Sermonic Snares

It's dangerous to have a job that involves a lot of talking, for "when words are many, transgression is not lacking" (Proverbs 10:19). The jeopardy is doubled when one's vocation involves speaking on behalf of God.

"Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" (James 3:1). The life of a preacher includes many dangers. Following are three of these, which I'll call "sermonic snares."

1. Neglecting the text

Paul's injunction to Timothy belongs to us as well: "Preach the word" (2 Timothy 4:1). Our calling is to herald the message given to us in the God-breathed words of holy Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

We are "stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Corinthians 4:1). The supreme requirement of a steward is to be faithful in managing what belongs to his master (v. 2). So, our supreme task is to faithfully communicate the truth of Scripture.

This is no simple task. It involves the painstaking toil of uncovering what the text actually means.

Before beginning the work of constructing a sermon, we must first embrace the labor of excavating the text. "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15).

When preachers give sermons that are not faithful to the text of Scripture, they presume to speak in God's name without God's authority. Don't neglect the text, brothers!
Read it. Study it. Pray over it. Know your Bible well, and teach it faithfully.

2. Forgetting the target

The old maxim is true: "Aim at nothing, and you're sure to hit it." In every sermon I preach, I need clarity in my mission.

Where am I aiming? What do I want to happen as a result of this message? The answer should be nothing less that the spiritual transformation of those who listen.

This was Paul's goal: "Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me" (Colossians 1:28-29). This should be our goal as well.

This purpose then shapes the message. I cannot be satisfied with mere accuracy in communicating the meaning of a passage. While this is crucial, it's not enough.

I must also bring the passage to bear on the lives of my listeners. A sermon is not a commentary; it's a personal message from the living God via a preacher to living, breathing people.
  • Is my message relevant to their needs?
  • Are my points crafted to make the maximum personal impact?
  • Do my illustrations connect?
  • Am I speaking their language?
  • Is my application more than an add-on at the end of my sermon, but strategically woven throughout?
Crafting intentional and specific application is the hardest part of message preparation. It demands not only the exegesis of a text, but exegesis of people and culture.

It helps me to visualize their faces, to think about their lives, to consider the specific needs of individuals. When I remind myself that I'm preaching to Jim or Dave or Linda or Karen, it helps me move from the abstract to the concrete.

We are also wise to consider the scope of our congregation, the variety of people who will hear us.
  • Consider the diversity of spiritual conditions. What are the implications of this passage for mature believers, indifferent church members, hesitant seekers, and skeptical unbelievers? The application will be different for each.
  • Contemplate the wide array of life situations. How will I speak to couples, singles, university students, parents, children, professionals, factory workers?
  • Give thought to the assorted emotions your people are facing. How does this apply to the anxious, the ashamed, the guilty, the doubting, the depressed, the angry, the sad, the lonely?
Of course, every sermon cannot speak directly to every situation. So cycle through the categories, and speak to as many as you can as often as you can.

3. Leaving out the gospel

Not every sermon has to sound like the traditional "salvation sermon" with an invitation at the end. My sermons, in fact, almost never fit that mold. But as ministers of the new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6), we are preachers of gospel: good news.

This good news is framed within the contours of redemptive history (creation, fall, redemption, new creation). It has as its source the gracious character of the sovereign Creator God. And it reaches its apex in the substitutionary death and triumphant resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, to whom we respond in repentant faith. Every sermon, on whatever text or topic, must find its place within this story and give testimony to this good news.

So when I say that every Christian sermon must be a gospel sermon, I mean this: When we preach The Story (and stories) of Scripture, we must never leave people thinking that it's mainly about them.

We need more than rules to keep, principles to apply, and examples to follow. We need grace. We need gospel. We need Jesus. He is the Hero of The Story. Our people need to see this-every week.
  • We need to be reminded of our creatureliness and our fallenness.
  • We need to see that our personal sins, hurts, fears, frailties, and perplexities, along with the global problems of war, disease, natural disaster, environmental entropy, racial strife, and social unrest, are repercussions of the cosmic fall of human beings from the glorious purpose and good plan of the Creator God.
  • We need to view salvation as nothing less than the rescue of human beings and this world from God's just judgment.
  • We need to see that this rescue is accomplished by God at great cost to Himself, through the death of His Son in our place and His subsequent resurrection as the firstborn of a new creation.
  • We need to see that this plan is the ultimate fulfillment of Israel's (and thus the Old Testament's) hopes and dreams, and is brought to bear on our present lives by the power of the Spirit.
If my people do not walk away from my sermon with a clear understanding that the gospel is the solution to whatever problems they are facing, then whatever else I may have done, I have failed to give them what they most need.

Perhaps I instructed them well. Perhaps I entertained them. Perhaps they even feel remorse for their sins and have resolved to live better lives.

But if their resolutions are not well rooted in a confident application of the gospel, I have "healed the wound of [God's] people lightly, saying 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace" (Jeremiah 6:14). I have done them, and God, the greatest disservice. I have turned my hearers back on themselves, thus robbing them of their only hope, and God of His glory as the one and only Redeemer.

Making It Personal
  • Are your sermons true to the text? Are you giving adequate time to studying Scripture?
  • Are your sermons true to life? Do you aim for transformation?
  • Are you speaking to the people, not just at them? Are your messages applicable to the diverse kinds of people who hear?
  • Are your sermons true to the gospel? Do you preach Jesus?
  • Are you giving self-help solutions to people's problems, or are you showing them that their only hope for forgiveness and transformation is found in Christ alone?


mwh said...

It seems like almost a guarantee to fail. Anyone who is in public speaking for a living, it's only a matter of time before they gaffe. Particularly in this case when the stakes are so high and so many factors to consider. *sigh*

Brian G. Hedges said...

Well, you've had plenty of opportunities to observe my gaffes! But I still contend that this is a good target. While few if any preachers will consistently hit the bull's eye, we can at least aim well.