Full text of Christian apologist Tim Keller’s lecture: “Preaching to the Heart” at the TGC 2015 National Conference in Orlando, Florida.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Tim Keller – Theologian, and Christian apologist
Our Father, we thank You that You’ve gathered so many people here to learn how to understand Your word and learn of Your word, learn how to communicate Your word here at this Gospel Coalition conference this year. Thanks for bringing us here safely. Thanks for the innumerable interactions that strengthen our hearts, strengthen our relationships, strengthen our ties with You and with each other. Thanks for the instruction that’s going on right now, especially I pray not only for us here, but for all the workshops, that you would help us to stir each other up to love and good works, iron sharpening iron, learning, having the word of God dwell on us richly. We pray that this would happen in all these various workshops and classes. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Okay. I’m glad to be with you. This is supposed to be a workshop. Isn’t that a laugh, with this many people? However, I’m going to do this. I’m going to give you a talk, a lecture, and then, even though only a very tiny percentage and probably the most pathologically extroverted of you will have an opportunity to ask questions.
We will have some mics up front. There’s quite a lot of you, and the ones who want to ask questions should, because it’s just so boring to listen to somebody talk for an hour. I want you to be able to drill down on some things that you hear and get a little more information.
So Preaching To The Heart, the subject. Alec Motyer, in his great little book, “Preaching?” Alec Motyer is an Old Testament scholar and an expository preacher. He’s British or Irish, I think. And he’s, I think, in his 90s now and written a great little book on expository preaching. And in the book, he says this. He says that “preachers have not one, but two responsibilities, ‘first to the truth’, and secondly to the particular group of people in front of you. How will they best hear the truth? How are we to shape and phrase it, so it comes home to them in a way that is palatable, that gains the most receptive hearing and avoids needless hurt?”
So what Motyer says is if you want to be — if you’re a communicator of the Bible, you’ve got two responsibilities. You’ve got a responsibility to the truth, to hold it up, to present it accurately, to make sure you’re expanding the text, but you also have a responsibility to the people. You need to give them the truth in a way that changes them, that, as he puts it, that you give them the truth in a way they can best hear it, in a way that it can most shape and phrase. You can shape and phrase it so that it comes home to them.
Now, if this is the case, and I think it is, most of our teaching and most of our books on preaching and exposition are fairly unbalanced. Almost always, the books give almost all the time is dedicated to how do you expound the text, how do you understand the truth.
There might be a chapter on application or a chapter on preaching to the heart, but even though Alec Motyer rightly says you basically have two tasks, be true to the truth and be true to the people that are in front of you, we actually don’t spend that much time talking about how do you bring the truth home in a way that actually changes lives. It’s one of the reasons why an awful lot of our expository preaching isn’t very life-changing.
There’s not a great deal of — there really isn’t a lot of great stuff written about how to preach to the heart. Sinclair Ferguson has a chapter in the book, “Feed My Sheep.” There’s a book called “Feed My Sheep: Passionate Plea for Preaching.” It’s an older book, good book. Sinclair’s got a chapter in there called “Preaching to the Heart.”
Sam Logan has a book, pardon me, has a chapter in the book, “The Preacher and Preaching.” This is very confusing, by the way. Lloyd Jones wrote a book called “Preaching and Preachers,” but there was also a book put together by Westminster Seminary faculty, back in the 1980s, called “The Preacher and Preaching.” In that book, Sam Logan wrote a chapter called “The Phenomenology of Preaching,” which is basically on preaching to the heart.
There’s a new book by Josh Moody and Robin Weekes, called “Preaching to the Heart, ” I think, or “Preaching to the Affections,” I think it’s called. But by and large, we haven’t spent much time on it.
Now, so I would like to give you an overview of why it’s important to preach to the heart and how you do it. I’m going to probably constantly be thinking about, because I am, I’m going to be constantly thinking about working preachers who are preaching every Sunday, but this is – What I’m about to tell you, I hope, is going to fit anybody who communicates the Bible, whether you teach the Bible, lead Bible studies, teach, preach. I think this should be broadly applicable in many ways.
So just a couple ideas on why it’s important to preach to the heart. The Biblical understanding of heart is just unique in human thought. The Greeks and the Romans, the ancients, understood that the passions were connected to the body, but the mind, the reason, and the will were connected to the soul. And basically they believed that virtue was a matter of, literally, mind over matter. That is, if you wanted to be a person of loyalty, if you wanted to be a person of courage, if you wanted to have any virtue at all, what it meant was you stifled the emotions.
The reason needed to control the emotions, and that was a virtuous person. So the ancients always pitted the thinking and the feelings against each other, and the thinking needed to squelch and keep down the feelings. That’s what produced a virtuous person. However, on the other hand, modern thought has reversed that.
We live in what Charles Taylor calls the Age of Authenticity, and we believe that the most important thing is that you look into your heart and see what your deepest feelings are and your deepest desires and dreams, and you fulfill them.
So we do the same thing today in our modern society. We now, however, have reversed things. It’s your feelings that are the true you. The ancient Greeks and the Romans thought your feelings was the false you. They had to do with your body. They weren’t the true you. They weren’t part of the spirit. So they pitted mind versus the feelings.
Modern people do that too, except they reverse it. You have to let it go. You can’t hold it back anymore. I’ve been told all my life, I mustn’t feel. I have to conceal. All right. Right?
That would be a great song. Wouldn’t it? Three billion people would hear me sing that on YouTube. In other words, we have always pitted, you might say, the mind and the emotions.
It used to be the mind was more important than emotions. Today, the emotions are more important than the mind.
