I have seen a few sermon guides and check-lists, but on the basis that there can never be too many of the same thing, I’ve taken it upon myself to write my own from the perspective of an ordinary member of a congregation. Please add your thoughts to the comments – it remains a fairly rough draft and a collection of initial thoughts. — Vincent
|The message came from the text||Do you think another preacher, given the same Bible text, would be likely to find the same central theme and application? If the message doesn’t logically and necessarily follow from the text then it’s not a Biblical message, and although something is being preached – it’s not the Bible. It is a very great calling for someone to open God’s Word to his people, yet if he substitutes his own thoughts and ideas for God’s revealed truth, he greatly errs and comes under condemnation.|
|The passage was put in its redemptive historical context||Biblical passages must be read with the correct redemptive historical context, which means that you need to understand the stage of God’s unfolding plan of salvation they refer to as well as the historical political situation on the ground. At a minimum, you need to know whether the Scripture points forward to Christ yet to come, presents Christ incarnate, or is in the context of Christ ascended.|
|The surrounding material was included in the context||Texts in general are not standalone – they relate in some way to what comes before, and what follows after. The preacher should be connecting the text with this specific context so that its place in the argument or history is not misunderstood. For example, the Law of Ex 20ff given at Mount Sinai was given following God saving his people from the Egyptians, and is in the context of them being called to follow his covenant as his people. Without this context, it is easy to misunderstand the purpose of the Law and think that the Law was given in order to win God’s salvation by keeping it.|
|The people involved were clearly noted||It’s easy to take a passage which promises something to a certain person or group of people in a specific situation and preach it as if it is a promise to us today. The same is true of laws. A faithful preacher will tell you who is writing or speaking, who they are writing or speaking to, and as the message develops show the ways in which they are similar to us and the ways in which they differ.|
|The preaching pointed to Christ through the passage||Christ assures us that the Scriptures point to him; and so, a faithful exposition of Scripture should also point to Christ. As Christians we need to hear Christian sermons, not just historical discourses. Because we are to be built up into Christ, it’s essential that we learn what the Scripture has to do with God’s great plan of Salvation in Christ.|
|The preaching took proper account of the rest of the Bible||Scripture is the only infallible basis for interpreting Scripture, and that means that when one place explains another, the explanation must be accepted and followed in preaching. In particular, we read the promises and warnings of the Old Testament through their interpretation in the New Testament. For example, a preacher who (from the Old Testament) states Christians must offer animal sacrifices, or a 10% tithe, has failed to take account of the New Testament’s teaching on the Temple, worship, and the law and has thus arrived at misleading and dangerous conclusions.|
|I learned what the passage means for me||The preacher needs to, at some point, be crystal clear about how this passage applies to you. Do you, or do you not, have to keep the command which is given within it? Is the promise given a promise to you, or is it not? Is the example drawn from the life of a person intended by God as something for you to emulate, or is it not? In particular, Old Testament passages need to be interpreted through the Cross.|
|The Grace of God was presented as Grace||God’s Grace, his unmerited favour towards man, is a very important part of the Bible – particularly as it concerns the Work of Christ. However, it is possible to preach Grace in a way that it is made conditional and thus no longer graceful. If the preacher makes it seem that you have to do something in order to benefit from or retain God’s Grace, then he has presented it as something you work for rather than a gift from God. Where God’s grace is proclaimed, it must be left as it comes from the Scripture – as an unmerited gift from God. No limitation or qualification may be added. Where applications are given it should be clear enough that they are a response to, not a qualification for, God’s Grace.|
|I heard that my problem is sin||It is easy to preach a thousand reasons for God’s grace towards mankind as we see it unfold through the Scriptures, but a faithful preacher will show that all valid reasons address only one problem – the sin from which we need to be saved. Likewise, the big problem the preacher should be addressing should not be poor financial management, bad diet, or how to raise smarter children. Scripture is very clear that our problem is sin, not foolishness, bad luck, poor advice, bad company, or past mistakes!|
