Category Archives: Pastoral Ministry

J. C. Ryle’s Five Hints for Simplicity in Preaching

ryle1bJ. C. Ryle’s preaching advice deserves at least as much attention as his amazing beard. After forty-five years in ministry as a preacher, J. C. Ryle delivered a lecture entitled “Simplicity in Preaching.” He recounts his early years in ministry, preaching to laborers and farmers in a rural parish. He remembered hearing of a farmer who enjoyed Sunday more than any other day in the week, “Because I can sit comfortably in church, put up my legs, have nothing to think about, and just go to sleep.”

Ryle learned that preaching with simple clarity was extremely important, and yet extremely difficult. By “simple” Ryle did not mean to imply childish or simplistic. Rather, he gives these five hints for attaining elegant simplicity: use clear thoughts, simple words, simple style, direct style and many stories.

First, take care that you have a clear view of the subject upon which you are going to preach. (Clear Thoughts)

Ryle says this is the most important of the five. “If you yourself begin in a fog, you may depend upon it you will leave your people in darkness.” Ryle says spending too much in obscure prophetic passages or the book of Revelation will not lead to simplicity. Such passages are “almost impossible” to make simple. Ryle doesn’t say to avoid these books, but only to handle them “occasionally, at fit times, before a suitable audience,” and only if you really understand the passage. Other advice in this section: 1) don’t force true doctrine out of the wrong text, 2) have clear divisions in your sermon, even if they aren’t explicit, 3)  the divisions should serve as hooks or pegs to help people remember your sermon, and 4) examine and analyze sermons which draw people together. Ryle says he regularly examine C. H. Spurgeon’s preaching because it was able to hold together a large crowd. “How thoroughly [Mr. Spurgeon] brings before you certain great truths, that hang to you like hooks of steel, and which, once planted in your memory you never forget!”

Second, try to use in all your sermons, as far as you can, simple words. (Simple Words)

Ryle isn’t necessarily suggesting single-syllable words only, but rather “words which are in daily common use amongst the people.” Ryle points out that knowing your audience is important here. The extent of your vocabulary should vary based on the education of your audience.

Third, take care to aim at a simple style of composition. (Simple Style)

“Beware of writing many lines without coming to a pause…Write as if you were asthmatical or short of breath.” Remember that a reader is able to help himself by looking back a few lines and refreshing his mind. The listener would be helped by a verbal equivalent. That is, the preacher should continually restate his idea in various ways. State your point fully, then offer the same idea in a proverb or epigram (something that’s tweetable). Ryle says that tweetable comments are of “vast importance” (maybe a slight paraphrase).

“Proverbial, epigrammatic, and antithetical sayings…give wonderful perspicuousness and force to a sermon. Labour to store your minds with them.”

Fourth, use a direct style. (Direct Style)

Address your congregation directly. Use ‘I’ and ‘you’ rather than ‘we’. Ryle says, “I remember good Bishop Villiers saying that ‘we’ was a word kings and corporations should use, and they alone, but that parish clergymen should always talk of ‘I’ and ‘you’.

Fifth, use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations. (Many Stories)

Stories are “windows through which light is let in upon your subject.” Jesus used illustrations, metaphors and stories constantly. If you pause in your sermon and say, “Now I will tell you a story,” then it might wake the sleepers. Therefore, preachers should heed the Arabian proverb, “He is the best speaker who can turn the ear into an eye.” Ryle says, “Illustration, I confidently assert, is one of the best receipts for making a sermon simple, clear, perspicuous and easily understood.” Yet he also warns that there is a limit. Overly detailed or drawn out stories, or too many of them in a single sermon, may be as dangerous as having none at all.

In some concluding words, Ryle says,  “We must talk to our people when we are out of church if we would understand how to preach to them in church.” And then he reminds the preacher that all the skill and simplicity in the world is useless without prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the grant of God’s blessing, and a life corresponding in some measure to what we preach.

