4 Questions a Pastor Should Ask Himself Before and After Giving a Sermon

Photo by  Ben White  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

There is a myriad of books about preaching on the market at present, and each of them presents useful information, tips, and methods for preaching a good sermon. Yet, when I’m evaluating a sermon or preparing my own messages, there are four simple questions that I ask myself:

Did I exegete the text?

Why should you ask whether the preacher exegeted the text? Believe it or not, there are many preachers who mount the pulpit, speak for thirty to forty minutes, and never really engage the biblical text in any significant way. I have personally sat under “preaching” where the message, at least in my mind, had no clearly discernable connection to the sermon text. The pastor spent more time offering personal observations, opinions, and commentary on recent news events than the biblical text.

Another type of “sermon” that I’ve heard is when a preacher reads a biblical text and then picks up a word, phrase, or concept that appears in the text and uses it as a springboard to a message that might be vaguely related to the passage at hand. I have heard some, for example, cite Deuteronomy 6:7, “You shall teach them [the words of Deuteronomy 6:4] diligently to your children…” as grounds for advocating home schooling as the only legitimate form of childhood educating. The text, I have been told, explicitly assigns education to parents, not to a public or Christian school.

Such an interpretation picks up on two elements in the verse—parents(implicit in the passage) and teach. But these two words have a greater context—the context is the law of God and the first greatest commandment:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:4-5)

The context is not about education in general but rather instructing children to love the Lord with all their being. In Pauline terms, the passage addresses, among other things, raising children in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).

Hence, a fundamental question the preacher should always ask himself is, did I exegete the text? Did I examine the surrounding context? Did I historically locate the passage? Did I pay attention to specific or unique terminology? If I’m preaching from an Old Testament passage, did I examine how the New Testament appeals to, alludes to, or echoes the text? These are all vital questions that the preacher should ask to ensure that he properly handles the text and “draws out” (what the term exegesis means) from the passage the intended meaning, rather than inserting ideas that are foreign to the text.

In your sermon, you might not refer to all of your exegetical work. Preaching is akin to telling what time it is rather than disassembling the clock and showing how it’s made. Nevertheless, a good sermon still needs properly functioning inner gears and whirring wheels so that the preacher can accurately tell his congregation what time it is. But just because you don’t reveal the inner workings of the clock does not mean you don’t need those internal mechanisms. On the contrary, exegesis is the foundation of any good sermon. So always ask, did I exegete the text?

Did I explain the text?

When I evaluate a sermon or my own preaching, the second key question I ask is whether I adequately explained the biblical text. This is a distinct issue from the first question, namely, did I exegete the biblical text? Exegesis is foundational to a solid sermon—it ensures that you accurately represent the text in your sermon and don’t introduce foreign ideas to the Bible. In other words, in a sermon the preacher wants to open a window to the voice of God—in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), which is “the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture” (WCF 1.10). But as important as exegesis is to a solid sermon, another vital element is explanation.

In the post-exilic Israelite community, we find the principle of explanation recorded in the text:

They [the Levites] read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (Neh. 8:8)

The priests did not merely read the word and leave the people floundering. Yes, as the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches, the Word of God is abundantly perspicuous (clear) in matters of salvation (WCF 1.7). Yet, it also acknowledges that there are some portions that are not “plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.”

Hence, preachers need to exegete the Scriptures to ensure their message is text-driven, but they also need to explain the text to their congregation. Above I wrote that preachers need to tell their congregations what time it is rather than tell them how the clock was made, and now it might appear as though I’m giving contradictory counsel. How can you explain a text without showing all its parts in great detail?

There is a difference, I believe, in spouting off about Greek and Hebrew terms for which the congregation has no knowledge versus ensuring that the congregation understands what’s going on in the passage. I once preached from Isaiah 6 and told the congregation that the word for holy was the Hebrew term qadosh (queue the sound of a fighter jet screaming by at Mach 2 over the heads of the congregation).

