What makes a great sermon? Probably no two people would answer that question exactly alike. In fact, the same person might not give exactly the same answer if asked on two different occasions. Different ages and different teachers have answered differently. Change the question slightly (What makes a great speech?), and at least four different answers have come down from the classical rhetoricians. The Sophists gauged the greatness of a speech by the results that it obtained. Plato judged the greatness of a speech according to the truthfulness of its content. Quintillian conferred greatness based on the quality of life of the speaker. Aristotle’s mark of greatness was organization. All four are essential to a great sermon.
Surely a major requisite for a great sermon is its impact on the pew. The best organized truthful irrelevancy presented by the best of men fails as a sermon because it has no application for the hearers. Charles Spurgeon felt so strongly about the necessity for application that he reportedly said that the sermon doesn’t begin until the application begins. Paul taught doctrine, but he always called for it to be applied to life. Anything less than that is not Biblical truth. A preacher who fails to meaningfully apply God’s truth to his hearers is like a physician who gives a sick patient a lecture on health but fails to provide any healing medication.
But organization can be no less important, because, without organization, truthful relevant material presented by the best of men has no hope of impacting the pew. Organization is both a road map and a battle plan. It keeps the sermon on track from point of origination to destination; it keeps the hearer and the preacher marching together toward victory (conclusion) without distraction to the right or left. Each step follows naturally upon its predecessor and each is related to the whole so that the conclusion is not lost in confusion.
But what good is organization if that which is presented is not God’s truth? A sermon based on human wisdom is like cut flowers that fade before the close of day. There is no sense of the ageless struggles of the people of God. There is no coming to worship before the throne of the Creator of the universe and the Giver of grace. There is no proclamation of redemption because there is no Redeemer. There is no link forged between birth and death. It fails, and in its wake leaves nothing but despair.
Even if the standards of Plato, Aristotle, and the Sophists are admitted, surely Quintillian was wrong. Can a preacher not preach a great sermon though he himself is a scoundrel? Not if he is perceived as a scoundrel. Rightly or wrongly, it depends more on reputation than on character. Who listens an more to Jimmy Swaggert on morality? Who now cares what Jim Bakker says about honesty, integrity, or morality? On the other hand, have we not all known men whose eloquence of life and overflowing love enabled their words to fly straight to our hearts?
Some will argue that God, not man, determines true greatness. While that is beyond dispute, it should not be used, as it sometimes is, as an excuse to ignore such qualities as the impact on the hearer, organization, and the purity of life and heart of love of the preacher. When truth is proclaimed in a manner that leads to its rejection, God is not pleased. Such preaching will not make God’s list of great sermons.
You Must Hear the Gospel
You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Romans 10:17)
You Must Believe
You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)
You Must Repent
You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)
You Must Confess
You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)
You Must Be Baptized
Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!
You Must Be Faithful Unto Death
Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)