Tag Archives: preaching

How Can I Change?

On Sunday I had the chance to preach at the ministry I served at for years. Here’s my message on Luke 19:1-10.


A Little Handbook for Preachers: Ten Practical Ways to a Better Sermon by Sunday

Preaching books are a dime a dozen. Its really hard to find a preaching book that either says something unique or says something important in a unique way. So I don’t have much confidence in preaching books – especially books that give you X number of ways to be a better preacher or books that promise to make you a better preacher. Such books are often filled with superficial pieces of advice or don’t really work. So when I saw Mary Hulst’s 841288book: A Little Handbook for Preachers: Ten Practical Ways to a Better Sermon by Sunday I couldn’t help but be super skeptical. Nevertheless, I picked it up, thinking, what the heck, if I get one helpful idea from this book it will be worth reading it. In all honesty – I didn’t get one helpful idea from this book – I got so much more. In fact, as I’ve said before on my twitter account, this is officially one of my new favorite books about preaching.

Why am I so enamored with this book? It probably has to do with the fact that its not like your typical 10 Ways to do X or 7 Simple Steps to Y or 4.8 Habits of people Who Z. This book is filled with substance, it is at the same time theologically informed and practical. You know its not like your typical X number of ways to do Q kind of preaching books when the author says the best way to make your preaching better is to make it biblical! So many of the “simple ways” books are so consumeristic and seeker-pleasing, but this book begins by saying the most compelling thing our preaching can do is to be Biblical! What a surprise!

The second thing Hulst says we can do to make our preaching better is to stop telling people what do to – and to start telling them what God has already done, i.e. make your preaching full of grace. Don’t say stuff like:

  • If your relationship with God really is important to you, you will make a commitment to talk to him every day.
  • If you want to take discipleship to the next level, you will join a service team.
  • Isn’t it time you start investing your money into eternity?

Instead your preaching ought to change from “this is what you need to do” to “this is what we get to do” language. Our callings are a grace given to us, “so preach grace. Preach it often and preach it well, and watch how God gets to work.” (65)

One of the most helpful practical chapter is her chapter on “Compelling Preaching.” In this chapter she addresses the preachers problems of having too much information and lacking a well defined (oral) structure in our sermon. She suggests (reminding me of Andy Stanley) that we should be able to articulate our entire sermon in one sentence. Or as I like to say – the main idea of your sermon should be tweetable. To do that we need to get clear on what the bid idea of our sermon is. Once we do that the points in the sermon should illimuate the one big idea. She suggest that “to give our sermons clarity we need to do that hard work of picking one idea and letting the rest, for now, stay in our study.” Easier said than done! Nevertheless this is crucial to good preaching.

Here’s a sermon I preached right after reading this book. You can hear it here or on iTunes (Soma Sunday Nights)

There is plenty of other great things which I could say about this book, but I don’t want to rob you of the opportunity of discovering these things on your own. So I will just stop here….Let me just say one more thing.

I rarely tell people – you need to go out and buy this book. However, this is one of those books that I feel like all preachers need to buy. I haven’t really found a preaching book that is so practical and at the same time so theologically informed. Because it is theological and practical, A Little Handbook for Preachers is my new go to book for handing to new preachers.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.

John Calvin’s Goals as an Expositor of Scripture

For God there is nothing higher than preaching the gospel, because it is the means to lead people to salvation.[1]

            In his ministry John Calvin was in full agreement with Martin Luther’s saying that “the ears alone are the organ of a Christian”. (COP, 37) Calvin believed that the verbal proclamation of God’s word in Scripture, and by extension the hearing of God’s word proclaimed, was God’s primary instrument for Christian growth. For this reason, Calvin and the other pastors in Geneva were devoted to the primacy of preaching. However, Calvin’s ministry of the word extends beyond the verbal proclamation of Scripture in sermons, another important aspect of this ministry consisted of writing commentaries on Scripture. In this brief essay I will show that despite there being differences in style and emphasis, both types of exposition of Scripture serve the same ends for Calvin, namely the ends of bringing about the reformation of the church and the transformation of Christians.detail-of-john-calvin-by-oliver-crisp-cover-of-his-deviant-calvinism

Before we turn to comparing his sermons and commentaries we ought to say a few words about what good preaching to consist of for Calvin. We catch a glimpse of this when he lavishes praise upon Chrysostom’s homiletical method. First, Calvin lauds the fact that Chrysostom gave clear verse by verse expositions of Scripture. Second, Calvin praises Chrysostom for being supremely concerned with the simple sense of Scripture and not twisting the plain meaning of Scripture. Manetsch notes that Calvin believed that what “characterized Chrysostom’s preaching should be shared by all expositors of the Word: to proclaim the simple and natural sense of Scripture in a clear manner to instruct and edify the people of God.” (COP, 158)