BIBLE’S UNDERSTANDING OF THE HEART
The Bible’s understanding of the heart is completely different, and it’s not halfway in the middle. It’s off the charts.
Why? As you have often heard, and I mentioned this yesterday, the biblical understanding of the heart is that the heart is the seat, not so much of the emotions, but it is the seat of what you trust the most, what you are committed to the most.
‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart’. Proverbs 3:5
‘Where your treasure is, there is your heart’. Matthew 6:21
What we’re talking about is the thing or the things that you most trust in, hope in, the things that most capture your imagination, that you face, the center of your attention, the center of your commitments, your main commitments. Whatever those things are affect your mind, your will, and your emotions.
So whatever your heart trusts in the most affects not only your emotions. It also affects your thinking. So in some ways, the heart is the seat of the mind, the will, and the emotions because it’s coming from the trust.
This is the reason why, when St. Augustine wrote “The Confessions,” it was like a bomb dropped. No one in history had ever seen anything like the book of “The Confessions.” The reason is because St. Augustine was spending his time looking at his past and figuring out his emotions.
So in the past, in ancient times, nobody ever spent any kind of time thinking about your emotions. Emotions were things to be ignored or to be squelched. Here’s Augustine sifting them.
Now many people have said Augustine, therefore, was the first modern person, but yes and no. There’s a long story there. Because today, we don’t do what Augustine was doing either.
Augustine was being biblical because he was saying, “No, you don’t squelch the emotions or ignore them. On the other hand, you don’t just vent the emotions and express them. You sift the emotions. You evaluate the emotions, and then you redirect the emotions toward God.”
It’s not like the emotions and the heart. Because obviously, by the way, the heart does include emotions. It’s not less than the emotions. It’s more, but it’s not less. Emotions are not great, and they’re not terrible. They’re not unimportant. They’re not all important. They need to be directed toward God.
What that means is what you really are is basically what you love the most. Using the word love here is not just an emotion. Essentially it’s not your beliefs, at least not the beliefs you subscribe to, that actually makes you what you are. It’s what your heart trusts in, what your heart loves the most.
You can say, “I believe in God. God is this, and God is this, and God is this.” And yet your heart is basically based in your career. We all know how that works. Your heart is actually trusting in career. Your mind is saying, “No, no, no. I trust in Jesus for my salvation. I trust in Jesus for this and that and all. ” But where is your heart?
Jonathan Edwards, who was a great Augustinian, therefore, said that if you’re going to be thoroughly biblical, you must not pit knowledge and feeling against each other. If you say, “I know I should be generous with my money, but I’m just not doing it,” he would say, “Well, there’s a sense in which you know what you should do, but you’re not doing it, but there’s another sense in which you don’t really know what you should do.”
Let me give you an example. Excuse me. I’m better than I was yesterday, but not as better as I’d like it to be. When I was a pastor in Virginia, many years ago, I had a young girl in my church. She was about 15 years old, I guess. She was discouraged. She was depressed, often.
And at one point, the family was a prominent family in the church. I tried to help the family with her. At one point, she came into my study, and we were talking. Being a young minister, I was a little bit naive, and I said, “How are you?” She was downcast.
I said, “Well, you’re a Christian. Aren’t you?”
“Oh, yes. I’m a Christian.”
“Christians have many blessings. Don’t they?”
“Oh, yes. We do.”
So we counted the blessings a little bit, about the great things that, as a Christian, she could count on and she knew was happening there and all those great things in her life. But at one point, I said, “So you’re still depressed.” She said… I tried to encourage her, but here’s what she said, almost literally, “Yes. I know that Jesus loves me. I know He saved me, and I know He’s going to take me to Heaven. But what good is all that when not a single boy at school will even look at you?”
I don’t know why more of you aren’t laughing at that. What she was saying was, “Yeah, I’m saved. Yes, I’m going to Heaven forever. Yes, I’m a daughter of the King. Yes, I’m going to be glorified. I’m justified, sanctified, glorified, and all that. But you know what? I’m in ninth grade, tenth grade, and there’s not a single boy will ask me out.”
Now, here’s what Jonathan Edwards would say. He would say she had the opinion that God loved her, but she had no real knowledge that God loved her, because the love of boys was more real to her heart than the love of God, or she wouldn’t have been depressed.
So in one sense, you could say what she just needed to be told… Well, what did she need to be told? See, what Edwards would say is she needed to be shown the love of God in such a way that it began to get more real to her heart, and it began to balance out how popular she was or unpopular she was.
Some years ago… One more before I talk about how to do it.
Some years ago, I had a relative who never would wear a seat belt. Every time I talked to him, he would get in the car, and he wouldn’t wear his seat belt, and we all would nag him about wearing a seat belt. All right. He put his seat belt on. One day, we went to see him. He got in the car and put his seat belt on right away.
We said, “What happened to you?”
He said, “Well, “ he said, “I went to a friend of mine. A couple weeks ago, I went to see a friend of mine in the hospital. He was in a car crash, and he went through the windshield. He had like 200 stitches in his face. For some strange reason, ever since then, I’ve been having no problem buckling up.”
And I talked to him a little bit about that. What was interesting going on was I said, “Well, did you get new information? What changed you? Did you not know that people go through the windshield?
What happened was an abstract proposition became connected to an actual sensory experience, that is something he saw. There’s some place where Jonathan Edwards, the whole idea behind preaching to the heart. At some point, where Jonathan Edwards says, “It’s only when you attach. It’s only when you actually attach an abstract truth to some kind of sensory experience that you’ve had, or at least the memory of a sensory experience that you’ve had” I’m going to show you how to do this in a second. Something that you know is true becomes real to you.
