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A Listener’s Guide to the Pulpit

A Listener’s Guide to the Pulpit

A Listener’s Guide to the PulpitA Listener’s Guide to the Pulpit

An Article from Issues Etc. Journal

by Todd Wilken

How hard could it be? You go to church. The preacher preaches. You sit and listen. Easy, right?

But how do you tell the difference between a good sermon and a bad sermon? What makes good preaching good, and bad preaching bad?

For several years issues, Etc. has been doing on-air sermon reviews. We’ve reviewed the sermons of Joel Osteen, D. James Kennedy, T. D. Jakes, Robert Schuller, Joyce Meyer, as well as many less well-known preachers. We’ve reviewed the sermons of Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and others. Most of these preachers were speaking to packed auditoriums and to worldwide television audiences. Most of the preachers were dynamic, engaging, interesting, and even entertaining. Most of their sermons were terrible.

Now, who am I to make such a judgment? Nobody. But I don’t make this judgment based on my own subjective tastes or my own personal standard. I make this judgment based on the objective difference between good preaching and bad preaching.

Is there an objective standard for good preaching? Yes. It is a standard every Christian should know and use every time they hear a sermon. Every Christian should know the difference between a good sermon and a bad sermon.

God’s Two Teachings

St. Paul writes to the young preacher Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” [1] Paul says that God’s Word of truth must be handled with care. To rightly divide God’s Word is the preacher’s greatest task. Nineteenth-century theologian, C. F W Walther describes what Paul means in his famous treatise,
The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel:

The doctrinal contents of the entire Holy Scriptures, both of the Old and the New Testament, are made up of two doctrines differing fundamentally from each other, viz., the Law and the Gospel… Only he is an orthodox teacher who not only presents all the articles of faith in accordance with Scripture, but also rightly distinguished from each other the Law and the Gospel. [2]

Walther was simply following Martin Luther’s lead. Luther explained this Law-Gospel distinction and the danger of ignoring it:

It is therefore a matter of utmost necessity that these two kinds of God’s Word be well and properly distinguished. Where this is not done, neither the Law nor the Gospel can be understood, and the consciences of men must perish with blindness and error. The Law has its goal fixed beyond which it cannot go or accomplish anything, namely, until the point is reached where Christ comes in. It must terrify the impenitent with threats of the wrath and displeasure of God. Likewise the Gospel has its peculiar function and task, vis. , to proclaim forgiveness of sin to sorrowing souls. These two may not be commingled, nor the one substituted for the other, without a falsification of doctrine. For while the Law and the Gospel are indeed equally God’s Word, they are not the same doctrine. [3]

The Law tells us what God requires and what God forbids. The Law shows us that we have not done what God requires and have done what God forbids. The Law’s demands are perfect, and the Law requires perfect obedience in thought, word and deed. The Law says, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind… You shall love your neighbor as yourself” [4] The Law calls anything short of perfect obedience sin.

The Gospel tells us what God has done to save sinners. The Gospel shows us that Jesus has done everything the Law requires for us. The Gospel answers the perfect demands of the Law with the perfect, sinless obedience of Jesus. The Gospel says, “What the Law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.”[5] The Gospel answers the accusations of the Law with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus for us. There are no demands in the good news of the Gospel. There is only the free gift of God’s grace.

In Scripture we see this basic division of Law and Gospel in the summary of Jesus’ first public preaching: “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ”The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news! [6] It is also the basic outline of the Apostle’s preaching. [7]

The difference between a good sermon and a bad sermon is whether or not it rightly divides Law and Gospel. A good sermon must show sinners their sin, and show sinners their Savior. Again Luther writes:

This difference between the Law and the Gospel is the height of knowledge In Christendom. Every person and all persons who assume or glory in the name of Christian should know and be able to state this difference. If this ability is lacking, one cannot tell a Christian from a heathen or a Jew; of such supreme importance is this differentiation. This is why St. Paul so strongly insists on a clean-cut and proper differentiating of these two doctrines. [8]

So these two, Law and Gospel, must always go together in every sermon. They must be carefully divided in every sermon. The Law must show us our sin, and the Gospel must silence the Law’s accusations against us with the perfect life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

That Was a Good Sermon?

Some people hear a sermon and say, “That was a good sermon. I agree with everything the preacher said.” A sermon is good when you hear what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. Some of the greatest sermons Jesus ever preached fell on deaf ears. Some of the worst sermons today draw the biggest audiences.

