Preaching Articles

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.

Tullian Tchividjian is the Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A Florida native, he is a visiting professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and a grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham.

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Prescott Jay Erwin

commented on Dec 5, 2011

Did Jesus preach the Gospel? Did He "successfully" preach the Gospel? What, then, should we say about Tullian's standard: "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."

David Buffaloe

commented on Dec 5, 2011

This is the type of hogwash that is destroying the Church. "Jesus did it all, so I need do nothing". Antinomianism plagues the Church in America. Jesus told the rich young ruler, "Sell all you have, give to the poor, and follow Me." He told the disciples "Follow Me". He told the disciples in the crowd "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you will not have life", and the Bible says that many left and never followed Him again (John 6:66). Genuine salvation recognizes that Christ is Lord and follows Him. Jesus said that we are to both HEAR and DO His Word, else there is no value. This type of hogwash doesn't pass the smell test.

Prescott Jay Erwin

commented on Dec 5, 2011

Did Peter preach the Gospel in Acts 2? Did he preach it "successfully" when the response of those congregated was, "What must we do?"

Prescott Jay Erwin

commented on Dec 5, 2011

This seems prima facia incongruent. At the very core, Tullian IS asking the people to do AT LEAST one thing every time he preaches: believe. People are coming to our various church meetings because they want to know what they MUST do to be saved, what they SHOULD do now that they are saved, what they CAN do to go deeper.

Ryan Donoho

commented on Dec 5, 2011

What is the gospel that we're preaching, and how is it forming us and the people we preach to? Is the good news only that I am justified by faith and now get to enjoy heaven when I die or Jesus comes back? Or could it be the good news is more robust than that, and also includes an inbreaking Kingdom of Heaven that is slowly growing in our midst through the work of God in the Church? We live in a broken world and there is still much to do. Much like the apostle Paul said, if I'm still here on Earth, then God's got work for me to do. (Philippians 1:22-26)

Chaplain Shawn Kennedy

commented on Dec 5, 2011

Not quite sure what the author is trying to say, but I don't think we can repeatedly preach grace and expect it to sink in, especially when our society (including the church) has such vague understanding of grace. This also doesn't jive with Matt:25, either. Also don't care whose grandson he is!

Michael Durst

commented on Dec 5, 2011

I might just make one note on a different theme than those already mentioned. When does Tullian observe the sabbath? He outlined for us his work week from Monday through Saturday, and as pastors I believe we recognize that Sunday is not a day of rest for us. The last thing a young preacher needs to read about is someone "famous" who works every day of the week...not a good example.

Prescott Jay Erwin

commented on Dec 5, 2011

"I ask my research assistant to..."

Rodney Shanner

commented on Dec 5, 2011

Tullian has brought into sharp focus a difficult issue, avoiding works-righteousness without disregarding holy living. Grace and faith are not intended to make holy living unnecessary. Yet, none of our holy living is adequate to save us. Even our repentance needs repenting of. In his sermon, "The Law Established By Faith" (Discourse II), Wesley wrote, by "confidence in a pardoning God, we establish his law in our own hearts". Thus, assurance of God's pardoning love inclines us to holy living. That said, all holy living falls short of God's glory. This matter is a most difficult issue to resolve. However, I think it is best to err on the side of grace which understood as God's pardoning love gives rise to holy living, which will always be imperfect until Heaven.

Trevor Payton

commented on Dec 5, 2011

??? How are you guys, as ministers of the gospel, coming at him like this? Read Luther and Wesley and Calvin and Jones and the puritans and you'll hear this all over the place. The way we grow in sanctification (ie, in being and doing what God has called us to be and do) is by continually feeding on our justification. Just telling people to do more and try harder will only turn them into Pharisees (I did it!) or failures (I can't)...it won't turn them into disciples. Search "Why I Hate Religion" by Driscoll on Youtube for a start. And by the way, this preacher does clearly preach what we are called to do...for the entire first half of the sermon, when he preaches the law. Then, after he's preached the law and everything that the text is telling them to do, he points out that their sinful human hearts will stymie them at every turn, and that they need someone else to do it for them or it would never get done. That's when the wonder and beauty of the gospel come in, where the people see the finished work of Christ applied to them. Jesus IS their righteousness, Jesus IS their salvation, their renewal, their new life. It is when we see our every need and every hope met in Christ that we grow in faith and our lives begin to change...not until then. I hope that, with this in mind, you can re-read what Tullian has written/said.

Sterling Franklin

commented on Dec 5, 2011

I'm glad he mentioned the Holy Spirit at the end, I was getting scared.

Derrick Tuper

commented on Dec 5, 2011

I think this rings true if your sermons are going to be evangelistic in nature. But if they are going to be discipleship sermons, spiritual growth sermons, then there needs to be a healthy mixture of both. This is what I need to do; but it can only be done by the strength that Jesus provides. Jesus is the potter, we are the clay but we play a part in the molding process. We need to be pliable. God will ask things of us. Yes, there's no way we could be transformed without the power of the Holy Spirit but He isn't going to do all the work. All the work of salvation has been done by Jesus (except our response to it), but the work of sanctification requires our efforts; in His power. I would believe Tullian knows this but just has not made that clear in this article.

