What is a sermon for, and is it right for us to judge a poor one?

My friend James kindly posted some thoughts in response to my How to diagnose a sermon article. That article gave a three-step diagnostic (courtesy of the Issues, Etc. radio programme) for reviewing sermons. You can read his comments in full on that article, but his three main points were:

  1. That I seemed to be ‘casting judgment on the speaker and the sermon rather than looking for the Lord to help you pick out those things from Him which are helpful for your sanctification and growth in Grace’.
  2. That there are some texts that do not lend themselves to a forthright preaching of Christ. The commandment not to commit adultery, for example. And that, therefore, the steps for diagnosing a sermon that I propagated cannot be justly applied to the preaching of such texts.
  3. That a lecture by Dr. Peter Masters (of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London) perhaps did not seem to fit the criteria I recited in my article, and that therefore my yardstick might be invalid.

I found myself writing enough in response to these points to warrant a separate blog post.

What is a sermon for, anyway?

If you haven’t already, please take a look at the detailed article from Todd Wilken (host of the Issues, Etc. radio programme) on this issue. This is a much fuller explanation of why and how sermons should be assessed:

I think that might address many of my friend’s concerns and questions. To quote a small extract from there (although it’s really much better to read the whole thing!):

The difference between a good sermon and a bad sermon is whether or not it rightly divides Law and Gospel. A good sermon must show sinners their sin, and show sinners their Saviour. Again Luther writes:

‘This difference between the Law and the Gospel is the height of knowledge in Christendom. Every person and all persons who assume or glory in the name of Christian should know and be able to state this difference. If this ability is lacking, one cannot tell a Christian from a heathen or a Jew; of such supreme importance is this differentiation. This is why St. Paul so strongly insists on a clean–cut and proper differentiating of these two doctrines.’

So these two, Law and Gospel, must always go together in every sermon. They must be carefully divided in every sermon. The Law must show us our sin, and the Gospel must silence the Law’s accusations against us with the perfect life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

This extract directly address the question of what a sermon is for. I agree with Todd Wilken and Martin Luther here, that a sermon’s purpose is first and foremost to show us our sin, and proclaim Christ for the forgiveness of our sin and as our righteousness. This is, after all, what the whole counsel of Scripture does for us through the two doctrines of Law and Gospel that are taught throughout. The Law shows us our sin, because we do not, cannot keep it. The Gospel offers us Christ, who has both died in our place to bear the punishment for our sin, and also lived a perfect life of righteousness that is put to our account by grace through faith in Him.

Something to bear in mind is that Christ Himself testifies that all the Scriptures speak of Him (I’m quoting with context, but pay attention especially to the parts I have shown in bold, and the occurrences of the word ‘all’):

Now behold, two of them were traveling that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was seven miles from Jerusalem. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. So it was, while they conversed and reasoned, that Jesus Himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him.

And He said to them, ‘What kind of conversation is this that you have with one another as you walk and are sad?’

Then the one whose name was Cleopas answered and said to Him, ‘Are You the only stranger in Jerusalem, and have You not known the things which happened there in these days?’

And He said to them, ‘What things?’

So they said to Him, ‘The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to be condemned to death, and crucified Him. But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, today is the third day since these things happened. Yes, and certain women of our company, who arrived at the tomb early, astonished us. When they did not find His body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said He was alive. And certain of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but Him they did not see.’

Then He said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?

And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.

—Luke 24:13–27, NKJV

Then He said to them, ‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’ And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.’

—Luke 24:44–47, NKJV

But you do not have His word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe. You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.

—John 5:38–50, NKJV

Thus, for example, a sermon can hardly be said to be a Christian sermon at all if it exhorts us to live a moral life, but fails to preach Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins. The opposite error is to preach only the Gospel, with no Law. But, such a sermon also fails to preach Christ properly, because Christ’s perfect life and death for us only make sense when we understand from the Law that we are by nature children of God’s wrath and therefore in need of a Saviour who can reconcile us with God.

One of the things I loved about Matthew Else, the late elder of the congregation that I attend, was the way that, whatever the topic of the sermon, whatever the passage under consideration, He always pointed us to Christ and His finished work on the cross. Christ, who has lived the perfect life that we cannot. Christ, who takes away our sin. Spurgeon, likewise, used the Law to show us our sinful state and need of a Saviour, careful to bring us the Gospel, showing us Christ as our perfect Saviour. Both men knew the essence of a good sermon. And were they not simply good students of Paul’s example, when he wrote to the Corinthian church (the church, mind, not unbelievers!) that ‘I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.’ (1 Cor. 2:2, NKJV) Even for an established church, Paul understood that everything they needed to be taught centred upon Christ and Him crucified.

