How do you know you’re preaching a Christian sermon and not simply giving a religious or spiritual lecture?
While I think gospel-centered expository proclamation is the best approach to fulfilling the biblical call to preach, this exercise could probably use some more filling out. And since preachers like alliteration and lists, I thought I might suggest a checklist reflecting what I propose to be the irreducible complexity of true Christian preaching. Next time you’re preparing a sermon, maybe keep these questions in mind. Or, after the next time you preach, share this list with your fellow elders or another team of trusted advisers and ask them to apply the questions to your delivered message.
1. Is your sermon CONTEXTUAL?
The word contextual is important. It’s more specific than simply asking if the message is textual, because a lot of preachers use Bible verses in their sermons, and by this they determine that their sermon is based on a biblical text. But putting some Bible verses in your sermon is not the same thing as preaching the Bible. Moreover, simply explicating one or two verses—which is totally fine to do, in my opinion—may also not capture the import of even those one or two verses if they’re taken out of context.
Make sure the biblical text drives what you want to say, and not the other way around. And even if you aren’t preaching a whole passage of Scripture, make sure whatever portion you’re preaching is kept in the context of the passage where it’s found. Every biblical text should be interpreted according to its immediate context, and every immediate context should be interpreted according to the greater context of the gospel storyline of Scripture (see Question 5). As the old preacher’s dictum goes: “A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.”
2. Is your sermon CONVICTIONAL?
In other words, does it express declarations of truth? The import of a Christian sermon is not simply to raise questions and coddle felt needs but to proclaim “Thus saith the Lord.” So our preaching comes with conviction. It comes with conviction about who God is, what God has done, and what this means for you and me.
Convictional preaching means we don’t preach as if every sentence ends with a question mark. Convictional preaching means we don’t hem and haw about sin and the law. Convictional preaching means we don’t flinch at the realities of hell and wrath. Convictional preaching means we don’t cater to the world’s values or consumeristic impulses. Convictional preaching means we do not avoid or soften the essential and orthodox doctrines of historic Christianity. And perhaps most fundamentally, convictional preaching means we preach the written Word of God as if it is inspired and infallible, sufficient and supernatural, living and life-giving.
3. Is your sermon CLEAR?
Remember that a good theological sermon is not one that people find difficult to understand! In maybe one of the best narrative examples of expository preaching in the Scriptures, we read that the scribes and priests reading from God’s Word to the gathered people did so “clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8).
So there are two important aspects of clarity here: clear speaking and clear understanding. Good preaching isn’t dumbed down, of course, and often stretches hearers’ intellects. But it is best to stretch hearers’ intellects with big thoughts of God, not big words of preachers. The specific contexts of your community and congregation can certainly factor into what kind of illustrations you use, what kind of vocabulary you employ, and so on. But just remember that even if you’re preaching at Harvard, making it difficult to understand the Bible—much less respond to it!—does not validate your homiletical prowess.
Sometimes I think this is why some preachers stick to the King James Version: the archaic language is difficult for modern ears to make sense of, and because of this, the preacher can pretend to be some specially anointed exegetical priest and repository of the divine gnosis. And if you didn’t understand that last sentence, that’s exactly what I’m talking about!
Know your audience. And then help your audience know God’s Word. Make it clear.
4. Is your sermon COMPASSIONATE?
I’ve heard Alistair Begg say that preaching is a passionate pleading. This question for your sermon evaluation is really simply asking this: Are you preaching out of love?
What is your motivation in your message?
This doesn’t mean that every sermon must have the same emotional tone. Different texts carry the tones of their contexts. Some biblical texts call for rebuke, and some call for rejoicing. Some call for both. One of the great advantages of expository preaching is that it helps us preach according to the grain of the text. But it’s possible to bring emotion to a sermon that is either completely unwarranted by the text itself or totally unhelpful to the aim of helping people see Jesus. Some preachers seem to think that yelling = preaching. But you should know that if all your sentences end with exclamation points, effectively none of them does.
So to preach with compassion is not simply to preach happy or sad or with deep emotions. That’s all well and good. Preaching, as a human act, can employ the range of human emotion and ought to engage both the preacher’s and the congregation’s heart. But emotions can be mis-aimed. To preach with compassion, then, is to preach with:
1. a pervasive concern for the expansion of the glory of Christ;
2. a deep affection for the church, that she might be edified and stirred in her affections for Christ; and
3. a sincere and thorough desire for lost souls to be rescued from their sin and from the wrath it deserves.
5. Is your sermon CROSS-CENTERED?
I almost wrote Is your sermon crucicentric?, but I didn’t want to violate Question 3.
This last question is perhaps the most important in all your preaching. You can preach an expository sermon with clarity and conviction and even compassion, but if you’ve missed the gospel of Jesus Christ, you’ve not even preached a Christian sermon. Only the gospel of Christ’s cross and resurrection can both save a lost soul and sanctify a found one. It is God’s grace in the good news of Christ’s life, death, and glorified raising that provides the power sinners need to grow and go, and it is only God’s grace that does that. This is why Paul resolved in his ministry “to know only Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
Here is an apt illustration on the utter importance of cross-centered preaching from the Prince of Preachers himself, Charles Spurgeon:
A young man had been preaching in the presence of a venerable divine, and after he had done he went to the old minister, and said, “What do you think of my sermon?”
“A very poor sermon indeed,” said he.
“A poor sermon?” said the young man, “it took me a long time to study it.”
“Ay, no doubt of it.”
“Why, did you not think my explanation of the text a very good one?”
“Oh, yes,” said the old preacher, “very good indeed.”
“Well, then, why do you say it is a poor sermon? Didn’t you think the metaphors were appropriate and the arguments conclusive?”
“Yes, they were very good as far as that goes, but still it was a very poor sermon.”
“Will you tell me why you think it a poor sermon?”
“Because,” said he, “there was no Christ in it.”
“Well,” said the young man, “Christ was not in the text; we are not to be preaching Christ always, we must preach what is in the text.”
So the old man said, “Don’t you know young man that from every town, and every village, and every little hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London?”
“Yes,” said the young man.
“Ah!” said the old divine “and so from every text in Scripture, there is a road to the metropolis of the Scriptures, that is Christ. And my dear brother, your business in when you get to a text, is to say, ‘Now what is the road to Christ?’ and then preach a sermon, running along the road towards the great metropolis—Christ. And,” said he, “I have never yet found a text that had not got a road to Christ in it, and if I ever do find one that has not a road to Christ in it, I will make one; I will go over hedge and ditch but I would get at my Master, for the sermon cannot do any good unless there is a savour of Christ in it.”
A savour of Christ! That’s what all of us are dying for. Whatever you do, preacher, do not deny your people the cross of Jesus Christ. Do not treat the gospel like an add-on or afterthought. Preach it from every text to every heart on every occasion.
So there they are—the 5 C’s of preaching: Contextual, Convictional, Clear, Compassionate, Cross-centered. I pray they will serve you well.