Pastor, allow me to ask you a couple of questions. First, what was the main point of what you preached this past Sunday? Secondly, what will happen if your people reject that main point?
I found myself reading through John Newton’s first public sermon delivered at St. Mary Woolnoth in London. Newton had been pastor at Olney for 16 years. After answering a few objections in his own heart, he agreed to become the pastor of this church in London. One particular statement from Newton’s introductory sermon stood out:
I came not to amuse you with subjects of opinion or uncertainty, or even with truths of a cold, speculative, uninteresting nature, which you might receive without benefit, or reject without detriment; but to speak the truths of God, truths of the utmost importance to the welfare of your souls in time and in eternity. (Newton, Works of Newton: Volume 5, 133)
Newton is saying nothing more than the apostle Paul said when he urged Titus to, “avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” (Titus 3:9) There likely were people involved in those quarrels about the law that were taking a correct side. Likewise there were probably true points being made about genealogy. Regardless, this controversy and division was foolish because they were, at the end of the day, “unprofitable and worthless”.
The Result of Maturity
Maturity has a way of filtering out many would-be sermon points. Immature people (regardless of age) tend to get themselves into foolish and ignorant controversies. And it’s easy to do. Study any passage of Scripture and you’re likely to find diverging opinions about what God’s Word actually says.
Consider 1 John 3:19-20 as an example. The general point is relatively easy to understand, but grammatically it is a nightmare. First, what do the two hoti clauses mean in verse 20? Is John saying, “whenever” our hearts condemn us? Or is John saying “in whatever way our heart condemns us”? It’s difficult to decide. Secondly, what does it mean that God is “greater than our conscience”? Does John say this to reassure us that God is more merciful than our conscience? Or does John say this to tell us that God is far more searching than even our conscience? That’s a significant difference. Yet, at the end of the day it’s difficult to be certain which option is the best.
The mature pastor will not spend a good chunk of his sermon exploring the different grammatical options in 3:19-20. He might mention them, briefly scan the options, share what he prefers, and then move on to the major point of the text. The immature pastor will draw lines in the sand. He’ll really squeeze out the different grammatical options. He’ll use all of his Greek training to pick a side and show why the other options aren’t solid. He’ll use all of his persuasive skills to convince his congregation that this verse teaches that God is far more searching than even our conscience (if, of course, that is the side that he chooses).
Such a controversy is foolish. It is foolish because the immature pastor has drawn a line in the sand on a matter that someone could reject without detriment or receive without benefit. The mature pastor knows to only draw lines in the sand only upon those “truths of the utmost importance to the welfare of your souls in time and in eternity”.
Helping with the So-What
Bryan Chappell would say that such an immature preacher—focusing all his energies on solving the grammar of 1 John 3:19-20—has only preached a pre-sermon. Chappell reminds us preachers that,
Information without application yields frustration…preachers who cannot answer ‘so what?’ will preach to a ‘who cares?’…We are not simply ministers of information; we are minister’s of Christ’s transformation. He intends to restore his people with his Word and is not greatly served by preachers who do not discern the transformation Scripture requires or communicate the means it offers. (Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 56-57)
Newton’s quote should help preachers formulate a “so-what”. As you break your sermon down into a main point consider that quote of Newton’s. Will it be to their detriment if they reject the main point? Or if they accept that main point will they greatly benefit? When you can answer “yes” to both those questions, you are well-prepared to answer the “so-what” of your sermon.
Brothers, let’s not flit away our Sunday’s giving our people pre-sermons. Let’s preach full sermons that point people to the all-sufficient Christ. It is my prayer that churches are filled this Sunday with men boldly preaching God’s Word and not their own opinions about the Word. Preach in such a way that the people that reject your main point will have to deal with God. Likewise proclaim Christ in such a way that those that heed will greatly benefit.