Review of ‘The Challenge of Preaching’ by John Stott

The-Challenge-of-PreachingJohn Stott, The Challenge of Preaching, abridged and updated by Greg Scharf (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015). Paperback

Preaching is not the only thing pastors do, but it is one of the most important things—if not the most important thing. Pastors thus need to work at perfecting their craft through constant attention to proper exegesis and hermeneutics, effective introductions and conclusions, and helpful outlines and illustrations. Because it is so useful in all these regards, John Stott’s The Challenge of Preaching should find a prominent place in every pastor’s library.

First published in 1982 as Between Two Worlds, The Challenge of Preaching now appears in a third edition, abridged and updated by Greg Scharf, and published by Eerdmans. In many ways, it is a primer on preaching, an introduction to the craft. But like the best primers, it is a touchstone that helps experienced preachers test the quality of their preaching.

Chapter 1 identifies three challenges to preaching: “Distrust of authority makes people unwilling to listen,” Stott writes. “Electronic advances have changed the expectations of both listeners and preachers. The atmosphere of doubt makes many preachers too tentative.” Despite these challenges, Stott believes preaching is a theologically necessary task, and in Chapter 2, he outlines its theological foundations focusing on God’s revelation, Scripture’s authority, the Church’s need of biblical renewal, the pastoral role of teaching and preaching, and preaching’s expository character.

Chapter 3 identifies the essential task of preaching as building a bridge between “the biblical world and the modern world.” Theological conservatives typically focus on the former, while theological liberals on the latter, but Stott insists we must keep eyes on both. “We must struggle to relate God’s unchanging word to our ever-changing world without sacrificing truth or despising relevance.”

Stott next turns to how preachers prepare themselves through personal study (Chapter 4) and their sermons through careful organization (Chapter 5). Chapter 4 struck me with particular force. It is easy for many activities to fill pastors’ calendars. Time for study becomes a luxury. If preaching is as important as Stott says it is, however—and I believe he’s on track biblically—failing to schedule regular time for reading and reflection is failing to do one’s job with adequate preparation. In the short term, this can be managed, but in the long term, one’s ministry becomes spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually weak.

Chapter 5 talks about writing one’s sermon. This is a nuts-and-bolts chapter that focuses on selecting the text, isolating the main thought, arranging your material, adding your conclusion, and then—when everything is in place—planning an introduction that draws the congregation in and prepares them to hear the Word of God.

Preaching cannot be reduced to the mechanics of sermon-writing, however. Who preaches is as important as what is preached. In short, the pastor’s life itself preaches the gospel and gives credibility to the sermon. Chapter 6 focuses on sincerity and earnestness. Stott writes: “To be sincere is to mean what we say and to do what we say; to be earnest is also to feel what we say.”

Chapter 7 focuses on courage and humility. “Preachers, like prophets, believe they bring a word from God, and are not free to change it,” Stott notes. “Therefore all preachers have at various times to choose between truth with unpopularity and falsehood with popularity.” This requires courage. But speaking unpopular truths can render us “stubborn or arrogant.” Like Elijah, we can complain, “I alone am left.” The antidote to this arrogance is “a humble mind, humble motives, and humble dependence.”

The Challenge of Preaching is a short book: 102 pages in the main body and another 23 pages in the appendices. It can be read in a single sitting. I highly recommend it to new pastors because it covers the whole range of preaching topics quickly and memorably. However, I also recommend it to veteran pastors. It has a diagnostic simplicity that will help them identify and correct bad habits they have developed.

I conclude with one final quote that warmed my Pentecostal heart: “At the same time [that we are studying] we should be praying, crying humbly to God for light from the Spirit of truth. Like Moses, we must beg him to show us his glory (Ex. 33:18). Study is no substitute for prayer; prayer is no substitute for study. We must do both. It may help to study on our knees, because this attitude reminds us that we worship the God who reveals himself in the Bible, and we are humble before him.”

Amen to that!


