This is the opening line of the preface to John Piper’s excellent work, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, first published in 1990. Over thirty years later—in a vastly different and rapidly changing world—this widespread, soul-gnawing hunger remains. And the universal need for faithful preaching remains.
The next generation of Christian leaders and laypeople desperately needs sermons that provide more than temporary entertainment or intellectual stimulation. We need sermons deep enough to penetrate the loneliest cavities of our hearts. We need sermons strong enough to “barge into our souls and shake awake a hopeful response.” We need sermons sturdy enough to stabilize us when we feel shaken by opposition, persecution, temptation, and suffering.
There’s no time to waste on Christianized Ted Talks, motivational speeches, lofty monologues, or sermons that resemble standup comedy more than true encounters with God. We need soul-feeding, heart-healing, mind-training, truth-telling, grace-dispensing, hope-directing, life-giving, Christ-exalting preaching. We need preaching that brings us to Jesus and his host of benefits and protections.
Pastor, if you want to preach sermons that glorify God, offer tangible hope, prompt true heart change, and leave an eternal impact—not merely tickle ears for 30 minutes—consider four marks of a powerful sermon. (And church congregant: encourage your pastor to pursue these marks!)
Disclaimer: My main focus in this article is on the content of effective sermons. Elements such as the preacher’s prayer life, exegetical work, personal piety, knowledge of the text, familiarity with the manuscript, involvement in the life of the church, and dependence on the Holy Spirit are all vital in sermon preparation and delivery.
Mark #1: Jesus—not the preacher—gets the spotlight.
I love meeting new people. My idea of a good time is to grab coffee with a preacher and learn all about him—his family, hobbies, experiences, and the lessons he’s learned in ministry. But I don’t go to church to meet the preacher. I go to church to meet Jesus. Why? Because my soul is starving for nourishment and Jesus alone is true food (John 6:55). My soul is gasping for oxygen, and Jesus alone is true life (John 14:6). My soul is tired and weary, and Jesus alone is true rest (Matthew 11:28-30).
I come to church every week with a backdrop of sin that only Jesus can absolve. I come weighed down by sorrows and brokenness too heavy for anyone but Jesus to carry. I come weary, muddy, scraped up, oft-confused, prone to wander—and Jesus alone can sustain me, cleanse me, mend me, direct me, shepherd me.
A sermon without Jesus is an empty prescription bottle—it may appear helpful from the outside, but there’s nothing inside that can actually heal us. Or, as Charles Spurgeon memorably put it, “A sermon without Christ in it is like a loaf of bread without any flour in it. No Christ in your sermon, sir? Then go home, and never preach again until you have something worth preaching.”
Preacher, I would love to meet you and learn all about you—and I’m sure many of your congregants would, too. But if you love us, don’t give us yourself in your sermons. Give us Jesus.
Application: Before preaching, ask yourself:
Does this sermon clearly articulate who Jesus is and what he has done? (i.e., Does this sermon clearly articulate the gospel?)
Will this sermon leave the congregation knowing more about me or more about Jesus? Will it leave the congregation hungry for more of me or more of Jesus?
Will this sermon leave the congregation thinking, “What a great preacher!” or “What a great Savior!”?
Mark #2: The Word of God drives the sermon.
Imagine your friend Sally is sick and greatly troubled. Desperate for help, she calls you and asks you to drive her to the physician. You drop everything and rush over, honored that she would reach out to you for assistance. She thanks you profusely as you drive her to the doctor’s office, and you can feel her hope rising as you get closer. This physician is known to provide help for people like her. Color returns to her face as her anticipation rises to meet him.
But imagine that when you get to the office and the doctor comes in, you cut him off every time he tries to speak to Sally. Every time the doctor opens his mouth to give direction, you speak over him to give Sally your best advice. After 20 minutes of this nonsense, the doctor leaves to attend to another patient.
Can you imagine anything more grievous? Sally was literally in the presence of the physician who could help and heal her—with ears wide open to hear him—but you never let him speak.
This is what a Word-less sermon is like. Hurting people have come to church for healing. They are inside the doctor’s office, so to speak, eagerly waiting to meet and hear from the Physician. How lamentable would it be if we (as pastors) took up their entire visit offering our best advice rather than letting them hear from the Physician himself?
Preacher, you will be tempted to use the pulpit to ride your favorite hobby horses, monologue your latest theological fascinations, showcase your greatest achievements, or broadcast your political convictions. Resist this urge. As Paul tells Timothy, “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2, emphasis mine).
Word-less preaching is powerless preaching. Sure, we might inspire some listeners with our own wisdom or creativity—perhaps even influence their behavior. But true heart change comes from the Holy Spirit working through the proclamation of the Word of God. As Bryan Chapell put it, “Preaching accomplishes its spiritual purposes not because of the skills or the wisdom of a preacher but because of the power of the Scripture proclaimed (1 Cor. 2:4–5).”
