In Preaching, Timothy Keller argues for what makes good expository, Christ-centered, culturally-pointed preaching. In other words, he argues for and describes the type of preaching that is faithful to the biblical text, focused on the main theme of the Bible (Christ), and committed to communicating God’s truth in a way that a particular audience will understand it.
This kind of preaching lays bare the listener’s life foundations and brings the glorious truths of the Bible bear upon them. It preaches Christ through in every genre, every major figure, every major image, and every story line in the Bible. It is based on the foundation of Jesus’ example of explaining what was written in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:27). It requires the effort of not only understanding the Word, but the culture to which one is preaching, helping the preacher communicate the word effectively and expose the false hopes of any system outside of God’s revelation. Keller argues that these components, coupled with the power of the Holy Spirit working in the preacher and the audience, makes great preaching.
The flow of Keller’s book is very helpful. He begins by establishing the necessity of expository preaching that allows God’s Word to set the agenda. He then moves to show how Christ and God’s redemption through him is the main story line of the Bible- the story that is to be preached through every text. Next, he reveals the importance of preaching Christ to culture, and not just preaching general statements. He then puts this into action by addressing several narratives of Post (Late) Modernism and showing the reader how to apply the gospel to each of them. After this, he demonstrates how to preach Christ to the heart of the audience by being affectionate, engaging the imagination, evoking wonder, speaking memorably, and being practical. Finally, he ends where he began- by asserting that truly great preaching must come by the power of the Holy Spirit and exhorting preachers to pursue godliness by complete dependence upon Him.
I found Keller’s book to be extremely practical in the way that it combines the understanding of biblical preaching with our current cultural setting. The three primary concepts that I take away from it are his emphasis of preaching Christ through all of Scripture, preaching Christ to the heart, and preaching to the late modern mind. First, I cannot express the impact that Keller’s practice of preaching Christ through all of Scripture has had on me. I experienced the fruit of this kind of preaching by listening to many of Keller’s sermons during my sophomore year of college. It was his repeated ways of uniquely explaining and presenting the gospel that opened my eyes to the beauty of Christ and his work. His examples of preaching Christ in the different genres, figures, themes, images, and stories help avoid the error of giving the same gospel presentation at the end of every sermon. It also leads to facility in understanding the text correctly, in view of redemptive history as well as original intent, as opposed to imposing a superficial Christocentrism on every passage- a danger of anyone trying to preach Christ from every text. These examples provide the preacher with indispensable instruction on how to preach the Bible in what Keller calls “its fullness.” The balance lies in not attempting to discover some hidden analogy or metaphor to Christ in every text (an error I’ve been guilty of), but in demonstrating where the text lies in redemptive history, the canon, its genre, etc. and explaining how it culminates in or points to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Second, in Keller’s description of preaching to the heart, he encourages the reader to “preach affectionately.” There are two practical ways of facilitating this affection that I want to make sure to implement: (1) Knowing my material so well that I’m not absorbed in trying to remember my next point, and (2) Cultivating the necessity of a deep, rich, private prayer life. The first is practical: how can I truly preach affectionately if I have not savored what I’m preaching? And how can I truly apply it to my own soul and savor it myself and not know it? And how can I communicate it with affection if I’m scrambling to remember my third point or conclusion? I am resolved then, to know my material so well that if my son destroyed my notes on the way to church, I could still preach! The second admonition is self-evident: I cannot feign affection for God’s people or God’s Word without genuinely walking with God. This then is another admonition for why I should pursue a rich prayer life: who I am and how I am with God will come out in my preaching. Keller also includes the use of the imagination and evocation of wonder in sermons (primarily through illustrations), both of which I need work on in my preaching. He offers a very helpful description of such an illustration that I can begin to apply immediately, “The way to do it [illustrate imaginatively or evoke wonder through an illustration] is to connect a spiritual truth to the memory of a vivid sense experience the listener has had, “representing the spiritual in concrete language implying an almost physical intangibility.”
My final takeaway is the principle that I must preach Christ to the late (post) modern mind, as Keller calls it. I cannot assume people have a foundation of biblical knowledge, nor even an openness to it. I must therefore consider ways in which the gospel (and text at hand) applies to the current narratives of late modernity in both the positive and negative senses (the narratives Keller explains and responds to are rationality, history, society, morality, identity). The goal of this is the same as the rest of the book: communicating Christ effectively to the heart. Overall, Keller’s book helps equip the preacher to do just this, and for that reason, I would recommend it to anyone considering taking up the task of preaching or teaching God’s Word.