Evaluating Sermons

Derke Bergsma
Friday, June 22nd 2007
Nov/Dec 2000

I was once a member of a church whose senior pastor had retired. A search committee was appointed to do what was necessary to find a suitable successor. The task seemed daunting since the retiring pastor was a gifted preacher under whose ministry people of widely diverse nationality and social backgrounds had been incorporated into the life of a growing church. When asked what it was that drew them to this church, the answer almost always focused on the biblical expository, Christ-centered preaching. The search committee was determined to find a pastor who would continue the pulpit tradition that had so nourished and expanded the ministry of this congregation. That proved to be more difficult than any of us expected.

We discovered that the membership was quite capable of evaluating invited applicants in terms of personality, sensitivity for pastoral concerns, and communication skills. The last of these seemed to be of greatest importance to them. Applicants who were clear and skillful communicators and had captivating preaching styles enjoyed broad appeal regardless of their approach to the Scriptures or the substance of their messages. Since the content of the sermon was a primary issue with the search committee, it became necessary to instruct the congregation regarding the biblical substance which we have come to expect from our pulpit. I was asked to provide some general guidelines to sensitize the congregation as to what it was that the search committee was so eager to identify when evaluating the sermons of applicants for our senior pastor position.

Evaluating Sermon Content

There are three general categories into which sermons fall among preachers who take a text from the Bible as the starting point for their sermons. Many preachers don't even make a pretense of beginning with Scripture or they may have a Scripture reading that really has little or nothing to do with the topic about which they intend to provide advice or encouragement. Their sermons are a form of "group counseling" as Harry Emerson Fosdick once described his sermonizing. We are not addressing that form of preaching. We are rather attempting to distinguish approaches to the preaching task that are taken by those who are serious about the Bible and its message. They are committed to the authority of the Scriptures but approach the task of preaching from the Bible differently. When a congregation is searching for a pastor, the membership should be aware of these differences, at least in general, so that intelligent, prayerful choices can be made.

Moralistic Sermons: Discerning Ethical Teachings from Biblical Examples

This approach takes a passage of Scripture and uses it to help people understand how they should live as Christians. One might call this approach a search for biblical guidelines for godly living. It is motivated by a sincere desire to encourage people to be more pious, loving, kind, generous, and faithful in their Christian lives. It primarily addresses the will. Biblical examples are enumerated to serve as models of the way people should live, or bad examples are cited to warn against destructive patterns of living. Thus, Joseph serves as a powerful model of one who resisted temptation even when it cost him a prison term. And David's courageous confrontation with Goliath challenges us to a similar fortitude as we face life's demanding situations. Absalom demonstrates the self-destructive consequences of a rebellious youth, whereas Daniel provides us with an example of faithfulness to the true God in a pagan, unbelieving social environment.

Recently I heard a sermon by a local pastor entitled "Biblical Principles of Money Management". Citing scattered references from Ecclesiastes, the pastor gave advice about earning, handling, and sharing money. It made good rational and responsible sense about stewardship. But there was no Good News, no mention of Jesus, by whose grace and power alone we are able to receive and manage any of God's gifts in a way that honors him and demonstrates our thankfulness. There was simply no Gospel. A Jewish rabbi or a Protestant liberal could have spoken every word of that message.

There are pastors and congregations that prefer this approach. I would recommend against it for several reasons.

  1. The Bible should not be treated as a source book for moral advice. That is not its purpose. It is the infallible revelation of God's gracious determination to save a lost world. It records God's saving purpose in real history, culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ in the light of whom all Scripture must be understood. Where moral admonition appears, as it certainly does, it must be clearly recommended as the response of gratitude from the Lord's redeemed people.
  2. Providing moral admonition presumably recommended by Scripture subtly implies that if people know what is right they will do it, and if they know what is wrong they will avoid it. This is the fundamental flaw with the liberal belief in the inherent goodness of human beings. People need always to be reminded that good works are only those that proceed from a heart renewed by the Spirit of God. The power to obey has its source not in our will, but in Christ living within us. It is through repentance for the sin of falling short of God's demands, faith in Jesus Christ our Savior, and renewal by the Holy Spirit that our wills are driven to make a beginning toward living in obedience to God's expectations for the Christian life.
  3. All human examples are imperfect-even biblical examples. Therefore, we must be selective in identifying those qualities for which biblical figures can serve as examples. When using a human model, we risk coming to Scripture with preconceived notions of morality and searching for examples to support these notions. David often provides a bad example of conduct (adultery and polygamy), and perhaps Joseph did a little bragging when his dreams made him feel that he was somewhat superior to his older brothers. Who is to say that the moral of the story of Joseph's dreams isn't "Don't boast. It may get you into trouble."
  4. If motivational examples of faith, courage, conviction, service to others, and so forth are needed, why restrict ourselves to the Bible? Perhaps this train of thought explains why many television preachers who are moralistic in their approach often conduct interviews with famous people on their programs. Examples of "success" through a positive mental attitude and "healing" through effectual prayer are popular. The implication is clear: Follow these examples and you can expect similar results.
  5. Moralistic preaching introduces a new legalism into the pattern of a Christian lifestyle. "If you do this and avoid that, God will be pleased with you." To leave such an impression with a congregation can be especially tragic when there are unbelievers present. We must always emphasize that the Lord is pleased only by that which proceeds from a renewed heart empowered by Christ living within us.
  6. The moralistic approach to preaching does not require the proclamation of the Good News that through repentance for sin and faith in the Crucified One, the believer is reconciled to our merciful and loving God. If a call to repentance and faith is given, it often has a tacked-on character which is not integrally related to the sermon's text.

