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5 Marks of a Powerful Sermon

People are starving for the greatness of God.

This is the opening line of the preface to John Piper’s excellent work, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, first published in 1990. Over thirty years later—in a vastly different and rapidly changing world—this widespread, soul-gnawing hunger remains. And the universal need for faithful preaching remains.

The next generation of Christian leaders and laypeople desperately needs sermons that provide more than temporary entertainment or intellectual stimulation. We need sermons deep enough to penetrate into the loneliest cavities of our hearts. We need sermons strong enough to “barge into our souls and shake awake a hopeful response.” We need sermons sturdy enough to stabilize us when we’re rocked by opposition, persecution, temptation, and untold suffering.

There’s no time to waste on Christianized Ted Talks, motivational speeches, lofty monologues, or sermons that resemble standup comedy more than true encounters with God. We need soul-feeding, heart-healing, mind-training, truth-telling, grace-dispensing, hope-directing, life-giving, Christ-exalting preaching. We need preaching that brings us to Jesus and his host of benefits and protections.

Pastor, if you want to preach sermons that glorify God, offer tangible hope, prompt true heart change, and leave an eternal impact—not merely tickle ears for 30 minutes—consider five marks of a powerful sermon.

Disclaimer: My main focus in this article is on the content of effective sermons. Elements such as the preacher’s prayer life, exegetical work, personal piety, knowledge of the text, familiarity with the manuscript, involvement in the life of the church, and dependence on the Holy Spirit are all vital in sermon preparation and delivery.

Photo Credit: Ben White/Unsplash 

Mark #1: Jesus—not the preacher—gets the spotlight.

I love meeting new people. My idea of a good time is to grab coffee with a preacher and learn all about him—his family, hobbies, experiences, and the lessons he's learned in ministry. But I don’t go to church to meet the preacher. I go to church to meet Jesus. Why? Because my soul is starving for nourishment and Jesus alone is true food (John 6:55). My soul is gasping for oxygen and Jesus alone is true life (John 14:6). My soul is tired and weary and Jesus alone is true rest (Matthew 11:28-30).

I come to church every week with a backdrop of sin that only Jesus can absolve. I come weighed down by sorrows and brokenness too heavy for anyone but Jesus to carry. I come weary, muddy, scraped up, oft-confused, prone to wander—and Jesus alone can sustain me, cleanse me, mend me, direct me, shepherd me.

A sermon without Jesus is an empty prescription bottle—it may appear helpful from the outside, but there’s nothing inside that can actually heal us. Or, as Charles Spurgeon memorably put it, “A sermon without Christ in it is like a loaf of bread without any flour in it. No Christ in your sermon, sir? Then go home, and never preach again until you have something worth preaching.”

Preacher, I would love to meet you and learn all about you—and I'm sure many of your congregants would as well. But if you love us, don’t give us yourself in your sermons. Give us Jesus.

Application: Before preaching, ask yourself:

  • Does this sermon clearly articulate who Jesus is and what he has done? (i.e., Does this sermon clearly articulate the gospel?)
  • Will this sermon leave the congregation knowing more about me or more about Jesus? Will it leave the congregation hungry for more of me or more of Jesus?
  • Will this sermon leave the congregation thinking, “What a great preacher!” or “What a great Savior!”?
Mark #2: The Word of God drives the sermon.

Mark #2: The Word of God drives the sermon.

Imagine your friend Sally is sick and greatly troubled. Desperate for help, she calls you and asks you to drive her to the physician. You drop everything and rush over, honored that she would reach out to you for assistance. She thanks you profusely as you drive her to the doctor’s office, and you can feel her hope rising as you get closer. This physician is known to provide help for people like her. Color returns to her face as her anticipation rises to meet him.

But imagine that when you get to the office and the doctor comes in, you cut him off every time he tries to speak to Sally. Every time the doctor opens his mouth to give direction, you speak over him and give Sally the best advice you can think of. After about 20 minutes of this, the doctor finally leaves the room to attend to another patient.

Can you imagine anything more grievous than this? Sally was literally in the presence of the physician who could help and heal her—with ears wide open to hear him—but you never let him speak.

This is what a Word-less sermon is like. Hurting people have come to church for healing. They are inside the doctor's office, so to speak, eagerly waiting to meet and hear from the physician. How lamentable would it be if we (as pastors) took up their entire visit offering our best words of advice rather than letting them hear from the doctor himself?

Preacher, you will be tempted to use the pulpit to ride your favorite hobby horses, monologue your latest theological fascinations, showcase your greatest life achievements, or broadcast your political convictions. Resist this urge. As Paul tells Timothy, “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2, NKJV, emphasis mine).

Word-less preaching is powerless preaching. Sure, we might inspire some listeners with our own wisdom or creativity—perhaps even influence their behavior. But true heart change comes from the Holy Spirit working through the proclamation of the Word of God. As Bryan Chapell put it, “Preaching accomplishes its spiritual purposes not because of the skills or the wisdom of a preacher but because of the power of the Scripture proclaimed (1 Cor. 2:4–5).”

Application: Before preaching, ask yourself:

  • Have I clearly understood and communicated the author's intent in the passage at hand?
  • Do my points and illustrations serve the text (rather than distract from it)?

