Six crucial questions to ask of every sermon
Every pastor has a general routine he follows each week in preparing to preach the Word of God on the Lord’s Day. I begin on Sunday night, reading next week’s text. I read it over and over, meditatively, throughout the week. By Wednesday, I hope to have a general outline. By Friday evening, I hope to have the sermon written. Each day, I pray that God will prepare my heart to preach his Word. and the heart of the congregation to receive the Word by the Spirit’s power.
The final step—which typically takes place on Saturday—is vital: I edit the sermon. I usually shorten it, but I also ask several crucial questions to make certain it is achieving six fundamental goals. Here are the six questions that help me reach those goals:
1. Does it help the congregation understand the Bible better?
Or, I could ask it this way: Am I preaching/teaching them the Bible? I mean this in two senses: Is what I am teaching them a faithful explication and interpretation of the text under consideration? Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 4:5 are important here: “We preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as servants for Jesus’ sake.” I must preach/teach the text before me and not anything else.
I ask this question also because good preaching entails teaching. Jesus, the master teacher, was called “Rabbi”—teacher—which is instructive. I want every sermon to help my people learn to interpret and apply their Bibles more accurately. May the description of one late-19th century Virginia Baptist preacher’s flowery, erudite sermons never be true of us: “If his sermon had had the smallpox, his text would have never caught it.” I want to look out and see people with their faces buried in God’s Word, examining the text to discern where I am getting every piece of my exposition.
2. Does it show them Christ?
In Colossians 1:28, Paul expressed this central task succinctly: “Him we proclaim, warning every and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” Several pastors in church history had the request of the Greeks in John 12:21 carved into the wood of their pulpits: “Sirs, we wish to see Jesus.” If I do not show them the Christ, in both his glorious person and work, in his glorious offices, then in what way is my preaching strictly Christian? None but Jesus can do helpless sinners good.
Spurgeon puts this necessity well in a story of an old divine regaling a young minister with words of wisdom: “From every text in Scripture, there is a road to the metropolis of the Scriptures, that is Christ. And my dear brother, your business is when you get to a text, to say, ‘Now what is the road to Christ?’ and then preach a sermon, running along the road towards the great metropolis—Christ . . . or the sermon cannot do any good unless there be a savor of Christ in it.” In his ministry to the Corinthians, Paul resolved “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Set the telescope on Jesus Christ.
3. Does it humble the pride of man and exalt the grace of God?
Do I leave any room for man to boast in either his salvation or sanctification? Locating Bryan Chapell’s “fallen condition focus” (Christ-Centered Preaching), is extremely valuable here. Scripture is clear: We have met the enemy and it is us. Man tends to overrate his goodness and underrate his sinfulness, but the Bible sets the record straight: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 1:9)
This is precisely what Calvin was driving at in his famous dictum in the introduction to the Institutes: “Genuine wisdom consists entirely in knowledge of God and knowledge of self.” Contrary to the orthodoxy preached from the pulpits of a therapeutic Western culture, I want them to know their primary problem is inside them and the solution is entirely outside of them. That is to say, every sermon must be God-centered.
4. Does it promote holiness of heart and life?
Every text of Scripture is always relevant. I don’t want to merely to pass along information in the sermon, but want to confront the conscience with the truth in such as way the Spirit uses it to convict and transform. The Puritans sought to wound their consciences with God’s law and heal it with the gospel, a helpful, biblical paradigm.
One of the most sobering texts in all of Scripture is Hebrews 12:14, “Strive for . . . holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Thus, every sermon needs to motivate believers to pursue grace-driven sanctification, while avoiding at all costs the twin perils of legalism and antinomianism, neither of which produces genuine godliness.
5. Does it seek to awaken the unconverted?
Martyn Lloyd-Jones correctly argued that every sermon ought to address both the converted and unconverted. In his classic work Preaching and Preachers, he warned preachers not to “assume that all who are members of the church, are . . . Christians.” As Lloyd-Jones further points out, many who sit in the pews every week have accepted the facts of the gospel intellectually, but have never been truly awakened by the Holy Spirit. They need the gospel.
And, the same gospel that saves the lost also sanctifies the found. One of the major benefits of gospel-centered preaching is that it, like Scripture itself, addresses both believer and unbeliever alike. I want each sermon in some way to touch on the sinfulness of man and the rescuing grace of God.
6. Does it communicate clearly?
In other words, have I made the words plain and concepts accessible to those in my congregation, explaining unfamiliar theological terms and using common patterns of speech? I want my hearers to taste the fruit from my study of the original languages, but I do not want them to see the tree. Rarely do I use Greek and Hebrew words in the pulpit. I want them to marvel at the Word of God, not my seminary training or rhetorical abilities.
I do not want the congregation to see God’s Word as beyond their grasp, that advanced degrees are necessary to engage the things of God deeply. I want to convince them that any Spirit-filled Christian can fully comprehend, apply, and delight in the truths of Scripture. A man in late-19th century England reportedly visited two churches on the Lord’s Day, one pastored by a famous minister of high culture, the other Metropolitan Tabernacle, pastored by Spurgeon. After visiting the first, the man responded, “What a preacher!” When he left Spurgeon’s tabernacle, his assessment was, “What a Savior!” I want them to see and savor Christ and if they are to do that, I must preach plainly and simply in the power and unction of God’s Spirit.
Trembling before the Text
The closer 11 a.m. on Sunday draws, the more the sentiments of John Piper’s words grip my heart and mind: “I am standing vigilantly on the precipice of eternity speaking to people who this week could go over the edge whether they are ready to or not. I will be called to account for what I said there.” Indeed. Every Sunday morning is an occasion for trembling and utter dependence upon the Lord, no matter how much I have prepared beforehand.
Jeff Robinson (M.Div. and Ph.D., SBTS) is editor of the Southern Seminary blog. He is pastor of New City Church in Louisville, serves as senior editor for The Gospel Coalition and is also adjunct professor of church history and senior research and teaching associate for the Andrew Fuller Center at SBTS. He is co-author with Michael A. G. Haykin of To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy (Crossway, 2014). Jeff and his wife Lisa have four children. This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.