Advice for preachers of every stripe

Review of "Preaching" by Timothy Keller

Why would you read a book about preaching when you aren’t a preacher? You might be asking yourself this question as you – someone who is possibly neither a pastor, a seminary student, nor a lay preacher – begin to read this review. That’s a legitimate question, but don’t let it keep you from reading Keller’s book, based on decades of experience as a minister of the Word. Though Keller’s book is directed particularly to working leaders such as preachers and teachers (and many Christian Courier readers are among them), he says it “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.”

Keller points out that preaching has two objects in view, namely the Word and the people who are listening to it. He asserts that “it is not enough to just harvest the wheat; it must be prepared in some edible form or it can’t nourish and delight.” He quickly adds that any ensuing changes in listeners’ hearts are due only to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, who converted people in the early days of the church – think of Lydia in the book of Acts: “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (Acts 16: 14b) – and has been doing so ever since.

If preaching is to be sound and reach people in their cultural context, what will it look like? Keller writes that it’s a matter of preaching Christ from all of Scripture, not just the New Testament. Every sermon, whether based on an Old Testament or a New Testament text, must connect to the vast biblical narrative, “showing how Christ is the final fulfilment of the text’s theme.”Preachers need to have confidence in the Bible’s inspiration and authority. If they don’t, Keller says, their lack of conviction will be evident in their sermons and teaching: “Instead of proclaiming, warning and inviting, you will be sharing, musing and conjecturing.”

Though preachers may hold a deep conviction of the Bible’s authority, they nevertheless function in a culture, Keller points out, that is “becoming more and more averse to authority, particularly religious authority.” He asks how effective biblical exposition is in that context and answers by citing Charles Spurgeon, the great nineteenth-century Baptist preacher, who claimed that we need not defend the Bible. It can defend itself. Spurgeon wrote, “The way to meet infidelity is to spread the Bible. The answer to every objection against the Bible is the Bible.”

For me, Chapter 7 (“Preaching and the Spirit”) is the most relevant, inclusive section of the book. Preachers of every stripe, including those who share the gospel with their neighbours on the sidewalk or over the backyard fence, can gain from Keller’s advice to “prepare the preacher more than you prepare the sermon.” Preachers need to preach Christ and Christ alone, but that is never attained through technique. Rather, Keller says, “it comes down to your spiritual life as a preacher. Are you ‘sensing Christ on your heart’ as you preach? Are you, in a way, meditating and contemplating him during the very act of preaching? Are you actually praising him as you talk about his praiseworthiness? Are you actually humbling yourself as you talk of your sin?” He adds that these things will happen only if the preacher is cultivating them through a regular routine of prayer, Bible reading and meditation on God’s Word.

Keller offers comfort for preachers, including himself, who are overwhelmed by all the challenges they face and by all that they need to learn. He points out 2 Corinthians 12:9 where Paul proclaims that God’s power is made perfect in his weakness. As preachers learn their absolute dependence on the Holy Spirit, they will be exactly where God wants them to be. Keller says, “Tremendous freedom comes when we can laugh at ourselves and whisper to him, ‘So! It’s been you all along!’”

Now, that’s a truth worth celebrating no matter who you are and with whom God leads you to share the gospel!

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