on 14 December 2011
When I was young (and not so young) I enjoyed taking things apart and finding out what they were made of, how they had been put together, and how they worked. Unfortunately my ability to reconstruct things came a sorry second to my interest in taking them apart. I have sat under and through a great many sermons. I learnt how to ignore them, and then how to listen to them. But it wasn't until I was asked to preach recently that I realised that I didn't know how something is put together to make a sermon. I was therefore interested to read David Murray's 'How Sermons Work'.
The book has a number of recommendations on the back cover from good and experienced professors, pastors and preachers: men whom you can trust, and who know their sermonic onions. So why am I reviewing it? Because I have probably read this book in a way that these good brothers have not. I have read this book as a man who needs to know how sermons work. I am not a trained or experienced preacher, so come to the book to learn: to learn how to preach. I don't really fit into one of Professor Murray's four audiences - seminary students, elders, experienced preachers, non-preachers who have to deliver a message - but I need this book.
Most things are complicated, and it is easy to write a complicated book. True ability is to make complicated things simple. This is a wonderfully simple, but never simplistic, book. We are taken on a tour of the process of preparation and preaching: only the main points are made, but there is a depth and completeness which is spiritually and intellectually satisfying.
The book almost reads like the headings and summaries from lecture notes, and I suspect that this is how the material was developed. This is not a criticism: rather the style lends itself to further study and development throughout. In ten chapters Professor Murray sets out clearly and concisely how sermons work under the following headings: preparation, selection (of a text), interrogation, variation, introduction, organisation, application and presentation. The points are compellingly rooted in Scripture, and helpfully illustrated by example. The fruit of much reading and study is evident in the breadth, quality and aptness of the quotes and notes from others.
The structure, brevity and simplicity of the book make it easy to read and to understand. But I think that the star qualities of this book are the marrying of a Scripture-grounded, Christ-centred approach, with a warm and practical realism. These qualities are illustrated by these excerpts, which are typical:
"I ... appeal for more Christ-centred application. In a sense this is the most importatn point in this chapter [The Principles of Application] because only Christ-centred application will deliver us from mere moralising and latent legalism. What is Christ-centred application? Well, if we are preaching from biblical history, then we should show how that history prefigures and points to Christ, or how it eventually leads to him. If preaching from the Psalms, we should show how appropriate they are for worshipping Christ. If preaching from the Proverbs, we must show how Christ is the ultimate Wisdom of God. If preaching from the prophets, we must show how they predict Christ. If preaching from the law, we must show how it reveals our need of Christ. If preaching practical duties, we must show how to motivate by love to Christ. If preaching Christ's words, we should show how they magnify the Christ who spoke them. If preaching on suffering, we should show how they bring us into fellowship with Christ's sufferings. If preaching duty, then we need to show how Christ forgives our many failings in the line of duty. If preaching about love, we must show the example of Christ. If preaching about sin, we must show Christ as the only Saviour from sin. Let all our application lead to the feet of Christ."
"Organising a sermon requires deep concentration, strenuous effort, prolonged quiet, and deep dependence on God."
This book is not everthing there is to know about preaching: it is an outline guide, a refresher. For me, as a man needing to know what it is to preach: how to find, exegete, and organise a text, and then preach and apply it, this book is just what I need. I will top it up with Pastoral mentoring, and further reading, but can ask no more of this book. In future I would love to see some sermon clips posted and explained online to illustrate the points and principles set out in the book. I wonder too whether there might be scope for some guidance on preaching outside of the church building.
God's people need preachers: men raised up by God, to preach His Word clearly, completely, and powerfully. Our society needs preachers: men after His heart, to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to those lost and dead in their sins. Such men do not just appear. They must be trained as well as called. They must learn how to preach. This little book is a valuable tool in this part of God's Kingdom work. I heartily commend it.
on 25 January 2012
With his customary clarity and precision of style and structure, David Murray provides us with a preacher's toolbox - not a full pastoral theology per se but rather a practical homiletical help. As a toolbox, it is well stocked with just the kind of instruments and tools that a preacher needs in order to construct a well-ordered, well-balanced, well-directed sermon. But, as Murray would acknowledge, this is not a mechanistic process, and so the apprentice preacher must learn to select and employ his tools wisely and well through diligent practice and in prayerful dependence on the Spirit. As such, anyone who preaches and teaches would do well to take up Murray's toolbox with a view to learning the use of the tools; the well-practiced preacher might readily survey the collection to see whether he has mislaid or neglected any of the tools of his trade; the sermon-hearer will learn some of what lies behind the hour of ministry he hears in the Sunday services. The proper use of this little book would be of genuine benefit to preachers and their congregations.