The point of preaching to the heart is to take abstract truth and to make it real to people’s heart, so that they are changed. A lot of us would like it if people took notes from our sermons or our talks, and then went out into the world and started to change their life.
But what I’m telling you is, Jonathan Edwards never spoke that much about preaching. But in one of his books, “Thoughts on Revival,” he actually says about preaching that preaching does not change you by giving people information, that then they go out and practice as much as. It changes you through the impression it’s made during the sermon.
What he means is this. If that girl is sitting under preaching, that 16-year-old girl who’s, by the way, probably in her 50s now, but anyway, that 16-year-old girl is sitting under preaching, and the love of God, through Jesus Christ, in a sermon, becomes so vividly real to her and starts to affect her. We’re talking about the affections. It starts to penetrate to the heart.
And she starts to say, “Why am I all that upset about whether this or that stupid boy like me or not, when I’ve got this kind of love?” When that sort of thing starts happening in her heart, she’s being changed on the spot. She’s being changed during the sermon. She’s being changed because the preaching has reached her heart.
So as Alec Motyer said — I started the talk this way. What Alec Motyer is trying to say, it’s not enough for you to take a text and say, “Okay. I need to show that this text teaches that Jesus Christ sacrificed for us and loved us with a costly love.” That’s the text. It’s not enough just to say, “I need to expound that accurately. ” I need to bring that home to people’s hearts in such a way that it changes them in the seats.
So their hearts are affected by it, and the other things that are more real to their heart than the love of Jesus become… Jesus’ love starts at this place.
So that’s what I mean by preaching to the heart. HOW DO YOU DO IT? Let me suggest, believe it or not — Oh, boy. I’m going to be fast. You can ask questions. In fact, you’re going to complain afterwards because you need more information about everything I’m about to tell you, but we only have an hour. This is the best we can do.
But I would say, in order to preach to the heart, you need to preach culturally, affectionately, imaginatively, practically, wondrously, and Christocentrically. Okay. So there’s two ways to go from here.
One is to do an hour on each of these, but probably I can’t. So the other is to do just a few minutes on each of these.
Okay. What do I mean by culturally?
Let’s just say if you’re evangelical parents, and you’ve got a 14 or 15-year-old boy or girl, and one day, you’re talking to them, and suddenly the 15-year-old girls says to you this, says, “You know, I’m not really sure there’s anything really wrong with two people having sex if they really love each other. I wouldn’t do it, of course, mom or dad, but I just don’t think there’s anything wrong with two people having sex if they love each other.”
Now what are you going to do? You’re probably — your response is going to be, “That’s not what the Bible says, ” and go after them, go after the girl, also knowing that when she says, “I wouldn’t do it, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,” you know she’s going to do it. If she says that, “I wouldn’t do it, but there’s nothing wrong with it,” she’s going to do it. So how do you do that?
How do you go after that? Now, if you say, “I’m going to show you what the Bible says. ” Okay. Absolutely. Totally. Must do that. But I can tell you, almost certainly, that 15-year-old girl will start to experience, as you’re talking about what the Bible says… The 15-year-old girl will start to experience MEGO. Do you know what MEGO is? M-E-G-O? My eyes glaze over. No? MEGO is, “My eyes glaze over.”
You can tell, as you’re talking to her, she’s tuning out. You know why? Because there are cultural narratives that are deeply imbedded. They have come into her life actually through songs and advertising. Those cultural narratives are the reason why the statement, “If two people love each other, they should be able to have sex.”
Why does that statement make sense? It makes sense because of the deeper narratives. I’ll give you three.
There’s the identity narrative. The identity narrative is you’ve got to be yourself. In traditional cultures, identity is formed like this. You are a good person if you sublimate your individual desires for the good of the family. But in our society, identity is formed exactly the opposite. You’re not an authentic person unless you look into your heart and decide what you want to be and what you want to do, and you assert your individual interests over against what anybody else says. That’s the only heroic narrative left. That’s in virtually every single sitcom. It’s every single movie. It’s every cartoon.
In other words, the only heroic narrative left is you figure out who you want to be, and then you don’t let anybody tell you not to be that. Unless you go after that, unless you show that Christianity has a better thing to offer than that, unless you show that that’s incoherent and unstable and a sham and doesn’t really work, unless you do that regularly in your preaching, then they are going to think, “Hey, what’s wrong with actually two people loving each other and having sex?”
That’s the identity narrative. The second narrative is the truth narrative. Only I have the right to decide what is right or wrong for me and what is true for me. A lot of, by the way, college students who are strong evangelical college students are still going to tell me, “Well, I believe in Christianity. I believe in Jesus, but I have no right to tell anybody else what they should believe.”
Now when you say that, what is that? You want to look at them and say, “You just said something to me that makes no sense at all, and yet you’re saying it as if it’s a given, as if it’s an unassailable, unquestionable truth.” No one has the right to tell anybody else how they should live.
First of all, you just did that to me, you hypocrite. You just did it to me, which shows the very idea is self-contradictory. It doesn’t work at all. You use it selectively. In other words, unless you know how to go after these baseline cultural narratives, these deeper cultural narratives, with the Scripture, as well as with common sense, in many cases, unless you know how to go after the cultural narratives regularly, people’s hearts aren’t going to be reached.
To a great degree, our hearts are shaped by what the culture tells us, and we don’t understand that. A thousand years ago, if you’re an Anglo-Saxon warrior, and you walk around, and you see, deep in your heart, an impulse, you know what that impulse is? Let’s just say 1000 years, ago, there’s this Anglo-Saxon warrior. He’s walking around, and he notices, in his heart, a really deep impulse. You know what the impulse is? He just likes to kill people. If they get in his way, he just likes to smash them.
