Preaching: Communicating Faith in An Age of Skepticism
:Pastor, preacher, and New York Times bestselling author of The Prodigal Prophet Timothy Keller shares his wisdom on communicating the Christian faith from the pulpit as well as from the coffee shop. Most Christians-including pastors-struggle to talk about...
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:Pastor, preacher, and New York Times bestselling author of The Prodigal Prophet Timothy Keller shares his wisdom on communicating the Christian faith from the pulpit as well as from the coffee shop.
Most Christians-including pastors-struggle to talk about their faith in a way that applies the power of the Christian gospel to change people's lives. Timothy Keller is known for his insightful, down-to-earth sermons and talks that help people understand themselves, encounter Jesus, and apply the Bible to their lives. In this accessible guide for pastors and laypeople alike, Keller helps readers learn to present the Christian message of grace in a more engaging, passionate, and compassionate way.
Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, which he started in 1989 with his wife, Kathy. For over twenty-five years he has led a diverse congregation of young professionals that has grown to a weekly attendance of over 5,000.
He is also Chairman of Redeemer City to City, which starts new churches in New York and other global cities, and publishes books and resources for faith in an urban culture. In ten years they helped to launch over 250 churches in 48 cities. More recently, Dr. Keller's books - including the New York Times bestselling The Reason for God, The Prodigal God, and Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God - have sold over 1 million copies and been translated into 15 languages.
Tim was born in 1950, raised in Pennsylvania, and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He previously served as the pastor of West Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Hopewell, Virginia, Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, and Director of Mercy Ministries for the Presbyterian Church in America.
Tim and his wife Kathy have three adult sons.
Australian theologian Peter Adam argues that what we call preaching, the formal public address to the gathered congregation on a Sunday, is only one form of what the Bible describes as the “ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:2, 6:4).1
On the day of Pentecost Peter cited the words of the prophet Joel, who said that God would pour out his Spirit on all his people, and as a result “your sons and daughters will prophesy” (Acts 2:17). Gerhard Friedrich, in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, says that there are at least thirty-three Greek words in the New Testament usually translated as “preaching” or “proclaiming.” Adam observes that these words describe activities that could not all be public speaking.2 For example, Acts 8:4 says that all the Christians except the apostles went from place to place “proclaiming the Messiah.” This cannot mean that every believer was standing up and preaching sermons to audiences. Priscilla and Aquila, for example, explained the Word of Christ to Apollos in their home (Acts 18:26).
We can discern at least three levels of “Word ministry” in the Bible. Paul calls all believers to “let the message of Christ dwell among you richly” and to “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). Every Christian should be able to give both teaching (didaskalia, the ordinary word for instruction) and admonition (noutheo—a common word for strong, life-changing counsel) that convey to others the teachings of the Bible. This must be done carefully, though informally, in conversations that are usually one on one. That is the most fundamental form of the ministry of the Word. Let’s call it level 1.
At the more formal end of the spectrum are sermons: the public preaching and exposition of the Bible to assembled gatherings, which we could call level 3. The book of Acts gives us many examples, mainly drawn from the ministry of Peter and Paul, though also including an address by Stephen that probably summarizes his path-breaking teaching. Acts gives us so many of these public addresses that we could almost say that, from the point of view of Luke (the author), the development of the early Christian church and the development of its preaching were one and the same.
There is, however, a “level 2” form of the ministry of the Word between informal, every-Christian conversation and formal sermons. In an overlooked passage the apostle Peter describes the spiritual gift of “speaking”:
Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 4:10–11).
When Peter speaks of spiritual gifts he uses two very general terms.3 The first is the word for speaking: lalein. In the rest of the New Testament this word can denote simple daily speech between anyone (Matthew 12:36; Ephesians 4:25; James 1:19). It can also refer to a preaching ministry, as with Jesus (Matthew 12:46 and 13:10) or Paul (2 Corinthians 12:19). What is Peter talking about here?