Application: Before preaching, ask yourself:
Have I clearly understood and communicated the author’s intent in the passage?
Do my points and illustrations serve the text (rather than distract from it)?
Have I connected the main point(s) of the text to the lives of my congregants? Have I connected the text to the gospel of Jesus Christ (to whom all of Scripture points)?
Mark #3: Clarity is prized just as much as creativity.
Creativity is immensely valuable (arguably essential) for an effective sermon. Just as God calls us to “sing a new song” (Psalm 96:1), our congregants ask us to “preach a new sermon.” We should always look for new and fresh ways to present the precious, unchanging gospel and our precious, unchanging Savior.
Yet, creativity without clarity is nothing more than fine-dressed confusion. A creative, unclear sermon is a colorful map in a foreign language—it might look pretty, but it contains very little practical value.
Preacher, are you weary today? Take comfort in this: God has not called you to be cute; he’s called you to be clear. He has not called you to work your fingers to the bone every week to provide some grandiose speech, novel revelation, or Gandolf-like wisdom. He has called you to clearly communicate the life-giving words of Scripture (cf. 1 Cor. 2:1-5; 2 Tim. 3:16; 4:2; Hebrews 4:12).
While creativity is an essential part of any good sermon, ultimately, hearts will be changed by the Holy Spirit working through the clear proclamation of the Word of God. As Timothy Keller put it, “While the difference between a bad sermon and a good sermon is mainly the responsibility of the preacher, the difference between good preaching and great preaching lies mainly in the work of the Holy Spirit.”
Application: Before preaching, ask yourself:
Is my outline clear? Is the main point of the text clear? Are my applications to the congregants clear?
Are my explanations understandable to an unbeliever and/or new believer?
Is it clear how my illustrations serve the text?
Mark #4: The sermon contains clear, compelling, Word-driven applications to the modern congregation.
Preachers often fall into one of two ditches when it comes to application. The first (increasingly common) ditch is to skip the exposition of Scripture and immediately apply the topic to congregants. This (mal)practice makes preachers susceptible to misinterpreting the text, ignoring the person and work of Christ, and turning sermons into glorified to-do lists for the congregation.
But there is another ditch that can, at times, be even more maddening to the congregant—and that’s when the preacher spends the entire sermon in theological la-la land, never actually connecting the text to the life of the congregant. I still remember hearing a sermon years ago in which the question crossed my mind, “Does the preacher even know I am here?” It felt like he was speaking to hear his own voice more than he was preaching to the people in front of him. Needless to say, it was difficult to take away much from this sermon.
One of the greatest compliments a preacher can receive is, “Pastor, it felt like you were speaking directly to me—as if you knew exactly what I am going through!” What creates such a powerful experience of connectedness to the sermon? More often than not, it is the Holy Spirit working through a preacher’s clear, intentional, and thoughtful application of the text to his listeners.
Application: Before preaching, ask yourself:
Have I clearly applied the main point(s) of this text to the congregants?
Have I clearly applied the hope of the gospel to the congregants?
By the end of my sermon, will my congregants be able to answer, “Why does this passage matter for my life?”
BONUS MARK: The sermon outline “preaches” by itself.
Okay, I’ll admit: this mark is more of a preference than a necessity. But I also believe it is more valuable than most preachers give credit for. Consider the difference between two possible sermon outlines for Revelation 12—and ask yourself which sermon you are more interested in hearing.
We can have hope as we live in the wilderness because with us is…
A LORD who will nourish us. (vv. 1–6)
A Lamb who will defend us. (vv. 7–12)
A Lover who will save us. (vv. 13–17)
Often the sermon outline is one of the first things (sometimes the only thing) people remember. An outline that doesn’t communicate anything is, at best, a missed opportunity. Meanwhile, a sermon outline that is clear, memorable, well-tailored to the text, and preaches Christ will continue to bear fruit well beyond the 30 minutes of preaching. (Bonus points if you can make the sermon title “preach,” too!)
Application: Before preaching, ask yourself:
Do my points communicate something (preferably gospel hope)?
Does my outline help the congregants see how the text fits together, applies to them, and connects to Christ?
If my congregants only remembered my outline, would they still be nourished?
Rest in God’s promises
Preacher, God has given you the wonderful privilege of proclaiming his life-giving Word to his people. Thank him for this precious opportunity, and rest afresh in his promise that his Word will not return empty but will achieve the purpose for which he sent it (Isaiah 55:11).
