3 Indispensable Requirements for Good PreachingSeptember 20, 2023
It’s hard to believe that I am now in my twentieth year as a senior pastor and my twenty-second year in pastoral ministry. Getting ordained in the summer of 2002, at the ripe old age of twenty-five, feels like another lifetime, but also not that long ago. God has been gracious to give me good churches to serve and good people to serve with. I hope God grants me the privilege to continue pastoring for another two decades (or more).
While being a pastor today means doing a lot of different things—praying, marrying, burying, leading, visiting, discipling, mentoring, counseling, administrating, managing conflict, raising money, building teams, serving on committees, moderating meetings, and the list goes on—it still is the case (thankfully) that the main thing the senior or solo pastor must do week in and week out is preach a sermon (or two or three). Over the last twenty years, I’ve probably averaged 75 sermons a year. That includes Sunday morning, Sunday evening, mid-week, and outside events. That’s roughly 1,500 sermons over two decades. If I want to be encouraged, I can think about how much I’ve improved (I hope) and about how I still love doing something that I’ve done more than a thousand times. If I want to be discouraged, I can think about how much more skilled and effective I wish I were at a task that I’ve already been doing for almost half my life. (If you have to choose one mood, brother pastor, choose the encouragement.)
Over all these years and all those sermons, I’ve thought a lot about what makes for good preaching. I would never claim that all my sermons have been good. The Lord knows (and his people know) that I’ve preached some duds. But I can say before the Lord that I work hard at preaching and that I am always striving to get better. I also try to be a wise evaluator of sermons, thinking about what works, what doesn’t, and why. It seems to me there are at least three indispensable requirements for good preaching.
Requirement 1: Teach God’s Word
The first indispensable requirement for good preaching is that the preacher accurately teaches God’s word. While it’s true that teaching and preaching are not identical (more on that in the second point), there is no good preaching that does not also teach. The one skill—as opposed to character requirements—necessary for the overseer (and not required for deacons) is that he be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). The one office that is indisputably still operative in the church is that of the shepherd-teacher (Eph. 4:11). Even if we translate the phrase “the shepherds and teachers,” the Greek construction still communicates that we are talking about a group of people that do both these things: pastor and teach.
Expository preaching is, at the bare minimum, a faithful explanation of a passage of Scripture. “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8). Good preaching must explain the Bible to people. Churchgoers should leave every Sunday having learned something. Or, if they’ve been a Christian for decades, they should leave having been reminded of something they might have otherwise forgotten.
This means the preacher himself must always be learning. I’m not sure how a preacher can preach good sermons decade after decade unless he is constantly seeing new things about God. And that means the preacher, in societies with near universal literacy, should be a lifelong reader. It’s too easy for even the smartest person to get into a mental rut. Of course, the longer we preach, the more we get some things figured out. We don’t want to reinvent ourselves (let alone the truth!) year after year. But there won’t be fresh passion without fresh insights and fresh learning.
It’s tempting to think that this first point is the one we have the least trouble with, especially in Reformed circles where education and training are at a premium. But teaching God’s word each week means more than bringing out what most commentaries put into us. It means helping people see connections in the Bible, understand the big picture, and come to believe that all of Scripture really is profitable. We have good commentary preachers. I’m not sure that we have as many good doctrinal preachers or good understand-the-forest-for-the-trees preachers. When earnest preachers are not good teachers the sermons usually devolve into predictable devotional homilies. Heartfelt sentiment becomes mere sentimentality. God’s people pick up the dangerous habit of being affected emotionally without the renewal of their minds (Rom. 12:2).
Good teaching comes in many shapes and styles. But at its heart, I’m convinced good teaching is about communicating truth (old and new) in a way that is interesting, arresting, and understandable. When it comes to preaching, veracity is most important (saying what is true), but after that clarity is king. A man may be a great intellect, knowing things that other people don’t know, and understanding in his head mysteries that no one else can comprehend. But a man is not a great teacher if he cannot help other people to be interested in and to understand those mysteries. Good preachers are not simplistic, but they know how to get to the simplicity that is on the other side of complexity.
