Haddon Robinson grabbed an ice pick and headed out the door to join his gang. They were intent on avenging the murders of three of their members.
Association with a gang was a matter of survival for a young man growing up in the Mousetown section of Harlem in the 1940s. Haddon’s mother had died when he was a boy, and his father worked a 2 to 11 p.m. shift, so no one was home to stop him.
As the gang members emerged from an alley, a policeman apprehended them. For whatever reason, the officer singled out Haddon, searched him, and found his ice pick. “What do you plan to do with this?” the officer asked. “Chop ice,” Haddon replied. At that, the officer kicked him to the ground, swore at him, and made him return home. That night, several of Haddon’s fellow gang members would lose their lives in a brutal brawl. As he later reflected, “The foot of that policeman was the hand of God in my life.”
Life Devoted to Preaching
God’s hand continued to work in Haddon’s life, shaping him into a devoted follower of Jesus who eventually became a dean of evangelical preaching. He is best known for his book Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages—first published it in 1980 and currently in its third edition. I once asked Haddon how he was able to make his book “sing.” He told me he delivered the first draft orally to his secretary while pacing back and forth in his office.
On July 22, 2017, Haddon entered the presence of the Lord. He died in his sleep almost three years after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I am one of his many former students who will be forever grateful for his imprint on our lives. This self-described “latchkey kid” from a vicious, violent district in New York City taught us grace, godliness, and how to preach the Scriptures.
Haddon’s interest in preaching began shortly after his conversion to Christ when Harry Ironside, the renowned pastor of Chicago’s Moody Church, visited New York City. Of Ironside’s preaching, Haddon wrote in his diary: “He preached for an hour and it seemed like 20 minutes; others preach for 20 minutes and it seems like an hour. I wonder what the difference is.” A few years ago, Haddon said: “I have devoted my life to answering that question.”
Haddon’s call to preach was solidified while a student at Bob Jones University. There, he heard leading preachers in chapel and often spent Friday nights in the library reading sermons and books about preaching. When he enrolled at Dallas Theological Seminary, the school didn’t offer classes in preaching. During his senior year, a few classmates asked him to teach them how to preach. This eventually led to an invitation for Haddon to return from an assistant pastorate in Medford, Oregon, to teach homiletics at DTS. “I went back because they needed a ‘low-dollar person,’” he recalled. “They hired me on the basis of gift, not education.” Haddon often quipped that friends would marvel at how he didn’t become an atheist after listening to so many student sermons.
When I reflect on how Haddon shaped evangelical preaching, I think of three particular convictions he taught and modeled.
1. Need for a Big Idea
Haddon wrote his classic preaching textbook in an era when expository preaching was often reduced to an exegetical lecture. He was concerned that listeners would walk away from a sermon “with a basketful of fragments but not an adequate sense of the whole.” One of his witticisms (which his students called “Haddonisms”) expressed his concern: “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew.”
The hallmark of Haddon’s approach to exposition lies in identifying and communicating a biblical text’s “big idea.” Some have questioned this approach, arguing that it’s artificial and works better in some passages than in others. They’re concerned about reducing the richness of a text to a single idea. Yet Haddon saw the “big idea” approach as a way of communicating a biblical text precisely so that listeners could access its riches. He observed: “Sermons seldom fail because they have too many ideas; more often they fail because they deal with unrelated ideas.”
Haddon believed preachers are not ready to preach a text until, in the words of John Henry Jowett, the big idea “has emerged, clear and lucid as a cloudless moon.”
2. Need to Exegete Both Text and Listener
Robinson insisted his students work hard to understand both the text and the listeners to whom we preach. I remember him grilling me in class over my exegesis of a passage in the Gospel of Mark. My fellow students and I had to exegete a particular text and then discuss how we would preach it. I remember saying, “This is how I plan to preach this text.” Haddon replied, “No you won’t. Try it again.” So I tried it again, and he said: “That won’t do. Try it again.” By the end of my presentation, I was frustrated. Yet Haddon approached me after class and told me how glad he was to have me in his DMin program in preaching. I realized he was pushing us to understand deeply the author’s intended meaning.
Haddon also insisted that we exegete our listeners. What do they value? What are their needs? What do they need explained, validated (proved), or applied when they hear a biblical text proclaimed? He had no patience with the “stained-glass voice” and “three points and a poem” approach of many pastors. He believed it dulled the senses of listeners. I remember Haddon interrupting a sermon one of my classmates was preaching in class. He suddenly started waving his arms and said, “Stop right there! Stop. Do you use that kind of a voice when you order a meal at McDonalds? Then don’t use it when preaching.” He chided the sermon outline of a friend of mine, saying: “That sounds like it came out of a book called Simple Sermons for Sunday Evening.”
3. Need for Godliness
Haddon admonished his students with Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 4:16: “Watch your life and doctrine closely.” He warned us: “When you fail to walk with God, you walk on the edge of an abyss.” This is something he modeled well. Haddon was a man of God before he was a spokesman for God. He was a man of godly integrity, a man of tenderness as well as toughness. I never once heard him criticize his critics, though I remember the opening to one of his prayers: “Lord, I am a sinful man in need of your grace.”
Though brilliant and full of insight, Haddon was not full of himself. In 1996 a Baylor University poll named him one of “The 12 Most Effective Preachers in the English-Speaking World.” Once, when asked about the honor, Haddon shook his head: “How in the world do you come up with a conclusion like that?” As he has famously said: “There are no great preachers, only a great Christ.”
Part of Haddon’s godly grace was his expression of love and care to others. I’ll never forget how he encouraged and prayed for a struggling yogurt shop owner near Gordon-Conwell’s campus. She had come to faith in Christ through his radio ministry and couldn’t believe he was “that Haddon Robinson.” He gently insisted that we, his students, give her our business to help her pay her bills.
When I had to miss my graduation ceremony at Gordon-Conwell due to a family member’s illness, Haddon called the day after to tell me how sorry he was and to inquire about my family member. By the end of the phone call, he agreed to fly to Montana—where I was pastoring at the time—to present me with my hood and diploma. This seems rather remarkable, but it was a rather typical act of kindness for Haddon.
What many may not realize is that Haddon was named after the “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Haddon’s mother was born in the 1890s when Spurgeon—who died in 1892—was still quite popular. Whether or not you name your son “Haddon” or your daughter “Haddyn” (as at least two of his former students did), I hope Haddon Robinson’s life and ministry will continue to influence a new generation of preachers to proclaim God’s Word with great patience and careful instruction.
The words of Dan Fogelberg, a singer-songwriter from my hometown, describe how I feel about my mentor: “My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man.” But I, along with hundreds of other former students, am a living legacy to this great teacher of preachers.