Ethelda Chikumbo

commented on Dec 5, 2011

I am not in total agreement of what Tullian just wrote. The people need to be given a balanced gospel.We all understand God's grace is sufficient but at the same time we need to maintain holy lives and stay in the presence of God.If we tell people, do nothing, God's grace is sufficient, then we will kill what we have planted.We are saved not by our works but by grace, BUT for us to stay in the presence of God we need to do something.We need to abide in Jesus,we need to eat the bread of life,we need to drink of the living water,we need to love ,we need to take care of the disadvantaged,we need to meditate on the word day and night etc. There are so many DOs in the bible. People give their lives to Jesus but if they are not led in the right direction,they will become totally confused and might end up getting lost.

Everest Alexander

commented on Dec 6, 2011

From most of the comments I've read I realize that there's a gross misunderstanding of the message Pastor Tchividjian is communicating. The victorious Christian life is neither a life of inaction nor self-directed action. It is rather, a life of action motivated by grace and directed by God! This is what I received from what he was saying, which is 100 percent biblically accurate!

Everest Alexander

commented on Dec 6, 2011

There's nothing wrong in preaching holiness and expecting folks to live holy but there's everything wrong with trying to live holy through your own ability. True holy living is an effortless, natural by-product of understanding and believing in Jesus' finished work of Grace! If at anytime you find yourself TRYING to live holy, STOP... you've already failed! Holy living is born out of right believing. When it comes to holiness, you either believe or believe not... there is no Try!

Trevor Payton

commented on Dec 6, 2011

Everest, I think you're exactly right! By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit we cooperate with God in the work of our sanctification...but it's his work, and he's the one who makes us holy. And so, out of adoration and gratitude for what he's done (and is doing) for us, we give our all, we pour out our lives in service, we seek to be holy, etc. We do what we see him doing. But we need to recognize that it's God who's doing it, not us. Paul and Apollos do their thing, but it's GOD who gives the increase. Once we start trying to bring the increase, we're getting in the way and turning ourselves into Pharisees.

Leo House

commented on Dec 6, 2011

The role of the pastor is to equip the saints, Peter, Paul, John and James all wrote letters to churches letting them know how they were (and we are) to respond to the grace that God has poured out, yes we are under grace and not law but that does not mean that we are not required to let the flock know that there are ways in which we are to live, the litmus test is this, is your flock growing spiritually.

Stan Roam

commented on Dec 6, 2011

Christ saves and maintains, but we are to accommodate sanctification with holiness!!! Eph. 2:8-9.

Prescott Jay Erwin

commented on Dec 6, 2011

What Tchividjian has to say here may be good with regard to the focus of his book, Jesus Nothing = Everything, in which he reacts against moralistic and self-help preaching that "divorces obligations from gospel declarations," thus turning Christian living into legalistic obeisance. Unfortunately, many -- if not most -- who read this article will not have read the book, thus they will come away with the impression most here have. Tchividjian and the SC editor of this article have failed to clarify that. The implication here is that Tchividjian doesn't preach AT ALL about ANYTHING believers are to do EVER because Jesus has already done EVERYTHING, which is not biblical. There's too much in the Gospels and Epistles that calls believers live in a manner of the calling with which we have been called to make such a case. None of what we're called to do or abstain from doing is intended to in any way achieve, add to, or detract from the finished work of Christ, by which the Lord justifies us and imputes to us Christ?s righteousness; nevertheless, we are to preach it. We're to exhort, reprove, rebuke, and encourage. When Tchividjian talks about his "litmus test" and "the grid by which [he] preach[es]," he gives the impression that he's either not preaching the whole gospel or that he's preaching only salvation messages. Perhaps what's wrong here has more to do with the SC editor than with Tchividjian.

Ron Hoffmann

commented on Dec 6, 2011

Praise God for another brother who understands the importance of making a clear stand for the doctrine of grace! If salvation is not through God's grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone - we're all going to hell!! I'm astonished that their are brother's here advocating another Gospel, which Paul said in not "another" (Gal. 1) because there is only one. I understand the need for Christians to live a holy life, and the poor state of godliness in the Church today. But the answer is not to "front load" the Gospel with "works righteousness" or "back load the Gospel" with "persevering obedience." The answer is to keep the Gospel FREE from works, and challenge BELIEVERS to respond to the call of discipleship! The Lordship of Christ is a precious truth to those who know His love and are indwelt by His Spirit. That is why Paul wrote his inspired epistles with the strategy of teaching believers who they are in Christ by God's grace in the first half, and THEN calling them to obedience because they have received God's grace and mercy through Christ. The order is, a secure salvation FIRST, and then a progressing sanctification SECOND. Failure to preach those clearly and forcefully is leading us into a weak form of "religious" people who do not understand grace and are not thankful to the Savior sufficiently to surrender to Him their lives.

Prescott Jay Erwin

commented on Dec 6, 2011

"...THEN calling them to obedience because they have received God's grace and mercy through Christ." Right, Bro. Ron. What many here have discovered is that the second part seems to be missing in the presentation of Tchividjian's approach. It's confusing.

Trevor Payton

commented on Dec 6, 2011

Well said, Ron! Thank you for helping to clarify the issue here.

Hector De La Rosa

commented on Jun 18, 2012

For the past 37 years or so, I've worked hard at being a christian. I've heard my share. People need to learn to trust " the finished work of Christ" so they can grow in Christ!

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