When we map this passage over Paul’s gift lists in Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, we see that there is a whole category of Word-ministry gifts that function in ways beside public preaching to the assembled Sunday congregation. It includes personal exhortation or counseling, evangelism, and teaching individuals and groups. Biblical scholar Peter Davids concludes that when Peter writes of the spiritual gift of “speaking” he is “not referring to casual talk among Christians, nor . . . referring only to the actions of [pastors] or other church officials” but rather to Christians with “one of these verbal gifts” of counseling, instructing, teaching, or evangelizing. In this category of ministry, Christian men and women aren’t preaching per se; they prepare and present lessons and talks; they lead discussions in which they are presenting the Word of Christ.4
Even though Peter is not only talking to public speakers he warns those who present the Word to others in any form to take their task seriously. He adds that when Christians teach the Bible their speech should be “as . . . the very words of God” (1 Peter 4:11). Davids notes that the little word “‘as’ allows a slight distancing between their speaking and God’s words.” No Christian should ever claim that his or her teaching is to be treated with the same authority as biblical revelation; nevertheless, Peter makes the powerful, eye-opening claim that Christians who are presenting biblical teaching are not to be simply expressing their own opinion but giving others “the very words of God.” Just as in public preaching, Christians are to convey the truth as they understand it to be revealed in the Scriptures.5 And if they explain the meaning of the Bible faithfully, listeners will be able to hear God speaking to them in the exposition. They are listening not merely to an artifact of human ingenuity but, as it were, to the very words of God.
Every Christian needs to understand the message of the Bible well enough to explain and apply it to other Christians and to his neighbors in informal and personal settings (level 1). But there are many ways to do the ministry of the Word at level 2 that take more preparation and presentation skills yet do not consist of delivering sermons (level 3). Level 2 today may include writing, blogging, teaching classes and small groups, mentoring, moderating open discussion forums on issues of faith, and so on.
This book aims to be a resource for all those who communicate their Christian faith in any way, particularly at levels 2 and 3.
The Irreplaceability of Preaching
It is dangerous, then, to fall into the unbiblical belief that the ministry of the Word is simply preaching sermons. As Adam says, that will “make preaching carry a load which it cannot bear; that is, the burden of doing all the Bible expects of every form of ministry of the Word.”6 No church should expect that all the life transformation that comes from the Word of God (John 17:17; cf. Colossians 3:16–17 and Ephesians 5:18–20) comes strictly through preaching. I shouldn’t expect to be shaped into Christlikeness even by listening to the best sermons. I also need other Christians around me who are “handl[ing] the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) by encouraging me, instructing me, and counseling me. I also need the books of Christian authors whose writings build me up. Nor is it right to expect that those outside the church who need to hear and understand the gospel will be reached only through preaching. I myself found faith not through listening to preaching and speaking but through books. (Is anyone surprised by that?) We must beware of thinking the Sunday sermon can carry all the freight of any church’s ministry of the Word.
Yet despite Adam’s rightful warning against overemphasizing preaching in a church’s ministry, this may not be the church’s greatest danger today. We live in a time when many are resistant to any hint of authority in pronouncements; so the culture’s allergy to truth and the great skill that is required mean the church loses its grasp on the crucial nature of preaching for the ministry of the gospel.
Edmund Clowney, in his commentary on 1 Peter 4:10, writes:
It is true that every Christian must handle the word of God with reverence, and seek the help of the Spirit to make it known to others. Yet there are also those with special gifts of the Spirit for the preaching . . . of the word of God . . . [with] a special charge to tend and feed the flock of God ([1 Peter] 5:2). There is some danger that, in reacting against clericalism, the church may forget the importance of the ministry of the word of God by those called to be under-shepherds of the flock.7
Clowney warns us against seeing no qualitative difference between proclaiming the Word in the gathered assembly and leading a small-group Bible study. The difference between the two goes beyond ceremonial and logistical matters—it is not just a matter of the number of people present, or the space to fill, or voice projection and pace. Those who have preached to a congregation know that there is a qualitative difference as well between the sermon and a study, or even a sermon and a lecture. A quick survey of the addresses by Peter, Stephen, and Paul in the book of Acts shows the extraordinary power of preaching when undertaken “as . . . the very words of God” and through the unique authority that the Spirit of God can bring in a public worshipping assembly.
