I heard a while back of a course on preaching at Greenville Seminary in South Carolina where the students spend a semester working through some sermons of men generally regarded as the best living models of preaching in the world today. The class analyzes the sermons – they put them into test tubes, so to speak, and distill the essence of what makes their preaching so profitable and edifying (there’s a useful idea for a book!). I haven’t taken the class, but I want to suggest three aspects of great preaching. I realise there are many more, and these may not be the top three. In fact, they may not actually be three separate things at all, but rather three different ways of looking at the same thing.
Great preaching must exalt Jesus Christ and have him as its centre, since he is the centre of Scripture. In all things he must have pre-eminence – and this surely applies to preaching no less than anything else! Since the Spirit’s great ministry is to glorify and illuminate Christ, it follows that preaching especially blessed by the Spirit will be preaching that exalts Christ.
We have been blessed in recent years by a healthy recovery of this emphasis as far as preaching from the Old Testament is concerned – many books and conferences take this as their theme. I sometimes wonder, though, if we need to be reminded to preach Christ from the New Testament. Isn’t there a subtle danger of thinking that because he is explicitly mentioned in the text, we have preached him. In the Gospels, for example, it’s so easy to fall into trap of making ourselves the point of the passage so that somehow Christ gets lost or ends up slightly out of focus. The camera is meant to be on him, but it ends up slipping to someone or something else. We all feel the pressure from our listeners for ‘practical’ sermons – four things to go away and do. Of course it’s not that Bible doesn’t apply to us, but I wonder if our emphasis is always in the right place.
If man’s chief end is to glorify God, surely that must be the goal of every sermon – to move people to worship. A sermon is not a lecture; it’s not about putting across mere information. Of course preaching requires the communication of information, but we mustn’t stop there. We want the people of God to encounter God in preaching as his word goes forth. J.I. Packer once wrote: ‘The proper aim of preaching is to mediate meetings with God.’
Our casual culture (in the west at least) tends to be uncomfortable with this kind of transcendence (witness the sprint towards making worship services much more informal in a host of ways), but surely we want people to be awed by an encounter with the living word of the living God – to be humbled by the realisation that God is speaking and the Holy Spirit is at work – to be filled with praise and thanks for the spiritual realities they are being confronted by – to be convicted of sin – to be moved to obedience because they long to glorify God.
One comment I find somewhat discouraging after I’ve preached is ‘that was very interesting’. It’s not that I don’t want people to find my sermon interesting, but I want it to be much much more than just interesting.
- Setting forth God’s word on its own terms as clearly as possible
The great preaching I have heard comes from men who are absolutely convinced that the Word of God is already powerful; that we don’t need to dress it up with gimmicks or gadgets to make it effective. It comes from the mouth of the infintely glorious, intelligent, wise God. So the best preaching simply sets forth his Word as cleanly, lucidly and simply as possible. To use Luther’s picture, we are uncaging the lion. It sounds easy – until you try to do it week in, week out two or three times every week! Good preaching brings out the meaning of the text in its proper context with sensitivity to the nuances of the original language and historical setting. This comes through painstaking attention to the details of the passage, reading it over and over again and meditating on it deeply. When it’s properly understood and clearly communicated it is richly varied, practical, moving, comforting, challenging, fascinating, transforming.
Instead of blandly preaching what we think a passage is saying or expect it to say, good preaching brings out the distinctive punch of each individual text, leaving you with the feeling that this passage is the most important and wonderful passage in the whole Bible. Isn’t that what the great preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones often said about whatever text he was preaching on?
Fellow preachers, let’s give ourselves to preaching Christ from the Scriptures, worshipping God ourselves and praying for our listeners to be moved to worship him, and preaching that word as clearly and faithfully as we possibly can.