Other people hear a sermon and say, “That was a good sermon. Everything the preacher said was true.” That may well be; a preacher might say all sorts of true things. But he may still fail to preach the Truth that sinners need to hear. Walther posed a question to his young seminary students: “Suppose someone could truthfully say, `There was no false teaching in my sermon,’ still his entire sermon may have been wrong. Can that be true?” Walther says it can be.

Only he is an orthodox teacher who, in addition to other requirements, rightly distinguishes Law and Gospel from each other. That is the final test of a proper sermon. The value of a sermon depends not only on this, that every statement in it be taken from the Word of God and be in agreement with the same, but also on this, whether Law and Gospel have been rightly divided. Of the same building materials furnished two architects one will construct a magnificent building, while the other, using the same materials, makes a botch of it. [9]

John Pless comments on Walther’s answer.

The content of the preaching may be correct in that it uses words from the Bible. The preacher does not deny the truthfulness of scriptural claims. Nonetheless, the sermon fails as evangelical preaching in this regard: The Law is presented as good news, or the Gospel is presented as something we do. Such preaching, regardless of how many Bible passages are quoted or referenced, is not the preaching of Christ crucified as the only Savior of sinners. [10]

Many preachers claim to preach Bible-based sermons. But does this mean that they are preaching the Gospel? Ted Haggard, President of the National Association of Evangelicals says:

Sometimes I’ll teach very good sermons, right out of the Scriptures, that are essential to faith. And I think the essentials are the Scriptures themselves – where I might not talk about Jesus in the sermon… But it’s all, maybe, David’s material or Solomon’s material or some of Moses’ material. And I think the standard needs to be more Bible-based rather than exclusively Christ-based. [11]

As a wise pastor once said, “Any sermon can claim to be Bible-based. But the Bible wasn’t nailed to the Cross to pay for your sins.” The central message of the Bible is Jesus Christ crucified and risen for sinners. If a sermon is really Bible-based, it will preach that Gospel.

There is no conflict between Bible-based preaching and Christ-based preaching. Christian preaching should be Bible-based and textual. That means drawing Law and Gospel from specific passages from every part of scripture. Moses’ and David’s “material” testifies to Christ crucified for sinners just as much as Matthew or Paul.

Christian preachers aren’t called to preach the Bible in general or truth in general; they are called to preach a very particular biblical truth. In Paul’s words, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” [12] A sermon that lacks this truth can’t be called good sermon, and it can’t be called a Christian sermon.

Often, the difference between good preaching and bad preaching is not in what is said, but what is left unsaid. More often, what is left unsaid is the Gospel itself. Most often, this happens when Law and Gospel are confused. Luther paraphrases Paul in Galatians 1:7,

These false apostles do not merely trouble you, they abolish Christ’s Gospel. They act as if they were the only true Gospel preachers. For all that they muddle Law and Gospel. As a result they pervert the Gospel. Either Christ must live and the Law perish, or the Law remains and Christ must perish; Christ and the Law cannot dwell side by side in the conscience. It is either grace or law. To muddle the two is to eliminate the Gospel of Christ entirely. It seems a small matter to mingle the Law and Gospel, faith and works, but it creates more mischief than man’s brain can conceive. To mix Law and Gospel not only clouds the knowledge of grace, it cuts out Christ altogether. [13]

Some people hear a sermon and say, “That was a good sermon. Even if he didn’t really preach the Gospel, I know what he meant to say.” It’s the preacher’s job to preach the Gospel. So, don’t do the preacher’s job for him. If he doesn’t preach the Gospel, it’s not your job to fill in what he left out. Sad to say, some preachers don’t preach the Gospel on purpose. They think they have something better to say.

Wiser Than God

The Apostle Paul took the task of preaching very seriously. He had been appointed to preach the Gospel by Jesus Himself. He was well aware that his many sufferings and imprisonments were the direct result of preaching that Gospel. Nonetheless, for Paul, the preaching of Christ crucified for sinners was the indispensable essence of his ministry.

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. [14]

For Paul and the other Apostles, there was no preaching apart from Gospel preaching:

I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who arc, at Rome. I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” [15]

Paul was also aware that the Gospel message he preached was considered foolish and weak. Today, some would (and many do) use the term “irrelevant.”

