the shape of leadership

The Do’s and Don’ts of Preaching

Striking the right balance in your sermon application

Chris Colvin on January 24, 2019

In parenting, they say you should always give at least one “yes” for every “no.” However, if you’re like me, you’ve said “no” a lot more than you’ve said “yes.” It feels like raising children is almost exclusively about correcting bad behavior. But, of course, the best parents among us are also reinforcing good behavior.

Pastoring and preaching are a lot like parenting. God entrusted you with your congregation, much like He entrusted you with your children. Part of your job is to teach them right and wrong. And there are plenty of messes to clean up along the way.

As a pastor or preacher, do you often feel like you’re only saying “no”? How can providing a “yes” for every “no” in your sermons make your point stick better? After hearing thousands of sermons in my life, I can tell you I’ve heard a lot more about how not to live than how to live out my faith.

A Healthy Balance

I learned that sermon writing is basically about three main parts: the interpretation, the application and the illustration. Interpretation, for me, is the fun part. It’s about exegeting the text and really understanding what the Bible is saying. Illustrations make your sermon shine. It’s where you let your creative juices flow. And it’s how you reinforce the message of the text to make it memorable.

But application may be the most important part of any sermon. Without it, a sermon is really just a nice speech. The application is how you live out what you’ve read in the text. It’s putting God’s Word into action.

Many times, the application of our sermons is all about how not to live out that faith, though. We’re really good about preaching against things — warnings about the dangers of the world, correcting the sins of the people of God. We love to share the don’ts of God’s Word.

Our people need a healthy dose of do’s as well. Every time you tell them “no,” you should also tell them “yes.” Give them some good thing to do, not just some bad behavior to quit.

Without a healthy balance of do’s and don’ts in a sermon, you get a one-sided message. And yes, it can be negative. It can produce cynicism and judgmentalism. Telling your people only what they shouldn’t do can ensure you have legalists in your congregation.

However, when you add a healthy dose of do’s, you release your people to be loving children of God. You’ve offered them hope. You’ve given them something to rejoice over. These are what make the kingdom of God worth being a part of (Romans 14:17).

Old and New

Paul knew about this principle of balanced messages. As you read his letters, it’s apparent that he never shied away from correcting people. When a bad report disturbed him, Paul let his readers know about it. And he was quick to tell them the types of behaviors to avoid.

Give them some good thing to do, not just some bad behavior to quit.

But Paul remained balanced. His writings include plenty of positive reinforcement and advice on how to live a life for God. Paul was just as quick to tell believers what to do as he was to caution them against what not to do.

No letter better exemplifies this than the one Paul wrote to the Ephesians. And that makes sense, because by all accounts he loved spending time with them. In the second chapter, Paul really gets into the theology of sanctification. The people in the church at Ephesus were once part of the world, but now they are part of the family of God.

Paul makes a clear distinction between the two parts of their lives: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live … ” (Ephesians 2:1-2). But he also makes it clear that there is a bright future for those who follow Jesus: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

Again, it’s not all about avoiding “transgressions and sins,” but about embracing the “good works” that God wants from us.

Later on, at the climax of his argument, Paul puts an exclamation point on it right before he begins making practical application. In Chapter 4, Paul cautions against the old things and urges the Ephesian church on to better things: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (verses 22-24).

This language provides a great illustration of sanctification. Paul compares the behavior of the Ephesians to garments. In their old lives, these garments were corrupted and deceitful. As followers of Christ, the Ephesians needed to take off those things. But if they didn’t put anything on, the Ephesians would remain naked. And no one wants to be caught without clothing.

So Paul suggests the Ephesians clothe themselves with their new lives. A new life involves taking up garments of righteousness and holiness. Holiness is not just about avoiding evil but also embracing good.

Our sermons should use the same formula. For every behavior we tell our listeners to avoid, we can point them toward a corresponding action that shows off the new lives they wear as Christians.

Permission Granted

Some may argue that saying “yes” to your children too often is permissive parenting. And I agree. But let’s think for a second about the people in your church. Are you afraid of being permissive? Don’t be, as long as you are granting permission for the right things.

Give your people permission to do good works. Give them permission to love like they’ve never loved before. Give them permission to work out their salvation. And give them permission to live out their identity in Christ.

You can’t do any of that with all don’ts and no do’s. So make sure each sermon is balanced with the right amount of each to produce growing disciples.

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