Be a Better Preacher

by Dr. Sinclair B. Ferguson

Listening to or reading the reflections of others on preaching is, for most preachers, inherently interesting and stimulating (whether positively or negatively). These reflections then are offered in the spirit of the Golden Rule, and only because the Editor is a long-standing friend!

Forty years exactly have passed since my first sermon in the context of a Sunday service. Four decades is a long time to have amassed occasions when going to the church door after preaching is the last thing one wants to do—even if one loves the congregation (sometimes precisely because one loves the congregation and therefore the sense of failure is all the greater!). How often have I had to ask myself “How is it possible to have done this thousands of times and still not do it properly?”

Yes, I know how to talk myself out of that mood! Everything from “It’s faithfulness, not skill, that really matters”; “How you feel has nothing to do with it!”; “Remember you’re sowing seed.” “It’s ultimately the Lord who preaches the word into people’s hearts, not you.” All true. Yet we are responsible to make progress as preachers, indeed evident and visible, or at least audible progress (1 Tim. 4:13 , 15 is an instructive and searching word in this respect!).

All of this led me while traveling one day to reflect on this: What ten commandments, what rule of preaching-life, do I wish someone had written for me to provide direction, shape, ground rules, that might have helped me keep going in the right direction and gaining momentum in ministry along the way?

Once one begins thinking about this, whatever Ten Commandments one comes up with, it becomes obvious that this is an inexhaustible theme. My friend, the Editor, could easily run his journal for a year with a whole series of “My Ten Commandments for Preaching.” I offer these ten, not as infallible, but as the fruit of a few minutes of quiet reflection on a plane journey.

1. Know your Bible better. Often at the end of a Lord’s Day, or a Conference, the thought strikes me again: “If you only knew your Bible better you would have been a lot more help to the people.” I teach at a seminary whose founder stated that its goal was “to produce experts in the Bible.” Alas I was not educated in an institution that had anything remotely resembling that goal. The result? Life has been an ongoing “teach yourself while you play catch-up.” At the end of the day seminaries exist not to give authoritative line-by-line interpretations of the whole of Scripture but to provide tools to enable its graduates to do that. That is why, in many ways, it is the work we do, the conversations we have, the churches we attend, the preaching under which we sit, that make or break our ministries. This is not “do it yourself” but we ourselves need to do it.

As an observer as well as a practitioner of preaching, I am troubled and perplexed by hearing men with wonderful equipment, humanly speaking (ability to speak, charismatic personality and so on) who seem to be incapable of simply preaching the Scriptures. Somehow they have not first invaded and gripped them.

I must not be an illiterate. But I do need to be homo unius libri—a man of one Book. The widow of a dear friend once told me that her husband wore out his Bible during the last year of his life. “He devoured it like a novel” she said. Be a Bible devourer!

2. Be a man of prayer. I mean this with respect to preaching. Not only in the sense that I should pray before I begin my preparation, but in the sense that my preparation is itself a communion in prayer with God in and through his word. Whatever did the apostles mean by saying that they needed to devote themselves “to prayer and the ministry of the word”—and why that order?

My own feeling is that in the tradition of our pastoral textbooks we have over-individualized this. The apostles (one may surmise) really meant “we”—not “I, Peter” or “I, John” but “We, Peter, John, James, Thomas, Andrew . . . together.”

Is it a misreading of the situation to suspect that preachers hide the desperate need of prayer for the preaching, and their personal need? By contrast, reflect on Paul’s appeals. And remember Spurgeon’s bon mot when asked about the secret of his ministry: “My people pray for me.”

Reflecting on this reminds me of one moment in the middle of an address at a conference for pastors when the bubble above my head contained the words “You are making a complete and total hash of this,” but as my eyes then refocused on the men in front of me they seemed like thirsty souls drinking in cool refreshing water, and their eyes all seemed to be fixed on the water carrier I was holding! Then the above-the-head-bubble filled with other words: “I remember now, how I urged the congregation at home to pray for these brethren and for the ministry of the word. They have been praying.”

Alas for me if I don’t see the need for prayer or for encouraging and teaching my people to see its importance. I may do well (I have done well enough thus far, have I not?) . . . but not with eternal fruit.