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well p leased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. [16]

Many of today’s preachers are apparently wiser than God. They have something better to preach than Christ crucified for sinners. From many pulpits today you will hear more about the Christian than the Christ. You will hear about marriage, family values, conflict resolution, financial security, and a host of other suburban moralisms. Instead of Paul’s “Christ and Him crucified,” the standard fare in today’s pulpit is “Me and Myself Improved.” Today’s preachers seem determined to know anything and everything except Christ crucified.

Let’s look at what passes for preaching today, from bad preaching to worse preaching to preaching that isn’t Christian preaching at all. Perhaps some of it will sound familiar.

1) Bad Preaching:

Contrary to popular opinion, bad preaching isn’t when the preacher reads his sermon, mumbles or bores his audience. That is merely bad delivery. No, bad preaching is preaching that does not rightly proclaim God’s Word of Law and God’s Word of Gospel to sinners. Here are some all-too-familiar examples.

The Gospel-Afterthought Sermon. Also known as The Gospel-Footnote Sermon. This is the minimalist approach to preaching the Gospel. The sermon itself can be about anything. But whatever the sermon is really about, the message of Christ crucified gets tacked on at the end, with no connection to anything else that has been said. The Gospel gets the final word, but only barely. Just don’t blink; you might miss it.

The Gospel-Law Sermon. This sermon has both Law and Gospel, but confuses the two by confusing the order. The Gospel is preached first, then the Law. This is like putting the answer before the question. Without the preaching of the Law to prepare the hearts of sinners, the preaching of the Gospel becomes “casting your pearls before swine.” [17] The audience then has no reason to hear the Law that follows. This kind of preaching either turns the Gospel into a license to sin, or portrays the salvation as dependent on obedience to the Law.

The Gospel-Sandwich Sermon. This kind of sermon has a three-part outline: Law, Gospel, Law -a slice of Gospel between two slices of Law.

The Gospel Sandwich was popularized by Billy Graham and other “evangelistic” preachers. These preachers present clear Law and clear Gospel. And if they stopped there, all would be well. But at the end of each sermon, they add one, final demand of the Law: “Decide.” “Make your decision for Christ!” They leave the sinner with this one law he must keep and thus rob him of the Gospel’s comfort. Walther diagnoses the problem with this kind of preaching:

Modern theologians assert that in the salvation of man two kinds of activity must be noted: in the first place, there is something that God must do. His part is the most difficult, for He must accomplish the task of redeeming men. But in the second place something is required that man must do. For it will not do to admit persons to heaven, after they have been redeemed, without further parley (talk). Man must do something really great – he has to believe. This teaching overthrows the Gospel completely. [18]

The Gospel Sandwich is also a favorite among pastors who just don’t trust the Gospel to motivate and produce good works in believers. So, after they have preached Law and Gospel, they return to the Law once again for a list of dos and don’ts. With the Gospel Sandwich, the demands of the Law, not the comfort of the Gospel, get the final word.

2) Worse Preaching:

Today’s preachers are finding new ways NOT to preach the Gospel. There are some sermons that are worse than bad. While even a bad sermon contains the bare elements of the Gospel, these sermons have no Gospel at all. The listeners are left with nothing but Law, sometimes not even that.

The Golawspel Sermon.[19]
This is a classic example of confusing Law and Gospel, so that neither is clearly preached. In a Golawspel sermon, the demands of the Law are softened, and made more manageable. The Law is presented as a Law that sinners can keep. In a Golawspel sermon, the Gospel is presented as something you must do. Rather than the free grace of God for Jesus’ sake, the Gospel is preached with all sorts of terms and conditions. The message of this kind of sermon is neither Law nor Gospel; but a useless mixture of the two. Golawspel preaching neither wounds nor heals, neither kills nor makes alive, neither accuses nor absolves.

The Gospel Assumption Sermon. In this kind of sermon, the preacher almost preaches the Gospel. He might refer to Jesus as Savior, he might talk about God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy. During this kind of a sermon, Lutheran preachers might talk at length about the means of grace: Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. But in the end, the preacher assumes that his audience already knows that Jesus lived, suffered, died, and rose again for them, and so, he leaves the Gospel itself unspoken. Sadly, the Gospel- Assumption sermon often leaves listeners with the impression that they heard the Gospel, when they haven’t. They have filled in the gaps in the preacher’s sermon themselves. The sainted Dr. Robert Preus rightly said, “the Gospel assumed is the Gospel denied.”