Seven Marks of a Healthy Church

The seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3 represent Jesus’ assessment of what was good and what was not good in these churches. These were actual churches in historical cities in modern-day Turkey (Asia Minor), but in many ways, these individual churches represent churches of all time. The virtues they demonstrated as well as the flaws that marked them are shared in common by churches of every age.

So we can take these letters together, and assess the health of our own church by what we find here. The overall themes are doctrinal fidelity, holy behavior, gospel witness, and sincere, lively love toward God. Any church could assess itself against the seven qualities that Jesus calls these churches to exhibit. Each point of assessment could be accompanied by a set of diagnostic questions to help determine the church’s state of health.

  1. Authentic Love (2:1-7, Ephesus). They were commended for rejecting false apostles, but critiqued for abandoning their first love. They had doctrinal fidelity without sincere love. Jesus calls them to correct this discrepancy in their church by pursuing authentic love which combined concern for doctrine with zealous affection for God.
    • Is our church high on doctrinal fidelity, but low on spiritual passion, especially in the form of witnessing of Jesus to non-Christians? Do new people tend to come to our church because of our doctrinal depth or because of our spiritual passion?
  1. Enduring Faithfulness (2:8-11, Smyrna). Jesus has only commendation for Smyrna. Because of their faith in Christ, they are materially poor, and yet they are spiritually rich. As slander, economic exclusion and persecution increased for them, Jesus calls them to enduring faithfulness. The need is for fidelity in the midst of oppression.
    • Is our church prioritizing faithfulness to Jesus over acceptance in society? Where dominant cultural trends are at odds with the Christian faith, are we maintaining a counter-cultural stance?
  1. Pure Teaching (2:12-17, Pergamum). In some ways, the church in Pergamum was the opposite of Ephesus. Pergamum was holding fast to Jesus amid extreme opposition, and yet they were permitting false teaching in the church. Jesus calls them to repent and remove the false teachers from the church. Jesus calls them to pure teaching.
    • Is there any teaching in our church that does not align with Scripture, but we aren’t dealing with it because it would be too difficult, or we’re afraid it might hurt feelings?
  1. Holy Separation (2:18-29, Thyatira). Jesus commends them for being full of good works, but rebukes them sharply for tolerating sexual immorality as well as pagan idol worship. Jesus calls them to separate themselves from every form of idolatry and immorality.
    • Are we turning a blind eye toward members in our church that we know are indulging in various forms of immorality or blatant worldliness? What are some clear examples of worldliness that cannot coexist with faith in Jesus?
  1. Gospel Behavior (3:1-6, Sardis). Jesus commends a handful of Christians in Sardis who have been faithful, but he has nothing good to say about the church as a whole. They have not continued in living as faithful followers of Jesus. The letter is not specific about precise features of their unfaithfulness, but there are some clues that they have not continued witnessing the good news of Jesus Christ. Beale points out that if Christians in Sardis had “maintained too high a Christian profile in the city, they would likely have encountered persecution of various sorts.”
    • Does our church’s service in our local community reflect the gospel to anyone outside the church who observes us? If our church vanished from the city tomorrow, would anyone notice that we were gone?
  1. Bold Perseverance (3:7-13, Philadelphia). Jesus has nothing negative to say to the church in Philadelphia (as with Smyrna). Philadelphia receives a similar exhortation, but with a particular emphasis on continuing to speak of Jesus with others, even though they may feel weak or intimidated. Jesus encourages them continue in boldness despite opposition.
    • How frequently are the members of our church (collectively) speaking of Jesus to those around them? As society more broadly rejects theistic explanations of reality, how faithful are we in continuing to point others to transcendent truth as revealed in Jesus?
  1. Spiritual Vitality (3:14-22, Laodicea). Smyrna was spiritually rich but materially poor. But Laodicea is the other way around. They say, “I am rich and prosperous.” But Jesus says, “You are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” This church is on the verge of not being considered a believing community at all. Jesus says to them to beware of the dangerous position they are in, repent of these obvious patterns of sin in their faith community, and to renew their sincere commitment to Jesus.
    • Is there clear evidence that members of our church are regularly repenting of sin? What demonstrations of continuous renewal of commitment to Jesus do we see in our church?