3. Don’t Lose Sight of Christ. Me? Yes, me. This is an important principle in too many dimensions fully to expound here. One must suffice. Know, and therefore preach “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2 ). That is a text far easier to preach as the first sermon in a ministry than it is to preach as the final sermon.

What do I mean? Perhaps the point can be put sharply, even provocatively in this way: Systematic Exposition did not die on the Cross for us; nor did Biblical Theology, nor even Systematic Theology or Hermeneutics, or whatever else we deem important as those who handle the exposition of Scripture. I have heard all of these in preaching . . . without a center in the person of the Lord Jesus.

Paradoxically not even the systematic preaching through one of the Gospels guarantees Christ-crucified centered preaching. Too often preaching on the Gospels takes what I whimsically think of as the “Find Waldo Approach.” The underlying question in the sermon is “Where are you to be found in this story?” (are you Martha or Mary, James and John, Peter, the grateful leper . . .?). The question “Where, Who and What is Jesus in this story? Tends to be marginalized.

The truth is it is far easier to preach about Mary, Martha, James, John, or Peter than it is about Christ. It is far easier to preach even about the darkness of sin and the human heart than to preach Christ. Plus my bookshelves are groaning with literature on Mary, Martha . . . the good life, the family life, the Spirit-filled life, the parenting life, the damaged self life . . . but most of us have only a few inches of shelf space on the person and work of Christ himself.

Am I absolutely at my best when talking about him, or about us?

4. Be deeply Trinitarian. Surely we are? At least in some of our churches not a Lord’s Day passes without the congregation confessing one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But as is commonly recognized Western Christianity has often had a special tendency to either an explicit or a pragmatic Unitarianism, be it of the Father (Liberalism, for all practical purposes), the Son (Evangelicalism, perhaps not least in its reactions against Liberalism), or the Spirit (Charismaticism with its reaction to both of the previous).

This is, doubtless, a caricature. But my concern here arises from a sense that Bible-believing preachers (as well as others) continue to think of the Trinity as the most speculative and therefore the least practical of all doctrines. After all, what can you “do” as a result of hearing preaching that emphasizes God as Trinity? Well, at least inwardly if not outwardly, fall down in prostrate worship that the God whose being is so ineffable, so incomprehensible to my mental math, seeks fellowship with us!

I sometimes wonder if it is failure here that has led to churches actually to believe it when they are told by “church analysts” and the like that “the thing your church does best is worship . . . small groups, well you need to work on that . . ..” Doesn’t that verge on blasphemy? (Verge on it? There is surely only One who can assess the quality of our worship. This approach confuses aesthetics with adoration).

John’s Gospel suggests to us that one of the deepest burdens on our Lord’s heart during his last hours with his disciples was to help them understand that God’s being as Trinity is the heart of what makes the gospel both possible and actual, and that it is knowing him as such that forms the very lifeblood of the life of faith (cf. John chapter 13-17). Read Paul with this in mind and it becomes obvious how profoundly woven into the warp and woof of his gospel his understanding of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is.

Our people need to know that, through the Spirit, their fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. Would they know that from my preaching?

5. Use your Imagination. Does this not contradict the immediately preceding observations that the truth of the Trinity should not be thought of as speculative metaphysics? No. Rather it is simply to state what the preaching masters of the centuries have either explicitly written, or at least by example, implied. All good preaching involves the use of the imagination. No great preacher has ever lacked imagination. Perhaps we might go so far as to say it is simply an exhortation to love the Lord our God with all of our . . . mind . . . and our neighbor as ourselves.

Scripture itself suggests that there are many different kinds of imagination—hence the different genre in which the word of God is expressed (poetry, historical narrative, dialogue, monologue, history, vision and so on). No two biblical authors had identical imaginations. It is doubtful if Ezekiel could have written Proverbs, for example!

What do we mean by “imagination”? Our dictionaries give a series of definitions. Common to them all seems to be the ability to “think outside of oneself,” “to be able to see or conceive the same thing in a different way.” In some definitions the ideas of the ability to contrive, exercising resourcefulness, the mind’s creative power, are among the nuanced meanings of the word.

