“The Preacher Who Takes Up Vos’ Biblical Theology…” (Clowney)

Preaching and Biblical Theology Over the past 15+ years I’ve come to a pretty strong conviction that an understanding of redemptive history is of utmost importance in the pulpit ministry.  Preaching that has no understanding of redemptive history is preaching that lacks.  There are nuances to this discussion of course.  I’m not an advocate of hyper redemptive-historical preaching.  And I believe there is a time and place in the pulpit for topical and doctrinal sermons as well as solid application.  Basically, my view is that the pulpit ministry should have a firm and balanced grasp of systematic theology and biblical theology, both of which should be generally evident in the preaching.  I like how Edmund Clowney spoke about this in his very good book, Preaching and Biblical Theology.

“There is…no opposition between biblical theology and systematic or dogmatic theology, though the two are distinct.  Systematic theology must draw from the results of biblical theology, and biblical theology must be aware of the broad perspectives of systematics. …The development of systematics is strictly thematic or topical.  …The development of biblical theology is redemptive-historical.”

Later Clowney mentioned Geerhardus Vos; I’ve always liked these paragraphs:

“The preacher who takes up Vos’ ‘Biblical Theology’ for the first time enters a rich new world, a world which lifts up his heart because he is a preacher.  Biblical theology, truly conceived, is a labor of worship.  Beside Vos’ ‘Biblical Theology’ should be set his little book of sermons, ‘Grace and Glory.’  There we hear a scholar preaching to theological students (the sermons were delivered in Princeton Seminary), but with a burning tenderness and awesome realism that springs from the grace and glory of God’s revelation, the historical actualization of his eternal counsel of redemption.”

Clowney then talked about the text and the pulpit.

“An old Dutch preacher has sagely observed that the pulpit must not drive us to the text, but rather the text must drive us to the pulpit.  In biblical theology that scriptural dynamic impels the preacher’s heart with unimagined strength.”

Edmund Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology, p. 18-19.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015


The Problems with Preaching

I’m enjoying Bryan Chapell’s book, Using Illustrations to Preach with Power.  In the opening chapter Chapell talks about some recent and valid criticism of preaching and sermons.  One study on sermons found that
(1) Preachers tend to use complex, archaic language which the average person does not understand; (2) most sermons today are dull, boring, and uninteresting; (3) most preaching today is irrelevant; (4) preaching today is not courageous preaching; (5) preaching does not communicate; (6) preaching does not lead to change in persons; (7) preaching has been overemphasized.
Another study similarly stated that
(1) sermons often contain too many complex ideas; (2) sermons have too much analysis and too little answer; (3) sermons are too formal and too impersonal; (4) sermons use too much theological jargon; (5) sermons are too propositional, not enough illustrations; (6) too many sermons simply reach a dead-end and give no guidance to commitment and action.
Even though we might not agree with every point, these criticisms do hit home.  It often happens – and I’m speaking from experience(!) – that a man graduates from a solid Christian seminary where he learned the great doctrines of Scripture.  He comes to the pulpit with tons of doctrinal phrases, technical language, complex outlines, few illustrations, and little application.  The sermon is sound theologically and biblically, but it is more of a teaching lecture for the classroom than a sermon for real life.  Yes, I’m guilty!
This is exactly why Chapell wrote Using Illustrations to Preach with Power:
This book contends that preachers who properly develop and use life-situation illustrations in expository messages already possess a powerful corrective for the crisis in contemporary preaching. Such illustrations live where people live. They communicate meaning by common experience and, thus, do not allow biblical truths to fly over heads or reside in the surreal world of doctrinal jargon and abstract principle. Through this vehicle, true communication takes place and sermons themselves are filled with vibrant life.

I’ll come back to this book later.  I do recommend it for pastors who want to preach better sermons – sermons that explain the truth of the Word, illustrate the truth of the Word, and apply it for God’s glory and his people’s good!

Bryan Chapell, Using Illustrations to Preach with Power, Rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 19-20.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Sermon Preparation and Preaching

Unashamed Workmen: How Expositors Prepare and Preach Preaching, like any other calling and skill, requires much preparation and continual training/learning.  Preachers are life-long students of the Word, of Christ, of homiletics, of people, of grammar/syntax, of stories, and so forth.  One book I recently read – and recommend – on the topic of sermon preparation is Unashamed Workmen edited by Rhett Dodson.

This book is a collection of articles and sermons written by experienced pastors who give an insight into their week in the study.  While there is some overlap, it was helpful to see the different ways these pastors study for and write their sermons during the week.  Since there is no one perfect way to study for and write sermons, I’ve always found it helpful to hear various ways men have done this.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Too many words, too many ideas, too little structure, and too little purpose make sermons difficult to listen to” (Peter Adam, p. 31).

“I know some pastors who use a dozen or more commentaries each week in studying every passage.  I don’t personally find that profitable, since after the first three or four the amount of benefit gained typically drops off sharply” (Iain Duguid, p. 78).