Okay. He looks at that, and he says, “That’s great,” because he’s living in a shame-and-honor culture. He’s living in a warrior culture.
But if you’re walking around Orlando, if you’re a young man and walking around Orlando, and you look in your heart, and you happen to see this desire to kill people, you go to therapy. You go to anger management, or you go to prison.
Basically your culture tells you that’s a bad feeling. Whereas 1000 years ago, the culture told you that was a good feeling. So we tend to think we’re looking at our feelings, and we’re just expressing our feelings. No, no, no. We’re taking grids that our culture tells us that we have to bring down on our hearts, through which we’re evaluating our feelings as good or bad.
You have to show people. Let the Bible do that. Otherwise, you’re a slave to your culture, and you think you’re free. That’s how this culture operates. It makes you a slave to its ideals, under the heading that you’re free. Do you know how to do that? In your preaching, you have to do that, or you’re not going to reach hearts. They’re just going to go MEGO. My eyes are going to glaze over. That’s culturally.
Secondly, affectionately. If you want to preach to the heart, you have to preach from the heart. If you want to preach to the heart, you have to preach from the heart. That’s not as easy as you think.
What I mean by that is to reach the heart, to preach from the heart, means – I’ll call it this. There needs to be a non-deliberate transparency about you. People need to be able to see, as you’re speaking, that somehow the very truths that you’re talking about have repaired you, have mended you, mean the world to you.
Now one of the problems I see is the alternatives to non-deliberate transparency are three. One is flat affect. Some people just speak with flat affect. They’re just going through their notes, and that’s certainly not going to reach anybody’s heart. We all know that.
But there’s a lot of other people who are just excitable. You know? They’re just excitable. They start off talking like this, and all the way through, they’re just like this. They’re just passionate about everything, and it’s not transparent. It literally is. It’s excitability. It’s like you’re psyching yourself up. You’re putting on your game face. People do not sense they’re looking into your heart and seeing a person who’s a trophy of grace, someone who’s been repaired by grace, someone who’s been wounded and humbled and no longer has any need to put on a show. That’s what people are. That’s what moves people.
I’m afraid a lot of us are too, frankly, too afraid, too aware of what kind of impression we’re making, working too hard at trying to really be good, in fact, working too hard at trying to be passionate. If you’re trying to be passionate, almost always, that means that through the whole sermon, you’re just like, it’s the same level of excitability. You’re just like this the whole way through.
I remember some years ago. I remember the first time I went to visit a friend of mine. He became an elder of my church. He lived in a house that literally was 10 feet from the railroad track, literally. I knew that, but it didn’t occur to me. Anyway, we went, and we were sitting in the living room. All of a sudden, the train came by. It really, literally, felt like it was coming through the roof. It was just scary. I remember I went like this. He laughed, and he said, “We’ve lived here for 20 years, and we don’t even hear the train anymore. We don’t even hear it.”
Well, that’s what’s going to happen. If you try to be passionate, whenever you speak, you’re passionate. From the beginning, from the opening bell to the end, you’re passionate. Maybe at the end, you get a little more passionate. It’s just going to be like a train coming through. They’re just –
If every single time, you’re passionate all the way through, basically people have got to see that when you get to certain places, where the text is saying things that have really, really, really changed your life, I don’t know. You slow down. You just show it. That’s non-deliberate transparency. Well, I’ve spent too much time on this.
If you’re going to preach to the heart, you got to preach from the heart. By the way, there’s two things you need if you’re going to preach like that. Number one, you got to know your material. One of the reasons why we aren’t able to be transparent is that we’re worried about what’s coming next. You got to know your material cold, so that you can have emotional transparency. Otherwise, you are excitable, because you’re just trying to keep the ball rolling. You’re trying to remember what comes next.
You need to know your material cold, and you need to have incredibly good prayer life, and you need to actually have the gospel repair you. A lot of you are going to say, “Well, this is no good. I was hoping for something practical, something I could put into practice this week.” You can put this into practice, this lifetime, but not this week.
Second, imaginatively. No, third. Are we third? Yes, third, imaginatively. Now, I’ve already referred to this, but I’ll just give you some quick examples. Jonathan Edwards is the master here. Jonathan Edwards believed in the importance of what he would call the image. That’s what you and I call illustration.
See, a story is an illustration, and many people say, “Use stories in your sermon. That’ll help.” By the way, stories are good, but a story is only one version of an illustration. Let me give you another example of an illustration. I’ll give you four, actually, real quick.
When Jonathan Edwards says, in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” when he says, “All your righteousness would have no influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell.” Let me say that again. All of your righteousness has no influence to uphold you or keep you out of hell.
What is he saying? That’s a very important doctrinal statement. He is saying, basically, there’s no salvation through works. He says all of your righteousness could not uphold you or keep you out of hell. No matter how hard you try, your best deeds will not keep you out of hell. Right? But it’s an abstraction, but it doesn’t stop there.
This is what he says. “All your righteousness would have no influence to keep you out of hell anymore than a spider’s web could stop a falling rock.”
That’s how he ends the sentence, “Anymore than a spider web can stop a falling rock.”
Now the point is we all know something about a spider web. If a rock comes down and hits a spider web, it doesn’t bounce. You know? Here’s a spider web. The rock comes through. It doesn’t go — No. It goes, it’s as if the spider web is not there. If a rock is coming down through a spider web, it’s like the spider web is not even there. The rock doesn’t stop at all. What a very interesting illustration. It’s a sensory experience. That is, it’s something we’ve actually seen and felt, connected to the abstract doctrine.