Every one of these letters concludes with this exhortation: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” These letters demand reflection that results in Spirit-empowered transformation, both for individuals and congregations.

Convincing Skeptics of Christianity

Timothy_KellerAdaptation of gospel communication to persuade secular skeptics is a skill that Tim Keller has carefully developed. Those who want to communicate the gospel in the current cultural milieu would do well to listen to Keller’s advice in this areas. Below are notes from his lecture on his topic, the second in a series on preaching.


There are three components to good preaching (and a fourth…but not really). You must preach biblically, attractively and powerfully [from the first lecture: What is Good Preaching?]. The fourth is to preach Christ, but this is actually the only right means to doing the other three. You will never really restructure the affections of the heart apart from preaching Christ.

The goal of this lecture: How to convince people who are skeptical about Christianity because they’ve been secularized (whether secularized Christian or non-Christian). This topic is a sub-category of contextualization (definition: the unavoidable way in which you culturally incarnate any explanation of the gospel: your cadence, emotional expressiveness, illustrations you choose, your language. As soon as you open your mouth, you move yourself toward some and away from others).

Three Problems With Contextualization

1. There are problems on both sides: you can overtextualize or undercontextualize. If you overcontextualize, your church will be full but no one will be changing, because largely you’re just confirming with them. If you undercontextualize no one will come. You may be preaching valiant-for-truth sermons, but they’re off-putting in style.

2. Your culture is largely invisible to you, so it is difficult to see where you’re communication decisions are reflections of your own culture. Don’t ask a fish to write an essay on water.

3. The idea of contextualization is difficult to define.

Four Principles for Adaptation (9:00)

Four things that Paul does when adapting to various groups of non-Christians. These are drawn particularly from Eckhard Schnabel’s book Paul the Missionary.

1. Paul used shared or well-explained vocabulary.

Our evangelical churches used to stand within a canopy of basic Christian understanding in the broader culture (knew the terms and doctrines), but this is increasingly not the case. Therefore…

Be careful about using theological terms without giving explanation

E.g. dispensational, hermeneutics, amillennial. If you act like everyone in the audience is a Christian, then your people will not bring non-Christian friends. How you preach will largely determine the makeup of your audience.

Be careful about using biblical words that are actually evangelical jargon

E.g. backsliding, lukewarm, spiritual warfare, seeing fruit, great fellowship, blessing, opening up doors, walking with the Lord. These are fine terms, but although people understand them within the subculture, “outsiders” don’t necessarily comprehend.

Be careful of using “prayer language” that is unnecessarily archaic and sentimental

E.g. just really, I echo that, I’ve really been released from that, your witness, your testimony, a God thing, a total God thing. People may find these kinds of terms cloying, sentimental, abnormal. Some of this language may “feel spiritual” but in effect excludes the outsider. At Redeemer Presbyterian, we get rid of that. People say we don’t feel very spiritual. Not that we are disrespectful or lack elegance, but it makes people from the evangelical world feel alienated. However it doesn’t make secular people feel alienated.

2. Paul used respected authorities to supplement what he was saying from the Bible. (20:00)

Paul quotes Eratus in Acts 17. Some feel like its not a great idea to cite secular authorities, but if you’re talking to people who don’t trust the Bible, then what’s wrong with quoting people they respect who happen to agree with the Bible?

Idolatry: If you’re talking about idolatry, have no other gods before me, then quote David Foster Wallace (postmodern, novelist, non-Christian, cool and sophisticated): “Everbody worships something. Everbody’s worshiping,” from his Kenyon College commencement address.

Absolute Morality: If you’re talking about God as lawgiver and absolute moral laws. Quote MLKJ Letters from Birmingham Jail. He points out that the only way you can judge if a human law is unjust is if it contradicts God’s law (then quotes Aquinas). Or go to W.H. Auden, who went into a theatre and saw a news reel with depictions of Jewish people yelling “Kill the Jews.” He was shaken up because he realized he had no way of saying they were wrong. “I always thought civilized people would be enlightened.” Auden eventually moved back toward Christianity because of this.