“A very common fault with poor preachers is an obsession with the manuscript as opposed to double engagement with the text and the congregation.  My aim ought to be that my congregation is not even aware that I have an outline in front of me” (David Meredith, p. 179).

“The key to a good introduction is constant change: no two introductions should sound the same.  In a typical month, for example, the first sermon might start with a personal story, the second with a famous line from great literature, the third with a list of probing questions, and the fourth with a one-liner about how there is no need for an introduction when Jesus tells stories like this (!)… and off we jump right into the parable of the prodigal son” (Douglas Sean O’Donnell, p. 213).

“Preachers must not fall in love with their own writing but must subject their material to rigorous cutting.  My own approach is this: if it even occurs to me to remove material, then I always remove it” (Richard Phillips, 240).

If you’re a pastor (or studying to be a pastor) and you’re looking for a conversational book that gives wise advice on sermon preparation, this is one I recommend: Unashamed Workmen: How Expositors Prepare and Preach, ed. Rhett Dodson (Ross-Shire: Mentor, 2014).

shane lems

The Impoverishment of Contemporary Preaching

Product Details Conversations with Barth on Preaching by William Willimon is – even though I don’t agree with all of it – an excellent book about homiletics.  I’ve mentioned this book on the blog before, so I won’t go into it, but I do think preachers will benefit from it.  Here’s a part I was (re)reading today:

“…We tend to think of style [in preaching] as a matter that is dictated by the desired effect upon the audience.  Style is determined by the listener’s limits.  A major difference between Barth and us is his almost cavalier disregard for the reader of his theology or the listener of his sermons.  ‘Preaching must conform to revelation,’ says Barth, not to our judgments about the listeners, which puts Barth at odds with most of present-day homiletics.”

“…Contemporary homiletical thought has been consumed with rhetorical, rather than theological, concerns, which accounts in great part for the impoverishment of contemporary preaching.  Rhetoric might be defined as the art of listening to the listeners in order that the speech may be adapted to the audience.  Certainly the audience and its varied ways of hearing were of great concern to Aristotle.  It is this preoccupation with the listener and with the listening abilities of the audience that contemporary homiletics has most concerned itself with when it concerned itself with rhetoric.”

“Barth has taught me that listening to God is so much more interesting than listening to the listeners and that Christian preaching rests upon certain theological assumptions and works through certain theological mechanisms, having goals that are strictly theological, or it is a trivial endeavor hardly worth the effort.”

William Willimon, Conversations With Barth on Preaching, p. 84.

shane lems
hammond, wi

A Preacher’s Reservoir

The Heart Is the Target: Preaching Practical Application from Every Text Sermon application is a necessary but difficult part of preparing and delivering sermons.  Since I can always use help in this area, I picked up Murray Capill’s The Heart is the Target.  Though I’m not yet finished with it, it’s been quite helpful thus far.  In chapter three, Capill talks about a preacher’s “reservoir” – the source of a preacher’s passion, creativity, and ability to preach well.  The primary thing that fills the reservoir is Scripture, of course.  The text is central.  But there is something else in the reservoir: our own hearts and lives.  Pastors are people who have life experience and read/study/preach Scripture as humans in the world.  Capill also gives four main ways preachers can keep this “reservoir” full:

1) It is filled by our own walk with God.  Older works on preaching always placed immense emphasis on the preacher as a person.  Understanding, as Phillips Brooks so famously put it, that preaching is truth conveyed through personality, they believed that the forming of the person was of paramount importance.  ‘Study God’s Word diligently for your own edification and then, when it has become more to you than your necessary food and sweeter than honey or the honeycomb, it will be impossible for you to speak of it to others without a glow passing into your words which will betray the delight with which it has inspired yourself’ (J. Stalker).

2) The second means of filling the tank is experiencing life richly.  God intends [for] us to enjoy this world and all he has provided for us.  Paul teaches that everything is to be received with thanksgiving, to the pure all things are pure, and God provides us with everything for our enjoyment.  There is  right and holy way of enjoying everything God has given us.  Our own enjoyment of life can bring richness to our preaching.  A life lived richly will allow us to connect to listeners, illustrate truths, warn of dangers, and encourage enjoyment of God’s good world.

3) The third way to keep the tank full is by learning to be close observers of life.  When we speak of spiritual truth in relation to real life, people resonate with what we say.  We may speak about different ways in which temptation may come to us, and people think, ‘Okay, I’m not the only one who struggles with that.’  Life experience and observation also enables us to offer seasoned advice.  Preachers often need to say things that are neither absolute biblical commands nor invariable rules or requirements.  They are just advice from someone who is not completely wet behind the ears. Sermons need to be connected to life as it really is for people in the pew.

4) The final way in which we can fill the tank is through our knowledge of theology, church, and culture.  Preachers are usually readers for good reason.  They study and learn from others.  Keller recommends reading in five core areas: the Bible, theology, church history, sermons and ‘experimental’ works, and cultural analysis and apologetics.  Preachers should aim at an appropriate balance in these five areas and make time to do so.

