Preachers, therefore, have the responsibility to preach both indicatives and imperatives, but we must always be mindful of their logical order. Indicatives (what Christ has done for us) always serve as the foundation for the imperatives (our Christian conduct). We can never reverse this logical order. Christ, through the work of the Spirit, is the source of our capacity and ability for growth in sanctification. We do not offer our good works (imperative first) so we can then somehow secure the indicative of redemption.
There is a myriad of books about preaching on the market at present, and each of them presents useful information, tips, and methods for preaching a good sermon. Yet, when I’m evaluating a sermon or preparing my own messages, there are four simple questions that I ask myself:
1. Did I exegete the text?
Why should you ask whether the preacher exegeted the text? Believe it or not, there are many preachers who mount the pulpit, speak for thirty to forty minutes, and never really engage the biblical text in any significant way. I have personally sat under “preaching” where the message, at least in my mind, had no clearly discernable connection to the sermon text. The pastor spent more time offering personal observations, opinions, and commentary on recent news events than the biblical text.
Another type of “sermon” that I’ve heard is when a preacher reads a biblical text and then picks up a word, phrase, or concept that appears in the text and uses it as a springboard to a message that might be vaguely related to the passage at hand. I have heard some, for example, cite Deuteronomy 6:7, “You shall teach them [the words of Deuteronomy 6:4] diligently to your children…” as grounds for advocating home schooling as the only legitimate form of childhood educating. The text, I have been told, explicitly assigns education to parents, not to a public or Christian school.
Such an interpretation picks up on two elements in the verse—parents(implicit in the passage) and teach. But these two words have a greater context—the context is the law of God and the first greatest commandment:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:4-5)
The context is not about education in general but rather instructing children to love the Lord with all their being. In Pauline terms, the passage addresses, among other things, raising children in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).
Hence, a fundamental question the preacher should always ask himself is, did I exegete the text? Did I examine the surrounding context? Did I historically locate the passage? Did I pay attention to specific or unique terminology? If I’m preaching from an Old Testament passage, did I examine how the New Testament appeals to, alludes to, or echoes the text? These are all vital questions that the preacher should ask to ensure that he properly handles the text and “draws out” (what the term exegesis means) from the passage the intended meaning, rather than inserting ideas that are foreign to the text.
In your sermon, you might not refer to all of your exegetical work. Preaching is akin to telling what time it is rather than disassembling the clock and showing how it’s made. Nevertheless, a good sermon still needs properly functioning inner gears and whirring wheels so that the preacher can accurately tell his congregation what time it is. But just because you don’t reveal the inner workings of the clock does not mean you don’t need those internal mechanisms. On the contrary, exegesis is the foundation of any good sermon. So always ask, did I exegete the text?
2. Did I explain the text?
When I evaluate a sermon or my own preaching, the second key question I ask is whether I adequately explained the biblical text. This is a distinct issue from the first question, namely, did I exegete the biblical text? Exegesis is foundational to a solid sermon—it ensures that you accurately represent the text in your sermon and don’t introduce foreign ideas to the Bible. In other words, in a sermon the preacher wants to open a window to the voice of God—in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), which is “the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture” (WCF 1.10). But as important as exegesis is to a solid sermon, another vital element is explanation.
In the post-exilic Israelite community, we find the principle of explanation recorded in the text:
They [the Levites] read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (Neh. 8:8)
The priests did not merely read the word and leave the people floundering. Yes, as the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches, the Word of God is abundantly perspicuous (clear) in matters of salvation (WCF 1.7). Yet, it also acknowledges that there are some portions that are not “plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.”
Hence, preachers need to exegete the Scriptures to ensure their message is text-driven, but they also need to explain the text to their congregation. Above I wrote that preachers need to tell their congregations what time it is rather than tell them how the clock was made, and now it might appear as though I’m giving contradictory counsel. How can you explain a text without showing all its parts in great detail?
There is a difference, I believe, in spouting off about Greek and Hebrew terms for which the congregation has no knowledge versus ensuring that the congregation understands what’s going on in the passage. I once preached from Isaiah 6 and told the congregation that the word for holy was the Hebrew term qadosh (queue the sound of a fighter jet screaming by at Mach 2 over the heads of the congregation).
While it was important for me to know the meaning of this term in my exegesis of the passage, it was unnecessary for me to quote the Hebrew. I only needed to say that holy means set apart and that the seraphim repeated the term three times to indicate the superlative to convey that God is the holiest of all beings.