The Devil: If you’re speaking about the Devil, quote Andrew Delbanco, The Death of Satan. “Secular people have no vocabulary to deal with evil.” He cites FDR who was slow to believe in the death camps of WWII. Delbanco tells the story of FDR going to church and asking the pastor about Kiekegaard, who taught him about original sin. C.E.M. Joad (British intellectual, atheist) Recovery of Belief, “It was because we rejected the doctrine of original sin that we on the Left were always being disillusioned by the behavior of the peoples, nations, and politicians and by the recurring fact of war. Because I didn’t believe in original sin I couldn’t understand why nothing was working.”

Nature reveals God: If you’re speaking from Psalm 19 and the evidence of God in nature, then cite Leonard Bernstein, “Listening to Beethoven’s Fifth, you can’t help but get the feeling that there’s something right with the world, something that checks throughout, something we can trust, something that will never let us down.” Keller says, this is Bernstein’s way of saying he can never believe in God…except sometimes.

Sin: If you’re saying something about sin, quote Lauren Slater, “The Trouble of Self-Esteem” (article in NYT magazine)  “The higher the self esteem the more bad things the person does. Its actually the people with low self-esteem who are usually better citizens.”

3. Paul ratified some of their beliefs, and then confronts them on the basis of that shared belief (found points of contact and contradiction)

In Acts 17:28, Paul quotes a pagan, “We are his offspring.” Then Paul argues that since we are his offspring, we should not think of the divine being as material substance we can fashion into images. Schnabel says, “Paul uses the quotation as an argument against his listeners’ rapprochement with the reality and diversity of the religious cults.” Paul uses their own belief “against” them. This is how all persuasion works.

Example 1: How do you get across to people that the Bible is authoritative in everything it says? This is difficult because secular culture is a culture of self-autonomy. You could say, “Isn’t it true that there is no perfect culture? No ultimate, superior culture? Every culture has good and bad elements?” This is a baseline narrative of secularism, pluralism. Next step: But what if the Bible is not from any particular culture, but rather from God? Then it would have to offend everyone at some point. It would have to confront every culture at some point. In other words, the Bible agrees that no culture is perfect.

Example 2: The baseline cultural narrative of loving relationship. You could say, “If there was a God, wouldn’t you want a personal loving relationship with him?” In a personal relationship, isn’t it true that if one person always wins the arguments, then the other person is being trampled on or not being honest to self. So if you’re in a personal relationship with God, then he must be able to contradict you at times.

Key Point: Take the baseline cultural narrative and use it “against” them.

Example 3: Cultural diversity. People need to live together despite differences. Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission, Points out that 90% of all Muslims live in one part of the world (Middle East/North Africa/South Asia), 88% of Buddhists live in East Asia, 98% of Hindus live in India. But about 25% of Christians live in Europe, about 25% live in Central/South America, 22% in Africa, 15% in Asia, 12-15% in North America. “Christianity is the only major religion that has spread out. Almost certainly Christianity exhibits greater cultural diversity than any other religion and that must say something about it.” So we must ask why. Whose Religion is Christianity? Lammin Sanneh says that Africans have turned to Christianity because it is the most culturally flexible of all worldviews. The gospel has no Leviticus…it undermines cultural superiority by rooting identity in Jesus Christ, rather than a particular cultural identity.

4. Paul solved people’s personal problems by presenting Jesus as the solution. (47:30)

When you’re preaching, you don’t want to spend Sunday morning only evangelizing non-Christians but not edifying the saints. So you must preach the gospel as the answer to every problem. The gospel is the motivation to do the things that you are calling people to do. “If you always exhort believers…grounded in what Jesus Christ did, then every time you are preaching to the Christians, you’re also preaching the gospel.” What’s great about that is that then secular people who are coming are hearing the gospel every week. Late moderns actually want to know how the gospel works in someone’s life. What does it look like fleshed out?

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.