Preaching is the latest book by Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and a well-known author. It is superb. It is probably the most helpful book on preaching that I have read, ahead of Between Two Worlds by John Stott.
No doubt the book is stronger because Keller has been a practitioner of preaching for 40 years. But that is not enough. Keller is extremely insightful and incredibly well-read. He draws on a wealth of scholarship.
My bottom line: This book is a goldmine. I wish I had read it when I was a young preacher, but I’m glad to have read it now. If I could have young preachers – or older preachers for that matter – read one book on preaching, this would be it. Do yourself and your people a great favor and go out and read this book as soon as possible.
He has seven chapters on the art of preaching.
Chapter 1: “Preaching the Word”
In the first chapter, Keller emphasizes that we must focus on the Word of God. He makes the case that the normal way to preach should be expository preaching. He gives six reasons why expository preaching is so important.
- “Expository preaching is the best method for displaying and conveying your conviction that the whole Bible is true” (p. 32).
- “A careful expository sermon makes it easier for the hearers to recognize that the authority rests not in the speaker’s opinions or reasoning but in God, in his revelation through the text itself” (p. 36).
- “Expository preaching enables God to set the agenda for your Christian community … Expository preaching means you can’t completely predetermine what your people will be hearing over the next few weeks or months. As the texts are opened, questions and answers emerge that no one might have seen coming” (p. 36).
- “A related reason is that expository preaching lets the text set the agenda for the preacher as well. It helps preachers resist the pressure to adapt messages too much to the culture’s preferences. It brings you to subjects that you would rather not touch on and that you might not have chosen to address, since some of the Bible’s positions – on subjects like sexuality – are so unpopular right now” (p. 37).
- “A steady diet of expository sermons also teaches your audience how to read their own Bibles, how to think through a passage and figure it out” (p. 38).
- “Sustained expository preaching keeps you away from pet themes and gets you into a greater range of passages and subjects. Yet it also should lead you to see even more clearly the one main biblical theme” (p. 38).
Chapter 2: “Preaching the Gospel Every Time”
Keller argues in this chapter that we should preach Christ in every message and specifically preach the gospel in every message, that the gospel is the fitting conclusion to every sermon on the Bible. He begins with an extensive section on legalism and antinomianism and shows that the answer to both is the gospel. He ably supports the claim that Christ is the theme of the entire Bible, and that if you preach Christ and the gospel every message you will be showing your people how the Bible fits together into this one grand theme, the gospel of Jesus.
“Any sermon that tells listeners only how they should live without putting that standard into the context of the gospel gives them the impression that they might be complete enough to pull themselves together if they really try hard. Ed Clowney points out that if we ever tell a particular Bible story without putting it into the Bible story (about Christ), we actually change its meaning for us. It becomes a moralistic exhortation to ‘try harder’ rather than a call to live by faith in the work of Christ. There are, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: Is it basically about me or basically about Jesus? In other words, is it basically about what I must do or basically about what he has done?” (p. 60).
“The only way to avoid what Whitefield is describing – the person spiritually searching for a relationship with God falling into the universal trap of moralistic religion – is to preach Christ from every text of the Bible, to preach the gospel every time” (p. 63).
“So we have a balance to strike – not to preach Christ without preaching the text, and not to preach the text without preaching Christ. Charles Spurgeon tells of a Welsh minister who spoke to a younger minister about his sermon after hearing it. ‘It was a very poor sermon,’ he told the young man. ‘Will you tell me why you think it a poor sermon?’ came the response. ‘Because,’ said the Welsh minister, ‘there was no Christ in it.’ ‘Well,’ said the young man, ‘Christ was not in the text; we are not to be preaching Christ always, we must preach what is in the text.’ The exchange continued:
“‘Don’t you know young man that from every town, and every village, and every little hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London?’ ‘Yes,’ said the young man. ‘Ah!’ said the old divine, ‘and so from every text in Scripture, there is a road to the metropolis of the Scriptures, that is Christ. And my dear brother, your business is when you get to a text, to say, “Now what is the road to Christ?” and then preach a sermon, running along the road towards the great metropolis – Christ. And,’ said he, ‘I have never yet found a text that had not got a road to Christ in it, and if I ever do find one that has not a road to Christ in it, I will make one; I will go over hedge and ditch but I would get at my Master, for the sermon cannot do any good unless there is a savor of Christ in it’” (p. 67-68).
