This post is mainly excerpted from Dr. Timothy Keller’s excellent Preaching in a Secular Culture. I’ll keep this post brief so you’ll have time to read Dr. Keller’s original work.
His advice is not just for preachers but is also useful for teaching a Bible study or giving a short testimony. We should be pointing to Jesus in what we say and how we say it. I’m only presenting his four main points and some quotes. I highly recommend you learn from Dr. Keller by studying and applying his advice. I’m only scratching the surface here of a very rich nine-page document. It’s worth your time to read and absorb it. The rest of this post are quotes from Dr. Keller’s teaching.
Preach to Christians and Non-Christians at the Same Time
The Gospel Is the Root of Both Justification and Sanctification
The typical approach to the gospel is to see it as the ABC’s of Christian doctrine, or merely the minimum truth required to be saved, but to rely on more “advanced” biblical principles for progress in the Christian life. If that were the case, then we truly could not focus on both evangelism and spiritual formation at the same time. However, Martin Luther understood that the gospel is not only the way we receive salvation but is also the way to advance at every stage in the Christian life. This is why the first of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses was “All of life is repentance.”
…Preaching, therefore, is not either for evangelism or edification, because all of us have the same underlying problem. If a sermon is Christ-centered in its exposition and application, and if it is oriented toward dismantling the unbelief systems of the human heart and toward retelling and using the gospel on the unbelief, then it will be illuminating to non-Christians even though it was aimed primarily at Christians.
Preach Grace, Not Moralism
What Drives the Heart
Before I understood the premise of heart affections and the power of preaching to uproot and reorient our affections, my sermons followed this approach:
- Here is what the text says.
- Here is how we must live in light of that text.
- Now go and live that way, and God will help you.
I came to realize over time that I was doing exactly what Edwards said would not work. I was relying on fear and pride to prompt obedience to God. Although I was doing it indirectly and unconsciously, I was employing preaching to trick the heart instead of reorienting the heart.
I have come to realize that my sermons need to follow a different outline:
- Here is what the text says.
- Here is how we must live in light of it.
- But we simply cannot do it.
- Ah—but there is One who did!
- Now, through faith in him, you can begin to live this way.
Preach Christ from Every Text
There are, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: It is either about me or about Jesus. It is either advice to the listener or news from the Lord. It is either about what I must do or about what God has done.
Jesus is the true temple, the true prophet, the true priest, the true king, the true sacrifice, the Lamb, the Light, the bread. The Bible is not about you—it is about him.
Aim at the Heart (Not the Emotions, or Even the Mind)
Useful Versus Beautiful
If Edwards is right, there is no ultimate opposition between “head” and “heart.” We must not assume, for example, if our listeners are materialistic that they only need to be exhorted to give more. Though guilt may help with the day’s offering, it will not alter one’s life patterns. If people are materialistic and ungenerous, it means they have not truly understood how Jesus, though rich, became poor for them. They have not truly understood what it means to have all riches and treasures in Jesus Christ. It means their affections are causing them to cling to material riches as a source of security, hope, and beauty. Thus in preaching we must present Christ in the particular way that he replaces the hold of competing affections. This takes not just intellectual argument but the presentation of the beauty of Christ. Jonathan Edwards defined a nominal Christian as one who finds Christ useful, while a true Christian is one who finds Christ beautiful for who he is in himself.
- Another post on The Sovereign is a helpful starting place to learn about Jesus in each of the 66 books of the Bible: Finding Jesus in Every Book of the Bible.
- The photo is a screenshot of Dr. Keller from this YouTube video: “Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical.“
- Read Dr. Timothy Keller’s official bio on his website.
- Tim Keller also points out the historical reliability of the gospels in Deconstructing Defeater Beliefs:
- “[When they were written] is far too early for them to be legends. [They] were written 30-60 years after Jesus’ death – and Paul’s letters, which support all the accounts, came just 20 years after the events.”
- “Their content is far too counter-productive to be legends. The accounts of Jesus crying out that God had abandoned him, or the resurrection where all the witnesses were women — did not help Christianity in the eyes of first century readers. The only historically plausible reason that these incidents are recorded is that they happened.”
- Read more in this post: The Validity of the Christian Faith Series.