While we will always require a host of varied forms of Word ministry, the specific public ministry of preaching is irreplaceable. Adam strikes the balance nicely when he says a church’s gospel ministry should be “pulpit-centered, but not pulpit-restricted.”8
So there are three levels of Word ministry, and they are all crucial and support one another. The public preaching of Christ in the Christian assembly (level 3) is a unique way that God speaks to and builds up people, and it sets up the more organic forms of Word ministry at levels 1 and 2. Likewise, the skilled and faithful communication at levels 1 and 2 prepares people to be receptive to preaching. This volume will speak to all those who are wrestling with how to communicate life-changing biblical truth to people at any level in an increasingly skeptical age. It will also serve as an introduction and foundation for working preachers and teachers in particular.9
One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.
The Secret of Great Preaching
Not long after I began my preaching ministry I noticed a puzzling inconsistency in the response of my listeners. Sometimes I would get gratifying feedback in the week after a particular sermon. “That sermon changed my life.” “I felt you were speaking directly to me. I wondered how you knew.” “I’ll never forget it—it felt like it was coming right from God!” When I heard such comments I assumed that I had preached a great sermon—something to which every young minister aspires.
It wasn’t long before I realized that others would be saying—about the same message—something like “meh.” My wife, Kathy, often would say, “It was okay, but not one of your best ones,” while someone else would be telling me in tears the next day that they would never be the same after hearing it. How was I to read this? At first I began to wonder if a sermon’s beauty was only in the eye of the beholder, but that was surely too subjective an explanation. I trusted Kathy’s judgment and my own that some of my sermons were simply better crafted and delivered than others. Yet some of those I considered mediocre changed lives—while others I felt pretty good about seemed to have little impact.
One day I was reading Acts 16, the account of Paul’s planting of the church in Philippi. On this occasion Paul presented the gospel to a group of women and one, Lydia, put her faith in Christ because “the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (Acts 16:14). While all the listeners heard the same address, only Lydia seems to have been permanently changed by it. We should not overread this to imply that God works only through a message at the moment of delivery or that he did not also help Paul as he formulated the message earlier. Nevertheless, it was clear to me from the text that the sermon’s differing impact on individuals was due to the work of God’s Spirit. Maybe Paul had Lydia in mind when he described the act of preaching as the gospel coming to listeners “not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).
I concluded that the difference between a bad sermon and a good sermon is largely located in the preachers—in their gifts and skills and in their preparation for any particular message. Understanding the biblical text, distilling a clear outline and theme, developing a persuasive argument, enriching it with poignant illustrations, metaphors, and practical examples, incisively analyzing heart motives and cultural assumptions, making specific application to real life—all of this takes extensive labor. To prepare a sermon like this requires hours of work, and to be able to craft and present it skillfully takes years of practice.
However, while the difference between a bad sermon and a good sermon is mainly the responsibility of the preacher, the difference between good preaching and great preaching lies mainly in the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the listener as well as the preacher. The message in Philippi came from Paul, but the effect of the sermon on hearts came from the Spirit.
This means God can use an indifferently crafted message as great preaching, which explains the answer one older Christian minister gave when he was asked to compare the great eighteenth-century preachers Daniel Rowland and George Whitefield. He responded that you always got great preaching from both men, but with Rowland you also always got a good sermon, which was not always the case with Whitefield.1 Regardless of how any particular sermon was crafted, the sense of God’s presence and power always seemed to accompany Whitefield’s preaching.
