The Three Pillars of a Sermon
By Tony Merida | May 22, 2023
Topic: Applied Theology—Homiletics—Theological Studies
Charles Dargan, the author of a classic work on the history of preaching, stated, “Christian preaching has its origin in ancient oratory, Hebrew prophecy, and the Christian gospel.”1 The rest of church history demonstrates the incorporation of these three origins, respecting each for its contribution. Preaching in the context of the local church has always been infused with sermonic elements derived from ancient rhetoric to persuade an audience. It has always been prophetic, saying, “Thus says the Lord,” as a passage is unfolded publicly. And it centers on the good news, without which we have nothing to preach (1 Cor. 15:14).
Of these three elements, it is worth highlighting some key points about public persuasion (or Christian rhetoric) to get at part of this question about modern modes of preaching. Augustine’s On Christian Rhetoric was one of the first preaching books. Augustine’s work reflected books like Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory and Aristotle’s On Rhetoric. Augustine taught the interpretive principles for preaching, including various styles suitable for particular subjects. He taught the speaker to teach, please, and persuade. According to Augustine, the manner of delivery should be related to the content delivered. He taught that the speaker should speak in a grand manner, trying to move reluctant people to action. The preacher should speak in a subdued manner when attempting to teach. And the preacher should speak in a moderate manner when praising something.
In today’s post-everything world,2 people bristle at the idea of “persuasion” because it smacks of authority, arrogance, and manipulation. But we should not avoid persuasion, since it is necessary in preaching. We are not manipulators; we are contenders for the faith (Jude 1:3). Theologically, the Holy Spirit is the ultimate and decisive persuader. However, this doesn’t prevent us from attempting to give sound reasons for belief in the gospel (Acts 17:1–4; 18:4), while avoiding disingenuous oratorical practices (1 Cor. 2:1–5).
A sermon differs from a lecture because the preacher tries to persuade people to change. A lecture typically transfers information. Sermons demand a response. These responses may differ, but there should always be a Christ-centered response. So how do you persuade the hearers?
“Sermons demand a response.”—Tony Merida
Aristotle provided a useful way for analyzing persuasive messages. He listed three essentials: logos, pathos, and ethos. Compelling preachers employ each of these three classical elements (1 Thess. 1:4–5).
This component is central to our task as preachers. We must proclaim the Word of God clearly. After one understands the text, it is important to have a dominant theme, and then to work at organizing the parts of the sermon logically in a way that re-emphasizes the dominant theme. Faithful preachers will think about how the parts of their sermon are related and will help people to see the relationship between the parts. Well-crafted manuscripts help immensely with these goals. This is a core focus in our preaching courses.
A final word about logos is that we should always believe in our subject. The old adage is true, “preach because you have something to say, not because you have to say something.” Good preachers pour over their notes before they preach until they believe their message is vitally important. D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones noted this need, saying that preaching is “logic on fire.”3
Pathos is critical because the congregation listens to the content and how the preacher says it. Pathos may be expressed in different ways: volume, intensity, joy, enthusiasm, tears, sincerity, and concern. The prophets and the apostles preached with various forms of pathos. Just a quick survey of each prophet or each apostle highlights the differences in style and delivery form. To preach without conviction and emotion communicates that one’s message is unimportant. But the simple gospel preached with passion changes lives. What we say is more important than how we say it, but how we say it is still crucial.
Credibility has always been vital for compelling preaching but may be even more important in today’s North American context, as we read of numerous pastoral scandals.4 The preacher’s life must display holiness, honesty, humility, and love. The Bible is replete with references to ethos (1 Thess. 2:7–8; Titus 2:7; 2 Cor. 6:3–4). Preachers must follow the biblical example and preach the gospel with their whole lives. Haddon Robinson rightly said, “The audience does not hear a sermon, they hear a person—they hear you.”5
More ministers are dismissed from congregations because of their lifestyle and relationship qualities than by the content of their sermons. We need to cultivate credibility to glorify God and, secondarily, preach with real ethos.
In summary, while times and seasons change and audiences differ, a preacher combining powerful logos, thrilling pathos, and genuine ethos will preach effectively to believers and unbelievers. This is a time-tested preaching method that modern preachers must learn and deploy to reach those who need the gospel.
- Charles Dargan, A History of Preaching, vol. 1. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1954), 14. ↩
- See Preaching to a Post-Everything World by Zack Eswine (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008). ↩
- D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Hachette: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998), 97. ↩
- Justin McCarthy, “U.S. Confidence in Organized Religion Remains Low,” Gallup, https://news.gallup.com/poll/259964/confidence-organized-religion-remains-low.aspx, accessed May 4, 2023. ↩
- Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 25–26. ↩