Preaching: A Review

Mark Dever rightly notes, “Right preaching of God’s word is central to the church’s worship, forming its basis and core.”[1] It is the main role and responsibility of an elder of the local church to study and preach God’s Word. Paul tells young Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2) and to “do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). The responsibility of preaching God’s truth from His Word is at the very heart of what it means to be a Biblical elder. Because of this, the pastor must study, understand, and articulate what God’s Word means.

A myriad of books are available on the topic of preaching. Various volumes have disappeared along with the changing context in which they were written, while others remain as classics of this ever important discipline.[2] Within this array of books on the proclamation of God’s Word, Timothy Keller offers a helpful recent volume, one that is directly applicable to our current cultural context. This article attempts to summarize, synthesize and critique the content of Keller’s book Preaching.

About the Author

Timothy Keller is the founding and current pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. He also serves as the Chairman of Redeemer City to City, a global church-planting network. He is the author of many books, including The Reason for God and The Prodigal God. Keller was educated at Bucknell University (B.A.), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div), and Westminster Theological Seminary (D.Min). He has previously served as Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminar; he also served as the Director of Mercy Ministries for the PCA.[3] Put simply, Dr. Keller is widely respected as both a teacher and practitioner of effective ministry in a post-Christian context. For this reason and others, Keller’s book on preaching is a welcomed treasure in this cultural milieu.

Review

Books on preaching can easily become intermittent, dealing with various practical aspects within each chapter.[4] Generally speaking, these tend to be more multi-author collections, and can be tremendously effective in garnering and implementing practical preaching advice. Yet, other books on this topic focus more on a foundational level, explaining the theological purpose of preaching.[5] Few books, save the classics, helpfully sew these two elements together. In many ways, Keller offers a great combination of both foundational truth, and helpful theological practice. Preaching is separated into three distinct parts: (1) Serving the Word, (2) Reaching the People, and (3) In Demonstration of the Spirit and Power.

In part one, Keller lays a theological foundation appropriately, beginning with the truth of Scripture. This first sequentially builds upon itself, beginning with a definition of Biblical preaching in chapter one, focusing on preaching the gospel in every sermon in chapter two, and helping readers to preach Christ in every sermon in chapter three. As one easily notes, these chapters are sequentially dependent upon one another.

Part two then turns the focus upon the audience, those to whom the preacher is preaching. Within this section, Keller encourages and prescribes how to: contextually preach in this culture, chapter four; to the late modern mind, chapter five; and to the heart of the listener, chapter six.

Part three consists only of one chapter (seven) in which Keller synthesizes theological truth and practical application, focusing on what it means to have the Spirit while preaching. The book then concludes with acknowledgements and an appendix to help the reader through crafting an expository sermon.

Analysis

Preaching, like any other volume (on preaching or otherwise), has its own strengths and weaknesses. Keller’s book is distinct for a few reasons. First, Keller offers an appropriately accessible volume, while not negating theological truth. That is, as he seeks to defend and articulate theological practice, he does so in a way the average reader can understand—a constant staple of his many books. This accessibility can be summed up in the way Keller synthesizes his book in the final chapter: “Preaching and the Spirit.” In it, he articulates the three categories into which his book is separated: (1) a focus on the text, (2) an evaluation of context, and (3) an inventory of subtext.[6] Again, Keller does wonderful job surveying each of these categories, but his concluding synthesis is characteristic of his accessible style—articulating the truth in an engaging and comprehensible way.

Second, Keller offers a distinctive approach to Christocentric preaching. While others have sought to emphasize the work of Christ in every passage (e.g., Chappell’s “Fallen Condition Focus”), Keller takes this practice one step forward. He helpfully walks the reader not only through a general survey of Christ in the entire Bible, but how one might preach Christ from themes, images, types, etc.[7] This practice is certainly conducive to Keller’s own preaching. While one may critique the finer points of this method, Keller should be recognized for his helpful attempt to focus on the Savior in every proclaimed message. For Keller, no Biblical stone should be left unturned as we point to Christ. This zealous focus is to be commended.

Third, and arguably what sets Keller’s book apart, is his cultural apologetic. Keller wonderfully defends the practice of preaching in today’s post-Christian culture. He not only defends preaching, but he also shows how one might be successful in this practice amid a late-modern culture. In a time where reactionary positions are popular, Keller posits that Christians should hold a balanced position in their preaching. Instead of a cultural withdrawal in one’s Biblical proclamation, or an over “contextualized” message, Keller encourages readers to adapt “in order to confront.”[8]

This, one could argue, is at the heart of Keller’s message. He believes firmly in the power of the preached Word (see part one), yet does not think we should mindlessly relay it to our audience. Instead, Keller emboldens his readers to think thoughtfully about their congregations and their cultural context. By thinking about terminology, respected cultural authorities, popular doubts and objections, and cultural narratives, a preacher can be more effect in his preaching. More so, Keller notes how being aware of these variables can help the preacher “make Gospel offers that push on [these] cultural pressure points.”[9]

The one major concern that arises in Keller’s book is, simply, many of these chapters could be turned into their own volume. Especially upon surveying both Keller’s defense of preaching in chapter one, and his cultural analysis in chapters four and five, one senses that there is much more to be said on these topics. While all works like these are necessarily limited to provide accessibility, in numerous instances the reader simply wants more information. Certainly, this is not a negative element. It simply causes the reader to seek our more information on this important topic.

Keller’s purpose, seemingly, is to encourage preachers “to 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.”[10] By doing so, we should be “preaching compellingly, engaging the culture, and touching hearts.”[11] For Keller, simply preaching the Bible isn’t enough, but preaching Christ specifically to the culture that we’ve has been placed in. He is carrying on the exercise, as John Stott put it, of ministering “between two worlds.” He encourages the preacher to think deeply and thoughtfully about the Scriptures and to keep Christ at the center.

At the very same time, he encourages the preacher to think deeply and thoughtfully about his own cultural context. Taking these two spheres, Keller wonderfully admonishes the preacher, via the work of the Spirit, to bring them together.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Keller offers a volume that will help preachers for years to come. His brief, yet rich, prescription for today’s preachers is one that is timely, yet timeless. This is a volume that speaks loudly in our current time, yet offers truths that will be applicable for coming generations. For the reasons mentioned above, I would recommend to pastors, both seasoned and novice alike, Keller’s new book on this age-old practice.

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[1] Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012), 70.

[2] See D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Peabody: Hendrikson, 2010), John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004) and Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Message (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014)

[3] “Bio,” Timothy Keller; http://www.timothykeller.com/author/; accessed May 17, 2016; Internet.

[4] For example, Preaching Points by Scott Gibson or The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching ed. by Haddon Robinson and Craig Larson.

[5] For example, Preach: Theology Meets Practice by Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert.

[6] Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating in an Age of Skepticism, (New York: Viking, 2015), 200-01.

[7] Keller, 70-90.

[8] Ibid., 96-99.

[9] Ibid., 117.

[10] Ibid., 20.

[11] Ibid., 21.

Author: Chris Talbot

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