The Marks of True Preaching

T. David Gordon in his book, “Why Johnny Can’t Preach,” states in the introduction that thirty percent at best of preachers today are able to deliver even a mediocre sermon. Assuming such a statistic is true, should any thought be given as to what such a problem creates in the expectations of those who come to church on a given Sunday? What if the statistic were thirty-five, forty, or even fifty? The answer to this, if honest, is a painful one: very few are receiving preaching that truly changes their lives.

True Versus False Preaching

In this connection, I can’t help but to think of Christ’s words to the multitudes concerning John the Baptist, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? “But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. “But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet.”

There was something about the way John preached the kingdom of God, clearly and notably different than the preaching the people had been accustomed to hearing. There was something about the voice itself—it searched, it penetrated, it convicted, it killed, it made-alive, all with the goal of making known the glories of Jesus to those who had the ability to hear. It was John’s peculiarity of message, style, tone, authority, and delivery that made him stand out to the multitudes as someone recognizable as a preacher in their midst.

Imagine contemporizing Jesus’ questions for us: What do you attend church Sunday to see? A man with earthly suggestions? But what did you go to hear? A man speaking nice and relatable things? A hipster who panders to your every desire with casual conversation? A compromiser who uses the Word to tickle your ears? Indeed, those who speak like that are coaches and motivational speakers. But what did you go to see and hear? A man sent by God to deliver his law and gospel?”

The prince of preachers was, of course, Jesus himself. And it’s interesting to read the listener responses after the most famous sermon ever delivered, the Sermon on the Mount. We read in Matthew 7:28-29, “And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The word the Spirit chose to convey that is generally translated “amazed” is much stronger in the original. It means that they were struck with astonishment, overwhelmed to the point of bewilderment. It would be fair to render a translation in the following manner: “And so it was, when Jesus ended these saying, the people were blown out of their minds at his teaching.”

What was it that particularly struck the people with astonishment? It was his notable and expressed authority in delivering the truth. In other words, his teaching drove people to a response. It was so convicting that they had no other choice but to be “blown out of their minds.” They could not remain neutral after hearing preaching like this; they either fell before him, or further hardened themselves in unbelief. There was no middle ground. This is what happened at Pentecost when Peter preached his first sermon, the masses were “cut to the heart” while crying out for a solution to their guilt.

This kind of preaching is set in direct contrast to the religious leaders whose speaking was recognizably this-worldly. Their preaching was full of jargon and debate over matters that mattered nothing at all to the lives of the people. They went away worse than before thy heard their messages. Nothing changed. Christ’s preaching, however, got to the heart of matters that were most important for people–matters of life and death. Jesus called the peoples to repentance and faith in him for salvation, and preached the kingdom of God in the demonstration of the Spirit and power—and everyone knew it.

After most sermons today the general response is that it was a comforting or a “nice” sermon. It was delivered by a nice guy who had some nice applications, and everything about the service that day was, well, nice. And within a few minutes after the service, it was all nicely forgotten. Nice preachers with a nice message result in a nice church with a bunch of nice unconverted churchgoers.

Preaching That Changes Lives
In classic Protestantism, it has been common to speak of the marks of a faithful church. But rarely is the same emphasis given to the marks of faithful preaching. What are the marks of true preaching? William Perkins (1558-1602), the father of Elizabethan Puritanism, once said that there are two key marks of true preaching.

Perkins writes,

[Ministers] must preach God’s word in evidence and demonstration of the spirit of God. For he that is God’s angel, the spirit of that God must speak in him. Now to speak in the demonstration of God’s Spirit is to speak in such plainness, and yet such a powerfulness, as that the capacities of the simplest may perceive…First, plainness: for whereas the unlearned man perceives his faults discovered, it follows necessarily he must needs understand; and if an unlearned man understand it, then consequently it must needs be plain. Second, powerfulness; in that his conscience is so convinced, his secret faults so disclosed, and his very heart ripped up, that he says, ‘Certainly God speaks in this man’. This is the evidence and demonstration of God’s Spirit.

The marks emphasized by Perkins cannot be underestimated. The first mark of true preaching is plainness. The preaching should, with great clarity, speak to all ages, challenging the professor and the child in the same sentence. The second mark of true preaching is authority, or, as Perkins says, powerfulness, so that the listener is not left in a neutral state. The hearer has been confronted by God himself through the voice of his servant, and in the process, his secret sins have been so exposed and his conscience so confronted that the only proper response will be either a rejection of what is heard, or a recognition that God himself is speaking through the preacher to the humbling of the hearer before the Lord. This kind of preaching is extremely rare, and that’s why, as Perkins says, there is only one in a thousand who truly preach in the demonstration of the Spirit and power.

True preaching must so expose our conscience and the secret sins of our hearts that we are not left in a neutral state. This kind of preaching confronts us with the searching power of the law of God, exposing the offensive ways within us and our propensity to silence (Ps. 51), and in turn casts us upon the mercies and delivering power of Christ in the gospel.

Like the preaching of John the Baptist, the apostles, and, of course, Christ himself, it should be plainly and powerfully evident that what you hear every time you gather before a servant of Christ is a message from heaven delivered in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power. All preaching should, therefore, with these marks, drive us to Christ and him crucified to make any real difference in our lives.