So what it does is it gets across very vividly, the fact that your good deeds will in no way keep you out of hell. What he’s doing is he’s bringing two fields of discourse together, or he’s connecting an abstract doctrine with something that you experience through your body, through your senses, through your eyes or your fingers.
Basically that’s what an illustration does. It takes something that you may know is true, but by connecting it to the memory of a sense experience, it makes it feel more real.
God Himself — I won’t give you four examples, but God Himself gives us an example when He says, for example, in Genesis 4:7. He comes to Cain. God comes to Cain, and He says – well, basically in chapter four, God comes to Cain because He sees Cain depressed, his face has fallen, and He sees the murderous thoughts in his heart toward Abel.
He comes to him, and He basically is saying to Cain, “Sin is going to get you into trouble.” That’s not what God says.
Here’s what God says. “Sin is crouching at your door. It desires to have you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:7) Interesting?
What God is doing is He’s likening sin to a crouching tiger, hidden dragon. He’s likening sin to an animal. He says, “Sin is crouching at your door. It desires to have you.” It’s very interesting. What He’s trying to say is sin is a dark reality in our lives. If you sin, it means that you bring something that’s going to eat you into your life. It’s going to distort your emotions. It’s going to darken your eyes. It’s going to create patterns of habit that you can’t break.
And it’s remarkable because, of course, what God is doing is He’s taking — the idea of a crouching panther or a leopard or a predatory animal. Have you ever seen — we all probably, at certain points in our lives, have seen a predatory animal pounce on a little bird or something like that and destroy it. God is saying sin is like that. You give sin an inch in your life, and that’s what — That’s God doing it. God’s using a sermon illustration. So you better do it.
See, unless you do that, the heart is not reached. What’s important here is, yeah, stories are important, but word pictures are just as important. To say, “Your good deeds cannot keep you out of hell, any more than a spider web can stop a falling rock,” that’s not a story, but it is a powerful illustration.
If you read Edwards, you’ll see that Edwards actually, at least when he was in North Hampton, didn’t do much in the way of stories, but his word pictures are astounding. Go read “Heaven is a World of Love, ” by Jonathan Edwards. The way he uses the images of light and of fountains and of water, it gives you — essentially the love of God is not an abstraction.
When you’re done reading that sermon, he’s drawing you back into all kinds of other experiences, sensory experiences you’ve had, and connecting God and His love and His grace to those experiences. You sense the reality of it. That’s preaching to the heart.
Fourth, preaching specifically, I mean practically. I’m not going to say much on this because I really would like to get to questions and answers. This is the one area where most books — I’ve done a lot of reading of preaching books recently, and I’ve been very unhappy with preaching books on the subject of preaching to the heart.
However, when it comes to application, there are books out there, talking about application. That’s important. The main point is application should be very, very specific. You need to try very hard not to get to the end of the sermon and say, “Well, you can think of some practical implications. ” No, help the people think about practical implications.
Application should, in some ways, be dialogical. You should look to people and say, “Look. Maybe you agree that pride is a problem, that pride is good, bad, and humility is good, but maybe you think you don’t got a problem with pride.”
But if you don’t have a problem with pride, let me ask you a question, Christians. Do you have any problem talking to your non-Christian neighbors about Jesus? Oh, you do. Why? What are you afraid of? Maybe that is pride.
So what am I doing at that point? You need to not only be specific, but you need to give people questions. You need to dialogue with them. You need to enter into conversation with them. You need to give them some tests. It’s extraordinarily important. You almost need to turn some parts of the sermon into counseling, where you say, “Look. I know that this hasn’t been easy. But if you understand this…” Talk directly to them about how, imagine you’re in a pastoral setting, and the person is saying, “How do I apply this to my life?” Just do it. Do it right there in the sermon, to everybody.
Okay. I said wondrously and Christocentrically. Then we’re done. I think I can do this quick. We have 20 minutes for questions.
Wondrously just means this. I think I can do this in one minute. J. R. R. Tolkien, in his famous essay on fairy stories, says that fairy tales continue to be popular because fairy tales give you stories in which people escape time, escape death, hold communion with non-human beings, find perfect love from which they are never parted, and triumph over evil.
Fairy tales. Escape from time, get outside of time, escape from death, hold communion with non-human beings, find perfect love from which you’re never parted, and triumph finally over evil. Right? People buy fairy tales and read them, and we’re making them into blockbuster movies all the time.
Why? Because it’s a deep desire of the human heart. Well, you say, “That’s not reality.” But if Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, if He really has been raised from the dead, and you believe in Him, all those things are going to come true for you. You will step outside of time. You will escape death. You will communicate with non-human beings, at least angels. Who knows? Maybe there are elves. You will have a love that never parts. You’re never parted from it, and you will triumph over evil.
Look, do you preach — isn’t that amazing? Do you preach like that? Is there that note of wonder in your preaching? Do you ever lift that up and let people know? Do you have any idea? If Christianity is true, all this stuff that most of you just, you pay all this money. Wouldn’t it be great if all these things were true? No, it’s not. Let’s go home. Yet, you keep spending the money to go see.
Why do you watch the movie? Why do you read the fairy tale? Because it lifts you up. Frankly because deep in your heart, you know that that’s how human beings were supposed to live, and it’s a memory trace of the Garden of Eden, I guess.
But the point is do you preach with that kind of wonder?
Here’s the last thing. I don’t think I need to talk. I’ve talked to many other places of what it means to preach Christ from every text, but what my wife used to say — What Cathy said, in the first five or 10 years in which I was trying to learn how to preach… she used to put it like this. She says, “You know, in the first part of your sermon, in which you’re laying out the biblical truth, you’re laying out how people should be living and all this sort of thing,” she says, “It’s really good. It’s like a really, really, really, really good Sunday School lesson. But she says, “Until you get to Jesus, it’s not a sermon.”
