What Makes a Sermon ‘Good’? An Interview With Jeff Jones and Jeff Manning (Part II of II)

by Jacob Riggs

“The preacher . . . is the only one who is in a position to deal with the greatest need of the world” (Martyn Lloyd-JonesPreaching and Preachers40).

In this post, we continue our interview with Jeff Jones and Jeff Manning. To see Part I, click here.

  1. Can and does God use “preaching” that neglects or misinterprets the text? If so, why is it still important to proclaim what the original author meant?

Jones: In Numbers 22, God used a donkey, and that is close to how I feel about preachers who neglect, misrepresent, or are too lazy to prepare themselves to teach adequately what a text is actually saying. Yet I believe God is God and can use the mess man can make.

With that being said, the most important responsibility the man of God has is to divide rightly the truth of God’s Word. When people are attempting to tear down the authority of God’s Word, they will say, “Preachers can make the Bible say anything they want it to.” This statement is untrue if the preacher would consistently answer four questions. Who is the writer? Who is he writing to? What do the verses above and below our text say? What does the Bible consistently teach about this subject? To take a passage out of context is to misrepresent an inspired truth that God has given to man.

Manning: The short answer is yes, but then again, God has also used talking donkeys to accomplish His will! Just because God is incredibly gracious and often blesses His Word despite our weaknesses and failures in proclaiming it does not excuse a preacher’s mishandling of that Word. For any sermon to qualify as Biblical, it must have a Biblical text. The text must not be a springboard from which the preacher shares his positions or opinions, and neither should it be a passage that he spiritualizes or allegorizes to suit his own fancied imagination.

Listeners shouldn’t care what the preacher thinks or how creative he is; they should only care about what God thinks! A Biblical text can’t possibly mean something different today from when Paul or Peter originally wrote it. The applications certainly change, but the meaning never does. Therefore, the preacher’s first task is to determine the original meaning of his text(s). Until that arduous but rewarding task is successfully completed, the preacher is not ready to enter any pulpit and preach with Biblical authority.

  1. I’ve heard people describe preaching as “explaining the Bible.” That definition seems inadequate to me. Is the point of preaching simply for people to learn and remember new information about the Bible? Why or why not?

Jones: I agree with you completely; the definition lacks all of the approaches we can take for sermon design.

Manning: No! The goal of preaching is not to equip our people to answer Biblical trivia at the next church social, but to stir them, through the work of the God’s Spirit, to live lives in humble obedience to God for the glory of Jesus Christ. Explanation of Biblical texts is indispensable, but if it’s the singular goal, folks could stay home and read a Bible commentary. Explanation without application equals a boring presentation of Bible truth. We must always address the “so what?” of our preaching texts, not just the “what does this mean?”

  1. Iain Murray, author of several biographies of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, said that by the end of Lloyd-Jones’s sermons, the hearer would often forget that it was Lloyd-Jones preaching to them. His point is that God’s power through the Spirit would take over by then. How important is the presence of God in preaching?

Jones: What Murray is referring to is the difference in giving a speech and preaching a sermon. We in and of ourselves do not have the power to change anyone. The most gifted of preachers—those who have the ability to hold a congregation wide awake and spellbound until the end of the sermon—will not accomplish anything of lasting value if the Holy Spirit is not at work when we preach. When we as preachers and pastors take to our pulpits, we depend upon the Holy Spirit to be preaching on the inside while we are obeying Him in teaching His truth on the outside.

In our personal walk with God we must ask the Holy Spirit to use our feeble attempts to declare His truth. In my meditation and prayer time, I daily ask the Holy Spirit to use my words as I teach and preach His truth. We are wasting our time and the time of those we preach to without the presence of God in our preaching. We are preaching for faith!

Manning: It’s indispensable. When I built a fence in my backyard, I used a power augur to drill the holes (12” in diameter and 3’ deep—to withstand a hurricane!). Without it, the work would have been exponentially more difficult, but possible. Not only would the “job” we have of preaching the gospel be exponentially more challenging without the Spirit’s help, it would be impossible! Or, as the song goes, “All is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down.” Therefore, we must diligently and persistently seek the Lord’s face and ask Him to do through His Spirit what only He can do during the preaching event (cf. Eph. 6.19-20).

  1. What would you say to a pastor who is discouraged about the state of his preaching and his congregation’s receptivity to it?

Jones: I would ask the preacher to look inward first and make sure things are where they should be between him and God. Every preaching situation has four ingredients when a man stands up to preach: the preacher, the sermon, the Scripture, and the audience. Theoretically, the one who gives God’s servants the most problem is the first one, the preacher! We can’t ask God to use us as a dirty vessel.