You may be eager to learn “the secret to great preaching” as a set of instructions for the formation of a discipline. That way you could nearly always accomplish great preaching if you followed the directions to the letter. However, I cannot give you such a formula—and no one can—because that secret lies in the depths of God’s wise plans and the power of God’s Spirit. I’m talking about what many have referred to as “unction” or “anointing.” I will discuss your role in this dynamic in the final chapter of this book, but there are no how-tos that guarantee it. Some will point rightly to the minister’s prayer life. “Isn’t that the secret to great preaching?” they will ask. The answer is yes and no—while a deep and rich prayer life is a requirement for great and even good preaching, it by no means secures greatness on its own. We should do the work it takes to make our communication of God’s truth good and leave it up to God how and how often he makes it great for the listener. “Should you then seek great things for thyself? Do not seek them” (Jeremiah 45:5).
The “Absolutely Perfect” Preacher
This distinction may lead you to assume that Christian communicators need to do nothing but explain the biblical text and that it is “up to God to do the rest.” That is a dangerous misunderstanding and reduction of the preaching task.
Theodore Beza was a younger colleague and successor of John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed branch of Protestantism during the Reformation. In his biography of Calvin, Beza recalled the three great preachers in Geneva during those years—Calvin himself, Guillaume Farel, and Pierre Viret. Farel, said Beza, was the most fiery, passionate, and forceful in his sermonic delivery. Viret was the most eloquent, and audiences hung on his skillful and beautiful words. The time flew by fastest when sitting under his preaching. Calvin was the most profound, his sermons packed full of “the weightiest of insights.” Calvin had the most substance, Viret the most eloquence, and Farel the most vehemence. Beza concluded “that a preacher who was a composite of these three men would have been absolutely perfect.”2 Beza is acknowledging here that his great mentor, John Calvin, was not the perfect preacher. He majored in great content, but he was not as skillful as others in commanding attention, in persuasion, and in the engagement of heart motives. Viret and Farel were more engaging and moving.
In the first Christian preaching manual St. Augustine wrote that the duties of preachers included not only probare, to instruct and prove, but also delectare, to rivet and delight, and flectere, to stir and move people to action.3 Although Augustine condemned the bankruptcy of pagan philosophies, he believed Christian preachers could learn from their works on rhetoric. The Greek word rhetorike first appears in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, meaning “the work of persuasion.”4 Classics scholar George Kennedy writes that in one sense rhetoric “is a phenomenon of all human cultures” because most acts of communication have the goal of not merely expressing information but affecting the beliefs, actions, or emotions of the one(s) receiving them.5 Everyone uses rhetoric to some degree, even if it means altering the volume, pitch, or pace to be emphatic. Everyone must choose vocabulary and metaphors that illuminate and compel, as well as find other verbal and nonverbal ways to gain and keep attention and emphasize certain points over others.
John Calvin himself agrees. When commenting on 1 Corinthians 1:17, where Paul eschews using “wisdom and eloquence,” Calvin asks “whether he means . . . that the preaching of the gospel is vitiated if the slightest tincture of eloquence and rhetoric is made use of for adorning it.” Calvin responds that “what Paul says here, therefore, ought not to be taken as throwing any disparagement upon the [rhetorical] arts, as if they were unfavorable to piety.”6 Paul is warning against their abuse. Rhetoric can become an end in itself, its entertaining and pleasing forms obscuring the simplicity of the biblical message with a “silly fondness for high sounding style.”7 Long stories, florid language, and dramatic gestures can captivate attention while the actual message of the text is ignored.
Calvin goes on to say that we should despise neither simple expressions of the truth nor skilled oratory, provided they are in service of the text. “Eloquence is not at all at variance with the simplicity of the gospel, when it does not disdain to give way to it, and be in subjection to it, but also yields service to it, as a handmaid to her mistress.”8 Preaching should not be a human performance that merely entertains nor a dry recitation of principles. Spiritual eloquence should arise out of the preacher’s almost desperate love for the gospel truth itself and the people for whom accepting the truth is a matter of life and death.
