Qualities of a Good Sermon
What makes a sermon good? To answer that question we must first answer the question: what is a sermon?
A sermon is the preaching of God's Word to the people. And preaching is the delivery of the sermon. A sermon is the whole of the message; expositing Scripture doesn't become a sermon until the message of the passage has been studied, explained, and taught. It is more than just facts about the text, it must lead to the real meaning and message of the Scripture being taught as a whole.
But there is a mystery that accompanies the preaching of a sermon that I find difficult to explain. There is something that happens between the preacher and the congregation; there is a personal interaction between the preacher and the listeners. The whole being of the preacher is involved in preaching the sermon. It is not just in what he says, but it is also the way in which he says it. Every part of him is involved, and is used (if it is true preaching) by the Spirit to bring God's Word in the sermon to the congregation. And the congregation interacts with the sermon as they are moved and fed by the Word of God through the Spirit. Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians 2:4, “And my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
So how do we know when we have listened to a good sermon? Here are some observations that give us a foundational way of evaluating sermons that we hear.
First, God's Word must be of first importance in the sermon. A true sermon is first of all and last of all a biblical sermon. A biblical sermon is not just a message where the Bible has been read, nor is a biblical sermon just a lecture or teaching with Bible verses attached. Rather, a biblical sermon is expository, that is to say, the message comes from the text itself. As you listen to the sermon, do you sense that the preacher has dealt honestly with the main passage itself? In other words, has he done his best to give you the meaning of the passage? Does the sermon come from the text? Or is the passage being manipulated or used as a prop for the pastor’s theme?
A good sermon will always exalt God and in turn, reveal our own selves. Did you leave with a greater understanding of your own unworthiness and the immense majesty of God our Savior? Such experiences only come to us when the sermon comes from the Holy Scriptures. Was the Word of God proclaimed and explained by the preacher? Or was there a lot of Scripture but no teaching from it? That is a danger for those of us who preach God's Word; we can deceive ourselves into thinking that we have preached when we have merely read God's Word with no true teaching and application to our listeners, leaving them spiritually malnourished. God's Holy Word must be the priority in the sermon.
Secondly, God's Word must be understood. Can you honestly say that you understand the text to a greater extent after the sermon than before? It may not be that you will understand every nuance of the text, but do you understand your Bible better because you heard this sermon?
You cannot recognize a good sermon simply by how you feel about it or the preacher who delivers the sermon, because the Word of God convicts, crushes, searches, saddens, comforts, or assures, which can leave us with a whole range of emotions and feelings. Rather we recognize a good sermon when the main point of the sermon is the main point of the Scripture text for the sermon. Good sermons reveal the whole counsel of God from the Word of God with the meaning God intended for it—so that the people of God gain a greater understanding of God. And as we are brought to higher heights in our understanding and knowledge of God, our worship rises to higher heights as well.
Thirdly, the God of the Word must be central. It is good to ask yourself, “Was Jesus proclaimed from the Scriptures?” For in both the Old and New Testament, Jesus is the central theme. When you read the Scriptures, you can't help but notice how Christ-centered they are. Does this mean that a good sermon always ends with an altar call to come to Christ? No, the whole sermon must ultimately point us to Jesus, just as Jesus Himself opened up the Scriptures to the two men on the road to Emmaus and explained to them how all the Scriptures pointed to Him. Did the sermon show us the Savior to whom all of God's Word points us to, as Paul did for the Corinthians? “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). The pastor must follow both Jesus and Paul’s example in his sermons and explain how the text points us to Christ.
And fourthly, the Word of God must be applied. A good sermon does not just leave us with information about the passage but seeks to give us practical ways to live it out in our everyday life. Application is a critical part of the sermon, for when we truly hear from God, it propels us to worship and service for our great Savior and King. The application may come at different moments in each sermon: it may be scattered throughout as different points are explained and applied, or it may come at the end or the closing of the sermon.
Ultimately, we understand that it is only God's Holy Spirit that can apply the Word of God to the hearts and lives of people, and yet, one method that He has chosen to do so is through men preaching as they submit themselves to the authority of God's Word.