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The 10 Commandments of Preaching

When it comes to preaching and teaching the Bible, we all fall short. Who hasn’t quoted the wrong reference or (worse) read the wrong passage of Scripture altogether? Who hasn’t, in the heat of the moment, accidentally gotten tongue-tied and credited Paul with the words of Peter? You may even find yourself creating a homiletical mountain out of an exegetical molehill.

Everyone makes mistakes, but for all the mistakes preachers can (and do) make, here are 10 we should do our best to avoid at all costs.

1. Thou shalt not put words in God’s mouth.

God is more than capable of saying what He means and meaning what He says. He doesn’t need our help to add to or take away from His Word. We have no business saying God said something He didn’t say. That’s why we must handle the Word of truth accurately (1 Tim 3:15). If you’ve ever been misquoted (in conversation or a newspaper), you know how frustrating that experience is. Imagine how the God of the universe must feel when one of His messengers misquotes Him. We need to be sure to get the message right!

2. Thou shalt prepare and preach every message as though it were thy last.

Even if it is only to a small Sunday night crowd, the preacher never should take his or her responsibility lightly. Why? Because it very well may be the last sermon you ever preach or the last sermon someone listening ever hears. Furthermore, we don’t know what God’s Spirit has been doing behind the scenes. A rebellious teenager or wayward spouse may be on the verge of repenting and trusting Christ. The listener’s need is urgent; therefore the preaching should be urgent. Preaching is not a playground for frivolous fun but a battlefield for gutsy warfare. It is where the very issues of life and death, heaven and hell, hang in the balance. As the great Puritan theologian and preacher Richard Baxter once eloquently said, “I’ll preach as though I ne’er should preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” We should seek to do the same. 

3. Thou shalt not present the Word of God in a boring and non-compelling manner.

Newsflash: If people are falling asleep during your sermon, it’s not God’s fault. If God’s Word is sufficient to transform lives, isn’t it also sufficient to keep people’s attention? Don’t get in the way of the transforming power of God’s Word by letting it become boring. To preach and teach the Bible in a boring and unpersuasive manner is, I believe, a sin.This is not to say every preacher has to be dynamic, witty and entertaining. It does mean, however, every preacher should see him or herself as God’s messenger and spokesman for that moment. He or she must plead passionately and desperately with those listening to hear and heed God’s Word.

4. Thou shalt always point to Christ in thy message.

Seeing that Jesus Christ is the focal point of every passage, it stands to reason He should, therefore, be the focal point of every sermon. As Dennis Johnson writes, “Whatever our biblical text and theme, if we want to impart God’s life-giving wisdom in its exposition, we can do nothing other than proclaim Christ.”

The most humbling experience of my seminary years was related to this. In one of my preaching classes, I had to give several sermons in front of my peers and professor. The first sermon I preached was well-received and complimented. So, after the second sermon (from the Old Testament), I sat down arrogantly waiting to hear “the showers of blessings” and compliments about how well I had done. My professor, Greg Heisler from Southeastern Seminary, said, “Tyler, that message was passionate and challenging … but you made one huge mistake.” He continued: “You could have preached that message in a Jewish synagogue or a Muslim mosque and [the congregation] could have said ‘Amen!’ to everything you said. You never once mentioned Christ in your entire message.” He left me with this challenge: “You need to be sure every time you preach—even from the Old Testament—that if a Jew or Muslim were in the audience [he or she] would feel extremely uncomfortable.” Remember, we are not simply theistic preachers; we are to be distinctly Christian preachers.

5. Thou shalt edify thy hearers to faith and obedience.

It’s like the old hymn: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.” Regardless of the passage, the goal of every sermon should be to remind people whatever the issue or doctrine at hand, God and His Word are reliable. When God gave the Ten Commandments, He didn’t begin by barking orders at the Israelites. In fact, the Ten Commandments don’t start with commands. They begin with the reassuring words, “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt …” (Ex. 20:1). In other words, God reminded them: “You can trust Me; that’s why you should obey Me.” The real motivation for Christian living is not, “I have to obey God,” but it is, “Given everything I know to be true about Him, why wouldn’t I obey God?” A good sermon will help people to think and live that way.

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Tyler Scarlett is the pastor-teacher of Forest Baptist Church, located in Forest, Virginia.