Have I connected the main point(s) of the text to the lives of my congregants? Have I connected the text to the gospel of Jesus Christ (to whom all of Scripture points)?

Photo Credit: Priscilla du Preez/Unsplash 

Mark #3: Clarity is prized just as much as creativity.

Creativity is immensely valuable (arguably essential) for an effective sermon. Just as God calls us to “sing a new song” (Psalm 96:1), our congregants ask us to “preach a new sermon.” We should always look for new and fresh ways to present the precious, unchanging gospel and our precious, unchanging Savior.

Yet, creativity without clarity is nothing more than fine-dressed confusion. A creative, unclear sermon is a colorful map in a foreign language—it might look pretty, but it contains very little practical value.

Preacher, are you weary today? Take comfort in this: God has not called you to be cute; he's called you to be clear. He has not called you to work your fingers to the bone every week to provide some grandiose speech, novel revelation, or Gandolf-like wisdom. He has called you to clearly communicate the life-giving words of Scripture (cf. 1 Cor. 2:1-5; 2 Tim. 3:16; 4:2; Hebrews 4:12).

While creativity is an essential part of any good sermon, ultimately, hearts will be changed through the Holy Spirit working through the clear proclamation of the Word of God. As Timothy Keller put it, “While the difference between a bad sermon and a good sermon is mainly the responsibility of the preacher, the difference between good preaching and great preaching lies mainly in the work of the Holy Spirit.”

Application: Before preaching, ask yourself:

  • Is my outline clear? Is the main point of the text clear? Are my applications to the congregants clear?
  • Are my explanations understandable to an unbeliever and/or new believer?

Is it clear how my illustrations serve the text?

Mark #4: The sermon contains clear, compelling, Word-driven applications to the modern congregation.

Mark #4: The sermon contains clear, compelling, Word-driven applications to the modern congregation.

Preachers often fall into one of two ditches when it comes to application. The first (increasingly common) ditch is to skip the exposition of Scripture and immediately apply the topic at hand to congregants. This (mal)practice makes preachers susceptible to misinterpreting the text, ignoring the person and work of Christ, and turning sermons into glorified to-do lists for the congregation.

But there is another ditch that can, at times, be even more maddening to the congregant—and that's when the preacher spends the entire sermon in theological la-la land, never actually connecting the text to the life of the congregant. I still remember hearing a sermon years ago in which the question literally crossed my mind, “Does the preacher even know I am here?” It felt like he was speaking to hear his own voice more than he was preaching to the people in front of him. Needless to say, it was difficult to take away much from this sermon.

Meanwhile, one of the greatest compliments a preacher can receive is, “Pastor, it felt like you were speaking directly to me—as if you knew exactly what I am going through!” What creates such a powerful experience of connectedness to the sermon? More often than not, it is the Holy Spirit working through a preacher’s clear, intentional, and thoughtful application of the text to his listeners.

Application: Before preaching, ask yourself:

  • Have I clearly applied the main point(s) of this text to the congregants?
  • Have I clearly applied the hope of the gospel to the congregants?

By the end of my sermon, will my congregants be able to answer, “Why does this passage matter for my life?”

Photo Credit: @steve228uk

Mark #5: The sermon outline “preaches” by itself.

Okay, I’ll admit: this one is more of a preference than a necessity. But I also believe it is more valuable than most preachers give credit for. Consider the difference between two possible sermon outlines for Acts 18:24-19:41—and ask yourself which sermon you are more interested in hearing.

Sermon #1 Title: “More Preaching and Ministry!”

Sermon #1 Outline:

Point #1: Apollos preaches in Ephesus (18:24-18:28)

Point #2: Paul preaches in Ephesus (19:1-10)

Point #3: Jewish exorcists fail to cast out demons (19:11-20)

Point #4: Ephesians get angry about Paul’s ministry (19:21-41)

Sermon #2 Title:Do Not Fear: The Word of Christ Will Triumph!”

Sermon #2 Outline:

The Word of Christ protects us from being…

Threat #1: Deceived by Ignorance (18:24-19:7)

Threat #2: Discouraged by Rejection (19:8-10)

Threat #3: Distracted by Greed (19:11-20)

Threat #4: Disoriented by Idolatry (19:21-41)

Often the sermon outline is one of the first things (sometimes only things) people remember. An outline that doesn’t communicate anything is—at best—a missed opportunity. Meanwhile, a sermon outline that is clear, memorable, well-tailored to the text, and preaches Christ will continue to bear fruit well beyond the 30 minutes of preaching. (Bonus points if you can make the sermon title “preach,” too!)

Application: Before preaching, ask yourself:

  • Do my points communicate something (preferably gospel hope)?
  • Does my outline help the congregants see how the text fits together, applies to them, and connects to Christ?
  • If my congregants only remembered my outline, would they still be nourished?

Rest in God’s Promises

Preacher, God has given you the wonderful privilege of proclaiming his life-giving Word to his people. Thank him for this precious opportunity, and rest afresh today in his promise that his Word will not return empty, but will achieve the purpose for which he sent it (Isaiah 55:11).

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