In the end, preaching has two basic objects in view: the Word and the human listener. It is not enough to just harvest the wheat; it must be prepared in some edible form or it can’t nourish and delight. Sound preaching arises out of two loves—love of the Word of God and love of people—and from them both a desire to show people God’s glorious grace. And so, while only God can open hearts, the communicator must give great time and thought both to presenting the truth accurately and to bringing it home to the hearts and lives of the hearers.
There may be no more important Bible passage on preaching than 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:5.9
When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 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 2:1–5).
Paul says, “As I proclaimed to you the testimony about God . . . I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1–2). At the time Paul was writing, the only Scripture to preach from was what we now call the Old Testament. Yet even when preaching from these texts Paul “knew nothing” but Jesus—who did not appear by name in any of those texts. How could this be? Paul understood that all Scripture ultimately pointed to Jesus and his salvation; that every prophet, priest, and king was shedding light on the ultimate Prophet, Priest, and King. To present the Bible “in its fullness” was to preach Christ as the main theme and substance of the Bible’s message.
Classical rhetoric allowed the speaker inventio—the choice of a topic and the division of the topic into constituent parts, along with elaborate arguments and devices to support the speaker’s thesis. For Paul, however, there is always one topic: Jesus. Wherever we go in the Bible, Jesus is the main subject. And even the breakdown of our topic is not completely left up to us—we are to lay out the topics and points about Jesus that the biblical text itself gives us. We must “confine ourselves” to Jesus. Yet I can speak from forty years of experience as a preacher to tell you that the story of this one individual never needs to become repetitious—it contains the whole history of the universe and of humankind alike and is the only resolution of the plotlines of every one of our lives.10
So Paul hasn’t preached a text unless he has preached about Jesus, not merely as an example to follow but as a savior: “Christ Jesus, who has become for us . . . our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).
Paul sees Christ as the key to understanding each biblical text (the first aspect of good preaching) and also as the key to bringing the Word home persuasively to the heart and life of the listener (the second aspect). He writes: “I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.” At first glance this seems to argue against using any craft at all in preaching, but the rest of the New Testament (as Calvin indicates) makes it impossible to hold that Paul never used logic, argument, rhetoric, or learning as he preached. In the book of Acts, as we will see, Paul skillfully uses different arguments for different audiences; and in 2 Corinthians 5:11 he “persuade[s]” listeners, so it cannot be that he has no strategies for changing people’s minds.11 New Testament scholar Anthony Thiselton draws on recent scholarship on classical rhetoric to help us understand what Paul means in 1 Corinthians by “eloquence” and “wise and persuasive words.” Paul is rejecting verbal bullying (using the force of one’s personality or witty and cutting disdain); applause-generating statements that play to a crowd’s prejudices, pride, and fears; and manipulative stories or techniques that overwhelm the audience with shows of verbal dexterity, wit, or erudition.12
Against all these rhetorical abuses Paul puts the message of “Christ and him crucified,” but consider the meaning of this contrast. Paul indeed wants to reshape the foundations of listeners’ hearts—he wants to change what they most fundamentally love, hope, and put their faith in. Yet he insists that this change must not come about through human ingenuity but only through a “demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4)—which can be translated “through transparent proof brought home powerfully by the Holy Spirit.”13 What does that mean? Thiselton looks forward in the text and writes, “as becomes clear from 1 Corinthians 2:16–3:4, ‘Spirit’ is defined Christologically.” In this passage Paul speaks of the “self-effacing Spirit who points beyond himself to God’s work in Christ.”14 Paul is likening himself to the Holy Spirit, whose job is, like a floodlight, not to point to himself but rather to show us the glory and beauty of Christ (cf. John 16:12–15).
So this is the Christian preacher’s power. This is how to deliver not just an informative lecture but a life-changing sermon. It is not merely to talk about Christ but to show him, to “demonstrate” his greatness and to reveal him as worthy of praise and adoration. If we do that, the Spirit will help us, because that is his great mission in the world.