While it was important for me to know the meaning of this term in my exegesis of the passage, it was unnecessary for me to quote the Hebrew. I only needed to say that holy means set apart and that the seraphim repeated the term three times to indicate the superlative to convey that God is the holiest of all beings. Quoting Hebrew to people who don’t know Hebrew might sound impressive, but it’s telling the congregation how the clock is made. Telling the congregation what the term holy means and why the text repeats it three times lies at the heart of explaining the text.

So, did I explain the text? Related questions are, Did the congregation walk away from the sermon and have a better understanding of the biblical passage? Did the congregation learn something about the text? The last thing you want your congregation to do is to walk out of church and be filled with awe and wonder, but ultimately be unable to tell you why they are filled with these affections.

The only way that people will mature in their faith and move from milk to solid meat is if they have a better understanding of the biblical text. While preaching and teaching are distinct things, part of the task of preaching involves teaching your church what the text says. In so doing, you will train and equip your congregation for every good work and lead them, most importantly, to a greater relationship with our triune God.

Did I preach Christ from the text?

The third question I ask when evaluating sermons (including my own) is whether I preached Christ organically from the biblical text. Many preachers regularly ask this question of themselves, but at the same time they’re not quite sure how to do this. Charles Spurgeon once famously stated, “I take my text and make a beeline to the cross.” In other words, it didn’t seem to matter what the text said; Spurgeon always introduced Christ. On the one hand, this is a good desire. On the other hand, preachers must responsibly preach Christ from the Bible.

You want to avoid two things in this regard: 1) failing to preach Christ, or 2) preaching a “Christ shingle-sermon.” The Christ shingle-sermon is where you never organically connect Christ to your sermon text but you know you’re supposed to talk about Jesus, so you tack Christ on to the end of your message like a shingle. Or to use another metaphor, the preacher shoe-horns Christ into the sermon. This is why I regularly ask myself the question, Did I organically preach Christ from the biblical text?

I believe that all biblical texts relate in one way or another to the person and work of Christ, but determining how, precisely, is the exegetical challenge. Numerous examples of bad exegesis litter the interpretive landscape—preachers appeal to various aspects of the text and claim spurious connections to Christ. I once read a sermon where the preacher claimed that when Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, the wood Isaac carried for the burnt offering was a type (foreshadow) of sin.

Such claims may appeal to people because it gives the appearance of unlocking a secret portion of the Scriptures, but the problem is that such an explanation lacks sufficient biblical warrant. Are there any other passages of Scripture that liken sin to a bundle of sticks? Is there any interpretive warrant for taking every minute detail of a narrative text and assigning a specific meaning to it? If the wood was supposedly symbolic of sin, what about the mountain, the donkeys they rode, or Abraham’s servants?

The safest way to ensure that you organically preach Christ from a passage of Scripture is to follow the interpretive patterns you see in the Bible itself. For example, look at the book of Hebrews and see what it does with the various Old Testament passages it cites. The author of Hebrews makes a connection between Moses, a servant in God’s house, and Christ, the One over God’s house (Heb. 3:5). The Bible itself connects the ministries of Moses and Christ. Hebrews repeats this pattern throughout its thirteen chapters regarding the Levitical priesthood, the tabernacle, the temple, the old covenant, and so forth.

Another surefire way to preach Christ is to ask, Is this text before, during, or after the earthly ministry of Christ? If it’s before, for example, then the text likely points forward to Christ’s work. Sometimes a text may have a latent connection to Christ. When you read the book of Ruth, Christ does not explicitly appear. Yet, several important factors do point to Christ, revealing God’s continued faithfulness to his covenant promises to Abraham to bring about the birth of the descendant of Abraham, the offspring of David. The fact that Ruth’s name appears in Christ’s genealogy (Matt. 1:5) gives us a clue regarding how we can organically preach Christ from this book of the Bible.