The God-Loves-You- Anyway Sermon. Pioneered by Robert Schuller and perfected by Joel Osteen, this kind of sermon presents what I have called “a gospel without sin.” [20] In this kind of sermon, your problem is not sin, it is failing to reach your potential. But don’t worry, be happy, and keep trying, God loves you anyway. The preacher replaces the message of John 3:16, “God loved the world in this way: He gave His only Son” with “God loves you anyway.” He turns 1 John 4:10, “He loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” into simply “He loved us.” The preacher proclaims God’s love without the cross. He presents “a God of second chances” -a big, loving, pushover. But “God loves you anyway” isn’t the Gospel. Sinners don’t need a second chance; sinners need a Savior.

The Little-Engine-That- Could Sermon. This is a kissing cousin of the God-Loves-You- Anyway sermon. In this kind of sermon the preacher talks a lot about how hard your life is. Stress, not sin, is your problem. Jesus is a cheerleader rooting for you, He is a coach urging you to keep going; He is a piano teacher reminding you that practice makes perfect. Instead of Jesus on the cross to save you, the preacher proclaims Jesus in your heart to empower and encourage you to keep trying. The most common Bible passage quoted in a Little- Engine-That-Could sermon is 1 John 4:4, “greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world.” When all is said and done, a sinner can count on Jesus to help, but not to save.

The Sinners-Someplace- Else Sermon. This kind of sermon is most popular among politically active evangelicals. The preacher proclaims the Law, but not to his audience. He preaches against the sins of sinners someplace else: politicians, homosexuals , abortionists, secular humanists, Hollywood, and all the other sinners “out there.” The audience nods and applauds and says “amen,” never hearing the Law applied to them or their sin. And since all the real sinners are “out there” and not “in here,” no one who hears the sermon feels the slightest need for forgiveness. Which is just as well, since the preacher never gets around to the cross. Everyone goes home secure, thanking God they aren’t like other men -but not justified. [21]

The “Life-Application” Sermon. This is the classic example of preaching the Christian instead of the Christ. Promoted by Rick Warren and others, these sermons are by far the most common kind of worse preaching. In this case, the preacher is convinced that the ultimate goal of preaching is to teach people how to LIVE. The Bible is presented as the owners manual for life, the ultimate howto book or honey-do list. The Bible is mined for examples, principles, and paradigms relevant to our everyday lives. Jesus’ words, “These are the Scriptures that testify about me” are amended to read, “These are the Scriptures that testify about you.”

Sometimes, a “Life- Application” sermon does talk about Jesus. But since the goal of this kind of sermon is to teach people how to live, Jesus is presented as your teacher, your example, and your helper. The death and resurrection of Jesus might also be mentioned -as an example for you to follow of selfless love and self-sacrifice. Dr. David Wells says, “The Cross becomes exactly what it was in liberalism, that Jesus is reduced simply to a good example and we try to follow in His footsteps in the sense that we try to look out on life the way that He did.” In the “Life- Application” sermon, Jesus becomes just another paradigm for you to five by. [22]

The House-Rules Sermon. Also known as the If-You-Were- Really-a-Christian Sermon and closely related to the Sinners- Someplace-Else sermon. The difference between this and the “Life-Application” sermon is that the House Rules sermon is not seeker-friendly. In fact, its goal is to describe the life of the Christian in contrast to the vices, temptations, and amusements of society. The sermon focuses on what Christians should and shouldn’t wear, drink, eat, smoke, and what cultural activities (TV, movies, music, dances, etc.) Christians should and shouldn’t participate in. It presents the Christian faith as a matter of simply keeping the rules. This kind of preaching has given us both prohibition and blue laws, but not the Gospel.

3) Not Christian Preaching at All:

There are sermons being preached from Christian pulpits that cannot be called Christian in any sense of the word; they can hardly be called sermons. They have neither Law nor Gospel, neither sin nor grace. They fall into the category of what the Bible calls “smooth talk and flattery,” “empty words”, “godless chatter” and “hollow philosophy.” [23] Here are some brief examples.

Three Stories and a Moral. This kind of preaching usually happens when the preacher decides to “wing it.” He consults no biblical text. Perhaps he talks about a story in the news, recalls an incident from his childhood, and uses a timetested sermon illustration. He wraps it all up by saying, “I think there’s something we can all learn from this. ” No Law, no Gospel. In fact, not much of anything.

