“That was a good sermon, Preacher.” These are words that preachers are usually thankful to hear, and are often uttered by church-goers on their way out the door of the church after a Sunday service. The uttering of these words, though, presupposes that not all sermons are good. To designate a particular sermon as “good” is to recognize (at least implicitly) that some sermons are bad. But, how do we know the difference? What makes a good sermon good? I believe that the Word of God can help us answer this question so that our judgments about good and bad sermons is not subjective, but objective. Here are the major marks of a good sermon (NOTE: these and other marks of good sermons are discussed in greater detail in J.I. Packer’s, A Quest for Godliness, pp. 281-289).
First, a good sermon is expository. That is, a good sermon has as its primary goal to lay open and explain a particular passage of Scripture. Paul tells us that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). It is because Scripture is profitable to the life of the believer, that ministers are commanded to “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2). Preachers are given the duty to feed God’s people, and their food is the Holy Scripture. So, a good sermon is one that explains the meaning of a biblical text; it helps the listener gain the mind of God, not the mind of the preacher. Therefore, when you hear a sermon and want to figure out if it was good or not, ask yourself, “Do I understand this biblical text better than I did before hearing this sermon? Have I learned what this text means?”
Second, a good sermon is doctrinal. No text of Scripture is isolated from the rest of Scripture. The Bible is one book and all of its parts are consistent with each other. Biblical interpreters follow the principle that “Scripture interprets Scripture.” This means, as far as preaching goes, that a good sermon will set the text being preached in the larger context of God’s revelation. It will show how the text fits into the “larger scheme of things” and will quote or allude to other biblical passages that address related topics. In other words, as part of helping the listener understand the meaning of the sermon text, the sermon should show the listener something of the whole mind of God on the topic at hand; how the text fits with other things the Bible says on the topic. So, ask, “Does this sermon help me understand better the whole counsel of God on this topic?”
Third, a good sermon is Christ-centered. Christ–his person and work–is ultimately what the Bible is all about. Paul said to the Corinthians, “I determined to know nothing among you but Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). A good sermon will revolve around Christ. It will either explain what Christ has done for sinners, or point us to our need for him, or show us the appropriate response to his saving grace. Therefore ask, “Does this sermon exalt Jesus? Does it increase my esteem for him? Does it humble me before his majesty and grace? Does it help me love and serve him better? Does it draw me to repentance and faith?”
Fourth, a good sermon is experimental (to use an old Puritan term). That is, it is practical. And by practical I do not simply mean that the sermon leaves us with a list of “do’s and don’ts.” The Word of God describes itself as “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Think about the response of the people in Jerusalem to Peter’s Pentecost sermon and you will know what I am talking about. Luke tells us that they “were pierced to the heart” (Acts 2:37). A good sermon will wound consciences, or build characters, or stir the soul to praise God, or move the will to action or the mind to fruitful reflection. And thus, when the preacher offers specific points of application, the listener is ready to respond either by following the promptings of the Holy Spirit or resisting Him in sinful rebellion. In either case, a good sermon will not leave you the way you were before you heard it. So ask, “Has this sermon changed me in some way? Has it drawn me closer to Christ? Has it pricked my conscience and prompted me to repentance and faith? Has it stirred in me a deeper desire to please God and shown me practical ways in which I can do it?”
I want to encourage all the saints who read this to evaluate every sermon you hear by these principles. May it be the case that the next time you say, “That was a good sermon, preacher,” that those words not be based simply on what you may subjectively “like” or find enjoyable, but that those words express the considered opinion of one who understands what God expects of a good sermon.