“A full tank helps to produce sermons full of insight, perspective, and wisdom.  With a full reservoir, we begin to think both more broadly and more specifically about the application of biblical truth.”

The above quotes are edited summaries of chapter three of Capill’s The Heart is the Target.  Preachers, if you need help in the area of application, put this book on your list!

shane lems

Dabney on Preaching: Voice and Manuscripts

Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures of Preaching Should a pastor preach from a manuscript?  Should he use a special pulpit voice and tone that is different from his regular voice and tone?  R. L. Dabney said (emphatically), No and No!  I realize these two topics are debatable, somewhat subjective, and possibly even contextual, but I do have to say I agree with Dabney (even though I might not be quite as emphatic as he was!).

“Reading a manuscript to the people can never, with any justice, be termed preaching.  …How can he whose eyes are fixed upon the paper before him, who performs the mechanical task of reciting the very words inscribed on it, have the inflections, the emphasis, the look, the gesture, the flexibility, the fire, of oratorical action.  Mere reading, then, should be sternly banished from the pulpit, except in those rare cases in which the didactic (teaching) purpose supersedes the rhetorical, and exact verbal accuracy is more essential than eloquence” (p. 328).

What about the preaching voice and tone?  Should a preacher speak like a different person when he’s behind the pulpit?

“Nothing has caused more embarrassment to young speakers than the unfortunate notion that public speaking must be generically different from talking.  …Now one experiences no difficulty in stating or narrating, after his own customary way, what he thoroughly comprehends.  Why should rhetorical discourses be less easy, except as the embarrassment of publicity agitates the powers at the outset?  It is because of the perverse idea which is adopted, that when one speaks he must needs employ a contracted phraseology, a different structure for his sentences, an opposite turn of expression, to all which he is unaccustomed. …The facile (easy), direct, unpretending structure of sentences which we employ in our conversation is the proper one for the oration (sermon)” (p. 283-4).

For Dabney’s entire discussion, find the above mentioned page numbers in Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures on Preaching by R. L. Dabney.

rev shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, WI

On (Not) Listening to Recorded Sermons

Listen Up!: A Practical Guide to Listening to Sermons (This is a repost from two years ago – July, 2012)  Christopher Ash’s Listen Up: A Practical Guide to Listening to Sermons is a helpful pamphlet aimed at giving Christians some lessons on listening.   This book is only thirty pages long and written at a popular level, so any Christian could benefit from it.  In it, Ash gives seven ingredients for healthy sermon listening and he even talks about listening to poor sermons.  I won’t list every point out here, but I do want to mention #4 and give some edited excerpts from it.

Hear the sermon in church.  The normal place for preaching is the gathering of the local church.  We are to hear sermons as a people gathered together; they are not preached so that we can listen to them solo later.  There is nothing such as ‘virtual church.’  [The people of God] are gathered by the word of God (God takes the initiative to summon us) and gathered to sit together under the word of God (‘to hear my words’ [Deut. 4:10]), to be shaped together by his word.

“When we listen to an MP3 recording of a sermon, we are not listening to preaching, but to an echo of preaching that happened in the past.  Listening on my own to a recording can never be more than a poor second-best to actually being there with the people of God in a local church.  It is better to listen to the pastor you know, and who knows you, than to hear a recording of the well-known preaching you don’t know, and who doesn’t know you.”

“When we listen to a sermon together, we are accountable to one another for our response. …You know what message I’ve heard, and I know what message you’ve heard.  I’ve heard it.  You know I’ve heard it.  I know that you know I’ve heard it!  And you expect me to respond to the message, just as I hope you will.  And so we encourage one another and stir up one another to do what the Bible says.”

This is a great point.  Hearing God’s word together as an assembled people is profoundly biblical and covenantal; it is one of the primary ways God builds his people up, as is evident in Acts.  It is a good thing to be able to listen to recorded sermons in the car or on a jog, but if this practice lowers a person’s view of hearing the word preached “live” and corporately, it should be done infrequently.  Furthermore, sometimes Christians listen to famous popular preachers so much it makes them discontent with their own preacher and church, which opens the door for many spiritual illnesses.

Ironically, some people who listen to tons of sermons online are in fact guilty of disobeying the call in Scripture to regularly attend the Christian assembly (Heb. 10:25); or it turns them into church (s)hoppers.  I suppose this comes back to the discussion of using technology in a biblically wise way.  Just because technology makes something easier and more convenient doesn’t mean it is right, proper, and good.  At the risk of being called “unspiritual,” I’d say that some Christians need to stop listening to recorded sermons during the week and stick to hearing them in a solid local church on Sunday.  Finally, as food for thought, does this topic relate to another topic we’ve blogged on here, namely rampant American individualism?  If so, how?

Get the book: Listen Up! by Christopher Ash.

shane lems
hammond, wi