P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

Review of ‘Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism’ by Timothy Keller

PreachingTimothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015). Hardcover | Kindle

All Christians have a spiritual responsibility to “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom” (Col. 3:16). Some Christians have a further responsibility to teach the word of God more formally, whether in a Sunday School class or from the pulpit. While all Christians can read Tim Keller’s Preaching profitably, it is intended specifically for those with more formal responsibilities to communicate the faith. (Because most readers of this book will be pastors looking for sermon help, however, I’m going to refer throughout this review to preachers and preaching, instead of using broader terms like teaching or communication.)

Keller divides his material into three parts.

Part One, “Serving the Word,” argues that preachers should preach the Bible (Chapter 1), which means preaching the gospel (Chapter 2), which means preaching Jesus Christ (Chapter 3), about whom all Scripture is written (Luke 24:27). Keller recognizes that there are times when preachers should deliver topical sermons, but their bread-and-butter sermons should be expositional. Because Scripture tells the unified story of what God has done in Christ through the Spirit to accomplish our salvation, sermons should be gospel-centered. Two dangers need to be avoided: (1) “preaching a text, even about Jesus, without really preaching the gospel,” which is typical of moralistic preaching; and (2) “preaching ‘Christ’ without really preaching the text,” which is typical of proof-texting. To help avoid these dangers, Keller outlines six ways to preach Jesus from all of Scripture that are adequate to both the gospel and the context of a particular passage.

Part Two, “Reaching the People,” opens with the recognition that preachers must contextualize their messages to their audiences (Chapter 4). Such contextualization has biblical precedent. For example, compare and contrast how Paul preached to Jews meeting in a synagogue (Acts 13:14–47) with how he preached to Gentiles meeting on Mars Hill (17:22–31). Contextualized preaching consists of a two-fold movement whereby sermons “adapt to the culture” as well as “confront the culture.” Because God created the world and humanity in his image, he has left traces of himself in all cultures. This makes adaptation possible. But humanity has sinned against God and distorted the goodness of his creation at all levels—individual and social, intellectual and emotional, spiritual and material. This makes confrontation necessary.

Chapter 5, “Preaching and the (Late) Modern Mind,” is the best chapter in the book, in my opinion. It exposes the “baseline cultural narratives” that characterize the late-modern mind. (Keller prefers the term late-modern to postmodern because he thinks contemporary culture is “less a reversal of modernity than an intensification of its deepest patterns.”) These narratives include “the sovereign self,” “absolute negative freedom,” “self-authorizing morality,” and “science as the secular hope.”

Chapter 6, “Preaching Christ to the Heart,” is the second best chapter, in my opinion. It recognizes that people are affective beings, not merely intellectual ones. “Preaching cannot simply be accurate and sound,” Keller argues. “It must capture the listeners’ interest and imaginations; it must be compelling and penetrate to their hearts.”

Part Three, “In Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power” consists of a single chapter about the character of preachers themselves. Keller writes, “your listeners will be convinced by your message only if they are convinced by you as a person.” Preaching, he goes on to say, thus deals with “text” (Bible-gospel-Christ), “context” (culture-heart), and “subtext” (what really motivates the preacher). Though Keller does not point this out himself, these three terms more or less correspond to the threefold division of classical rhetoric: logos (text), pathos (context), and ethos (subtext).

Keller concludes the book with a helpful appendix about “Writing an Expository Message” that focuses on the goal of the biblical text, the theme of the sermon, an outline that develops this theme, and arguments, illustrations, and applications that flesh out this theme. The book concludes with 60+ pages of notes, roughly 20 percent of the entire book. These notes not only identify the source of quotations and books for further reading, they also extend Keller’s analysis. Because they are placed at the end of the book, however, they don’t distract from the development of his main themes. (If you are a fan of Jonathan Edwards, I encourage you to read note 28 on pages 271–275; it shows how Edwards contextualized his preaching to Indians at the Stockbridge Mission.)