Chapter 3: “Preaching Christ from All of Scripture”
“The key to preaching the gospel every time is to preach Christ every time, and the key to that is to find how your particular text fits into the full canonical context and participates as a chapter in the great narrative arc of the Bible, which is how God saves us and renews the world through the salvation by free grace in his Son, Jesus Christ” (p. 70).
Keller gives us six ways or categories to preach Christ from all of Scripture:
- Preach Christ from every genre or section of the Bible.
- Preach Christ through every theme of the Bible.
- Preach Christ in every major figure of the Bible.
Jesus is the true and better Adam, who passed the test in the garden and whose obedience is imputed to us (1 Corinthians 15).
Jesus is the true and better Abel, who, though innocently slain, has blood that cries out for our acquittal, not our condemnation (Hebrews 12:24).
Jesus is the true and better Abraham, who answered the call of God to leave the comfortable and familiar and go out into the void “not knowing whither he went” to create a new people of God.
Jesus is the true and better Isaac, who was not just offered up by his father on the mount but was truly sacrificed for us all. God said to Abraham, “Now I know you love me, because you did not withhold your son, your only son whom you love, from me.” Now we can say to God, “Now we know that you love us, because you did not withhold your son, your only son whom you love, from us.”
Jesus is the true and better Jacob, who wrestled with God and took the blow of justice we deserved so that we, like Jacob, receive only the wounds of grace to wake us up and discipline us.
Jesus is the true and better Joseph, who at the right hand of the King forgives those who betrayed and sold him and uses his new power to save them.
Jesus is the true and better Moses, who stands in the gap between the people and the Lord and who mediates a new covenant (Hebrews 3).
Jesus is the true and better rock of Moses, who, struck with the rod of God’s justice, now gives us water in the desert.
Jesus is the true and better Job – the truly innocent sufferer – who then intercedes for and saves his stupid friends (Job 42).
Jesus is the true and better David, whose victory becomes his people’s victory, though they never lifted a stone to accomplish it themselves.
Jesus is the true and better Esther, who didn’t just risk losing an earthly palace but lost the ultimate heavenly one, who didn’t just risk his life but gave his life – to save his people.
Jesus is the true and better Jonah, who was cast out into the storm so we could be brought in.
- Preach Christ from every major image in the Bible.
- Preach Christ from every deliverance story line in the Bible.
For example, the story of David and Goliath really points to Christ as our deliverer from sin and death.
- Preach Christ through instinct.
Chapter 4: “Preaching Christ to the Culture”
Keller emphasized that we not only preach the Bible but that we also preach to people in a specific culture. This is a strong chapter on being culturally sensitive and aware, so that we can address the issues and questions that people in our culture are asking. For example, we should use language that people understand, rather than Christianese. He argues that we can strengthen our points by using respected authorities from the culture. You might argue: “Well my people are all believers and so they don’t need any authorities from the culture.” But if you do employ authorities from the culture and avoid Christianese and demonstrate an understanding of doubts and objections of secular people, then your people, believers, will begin thinking to themselves: O, I wish I would have invited that friend here today. However, if you’re not culturally sensitive they will make contrasting mental notes: I will never invite a non-Christian friend here.
Chapter 5: “Preaching and the (Late) Modern Mind”
Chapter 5 is not an easy chapter. He basically gives an analysis of much of the culture in America today to help the preacher become aware of some of the basic assumptions that we need to be aware of that need to inform us in our applications and illustrations.
“The late-modern mind presents itself as something like this. We have come to realize that we don’t need God to explain the world we see – science does that job for us. We don’t need God or religion to be moral, to love and work for a better world, or to have meaning and fulfillment in life. What we need is to be free to live life as we see fit and to work together to make the world a better and more just place to live. Religion gets in the way of all this – it constrains our freedom to live as we wish and divides us so we can’t work together” (p. 124).
