Homiletical Relativism

A Tale of Two Sermons?

I recently heard two close friends give their opinion of the same sermon—a sermon I did not hear, delivered at a church I have only attended once. These were both seasoned believers who genuinely love God and seek to follow him. One raved about the sermon, touched by the pastor’s humility (and self-deprecation) and the liveliness of the delivery. The other actually preacherwept at the conclusion of the message because she was devastated by the pastor’s self-centeredness and twisting of the text. I was so astonished by the conflicting reports that I wondered if they had even heard the same sermon!

In thinking about these two comments, and many more like them given through the years, I began to wonder if there isn’t a touchstone for sermons. Are we hopelessly adrift in a sea of personal preferences, or are some sermons actually better than others? It was a dangerous thought, and one I really didn’t want to pursue—especially since preaching is my craft—but the question has nibbled at me since then, and I feel compelled to reflect (incompletely, imperfectly, with fear and trembling) on it.

The Sermon: Your Way, Right Away

We live in a consumerist culture. People want what they want when they want it. If the store doesn’t have what they want, they will go elsewhere—online, if they have to, because you can find everything online. No compromise necessary. Your way, right away.

Consumerism’s penetration into the church has been widely documented and loudly bewailed. The great contribution of modernity and its obstreperous stepchild, postmodernity, is the elevation of the autonomous self.[1] In the space of a few short centuries, we moved from “In the beginning, God” to “I think, therefore I am.” That this emphasis on self-determination should permeate a group of people who have committed to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Another strikes me as both ironic and chilling.

But it has, and the effects have been discouraging.

Since the 1990s, the consumerist approach to Sunday services has tightened its grip on the Western church. Congregants increasingly evaluate the sermon according to individual preferences, rather than an objective standard. Now, let me be the first to admit that some aspects of a sermon may vary according to preferences. For example, how long should a sermon run? I see no command in Scripture suggesting a divinely established length. Jonah’s preaching was blessedly short (Jonah 3:4), whereas Paul occasionally waxed protracted (Acts 20:9).

Nevertheless, there are other aspects of preaching that are non-negotiable, and we would do well—as preachers and as congregants—to remember them. The practice of these principles can and should vary from congregation to congregation (see #6), but the principles themselves should never change.  In other words, we do not want to be guilty of homiletical relativism. We do not want to make ourselves the locus of judgment: “what I deem to be a good sermon is a good sermon; what I deem poor is poor.” Just as we submit our lives to the judgment of God’s Word (cf. Hebrews 4:12-13), so we submit our sermons—those we preach and those we hear—to its judgment.

A brief caveat before I outline some of the principles: no preacher will do this perfectly every time out, because we are all fallible and finite—myself chief among them! However, we will practice these principles intentionally as surely as we practice them imperfectly.

What Makes a Good Sermon?

