Most people would say they know a good sermon when they hear one. Yet, listing the specific characteristics is a more difficult task. For preachers, knowing the answer to "What makes a good sermon?" is crucial.
Based on Scripture and my own pastoral experience, I propose that a good sermon is when a man of God, controlled by the Spirit of God, preaches the Word of God, for the glory of God, to transform listeners into the likeness of God. Let's take a closer look at the elements of that statement.
A Man of God
The starting point of my definition of a good sermon is the Lord using a man of God to proclaim His Word. The basic, obvious meaning of that statement is that the Bible limits the role of public preaching to men (1 Tim 2:12; 1 Cor 14:34-35).
We must take care not to sacrifice "abiding in the Vine" for more head knowledge. It is crucial that the men who preach are godly. When describing the qualifications of a church leader, the Scriptures strongly put the emphasis on character over knowledge or skills. Although those last two are very important, the vast majority of the qualities required of an elder are character issues (1 Tim 3:2-7; Titus 1:5-9). Robert Murry M’Cheyne put it this way: “It is not great talents that God blesses so much as it is great likeness to God.”
Moral authority and the ability to influence people in (and out of) the pulpit are founded on character, holiness, and experience drawn from the well of one who walks closely with God. Without these assets, all the homiletical, exegetical, and theological skills in the world mean little. A simple pastor who doesn’t have much formal training but who does have a weighty relationship with God and a rock-solid character can preach more powerful sermons than a highly trained preacher who lacks the same depth of character and love of God. We must take care not to sacrifice "abiding in the Vine" for mere head knowledge.
Controlled by the Spirit of God
With godly character as the foundation, powerful teaching is a result of being controlled by the Spirit of God. How could spiritual change be produced without the Spirit? Can real orange juice come from anything other than oranges? Neither can spiritual fruit come without the Spirit. Without His involvement, our preaching will be nothing more than what any other human could produce. Will be nothing more than a motivational speaker. God save us from such preaching! While human wisdom might produce temporary, superficial change and popularity, it won't bear the lasting fruit that is pleasing to God. Life change in our listeners for God's glory can only be accomplished by the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit was taken out of your preaching ministry would anyone notice a difference? Would you?
So how are we controlled or filled by the Spirit (Eph 5:18)? By letting the Word of Christ dwell richly in us (Col 3:16). This should result in confession, repentance, worship, and the sort of knowing and loving the Lord that will spill out of our lives and preaching. Evidence of this relationship with Him can be seen in the fruit He produces in us (Gal 5:22-25).
Preaching the Word of God
The rock bottom foundation of a good sermon is always the Word of God. “Preach the Word” (2 Tim 4:2) means to preach not ourselves nor our wisdom, but His.
The Greek word in this verse that is translated as “preach” (κήρυξον) means “to herald, to publicly proclaim, to preach.” Its noun form (κῆρυξ) was used to describe a herald or proclaimer, who was highly regarded by his master and served him in many capacities. One of those responsibilities was to proclaim the king’s or prince’s message to the people. This might have been done in a market, at a festival, a sports competition or some other public event. But wherever it was done, the herald’s task consisted of one main thing: to proclaim clearly the message of the king, without addition or subtraction. It is His Word that transforms and changes hearts as we submit to His inspired Scripture.
Preaching the Word of God should include at least two things: explanation and application. These two emphases distinguish a good sermon from a devotional talk, lecture, or running commentary on exegetical discoveries. A devotional talk given from the pulpit often warms the heart and applies a spiritual lesson to life, but is also short on biblical substance and explanation. On the other hand, a lecture presented as a sermon may be high in biblical content but often will lack passion and application. A sermon that is only a running commentary on the results of exegesis is not a good sermon because it lacks the pastor's thoughtful application to the audience.
Colossians 1:28 is helpful here: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ.” Our task is to “proclaim Him” and “teach every man.” This is the explaining part. The application part is described in this verse as “admonishing every man” so that “we may present every man complete in Christ."
For the Glory of God
The goal of every Christian is the following: “whatever you do, do everything to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). Obviously, that is the goal of every good sermon. As John the Baptist said, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). When we preach, the focus should not be on us: how well we are doing; how clever our outline is; how impressive our exegesis, oratory, or knowledge of Greek or Hebrew are; or how much people like what we say. If we do our job right, at the end of the sermon, the focus should be on God—what He said and what He desires in response. When the sermon is over our goal is not to have people think, “Wow what a great preacher!” but, “Wow, what an amazing God!”
To Transform Listeners into God’s Likeness
The Scriptures command us: “do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Rom 12:2). The powerful instrument God uses to renew our minds is His Word (Heb 4:12). A key goal as we preach is that He would use the sermon to transform us into His likeness (2 Cor 3:18). Hearing and understanding the Word isn’t enough. Deep heart change is critical. We are to prove ourselves “doers of the word, not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22). Jesus Himself said that as we make disciples, we are to “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20). God can accomplish that through us when a man of God, controlled by the Spirit of God, preaches the Word of God, for the glory of God, to transform listeners into God’s likeness.
As we consider how to apply these principals, let this be our prayer:
“Lord, help me to not brush past You in favor of doing work 'for You.' Help me to live up to what I preach on ordinary days with my own family—when no people from church are around. I so much want to love you with all my heart and desire my preaching to be motivated from an overflow of a wonderful relationship with You. Help me live filled with your Spirit, hating sin, and loving You, so that when I preach, people see what an amazing God You are. Amen.”
To learn more about everything from hermeneutics to homiletics, see our guide: Handling Scripture.