Doctrinalistic Sermons: The Discovery of Doctrinal Implications from Biblical Texts

This approach searches a text to try to clarify doctrinal teaching. It primarily addresses the intellect. In a "doctrinalistic" sermon the preacher is eager to have his congregation understand Christian doctrine better and leave a worship service with a clearer conception of what they must believe. Thus, for example, the biblical account of Joseph's experiences demonstrates the doctrine of providence. The providential arrival of a caravan of Midianite merchants changed the plans of Joseph's brothers, which were to kill him. They sold him into slavery instead, thereby sparing his life. And, providentially, a kindly gentleman named Potiphar, who recognized Joseph's trustworthy leadership qualities, became his master. Providence is seen in all of Joseph's experiences, right up to his appointment to leadership in government, which enabled him to save his father's family from starvation. The application is obvious: Be aware of the reality of divine providence in your life.

Much preaching in churches that align themselves with the Reformed tradition has historically been of the doctrinalist approach. I would recommend against it, however, for several reasons.

  1. It tends to view a clearer understanding of Christian doctrine as an end to itself rather than to provide a life-changing and God-honoring body of truth. It is in danger of implying that a better knowledge of Christian doctrine guarantees a closer walk with the Lord. We must remember that knowledge of the truth, crucially important though it is, may never be a substitute for the humble surrender of one's heart to the Lord Jesus Christ.
  2. The doctrinalist approach tends to identify individual doctrines in isolation from the larger body of biblical teaching. The truths of Scripture can be fully understood only in relation to him who is the truth.
  3. This approach easily tends to lose sight of the organic nature of Scripture. The Bible is, after all, the infallible account of God's saving acts unfolding in salvation history, from bud to flower, from promise to fulfillment. Distilling doctrinal teaching from individual texts treats the Bible as a static document for which the historical setting and the relation between prior and subsequent revelation is of little or no importance.

Redemptive Historical Sermons: Christ-Centered Preaching from All Scripture

This approach begins with the recognition of the essential nature of the Bible. The Bible is God's revelation of his saving purposes in real planet earth history, culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Every text in Scripture is part of the unfolding of God's sovereign plan to redeem a lost world, a plan that reaches its fulfillment in the person and work of the Savior. Therefore, the fullest meaning of a particular text can be discerned only in relation to him who is the Word made flesh. And obedience to the ethical demands of any text is possible only in dependence on the power and grace of our divine Savior. No sermon is complete unless its place in the history of redemption, which centers in Jesus Christ, is clarified. Only then will we consistently obey the Apostle Paul's injunction to preach Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Such preaching demands a heartfelt response because it addresses the heart, which is the core of a person's total being, not just the intellect or will.

From this perspective, Joseph's experiences become part of the grand drama of divine redemption. Joseph is himself an object of God's grace, who is chosen by God to be an agent for the preservation of a covenant people through whom the Savior of the world, in the fullness of time, would be born. Joseph is thereby an imperfect type and shadow of Jesus, who is the ultimate preserver and deliverer of a covenant people. Joseph's salvation-and ours-is secure only in Jesus. Whatever noble character traits he exhibits are the evidence of grace in his life, traits that are common to those whose desire it is to please God and who are submissive to his providential will. We, too, are eager to please God as the response of gratitude for what he has done for us in Christ. Even our desire to do God's will has its source in him whose will it is our delight to do.

Why should we insist on redemptive historical sermons?

  1. The nature of the Bible requires it. Such sermons reflect what the Bible is, namely, the very Word of God revealing his saving grace, unfolding from seed to mature flower, until it reaches its fulfillment in the person and work of his divine Son. Every text in the Bible is part of that progressively unfolding message. To do justice to a biblical text, therefore, requires addressing the place that particular passage fills in the divine revelation of God's saving concern for a lost world. In short, every text must be understood as truth for those to whom God first revealed it, or truth to the first degree. It must also be understood in relation to him who is the truth, truth to the nth degree.
  2. The Bible sets the pattern for it. The Scripture interprets itself in terms of its testimony to Jesus. New Testament references to the Old Testament make unmistakably clear that the message of the Law and the Prophets centers in Jesus Christ (cf. Matt. 5:17; Luke 1:69, 70, 24:27; John 5: 39, 40; Acts 13:27, 28:23; Rom. 15:7-13; Rev. 19:10).
  3. One could argue that since the Bible is the authoritative Word of God, its moral and doctrinal claims must be obeyed; "Thus saith the Lord" applies to everything that is written in the Bible. This is a valid argument. But if the ethical and doctrinal imperatives are not rooted in the Gospel of repentance for sin and faith in God's forgiving grace, the power to obey the moral demands and accept the doctrinal teachings is lacking.
  4. Sermons that clarify and celebrate the divine initiatives at every point in salvation history concentrate the worshiper's attention on what God has done. The Spirit-touched heart response will be emotional (awe, wonder, and joy), intellectual (knowledge of the truth), and volitional (grateful commitment to Christian service and devotion).
Friday, June 22nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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