“The eternal God is your refuge, and his everlasting arms are under you.” —Deuteronomy 33:27, NLT
My Sunday school teacher recently made a statement that sent my jaw to the floor: “One of the implications of Christ being the Alpha and Omega is that he sees every moment of your life equally perfectly vividly. Six days ago, six months ago, six years ago—he sees it all just as vividly as he sees this very moment.”
We are fickle. We tend to let our pride skyrocket after a moment of strong faith. Then we doubt our salvation after a moment of foolishness. God isn’t swayed by moments in time the way we are. He alone sees the whole of us: our good and bad, our past and future, every success and failure—equally perfectly vividly—yet he still loves us fully. What a comfort!
Peter must’ve been similarly comforted when he pleaded with persecuted churches to remember that God isn’t constrained by time like we are: “Do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8).
Why is this the “one thing” we must not forget? What hope can this give us in the highs and lows of life? Consider how God’s unique ability to see past, present, and future—equally perfectly vividly—can fortify our souls.
Do you remember what you prayed for a few years ago? You pleaded with God through tears, trusting he’d provide even though you couldn’t see how. Then days, weeks, months, even years passed. You didn’t see his answer. Maybe you still don’t see his answer. Don’t forget this one thing: This prayer is still before God with the same intensity and clarity as if you were praying now. Not one prayer is misspent. Not one act of faith forgotten. Not one tear evaporates into meaninglessness (Psalm 56:8). Even if you forget your prayers, God remembers each one and will answer in his timing (John 15:7).
God’s perfectly vivid knowledge extends to our obedience as well: That afternoon three months ago when you stepped out in faith even as you trembled. That time in high school when you sat with the outcast. That moment 20 years ago when you responded to unfair criticism with love. God hasn’t forgotten. He sees each moment and is as pleased by your faith as if it just happened. All of your efforts will continue to glorify him forever.
What are the implications of God’s perfectly vivid knowledge of our past hardships? Notably, God does not say, “That happened 15 years ago; we’ve moved on from that now.” Perish the thought. God is just as grieved today by past difficulties and injustices as he was when they happened. And he’s just as committed to bringing justice for wrongs done and eternal healing for those who’ve been hurt (Psalm 9:7–10).
God’s commitment to us is clearest in the most significant moment of the past: the cross. Every time you sin, God sees the sacrifice of Christ perfectly vividly. His memory never lapses; not a millisecond passes when the work and benefits of Christ don’t fully apply to you. Every promise God has ever made is still fresh on his mind as if he spoke it to you just now. Human commitments often ebb and flow as time passes; God’s do not (2 Timothy 2:13).
One of the biggest emphases in self-help culture is living in the present. Countless books, seminars, and meditation classes are dedicated to helping people achieve this end. Why? Because every person struggles to live in the moment; our minds inevitably wander to the past or the future.
Thankfully, this isn’t so with God. Because God exists outside time, he isn’t preoccupied with what will happen tomorrow. He isn’t distracted by what happened in the past. God is fully present, perfectly attentive, and passionately engaged with your prayers and actions—just as engaged as he would be if there weren’t any other humans on the planet.
This makes Jesus uniquely able to help you with each new struggle as it arises. He’s an always-fresh Savior. He doesn’t offer stale advice or suggest a strategy that worked in a different season or for a different person. Unlike any other counselor, Jesus always understands your emotions, circumstances, and point in sanctification perfectly. He alone can give you exactly what you need, no matter the circumstance.
“Vivid” is the last word most people would use to describe their understanding of the future. While our pasts may be fuzzy, we’re all completely blind to what’s ahead. The future of our families, churches, jobs, homes, aspirations, nations, and world is unknowable. Unsurprisingly, fear of the future consistently ranks among the most prevalent and crippling phobias.
Yet there’s One who sees the future as vividly as we see this present moment. Unlike anyone else, God isn’t subject to guesswork regarding the days, weeks, and years ahead. In fact, God doesn’t only see the future; he ordains it (Proverbs 19:21; Isaiah 46:9–11). In his love and kindness, he ordains it all for our eternal good and safety (Romans 8:28–30; Ephesians 1:3–14; 2:7).
We can rest today not because we know tomorrow but because we know the loving character and faithful promises of God. As Corrie ten Boom is quoted as saying, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”
Believer, your past, present, and future are all safe in Jesus’ arms. He isn’t waiting to see how you perform before granting his love. He has promised never to leave you (Hebrews 13:5), and he will hold your hand through all that’s ahead (Psalm 73:23; Isaiah 41:10, 13). So rest in your sovereign Lord who rules over the entire universe—even over time itself.
Note: The intro to this article is adapted from a sermon I preached on October 30, 2022. You can watch or listen to that sermon here.
In 2 Thessalonians 1:7, Paul describes the emotion that will flood the hearts of believers the moment Christ returns with his mighty angels.