Christians and unbelievers alike thus need to hear this Law and Gospel message regularly. The same Holy Spirit might work conviction of sin by the proclamation of Law in one hearer, but faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sin by the proclamation of the Gospel in another. Both through the same sermon! The consequence of preaching is therefore a matter for God, but the preacher is entrusted by Christ with the task of proclaiming both repentance (Law) and the forgiveness of sins in Christ (Gospel) – see Luke 24 again, or any sermon recorded in the New Testament. This is even the very same message that both John the Baptist preached (Mark 1:4).

Who am I to judge?

Now, with that purpose for sermons in mind, is it right for us to evaluate (that is, judge!) the sermons that we hear? Recall that the Bereans were commended for testing everything that even Paul (the Apostle!) said to them:

These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. (Acts 17:11, KJV)

Thus, it is a noble and commendable thing for us to compare everything we are taught in the name of Christ with the word of Christ, which is the Scripture. Note that this is not passing judgement by our own subjective criteria, but the exercise of discernment using the objective standard of the written word of God.

If we fail to judge in this way, how would we know whether we are being taught sound doctrine? (And make no mistake, the failure to preach Christ crucified is an egregious error of doctrine.) And if we fail to exercise discernment like this, we might all too easily find ourselves in a situation where repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ is not regularly taught by the elders of our church. Those elders would be in dereliction of their duties, starving their flock of the food that Christ has entrusted them to administer. I would go so far as to say that a church where Law and Gospel is not faithfully proclaimed week by week is barely worthy to be called a Christian church at all. Certainly, she is not fulfilling her commission from Christ, and Rev. 2–3 shows us how seriously He treats such matters.

Now, let me make it plain to those who don’t know me that I hold no office in the church. I have been given no special commission to judge anyone. But I do have the duties that all believers have to be on guard against error, to make sure that I am fully part of a church fellowship that properly proclaims repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ, one which rightly administers Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (cf. Acts 2:42, etc.). And I have the duty of a loving husband towards my wife (Eph. 5:22–33), making sure that she too is receiving the spiritual nourishment that she needs. That she is being built-up in the faith by hearing sound teaching, and participating regularly in the Lord’s Supper for (as the 1689 London Baptist Confession tells us):

the perpetual remembrance, and shewing forth the sacrifice of [Christ] in his death, confirmation of the faith of believers in all the benefits thereof, their spiritual nourishment, and growth in him, their further engagement in, and to all duties which they owe to him; and to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other.

And, of course, if I had children, I should also have duties toward them (Eph. 6:4) that would require me to ensure that they were fed a regular diet of sound doctrine. Finally, I also have a general responsibility towards other believers with whom I fellowship (cf. 1 John 5:16), whether or not they are part of my local congregation.

I take all these responsibilities seriously. So it is my Scripture-given duty to be a careful listener and discerner, yes, and even a judge (cf. 1 Cor. 14:29), of all the teaching that I hear.

These are therefore real and serious matters, as we see so clearly from the current, sorry state of the wider Christian church. Oh that more would ask these discerning questions of the sermons they hear! Even better would be if every preacher asked himself when preparing his sermons whether he is rightly dividing Law and Gospel, using the Law lawfully (to show us our sin) and making Christ the central focus, the One in whom we find forgiveness of sins!

All those who preach (and I include myself most of all, as one who has preached in times past) should bear in mind the admonition from James: ‘My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgement.’ (James 3:1, NKJV) This is why Paul urges Timothy to ‘Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.’ (2 Tim. 2:15, KJV). It is a serious thing to have the responsibility of feeding Christ’s flock, and discharging that duty requires great diligence.

And what if we should find ourselves sometimes at a loss for someone qualified to teach? For myself, I should rather hear the pure word of God through the Scriptures being read competently aloud (with a sense for the meaning) for half an hour, than to listen for the same period to someone who makes a confusion between Law and Gospel because he does not understand how rightly to divide the word of truth. The former would be more profitable for the flock, and also far less disagreeable for the preacher on the day of judgement.

Thus, I plead guilty to judging the content of sermons. Every time I hear a sermon, I consciously ask myself whether it has pointed me to Christ, directing me to trust in Him for the forgiveness of my sins, and in His perfect life put to my account.

And when I hear a sermon that does proclaim Christ, I rejoice. I am uplifted and encouraged. My faith is strengthened by the faithful preaching of the gospel. I am stirred up to good works as a fruit of the gospel, having been reminded of the ultimate Good Work that has been done for me by Christ on the cross. As one who has been shown so much love, I now long to make that same love known as widely as I can.

And if I hear a sermon that does not direct me to Christ? Well, then I make up the lack by reminding myself of the gospel, that even though I fail to do what God commands me, that nonetheless He looks with favour upon me for the sake of His Son. I remind myself that, as Luther also taught, God does not need my good works, and they certainly do not earn favour with Him, but nonetheless my neighbour does need them. And so, even though I am conscious of my own sinfulness, because of the love shown to me in Christ I throw myself afresh on Him, trusting in Him alone, the author and the finisher of my faith, for the forgiveness of my sin. Asking that He should strengthen me and cause me to live a life in accordance with His perfect will.