Preaching to the Cultural Heart
We have not exhausted this passage’s rich theology of preaching. When Paul speaks of life-changing preaching he is not limiting himself to the listeners’ inner world. He is also looking at the culture in which they live.
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:21–24).
Theologian Don Carson calls this a description of the “fundamental idolatries of [Paul’s] age.”15 Paul here deftly summarizes the differences between Greek and Jewish cultural narratives. Each society has a worldview or “world story” or “cultural narrative” that shapes the identities and assumptions of those in that society. In general, the Greeks valued philosophy, the arts, and intellectual attainments, while the Jews valued power and practical skill over discursive thought. Paul challenges both cultural narratives with the cross of Jesus. To the Greeks, a salvation that came not through elevated thought and philosophy but through a crucified Savior was the opposite of wisdom—it was foolishness. To the Jews, a salvation that came not through power, through a deliverer who overthrew the Romans, but through a crucified Savior was the opposite of strength—it was weakness. Paul uses the gospel to confront each culture with the idolatrous nature of its trusts and values.
And yet after challenging each culture, he also discerns and affirms its core aspiration. You want wisdom, says Paul to Greek listeners, but look at the cross. Didn’t it make it possible for God to be both just and justifier of those who believe? Isn’t this the ultimate wisdom? You want power, says Paul to his Jewish listeners, but look at the cross. Doesn’t it make it possible for God to defeat our most powerful enemies—sin, guilt, and death itself—without destroying us? Isn’t this the ultimate strength?
So Paul clarifies each cultural narrative, then confronts each of its idolatries—the intellectual hubris of the Greeks and the works-righteousness of the Jews—showing them that the way they have been pursuing their greatest and proper goods is sinful and self-defeating. Yet this is no mere intellectual exercise or clever rhetorical strategy—it is an act of love and care. We are social-cultural beings, and our inner-heart motivations are profoundly shaped by the human communities in which we are embedded. In the course of expounding a biblical text the Christian preacher should compare and contrast the Scripture’s message with the foundational beliefs of the culture, which are usually invisible to people inside it, in order to help people understand themselves more fully. If done rightly it can lead people to say to themselves, Oh, so that’s why I tend to think and feel that way. This can be one of the most liberating and catalytic steps in a person’s journey to faith in Christ.
To reach people gospel preachers must challenge the culture’s story at points of confrontation and finally retell the culture’s story, as it were, revealing how its deepest aspirations for good can be fulfilled only in Christ. Like Paul, we must invite and attract people through their culture’s aspirations—calling them to come to Christ, the true wisdom and the true righteousness, the true power, the true beauty.
The Tasks of Preaching
What, then, is good preaching? Let me pull all these ideas together into a single description.
It is “proclaim[ing]. . . . the testimony of God” (1 Corinthians 2:1)—preaching biblically, engaging with the authoritative text. This means preaching the Word and not your opinion. When we preach the Scriptures we are speaking “the very words of God” (1 Peter 4:11). You need to make clear the meaning of the text in its context—both in its historical time and within the whole of Scripture. This task of serving the Word is exposition, which is to draw out the message of the passage with faithfulness and insight and with a view to the rest of biblical teaching, so as not to “expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.”16
It is also proclaiming to “both Jews and Greeks” (1 Corinthians 1:24)—preaching compellingly, engaging the culture, and touching hearts. This means not merely informing the mind but also capturing the hearer’s interest and imagination and persuading her toward repentance and action. A good sermon is not like a club that beats upon the will but like a sword that cuts to the heart (Acts 2:37). At its best it pierces to our very foundations, analyzing and revealing us to ourselves (Hebrews 4:12). It must build on Bible exposition, for people have not understood a text unless they see how it bears on their lives. Helping people see this is the task of application, and it is much more complicated than is usually recognized. As we have said, preaching to the heart and to the culture are linked, because cultural narratives profoundly affect each individual’s sense of identity, conscience, and understanding of reality. Cultural engagement in preaching must never be for the sake of appearing “relevant” but rather must be for the purpose of laying bare the listener’s life foundations.