She says, “Everybody is taking notes. They’re learning, and they’re saying, ‘Oh, that’s good theology, and that’s good practical, and that’s good this” She says, “When you get to Jesus, suddenly everybody puts their pencils down, and they start to- ” She said, “Suddenly the Sunday School lesson becomes a sermon. Suddenly, instead of feeling like we’re walking, sometimes we’re flying.”
She says, “It’s really — Because when you get to Jesus, and when you say, ‘This is really about Jesus, ‘ people start to worship. Before that, they’re just thinking.”
Another way to put it now would be, “Before that, in a sense, you were working on the head. But when you get to Jesus, it goes to the heart.”
Okay. We got 19 minutes to answer some questions if you got them. So I just took 40 out of the 60 minutes. So we got a couple of people who are going to be living mic stands. Right? Don’t we have a couple of- Yeah, okay. So we’ve got a couple of volunteers who are going to stand where they are, and you got to come to them. If you’ve got a question, go to them. Ask the question. I promise to give you a response.
Audience: Could you speak a little bit about the difference between good and great preaching?
Tim Keller: The difference between good and great preaching?
Audience:Good and great preaching, RTS lecture I saw online.
Tim Keller: Oh, you mean you’d like me to say what you heard me say before.
Audience: Well, a little bit. Yeah. Now that I’m in person.
Tim Keller: Yeah, no, no. I hope this is what you remember. I don’t know. Anyway. This is an oversimplification, honestly. It’s an oversimplification. But to me, the difference between a bad sermon and a good sermon has, largely speaking, got to do with you, the speaker. Have you done your job? Have you studied the passage? A minute ago, I tried to say have you mastered the material, so you know the material well enough that you — If I don’t know my material, when I get up there, I won’t have the freedom, a kind of spiritual and emotional freedom to think about the wonderful truth. I’ll be thinking about what’s coming next, and I don’t want to be having to say, “Okay. That was point two. Now what’s point three again? What’s point 3A? What’s point 3B?”
I want the emotional freedom. So I need to know my material. I need to have done all the study. I need all that stuff. So the difference between a bad sermon and a good sermon, generally speaking, has got to do with you. The difference between a good sermon and a great sermon is almost completely the Holy Spirit. That’s probably what you heard me say.
I have often put together — I’ve often preached sermons that were just okay, but seemed to have changed a heck of a lot of lives because God just decided to use it that way. I’ve preached other sermons that were actually fairly good, really tight. I liked it, and it didn’t have the same impact.
See. So you can get in the realm of good/okay sermon. That’s up to you. This is an oversimplification. Obviously God helps you in this study too, but I’m trying to say. To get yourself up to the good or okay sermon, it’s got mainly to do with you. But that which gets you into the realm where the revival breaks out, that’s just the Holy Spirit.
One last thing. There was an older man who heard both Daniel Roland and George Whitfield preach. Daniel Roland was a Welsh preacher. George Whitfield, of course, is the famous Anglican preacher. They both preached a lot in the 1730s, ’40s, ’50s. Many years later, there was a guy who was interviewed, who had heard both of them preach. He was asked, “Which preacher was the better preacher?” And he said that both of them were equally – their sermons were equally powerful, but with Daniel Roland, you always got a good sermon, whereas with George Whitfield, you didn’t always get a good sermon, but sermons were always equally as powerful. That makes no sense unless you understand what I just said.
That Whitfield always, for whatever reason, whether Whitfield’s sermons were well-written or not, God always seemed to work through them. So anyway, the difference between bad and good is mainly you. The difference between good and great is mainly that God’s working and deciding to work sovereignly at the moment.
Okay. Let’s go back and forth until time is up.
Audience: Thank you for your laboring love for us. My question has a bit of overlap with the previous one. What are some things you can give to help hold the tension, on the one hand, in preaching, that we are standing like Ezekiel in a valley of dry bones, unable to do anything, and on the other hand, being like Paul, becoming all things to all man, pleading with men to be saved, that tension of the impossible, but the responsibility to labor for what we can’t do?
Tim Keller: That’s actually pretty easy, believe it or not. You’re absolutely right. Those are the two things. The one is, on the one hand, you’re supposed to be becoming all things to all people that, by all means, I might win some, which means Paul clearly is trying to be as ingenious as possible in the way which he preaches.
You can see it in the book of Acts. Every single time he preaches, he preaches to Jews who believe the Bible, uneducated pagans, educated pagans, he changes it up. Yet, it’s all up to God because they’re all dry bones. Right?
The answer is how you respond to what happens after you preach. In other words, you work like crazy to preach the best sermon possible. But then when you find you’re not getting much in the way of response, that should not bother you the way it does, because we — to really say, “I’m trusting God’s sovereignty,” means that when you don’t see a lot of fruit, it doesn’t eat you alive.
When you don’t see people showing up and your church growing, it just doesn’t totally eat you alive. Now you got to be careful here, because on the one hand, you have to be careful that you are… you should be open to the possibility that maybe you haven’t preached as well as you could, and you don’t want to say, “Well, nobody is coming because God is just not working.”
So you have to be careful about that. By and large, the way that you show that you believe in God’s sovereignty is you work like crazy to preach the best sermon possible, and then you really do leave it up to God, and you don’t judge yourself. You don’t judge. You don’t judge yourself, frankly, by the results. We just get eaten up by whether people tell us we’re good, whether it’s a good buzz, whether we see conversions, whether we see the church growing, whether we see the attendance growing. It just shouldn’t eat you up if you believe in the sovereignty of God.
Let’s go back and forth, over here.
