This will only be of interest to those who listen to preaching or those who preach. But of course that ought to include us all one way or the other. We all want to know what makes a good sermon. It is taken for granted that it must be clear, faithful to Scripture and engage the soul with spiritual realities. Sincerity, clarity and accuracy are important criteria. But there is something more that makes all the difference to a sermon.
James Durham effectively sums up the ultimate test for a sermon in one word – Christ. The following comes from the first of his 72 sermons on Isaiah 53. He is speaking about “our report” (Isaiah 53:1). Jesus Christ and what concerns Him (declaring the glad and good news of a Saviour) is the proper work of a minister. This is the great subject of a minister’s preaching. Christ Jesus, and what concerns Him in His person, natures and offices is the essential subject of preaching. They make Him known:
- as God and man;
- in His offices as Priest, Prophet, and King. A Priest in His suffering and satisfying justice; a Prophet in revealing the will of God; a King, for subduing His people’s lusts and corruptions; and
- in the way by which sinners, both preachers, and hearers may come to have Him for themselves.
All preaching should aim at this mark. Paul insists on this: “I determined to know nothing among you, but Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). It is as if he had said, “I will deal with nothing else but this alone”. Not only will he avoid getting involved with secular employment, he will also lay aside his learning, eloquence and human wisdom to make the preaching of Christ crucified his great work and study.
The reason for this is in the fourfold way that preaching is related to Christ.
1. Is Christ the Subject of the Sermon?
All preaching must explain Christ. “To him give all the prophets witness” (Acts 10:43). The four gospels and the apostolic epistles also do this and are like many sermons about Christ. Any preaching which does not relate to Christ misses the mark and its text. [Durham is not saying that Christ is the only subject for a sermon. Rather, whatever subject the sermon may have, its relation to Christ should be made clear].
2. Is Christ the Foundation of the Sermon?
Christ is the foundation of preaching. Thus, any preaching that lacks Christ lacks a foundation and is like building castles in the air. “According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation…For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:10-11). This implies that all preaching should be squared with (and in agreement with) this foundation.
3. Is Christ the Aim of the Sermon?
Christ is the great aim of preaching, not only that hearers may know Him in their understanding but that they may have Him high in their hearts and affections.“We preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:4). That is, not only do we not preach ourselves as the subject, but we do not preach ourselves as the aim of our preaching. Our goal is not to be great or greatly thought of, but our objective in preaching is to make Christ great.
4. Is Christ the Power and Life of the Sermon?
Christ is the power and life of preaching, without Him no preaching can be effectual, no soul can be captivated and brought to Him. Paul says: “We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumblingblock” they cannot stand to hear Him; and to “the Greeks foolishness”. To those that are saved, however, Christ is “the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Application to Ministers
- It is likely that “our report” would succeed more if Christ were the subject and substance of our message and we declared Him more.
- In making “our report” we must be careful to ensure that it is well matched to the foundation; and,
- Neglecting this may be the cause of a lot of powerless preaching, because Christ is not preached as the subject matter and goal of preaching. Many truths are (sadly) spoken without regard to this goal or with little regard to it.
The report concerning Christ is the main subject has been, is, and will be common to all ministers of the gospel until the end of the world. It is “our report”. It was the report of all the prophets: “to him give all the prophets witness” (Acts 20:43). They all agree in the following joint testimony:
- One subject: Christ and the same things concerning Him e.g. pardon of sin in Him and through faith in Him and in no other way etc.;
- One commission: they arenot all equal but they all have one commission. Not all are apostles, yet all are ambassadors. There is the same authority for us to report and you to receive the gospel as if Isaiah or Paul were preaching. The authority depends on the commission not the person commissioned;
- One common objective: they all have and are sent to fulfil one common objective;
- One common Master: they are gifts from one and the same Mediator. “When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men…some, apostles etc.” (Ephesians 4:8).
Application to Congregations
This is the great subject of preaching and you should be most glad to hear it.
(a) These are the most important truths. The truths that concern Christ and the covenant of grace are those that people should most welcome and study. These are foundational truths and we need to have them confirmed by the Spirit. Many Christians make the mistake of not heeding the clearest and most solid truths. Things that increase understanding, tickle their affections, or resolve a difficulty are almost the only matters sought after. These are certainly good things. Yet, if the clear and solid truths of the gospel were studied and applied more they would find that these would answer all difficulties.
It is grieving when folk are more taken up with notions and speculations more than these soul-saving truths. Such truths include: Christ was born; He was a true man; He was and is King, Priest, and Prophet of His Church etc. Other things are often heard more greedily. Yet if these are meant to be the great subject of what minister must preach, it should be your great endeavour to know Christ, in His person, natures, offices, and covenant. You need to know what He is to you and what your duty is to Him; how you should walk in Him and with Him.
This was Paul’s aim: “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord…That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:8&10). It is as though he was saying: “It is my purpose, not only to make Him known but to know Him myself”.
There is little faith in Christ and little explicit use made of His offices. People make little effort to know these things. Therefore, on the one hand, let me exhort you to make this more often the subject of your study. On the other hand, let me reprove you that there is such readiness to sniff when plain truths are urged or when they are not explored in an unusual way. This attitude says that we are exceedingly unthankful to God for giving us the best things to speak, hear, and think of.
(b) Think highly of hearing Christ preached. He is the best news, and God has sent ministers on the mission of making Him known to you. Nothing is comparable to this news. Not even if He had sent them to tell you all the secret things in God’s purpose that will take place in the future and all hidden works of nature.
What would you have been without this news? What would sabbath-days and week-days, your lying down and rising up, your living and dying have been? You would have have had a sad and sinful life and a most comfortless and terrible death. Think of this gospel, therefore, as having greater worth than you do. Regard their feet beautiful on the mountains that bring this news and glad tidings (Isaiah 52:7). They bring this good re- port of making peace between God and sinners. This should be highly thought of, prized, and deemed a greater favour than usually we do.
(c) Thriving best under the gospel. From this you are able to know those who thrive best under the gospel and profit most from it. It is those that learn of Christ most. This is making best use of Christ and what is in Him. It is discovering by personal experience the effects of knowing Christ. “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” (Philippians 3:10). I am afraid that out of the many that hear this gospel, there are but few that know Christ in this way.
We can be tempted to give more attention to the style, language, exegesis of a sermon than the One who gives it authority, effectual power, purpose and meaning. Durham brings us back to the One whose words are Spirit and life and who is able to use the words of those whom He has sent. This is an encouragement for preachers who are discouraged when they consider their own abilities and little hunger for the Word amongst those who hear.
This is what gives preaching seriousness and authority rather than an effort to entertain. Yet Christ-centredness will also avoid sermons being theological lectures. This keeps preaching from being a mere psychological pep-talk. It makes sermons edifying. If we need preaching that encourages spiritual maturity it will be in so far as it draws hearers to “grow up into Christ in all things”.
Such preachers will be determined not to divert attention from Christ to themselves. The more they seek to be Christ-like in their life and to cultivate fellowship with their Saviour, the more their sermons will communicate Christ.
The article above is drawn from an appendix to the booklet Penetrating Preaching by James Durham published by the Trust. In this booklet Durham shows how Christ Himself demonstrates how to apply the Word in preaching. This can be purchased from our online store.