Before reading the verse, consider this: If you were to pick one emotion to describe what you think believers will feel—what you will feel—the moment Christ returns, which emotion would you choose?Awe? Wonder? Amazement? Fear? Worship? Reverence? Joy? Thankfulness? Contentment? Satisfaction?
Undoubtedly, we will feel all those emotions and more when Christ returns. Yet, curiously, in this verse, Paul doesn’t choose any of those words to describe what believers will feel upon Christ’s appearing. Which emotion does he point to instead?
According to 2 Thessalonians 1:7, the feeling that will flood the hearts of believers the moment Christ returns is…
The complete unburdening of a lifetime’s worth of stressors, sorrows, sicknesses, sins, and suffering in a single moment. That decompressing exhale our souls so desperately long for but never quite seem to manage in this life. That unthreatened assurance that everything is going to beokay—even forever good—which constantly evades our felt experience on this side of eternity.
Pure, unmixed, relief. This is the glorious and inseparable destiny of every Christ-follower—a destiny from which only time separates us now.
The surrounding context of this glorious promise of relief is—perhaps surprisingly—the judgment of God:
“This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels…” (2 Thessalonians 1:5-7)
Why will the judgment of God bring relief to believers? Consider three reasons.
1. The final judgment of God confirms that everything we ever did matters—that all our faithful suffering had a purpose and was worth it.
As Tim Keller put it, “[There are] two views of life: Either everything means something or nothing means anything. And what is it that distinguishes those two views? Judgment Day. Judgment Day is very good news. Judgment Day means you will not be forgotten.”
The moment Christ returns, believers will instantly be flooded with the warming assurance that I am seen. I am known. I am loved. I am valued. My life mattered.My efforts mattered. And not just to anyone—to Christ himself!
We will marvel with joy and relief, knowing that all our sins have been paid for and that every moment of faithfulness is an eternal ingredient in the Divine happiness. We will sing with grateful hearts as we are enveloped with the glorious sensation that every act of obedience, every sacrifice, every painful trial we endured while trusting Jesus—it all had a purpose. And it was all worth it.
2. The final judgment of God inaugurates the righting of all wrongs and the immediate removal of all sin, stress, sorrow, sickness, and suffering.
The Narnian image of the earth greening upon Aslan’s return—everything dead coming to life and everything barren becoming fruitful—is a very appropriate picture of Christ’s return. As we sing, “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. [Jesus] comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found” (Joy to the World, Isaac Watts, 1719).
This life-exploding, blessing-flooding, thistle-removing image of Narnia and Joy to the World is not a romanticized pipedream; it is a promise of God himself to all his children. Notice the myriad of images of life and flourishing that God gives us in Revelation 22:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. Also, on either side of the river, the tree of lifewith its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” (Revelation 22:1-4)
Plain as daylight, God promises abundance of life and fullness of healing at Christ’s return (v. 2). No longer will there be anything accursed (v. 3). No more sin. No more sorrow. No more stress. No more sickness. No more suffering. The complete unburdening, unmixed joy, and perfect healing for which our souls yearn—it’s coming.
So sing it loud, clear, and confidently this Christmas season: Jesus is coming to make his blessings flow, ‘far as the curse is found. Christ’s coming as Judge is, in fact, the greatest news believers could ever dream of.
3. The final judgment of God initiates the unhindered presence of God.
There might not be five words of hope more beautiful in all of Scripture than the first five words of Revelation 22:4: They will see his face. This is, quite simply, the consummate fulfillment of every longing we’ve ever had. As Tim Keller explains,
“The face of God is the source of all love, beauty, and joy. … The reason that you get joy when you listen to a great piece of music is because it reminds you of the face of God. Music is created by God—it’s an image; it’s a mirror of that which is in his face. You feel joy when you put yourself into somebody’s arms, but the reason you feel joy is because you are loving someone in the image of God. The joy and the strength you get in a loving relationship, the joy and the beauty you get by looking at the ocean or hearing a great piece of music—it all comes from the presence [and face] of God.”
The return of Christ will initiate the fulfillment of every dream we’ve grasped at but have never been able to fully obtain. In that moment, we will realize that our longings were, all along, not random but custom-fitted for the very inheritance we will enjoy for all eternity. Not one longing will be left unsatisfied; all will find their fulfillment in the face of Christ. At last, we will say, “Ah, for this my soul has always longed!” Can you imagine the relief of this long-awaited fulfillment?
Rest in God’s promises
Believer, you can take a deep breath today—even in the midst of your suffering—because God promises you this: I will give you the relief for which your soul longs. And this moment of relief will only flower into the incomparable joy of the unveiled presence of Christ—a pleasure that will satisfy us for all eternity (Psalm 16:11).