It is hard to swiftly and accurately explain what makes for good preaching. So, for now, it is enough to say a few brief things about it that will push Christians toward an obedient intolerance of the contemporary, trans-denominational preaching that Christians endure today. Here are four ways of explaining the gist of good, God-honoring preaching.
1. When preaching to the choir
When preaching to the people of God, the preacher ought to give more insight into what God’s people already know. This requires depth and precision. The only person in the church required to be more precise than the choir is the person who instructs the choir. The only person in the church required to be more spiritually, morally, and theologically mature than the deacons, is the person who instructs the deacons. This requires the preacher to creatively state old ideas. It also requires the preacher to teach all that Jesus commanded. Beware of the so-called “Gospel-centered preacher” who says that preaching all that Jesus commanded is crabbed, legalistic tyranny from the black pages of Satan’s diary.
2. When preaching to the guy who checks his phone every 8 seconds
Jesus told parables “so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, let they should turn and be forgiven’” (Mark 4:12). Maybe you can tell that the underlines were my addition. But the words underlined were not. Jesus told parables to hinder perception; to hinder understanding. He had his inscrutable reasons. Modern preachers must be careful of what they imitate, and when they are sporting skinny jeans, they need to be extra careful of every utterance. Illustrations aren’t the problem. John Stott says, “Illustrations transform the abstract into the concrete, the ancient into the present, the unfamiliar into the familiar, the general into the particular, the vague into the precise, the unreal into the real, and the invisible into the visible.”* The problem is that modern preacher-stories rarely illustrate. When the Apostles wish to illustrate, they use short metaphors and examples, not long stories. The guy in the pew who checks his phone every eight seconds needs something that has the power to snap him out of the haze of virtual reality. He needs to hear a contrarian to the main movement of the secular age. He needs the word of God preached skillfully (Acts 14:1). This is the ordinary way God works (Titus 1:9; Rom. 10:10-18). When the text is passionate, Mr. Phone-Addict needs the words of the preacher to be passionate. When the text is grave, he needs the words of the preacher to be grave. When the text is hopeful, he needs the preacher to be hopeful. He doesn’t need another story about the preachers’ kids any more than he needs another reference to the preacher’s favorite Hollywood movie.
3. When preaching to the religious know-it-all
Does the sermon have integrity to the Scriptures (Acts 20:27; 2 Tim. 4:2)? Is the sermon content derived from the announced text of Scripture? Did the sermon content give a faithful representation of the passage preached from? Was it the right doctrine from the right passage? One of the newfangled ways to evaluate a sermon is to ask, “Does it have Gospel hope?” This sounds good. Who opposes Gospel hope? But when the text of Scripture is set aside to give hope, the result is that the spirit of the Gospel is preached rather than the Gospel itself. The person who has rejected Christ must leave feeling hopeless. The unrepentant Pharisee must walk away from the sermon uncomfortable. He must listen to how Paul ended his first letter to the Corinthians, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.” Gospel hope is faithful when it is announced from Scripture. But take heed, the Gospel preached from Scripture is filled with the very sort of warnings the humbug pretender needs. When talking to Pharisees, Jesus was not what might be described as tactful.
4. When preaching to the rebel
If a man sitting in the back row is in outright rebellion against his Creator, the central task of the preacher is to give offense. This means preaching towards the conviction of sin. This is why the flighty sermon that prioritizes humor always fails. A sermon should be serious, not in that the preacher takes himself too seriously, but in that he shows the weight and gravity of the truth of the Living God. When people leave Sunday services, they commence their critique of the preacher. They shouldn’t say, “What an authentic and humble man the preacher is.” They should be able to say “That preacher had authority, not as the scribes.” Robert Farrar Capon said it’s better for a preacher to be charged with arrogance than with being a doormat. This is why a sermon should have a bare minimum of personal references. Such references may pretend of authenticity. In truth, they have marginalized the sense of the sacred.
Jason Cherry is a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.
*John Stott, The Challenge of Preaching, p. 63