Imagination in preaching means being able to understand the truth well enough to translate or transpose it into another kind of language or musical key in order to present the same truth in a way that enables others to see it, understand its significance, feel its power—to do so in a way that gets under the skin, breaks through the barriers, grips the mind, will and affections so that they not only understand the word used but feel their truth and power.

Luther did this by the sheer dramatic forcefulness of his speech. Whitefield did it by his use of dramatic expression (overdid it, in the view of some). Calvin—perhaps surprisingly—did it too by the extraordinarily earthed-in-Geneva-life language in which he expressed himself. So an overwhelming Luther-personality, a dramatic preacher with Whitefieldian gifts of story-telling and voice (didn’t David Garrick say he’d give anything to be able to say “Mesopotamia” the way George Whitefield did?), a deeply scholarly, retiring, reluctant preacher—all did it, albeit in very different ways. They saw and heard the word of God as it might enter the world of their hearers and convert and edify them.

What is the secret here? It is, surely, learning to preach the word to yourself, from its context into your context, to make concrete in the realities of our lives the truth that came historically to others’ lives. This is why the old masters used to speak about sermons going from their lips with power only when they had first come to their own hearts with power.

All of which leads us from the fifth commandment back to where we started. Only immersion in Scripture enables us to preach it this way. Therein lies the difference between preaching that is about the Bible and its message and preaching that seems to come right out of the Bible with a “thus says the Lord” ring of authenticity and authority.

This is, surely, a good place to end the “first table” of these Commandments for Preachers. Now it is time to go and soak ourselves in Scripture to get ready for the “second table.”

The first part of this “Preacher’s Decalogue” reflected on five commandments that I thought might helpfully have guided me from early days in ministry. Unlike the true Decalogue, these “commandments” make no claim to either inspiration or They are the reflections of the moment. More prolonged reflection, or the stimulated reflection of others, might well produce a more coherent and perhaps more salutary list.

The “first table” of the “Preacher’s Decalogue” was as follows:

(1) Get to know your Bible better; (2) Be a man of prayer; (3) Don’t lose sight of Christ; (4) Be more deeply Trinitarian; (5) Use your imagination.

We turn now to:

6. Speak much of sin and grace. In his exposition of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Martin Luther insightfully used the words of Jeremiah’s call:

The sum total of this epistle is to destroy, root out, and bring to naught all carnal wisdom . . . All that is in us is to be rooted out, pulled down, destroyed, and thrown down, i.e. all that delights us because it comes from us and is found in us; but all that is from outside of us and in Christ is to be built up and planted

If that is true of Paul’s “preaching” in Romans, it ought to be true of ours as well. Sin and grace should be the downbeat and the upbeat that run through all our exposition.

But there are some cautions. Preaching on sin must unmask the presence of sin, and undeceive about the nature of sin, as well as underline the danger of sin.

This is not the same thing as hammering a congregation against the back wall of the “sanctuary” with a tirade! That requires little more than high levels of emotion. A genuine, ultimately saving, unmasking and undeceiving of the human heart is more demanding exegetically and spiritually. For what is in view here is the skilled work of a surgeon—opening a wound, exposing the cause of the patient’s sickness, cutting away the destructive malignancies, all in order to heal and restore to life.

Doubtless people need warnings against the evils of contemporary society (abortion, apostasy in the visible church, etc). But we cannot build a ministry, nor healthy Christians, on a diet of fulminating against the world. No; rather we do this by seeing the Scriptures expose the sin in our own hearts, undeceive us about ourselves, root out the poison that remains in our own hearts—and then helping our people to do the same “by the open statement of the truth” ( 2 Cor. 4:2 ).

There is only one safe way to do this. Spiritual surgery must be done within the context of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Only by seeing our sin do we come to see the need for and wonder of grace. But exposing sin is not the same thing as unveiling and applying grace. We must be familiar with and exponents of its multifaceted power, and know how to apply it to a variety of spiritual conditions.

Truth to tell, exposing sin is easier than applying grace; for, alas, we are more intimate with the former than we sometimes are with the latter. Therein lies our weakness.

