What is Good Preaching?

tim-kellerBelow are notes from the first of Keller’s four lectures delivered at the 2014 John Reed Miller Lectures on Preaching at RTS Jackson (November 11-13). The four lectures cover Kellers three things to do in order to be a good preacher: preach biblically, attractively, and powerfully. The first lecture includes introduction and a briefer explanation of preaching biblically. The remaining three lectures cover preaching attractively and powerfully. Keller is currently writing Preaching: Communicating Faith in a Skeptical Age (June 9, 2015).

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:28-29)

Good vs. Great Preaching

This lecture is not about great preaching, but about how to do good preaching.You can’t take responsibility for whether you preach a great sermon, but you should take responsibility for whether or not you’re a good preacher.  Acts 16:34, “the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message.” Paul gave a message and it was his responsibility to deliver it well, and yet it was God who opened Lydia’s heart.

It’s your job for the sermon to be good (study the passage, be accurate, skill with language, etc.) but it’s up to God to make it great. He has to work on the heart; you can’t control that.

What makes a sermon great is the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit; what makes a sermon good is how well you have worked at it. Good preaching is the altar. Great preaching is the fire that God sends down on the altar. Its not your job to try to light the altar; but simply to build the altar with good preaching.

3 Things To Do In Order to Be A Good Preacher

Here are three “witnesses” that agree on three components of good preaching.

Theodore Beza said there were three great preachers in Geneva: William Farel, Pierre Viret, amd John Calvin. “The most fiery and passionate and forceful was Farel; the most eloquent was Viret – audiences hung on his skillful and beautiful words; Calvin however had the weightiest of insight. Calvin had the most substance, Viret had the most eloquence, and Farel had the most vehemence. If any preacher could be a composite of these three men, he would be absolutely perfect.”

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his son a letter about sermons, specifically homilies in Catholic churches (1944), “They are bad aren’t they, most of them from any point of view. The answer to the mystery is probably not simple. For preaching is an art, yet preaching is complicated by the fact that we expect in it not a performance, but truth and sincerity and also at least no word, tone or note that suggests the possession of vices such as pride or hypocrisy, or defects such as folly or ignorance in the preacher. Good sermons therefore require some art, some virtue and some knowledge” [basically, the same three things Beza was talking about].

St. Augustine wrote the first homiletical manual in the history of the church, part four of his work on Christian doctrine. There he remarked on the instruction of Cicero, the prince of Greek rhetoricians, who believed there were three components to rhetoric: 1) plain style – to prove and to reason, 2) middle style – to rivet and delight, and 3) grand style – to stir people to act. There were best practices for each of these styles. Which style was emphasized was to be based on one’s own personality as well as the occasion. Augustine says the preacher must employ all three of Cicero’s styles if you are going to honor the authority of the Bible. Because people need not just their reason informed but also their imagination captured. And yet you are also trying to get people to give their entire lives. You musn’t separate these three from each other. “Nobody should preach every text the same way. You need to honor the rhetorical style of the passage. You must let the Scriptures inform the proportion or your rhetorical style.”

Galatians 4 is the plain style – instruction, didactic, logical
1 Corinthians 13 is the middle style – beautiful
Romans 8 is the grand style – soaring

Now for the three components of good preaching…

1. Preach Biblically (Word, Text)

“Him we proclaim.” Seminaries tend to put ninety percent of emphasis on this point, but far less on skillful language, persuasiveness, connecting with people’s emotions, culture, and hearts. Thus this series will begin here, but spend more time on the following two points in the coming lectures.

Preach the text, not your opinion. Know the authorial intent – what does the text say in original historical context? And what about canonical context?

Expostory preaching…
grounds the sermon in the text
grounds all the points of the sermon in the text
majors in general in the majors of the text
is doctrinally sound (systematic theology)
is Christocentric (biblical theology; canonical context of the Bible is that it is about Jesus)

Hughes Oliphant Old (7 volumes on preaching) says there have been five kinds of sermons in the history of the world: expository, catechetical, evangelistic, festal, and prophetic. Basically this can be distilled into two types: expository and all the rest (thematic/topical). Thematic: topic determines the text. Expository: text determines the topic. So basically these are the two kinds of preaching, expository and topical.

Hughes Oliphant Old makes the case that in the Bible you have both types. Paul does not do expository preaching in Acts 17, but rather thematic oratory; though in Acts 13 in the synagogue he does expository preaching. But the normal diet for a congregation should be expository (Derek Thomas’ article “Expository Preaching” in Feed My Sheep).

Five Benefits of Expository Preaching
1) Teaches about the authority of God’s word.
2) Let’s God set the agenda for what will be discussed.
3) Rests the authority of what you say on the text.
4) Exposes your people to a greater range of topics and avoids hobby horses.
5) Teaches your people how to study the Bible as well

P.T. Forsyth, “The true ancestor of the Christian preacher is not the Greek orator, but the Hebrew prophet.” (Forsyth, Positive Preaching and Modern Mind)

5 Dangers of Expository Preaching
1) Doesn’t recognize the mobility of our society – given the transience where people may only be in the church for two years, do you really want them to only hear one book of the Bible that entire tenure?
2) Can be boring because if you spend too long in one particular book of the Bible, the fact is that most books of the Bible have only one or two main themes. Thus staying in one book for a year or more doesn’t expose people to the full range of biblical teaching.
3) Tendency is to only explain the text but not connect to people culturally and emotionally. There is a tendency among expository preachers to say, “As long as I’m telling people the truth, the other aspects of preaching don’t matter.”
4) Restricts your speaking ability to expounding a text, which means you are not developing skill at speaking evangelistically.
5) Every place I’ve seen expository preaching emphasized, it ends up being over-defined.

2. Preach Attractively (Heart, Imagination)

“Warning everyone.” How do I penetrate through barriers to belief in Jesus? This means preaching contextually and going after cultural blindness. Not just stating propositions but using metaphors that get the imagination going. Preaching practically and interestingly.

3. Preach Powerfully (Spirit, Move People)

“Struggling with all his energy.” Preaching and embodying the sermon personally. The love joy peace wisdom that you exhibit as you are speaking have to be such that you are showing people a gospel-changed soul such that they want it to, and yet this must not be a performance. But genuinely a soul that has been broken and repaired by the truth of the gospel.

Non-deliberate transparency – not just telling self-deprecating stories to appear to others to be transparent. But non-programmed spiritual authenticity. This is the result of your prayer life, experience, spiritual maturity as time goes on.

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