Though I found Preaching to be a helpful work, which was especially insightful on late modernity’s “baseline cultural narratives,” I nonetheless found myself asking a few questions.

First, and this is impressionistic, I felt that some of Keller’s examples of how to preach Christ from all of Scripture were not adequate to the text’s context. For example, discussing the horrifying story of the Levite and his concubine (Lev. 19), Keller suggests the following as one of many possible ways to preach Christ from the passage: “When we see a man who sacrifices his wife to save his own skin—a bad husband—how can we not think of a man who sacrificed himself to save his spouse—the true husband?” I see Keller’s point, but is that really a way to find Christ in the text?

Second, Keller defines the gospel in almost exclusively Pauline and Protestant Reformation terms: “we are saved through Christ alone, by faith alone, but not by a faith which remains alone. True salvation always results in good works and a changed life.” This is good and true, of course—see Ephesians 2:8–10, for example—but it fails to take into account other ways of summarizing the gospel, such as that of Jesus himself in Mark 1:15: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” I can’t help but wonder whether the outline of a kingdom-gospel message fits neatly within Keller’s “metaoutline” for preaching:

  • Here’s what we face.
  • Here’s what we must do.
  • Why we can’t do it.
  • How Jesus did it.
  • How through faith in Jesus you should live now.

Third, Keller’s conversation partners throughout the book are almost exclusively Calvinist. He does mention Protestant mainline preachers, but not evangelical Arminians, Methodists, or Wesleyan-Holiness preachers. (I’m an Arminian Pentecostal.) Given that these non-Calvinist evangelicals have produced quite a few well-known preachers, I can’t help but wonder whether they might have insights to share as well.

In spite of these questions, Preaching is a valuable work by a respected pastor whose judgment on such matters is always worth listening to. I get the feeling I’ll be returning to this book again (and again).


P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

Review of ‘Preaching in an Age of Distraction’ by J. Ellsworth Kalas

Unknown J. Ellsworth Kalas, Preaching in an Age of Distraction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

Ours is an Age of Distraction.

The ubiquity of smart phones and social media, together with the crush of the 24/7 news cycle, creates an overload of information that renders concentration difficult. The proliferation of options regarding household necessities, entertainment options, and extracurricular activities renders even the best decision-makers anxious.

Should I buy oatmeal or cream of wheat? A specific brand or generic? Instant or… Wait, my cell phone is ringing. My wife wants me to pick up our son from his play date and take him to baseball practice before we all go to church tonight.

As ministers of the gospel, we are distracted. Our parishioners are distracted. Our culture is distracted.

How do we preach as such people to such people in such an age? How do we become undistracted preachers ourselves?

J. Ellsworth Kalas sets out to answer these questions in this little gem of a book. Kalas is a United Methodist minister and senior professor of homiletics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Like John Wesley, his spiritual forefather, Kalas wants preachers to speak plain truth to plain people. To do that, they need to cultivate excellence in their own lives so that they can minister with excellence to the people of God.

In many ways, Preaching in an Age of Distraction is a primer in homiletics, covering the standard topics: the preacher’s spiritual formation, preparation, and sermon content and delivery. But using distraction as a fundamental problem to solve gives poignancy and piquancy to his remarks. The book helps preachers move from distraction to excellence.

Preaching in an Age of Distraction is an good book—an instant classic, I hope—for pastors just setting out in their ministries, as well as those stuck in the mud who need help out.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

The Spirit, Preaching, and Listening (1 Thessalonians 1:4-5)

In the course of my life, I have heard thousands of sermons, and I myself have preached a considerable amount. Some of these sermons–mine and others–have been excellent. Some of them have been unmemorable. And some of them–to be quite frank–deserve to be forgotten. Yet each week, I go to church to listen (on rarer occasions, now, to speak) and expect that God will say something to me through the preaching of his word.