7. Use “the plain style”. This is a familiar enough expression in the history of preaching. It is associated particularly with the contrast between the literary eloquence of the High Anglican preaching tradition and the new “plain style” of the Puritans in the 16th and 17th centuries. William Perkins’s The Arte of Prophesying served as the first textbook in this school.

But this seventh commandment is not insisting per se that we should all preach like the Puritans. Indeed acquaintance with the Puritans themselves would underline for us that they did not all preach as if they had been cloned from William Perkins! But they did have one thing in common: plain speech which they believed Paul commended and should be a leading characteristic of all preaching. (2 Cor 6:7 , cf. 2 Cor 4:2 ).

There are many ways this principle applies. Do not make eloquence the thing for which you are best known as a preacher; make sure you get the point of the passage you are preaching, and that you make it clear and express its power. True evangelical eloquence will take care of itself. Despite Charles Hodge’s reservations, Archibald Alexander was in general right in urging students to pay attention to the power of biblical ideas, and the words used in preaching will take care of themselves.

The “masters” of clear style can teach us here. Paradoxically, in this context, two of them were themselves Anglicans.

C. S. Lewis’s counsel on writing applies equally to preaching: Use language that makes clear what you really mean; prefer plain words that are direct to long words that are vague. Avoid abstract words when you can use concrete. Don’t use adjectives to tell us how you want us to feel—make us feel that by what you say! Don’t use words that are too big for their subject. Don’t use “infinitely” when you mean “very”, otherwise you will have no word left when you really do mean infinite!

In a similar vein, here is J.C. Ryle’s counsel: Have a clear knowledge of what you want to say. Use simple words. Employ a simple sentence structure. Preach as though you had asthma! Be direct. Make sure you illustrate what you are talking about.

Of course, there are exceptions to these principles. But why would I think I am one? A brilliant surgeon may be able to perform his operation with poor instruments; so can the Holy Spirit. But since in preaching we are nurses in the operating room—our basic responsibility is to have clean, sharp, sterile scalpels for the Spirit to do his surgery.

8. Find your own voice. “Voice” here is used in the sense of personal style—“know yourself” if one can Christianize the wisdom of the philosophers.

That being said, finding a voice—in the literal sense—is also important. The good preacher who uses his voice badly is a rara avis indeed. Clearly affectation should be banned; nor are we actors whose voices are molded to the part that is to be played. But our creation as the image of God, creatures who speak—and speak his praises and his word—really requires us to do all we can with the natural resources the Lord has given us.

But it is “voice” in the metaphorical sense that is really in view here—our approach to preaching that makes it authentically “our” preaching and not a slavish imitation of someone else. Yes, we may—must—learn from others, positively and negatively. Further, it is always important when others preach to listen to them with both ears open: one for personal nourishment through the ministry of the word, but the other to try to detect the principles that make this preaching helpful to people.

We ought not to become clones. Some men never grow as preachers because the “preaching suit” they have borrowed does not actually fit them, or their gifts. Instead of becoming the outstanding expository, or redemptive historical, or God-centered, or whatever their hero may be, we may tie ourselves in knots and endanger our own unique giftedness by trying to use someone else’s paradigm, style or personality as a mold into which to squeeze ourselves. We become less than our true selves in Christ. The marriage of our personality with another’s preaching style can be a recipe for being dull and lifeless. So it is worth taking the time in an ongoing way to try to assess who and what we really are as preachers in terms of strengths and weaknesses.

9. Learn how to transition. There is a short (2 pages) but wonderful “must-read” section for preachers in the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for the Public Worship of God. Inter alia the Divines state that the preacher “In exhorting to duties . . . is, as he seeth cause, to teach also the means that help to the performance of them.” In contemporary speech this means that our preaching will answer the “how to?” question. This perhaps requires further explanation.

Many of us are weary of the pandemic of “how-to-ness” we find in much contemporary preaching. It is often little better than psychology (however helpful) with a little Christian polish; it is largely imperative without indicative, and in the last analysis becomes self and success oriented rather than sin and grace oriented. But there is a Reformed and, more importantly, biblical, emphasis on teaching how to transition from the old ways to the new way, from patterns of sin to patterns of holiness. It is not enough to stress the necessity, nor even the possibility, of this. We must teach people how this happens.

