Five Ways to Preach to the Heart

Tim Keller describes preaching to the heart as preaching affectionately, imaginatively, practically, wondrously and Christocentrically. Keller’s book Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism will be released next month.

The notes below are from the fourth and final lecture in a series on preaching Keller did at RTS in November 2014 (see notes from lecture 1, lecture 2, and lecture 3).

[The notes pick up at the seventeen-minute mark after the introductory comments about the nature of “the heart” from a biblical perspective.]

Preaching to the Heart (17:00)

1. Preach Affectionately

The main way to preach to the heart is to preach from the heart. There are only three possible ways to preach: 1) flat affect, unengaged emotionally 2) acting, performance of emotions, 3) engaged heart, genuine emotions.

  • Know your material so well that you are able to preach from the heart, so you won’t be distracted by the fact that you don’t know what to say next. You must not be tied to your notes. You can’t look down at your notes and read to your audience about how wonderful Jesus is.
  • Watch the subtext, the non-verbal message that comes across because of your attitude. Derek Thomas says one of the possible subtexts is “I read Louis Berkhoff this week and I want you to know it.” The two subtexts to be careful about: 1) “Aren’t we great?” We believe this and not that. 2) “Don’t you think I’m great?” Someone who tries very hard to look good and confident. 3) The subtext should be, “Isn’t Jesus great?”
  • Have a great prayer life. When you talk about the holiness or wisdom or love of God, the people ought to sense your awe of his holiness, dependence on his wisdom and delight in his love. You should be tasting the food you’re feeding the children. When you talk about God, they should see you yearning for him. This genuine awe/dependence/delight is developed through prayer.

2. Preach Imaginatively (28:00)

The heart is more affected by illustrations than propositions in general. Jonathan Edwards didn’t tell many stories but used metaphors all the time. Stories elicit emotions, but metaphors both instruct and affect. “Turn the ear into any eye” (Spurgeon).

Example 1. Proposition: Your good deeds cannot save you. Metaphor: Your good deeds cannot save you, any more than a spider web can stop a falling rock. This appeals to the senses because you’ve seen this kind of thing happen. It informs the mind, but also affects the heart.

Example 2. Cain in Genesis 4. God says, “Sin is crouching at the door.” Rather than just saying, “Sin wants to destroy you,” God says, “Sin is like an animal crouching at the door ready to spring on you in attack.”

Example 3. in 2 Samuel 12 Nathan the prophet tells King David the story of the rich man who stole the poor man’s beloved lamb. The most direct sermon illustration/application in the history of the world. “You are the man!” (v. 7)

Example 4. Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie). The occupants of the railway car were all accomplices to the murder. If we wonder what’s wrong with the world, we must conclude, “We’re all in on it.”

3. Preach Practically (39:00)

Dan Doriani has written the most comprehensive books on how to apply. Mark Dever has a lot of great stuff on application 9Marks site. There is some debate on the extent to which we should apply the text to begin with. For instance, Andy Stanley says in Preaching for a Change says we shouldn’t do expositional preaching, but rather we should lift up a human need and then bring in the Bible to address that human need. Stanley’s concern (appropriate) is that often people who stress expositional preaching spend time on exegesis but do not spend enough thought effort on helpful application. Stanley’s solution to the problem may not be right, but he’s addressing a real problem.

Example. Once when preaching on the topic of honesty, Keller called up a few people and asked what common lies were in their field of work. Political lies: “I’d love to go but I’ll be out of town that day.” Or, “I think your writing is too sophisticated for our readers,” when really it is terrible. Business lies. Don’t say publicly that things are fine when everyone on staff know they are not.

  • Be careful your applications don’t all have the same personality. They can’t all be warning. They can’t all be comfort/encouragement. Sometimes, we should beware of this, that our applications are guided more by our personalities than they are by the text. But application should be guided by the text.
  • Think of different kinds of people. What in this text for a non-Christian? What’s in this text for a mature believer? What’s in this text for a immature, struggling, or new Christian?
  • Get into dialogs. Imagine the objections to your application and tease it out in your application. “Some of you might think….” When it comes to application, this is a good place to go off script…when you sense a pliable moment.

4. Preach Wondrously (47:25)

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote an essay On Fairy Stories trying to explain the appeal of fantasy writing. The reason we can’t get enough of such stories is that there is something in the human heart that longs for stories where people 1) escape from time, 2) escape from death 3) have love without parting, 4) have communication with non-human beings, and 5) where good finally triumphs over evil.

If Jesus was raised from the dead, then all these things Tolkien says we long for will be our experience. Do you preach as if these things are realities? The gospel fulfills the deepest longings of the human heart.

For non-Christians, you might point out, “Don’t you at least want this to be true?” For Christians, urge them to live as if these wonderful truths are true.

5. Preach Christocentrically (53:00)

Kathy often says that when I get to Jesus the sermon goes from being a Sunday school lecture to being a sermon.

Example. The Beatitudes describe not different groups of people but rather the complete portrait of what every Christian should be. Lloyd-Jones said in one sense this is how you become a Christian. But how’s it possible? (following Iain Duguid a bit…)

  • Why is it possible for us to be rich as kings? Because Jesus was stripped and became poor.
  • Why is it possible for us to be comforted? Because Jesus cried mourned and cried in the garden in the dark and on the cross.
  • Why is it possible for us to be filled with righteousness? Because Jesus said, “I thirst.”
  • Why is it possible for us to inherit the earth? Because Jesus became the meek Lamb of God.

When you get to Jesus, people stop taking notes and the Sunday school lesson becomes a sermon.

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