Let’s Be Honest: The Need for Integrity in Sermon Development, Delivery, and Decision
What ethical principles should guide how preachers develop their sermons, deliver them, and call for decision from their audience?
By Thomas Lindberg
We have all said: “Come on, let’s be honest.” That common expression can apply to many areas of life, but it supremely applies to preaching. When a man or woman stands before a crowd to preach, they are proclaiming God’s eternal truth (see John 17:17). Since they hold the truth-filled Word of God in their hands, it is incumbent that what comes out of their mouths is truthful.
Paul instructs Timothy that a preacher must be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:3). He tells Titus that God’s messengers need to be “blameless” (Titus 1:6). Let me say big, bold, and clear: There are high ethical standards that we must maintain when we prepare and present a sermon from God’s Word.
Preachers who desire to sharpen their skills and effectiveness must ask at least three questions about preaching. First, “What shall I preach?” That will determine the content of the message. Next, “Why do I preach?” That will determine the conviction of the message. Finally, “How should I preach?” That will determine the character of the messenger. Each question deserves a clear answer.
In this article I focus on the final question: “How should I preach?”
Integrity in Sermon Development
The word integrity comes from the world of mathematics, where its root is “integer.” By definition, an integer is a whole number in contrast to a fraction. Integrity implies that an individual is a whole person marked by complete honesty and is not a fractional individual who sometimes is honest while at other times is not. That has enormous implications for those who preach.
Paul urged the younger pastor: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Greeks who refined gold used the word “approved” (dokimos). Once they removed all the impurities from the ore, they formed the gold into bars and stamped dokimos, that is impurity-free. This is how preachers must view their task as they prepare to proclaim God’s Word. They must maintain high ethical standards as they assemble the material they preach.
This means we must be accurate in handling the Scripture text from which we will preach. It is wrong at best and dishonest at worst to twist a biblical passage to make it say what we desire it to say. The Bible is not a soft lump of clay God places in our hands so we can mold it to whatever shape and form we choose. Instead, it is a proven, settled rock of revealed truth that we need to humbly and diligently explore for its truth to emerge. The Holy Spirit not only inspired the biblical passage from which we will preach, but He also illuminates the messenger so he or she can be an accurate, anointed spokesman for God.
The Bible sits above us to guide us how to live and what to preach. We do not sit above the Scripture to determine our own standards or concoct our own messages. The prophet Micaiah said, “As surely as the Lord lives, I can tell him only what the Lord tells me” (1 Kings 22:14).
Consider the words of John Calvin a month before he died as he was saying good-bye to some preachers: “I have not corrupted one single passage of Scripture, nor twisted it as far as I know. I have always studied to be simple and clear.” A good rule of thumb is: Do not develop a sermon from a text if only one Bible version translates it the way you desire. Let multiple translations confirm your conclusion.
Another mark of integrity is we will not preach another person’s sermon. To do so is unethical. I received a letter from a pastor who told me he listened to my sermons on the radio and then preached them a few weeks later in his church. Real preaching occurs when preachers communicate to their congregations what the Holy Spirit has revealed to them through their personal study and interaction with the Scripture. One benefit of preparing a sermon is the Holy Spirit not only helps you develop the message, but He also develops you.
Deuteronomy 5 has an instructive verse on the dynamics of true preaching. The people said to Moses, “Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey” (verse 27). Good preaching must include a personal witness. Yes, you will read other commentators, writers, and speakers during preparation, but integrity demands and the Spirit desires the finalized message to have your thoughts, prayers, and fingerprints all over it. You and I can milk many cows as we prepare to preach, but we must churn our own butter.
If all we desire to accomplish through our preaching is to inspire our people or explain a biblical text, then why not just play a DVD from some gifted, nationally known preacher instead of wasting our time preparing? That is insufficient because God’s people want a personal witness to the power of God. If God is not speaking to you, how can He speak through you? People desire to see the Word of God become flesh in their pastor, and then in turn have their pastor guide them so they can successfully navigate life and please God. That is integrity in the development of a life-changing message.
Integrity in Sermon Delivery
In preaching “the Word becomes flesh” (John 1:14). To use the words of Phillips Brooks, “Preaching is God’s truth communicated through human personality.” Who the preacher is — his words, her emotions, his body language, his passion, her dress — cannot be hidden. Who we are as preachers will ooze out in our sermon. Therefore, it is imperative we demonstrate integrity in both our sermon development and delivery.
Some point to Philippians 1:15–18 as proof God can use any kind of sermon delivery — good or bad, ethical or unethical. While it is true that our sovereign God can use any preached sermon, it would be foolish to lower standards to conclude integrity in delivery does not count. Paul is not urging anyone to follow the example of the jealous preachers in Philippians 1. That passage is the exception, and you do not build principles off the exceptions, but off the norms.
Think of Paul’s inspired autobiography as he reveals how he preached. In 1 Thessalonians 1:4–6 he wrote, “Our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” Then in 2 Corinthians chapter 2 he added, “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God” (2:17).
What must we learn from Paul?
