“Preaching” by Timothy Keller: A Short Review

Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism  In the introduction of his new book, Preaching, Timothy Keller gives the general theme of the book:

“As we preach, we are able to serve and love the truth of God’s Word and also to serve and love the people before us.  We serve the Word by preaching the text clearly and preaching the gospel every time.  We reach the people by preaching to the culture and to the heart” (p. 23).

Keller’s book is not a detailed manual of preaching or homiletics.  Instead, it is a short (240 smallish pages) explanation of the things Keller has learned about preaching over many years of pulpit ministry – grounded in Scripture and aimed at people’s hearts.   There are three main parts: 1) Serving the Word (pp. 27-90), 2) Reaching the People (pp. 93-187), and 3) Preaching and the Spirit (pp. 191-210).  There’s also a very short appendix on how to write a sermon.  I did enjoy this book, and do recommend it; however, I would say that this book is good but not great.  Let me explain:

THE GOOD:
1) Keller very clearly emphasized the need to preach Christ in every sermon and from every part of Scripture.  There’s no moralism here.  (As a side, I did have a few questions about how Keller got from a text to the gospel – sometimes his moves seemed bit far-fetched.)
2) The book gave some detail on preaching to actual people – people who have hearts, intellect, beliefs – the people listening to sermons.  Yes, preachers must preach God’s truth, but they always do so to real people!  Keller is good at helping preachers understand this.
3) The book is full of the wisdom of an experienced preacher.  Keller has not only been a preacher for a long time, but he’s been a student of preaching just as long.  I don’t have the time here to share all the excellent insights Keller gives about preaching God’s Word, but it does have many excellent themes and parts.

THE NOT GREAT:
1)
Some of the material in this book is also found in other books Keller has written.  For example, I’ve read “Center Church” and some of Keller’s work on apologetics and idolatry, and I could see clear overlap.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but about 60% of the material in Preaching is found in his other books (not verbatim, however).
2) I’m not convinced by Keller’s three levels of the ministry of the word: 3) preaching from the pulpit, 2) teaching (Sunday School, small groups, blogging, etc.) and 1) casual conversation.  He says this book is meant for levels 2 and 3, but I highly doubt that blogging and preaching are as close as Keller makes them – nor do I think this book has much to do with Christian blogging!
3) The subtitle of the book should be tweaked to say something like, “How to preach to urban skeptics.” I enjoyed many of the sections where Keller explained how to preach to skeptics, but it did seem to be the major emphasis of the book. Again, it’s a good discussion, but preachers also need help preaching to people (Christians and non-Christians) in suburbia or more rural settings.

In a word, this is a short book on how to preach Christ-centered sermons with a focus on presenting gospel truths to urban skeptics. However, even if you’re not a preacher in an urban/skeptical context, you’ll benefit from this book quite a bit. Although I do have a few minor critiques of the book, I do very much recommend it. Christian preachers can always use more lessons in presenting the gospel!

Timothy Keller, Preaching (Viking: New York, 2015).

shane lems

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6 comments on ““Preaching” by Timothy Keller: A Short Review

  1. dantespencer says:

    But if preaching is the Lord addressing his people by his written word (i.e., the church is for the worship of God by his saints), then why would there be any talk about preaching to urban skeptics? The only example of unbelievers in a worship service is 1 Cor 14:24-25 where it does not say they were invited – it as if they were curious and came in on their own accord – and were converted by ease dropping as it were on the preaching of Christ. I think that is the right way to view nonchristians in a church service. There is no sense here of the preaching being intended for them, they were outsiders and the Spirit illumined the word to them (Acts 13:48; 16:14) while the man of God was concerned with feeding the flock. The only other possible instance of unbelievers in a church service I can detect is Jas 2:2-3. As always, thanks for the review!

    • Good points, Dante. That thought did cross my mind, but I’m still thinking about it. Glad you noted it here!
      shane

      • dantespencer says:

        Consider the monumental 2 Cor 5:16-17 with regard to preaching: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation….” God spoke his written word to his people (Kline, Structure) and so the servant of the word addresses the church as “in Christ” (cf. the Dennisons in Kerux). It’s not about 21st century this or postmodern that. “To the saints in Christ” is how Paul addresses his letters. Those outside of Christ in the old creation can over hear the word preached to the sheep, but it breaks the dialogical nature of worship to turn and directly address those not in Christ’s body.

        • Makes sense – worship is a covenantal assembly, after all. I don’t disagree with you.

          One thing, however, that keeps me thinking are those texts in Scripture where Paul (or another apostle) preached to mixed crowds (such as in Acts). Or I’m thinking of when Jesus preached to mixed crowds. I guess this topic has to do with evangelistic preaching (or whatever one might call it), and it might depend on the context and situation. I don’t think it’s wrong to address unbelievers in the pews (especially if the text warrants it), but the whole sermon shouldn’t be aimed at unbelievers.

          Thanks!
          Shane

  2. “I enjoyed many of the sections where Keller explained how to preach to skeptics, but it did seem to be the major emphasis of the book. Again, it’s a good discussion, but preachers also need help preaching to people (Christians and non-Christians) in suburbia or more rural settings.”

    Thanks for this observation, Shane. Given that the book gravitates to a pole, I cannot tell from this whether the polarity itself is urban/rural or sceptic/confessor. Still, some (eg Janice Knight, Paul Cefalu) posit an interesting difference in C17 Reformed homiletics between preaching lyrically to the presumptively regenerate (eg Richard Sibbes) and preaching didactically to those preparing their hearts for grace (eg William Ames). Perhaps Keller’s book discusses a C21 homologue of the latter.

    • Bowman: I said that the main emphasis was preaching to urban skeptics. And thanks for the note on Sibbes and Ames; that does remind me how some older homilietics writing listed the various types of listeners. Good point! shane

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