Before leaving this first point, let me offer a final exhortation. Did you notice in Nehemiah 8:8 that Ezra and the priests and Levites read from the book and gave the sense of it? Similarly, Paul told Timothy to devote himself “to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). A vital part of the teaching ministry of the pastor is that he not only preaches the Bible to his people, he also reads the Bible to his people. This means that the preaching text should not be given to another member of the church so that he (or often, in complementarian churches that want to include women in everything but the sermon, it is she) has an opportunity to be involved in the service. There are other ways to show that the church is run by a plurality of elders and better ways to include people in the public ministry of the church. Presumably, the preacher has spent time in the text all week. He knows what the text means and where the sermon is going. He knows where to get louder and where to get softer, when to speed up and when to slow down. Presumably, the preacher has practiced reading the text out loud in his study so that when it comes to the public reading of Scripture, he will communicate something of the glory, the gravitas, and the meaning of the text just by reading it. It’s not an absolute rule, but my strong conviction is that pastors should not give away the reading of their text to someone else. Good preaching involves good teaching, and good teaching involves the preacher thoughtfully and movingly reading the text of Scripture from which he means to preach.
Requirement 2: Proclaim Christ Crucified
At the outset, we should note that “proclaim” is not a synonym for “teach.” When Paul described himself as “a preacher and apostle and teacher” (2 Tim. 1:11), he was not heaping up redundancies (though surely the roles overlap). A preacher (kerux) was a herald, someone whose task was to speak on behalf of the king and announce the royal decree. Good preaching will have this official, joyous, proclamatory character.
Our preaching must never soft-pedal the truth or apologize for God and his ways. Preachers may not always be sure of themselves, but our preaching should be sure. “The Holy Spirit is no skeptic,” as Luther reminded Erasmus. Or as Paul put it: “We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2). We have glad tidings to share with the world. If the gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing (v. 3).
Preachers must never lose sight of their work as evangelists (2 Tim. 4:5), not in a rigid way that repeats the same formula at the end of every sermon or fails to teach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:17), but in a knowledgeable way that brings the person and work of Christ into every sermon. When Paul spoke of his preaching, he described his message as the gospel (1 Cor. 1:17), or as the word of the cross (v. 18), or as Jesus Christ and him crucified (2:2). The term “Christ-centered” has become a bit of a wax nose, and a clumsily applied one at that. And yet, rightly conceived, the concept is critical to good preaching. Because all of the Bible is about Christ (Luke 24:27), every sermon ought to show how the passage finds its fulfillment in Christ, or points us in the direction of Christ, or shows us our need of Christ, or can be accomplished only by the power of Christ, or serves to magnify the glory of Christ.
In coming to the end of my sermon preparation, I often ask myself: “Would it feel out of place to conclude the service with the Lord’s Supper?” If the answer is ever “yes,” then I’ve not sufficiently proclaimed Christ and him crucified. To be sure, I want to be careful to let the text (especially from the Old Testament) speak for itself. I don’t want to pretend the human author intended to say something he didn’t mean to say. At the same time, I don’t want to think that the divine Author can’t have more to say to us than the original audience would have understood at the time.
Here’s the bottom line: good preaching proclaims Christ. I don’t want anyone to walk away from my sermon—whether a sincere follower of Judaism, a kind Muslim, a neighborly agnostic, or an unbelieving political conservative—without hearing that Christ is Lord. By the same token, I don’t want anyone who is lost, brokenhearted, and self-condemned to leave without knowing that Christ is mighty to save. Good preaching must always bring to bear the good news about Christ and him crucified.
Requirement 3: Preach in the Power of the Spirit
This last point is the hardest to define, and for that reason it may be the most overlooked. Paul describes his speech and his message among the Corinthians as coming to them “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4). In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus launches his public ministry by announcing (in fulfillment of Isaiah 61) that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to proclaim good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). The ministry of the Apostles was dependent upon the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8) and that their preaching was “by the Holy Spirit” (1 Pet. 1:12). Our Reformed forebearers often talked about the power of the Holy Spirit in preaching or about divine unction in preaching. We don’t hear enough of this language and emphasis today.