We must preach to please God. It is possible to undo in your delivery what the Holy Spirit accomplishes in you during your preparation. Excessive pointing to self is not pleasing to God during delivery. Humility must mark the preacher. Humility is not putting yourself down, but it is lifting up the Lord Jesus Christ. Our God-given duty is to “preach Christ” and not self (see 2 Corinthians 4:5). Name-dropping will also hurt your delivery. As you drop names, you are saying, “I know important people. That makes me important as well.”
Any breach of pastoral confidence will also harm your delivery (and also the person whose confidence you broke). During the week you rub shoulders and interact with many people. You will hear of successes and failures, victories and sins. To publically share the successes and victories of others without permission is foolish and possibly damaging. To publically reveal the sins and failures of others is wrong.
In the 2 Corinthians 2 passage quoted above, Paul tells us we are not to be like people who “peddle the word of God.” The verb “peddle” comes from the Greek noun kapelos. A kapelos was a con artist, a street hawker, or a huckster who would say and do anything to manipulate people. Too many today peddle a message that does not have a biblical foundation. These peddlers do not bring glory to God nor do they see real-life transformation in people. Their main goal is self-enrichment. We must guard our integrity as we deliver God’s message.
Preachers need both righteousness and godliness. We best understand the difference when we view righteousness as affecting our outward conduct, while godliness affects our inner attitude. For the most part, God’s people want to trust the person who stands before them to preach. But integrity for the preacher is a precious commodity. With it, people will follow you; without it, they will not. To quote Billy Graham, “If you lose your money, you’ve lost little. If you lose your health, you’ve lost something important. But if you lose your integrity, you’ve lost everything.”
Preachers must lean hard on God as they deliver the message (see 1 Corinthians 2:1–5). It is not our clever gimmicks that convert and challenge others. It is the Spirit of God using the Word of God. If we persuade someone to trust Christ merely by our clever argument or delivery skills, it is probable that someone with a more clever argument or greater speaking skills may deceive them. It is the Spirit, not human skill, who brings transformational life change into the human heart (see Zechariah 4:6). To deny this truth is to deny our present existence as people who are led and empowered by the Holy Spirit (see 2 Corinthians 5:7). That’s real integrity in the delivery of a life-changing message.
Integrity in Sermon Decision
The purpose of a sermon is not primarily to inform the mind; its purpose is to transform the heart. That means a preacher should call for some kind of a decision at the end of every sermon. Just as a good insurance salesman would not think of showing a client a new insurance product without asking if he would like to buy it, so you need to preach each sermon for decision.
The first recorded sermon in Acts is Peter’s clear explanation and powerful challenge in Acts 2. Here is how the Apostle finished: “With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’ ” (verse 40). Peter was clear in his call for a decision.
The integrity of the messenger matters greatly as we call people to decision. Phillips Brooks defined preaching as, “God’s truth through human personality.” It is possible to run clean water through a dirty pipe, but I would not want to drink it. As you compare that analogy to preaching, the implications are clear and convicting. There are many jobs in our world today where the character of the person doing the work really does not matter that much. Preaching is not one of those jobs.
The integrity of preaching is front and center in 1 Corinthians 2: “I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:3–5). Paul refused to use calculated theatrics or human techniques to manipulate a response. Do not get people to respond to your emotional appeal instead of to the true knowledge of God and the conviction of the Holy Spirit.
Martin Luther faced this problem. As the Protestant Reformation began to spread, some of Luther’s followers resorted to manipulation, force, and less-than-honest methods of preaching to sway people. Luther would have none of it. In spring 1522, Luther marched to his pulpit and said, “I will preach, teach, and write, but I will constrain no man by force. I could play little games, but what would happen? A fool’s play. I leave it to God’s Word.” That is integrity in asking people to follow Christ.
Charles Spurgeon, a beloved pastor, a great preacher, and a powerful evangelist, preached for a decision and saw tens of thousands come to Christ. He focused on the integrity of the preacher when calling people to decision and wrote words that are difficult to improve: “The power that is in the gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher, otherwise men would be the converters of souls; nor does it lie in the preacher’s learning, otherwise it would consist in the wisdom of men. We might preach until our tongues rotted, till we would exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless the Holy Spirit be with the Word of God to give it the power to convert the soul.”
Good preaching will always contain three essential components: what is said (logos), how it is said (pathos), and who says it (ethos). First Thessalonians 1 rolls all three components into 30 words: “Our gospel (logos) came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction (pathos). You know how we lived among you for your sake (ethos)” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).
Some years ago I looked up the word preach in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. The second entry said, “to exhort in a tiresome manner.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Your preaching must be faithful to the Bible, birthed out of a life of integrity, and dynamic to the listener so that lives will be transformed.
The words of Robert Murray M’Cheyne are as true today as when he wrote them in 1840: “Remember you are God’s sword — His instrument. In great measure, according to the purity and perfections of the instrument, will be your success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful [awe-inspiring] weapon in the hand of God.” Amen.
May you rise to God’s calling and be the best preacher you can be.