In 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5, Paul, Silas, and Timothy provide an answer: “For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.” We need to read these words in context. In Greek, they are part of a single sentence that begins in verse 2: “We always thank God for all of you…” The missionaries express their gratitude by continually mentioning the believers in their prayers (v. 2b); by remembering faithful works, loving labor, and hopeful endurance; and now by acknowledging God’s election of them for salvation.

How did the missionaries know that God had elected the Thessalonians for salvation? Because of the work of the Holy Spirit, which provided both external and internal evidence. The missionaries say their preaching was “not simply with words but also with power.” Most likely, power refers to miraculous works that the Holy Spirit performed through the missionaries. These miracles are external evidence that the gospel is true.

The internal evidence is “deep conviction” in the minds of believers, an assurance that the gospel is true for me. Theologians refer to this deep conviction as the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. In Galatians 2:20, Paul depicts it this way: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Wouldn’t you love to experience both power and deep conviction each time you go to church? Wouldn’t you love to have an encounter with the Holy Spirit when you hear the word of God preached each Sunday? Is this even possible?

Yes, of course it is! For it to happen, preachers must humbly invite the Spirit to guide them as they prepare for and deliver the sermon. And listeners must expect to hear something from God, not just from their preacher.

This doesn’t mean that miracles will attend every sermon or that we will feel deeply assured every Sunday. Some years ago, when my dad retired from his church, the chairman of the board said that he had forgotten most of my dad’s sermons. But, he went on to say, he had forgotten most of his meals too. But they nourished him anyway.

That’s a good lesson. When we come to church, we should come expecting the Holy Spirit to nourish us through the sermon. That’s what ordinarily happens. But sometimes, we come to a feast, and then we know for sure that God is present and at work in our lives.

The World Wide Religious Web for Tuesday, January 3, 2012

LOVE WINS? “2011: The Year of the Hell Debate.”

I AGREE WITH THIS LETTER: “All American Muslim: An Open Letter.” “In our view, it is fundamentally unjust to tar all or most Muslims with the brush of extremism; and, as Christians and Americans, we must never countenance injustice. Moreover, effectively countering the threats posed by genuine extremists requires us to welcome as friends and allies Muslims who share our opposition to radicalism and violence, who value their American citizenship and American freedom just as we do, and who contribute constructively to their communities and the larger society. When we treat our Muslim fellow citizens justly, and when we welcome them as partners in our efforts on behalf of life, liberty, and human dignity, we are being true both to our Christian faith and to our American heritage.”

SANTA CLAUS IN TURKEY: “Is Santa the Canary in the Coal Mine?” I’m not sure what to make of this post, but there’s something funny in a Jew writing about a Muslim’s view of a Christian saint.

EVANGELICALS FOR MITT? “An Open Letter to the Romney Skeptics.”

COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATISM? “Santorum’s evangelical surge is about more than Christian Right.”

NUTTY POLITICS, BUT NICE GUY? “The Compassion of Dr. Ron Paul.”

COLLATERAL DAMAGE: “Divorce Rate Among Afghanistan, Iraq War Vets Increases by 42 Percent.”

BUT THE INTELLIGENT DESIGNER ISN’T: “Intelligent Design Is Dead: A Christian Perspective.”

INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW: “Was Arminius an inclusivist? Continuing a conversation.”

THE CHALLENGE OF EVANGELICAL AESTHETICS: “Art, Conscience, and Theological McCarthyism.”

RELIGION & POP CULTURE: “Let Lennon be Lennon and forget Cee Lo Green.”

LET THE JOKES BEGIN: Ted Haggard to appear on “Celebrity Wife Swap.”

FIFTY PERCENT: “Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Church.”

HOMILETICS MASTER CLASS: “Preaching when parched.”

INFOGRAPHIC: “How the Bible Feels.”

OBVIOUSLY, IT’S A SLOW NEWS DAY: “Tintin’s Politics.”

INSIDE JOKE FOR PHILOSOPHERS OF RELIGION: “Transworld Irony.” “It is possible that in every possible world there exists at a college named after John Calvin a philosophy professor who offers a free will defense for the problem of evil.”

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: