Today, I’ll discuss Spurgeon’s chapter titled “Sermons – Their Matter” by sharing the five lessons I learned that helped me become a better preacher.
If you’ve ever done any preaching, you’ve probably had to wrestle with the basic question “What should I preach about?” By asking that I don’t mean, “What should my sermon topic be about?” or “What should my text passage be about?” But rather, “what should be the general content of my sermon?”
Spurgeon’s answer is straightforward: we must be preaching sermons that have real doctrinal teaching in them. Of course, every preacher claims his sermons are practical, dynamic, and relevant. But are they doctrinal?
Our sermons must be doctrinal. This is a general statement – perhaps even vague – so let’s dig into the specifics. Here are the five lessons I learned from this chapter that made me a better preacher by teaching me what to put into my sermon (and what to avoid):
First, I learned there are some sermon myths I needed to reject.
For example, there is this false idea among many preachers that a spiffy outline makes for a good sermon. Nothing could be further from the truth. Clever main point headings and creative alliteration are complete nonsense if the sermon itself is not rooted in Scripture.
Spurgeon said, “To divide a sermon well may be a useful art, but how if there is nothing to divide? A mere division maker is like an excellent carver with an empty dish before him.”
Another myth we must reject is the idea that a rousing and emotional sermon is a good sermon. There’s nothing wrong with sermons that excite emotion but beware of writing your sermons around the purpose of soliciting emotional reactions from the people.
Spurgeon warned, “Rousing appeals to the affections are excellent, but if they are not backed by instruction they are a mere flash in the pan, powder consumed but no shot sent home. Rest assured that the most fervid revivalism will wear itself out if it be not maintained by the fuel of teaching.”
The second lesson I learned from this chapter is that preachers must be theologians. We must know doctrine and shun this attitude that doctrine only divides and must be avoided. Doctrine is teaching and if we refuse to give our hearers the teaching of the word of God, then whatever else we are giving them is at best the gruel of human opinion or at worst the poison of dangerous heresy.
Many preachers mistakenly lead their people astray because they are themselves poor theologians. Spurgeon put it bluntly when he said, “Brethren, if you are not theologians you are in your pastorates just nothing at all.”
The third lesson we must master is that the sermon should come from the text. As Spurgeon explained, “The discourse should spring out of the text as a rule, and the more evidently it does so the better.”
This disease of unbiblical sermons that Spurgeon denounced in his day is still a plague in our own. It is a tragic irony that those who trumpet the loudest about the Bible are often the ones whose sermons are the most divorced from Scripture.
Spurgeon observed, “Some brethren have done with their text as soon as they have read it. Having paid all honour to that particular passage by announcing it, they feel no necessity to further refer to it…Why do such men take a text at all?”
The best way to keep your sermon to the text is to preach expositionally. Now, this is where we find some controversy today because some try to point out that Spurgeon was not an expositional preacher. Spurgeon did not preach verse-by-verse through chapters and books, which is how most view expositional preaching today. But Spurgeon did let the text determine the sermon’s content. If the content of your sermon is determined by the meaning of the Bible text, then you’re preaching expositionally.
Because Spurgeon didn’t preach through books of the Bible verse-by-verse, many wrongly assume that Spurgeon was a topical preacher. Men who say that show they are mistaken in the understanding of topical and expositional preaching. Spurgeon was very clear that, while he did not denounce topical preaching, he did not prefer it. For instance, he said:
“…although in many cases topical sermons are not only allowable, but very proper, those sermons which expound the exact words of the Holy Spirit are the most useful and the most agreeable to the major part of our congregations. They love to have the words themselves explained and expounded.”
The fourth lesson is that our preaching should give a clear testimony to all the doctrines of the Bible. We cannot accomplish this in one sermon, of course. Throughout our ministries, we should see a continual pattern of preaching the whole counsel of God.
To this Spurgeon adds a caution that we should avoid making “minor doctrines main points.” He illustrates his meaning by describing “the godly widow woman, with seven children to support by her needle, who wants far more to hear of the lovingkindness of the God of providence than these mysteries profound; if you preach to her the on the faithfulness of God to his people she will be cheered and helped in the battle of life; but difficult questions will perplex her and send her to sleep.”
The fifth lesson I learned from Spurgeon in this chapter is that we should be careful to not overload a sermon with too much matter. It is entirely possible to overload a sermon and feed the people too much at one time. Spurgeon lamented the inability of the people of his day to hear long sermons that are loaded with heavy material unlike the people during the age of the Puritans. If Spurgeon’s contemporaries were thus, ours even more. Our video and smartphone age has greatly diminished the capacity of people to hear and listen to sermons. Keep this in mind when preparing to preach. We may have to aim lower than Spurgeon did, but let’s be sure we still deliver pure Gospel truth.
There’s much more to talk about, but I’ll leave the rest for you to read in Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students in the chapter titled “Sermons – Their Matter.”
I close with this quote from Spurgeon: “Of all I would wish to say, this is the sum: my brethren, preach Christ, always and evermore.”
The video version of this post is available here: https://youtu.be/ACXf1gxzNy4