SermonCentral: How can pastors evaluate their sermons to see if they're really preaching Jesus + nothing? What kind of litmus test can we take to make sure we get grace right in our preaching?
Tullian: The litmus test that I use for myself is that if people walk away from my sermons thinking more about what they need to do than what Jesus has already done, I’ve failed to preach the Gospel. The Gospel is the good news that Jesus has done for me what I could never do for myself. And a lot of preaching these days is “do more, try harder,” like you said. It’s behavior modification. We come to church expecting God to give us a to-do list or the preacher to give us a to-do list. As long as we are given a to-do list, we maintain some measure of control over our lives. Just tell me what to do.
This message of radical grace, that "it is finished," is difficult for the human heart, the sinful heart to grasp because we’re so afraid of control being wrestled out of our hands. So we come to church saying, “Pastor, my marriage is in trouble…my children are going off the deep end…my business is failing…I’m coming to you as the expert to tell me what to do to fix my own life…” And as a result, our lives get worse, not better, because we’re taking matters into our own hands.
So my job at the end of every sermon—and this is the grid by which I preach—I preach God’s law, and then I preach God’s Gospel. Both are good. The law diagnoses my need and shows me that my best is never good enough. So I’m always trying to help our people realize that they’re a lot worse than they realize and they’re a lot more incapable than they think they are. But the good news is that God is more than capable, that He’s already done everything we need for Him to do. He’s already secured in Christ everything we long for. So my job at the end of every sermon is to, in some way, shape, or form, encourage our people by saying, “Cheer up. You’re a lot worse off than you think you are, but God’s grace is infinitely larger than you could have ever hoped or imagined. It is finished.”
And what I’ve discovered is that the people who lean on "it is finished" most are the ones who end up being the most free and whose lives change the most. It’s the people who constantly demand to-do lists and then preachers who capitulate to that demand and give them to-do lists, those are the people who get worse. I’ve realized, and I’m only 39 years old, but I’ve realized the more I try to get better, the worse I get. I’m just realizing I am a narcissist. I think way too much about how I’m doing, if I’m doing it right, have I confessed every sin. In other words, I’m thinking much more about me and what I need to do than Jesus and what He’s already done. And as a result, I’m not getting better. I’m getting worse.
I’ve come to the realization that when I stop obsessing over my need to improve, that is improvement. When I stop obsessing narcissistically over my need to get better, that is what the Bible means by getting better. That’s why Paul was able to say at the end of his life, “I’m the worst guy that I know, and the work of grace in my life is that I’m free to tell you that.” I think the whole notion of what it means to progress in the Christian life has been radically misunderstood. Progress in the Christian life is not "I’m getter better and better and better…" Progress in the Christian life is, "I’m growing in my realization of just how bad I am and growing in my appreciation of just how much Jesus has done for me."
SC: Can you give me a quick overview of your preaching prep, what you do as a method or what that looks like for you during a week?
Tulian: I preach typically through books of the Bible. I’m usually asking the team of guys around me, “What do you think our church really needs to hear right now? Where are we? What do we really need to hear?” Then they’ll help me think through various books in the Bible that might be relevant for that particular season for the life of our church. Then I have a research assistant—so let’s say I’m preaching through Ecclesiastes, and I want to preach a fifteen-week series on the book of Ecclesiastes. I ask my research assistant to begin exploring the different resources out there. I give him a list of books and resources to summarize for me, and then together, we basically outline the entire series.
Once I have an outline of the entire series (and when I say outline, I don’t mean I’ve outlined every sermon already; I mean just a broad, general outline of the main point that I want to get across over this entire series) then I really go to work in terms of really beginning to think about what I’m going to say on Sunday. I begin thinking about that on Monday. Tuesday and Wednesday are really busy days for me, so I don’t think a whole lot about the sermon on Tuesday and Wednesday. I do a lot of my sort of “seed” thinking on Monday, and then when Thursday comes around, I start thinking more in terms of how I’m going to press the Gospel into people through this passage. I start consulting different sources, and my research assistant provides me with a weekly brief, 8-10 pages of things to think through and ways to approach this passage and preach the Gospel from this passage.
Then on Friday, I spend a couple of hours just putting some thoughts on paper, coming up with a basic sermon outline. I usually preach two-point sermons because my goal is to preach law and then Gospel, show us our need and then show us Christ’s vision specifically in unique ways. So my sermons are typically two points. I get that outline done on Friday and jot some thoughts down on paper.
Saturday’s my real workday. I’m pretty much holed up in my home, in my bedroom for four, five, six hours, depending on the difficulty of the passage. I basically put everything I want to say on paper. I do not preach from a manuscript, but I do pretty much write out almost everything I want to say, and I try to get that on two pages single-spaced just so that I have a basic idea of where I’m going. It helps when I’m going to preach it to write it out, and then when that process is over, I make some sermon notes out of those two pages.
I don’t practice a sermon beforehand. I don’t stand in front of a mirror and preach it to myself. I just get up on Sunday morning, and I trust that a lot of what I’m going to say is going to be extemporaneous. I have a basic idea of where I’m going to go, and I have thoughts written down, and I have certain sentences and quotes written out verbatim that I will read, but I also give a lot of room to the Holy Spirit to guide me and direct me in the moment as I’m looking into people’s eyes and into people’s faces and gauging how they’re coming along with me as I’m preaching.
As every preacher knows, our lives revolve around a weekly, public deadline. You just get into a rhythm. There is no right way to do it necessarily. I don’t think preachers need to spend 40 hours a week preparing sermons. I think if you have to spend 40 hours a week preparing for a passage, you don’t know the passage well enough to preach it. I’m certainly not championing the idea of just getting up and winging it either. What I’ve described is a process of preparation, but realizing that life and interaction with real people helps me prepare for sermons almost as much as sitting down with a hundred books like I do and writing things out. So I’ve got to give room for pastoral ministry to inform what I’m going to say.