Keller Speaks, Preachers Listen

Keller Speaks, Preachers Listen September 7, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 2.31.46 PMOne of the favorites of preachers today is Tim Keller, so his new book on preaching will be read by many preachers. It is called Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Viking, 2015).  I will be probing here and there in this new book this month, and hope to engage those who preach in a conversation about preaching.

Keller opens with three levels of preaching (Level, 1, 2, and 3). Observing that lots of words for preaching are used in the Bible, he lands on Colossians 3:16 as Level 1: one on one conversations where believers instruct one another. Level 2 he uses for the spiritual gift mentioned in 1 Peter 4:10-11: “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.”  He sees here the conveyance of the word of God through counseling, evangelizing, and teaching. Level 3 is the more formal sermon.

Distinctions like this need to be made for there is a difference between the “Sunday sermon” and the routine communication of Christians in which some instruction or exhortation can be found. I tend, however, not to see the difference so much between levels (he was wise to make ordinary Christian conversation Level 1) as between who and when. That is, lay people vs. clergy (or one gifted to preach vs. one not gifted with such), and between what goes on all the time vs. what goes on in special didactic, kerygmatic sessions. Regardless, the distinction is worth making.

But what is a great or a good sermon?

Keller: “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” (10). He continues with this:

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 (11).

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 (12).

Keller, using three Reformation era preachers as illustrations, sees three emphases in different preachers but all three together become the “perfect” preacher: substance, eloquence, and vehemence (passion). He spends more time on eloquence with these summary statements:

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.

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 (14).

In that set of observations, Keller is getting to the heart of his own preaching themes, and he uses 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5 as his model.

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 (17).

So, to get to the two big themes of preaching he sees at work in Paul, he asks what are the two marks of preaching?

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 (20).

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) (21).

That is, his two big themes are Word and People. Between these two he shows that Word means Christ, which is an extremely important clarification because when we distinguish Word from the Person behind the Word or the Person who is the Word, we lose our way into ideology and away from the God-ness of God at work in all genuine Christian preaching — Level 1, 2, or 3!

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