More than a Sermon: The Purpose and Practice of Christian Preaching
(Lexham Press, 2024)

Good preaching is dependent in every way on the Bible.

Christian preaching is always and only biblical preaching. The sermon’s content, shape, style, tone, and impact are derived from the biblical text. Disciples know that the power of God’s word to achieve its purposes is not in doubt (Heb 4:12). The challenge comes with our ability to eat the word — ingesting, digesting, and metabolizing God’s life-giving word. We engage the biblical text prayerfully, theologically, linguistically, personally, politically, sociologically, and emotionally to the end that we might proclaim Christ, “admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ” (Col 1:28). Good preaching is prophetic and priestly, speaking to the individual and the community, evangelizing the lost, edifying the believer, witnessing to all, and building up the body of Christ.

Good Preaching Preaches the Whole Counsel of God

The whole Bible undivided is the Christian book, and it is equally Christian at every point. As Dale Bruner says, “Every Old and New Testament text must be brought to kneel before the Messiah, Scripture’s Center and Power, before it can be preached as Word of God.” The church calendar and the seasonal rhythms of the year provide opportunity to preach Christ from the whole counsel of God. We not only want to begin in the biblical story, but we want to remain in the gospel story throughout our pastoral ministry. Over time expository preaching develops a congregation’s ability to approach and understand the Bible as an organic whole. Each book of the Bible has its own essence or thesis. The substance of revelation is explainable, and it is up to preachers to articulate that message in a clear and compelling way. The purpose of preaching is not to focus on the self, but on God’s word. If the existential self is the preacher’s text, rather than God’s word, faithful and fruitful preaching is subverted. Preachers who care about the listener are preachers who draw out the passion of the passage for the sake of the listener. The preacher does not set out to impress the listener with the preacher’s ability to read their hopes and fears. Whatever therapy a hearer receives ought to come from the theology of the text. The most powerful way to bring lasting value to the listener is to faithfully preach the biblical text in the power of the Holy Spirit. The goal of the gospel is the transformation of the person and the building up of the body of Christ.

Good Preaching Brings to Bear the Whole Counsel of God in Our Life Situation

Faithful biblical interpretation not only leads to a deeper understanding of the biblical text in its original context, but it impacts the life of the church today. Careful exegesis requires practical and pastoral application. If our intellectual efforts neglect this essential pastoral task, then the impact of the Bible is cut off from its true purpose and where it is needed most. We do not have the luxury of leaving the truth in the ancient world. The Spirit deepens our situational awareness to bring the truth of the text to bear on the real situation facing Christ’s followers. The avoidance of applicable biblical meaning and action is not an option. Good preaching requires discernment, challenging work, and prayer. We want to pay attention prayerfully and thoughtfully to God’s overarching salvation history, the original intention of the passage, the context of the text, and the people to whom one is preaching. You know good preaching when you hear it. Your heart is stirred, and your mind is moved. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32).

Good Preaching Understands That God’s Word Is Central to Everything Pastors Are Called to Do — Everything Christ’s Disciples Are Called to Do

The first duty of pastoral ministry is to teach the word of God, and everything else flows from this responsibility. As Martin Luther puts it:

The first and foremost of all on which everything else depends, is the teaching of the Word of God. For we teach with the Word, we consecrate with the Word, we bind and absolve sins by the Word, we baptize with the Word, we sacrifice with the Word, we judge all things by the Word. Therefore when we grant the Word to anyone, we cannot deny anything to him pertaining to the exercise of his priesthood. This Word is the same for all, as Isaiah says, “All your sons shall be taught by the Lord.”

Luther envisioned every believer wielding the double-edged sword and every believer sharing the apostle’s conviction, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68–69).

Good Preaching Is Challenging Spiritually because We Are Compelled to Live in Tension with the Fallen Human Condition and God’s Redemptive Provision

It is provocative intellectually because we embrace a worldview and a metanarrative that counters our secular age. It is unsettling socially because thinking Christianly runs contrary to the way the world works relationally, sexually, politically, economically, and globally. It is convicting ethically because Jesus’s kingdom ethic calls for conduct that at times opposes the world. It is disconcerting pastorally because the demand for true discernment and pastoral leadership in the household of faith never lets up.

Good preaching is fulfilling personally because giving one’s life for the sake of understanding and proclaiming God’s word is preeminently worthwhile, deeply satisfying, and lifesaving. It is coherent intellectually because the same eternal word that created the heavens and established the earth is the enduring word that saves us and directs our steps. It is meaningful socially because the word of God centers the person and the community in Christ. There is no greater relational guide for facing the complexities of life together than God’s word. It is enduring ethically because the Lord has shown us what is required of us, “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [our] God” (Mic 6:8). By God’s grace, we have clear moral guidance and empowerment to live in the way God designed us to live. It is life-affirming pastorally because if we let the word of Christ dwell in us richly, we will be able to teach and admonish our brothers and sisters in Christ with all wisdom (Col 3:16).

Good Preaching Stirs the Heart and Mind with a Passion for Christ and His Kingdom

Before we parse a verb, outline a passage, or read a commentary, we know the gospel shapes character. It is divine revelation delivered through the life experience of Christ’s disciples. We preach who we are, but we do not preach ourselves. God takes our childhood experiences, our relationships, our loneliness, our education, our suffering, our brokenness, our successes, and all our strengths and weaknesses and forms a pastor who lives into the gospel. “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). Good preaching is authentic speech, voiced out of the integrity of the disciple, stripped of empty jargon, and free of cliché. It is a message that issues from the preacher’s heart, mind, and soul. Those who live to proclaim the gospel inhabit the divine power “to destroy strongholds … arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and [to] take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:4–5). And we know the divine weakness rooted in the sufficiency of God’s grace; God’s power “is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Good preaching issues out of the holistic character of the preacher, who combines gift and responsibility, style and substance, text and context into a sermon that evangelizes and edifies to the glory of God.

Good Preaching Helps Believers Think for Themselves, So That They Are No Longer “Conformed to This World” but “Transformed by the Renewal of [Their] Mind” (Romans 12:2)

Preachers preach so the people of God can preach. Faithful preaching equips the saints for works of righteousness by offering “the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “godly teaching” (1 Tim 6:3 NIV). Faithfulness and fruitfulness combine when we correctly handle the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). Every biblical passage deals with the clash between the mystery of God and the mess of the human condition. To the degree that we identify with Jesus, his person, and his work, we live in that tension. Every sermon runs along a fault line between the fallen human condition, in all its personal and social complexity, and God’s redemptive provision, in all its grace and mercy. This tension in the text leads to the passion of the passage. Good exegesis discovers the tension in the text, and good preaching brings out the passion of the passage. We seek to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ with clarity and honesty to the religious and the irreligious. Good preachers cultivate a humility that causes them to resist drawing attention to themselves. There is a sense of urgency and immediacy in good preaching that defies the flippant and casual air of seriously unserious late modern culture.

Preachers extend themselves as Jesus did. They issue a loving appeal, a call to reason, and a desire for gospel resolution. They echo the prophet Isaiah when he says, “‘Come now, let us settle the matter,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool’” (Isa 1:18).

Content adapted from More than a Sermon: The Purpose and Practice of Christian Preaching by Douglas D. Webster. Available now from Lexham Press.