He talks at length about the “narratives” or basic values of modern culture. He talks about an identity narrative of deep individualism. He talks about a freedom narrative – freedom from all constraints. “The only sin which is not tolerated is intolerance.” He also talks about a morality and justice narrative and shows that our culture knows there is some need for morality and justice, but has not basis for it. They are secular. And then finally he talks about science being the secular hope and the inadequacy of this foundation.
This chapter feels like it belongs in a book analyzing current culture rather than belonging to a book on preaching. It is not a quick read, but yet it is extremely valuable and worth the preacher’s time to work through.
Chapter 6: “Preaching Christ to the Heart”
In this chapter Keller says that preaching to the heart entails at least these six things.
- Preach affectionately. It should be clear that you yourself have been humbled, wounded, healed, comforted, exalted by the truths you are teaching. You cannot fake this. A rich, deep private prayer life is essential to preaching affectionately.
- Preach imaginatively. This means include appropriate stories and images and metaphors. Keller includes an excellent six or seven pages on illustrations, probably the best little section on preaching with illustrations that I’ve read.
- Preach wondrously. He argues that there are indelible, deep longings in the human heart for wonder and story and fantasy. Fairy tales are so powerful because they point to an underlying reality. People are looking for stories and words that evoke wonder.
- Preach memorably. This includes insight, depth. This kind of insight and depth will not be there apart from a depth of research and reading. Also, be sensitive to the difference between the written word and the spoken word. Be a student of orality.
- Preach Christocentrically. This has been a major point earlier in the book. Preach Christ in every sermon.
“Resist ending your sermon with ‘live like this,’ and rather end with some form of ‘You can’t live like this. Oh, but there’s one who did! And through faith with him you can begin to live like this too.’ The change in the room will be palpable as the sermon moves from primarily being about them to being about Jesus. They will have shifted from learning to worship” (p. 179).
- Preach practically. Be practical and relevant to everyday life. At this point Keller includes 4-5 pages of very helpful, practical insights, such as diversify your conversations patterns, partners, and your reading. Diversify the people that you are picturing in the congregation as you prepare. Weave application throughout the sermon and not just at the end. Use direct questions that you ask the congregation. Finally, be emotionally aware. This is a very strong section, as is this entire chapter.
Chapter 7: “Preaching in the Spirit”
How can we invite the Holy Spirit to work in our preaching?
“It has been reported that when George Whitefield was first approached with the idea of publishing his sermons, he agreed but noted, ‘You’ll never be able to put down the thunder and lightning on the page.’” (p. 193 – first paragraph in middle – is that to be added? Not sure.)
Whitefield was referring to the power of the Spirit. The best preachers combine both gentleness and warmth on the one hand and courage and authority on the other hand.
He argues that some preachers have an underlying message: “Aren’t we great?” Other preachers have an underlying message: “Aren’t I great?” There is a subtle message: “Don’t you think I’m a great preacher and don’t you think this is a great church? Don’t you want to come back, bring friends, and give money?” This is a performance mentality that is a form of selling. A third group of preachers have a subtext: “Isn’t this truth great?” These churches want to be fed, they want solid food. The focus of communication is completely on the insiders. A final group of preachers have an underlying message: “Isn’t Christ great?” This is what we want. This is the underlying message of worshiping Christ, which is at the heart of true preaching. Ultimately preaching is not about us at all, but about Christ.
In an appendix of 20-30 pages, Keller has an excellent section on how to write an expository message. He fleshes out the following four steps:
- Discern the goal of the text by itemizing all the things that it says and looking for the main idea that all the other ideas support.
- Choose a main theme for the sermon that presents the central idea of the text and ministers to your specific listeners.
- Develop an outline around the sermon theme that fits the passage, with each point raising insights from the text itself, and has movement toward a climax.
- Flesh out each point with arguments, illustrations, examples, images, other supportive Bible texts, and, most important, practical application.
This book is a goldmine. Again, I wish I had read it when I was a young preacher, but I’m glad to have read it now. If I could have young preachers – or older preachers for that matter – read one book on preaching, this would be it. Do yourself and your people a great favor and go out and read this book as soon as possible.