Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Good Sermon

Professor J.R.R. Tolkien
In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, entry 63 is addressed to his son Christopher Tolkien and dated 24 April 1944. The letter begins with reports about what the Professor ate for breakfast (toast and home-made marmalade) and the warm weather. But after awhile, he gets around to a topic that any pastor or preacher of the gospel could benefit from: what constitutes a good sermon.

"But as for sermons! They are bad, aren't they! Most of them from any point of view."

Have you ever heard a bad sermon? They're tough to sit through.

Tolkien offers two reasons for the problem of bad sermons, and one comment about what makes a real sermon.

First, he explains that delivering a good sermon requires art, and a bit of virtue and knowledge. His critique is that most preachers lack these things. Ouch! In other words, they bore their listeners with unprepared and ignorant remarks while showing off. When I was young, I once heard someone describe an unskilled preacher like this: "He couldn't preach his way out of a wet paper bag." Tolkien compares the bad preacher with a pretender who sits down at a piano to play, yet doesn't know a thing about the piano or maybe even music for that matter.
  • A good sermon requires preparation and training, because it is partly a performance.
For many people, these comments alone would suffice and there would be no need for further explanation on the problem of a bad sermon. Yet, Tolkien goes deeper. He sees things beyond the performance:

"But preaching is complicated by the fact that we expect in it not only a performance, but truth and sincerity, and also at least no word, tone, or note that suggests the possession of vices (such as hypocrisy, vanity) or defects (such as folly, ignorance) in the preacher."

Now, he enters into the personal realm of the preacher. Not only should the message be delivered artfully, but the messenger who delivers it should be a person of Christ-like character (no suggestion of vices or defects).
  • A good sermon requires a good messenger, because it is partly a demonstration of truth.
I think that it is quite clear Tolkien's sermon satisfaction would have been at 99% if the preachers in his day had simply performed well and showed truth and sincerity. Sadly, that was not his observance. To describe the epitome of a good sermon, he offers one last comment that reaches beyond the natural realm.

"Real sermons require some special grace which does not transcend art but arrives at it by instinct or 'inspiration'; indeed the Holy Spirit seems sometimes to speak through a human mouth providing art, virtue and insight he does not himself possess: but the occasions are rare."

Art and virtue and insight are still part of the equation of a good sermon, but now enters the Holy Spirit who provides it all the more. This special grace leads to what Tolkien called a "real sermon." In other words, when God speaks through a human mouth, it carries a weight of truth and grace that is felt by all who listen. They know that something special is happening and that God is assisting the performer.
  • A real sermon requires a special grace, because it is a timely message from God to the listeners.
So there you have it. According to the Professor, a good sermon needs three ingredients:
  • Preparation and training in knowledge and art
  • Truth and sincerity from the preacher
  • Special grace and help from the Holy Spirit
I like that. I humbly desire to preach good sermons, real sermons, whenever I am afforded the opportunity.


  1. Really enjoyed that, thanks for sharing James :-)

    1. I’ve taken a very long time to respond, but you’re welcome Jack!