrors reflecting God’s glory.
We should certainly preach about the blessings God bestows, so long as we teach that the purpose of every one is the praise of God’s glorious grace (Eph. 1:3–6). He secures an inheritance for us, not ultimately for our comfort, but for his glory (Eph. 1:11–12, 14). He saves us in such a way that he alone receives credit (Eph. 2:8–9). He works his power within us through every step of sanctification for his glory (Eph. 3:20–21). Our sermons must shine light on the glory of God, not on the glory of man.