Things That Make You Go, `Hmmm.. . “ The preacher’s goal here is “to make people think.” He has forgotten that the goal of Christian preaching is to call sinners to repent and to believe in Jesus. The sermon is designed to make the audience feel as though the preacher has said something profound. People leave deep in thought, and still deep in their sin.

Informed and Uninformed Opinions. You can always count on D. James Kennedy for one of these around the 4th of July. The preacher decides to preach a “topical” sermon. He chooses his topic: history, politics, social policy, the war, or any other subject. It doesn’t matter. He might know what he’s talking about; he might not. It doesn’t matter. He might have a Bible passage as his jumping off point; he might not. It doesn’t matter. He might claim that God agrees with his opinion; he might not. It doesn’t matter. The preacher has something on his mind and you are going to hear it. The audience leaves knowing exactly what the preacher thinks, nothing more.

Random Thoughts. Also known as Points without a Point or simply Vamping. Here the preacher has nothing on his mind. He has 20 minutes to fill on Sunday morning. As the mind of the preacher wanders, so does his sermon. The listener checks his watch until it is over, then goes home to watch football. The whole incident is quickly forgotten.

A Sermon Diagnostic: Listening for Christ Crucified

For our radio sermon reviews, we listen to the sermon and ask three simple questions: 1) How often is Jesus mentioned? 2) If Jesus is mentioned, is He the subject of the verbs? and, 3) What are those verbs?

How often is Jesus mentioned? Listen to the sermon and keep a running tally. The preacher might mention God in a generic way; that doesn’t count. He might talk about the Almighty, the heavenly Father, or the big-guy upstairs. Those don’t count either. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things, but you’re listening for Jesus. Obviously, Jesus has many titles, Christ, Son of God, Son of Man, Redeemer, Savior, etc. Those all count.

Remember, don’t do the preacher’s job for him. A surprising number of sermons beat around the bush, come close, and almost mention Jesus. The preacher shouldn’t make his audience fill in the blanks, so don’t.

Sad but true, many sermons we review on the air fail the diagnostic already at this point. That’s right; these sermons don’t mention Jesus at all. Many don’t even mention God.

Here’s the point of the first question: A sermon that doesn’t mention Jesus isn’t about Jesus. Since you can’t preach the Gospel without mentioning Jesus, a Jesus-less sermon is a Gospel-less sermon.

Now, if Jesus’ name is mentioned, does that mean that the Gospel has been preached? No. Pastor George Borghardt says there must be more:

Not just Jesus, but Christ for you, Christ crucified for you. That’s the test. Luther says that the Cross alone is our theology. So, it’s not simply that someone talks about Jesus; anyone can talk about Jesus. He’s great to talk about. Religious people, nonreligious people, everyone has something to say about Jesus. The question is, What did He do for you? And how is it with your sins? Could the sermon be preached without the Cross? And if it could, then it is not a …Christian sermon. [24 ]

Many sermons mention Jesus but never preach the Gospel. This brings us to part two of the sermon diagnostic.

If Jesus is mentioned, is He the subject of the verbs? This is simple grammar. Every sentence has a subject and a verb. So, listen to the sermon and do the grammar. Dr. Norman Nagel is famous for asking, “Who is driving the verbs?” Is Jesus active or passive? Is Jesus doing the action or is He being acted upon?

There is a difference between a sermon that says “I love Jesus,” and a sermon that says “Jesus loves me.” One is talking about you, the other is talking about Jesus. There is a difference between, “Give your life to Jesus,” and “Jesus gave His life for you.”

The point of the second question? A sermon that mentions Jesus but still has you driving the verbs is still about you, not Jesus. The Gospel is all about what Jesus does for you. A sermon about what you do for Jesus isn’t the Gospel. For the Gospel to be preached, Jesus must be driving the verbs.

But even if Jesus is the subject of the verbs, does that mean the Gospel has been preached? Not necessarily. There is one more important part of the sermon diagnostic.

A sermon about what you do for Jesus isn’t the Gospel. For the Gospel to be preached, Jesus must be driving the verbs.

If Jesus is mentioned, and He is the subject of the verbs, what are those verbs? Listen to the sermon and ask yourself, “What are the verbs? What is the preacher telling me Jesus has done, is doing or will do for me?”