What about the law passages?

Now, to answer my friend’s specific question. What if the topic of a sermon were the verse, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ (Ex. 20:14)?

Well, the text itself is Law – something that we should, or, in this case, should not, do. But any proper treatment of this text will immediately show us that we are all guilty of breaking this commandment for, as Jesus says, ‘whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matt. 5:28, NKJV). This is using the law lawfully (1 Tim. 1:8), to convict us of sin.

I dare say a competent preacher would also bring out the positive duties of husbands and wives (1 Peter 3; Eph. 5; Col. 3) that are latent in this commandment: that wives should submit to their husbands in everything. That husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church. And again, we would immediately see that every husband and every wife fails to keep these requirements of God’s law.

And, having condemned and called to repentance just about everyone who is listening as a breaker, not merely of God’s Law in general, but this specific commandment, it would be natural for us then to look at exactly how ‘Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her’ (Eph. 5:25). We would then be reminded that Christ came for those such as us, unworthy sinners. That he laid down His life to die a terrible death in our place, a death that we deserved. And that He rose from the dead on the third day, so that we can have confidence that His sacrifice was acceptable to the Father for the remission of our sins. That Christ lived a life of perfect righteousness, which is put to our account. And so, even though we are lawbreakers, we nonetheless have favour with the Father through the faith in His dear Son that has been given to us.

In summary, then, the preacher would use the Law lawfully to show us our sin (the 2nd use of the law) and call us to repentance, and then direct us to Christ for the forgiveness of that sin and the silencing of the law’s accusations against us. On the way, we would no doubt learn from God’s law how He desires husbands and wives to relate to one another. This is the 3rd use of the law – to show us what a righteous life in Christ looks like. But the main focus, the goal at which the entire sermon is aiming, would be Christ crucified for sinners. Sinners like us.

And what of some person of repute whose preaching seems not to meet these criteria?

With regard to Dr. Masters. I have great respect for him by way of reputation, but the particular example my friend references is the only time I have actually heard him myself. My memory is fading, but given that the topic concerned the emotions which flow from the attributes of the triune God, I should be very surprised if Christ crucified had not been proclaimed. Anyway, given my hazy memory, I don’t want to address that specifically, except to observe that this was less a sermon than a lecture, and there is a useful distinction to be made between the two. This is the difference between homiletics (preaching primarily for spiritual edification) and doctrinal instruction (teaching information concerning sound doctrine).

But even with the latter, if all the Scriptures testify of Christ, if Paul resolved to know nothing among the Corinthian church other than Christ and Him crucified, should not Christ always be the ultimate focus and goal of all our teaching? Thus it is only what the Scriptures teach us to proclaim that should be our concern, not whether someone whom we respect does something in a particular way. A human example is useful only to the extent that it accords with the revealed will of God in Scripture.

Conclusion

The point of the three-step sermon diagnostic, then, is not to prescribe some picky ‘count how many times Christ is mentioned’ rule so that we can be mean and nasty to the preacher whom we consider to fall short.

No, the point of the diagnostic is to make plain to ordinary Christians, those who listen to sermons, that a Christian sermon must be about Christ. And, more than that, it must be about what Christ has done for us through His perfect life, death and resurrection. Anything less than that is a betrayal of Christ’s sheep.

5 thoughts on “What is a sermon for, and is it right for us to judge a poor one?”

  1. Sadly, our churches are so watered down today, that anyone studying the Scripture with discernment will probably have someone they know write them a Matthew 7:1 citation at some point in their lives. (Boy, if I had a nickel for every time someone scolded me with “Judge not lest ye be judged!!!”)

    But we are called to judge with discernment, as you pointed out so rightly in the Acts passage. Did Paul say, “Oh those Bereans, such haters! Judge not!” No, he commended them for their diligence in studying the Scripture.

    Besides Matthew 7:1, the Bible has a lot to say about right judgment:

    “The spiritual person judges all things…” 1 Cor. 2:15
    “By all means use your judgment and hold on to whatever is good.” 1 Thes. 5:21
    “Stop judging by mere appearances, but judge with right judgment.” John 7:24
    “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” Luke 12:57
    “Do you not know that we are to judge the very angels themselves? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!” 1 Cor. 6:3
    “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits…….” Matt. 7:15-16a

    Press on brother, and keep fighting the good fight.

  2. Hebrews 6:1-3 Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, (2) Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. (3) And this will we do, if God permit.

    Personally, I find that the deeper I dig into the Scriptures, the better and more I see the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And that is true whether I am reading Leviticus or reading Galatians. The pastor should be preaching as led by God and should try to feed the flock. You have an interesting website, thank you for your hard work!

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