Six Marks of a Good Sermon


How does a preacher know if he’s preaching good sermons?

There are several ways that question could be answered: What is the fruit? How does the congregation respond? How clear is his teaching? Most importantly, how closely does his message line up with the passage?

To answer this question, I would like to go back in time, 375 years ago to the Westminster Assembly. Among other things, this Puritan body produced the Westminster Larger Catechism, which answers the question: What is a good sermon? It provides six answers.

Q. 159. How is the Word of God to be preached by those that are called thereunto?

A. They that are called to labor in the ministry of the Word, are to preach sound doctrine, diligently, in season and out of season; plainly, not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power; faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God; wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers; zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation.[1]

Let’s briefly consider each of the six answers the catechism provides.

1. A good sermon is diligently prepared.

The Lord works through preachers’ diligent preparation of sermons. Consider what the apostle says in Colossians 1:29 regarding his efforts at proclaiming Christ: “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”[2]

Diligent preparation and diligent delivery go hand in hand. If you hustle during practice, you’ll hustle during the game. As it relates to preaching, diligent preaching requires understanding what we are going to say and then saying it carefully.

2. A good sermon is plainly preached.

Preaching carefully involves preaching clearly. Preaching sound doctrine should also be accessible. The Westminster Assembly was simply following Paul on the necessity of plain preaching: “Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so knowledgeable; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things” (2 Cor. 11:6; cf. 1 Cor. 2:1–5).

A plain sermon is not a boring sermon, but a sermon where Christ is evident to all.

3. A good sermon is faithful.

Faithful to what? WLC 159 modifies faithfully with “making known the whole counsel of God.”

Therefore, to preach good sermons, pastors must preach from the entire Bible. That doesn’t mean every detail must be covered, but that the substance and point of the passages must be preached. Faithfulness demands we preach difficult passages like Job 3 and culturally unpopular passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9.

4. A good sermon is wisely applied.

Wise application may be the most difficult part of preaching a faithful sermon. The Larger Catechism says wise application is based on the hearers’ “necessities and capacities.” This assumes that the pastor is among his people such that he understands their spiritual needs and abilities.

Prior to becoming the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, J. C. Ryle learned how to preach from being a country vicar.[3] Ryle needed to adjust his preaching from his cosmopolitan upbringing to the farmer and farmhand in his parish. Likewise today, the pastor must understand not only the text, but his people in order to apply the former to the latter.

5. A good sermon is zealously preached.

Zeal is often confused with emotion and charisma. While zeal might include emotion and charisma, WLC 159 indicates that zeal pertains to our motivations: love for God and his people (1 Tim. 1:5).

Preaching therefore must be issued primarily from an earnest desire to boast in the unsearchable riches of Christ and for his people to taste and see that he is good. This accords with Paul’s encouragement to the Roman church “not be slothful in zeal, but fervent in spirit” as they “serve the Lord” (Rom. 12:11).

6. A good sermon is sincerely preached.

While sincerity can be related to the purity of intentions, the Catechism has intended results in view: “aiming at [God’s] glory, and [his people’s] conversion, edification, and salvation.” Preaching a good sermon is ultimately about glorifying God and saving sinners.


Westminster Larger Catechism Question 159’s overwhelming focus on preaching is about God’s glory and the audience’s benefit—not eloquent performance or praise of the preacher.

So preacher, put away any pride or boasting and preach “for the sake of the faith of God’s elect” (Titus 1:1). Let’s follow this Puritan pattern by making much of God and little of ourselves in our efforts to build up his church (John 3:30).

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[1] Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 159 from (accessed 3.13.2023)

[2] See also 2 Tim 2:1-10; 4:1-5.

[3] Ian Murray, Prepared to Stand Alone. Banner of Truth, 2016.

Nick Gardner

Nick Gardner is an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C.

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