Posted by: Johnold Strey | August 9, 2009

Sermon Listening Skills

My wife recently wrote a post on her blog about last week’s WELS Convention.  The comment exchange that followed the original post talked a bit about preaching content.  So I chimed in with a comment about the sermon standards that Lutherans should have for their pastors, and some ways to listen to a sermon for its gospel content.  I’ve duplicated those comments here:

As for sermon critiques (in any church), you may consider the following. These suggestions come from Pastor Todd Wilken, host of the LCMS talk show, “Issues, Etc.” (

Ask the following three questions about the sermon:

  1. Was Jesus mentioned? (Not God, but specifically Jesus). If Jesus wasn’t mentioned, the sermon wasn’t about him.
  2. If Jesus was mentioned, was he the subject or object of the verbs? If Jesus is not the subject of the verbs, chances are the sermon isn’t really about him.
  3. If Jesus was mentioned and he is the subject of the verbs, what are the verbs? Is Jesus teaching, encouraging, coaching, training, directing, empowering? That’s law, not gospel. It might be law with a smile, but it’s still law. If Jesus forgiving, absolving, redeeming, suffering, dying, rising, justifying, atoning? That’s the gospel.

Wilken also suggests that the listener ask, “What did the preacher say my problem was, and what was the solution?” If my problem has to do with life enhancement, then chances are I’m not hearing a law-gospel sermon.

A third Wilken sermon testing tool is this: If the sermon makes sense without Jesus on the cross, it was not a Christian sermon.

I think many churchgoers may not realize that the gospel is not simply information. It is nourishment for my soul. If the gospel is only information, then once I learn it, I can move on and talk about something else, because “I know that already.” But if the gospel is nutrition for the soul, then I need to hear it often, even though I know it already. Then a passing reference to Jesus in a sermon about some other primary subject will not be sufficient (what I call the “shove-Jesus-in-there-somewhere sermon”). Then I will make Christ’s forgiveness in the gospel the goal of the sermon. Then I will bring in the gospel as richly and beautifully as I can.

One of my professors at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary said the following during my senior-year worship class: “A Lutheran preaches law, gospel, and then says, ‘Amen.’ A Protestant preaches law, gospel, and then says, ‘Part three.’” By that, he was not suggesting that Lutherans never preach sanctification. If the text calls for sanctification, one can hardly ignore what the Holy Spirit has said. But if the text is a law-gospel text, a Lutheran pastor need not feel that something is missing if he preaches the forgiveness of sins and then says “Amen” without giving specific directions for the Christian life. By preaching the gospel, he has in fact empowered the Christian life.

I’ll add one more thought. Many fine Lutherans I know believe they are hearing the gospel in sermons when they really haven’t. Now, on the one hand, we don’t want to be uncharitable and assume the worst about the preacher. But on the other hand, we ought not assume that because the preacher is of a particular denomination, WELS or otherwise, that the gospel was preached. I’ve had debates with family members who are convinced that Pastor So-and-So preached the gospel in a sermon where the gospel was absent. I think that may be a case of the listener, trained to think like a Lutheran, assumes he or she is hearing the gospel in a passing mention of Jesus or grace or love. A passing reference or pithy phrase may bring the gospel to mind for some hearers, but will the average person or the unchurched prospect be able to make that connection? And should gospel content be limited to “inside-lingo” that only confirmed Lutherans can understand?

Bottom line: Let’s encourage pastors toward high standards in gospel-content sermons. Hold their feet to the fire when they don’t (they have a sinful nature, too). Thank then when they do (they need the encouragement, too)!



  1. Your call to hold the pastor’s feet to the fire is important. Love demands it (for the pastor, for Jesus, and for those whom Jesus has redeemed). I have heard too many sermons — usually at pastors’ conferences! — where the pastor was certain he preached the gospel where, at best, one sentence qualified as gospel.

    Unfortunately, I have sinned against the pastor by lamenting the lack of gospel to others than to the pastor himself (which is hard to do when all around him are telling him what a great sermon it was).

    I suppose the problem is 1) we like the pastor and cannot bring ourselves to encourage better preaching, 2) we fill in the blanks because that is what the pastor meant to say, and/or 3) we prefer how well a pastor delivers a sermon over the content of that sermon.

    If we cannot recognize our faults, we will never remedy them.

    The world is starving for genuine Lutheran preaching and practice. Our Lord desires us to give it to them. May we expect/demand it from all of our pastors.



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