|The demands of the law were joined to God’s Grace||If the preacher told you things you have to do, did he also reassure you that despite your failing to do it – past, present and future, you are still and will remain righteous before God through faith and by Christ’s perfect obedience on your behalf? Or, were you left with the impression that if you failed to do as you were urged you would fall from peace with God and be once again destined to hell?|
|Obedience was motivated by grace not threat||If the preacher told you things you have to do, did he urge you primarily because of what Christ did for you? Were you told to love your neighbour because Christ first loved you, and because of who you are already in Christ – or were you told to love your neighbour because otherwise you risk the punishment of God?|
|Where my sin was exposed, God’s grace in Christ was applied||If certain sins were declared and boldly labelled as sins, that’s great. But, that’s never the end of the story. In-so-much as a preacher shows that we are guilty of sin and calls on us to repent and live amended lives, he must also declare to us the forgiveness we have in Christ for that same sin – past, present and future. It is a very poor handling of Scripture to leave a person for whom Christ died feeling helpless, guilty and afraid to approach Holy God.|
BONUS: Not essential, but highly commended
|I heard the preacher explain every non-obvious part of the passage||There may not always be time for the preacher to explain everything, but it is highly desirable for him to do so whenever possible. It’s good to have the whole passage opened to you, as you may not hear this specific text again for another three years – or even longer, depending on how readings are chosen. God placed those words in the Scripture for a reason, and he placed the preacher there to help you understand them. Further, to make such a demand of a preacher means that he cannot readily skip over something he doesn’t want to tell you – but must rather set out the full counsel of God without omission.|
|I understood the sermon||If most people in the congregation cannot understand most of what the preacher is saying, then he may as well not preach most of the time. It’s important to show depth as well as breadth in preaching, and it is okay for some people to fail to grasp some parts at some times, but feeling lost should not be the norm!|
|I learned something||Conversely, a preacher should have sufficient understanding of his congregation to be able to teach most people something in each sermon. It may be just some historical context, or a Biblical connection they had not heard before; it may even be the proclamation of God’s grace to those who had forgotten it – but in general people shouldn’t be leaving with no more understanding of the passage than they had when they arrived.|
|I’ve been left with something to do||Ideally, you shouldn’t be left with only knowledge. Knowledge of God should be reflected in living in the light of this knowledge, and result in a real difference to your life. Indeed, the work of the Holy Spirit is to build us up into the image of Christ, and so it is proper to expect this through the faithful preaching of the Word. Whether explicitly or implicitly, you should know there’s something you should do, shouldn’t do, or do differently.
Note: this does not mean the preacher should be creating laws and rules for you, but rather encouraging you in the application of Scripture to your life!
|I know how the preacher got to the understanding he presented||As you grow in Scriptural knowledge, you should also be becoming more confident in your ability to read the Scripture and understand it on your own. A faithful preacher who models the right way to read and expound the text teaches you how to do this for yourself. It is tremendously unhelpful for a preacher to make a big leap – even if it is a proper interpretation – without explaining why and how he did it. Such an approach leaves the congregation feeling unable to read the Scripture for themselves, and leaves the preacher at risk of making dubious connections he couldn’t defend.|
|The preacher models living in the light of Scripture in his own life, and in what he approves||You should not be confronted with plain hypocrisy by a preacher. Every preacher sins and fails to keep God’s word, but it is not okay for him to act as if he doesn’t – or to approve of sin in others as if it didn’t matter. If he will not repent and cling to Christ for forgiveness, what hope does he have of exhorting you to do so? If, outside the pulpit, all kinds of sin are fine by him, why should you listen to him inside the pulpit?
Further, a preacher undermines everything he says and does if his open living shows him rejecting the Scripture itself. This is also true of those who preach despite not meeting the Scriptural requirements of preachers. For example, it is not possible for a woman to insist upon a natural reading of a point of Scriptural doctrine if by the act of public preaching she is deliberately ignoring another natural reading of a point of Scriptural doctrine.