Are these the verbs of the classroom, locker room, or therapist’s office? Is this the Jesus who demonstrates, provides an example or shows me how? Is this the Jesus who educates, teaches, enlightens or explains? Is this the Jesus who enables, inspires, motivates or empowers? Now, none of these verbs are wrong in and of themselves; but none of them are the Gospel either. Luther writes:

It is not sufficient, nor a Christian course, to preach the works, life, and words of Christ in a historic manner, as facts which it suffices to know as an example how to frame our life, as do those who are now held the best preachers . . . Now preaching ought to have the object of promoting faith in Him, so that He may not only be Christ, but a Christ for you and for me, and that what is said of Him, and what He is called, may work in us. And this faith is produced and is maintained by preaching why Christ came, what He has brought us and given to us, and to what profit and advantage He is to be received. [25]

The Gospel isn’t Jesus your example, educator, life-coach or therapist. The Gospel is Jesus, your crucified and risen Savior from sin and death. So, listen for the Scriptural verbs of salvation: The Jesus W ho lived for you, suffered for you, was crucified for you, died for you, and rose again for you. The Jesus Who forgives you, redeems you, reconciles you and has mercy on you.

How often is Jesus mentioned? Is He the subject of the verbs? What are those verbs? This simple test doesn’t answer every question about good preaching, but it does answer the most important question: Is this a Christ centered, cross – focused sermon? Is this sermon about what Jesus has done to save me, a sinner? Did this sermon proclaim the Gospel?

Finally, one last check for Law and Gospel. W hen you’re finished listening, step back and get the big picture. Ask yourself, “Did the preacher diagnose my problem as sin, or as something else? And did the preacher provide the solution to my sin in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?”

Nothing Better

Is it too much to ask that preachers preach the Gospel? Many would say so.

Some say that the Church of the 21st century needs to broaden its focus. They might say that today’s audiences want something more than Law and Gospel, sin and grace. Some say that it is unreasonable to expect a preacher to mention Jesus and make Him the subject of verbs that say that He lived for sinners, suffered for sinners, died for sinners, and rose again for sinners. Some say that we ought to preach the Gospel – to unbelievers, at evangelistic crusades. But Christians need something more “relevant” to their everyday lives.

Some might say, “Jesus’ own preaching wouldn’t pass your test.” I disagree. The Gospels record saying after saying, teaching after teaching, parable after parable, where Jesus preaches His own death and resurrection for sinners.

And Jesus did what He preached. He lived a life of perfect obedience for us. He went to the cross, bearing the sin of the world. He suffered what we by our sins deserve. He gave His life as our ransom. He died in our place. He rose again to show that our salvation had been completely accomplished.

Finally, Jesus said, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations.” [26]

This is precisely what the first preachers, the Apostles, did. They preached repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of the crucified and risen Jesus. They preached it boldly, happily, and at every opportunity. They preached it to Jews and Gentiles, to unbelievers and believers, to kings and to the crowds. They preached it from house to house, town to town, from exile and from prison. They preached it at the cost of their own lives. They called it “the Good News” because they knew that they had nothing – nothing- better to preach.

No, it isn’t too much to ask preachers to do the same today.