Ultimately we preach to an audience of one. (If we please Him, it matters not whom we displease; yet if we displease Him, it matters not whom we please.) I would challenge the preacher to do the very best job he could in studying to prepare sermons. Doing things such as having established study times and giving time for the text to get a hold of him during the week before preaching will always help.

I would remind him that the job God has called him to do is too important for what are called “Saturday Night Specials.” Study, plan, and prepare ahead. People can tell when you have paid the price in your study. Ultimately, the sheep desire to go where they are fed. Let’s do our very best to feed God’s flock.

Manning: Especially since this ‘interview’ is being conducted during the NCAA’s March Madness, heed Jim Valvano’s advice: “Don’t give up!” Quality preaching is hard work (2 Tim. 5.17). If God has truly called you, then God has gifted you. However, your giftedness must be honed and refined. The greatest artists, musicians, and athletes of any era spend enormous hours practicing their craft. The preacher should be no different.

Watch yourself preaching—yes, that will prove more painful than a root canal—but you may discover any number of distracting mannerisms that are equally painful for your listeners. Ask the Lord to help you overcome them. Listen to your sermons. Is there voice variance, both with volume and tone? Do you stammer? Is your sermon filled with “uh,” “um,” “ah,” etc.? Ask the Lord to help you eliminate them. Record yourself preaching a sermon before you actually preach it to your congregation. Then listen to yourself and see if your thoughts flow smoothly, if your introduction is captivating, if your explanations of the text are clear, if your illustrations help provide clarity, etc.

Find a pastoral mentor, someone who can act as a preaching coach. Ask him to listen/watch your sermons and provide loving criticism. Ask him to read what you’re planning to preach and offer suggestions for how the sermon can be improved. Listen to excellent expositors. Learn from them without trying to imitate them. Try fully scripting your sermons; i.e., writing out every word you plan to say. This helps provide better clarity of thought for your sermon—and that’s something even the apostle Paul desired (Col. 4.3-4). Leave Peter, Paul, and Moses out of your sermon outlines! This will help to maintain relevancy for your listeners as they live their lives in the twenty-first century, and not the first.

  1. In conclusion, give us three recommended resources for becoming a better preacher.

Jones:

For the beginner: A Practical Guide to Sermon Preparation by Jerry Vines

A favorite: Anointed Expository Preaching by Stephen F. Olford

Also: The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching by Wayne McDill

Manning:

Classics

Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson

Between Two Worlds by John Stott
Preaching and Preachers by Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Rediscovering Expository Preaching by John MacArthur

Recent works

Saving Eutychus by Gary Millar and Phil Campbell
Engaging Exposition by Daniel Akin, William Curtis, and Stephen Rummage
Preaching by Tim Keller

_______________

Jeff Jones has been Pastor of Hilltop Church in Fuquay Varina, NC since 1996. He received a Bachelor’s degree from Southeastern Free Will Baptist College in 1987 and a Master of Ministry from Bob Jones University in 2010. He is an adjunct homiletics professor at Southeastern Free Will Baptist College. Follow Pastor Jones on Twitter: @JeffBJones.

Jeff Manning has been on staff at Unity Church in Greenville, NC since 1990 and has been Senior Pastor since 1991. His Bachelor’s degree is from Welch College (1986), his Master of Divinity is from Bob Jones University (1990), and his Doctorate in Ministry is from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (2002). Follow Dr. Manning on Twitter: @JeffManning11.

Jacob Riggs has been pastoring at Central Oaks Community Church in Royal Oak, MI since 2013. He graduated from Welch College with a Bachelor’s degree in 2008 and from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity in 2015.

Author: Guest

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4 Comments

  1. Excellent interview! I really appreciate hearing these two men, that I highly respect, reflect on preaching.

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks for your kind words, Brian, and kudos to Jacob Riggs for spearheading the interview. Blessings on you and yours as you seek to advance God’s kingdom.

      Post a Reply
  2. Jacob, excellent, thoughtful questions, showing your understanding of the subject and drawing out essential, helpful instruction from the Bros. Jeff.

    It is a great encouragement that Bro. Jones and Bro. Manning are investing themselves in the training of many of the next generation of our preachers.

    I believe this has been one of the HSF’s best contributions.

    Post a Reply
    • Thank you for your faithfulness over the years Mr. Frank! May God give you fruit for your efforts!

      Post a Reply

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