Having noted what virtues Calvin believed preaching consists of we can now turn to comparing texts from both genres. The first feature which becomes apparent when putting these two genre’s side by side is his concern to treat the text verse by verse. In his commentaries this is a bit more explicit than in his sermons, however it is not hard to discern the places in his sermons where he begins to treat different verses. A second feature which is shared by these two genres are that they are both expository. In both his sermons and his commentaries Calvin aims to show what the authors of the text intended to communicate. This is often done by providing the literary background to the particular passage (i.e. setting the passage in context of the rest of the book) and explaining important features of the text. That both his commentaries and sermons are expository is seen in his treatment of Matthew 28:1-10. In both works he recounts what happened before and after the women meet Jesus and recounts the main contours of the story. In both works he goes into greater depth regarding important moments on which the narrative turns, i.e. the appearance of the angel and the fact that women are the first witnesses of the risen Christ. In noting these similarities, we see how in both types of writings Calvin displays his preference for verse by verse exposition and his conviction that Scripture ought to allow the text guide proclamation.



Despite these similarities we ought to point out some important differences between his sermons and commentaries. The first concerns the technical nature of these writings. For instance, Calvin’s commentaries tend to deal with issues of translation more than his sermons. For instance, in his commentary on Matthew 28:1 he devotes half a paragraph to how some translators have incorrectly rendered “the first day of the Sabbaths” as “one”, and explains their fault as being due to their ignorance of the Hebrew. In his commentary on Genesis 22 he finds fault with Jerome’s translation and interpretation of “the Land of Moriah” in verse 2, and again blames it on his ignorance of Hebrew. Discussions about ancient languages are mostly absent from his sermons. A second difference that is apparent is that Calvin treats historical backgrounds in greater depth in his commentaries than in his sermons. Two examples will suffice. The first concerns his treatment of the anointing of the dead by the “heathen nations” when commenting on the women going to anoint the body of Jesus. The second concerns a comparison between “poets” using the Deus ex Machina device in pagan literature and the nature of God’s intervention in providing a ram for Abraham. Discussions about these background features are absent in his sermons. Not only do we see differences in the technical nature of these texts, we also see a difference in how Calvin understands authorial intent. Though both sermons and commentaries focus on making clear the authorial intent, the particular author which is emphasized differs in both of these works. For example throughout his commentary on Genesis one would not be hard pressed to see the phrase “Moses intended” (or something like that) scattered throughout the text.[2] Thus we see that in his commentaries Calvin places a great emphasis on the human writer’s intent. However in his sermons Calvin tends to say phrases like “The Lord has wished to tell us…”, thus emphasizing the divine writer’s intent.[3] One final difference lies in the sort of practical applications Calvin draws out from his exposition of scripture. In his commentaries explicit practical applications are reserved to a sentence or two per section. Reading his commentaries, one gets the impression that Calvin can’t help himself but to make a comment about how to apply the text. It is almost as if he bursts out loud with application. For instance, in commenting on Genesis 22:12 Calvin adds a one-line application, “Now, since God enjoins upon us a continual warfare, we must take care that none desires his release before time.” (Genesis, 570) The fact that this is practical is signaled by the exhortatory nature of the comment and the use of “us.” Yet this theme is expounded upon in detail in his sermon on this chapter of Genesis. Calvin elaborates on what it means for us to be sent into “combat,” what sort of trials we face in combat, and how God equips us for combat. (McKee, 143).

It suffices to say that there are plenty of differences between Calvin’s commentaries and his sermons. His commentaries are far more technical and a lot less application heavy than his sermons. Given these observations we might wonder why Matthew Poole might come to the conclusion that as an interpreter Calvin is overly practical and not critical enough, thus justifying his exclusion from the 1669 Synopsis Criticorum.[4] Certainly his reputation as a “practical” exegete preceded him and led him to being left out. However, is this all there is to this story? I think not. Calvin’s belief that the exposition of Scripture serves the ends of bringing about the reformation of the church and the transformation of Christians is at the root of this undue reputation. This is why Calvin is more concerned with the authorial intent of the text than with what other interpreters are doing with the text. Critical commentators are often quite concerned with what others have to say about the grammar and features of the text, but Calvin is not concerned as much with these features unless they further an understanding of the authorial intent. Calvin also leaks application and theological comments throughout his sermon, thus making it seem as though he isn’t critical enough and too pastoral. However, coming to the conclusion that he is not critical enough because he provides application is a misunderstanding of his conception of scripture. Calvin is driven by an understanding that good exposition involves proclaiming the simple and natural sense of Scripture. Calvin believes that the simple and natural sense often simply is application. Application for Calvin isn’t always different from the authorial intent. This is why he often says things like ‘this is given to us as an example’ or ‘by those words we are taught’. The author intends this text to be applied, thus true exposition involves explaining the application. If Calvin is faulted for being too practical it is because Calvin believed that the text is inherently practical. To do something other than expositing the practical features of the text would be to fail to truly exposit the text.