Expository preacher Alec Motyer sums it up this way. He says that we have not one but two responsibilities when we preach. “First to the truth, and secondly to this particular group of people. How will they best hear the truth? How are we to shape and phrase it so that it comes home to them in a way that is palatable, that gains the most receptive hearing, and . . . avoids needless hurt?”17
These are the two tasks of preaching, and there is one key to both of them—preaching Christ. This is not a discrete task to add to the other two but is rather the essence of how you do each of them. Remember that biblical accuracy and Christocentricity are the same thing to Paul. You can’t properly preach any text—putting it into its rightful place in the whole Bible—unless you show how its themes find their fulfillment in the person of Christ. Likewise, you can’t really reach and restructure the affections of the heart unless you point through the biblical principles to the beauty of Jesus himself, showing clearly how the particular truth in your text can be practiced only through faith in the work of Christ.
Kathy once pointed out to me that the earlier parts of my talk might be a good Sunday-school lecture, but the moment I would “get to Christ” the lecture turned into a sermon. You may want your listeners to take notes on much of the sermon, but when you get to Christ, you want them to experience what they were taking notes about.
The famous nineteenth-century British preacher Charles Spurgeon was bold in his insistence that every sermon lift up Jesus for all listeners to behold. He complained that he often heard sermons that were “very learned . . . fine and magnificent,” yet all about moral truth and ethical practice and inspiring concepts and “not a word about Christ.” Here is what he says about such preaching, evoking the words of Mary Magdalene: “They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. I heard nothing about Christ!”18 He is right. Unless we preach Jesus rather than a set of “morals of the story” or timeless principles or good advice, people will never truly understand, love, or obey the Word of God. What Spurgeon calls for is harder than it sounds and rarer than you would think.
So there are two things we must do. As we preach, we are to serve and love the truth of God’s Word and also to serve and love the people before us. We serve the Word by preaching the text clearly and preaching the gospel every time. We reach the people by preaching to the culture and to the heart.
Then there is what God must do. He brings the Word home to our hearers through the “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:4). According to Paul you can preach with genuine spiritual power only if you offer Christ as a living reality to be encountered and embraced by those who listen. This means to preach with awe and wonder at the greatness of what we have in Christ. It means to exhibit an uncontrived transparency, showing evidence of a heart that is being mended by the very truth you are presenting. It entails a kind of poise and authority rather than an insecure desire to please or perform. So your love, joy, peace, and wisdom must be evident as you speak. You should be something like a clear glass through which people can see a gospel-changed soul in such a way that they want it too, and so that they get a sense of God’s presence as well.
How do all these things happen? They all happen as we preach Christ. To preach the text truly and the gospel every time, to engage the culture and reach the heart, to cooperate with the Spirit’s mission in the world—we much preach Christ from all of Scripture.
If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.
—1 Peter 4:11
The unfolding of your words gives light.
God’s Word and Human Skill
In the first Protestant preaching manual, The Art of Prophesying (1592), William Perkins wrote, “The Word of God alone is to be preached, in its perfection and inner consistency.”1 This may seem to many today to be an obvious point. Of course a Christian preacher or teacher should be communicating the Bible, they say. In Perkins’s cultural moment, however, this was not obvious. For many preachers of his day, “[God’s] grace was not irresistible. It needed to be supported by eloquence. . . . The faithful needed the miraculous power of preaching to buttress the Scripture.”2
Preaching in England at that time had become filled with verbal pyrotechnics, thick with ornate language, classical allusions and quotations, poetic images, and soaring rhetoric. Of course, preachers were still beginning with Bible passages—but very little time was given to actually unfolding the texts. They seemed to think the Bible needed a lot of help. A baseline confidence in the power and authority of the Scripture itself had been lost.
