In his classic book Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones described three different kinds of sermons that every pastor needs to preach:
1. Sermons that teach or instruct. These are messages for the church with a more doctrinal or theological focus.
2. Sermons that edify. These are also messages for the church, but with a more “experimental” focus. (By “experimental” preaching, Lloyd-Jones meant preaching that related to Christian experience.)
3. Sermon that evangelize. These are messages that declare the essential message of salvation – the message of the gospel.
Lloyd-Jones wrote in an era when it wasn’t unusual for churches to have three services, and thus three full sermons a week, with many of the same people attending each one. In the United States this is the traditional Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening structure. For Lloyd Jones it was Sunday morning, devoted to edification; Sunday evening, devoted to evangelism; and Friday evening, devoted to doctrinal instruction. His “Great Doctrines of the Bible” series, as well as his 14 volumes of expository sermons on Romans were originally preached on these Friday nights.
The preacher’s quandary
While some churches retain the three-service structure, this is increasingly uncommon. The church I pastor only has one weekly worship service, and thus one sermon. There are, of course, other venues for teaching – Sunday schools, Bible studies, and small groups, for example – but only one weekly time when the full congregation is assembled together for worship.
Pastors like me are left in the quandary of choosing which kind of sermon to preach for one main gathering. At which target should we aim? Should we preach evangelistically so that unbelievers can hear the gospel? Will we focus on building up the believers in our congregations by preaching and teaching on real life issues, such as marriage and family, suffering and grief, work and rest? Or perhaps spiritual life issues such as prayer, growing in grace, and dealing with habitual sins should be the focus? If so, then when do we teach doctrine? Should we ever devote Sunday mornings to subjects like the Trinity, the Incarnation of Christ, substitutionary atonement, the resurrection of Jesus, and justification by faith?
Answering this isn’t as easy at one might think, partly because most pastors tend to gravitate to one of these types of preaching over the other two. Which means we can’t just go with our preference. If we do, we will lack balance and leave the congregation malnourished over time. Nor is it enough to scratch where people itch. If we do that, we’ll almost always deal with “felt needs” and almost never with doctrine. (Paul warns us about itch-scratching preaching in 2 Timothy 4:3). But Christians need doctrine in order to mature (Ephesians 4:11-16), even though they sometimes don’t realize it and may turn up their noses at the word “theology.” (I have a working theory that people actually do like theology, they just don’t like the boring ways we pastors and theologians often package and present it. But they perk up when we get our theology a bit more street level and show how it applies.)
Towards a solution
I’m not claiming a definitive solution to this problem, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about, so I’d like to offer some thoughts.
1. All preaching must be expositional
First off, we should insist that all preaching must be rooted in the exposition of Scripture. This doesn’t mean every sermon is a running commentary on a whole paragraph or chapter of the Bible. Nor does it rule out “topical” preaching as such. It means rather that the main focus of the sermon is derived explicitly from the text of Scripture itself. Scripture is not just an added bullet point given to lend support to our own ideas.
2. Three-in-one preaching
Secondly, I don’t think we should settle for only one of these components per sermon. Even Lloyd Jones acknowledged that I would his “distinctions should not be pressed in too absolute a sense.” But I think it’s even more important to cross-pollinate these types of sermons today. Tim Keller has argued that every sermon should be a gospel sermon, in which Jesus is the hero of the story, the solution to the problem.Bryan Chapell similarly teaches preachers to look for the “fallen condition” and “Christ solution” in each text. When we do this, it builds in opportunities for us to share the good news of the gospel and point people to God’s saving grace, even when our sermons aren’t explicitly and wholly targeted to unbelievers.
But it’s also true to say that every sermon should teach theology. That doesn’t mean we need a theological outline. In fact, we probably should package most of our sermons more practically. But even in practical sermons, when we’re building our messages on the text of Scripture, there are always clear connecting points between belief (doctrine) and behavior (practice). We should look for those points and connect the dots.
3. Give yourself plenty of preparation time
But preparing sermons like this take time. You’ll need time for reading that hones your hermeneutical skills and keeps you theologically sharp. You’ll need time and space for meditation and prayer and the time and tools to be sure your exegesis of any given text is on target.
But you also need time each week to work things out clearly in the structure and content of the sermon. You might try writing multiple outlines for the same sermon. I often go through five or six possible outlines before preaching. For example, in a recent sermon on “Abiding in the Vine” from Jesus’ teaching on the vine and branches in John 15, I wrote up three or four outlines. One of them was more theologically focused on the theme of union with Christ – it’s reality, importance, results, etc. Another was built on questions: what does it mean to abide, why should we abide, and how do we do it? Still another was a list of seven observations I made on the passage about abiding. But while all of these outlines served the final sermon, none of them ended up being my preaching outline. Looking back, I can say that while this wasn’t the best sermon I’ve ever preached, I think it had all three components: a strong theological base, practical application, and a gospel focus.
4. Know what to leave out
One of the greatest temptations of a preacher is to bring all the fruits of his study into the sermon. But doing so makes the message unwieldy – more like a lecture than a sermon. We’ve got to learn what to leave out. (I can certainly improve in this.) Chapters 5-9 of Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preachingprovide a helpful guide for honing this discipline.
5. Listen to feedback
In fact, ask for it. You should solicit feedback from a variety of people both inside and outside your congregation. I’ve benefited immensely from having staff members who occasionally offer constructive critique of my sermons. When I’m getting too repetitive, or am not clear, or am leaving people with more sense of duty than wonder at the gospel, one of them is sure to let me know – often offering positive suggestions for how to improve. But I especially pay attention when non-Christians comment, because I want to know whether I’m connecting with them or not. And I give special heed to spiritually mature folks (including my wife) who have a good sense for what is feeding people in contrast to what is merely instructing them.
The triple test
So how do you know if you’re hitting the target with your preaching? None of us will hit it perfectly. Ever. But we can improve. We can grow in measurable ways. So, it’s helpful to have benchmarks for measuring our progress.
Here’s the triple test: is my sermon true to the text, true to the gospel, and true to life? If my sermon is true to the text, it will expose the theological and doctrinal truths of the text. If it is true to the gospel, it will make the necessary canonical connections to the person and work of Jesus Christ, framing the message of the sermon in terms man’s need and God’s gracious provision in Christ that meets that need. And if it’s true to life, it will be relevant, accessible, and applicable to the lives of the people.