In this brief essay we have seen how Calvin’s commentaries share some common features with his sermons and that they differ in some important ways. However, Matthew Poole’s comment has helped us to see that the difference between his commentaries and his sermons isn’t as large as some make it out to be. Calvin believed that the goal of preaching was to proclaim the simple and natural sense of Scripture in a clear manner to instruct and edify the people of God. This is also the goal of expositing the text of Scripture in technical works like commentaries precisely because it is the nature of Scripture itself, and the author’s intent, to have scripture be the primary means of “personal spiritual regeneration, the reformation of the church, and the transformation of society according to the righteousness of Christ.” (Manetsch, 146)

[1] John Calvin, in COP 148.

[2] See Genesis, pgs. 560, 567, 568, 570, and 573 for a few examples.

[3] See McKee pgs. 143, 144, and 150 for a few examples.

[4] In “Calvin’s Exegetical Legacy,” John Thompson has show that Calvin is technically not left out, although Poole does try to leave him out.

Kevin Vanhoozer on the Task of Preaching

What do we “do” as preachers? Are we giving people more information (biblical, practical, spiritual)? Are we giving them encouragement? Are we shaping their affections? Kevin Vanhoozer has a suggestion….

From The Drama of Doctrine:

The ministry of the Word involves far more than ideas. Thanks to a host of postmodern prophets, we are more aware than ever of the power of language to shape human thinking and experience. Language creates a “world,” that is a cultural framework in which we live and move and process our experience. Preaching, teaching, and evangelism are the means by which the gospel becomes that all-encompassing framework that allows us to think and experience truth, goodness, and beauty in light of the history of Jesus Christ. The Ministry of the Word involves more than communicating a few truths; it involves transmitting a whole way of thinking and experiencing. Preaching and teaching should be “evangelistic,” then, in the sense of enabling people to indwell the gospel (=evangel) as the primary framework for all that they say and do. (74)

So what do preachers do? They create worlds….world that are shaped by the gospel.


Sanctified by Grace – Preaching

A few days ago I began a blog tour on Kent Eilers and Kyle Strobel’s 2014 book Sanctified by Grace. Over the next few days I will be posting some highlights from various chapters, concluding with a review of the book as a whole. Today I turn my attention to the chapter on preaching.9780567383433

As a college minister I preach quite regularly. At times it can be a challenge (because preaching is always challenging)! But its extra challenging because I straddle the two seemingly opposing worlds of academic theology and pastoral/spiritual theology. Now most people would say, that these sorts of theology should never be in conflict – and I agree! I agree in principle, but in reality it doesn’t often work out as neatly as we would want it to work. Thankfully Eilers and Strobel have put together a book that helps straddle that gap. Here is what they say about this project:

Coordinating the doctrine of the Christian life to God’s economy of salvation and the practices which are fitting to redeemed existence is not one option among many. Rather, we suggest, this coordination between doctrine and life, belief and practices is integral to life within the movement of God’s Spirit. Within the dynamism of the Spirit’s formation, doctrine and life are pulled together in the broader picture of grace. (7)

Doctrine and life! Belief and practice! Pulled together! This is exactly what the church needs – and this is exactly what should be happening in our weekly preaching….

Preaching – William Willimon

Theology, the editors tell us, is never an end in itself; knowledge of God always breaks fort in love to others. A central outlet for this love is in preaching. (17) In the chapter on preaching Willimon emphasizes several things. First is that preaching revolves around

Will Willimon

hearing a God who speaks. The task of listening is often overlooked when talking about preaching, but it shouldn’t be! Not only does the congregation listen, but the preacher listens as well! The preacher must listen faithfully to the biblical text just as the congregation must listen faithfully to the word being proclaimed. Listening is not just a skill to be developed though. Listening is a spiritual exercise that hinges on the conditions of our hearts.

But perhaps even more central than listening is to preaching lays the notion that God speaks, and that somehow we speak because God has spoken, and that somehow in our own preaching God speaks! We have a loquacious God – who in our day primarily reveals himself in preaching.