  1. It centers on God’s words. We need to hear God’s words, not a preacher’s words, because only one has power to transform. God describes the efficacy of his word in a famous prophecy of Isaiah: “It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (55:11). God’s words accomplish his purposes—warning, correcting, teaching, promising, inspiring faith—perfectly and without fail. What preacher among us can say the same of his words? The word of God is “alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). My words, however, are dead unless God gives them life; they lack the precision, power, and perfection to cut to the heart of my audience. God’s words never have that problem. A good sermon proclaims God’s words in God’s power in order to accomplish God’s ends.
  2. It points to Christ no matter the text. This follows necessarily from the first point. If, as Jesus himself taught, every text points to him (Luke 24:27; John 5:39), then every text we preach will point to him as well. A narrative from the Old Testament, an exhortation from the New Testament, a psalm or proverb—these all point to or are grounded in Christ’s finished work. To preach the narrative or exhortation, psalm or proverb, without preaching Jesus, is to miss the heart of the message. To be sure, this must be done carefully. Some preachers will do the “Jesus bit” in every sermon, but fail to remain faithful to the text at hand. If every passage points to Christ, then a preacher should be able to unearth what is already in the text, without having to import Jesus from somewhere else. Gospel threads—rest, exile, temple, kingdom, exodus, covenant, wisdom, and many others—run throughout Scripture. A faithful sermon will see the thread running through the passage at hand and draw it out for the sake of the congregation.
  3. It proclaims the gospel. As a sermon draws out the gospel thread, it will proclaim the richness of the gospel week in and week out. Paul’s resolve at Corinth—to know nothing while he was with them “except Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2)—sets the standard for every sermon. The gospel is the power of salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16). A faithful sermon proclaims the twin graces of the gospel—justification and sanctification—in delicate balance. As Paul writes to his protégé, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good” (Titus 2:4-8; cf. Ephesians 2:8-10). God saves us by his mercy, not according to what we have done—we are justified by grace; God renews us by his Spirit so that we devote ourselves to doing what is good—we are sanctified by grace. Preaching justification alone leads to libertinism: spurious salvation by cheap grace alone. Preaching sanctification alone leads to legalism: climbing a ladder of our own making to reach a heaven of our own imagining. Preaching neither at all is just self-help, moralism, or banal psychotherapy. Would to God we heard the gospel instead!
  4. It proclaims a multi-faceted gospel. The gospel message is clear, simple, and unchanging on the one hand, but it is endlessly rich and multi-faceted on the other hand. Scripture presents not only a wide array of gospel threads, but also a variety of “atonement grammars,” as Tim Keller calls them. Given our cultural heritage in the West, today we are most familiar with the “legal” grammar: Our sin demands a righteous judgment, which Christ Jesus takes on himself; he is declared “guilty” in order that we might be called “righteous.” This is a powerful grammar, and one that we need to hear regularly. Nevertheless, it is not the only way to speak of the atonement! Throughout the Bible, we read of the atonement in language taken from the battlefield (Jesus has secured our victory), the marketplace (Jesus has purchased our freedom from slavery), the temple (Jesus purifies us so that we can draw near to a holy God, cleansing our guilty consciences), and the exile (Jesus was cast out so that we could be brought in, welcomed back home).[2] Different grammars speak to different people; different texts highlight different grammars. If every sermon drills the same theme, it will likely speak to only one segment of the congregation, and will only address one element of our despair apart from God. If the gospel is endlessly rich, each new sermon should sound a different note that resonates with a hitherto untouched corner of our hearts.
  5. It strikes the heart. Jonathan Edwards rather famously emphasized this aspect of preaching. He saw that in his day too many preachers aimed at our thoughts, feelings, or will, rather than striking the heart, which is the source of all three (cf. Proverbs 4:23; Matthew 15:18-19). Sermons that strike the mind only produce a dead orthodoxy. Sermons that strike our feelings only produce a shallow emotionalism. Sermons that strike the will only produce moralism or legalism, and ultimately despair. However, sermons that strike the root of all three—the heart—will lead to transformed thoughts, feelings, and wills, producing theological orthodoxy, relentless joy, and loving obedience from the inside out.
  6. It addresses the audience. No sermon is preached in a vacuum. It addresses real people at a specific time and in a specific place. Even in our shrinking world, with the advent of technological globalization, differences between cultures and sub-cultures are marked. Preaching the same passage in the same way regardless of the audience is sheer folly. The urban intelligentsia in Manhattan does not need the same message as migrant workers in rural California. A faithful sermon considers its culture carefully, and contextualizes the unchanging truth for a changing population.

As always, I’m sure this list is not only incomplete, but also imperfect. Nevertheless, I hope it will stimulate sustained reflection and increased discernment—never a critical spirit—and ultimately charitable engagement.

[1] Some would prefer to speak of “late modernity” instead of postmodernity, because both modernity and postmodernity share this fundamental characteristic. Views on epistemology have shifted, yes, but at their individualistic core, they remain the same.

[2] Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012): 131.

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