Audience: Any thoughts on the length of a sermon?
Tim Keller: Any thoughts on the length of the sermon? I think I’m all for adapting to your audience. That does mean, I think, for example I found — Well, I’ll give you one example. Okay. By and large, I would say that if you have an audience that are pretty mature Christians, and they expect robust teaching, you can go longer if you’re good enough. Even with a mature audience, you have to be pretty good to be able to get past about 35 minutes and not be tedious, I would say, today.
But by and large, it depends on the audience. Some people — the shorter, it’s better for people with shorter attention spans. I do see people’s attention spans getting shorter. Social media and the Internet is part of that. So no, I’m not real doctrinaire about it. Generally if I’m actually evaluating preachers, today, most places in America, in America, and generally I’m thinking also about multiethnic or Anglo churches, in America, multiethnic or Anglo churches.
See, with multiethnic churches, you got to split the difference a bit. People have very different ideas about what is a long sermon. Generally you have to — the people who will think it’s going on too long have to be not tested or taxed. So generally speaking, I say 30 minutes. I’m not doctrinaire about that, but an awful lot of people think that they’re better preachers than they are.
I would say that when I was a younger man, I needed to preach 20 to 25 minutes because I wasn’t good enough to keep people’s attention any longer. As I’ve gotten older, and I’ve gotten better, I can stretch that a little bit, not a lot, but I can stretch that a bit.
Audience: Yeah, what are some ways you can practically grow in preaching imaginatively?
Tim Keller: It does help to read fiction, and that’s a shame because I’m not a real good fiction reader. My wife is better. We are very gender-stereotyped. I read nonfiction. She reads fiction. I said, “Come on. ” You know? But anyway.
Neal Plantinga, Cornelius Plantinga, has a book on reading for preachers. I would say — Remember, don’t forget what I said about culturally. I would say that, generally, most expository preachers read too much in just Bible and theology. They don’t read philosophy. They don’t read cultural analysis. They don’t read history. They don’t read biography. They don’t read novels. They don’t read poetry. To preach imaginatively, you need to read very, very, very widely.
If somebody says to me, “You read an awful lot. Why do you read?” I think I did this also at the RTS at Jackson lectures this year. Somebody says, “You read so much. Why do you read so much?” My answer is I’m desperate. I’m desperate to reach people. If you’re desperate to reach people, you will read very, very widely and not just Bible and theology. You just got to read across the spectrum.
We only got 10 minutes left. Sorry these are kind of short answers, but it’s better than three or four really long ones. Go ahead.
Audience: I tend to be a pretty passionate person. When I do preach or get to teach, I can preach affectionately, if you will. But where do you draw the line between preaching affectionately and then just shameless emotionalism? Because that’s also my fear, is that people will be moved, not by what is being said, not by certain truths, but just by my demeanor.
Tim Keller: Well, you know what? That’s actually good. I guess what I most want to see is variation. I guess I didn’t quite say that. Did I? So thank you for giving me the opportunity to say it this way.
If I see a person who is preaching and Cathy, my wife, does say to me, “I know when you’re trying to be the Holy Spirit.” She says, “I feel like you’re trying — You see the people out there. They seem to be kind of impassive. So you start to do what you can. You get louder. You can start to show more emotion.” She feels like, at some points, you’re forcing it. You’re pushing. You’re trying to get a rise out of them. That’s always been very convicting to me.
So by and large, I guess, I want to make sure that the emotion I show is not planned, certainly not planned. It’s not real, real, real regular. If it happens a lot or all the time or the same point at every single sermon… In other words, if the pastor breaks down into tears every week at 18 minutes after he starts, I actually know there’s people like that, that are actually pretty genuine. They still probably shouldn’t do it, because it doesn’t feel genuine.
So I guess I would say if I see variation, if I see it doesn’t happen all the time, if I see it happens — Also, if it seems to fit the shape of the truth itself. Sometimes some texts are not particularly — Some texts are what my wife would call meat-and-potatoes texts. They’re meat and potatoes. They’re good, solid stuff. There’s nothing particularly interesting or unusual, just good to remind us.
At that point, you probably shouldn’t have some emotional experience. It’s not appropriate. There are other texts that are remarkable, that are insightful. So as long as I think that the expression of emotion is not constant, it’s varied, it seems to fit the truth you’ve got out there, that you’re talking about, that’s all right.
What worries me the most are people that are constantly always emotional, all the time. I do know in my — I think, in some ways, it may be sincere, but it is a way of actually trying to manipulate people. My own wife has called me on it over the years, at various times. Okay. Over here.
Audience: You mentioned preaching dialogically, in terms of the application. How do you choose what to dialogue with in such a diverse congregation, like you have?
Tim Keller: Well, that’s a good question. Of course, the text itself sometimes is giving you — This is another subject. There’s too much stuff in the text to ever bring out. I know that it’s traditional to say, and I would say this too, that an expository sermon is one in which the point of the text is the point of the sermon. You’ve heard that. That’s a way of trying to make sure you major in the majors. That is, you find the main point of the text. You don’t read into the — You don’t use the text as a way of talking about whatever you feel like talking about. Make sure you understand the author of the text, what the biblical author’s main point is, and you preach that.
Having said that, the reality is that it’s not always that easy to just find one point in a text. What’s the point of Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord in Genesis 32? What’s the point of that text? The point? There’s a number of points, a number of implications. Or what’s the point of the text where they throw the man, the dead man, into the grave? They throw him into the tomb, and he touches the bones of Elijah and he comes to life and leaves. Remember that? What’s the point of that text, everybody? I don’t know.
