If you’re a preacher, you’ve probably got a short list of individuals and authors you look to for encouragement and advice. For me, these includes a few personal friends and mentors, as well as a number of well-known individuals. There’s a great deal I’ve learned about preaching from the works of Charles Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, from listening to men like Daniel Akin and Matt Chandler.
And then there’s Tim Keller. One of the things I appreciate about Keller is the fact that he holds his hearers’ attention without drawing too much attention to himself. He loves words and wordplay, but he’s not trying to entertain you (even though his humor is quite disarming)—he wants you to understand the Bible on its own terms, and to see Jesus in every jot and tittle. So when Keller set out to write a book on preaching itself, I was intrigued. Would he focus primarily on mechanics? Study habits? The C.S. Lewis saturation point in each sermon?
In Preaching, Keller chooses to take a different approach than other authors writing on the subject by primarily looking at Word ministry philosophically, asking readers to consider how preaching serves the Word of God, reaches people, and is a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.
Methodology and showing them Jesus
The first section of the book addresses the best methods for preaching. Keller encourages making expository preaching your typical approach, as it best “expresses and unleashes our belief in the whole Bible as God’s authoritative, living, and active Word” (35).
Topical preaching, on the other hand, can be helpful at times, and even necessary, but a steady diet of it doesn’t leave people appreciating the scope of God’s Word, nor grasping the Spirit’s power. Most importantly, it fails to show hearers how all of Scripture is about Jesus. He writes:
Try reading only one chapter out of a Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo novel without reading anything before or afterward in the book. Would you be able to understand and appreciate the chapter? Certainly you would learn about the characters, and some relatively complete narrative action or subplot could take place within the portion of the book you have read. But much would be inexplicable, because you wouldn’t know what came before, and many things that the author was doing in the chapter would be invisible if you didn’t see how the story played out. That is what it is like to read and preach a text of the Bible and not show how it points to Christ. If you don’t see how the chapter fits into the whole story, you don’t understand the chapter. (59)
Someone can give a great, inspirational message, but if Jesus isn’t there, if he isn’t made known, preaching hasn’t happened.
Contending for contextualization
The bulk of Preaching deals more with the issue of contextualization. Readers familiar Keller’s other works know that this is a hobbyhorse of his. Why? Because we don’t seem to understand what is meant by it.
By contextualization, he does not mean conforming and compromising the truth in order to make it palatable for a 21st century audience—instead, he means communicating the truth in ways that they can actually comprehend. Though there are some who adamantly deny we should do this at all, we are wise to remember that “no one can present a culture-free formulation of biblical truth”:
The moment you open your mouth, many things—your cadence, accent, vocabulary, illustrations and ways of reasoning, and the way you express emotions—make you culturally more accessible to some people and force others to stretch and work harder to understand or even pay attention to you. (102)
I was reminded of this reality a few months ago when speaking at a church in another community, and one illustration I made—referencing Calvin and Hobbes—just didn’t resonate. Because it was a very friendly and smaller group, there was a lot more freedom to adjust on the fly as I was preaching. So I asked, “How many of you know what I’m talking about right now?”
One person. That was, on my part, poor contextualization (though, honestly, one that probably couldn’t be helped), in the same way it would be were I to use the word “sanctification” with the grade four and five kids in our children’s ministry without explaining what it means.
Identifying the spirit of the age—correctly
But Keller goes one-step beyond simply reminding us that we need to remember where we are, but also reminds us of the need to correctly identify the spirit of the age. What Keller argues is that we are actually not in a post-modern age, but in a late-modern one. Citing Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age, he writes that,
…secular people are not more objective, but instead have embraced a new, constructed web of alternate beliefs about the nature of things that are not self-evident to all, are no more empirically provable than any other religious beliefs, require enormous leaps of faith, and are subject to their own array of serious problems and objections. (124-125)
What makes late-modernity unique, though, Keller says, is:
Nonsecular cultures are overt about their faith, and their members acknowledge the faith nature of their convictions. Many late modern secular people, however, don’t see or grant the leaps of faith they are taking.
And that is what presents the great challenge to preaching in our day. This has been put before our eyes in the most graphic way possible by the Planned Parenthood video scandal. They’re edited. They can’t be trusted. Think about the services women wouldn’t have access to without Planned Parenthood? A fetus is human, but not a person… On and on the arguments go, all seemingly without anyone taking a moment to really think about what’s being said.
That is the late-modern worldview at work. And that is what our preaching needs to combat. But even as we do, it’s wise to remember that, as Keller writes, “you are at odds with a system of belief far more than you are at war with a group of people. Contemporary people are the victims of the late-modern mind far more than they are its perpetrators. Seen in this light, the Christian gospel is more of a prison break than a battle.” (155-156)
Edifying the believer and reaching the unbeliever
Preaching matters not simply because it’s something we’ve always done, but because of what it does in people—or more correctly, what the Spirit of God does through in people through faithful preaching. When the Bible is faithfully preached, some people are challenged in how they have been living and believing. Others are strengthened and given new hope. Others still find the message abhorrent and want nothing to do with it. And this can happen all in the same sermon!
And that’s why this book matters, and why anyone engaged in any form of preaching ministry should carefully consider what Keller has to say in it. Preaching is not a book on “how to preach the Tim Keller way”. And for that I am grateful. It is a book about the primacy of preaching, a call to put our trust in God’s word on display, and to rely on the Spirit to work through our preaching as we strive to show Jesus as the real answer to those the late-modern mind cannot answer.
Title: Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: Viking (2015)