There are some things that should be standard practice in every sermon. To learn to do these every time will take preparation and practice but they will make you a better, that is, a more Christ-centered and text-driven, preacher.
1. “Look at verse _____.”
You should develop a habit not only of making sure that each proposition you offer comes from the text, but also making that connection clear when you preach so that those who hear are certain that you’re preaching the text rather than your thoughts and ideas.
One of my favorite things about preaching is seeing heads drop every time I say, “Look at the first word in verse 3” or “Notice that the sentence continues into verse 4” or any number of things like this. I love seeing those heads drop to look at the text because it not only means that I’m getting this right, but because it also means that people are digging into the Word of God and this will lead them to desire the Word even more.
2. “Christ is (or “did” or “does”) _________ for us.”
You should make certain that your every proposition is tied to the person and work of Christ. Who Jesus is and what Jesus did are foundational for everything else. I’m not talking about “…finding Christ in every poppy between Jerusalem and Jericho” as Spurgeon said, talking of preachers who did a poor job of connecting their preaching to Christ.
I’m talking about reminding people that even when they do the things God commands them in Scripture, they are enabled to do them because of what Christ already did. Christ is the life and light that makes us alive and that guides us in darkness. Christ is the Word that reveals God us. So our obedience is not to earn any favor with God but is a response to God’s grace at work in our lives through Word and Spirit.
The only way to point them to spiritual maturity is to point them to Christ. The only way to point them away from the world and the flesh is to point them to Christ.
This leads me to my final point.
3. “Because of this you must ____________” (or “we must”).
I’m a firm believer in this adage: “Until you have applied the text, you haven’t preached the text.” The Scriptures call us to respond to the grace of God that works in us through Word and Spirit. Remember that Phil. 2:12 and Phil. 2:13 are in the same sentence. You “work out your own salvation” because “it is God who works in you.”
Don’t hit me with this “the indicative is the imperative” garbage. (What does that even mean? It’s a nonsensical statement. The indicative is the indicative and the imperative is the imperative.) The indicative drives the imperative and the imperative is based on the indicative, but the former is not the latter.
Go read some of Calvin’s sermons (especially his sermons through the Pastorals or Ephesians) and see how he applies the text, how he illustrates the text, how he has imaginary conversations with his parishioners, how he relates everyday scenarios, all in an attempt to connect the text to their real lives. That is what preaching is supposed to do: connect the text to their lives.
The Word of God is living and powerful (Heb. 4:12) but it goes forth dead and impotent too many times simply because we’re afraid to say to people what they must do with it. I realize that there are far too many preachers who preach nothing but application (and obviously I’m not telling you to do that). But there are far too many in Reformed circles who simply lecture on the text rather than applying the text. Don’t be one of those preachers.