Tim Keller on Preaching

I posted on Tim Keller’s reasons for expository preaching yesterday. Having read the book (well, I didn’t read all the footnotes – and there are a lot of them!), here is a summary.

Overall the book is excellent; and while it will appeal first and foremost to preachers, there is some valuable material on understanding where the culture is and how to engage some of its foundational narratives.

The material is set out in three main sections. The first – Serving the Word – consists of three chapters on preaching the word, preaching the gospel every time, and preaching Christ from all of Scripture.

It’s in the first chapter that Keller discusses the value of expository preaching (see yesterday’s post). Raising the question of how effective expository preaching is likely to be in a culture that resists religious authority (and is not too keen on most kinds of authority), Keller uses Spurgeon’s analogy of defending a lion (just let the lion out). Preachers should invest their energy in preaching the Bible more than describing it or arguing about why people should believe it.

Those who are already familiar with Tim Keller’s ministry may recognise the themes of the next two chapters – on preaching the gospel every time and on preaching Christ from all of Scripture. If the message of the Bible as a whole is ‘salvation comes from the Lord’, and this through Jesus, then a preacher has not finished expounding a text until the text has been set in this canonical context. As Spurgeon said, every town in England has a road in it that leads to London: the preacher has to find the road from text to Christ.

Keller argues that both legalism and antinomianism are enemies of the gospel and that both are healed only by the gospel.

Chapter 3 proposes that ‘the key to preaching the gospel every time us to preach Christ every time.’ This means preaching Christ from every genre or section of the Bible, preaching Christ through every theme of the Bible, in every major figure of the Bible, from every major image in the Bible and from every deliverance story line.

Preaching is not just about the preacher’s responsibility to the word, but must also include the preacher’s responsibility with regard to the audience; so the middle section of the book comes under the heading of Reaching the People. This section also consists of three chapters: preaching Christ to the culture, preaching and the (late) modern mind, and preaching Christ to the heart.

In chapter 4, Keller sets the scene by describing the changing situation of an increasingly secularising Western world. He goes on to suggest six practices for preaching to a culture:

  • Use accessible vocabulary (in other words, avoid the jargon)
  • Employ culturally respected authorities
  • Demonstrate an understanding of doubts and objections
  • Affirm in order to challenge baseline cultural narratives
  • Make gospel offers that push on the culture’s pressure points
  • Call for gospel motivation

Chapter 5 develops the theme of late modernity’s narratives, drawing on the work of Charles Taylor. The argument is basically that before the impact of Christianity, ‘virtually all cultures had a fundamentally impersonal view of the universe.’ Against that, Christianity taught that the universe has been created by a loving God who made people for a personal relationship with him. Late modernity has taken the results of Christian ideas (for example the progress of history, the dignity of individuals) but has cut them loose from their roots. Keller proceeds to work his way through five of these narratives. At the end of the chapter, reflecting on the teaching of Paul on wisdom and his witness in Athens, Keller says that,

The philosophies of the world will come and go, rise and fall, but the wisdom we preach – the Word of God – will still be here.

Chapter 6 rounds out the middle section of the book by discussing how to preach to the heart – not merely the emotions, but the centre of the personality, the centre of someone’s attention and commitment.

What the heart most wants the mind finds reasonable, the emotions find valuable, and the will finds doable.

Preaching has to do more than communicate truth to the mind: it has to make truth real to the heart. Keller proposes several components:

  • Preach affectionately – ‘If you want to preach to the heart, you need to preach from the heart.’
  • Preach imaginatively (the use of illustrations)
  • Preach wondrously – ‘we should always strive to let the wonder sink in’
  • Preach memorably
  • Preach Christocentrically
  • Preach practically

The chapter closes with a number of suggestions on application.

The final main section of the book – In Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power – has just one chapter – on preaching and the Spirit. The chapter underlines the difference between ‘gift operations’ and ‘grace operations.’ In our ‘age of technique’, society has emphasised results, skill and charisma, but neglected character, reflection and depth. Outstanding giftedness may mask the lack of grace operations in a preacher’s life.

You must be something like a clear glass through which people can see a broken but gospel-changed soul in such a way that they want it for themselves.

The whole thing is bookended by an introduction and a prologue at the front and an appendix on writing an expository message at the back. In the appendix, Keller clarifies that he has not written a complete text book on preaching; nonetheless he concludes with a chapter on the ‘how to’ of preparation, which he sums up in four stages:

  1. Discern the goal of the text
  2. Choose a main theme for the sermon
  3. Develop an outline around the sermon theme
  4. Flesh out each point with, among other things, illustrations and practical application.
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