Good books on preaching the Bible abound. Books on preaching to the heart don’t. In his newest volume, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Viking, 2015) [20 quotes], Tim Keller aims to tackle both. “Preaching is not only explaining the text but also using it to engage the heart,” he explains. “I often see preachers giving so much time to the first task that they put little thought and ingenuity into the second.” 

The result is a much-needed volume—complete with 234 (often substantive) endnotes—that unfolds the basics of faithful preaching (exposition, illustration, application), the unique challenges—and opportunities—of our cultural moment, and the need to make Jesus the saving hero of every sermon. I don’t know of any preaching book that offers such extended insight and practical counsel on understanding the contemporary Western (late-modern) heart. More of a “manifesto than a manual,” this is a superb resource not just for preachers but for anyone desiring to faithfully and effectively convey Christian truth in a post-Christian world.

I spoke with Keller, co-founder of TGC and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, about what makes great preaching, how to capture the imagination, Jonathan Edwards the contextualizer, and more.

What’s the difference between good preaching and great preaching—and why does it matter?

Good preaching is attended by the Holy Spirit. The Westminster Larger Catechism 155 describes how the Spirit works in preaching. He enlightens, convinces, humbles, gets people out of themselves and into Christ, conforms them to his image, subdues them to his will, strengthens them against temptation, builds them up in grace, and establishes their hearts in both holiness and comfort through faith. So what is great preaching? It’s when God’s Spirit is pleased to enhance, raise, and invigorate all these operations. The visible signs of this are an unusual sense of God’s presence during the preaching, authentic conversions, and permanently changed lives. This isn’t something we have a lot of control over. We must not assume the Spirit will visit with twice the power if we spend twice the time preparing our sermon. Nor can you control or determine this with your prayer life—though well prepared and well prayed-for sermons are the best possible way to invite the Spirit’s attendance. In the end, he is sovereign. 

So perhaps you could say a good sermon is mainly the responsibility of the preacher, but a great one is the responsibility of the Holy Spirit.

Some tend to preach the text without preaching Christ. Others tend to preach Christ without preaching the text. How do we practically avoid both dangers?

The rule of thumb is this: don’t get to Christ too soon, but get to Christ. For example, if you’re preaching on a passage in the Old Testament prophets and you see a reference or theme that eventually climaxes in Christ, don’t go there immediately. Be sure you spend plenty of time identifying and discussing the author’s original message to his original audience before you draw out the intercanonical theme and show how only Christ fulfills it.

Many assume contextualization is about accommodation, but you contend it’s ultimately about clarity for the sake of confrontation. What do you mean? How was Jonathan Edwards a model of sound contextualization?

One of the best ways to convince people they’re wrong is: (1) to be understandable and not confusing, using terms and illustrations they’ll find comprehensible, and then (2) to show them they’re being inconsistent with their own beliefs and convictions. Romans 1 tells us all people have some knowledge of God and reality implanted within them. So show them not only that the Bible convicts them, but that they’re not being true to their own best beliefs and premises. Only in Jesus Christ can people resolve the dilemmas and contradictions they’re trapped in without him. 

If you compare the sermons Jonathan Edwards preached to impoverished American Indians with the ones he preached to educated and prosperous Europeans, you’ll see a vast difference. He changed his vocabulary, his outline, his methods of argument, and his metaphors and images. It’s remarkable. That’s contextualization.

What would you say to a preacher who feels intimidated by all he feels he needs to read in order to “speak to the culture”? Where should he start?

He needs to start noticing the cultural water he swims in every day. You don’t need to start with heavy tomes. Look at the music videos on YouTube getting tens or hundreds of millions of views. They’re almost always about cultural narratives of identity, freedom, and so on that shape us at our roots. Make them visible by reflecting on them. James K. A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular [review | interview], which is a guide to reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, is a good starting point.

“Change happens not just by giving the mind new arguments,” you explain, “but also by feeding the imagination new beauties.” For example, we must display Christ, not merely discuss him. What are some practices or habits that help you cultivate imagination in your preaching? What resources would you recommend for growing in this area? 

Read very, very old literature—fairy tales, myths, legends, sagas. Many of them have pagan roots, of course, but they are profoundly imaginative in how they depict matters of good and evil, death, hope, and love. Read poetry. Know classic hymnody (hymns are very imaginative). Watch classic movies. I can’t even begin a list of these, but at least a few hundred really great ones exist—and even a lot of so-so ones with really great scenes—that fire the imagination. And preach about the ideas that have moved you the most in prayer. 

“I continually observe that ministry amplifies people’s spiritual character,” you write. “It makes them far better or worse Christians than they would have been otherwise.” What’s the lesson here for preachers?

Preachers need to have vastly richer prayer lives than Christians in any other profession. I hear the objection: “Are you saying there’s a double standard—that lay people don’t need to be as spiritual as pastors?” I don’t want to mean that. I just know that trying to be a preacher without a terrific prayer life will almost certainly move you toward hypocrisy, duplicity, and hardness of heart quicker than any other role in life.