Review of Tim Keller’s Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism

qI first became familiar with Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, several years ago after reading The Reason for God, and have since read many of his books and listened to countless sermons. He is a unique and pertinent voice in our generation because of his powerful gospel preaching that carefully contrasts biblical truth with cultural values, exalting Jesus Christ and what He offers to our desperate world.

When I heard that he was writing a book on preaching, I (along with many others) was eager to get my hands on a copy and dig in for powerful lessons from a man who God has used so much to reach this generation—and I was not disappointed.

In Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, Keller presents a preaching manifesto that targets “all those who are wrestling with how to communicate life-changing biblical truth to people at any level in an increasingly skeptical age. It will also serve as an introduction and foundation for working preachers and teachers in particular” (7).

Keller begins by explaining three levels of the ministry of the Word:

  • Level 1 of Word ministry is for every Christian—communicating Christian teaching with others in informal ways (many times in our personal lives).
  • Level 3 is the preaching of the Word in a formal setting.
  • Level 2 is in-between the informal ministry of Level 1 and preaching; various people who communicate the truth and need some study/preparation.

According to Keller, Level 2 ministers communicate truth in a variety of ways, including: writing, blogging, teaching, and leading small groups. This book targets mostly Levels 2 and 3, but is useful to communicators of truth on any level.

Preaching the Word to the People by the Spirit

Preaching is divided in three parts: “Serving the Word”, “Reaching the People”, and “In Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power.”

“Serving the Word”, consists of three chapters: “Preaching the Word”, “Preaching the Gospel Every Time”, and “Preaching Christ from All of Scripture.” This portion laid the biblical and Christological foundation for preaching, focusing on the truth set forth in a sermon.

In the chapter “Preaching the Gospel”, Keller helps preachers walk the line between legalism and antinomianism and shares examples of preaching the gospel from Old Testament figures and narratives like Jonah, Joseph, and Judges. These three chapters compliment each other well due to coming at related topics from different angles. The chapter on preaching Christ suggests categories for preaching Christ from biblical figures, themes, genres, major images, deliverance storylines, and instinct (to keep preaching Christ from being too formulaic or predictable).

Part Two deals with “Reaching the People”, and is divided in three chapters, “Preaching Christ to Culture”, “Preaching to the (Late) Modern Mind”, and “Preaching to the Heart”; all of which focus on communicating truth in a way relevant to our listeners.

“Preaching Christ to Culture” draws principles from Paul’s preaching in Acts 17 and suggests how we can reach believers and unbelievers influenced heavily by secularism. In “Preaching to the (Late) Modern Mind”, Keller identifies several baseline cultural narratives, affirms them when appropriate, but eventually shoves a wedge between them and Christianity to reveal both the truth of Christ and need for Him. This chapter is the book’s longest (and perhaps most difficult to practically apply), but might prove the most helpful for preachers like me who sometimes struggle getting inside the mind of secular people. “Preaching to the Heart” closes out Part Two and shares how preachers can captivate their listener’s minds, wills, and emotions to preach for greater transformation. While the entire book provides top-drawer value, what sets this apart from other preaching books is Part Two—which makes the book worth reading, even if it were the only section. (But please do read the rest!)

Part Three includes one chapter on preaching and the Holy Spirit which focuses on what we need to know about God’s Spirit at work in us and our preaching. Keller unpacks important elements of communication that ensure our preaching is authentic and drawn from the right motivations that will prove the most useful to God for the transformation of the hearers.

After the main portion of the book finishes, Keller shares a helpful 27-page appendix on how to write an expository message and then provides seventy pages of references and endnotes filled with further explanations of his earlier points and interaction with sources like preachers P.T. Forsyth, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, philosopher Charles Taylor, and cultural references that display secular presuppositions. Readers will want to keep a separate bookmark in this section due to the wealth of helpful information and resources listed. (I will certainly turn back for the three-and-a-half page list of different kinds of people filling our pews today ranging across the spectrum of belief from several types of conscious unbelievers, to backsliders, to mature believers, the depressed, etc.)

Top Drawer Resource for All Communicators of the Truth

Working my way through Preaching felt like a master artist was showing me around his studio and explaining his craft and process in detail. Although most of us will never be as gifted as Keller in preaching, readers will have their toolbox filled and mind sharpened to preach Christ to our secular culture in fresh and compelling ways. Personally, the middle section (“Reaching the People”) challenged me the most to diagnose the underlying cultural narratives found in myself and those to whom I preach. This means my being more intentional in conversations and prayerful reading for a better understanding of the large waves of thought sweeping through our culture.

Although Preaching isn’t a comprehensive tome on the subject, it does lay a strong foundation for preachers, not only by explaining why a certain type of preaching is needed, but also in guiding readers on how to implement it. This book doesn’t take the place of more comprehensive books like Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching, or Robinson’s Biblical Preaching, but it does belong on the shelf alongside them due to its top-level treatment of everything it covers.

If you’re a preacher looking to strengthen your preaching or a truth communicator at any level, Preaching will be an invaluable resource to help you communicate God’s Word to the heart of your listeners by the power of God’s Spirit. I suspect this book’s value will only grow over time as our culture and church is more influenced by secularism and more desperate for the lasting hope of a living Savior.


Editor’s Note: If you have been trained by Leadership Resources in biblical exposition, this book will be a helpful supplement to our training. It will sharpen your thinking of what it means to preach Christ (he even uses a similar illustration that we use), help you target a secular audience in your preaching and application, and preach to the heart of listeners by speaking from the heart with imagination. We recommend this book along with these 10 books on expository preaching.

 

Kevin Halloran

Servant of the Word. Husband. Blogs weekly at Anchored in Christ. Content Strategist/Trainer in Latin America with Leadership Resources International.