In the end, these observations only touch upon some of the principles that ensure that you preach Christ responsibly from every text of Scripture. For a more detailed explanation of these principles, definitely read Dennis Johnson’s Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures. It’s an excellent resource for Christ-focused preaching. Nevertheless, always ask the question, Did I preach Christ organically from the biblical text? Always strive to do so as you want always to feed your congregation with Christ, the manna from heaven.

Did I apply the text?

The last question I ask myself when I’m evaluating a sermon, including my own, is, did I apply the text? This is an important question, though perhaps it’s often debated because people disagree on what constitutes application. In the minds of some preachers, application is a well-intended but nevertheless sinful effort to impose moral obligations upon a congregation apart from biblical warrant. In eighteenth-century Germany, preachers were typically evaluated on whether their sermons were practical. Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan recounts how pastors would therefore give gardening tips in their sermons so they would be perceived as being practical.

Others believe that it’s the job of the pastor only to hold out Christ and that the Spirit of God is the only one who can apply the text. I certainly acknowledge the vital truth that only the Spirit makes the word effectual in the conversion and sanctification of God’s people. That being said, the Bible certainly presses the point that preachers must apply the text of Scripture to their congregations.

But what do I mean by application? In grammatical terms, we want to preach both the indicatives (what Christ has done and who we are in him) and the imperatives (what the Scriptures expect of us in terms of our conduct). The Bible is filled with indicatives and imperatives. Take, for example, the book of Ephesians. While this is a slight exaggeration, Paul largely dwells on indicatives in the first half of the book and then imperatives in the latter half.

A similar pattern appears in the book of Romans—Paul expounds the indicatives in Romans 1-11 and then addresses imperatives in chapters 12-16. This is not an airtight pattern, as there are undoubtedly imperatives and indicatives in both portions of Ephesians and Romans, but it illustrates the unbreakable bond between both categories.

Preachers, therefore, have the responsibility to preach both indicatives and imperatives, but we must always be mindful of their logical order. Indicatives (what Christ has done for us) always serve as the foundation for the imperatives (our Christian conduct). We can never reverse this logical order. Christ, through the work of the Spirit, is the source of our capacity and ability for growth in sanctification.

We do not offer our good works (imperative first) so we can then somehow secure the indicative of redemption. We can reverse the order in our sermonic rhetoric—i.e., you can begin with the imperatives but then show that you need Christ to carry them out. You’re still preserving the logical order between the two even if you invert their presentation.

The Westminster divines were adamant about the importance of applying the text when they wrote their Directory for Public Worship. They state:

“He [the preacher] is not to rest in general doctrine, although ever so much cleared and confirmed, but to bring it home to special use, by application to his hearers.”

Application might look different depending on the text that you preach. In some texts (e.g., John 1:1ff) the indicative is: Christ is God; and the imperative might be: worship him! In other texts, such as Joseph's flight from Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39), the indicative would be: we are called to holiness and set apart through our union with Christ, and the imperative would be: we must therefore flee sexual immorality—even at great personal cost—because devotion to Christ and holiness outweighs the consequences (such as Joseph’s imprisonment). Context ultimately determines the nature of the application.

So remember to ask these four simple questions any time you write (or evaluate) a sermon:

  • Did I (or the preacher) exegete the text?

  • Did I (or the preacher) explain the text?

  • Did I (or the preacher) organically preach Christ from the text?

  • Did I (or the preacher) apply the text?

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This article by J. V. Fesko is adapted from the following four articles at Westminster Seminary California's Valiant For Truth blog: “A Pastor’s Reflections: Did I Exegete the Text?”; “A Pastor’s Reflections: Did I Explain the Text?”; “A Pastor’s Reflections: Did I Preach Christ?“; and “A Pastor’s Reflections: Did I Apply the Text?” For more helpful content by Dr. Fesko, please visit jvfesko.com.

J. V. Fesko is Academic Dean and Professor of Systematic Theology and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. He has written numerous books on the Christian faith, including Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on BaptismJustification: Understanding the Classic Reformed DoctrineThe Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights and the newly released commentary, Romans (Lectio Continua).

Recommended:

Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures by Dennis E. Johnson

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