One thing that I really appreciated about this chapter is the importance Willimon places upon the task of preaching. Nowadays many people tend to see preaching as superfluous or as belonging to a bygone era. But according to Willimon this should not be so. A primary way that the Christian life is formed and sustained is by preaching. Willimon rightly points out that in our culture, where preaching is charged with being authoritarian, archaic, or a one-way act of communication, Christians must learn how to be properly attentive to preaching. (227) Thankfully Willimon lists out some helpful practices which will aid in our faithful listening to sermons. Here are a few:

  • A willingness not to receive an immediate, practical, pay off from the sermon.
  • The expectation that a sermon could disrupt one’s received world by verbally rendering the coming Kingdom of God.
  • A patient willingness not to have every single sermon speak to you.
  • An understanding that preaching is a communal activity. A sermon is public speech.
  • A desire for a preacher, a pastor, who cares more for the right division of the Word of God than for the love or ire of the congregation.
  • A relinquishment of our prerogative to talk about what we are obsessed with discussing (sex, family, security, health and a docile willingness to engage in a conversation with a living God, talking about what God wants to talk about.
  • A vulnerability to the mysterious comings and goings of the Holy Spirit.

Life with a loquacious God demands disciplines of listening. These words from William Willimon are sure to help make us better listeners of this loquacious God.

Why do we Preach to People With Really Bad Memories?

Studies show that we will forget about 40% within the first 24 hours of learning something. If we wait another 24 hours before reviewing the information, we lose about 60% of it.  So if we were taking a test we could go from a grade of ‘A’ (100%) to ‘D’ (60%), to ‘F’ (40%) in just 48 hours. Now…. imagine how much the people you are preaching to might be forgetting? Kinda sucks right? Yeah it does. So if people forget 60% of what you say within two days, and a lot more by the end of the week, then why do we keep preaching? That’s the question that Brad Wheeler asks over at the 9Marks blog:

What good do all those sermons do, if we proceed to forget most of what we heard shortly thereafter? Well, we don’t forget everything we hear. I trust most of us can remember sermons that challenged how we thought about God, marriage, money, etc.—and we were forever changed. So let’s not write off the whole enterprise.

But beyond that, the weekly word in our morning messages is only meant to get us to next Sunday! In God’s weekly rhythm, he seems to grasp that come Sunday, we’re famished, and we need to be filled yet again.

My sermons, your sermons, they don’t have to remain with our people throughout eternity. It’s not meant to change their lives in that sense. They’re meant to sustain them until next week. One week at a time. Until heaven. And there, the word made flesh will dwell with us forever, and the need for sermons will be no more.

Mark Dever on the PhD and the Pulpit: “On Having a Doctorate in the Pastorate”

Should a pastor have a PhD? Is it helpful? Is it necessary? Mark Dever spoke on the assigned topic: “Why a PhD is Needed in the Pulpit” (mp3) but changed the title to “On Having a Doctorate in the Pastorate.” I outlined his brief remarks below and included some quotes from the questions and answers segment I found helpful.

Here’s the archive description: “Opening remarks and question/answer session conducted at the Feb. 27, 2002 meeting of the Graduate Club in the President’s Reception Room, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.”
Five Reasons a PhD May be Helpful for Pastoral Ministry

  • It may be helpful for the matter of what you study. If you pick something you’re edified by it can assist and help your ministry.
  • It may be helpful from the very form of the studies. Doctoral studies should improve your ability to research and at best your ability to think.
  • It may be helpful for the ministry you have while you’re in your doctoral studies.
  • It may be helpful for the connections you make through your studies. Consider the community and relationships you’ll build which may serve your ministry in the future.
  • It may be helpful for the credibility you may have with non-Christians and carnal Christians and Christians you don’t know very well.

A PhD is Certainly Unnecessary for Pastoral Ministry

  • Great learning can be ill-used.
  • You can become prideful.
  • You can do people little good – you may speak above people’s comprehension.
  • Little learning can be well-used
  • John Owen on John Bunyan – “If I could possess that tinker’s abilities for preaching I would most gladly relinquish all my learning.”

Conclusion: “Involvement in a good church is unquestionably far more helpful in the pastorate than a doctorate. But a doctorate can be useful in the pastorate. To say less would be misleading, but to say more, any more, would be false.”

For more of this post see Slavepj.com

I now blog at gospelize.me

Should a pastor have a PhD? Is it helpful? Is it necessary? Mark Dever spoke on the assigned topic: “Why a PhD is Needed in the Pulpit” (mp3) but changed the title to “On Having a Doctorate in the Pastorate.” I outlined his brief remarks below and included some quotes from the questions and answers segment I found helpful.

Here’s the archive description: “Opening remarks and question/answer session conducted at the Feb. 27, 2002 meeting of the Graduate Club in the President’s Reception Room, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Five Reasons a PhD May be Helpful for Pastoral Ministry

  1. It may be helpful for the matter of what you study. If you pick something you’re edified by it can assist and help your ministry.
  2. It may be helpful from the very form of the studies. Doctoral studies should improve your ability to research and at…

View original post 491 more words