William Perkins and his contemporaries reacted against “the cultivated oratory” of their time. They believed that the main aim in preaching had been lost: that we let the Bible itself speak, so it can pour forth its own power. The early part of Perkins’s brief volume spends substantial time establishing that the Bible is God’s perfect, pure, and eternal wisdom and that it has the power to convict the conscience and penetrate the heart.3 Perkins knew that communicators’ beliefs about the character of the Bible had a major effect on how they actually handled it. Do we, as communicators of the Bible, truly know that it carries God’s own authority and power? If we do, we will be more focused on unfolding its insights than on using it merely to support our own. “The preaching of the Word is the testimony of God and the profession of the knowledge of Christ, not of human skill,” argues Perkins. He quickly adds, however, “but this does not mean that pulpits will be marked by a lack of knowledge and education. . . . The minister may, and in fact must, privately make free use of the general arts and of philosophy as well as employ a wide variety of reading while he is preparing his sermon.” These things should “not [be] ostentatiously paraded” before the congregation.4
Perkins means that the purpose of preaching is not to present the results of your empirical investigation or philosophical reasoning or scholarly research. Nor is it to sense an insight or burden—one that you believe has been put on your heart by God—and then hunt for a biblical text that gives you an occasion for telling people what you want to tell them anyway. The purpose of preaching is to preach the Scripture with its own insights, directives, and teachings. Along the way, as Perkins says, we can and must use all the “arts” to help our hearers understand the biblical author’s meaning. All of this is done in subservience to the first great task of preaching: to preach God’s Word, and to let listeners sense its very authority.
Expository and Topical Preaching
What is the best way to do that?
Hughes Oliphant Old has written a magisterial seven-volume series on the history of preaching.5 Old looks at Christian preaching in every century and in every branch of the church—Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, and Pentecostal—and, by the end of the survey, at churches on virtually every continent. The scope and variety of his research are breathtaking. In his introduction to the series he names five basic types of sermons that he discerns over the centuries, which he calls expository, evangelistic, catechetical, festal, and prophetic.
He defines expository preaching as “the systematic explanation of Scripture done on a week-by-week . . . basis at the regular meeting of the congregation.”6 The other four types of preaching may at first glance seem quite different from one another, but in one key respect they are the same. Unlike exposition, these other four forms of preaching are not necessarily organized around a single passage of Scripture. That is because the main purpose of each is not the unfolding of the ideas within a single biblical text but rather the communication of a biblical idea from a number of texts. Old calls this broad approach “thematic” or “topical” preaching. The topical sermon may have any one of several aims. It may be to convey truth to nonbelievers (evangelistic preaching) or to instruct believers in a particular aspect of their church’s confession and theology (catechetical preaching). Festal preaching helps listeners celebrate observances in the church year such as Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost, while prophetic preaching speaks to a particular historical or cultural moment.
There are, then, in the end, two basic forms of preaching: expository and topical. Throughout the centuries both have been widely used—and, as Old demonstrates, they must both be used. For example, in the book of Acts Paul did Bible exposition in a synagogue but employed topical oratory, using no Scripture at all, in the public square of Mars Hill. His points were all truths taken from the Bible, but the method of presentation was more like classical oratory in which he set forth theses and made arguments in their favor. In Paul’s judgment, it was not appropriate to offer a careful Bible exposition to an audience who not only disbelieved in the Bible but also was profoundly ignorant of even its most basic assumptions. Evangelistic occasions are, then, one place where more topical Christian messages may be appropriate.
There are other occasions when the basic message you want to share is a biblical one, but it may not be possible to say enough of what the Bible has to say on your subject from one passage alone. Imagine you want to teach college students what the Bible says about the Trinity—that God is one and three. There is virtually no single biblical text that would enable you to expound this profoundly biblical doctrine. Instead you will need to quote and cite several texts to support the teaching. In expository preaching, by contrast, your job is to go wherever the single text takes you. The points of the message emerge as the text is explained, as its meaning is drawn out.