What makes a good sermon? This is not easily answered, especially if resting on popular opinion. Many will say something to the effect of “if it convicts the heart”, or “moves someone to some action”. These things are very true, but many things other than biblical preaching can move someone to an action or bring about conviction of some sort (think of an example like “Biggest Loser”).
I want to look at 4 ways that preaching you hear can be ‘great’ by these definitions, but not biblical:
1. Typologizing (analogy in structure): Similar to allegorizing, the parallel is often drawn when the preacher has an O.T. text and feels obliged to refer in his sermon to the person of Christ, not the attempt to find Christ in the O.T. but the arbitrary manner in which this is done is many times suspect. For instance, trying to preach that Naomi’s care of Ruth becomes Christ’s care for his people, or Jacob’s wrestling at Peniel points toward Christ’s wrestling at Calvary, or Joseph’s sale to the Ishmaelite’s prefigures Christ being sold by Judas, etc. While this seems to be correct, because of the overriding desire to preach Christ, one must then resort, unintentionally, to some artifice or other in order to make the sermon Christocentric. But typology in and by itself cannot make a sermon Christocentric. When one disengages a text from the totality of redemptive history, he has robbed it of its Christological character and retains, at best, an edifying moral which contains nothing particularly Christian. For example if one could preach a Christocentric sermon on Joseph from a text in the Koran or the book of Mormon, or for that matter, one could dispense with a text entirely and preach a Christocentric sermon on any Christian who was ever persecuted. But when the Bible speaks of Joseph, he appears… as a certain particular believer who on the ‘road’ and in the framework of the one redemptive history had his unique place and significance. We do not have the right to make and multiply ‘types’. God has given them, and we must confine ourselves to the ones he has given.
2. Spiritualizing (timeless truths): By spiritualizing the events in the text is much easier to throw a bridge across the then – now gap, thereby opening the way for instant application. For example, the physical blindness of the two men in Matthew 9 becomes our spiritual blindness, the Cana wedding invitation to the earthly Jesus becomes our invitation to the heavenly Jesus, or in Matthew 8 the storm on the sea often receives an application having to do with the spiritual storms on the sea of life, etc. This spiritualization of the passages many times lead to edifying remarks and ideas, but they have nothing to do with the text. In spiritualizing, the choice of the passage and the parallel that is drawn is largely up to the preacher. Because of this, it is subjective and can hardly be distinguished from overt allegory. Moreover, since the text gives no warrant for it, it is an arbitrary way of making a text relevant for hearers today.
"This spiritualization of the passages many times lead to edifying remarks, but they have nothing to do with the text."
3. Moralizing (timeless ethical code): A sermon may be "moralistic" simply when the preacher places an undue emphasis on morals, when he doesn't consider the sermon complete unless it contains admonitions, exhortations for conduct, when, in season and out of season, and parroted his form the capstone of the sermon. Four instance, and 2 Samuel 18 when David receives word of the death of his son Absalom the preacher may take this seemingly obvious route and make a practical remark in the sermon such as; “this lamenting father is a warning call to all Christian parents to take the upbringing of their children seriously as long as they have the opportunity, lest they too must cry out their despair in a similar bitterness when the grave of their children is being dug and it is too late”. Of course it is not wrong For Christian parents to be considerate of and concerned with the upbringing of their children, but is that really the intent of the text in 2 Samuel 18? The assumption that every text contains exhortations for proper behavior forces the text a priori into a moral mold, which may or may not suit the text. The text is approached with the question: what conduct is advocated here? But suppose it is not the intent of the text to answer that question? The text frequently neither approves nor disapproves of a particular conduct; and even where it does approve, the problem remains and how far can we imitate that conduct today (think of Samuel hewing Agag into pieces). When a preacher moralizes a text, the content of the sermon is determined not by the text itself but by the preachers ingenuity. This ingenuity may tack a moral onto David here, another onto Jacob there, etc.; the sermon will be very ”practical”, but also very subjective and the choice of morals to be presented is largely left up to the preacher. And in the process the first and foremost question is forgotten: is this the intent of the text? The outcome of moralistic preaching tends to become legalistic; it issues imperatives without the divine indicative.
4. Psychologizing (soul of man remains the same): Psychologizing a text can happen by describing various ‘soul conditions’ in order to picture types of godliness, or to present illustrations for the well-known ‘doctrine of salvation’. For instance the text may speak of Elijah’s body, his physical posture in prayer, his clothes, and many other elements; and “no one” would think of abstracting, that information about his clothes in order to deliver a sermon on fashion. But many times preachers feel that they are allowed to lift Elijah’s soul and faith struggle, his quest and pains and doubt out of the total complex of ideas that together constitute this one episode in the one redemptive history, and use these elements for discourse on doubt, testing, unbelief, etc. The motivation for psychologizing a text is to present relevance to the audience, and it is certainly not to be scorned; but what is the cost? Does psychologizing do justice to the text?
Through these 4 different means (often called exemplary preaching), the preacher’s attempt to make a passage (particularly a historical passage) relevant to his audience (which of course is needed and laudable) does injustice to the text, the Word of God. “This attempt to gain immediate application is a homiletical short cut resulting in a hermeneutical short circuit.”
*Excerpts and ideas from: Sola Scriptura by Sydney Greidanus