1. Timothy 2:15 .
2. C.F.W. Walther The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, St. Louis Concordia Publishing House, 1915, p. 6, 30.
3. Martin Luther “Sermon on the Distinction Between the Law and the Gospel,” Luther’s Works vol. 9. St. L, Ed. IX, p. ’99.
4. Matthew 22:37 39
5. Romans 8:1-4.
6. Mark 1:15.
7. Acts 20:21 See also Acts 2:14-39; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 7:2-53; 10:34-43; 13:15-41; 17:22-31.
8. Martin Luther, Sermon on Galatians, 1532. www.hontepage.mac.shanerosenthal/reformationlink/lawgospel.htm.
9. C,F.W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, St. Louis Concordia Publishing House, 1928, pp. 31- 32.
10. John Pless, Handling the Word of Truth: Law and Gospel in the Church Today, St. Louis; Concordia Publishing House, 2004, p. 21.
11. Ted Haggard “American Evangellcalism”: Issues, Etc. radio program, September 13, 2005.
12. Timothy 1:15,
13. Martin Luther, Commentary to the Epistle to the Galatians, Theodore Graebner, trans., Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1949, p• 30.
14. 1 Corinthians 2:1-2. See also Acts 9:15; 20:24; 22:14-15; 26 :16-18. See also Romans 1:1; 2:16; 16:25; 1 Corinthians l:1; 2:4; 9:18; 15:14; 3 Corinthians L1. 18; 4:>; Galatians 1:1; 2:G-7; Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 4:3: I Timothy 1: 1; 2 Timothy I:1; 1:8-11; 2:5-8; 4:15; Titus 1:3; 1 Thessalonians l:5; 2 Thessalonians 2:14.
15. Romans 1:15-17
16. 1 Corinthians 1:21-25
17. Matthew 7:6
18. Walther Law and Gospel p, 269
19. I borrow this term from Dr. Mike Horton.
20. See /Bible-Believing Liberals” Issues, Etc. journal, vol. 4, no. 3. 22 David Wells, Christianity in a Postmodern Culture,” Issues, Etc. radio program December 12, 2005.
21. Luje 18:9-14
22. David Wells, “Christianity in a Postmodern Culture,” Issues Etc. Radio program, December 12, 2005
23. Romans 16:18; Ephesians 5:6; Colossians 2:8; 1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 2:16
24. George Borghardt “Balaam’s Donkey,” Issues, Etc. radio program. May 12, 2005.
25. Martin Luther, “Concerning Christian Liberty” R. S. Grlgnon, trans., The Five-Foot Shelf of Books, The Harvard Classics, vol. 36, New York: P. F. Collier & Son: 1910, http://www/lclnet. org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/web/ cclib-2.html
26. Luke 24:46-47

This article first appeared in the “Issues, Etc. Journal.”   It appears here with the author’s permission.

Todd Wilken is the host of Issues, Etc.™ on Pirate Christian Radio.   You can support their work by joining their crew for $6,95 per month.


9 comments to A Listener’s Guide to the Pulpit




  • Deborah (Discerning the World)


    I am sure you can email this off or print it, just make sure you keep all the copyright stuff in place.

    Near the top right hand side of the page (in the grey column) you will see a colourful little button that says + ADD THIS. If you mouse over it you can select an option to email.

  • Hester

    I just read through this for the first time and this is truly an excellent article. I am just wondering, is this not exactly what is wrong with having ‘church’ the way we do in our society? We have these buildings, which cost a fortune to maintain and the same people, sitting in the same pews, Sunday after Sunday, and the same minister listening to the same problems of the same people. Now if, instead of, having these fancy buildings, the preachers, move and preach the gospel (the Good News, as they ought to) to different groups of people then certainly more people will be exposed to the True Gospel. I can almost guarantee you that if a pastor/minister/whatever they want to be called, should preach the way he ought to, after the 4th Sunday, the “Christians” would leave the church building saying, he has said this last week and the week before, we will go where our ears can be tickled and we can hear what WE want to hear (motivational speeches). Makes me wonder how many of these “Called preachers” would have an audience left and how many would want to be ‘called’ still. How many would want to be “called” with no income??

  • Deborah (Discerning the World)


    >> Now if, instead of, having these fancy buildings, the preachers, move and preach the gospel (the Good News, as they ought to) to different groups of people then certainly more people will be exposed to the True Gospel.

    That is how it was done in the bible, the disciples never had buildings, they went from place to place preaching the gospel. I do not believe for one second that the way ‘church’ is today (buildings and all) is biblical. For the simple reason that the truth is hated and 9 out of 10 people will choose to follow the wide path. These large churches are a farce, the gospel they preach is a farce and so are the pastors. But see if you can find a pastor today who has a day job (like the Apostle Paul did) who would then go out and preach here and there for FREE. Do you get such a thing today? Or do all pastors make money off of selling the gospel? Hmmmm. I wonder what God thinks of Pastors who make money off selling the gospel of Jesus Christ – I don’t want to be in their shoes.

  • Smuggler


    Deborah (Discerning the World) wrote:

    >> Hmmmm. I wonder what God thinks of Pastors who make money off selling the gospel of Jesus Christ – I don’t want to be in their shoes.