What does it mean to preach in the power of the Holy Spirit? Al Martin, in his wonderful little book Preaching in the Holy Spirit mentions four manifestations: a heightened sense of spiritual realities, an unfettered liberty, an enlarged heart, and a heightened confidence in the word. I don’t disagree with these points, but mine are worded a little differently. I’d say that preaching in the power of the Spirit is marked by directness, boldness, and authority.
When I read older sermons, especially from the Great Awakening, I’m struck by the directness of the speech. The preacher was not only talking about things; he was talking to people. I find this direct address is often missing in preaching today and has been missing in my preaching at times. It’s the difference between preaching about the gospel (“Here’s what Christ did for sinners and how salvation works”) and preaching the gospel (“You are a sinner in need of a Savior; repent and believe”). When Paul directed Timothy to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2) he was laying out a model of preaching that combines careful instruction and direct words of comfort and confrontation. The Puritans did this exceptionally well, probing the conscience and laboring to speak to specific kinds of people in their specific needs, fears, challenges, and opportunities.
Preaching in the power of the Spirit also entails boldness. That was the singular effect after the believers prayed in Acts 4—the place was filled with the Holy Spirit and they continued to speak the word of God with boldness (v. 31). Boldness doesn’t mean bravado. It’s not about a decibel level or a personality type. As we see verse 31 played out in the rest of Acts, we understand that boldness is about being clear in the face of fear. It means the preacher (or by extension, anyone bearing witness to the truth) does not shrink back from saying hard things. To be sure, he’s not looking to make people upset. As C.S. Lewis famously remarked, the hard sayings of Jesus are only salutary for those who find them hard. The preacher is not an attention-hungry shock-jock. At the same time, good, powerful, faithful preaching is going to sound shocking to some people. The Spirit-empowered preacher may contextualize his message to make confusing things understandable; he does not contextualize his message to make scandalous things more palatable.
Finally, preaching in the power of the Spirit comes with an undeniable sense of authority. Let us never forget what was most astonishing about Jesus’s preaching. It was not his humor, his education, his storytelling, or his vulnerability. No, “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:28).
Surely it is no coincidence that after the Spirit descends on Jesus in Matthew 3, and the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness in Matthew 4, that Jesus preaches with such amazing unction in Matthew 5–7.
Of all the characteristics of Jesus’s ministry our world might find troubling, it is this note of authority that may be at the top of the list. The world—and increasingly the church—does not want the preacher to speak with authority. Of course, some preachers mistake loveless, manipulative harangues as preaching with “authority.” But just because the concept can be abused does not mean we no longer need the real thing. Read any great preaching from the past—preaching that saved souls, preaching that sparked revival, preaching that made kings and queens tremble, preaching that made sinners leap for joy—and you will find that it rings forth with unmistakable authority. It may be the one characteristic of true preaching that contemporary audiences will most readily complain about, which means it is likely the one thing missing from much of our current preaching.
There is much more one could say about good preaching, let alone about the art and skill of crafting good sermons. This article isn’t meant to be a homiletics textbook. But I believe these three requirements—teach God’s word, proclaim Christ crucified, preach in the power of the Spirit—are indispensable for good preaching in our age (or in any age). No preacher will be equally gifted or adept in all three areas. I’m sure the first requirement comes through more naturally in my preaching than the other two. And yet, we need all three requirements if our preaching is not to be lopsided.
Without teaching God’s word, God’s people may be moved emotionally and stirred to action, but they won’t learn how to read the Bible and how to trust the Bible.
Without proclaiming Christ crucified, God’s people may become good students and may be directed to good behaviors, but they won’t know what and who the Bible is really about.
Without preaching in the power of the Spirit, God’s people may know how to handle the Bible and may understand how to get saved and help other people get saved, but they won’t have their deepest sins confronted, and they won’t hear the high places of their own culture called out for what they are.
Good preaching should be trinitarian in content and in character. I’ve tried to reflect that emphasis in these three points—the word of the Father, the gospel of the Son, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Good preaching is not one thing, but many things. It instructs and it heralds; it comforts and corrects. This is the preaching God has always used, and it is still the preaching we need to hear from preachers today.
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