Ask Steve: What Characterizes a Great Preacher?

God's Love


God’s Love: How the Infinite God Cares for His Children

by R.C. Sproul

Category: Theology

2012, David C. Cook






Question: Steve, there are Christians who tell me that “this pastor’s sermons are good” or “that pastor is a good speaker” or that pastor “has entertaining messages.” What defines a great preacher?

Answer: People define great preachers in different ways – some for the right reasons and some for the wrong reasons. There are preachers or speakers in modern evangelicalism who provide entertaining messages, feel good stories, on-stage charisma, intriguing topical messages, and intellectual exercises. Some of these things are good, but they do not necessarily make a person a great preacher. And then there are speakers who are faithful to expository preaching, exegesis of the text, and accuracy, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a great preacher either.

Preaching 5So what makes a person a great preacher? We understand what characterizes a great preacher by the examples of exemplary men in the New Testament, including Jesus, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, and Stephen. We also see the picture of what an extraordinary preacher looks like by examining model preachers of church history, such as John Calvin, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, and Martin Lloyd-Jones.


There are several factors that define a good preacher:


  • Integrity. A great preacher must first and foremost be a man of God. He must be saved and filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph 5:18). He must be one who is “above reproach,” (2 Tim 3; Tit 1:6-7), and not living a debauched or immoral lifestyle. It is very difficult to take a preacher’s talents with much gravity if he is not a man of God, either in his salvific stance or in his sanctification. The preacher not only preaches the word of God to others, but first preaches it to himself. He lives it out, not only for God’s honor, but so that there is no cause to bring accusation or slander against him (Acts 25:7; 1 Pet 3:16).


  • Bible-Centered. A great preacher must be committed to the inerrancy of Scripture and the preaching of the word of God (2 Tim 3:16-17). This does not mean that a good preacher always has to do sequential, verse-by-verse expository preaching, but that he must use Scripture as his basis and authority in whatever theological or thematic messages he preaches on. A man who does not rely on Scripture for his preaching, but bases his sermons on his opinions, philosophies, and stories is not a great preacher. As 2 Timothy 2:15 teaches, the preacher must be diligent to present himself as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth [emphasis added].


  • Passion. A great preacher must have contagious passion. This is something that is missing in much pulpit preaching, no matter what denomination or traditions of the church. John the Baptist (Matt 3) and Peter (Acts 2) were known for proclaiming the word of God with much passion and conviction, and so should faithful preachers. Passionate preaching does not mean constantly yelling or being jumpy on stage, but implies that the preacher/speaker will speak with real conviction and urgency in his message. He will put the life into his sermons so it will not be unnecessarily boring or tedious. It must engage the listener, especially in our day and age of easy distraction.


  • Accessibility. A great preacher must be an understandable speaker. He must not only be a good orator, but one who speaks on a level that is accessible to people who are physically young (children) and spiritually young (new converts). The Bible speaks to us comprehensibly and simply starting from Genesis 1:1, and so should preachers of God’s message. This does not mean that a preacher should water-down the message, but to make a profound and deep message adaptable to all kinds of people. Paul was not eloquent in speech (1 Cor 1:2), but he was still one of the great preachers of the faith because of the fact that he was able to get the message across well to people from all walks of life. Preachers who preach in the style of academic lectures, overreaching philosophical exercises, or overemphasis on Greek-Hebrew exegesis, are not great preachers.


  • Content. A great preacher preaches sermons/messages with extraordinary content. For the most part, it has great introductions, brilliant illustrations and analogies, good biblical exposition, accurate theology, passionate exhortations, pleas, and applications, and a memorable conclusion. These things characterized the preaching of Jesus, whether on the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) or Olivet Discourse (Matt 25-26), and characterized many great preachers in church history.


  • Defense. A great preacher will always defend the faith. He will not simply preach messages on topics that are agreeable to the ears or that only concerns matters within the church. He will address trends and attacks that threaten the welfare and life of the church, including evolution, abortion, anti-inerrancy trends, false doctrines in the church, sexual immorality, and government issues. The preacher does this not to stir up unnecessary debate and criticism, but to guard the sheep by informing them, cultivating discernment, and urging them to greater devotion to God (Jude 3). If there is a Satan working in the world to destroy the church, then preachers must do what they can to guard the church against attacks from both within and outside the church.


  • Impact. A great preacher makes a powerful impact on his listeners. Although a preacher can do everything right according to the rulebook, it is ultimately God who establishes the power of the preacher by producing a harvest of saved souls and sanctified saints (1 Cor 3:7). Are the preacher’s messages having a real impact on the congregants? Does it cause many to be saved? Does it inspire people to greater godly living? Does it help people to understand the depths of God and worship Him with greater passion?


These are some of the main factors that define great preachers of the past and great preachers of today. These are guidelines that an elder or speaker should keep in mind when seeking to honor the Lord, and edify the saints, in His calling as a preacher. It is a terrible thing when preachers are immoral, passionless, topical message centered, hard to understand, inaccurate, compromising regarding attacks on the church and the Bible, and does not make any real impact in the lives of the listeners. The pulpit is a high calling, therefore it must be treated with the utmost importance, since souls are on the line (1 Tim 4:16).

This answers the question of what a great preacher is, in contrast to a great lecturer, speaker, teacher, devotional person, or storyteller. There are great preachers today, some of whom are not widely known and some who are. Some examples of great preachers today include Steven J. Lawson, John MacArthur, Paul Washer, Voddie Baucham, John Piper, and Alistair Begg.

Recommended Resource: The King of Preaching God Blesses by Steven J. Lawson