    Mic 3:11 “The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money: yet will they lean upon the LORD, and say, Is not the LORD among us? none evil can come upon us. Mic 3:12 Therefore shall Zion for your sake be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become heaps,…”

    I believe the Church “system” as we have it today is Babylonian. It is money based and provide it’s followers with an “earthly” security. This “system” promises you a “safe” place to have your “guilt feelings” soothed making you feel better about yourself and in return you must pay then for providing you with this “service”. The “priesthood” of this system is usually provided with housing, a salary, medical and a pension.
    They never have to trust God for an income.
    I personally know a pastor(Dominee) who is currently waiting for a Church (gemeente) to send him out. He has “apparently” got a calling from God to go and work as a missionary in another country BUT if a church does not send him, he will loose his pension.
    Currently he is asking around for a congregation to send him.
    Now, Is this a “shepherd/missionary” in God’s service or is he a “hireling” (John 10) in service of a “system” ?

  • Deborah (Discerning the World)


    >> I personally know a pastor(Dominee) who is currently waiting for a Church (gemeente) to send him out. He has “apparently” got a calling from God to go and work as a missionary in another country BUT if a church does not send him, he will loose his pension.
    Currently he is asking around for a congregation to send him.
    Now, Is this a “shepherd/missionary” in God’s service or is he a “hireling” (John 10) in service of a “system” ?


    I do this blog for free, pay for it’s upkeep, hosting, etc and will not ask a cent – I will never sell 1 letter of the Word of God. My husband and I rely upon our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ for our incomes to keep us going through the month.

  • Smuggler

    The “saddest” part of this dominee’s “witness” is that he is claiming (and proclaiming) that God is now teaching him to live in faith ! From the way he does this this it also appears that he is “humbly” experiencing this as an elevated “status” in God’s kingdom and using it to make him look better and more spiritual!

    That is another trait of a false shepherd/pastor/teacher/prophet. They will always get the “spotlight” to “accidentally” fall on them . . . And the people of the church are all now “looking” at him with awe . . .

  • Ria

    Just read this article (my data thingy-b-dingy or stick or whatever you call it was lost and now found). Going to church for MANY years and now are “churchless” because I have moved since my husband died. I was notified last year via email that this church(based in another town)is starting a “church” here in my town. Excited I contacted the preacher. He visited and we visited. The congregation grew. Then we are asked to become members, BUT this can only be done by following a membership course. I could not attend because it is in the evening and I do not like to drive at night (I am 76 yrs old). The first members were “sworn” in. Then we noticed when the preacher passed us by, he ignored us. I wrote a nice letter explaining to him my situation. Wow, I was told that it is very important to become a member. My reply: “I agree..a church is like a business and it depends on tithing and offerings..BUT Jesus said “follow Me”…not join My group” My mistake?? I would like to hear from learned people their opinion please. Am I being stubborn, rebellious?? I am so tired of church politics and legalistic opinions. What do you do? All the clever people in your blog….please try to explain to this old lady. Thank you

  • Ria wrote:

    Just read this article (my data thingy-b-dingy or stick or whatever you call it was lost and now found). Going to church for MANY years and now are “churchless” because I have moved since my husband died. I was notified last year via email that this church(based in another town)is starting a “church” here in my town. Excited I contacted the preacher. He visited and we visited. The congregation grew. Then we are asked to become members, BUT this can only be done by following a membership course. I could not attend because it is in the evening and I do not like to drive at night (I am 76 yrs old). The first members were “sworn” in. Then we noticed when the preacher passed us by, he ignored us. I wrote a nice letter explaining to him my situation. Wow, I was told that it is very important to become a member. My reply: “I agree..a church is like a business and it depends on tithing and offerings..BUT Jesus said “follow Me”…not join My group” My mistake?? I would like to hear from learned people their opinion please. Am I being stubborn, rebellious?? I am so tired of church politics and legalistic opinions. What do you do? All the clever people in your blog….please try to explain to this old lady. Thank you.

    No Madam, you are perfectly right. If he were a true child of God he would not have asked you to become a member of his church; he would have asked you if you were saved and how you were saved. In other words, to give him your testimony. I can assure you that Jesus will NEVER ignore you just because you are not a member of one of the thousand apostates churches in the world today. What do we do? We follow Jesus in the same way you do. We are a small group who regularly gather in a home to worship our Lord and to edify one another. I really do not know where you are going to find a church that proclaims the Gospel. The only thing you can do is to trust the Lord and ask Him to lead you to the people He wants you to join as a church. God bless.

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A Listener’s Guide to the Pulpit

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