Years ago I took one of our sons for coaching from an old friend who had become a highly regarded teaching professional. My son was not, as they say, “getting on to the next level.” I could see that; but no longer had (if I ever had!) the golfing savoir faire to help. Enter my friend, and within the space of one coaching session the improvement in ball-striking was both visible and audible (there is something about the sound of a perfectly struck drive—or home run for that matter!).

This is, in part, what we are called to effect in our handling of the Scriptures—not “this is wrong… this is right”—but by our preaching to enable and effect the transition.

But how? For all its criticism of the pragmatism of evangelicalism, Reformed preaching is not always skilled in this area. Many are stronger on doctrine than on exegesis; and often stronger on soul-searching than on spiritual upbuilding. We need to learn how to expound the Scriptures in such a way that the very exposition empowers in our hearers the transitions from the old patterns of life in Adam to the new patterns of life in Christ.

How do we do this? To begin with by expounding the Scriptures in a way that makes clear that the indicatives of grace ground the imperatives of faith and obedience and also effect them. This we must learn to do in a way that brings out of the text how the text itself teaches how transformation takes place and how the power of the truth itself sanctifies (cf. Jn. 17:17 ).

This usually demands that we stay down in the text longer, more inquisitively than we sometimes do, asking the text: Show me how your indicatives effect your imperatives. Such study often yields the surprising (?) result: depth study of Scripture means that we are not left scurrying to the Christian bookshop or the journal on counseling in order to find out how the gospel changes lives . . . no, we have learned that the Scriptures themselves teach us the answer to the “What?” questions and also the answer to the “How to?” question.

Do we—far less our congregations—know “how to”? Have we told them they need to do it, but left them to their own devices rather than model it in our preaching?

Some years ago, at the end of a church conference, the local minister, whom I knew from his student days, said to me: “Just before I let you go tonight, will you do one last thing? Will you take me through the steps that are involved so that we learn to mortify sin?”

I was touched—that he would broach what was obviously a personal as well as pastoral concern with me; but perhaps even more so by his assumption that I would be able to help. (How often we who struggle are asked questions we ourselves need to answer!) He died not long afterwards, and I think of his question as his legacy to me, causing me again and again to see that we need to exhibit what John “Rabbi” Duncan of New College said was true of Jonathan Edwards’s preaching: “His doctrine was all application, and his application was all doctrine.”

The ministry that illustrates this, and that understands what is involved in how preaching transitions its hearers from the old to the new, will have what Thomas Boston once said about his own ministry, “a certain tincture” that people will recognize even if they cannot articulate or explain why it is so different and so helpful.

10. Love your people. John Newton wrote that his congregation would take almost anything from him, however painful, because they knew “I mean to do them good.”

This is a litmus test for our ministry. It means that my preparation is a more sacred enterprise than simply satisfying my own love of study; it means that my preaching will have characteristics about it, difficult to define but nevertheless sensed by my hearers, that reflect the apostolic principle:

What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor. 4:5 )

We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us (1 Thess. 2:8)

In Jesus Christ, the church’s One True Preacher, message and messenger are one. He is the Preacher, and also the message. That is not true of us. But, in union with Christ (and we preach “in Christ” as well as live and die “in Christ”) a coalescence of a lesser sort takes place: the truth of the message is conveyed by the preacher whose spirit is conformed to the grace of God in the message. How can it be otherwise when preaching involves “God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20 )? “A preacher's life” (wrote Thomas Brooks) “should be a commentary upon his doctrine; his practice should be the counterpane [counterpart] of his sermons. Heavenly doctrines should always be adorned with a heavenly life.”[1]

A “Preacher’s Decalogue” might be helpful; but at the end of the day we are nourished not by the commands of law but by the provisions of God’s grace in the gospel. It is as true of our preaching as of our living that what law cannot do, because of the weakness of our flesh, God accomplishes through Christ, in order to fulfill his commands in us by the Spirit.

May it be so for us! Then we will be able truly to sing:

Happy if with my latest breath,

I might but gasp his Name

Preach him to all, and cry in death

Behold, behold the Lamb


[1] Thomas Brooks, The Epistle Dedicatory to The Crown and Glory of Christianity, London, 1662.

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