But I guess when you- Narratives are very — it’s very hard to identify one single point that the narrative is about. Usually there’s a number of implications. So what you can do is you can keep a record. If you’ve got diverse groups of people in your church, if you’ve got five or six main groups, different racial groups, different age groups, that sort of thing, you can keep a record. Sometimes even though there’s four or five things you could bring out of a text, you can just choose the one for the group that you haven’t really spoken to recently.
Just keep a record. So in other words, there’s more dimensions in almost every Bible passage than you can ever bring out in a single sermon. So keep a record and say, “Well, I could hit those people again with this text, but I’m not going to. I haven’t talked to this group over here.” That’s how. Just keep a record. Be a good pastor. Over here.
Audience: Aside from yourself, who else would you say characterizes these characteristics in preaching?
Tim Keller: Oh, my goodness. Any good preacher preaches to the heart. I’m glad you think I’m a good preacher. I appreciate that.
Audience: Well, I meant more like who uses those characteristics and preaching Christ at the end.
Tim Keller: Who uses which?
Audience: So who goes through, speaks culturally, affectionately, passionately, and embodies all of them.
Tim Keller: Look. I would say everybody. I do think that the culturally thing is a place where we’re not very good. I would say almost all the preachers you hear at a Gospel Coalition conference know how to preach to the heart. Most of them do. Some of them aren’t necessarily ss you know, sometimes they’re not preachers. Sometimes they’re professors or something like that, and they’re not ordinarily preachers. So when they give you their exposition, it’s a little more like a lecture than a sermon, which is fine.
But by and large, I would say that preaching to the heart is not — Preaching to the heart is instinctive. The reason I’m trying to break it out is I feel like people who are trying to learn how to preach don’t know how to do it. The instinctively gifted preachers just do it. My job was to try to break it out a little bit for you, so you had some way of testing yourself and also avoiding the danger of putting all your time on the exegesis and not thinking about how to preach to the heart.
Having said that, of all the things I mentioned, the culturally, learning how to preach to the culture is something that we’re mainly behind on, and I don’t see a lot of good models out there. I am trying to — The book on preaching, that’s coming out, at least has a chapter on this, which I do think is very unusual for preaching books. I’m trying to write another book, in which I show people how to do that.
So in that sense, I might be — I would say I’m trying to be a little more of a pioneer. In all the other areas, lots of people are quite good. All good preachers know how to preach to the heart.
I got time for one or two more, at the most.
Audience: So I thought the panel discussion was actually the most enriching session, and part of that was just because there’s a community. Even you asking for people to ask questions is another reflection of the dialogue. In our church, we’ve actually tried — When I preach, I try to actually ask the questions of the people while the preaching is going on, to get some feedback, to hear what people are thinking, to try to even maybe nuance while I’m preaching. But also, I realized there’s grace in the congregation. Maybe even having a faith story that lines up with the point of the text or maybe a manifestation. So I kind of want to hear maybe your thoughts on the different variations of doing that. Then also, since so many preachers can be bad, or they’re maybe not aware of how they could get better, what do you do in your church, besides maybe the plurality of elders to open up your preaching to feedback from the congregation or other people?
Tim Keller: Okay. That’s great. By the way, you’re going to have to sit down because I’ve got like 30 seconds. I have to answer this, and then I’m going to dismiss everybody. Sorry, those of you in line. Good question.
Let me tell you something I did originally. For 10 years, at the end of every service, I said, the minute the postlude is over, the minute that the music is over, just come down front. I’m standing down there, and you can ask me questions about the sermon or anything that happened in the worship service.
So my wife still thinks, Cathy still thinks that was crucial to the success of Redeemer because, probably, anywhere from 50 to 200 people stayed every single week and pushed questions to me about the sermon. I was able to not only give people a lot more information than I could just in the sermon. You’re absolutely right in saying that, very often, the questions help –
The questions are wonderful because they give me an opportunity to bring out things that I didn’t have a chance to bring out in the sermon or even think about as I was preaching. It also gave me an opportunity to model for people. How do you pastorally deal with people who are hurting or who are angry at you? That was really, really, really good. We do something right now called “Questioning Christianity, ” where non-Christians are invited with their Christian friends. I speak for 30 minutes. They ask questions for 30 minutes. Then we have refreshments, and people can come up and talk to me about it.
So I’ve always felt that the idea of having questions and answers very, very closely connected to the preaching is really helpful. However, by the way, in a small setting, I actually think that the dialogical approach is a perfectly fine way to do a sermon. If you’re a house church, it’s really a great idea. I think if it gets big, it’s difficult, even here you did a really good job, but there’s over 1000 of you or something like that. So I couldn’t do it.
There is also something about a sermon, in which there is no ability to answer back. In other words, the sermon is also authoritative. I don’t mind the dialogue stuff. I don’t mind the question-and-answer stuff, but it’s also true that the sermon is from the word of God. If it’s done well, it’s very authoritative. You also want to guard that as well. That’s why I always liked the idea of not doing the Q&A inside the service, but to do it immediately afterwards. I did that for a good 10 years, until I was forced to stop doing it because we started having services at another site, and I had to leave after finishing the sermon at one site to go preach at another site. I always missed that loss.
The Q&A after the sermons was extremely important. Okay. I’m two minutes over. So I’m going to just say time’s up. You need to go to your next workshop. Bye.
For Further Reading:
- David Wilkerson Sermon: Lessons We Have Never Learned (Transcript)
- 1973 Prophecy – The Vision by David Wilkerson (Transcript)
- Martin Luther King’s Sermon: The Drum Major Instinct (Transcript)
- C. S. Lewis: The World’s Last Night (Transcript)
- Derek Prince Sermon: ‘Pressures, Tests & Challenges’ (Transcript)