By. Gavin Ortlund
When Tim Keller talks about preaching, I listen. And so did roughly 1,900 others during his breakout workshop, “Preaching to the Heart,” at the recent TGC National Conference in Orlando, Florida.
How often have we heard (or preached!) sermons that feel more like a lecture than a sermon—sermons that inform, but fail to transform. Keller helped us think about how to preach to the heart, and through the heart to the whole person.
Reach the Heart to Reach the Whole Person
Keller began his workshop by referencing Alec Motyer’s observation that a preacher has two responsibilities: first, to the truth he proclaims, and second, to the people to whom he proclaims it. Books on preaching tend to focus on the first, neglecting the equally vital work of contextualization and application. This imbalance partly explains why much expository preaching fails to speak to the heart.
The biblical understanding of the heart is unique in human thought. Throughout history, humans have tended to pit the mind and the heart against one another: ancient cultures by elevating reason and virtue to squelch the emotions, and modern cultures by elevating self-expression as the highest goal. In the Bible, however, the heart is the seat of not just our emotions, but also our deepest trust. Preaching to the heart touches not just the emotions, but the entire person, including our thought and will.
Knowing with the Heart
Keller brought this point home with an illustration from early in his ministry. During a meeting with a depressed teenage girl, she responded to the spiritual blessings in her life by saying, “I know that Jesus loves me, but what good is that when not a single boy at school will even look at you?” Keller referenced Jonathan Edwards’s distinction between opinion and knowledge, and suggested that we only truly know abstract truths when they become real to the heart. This transformative “heart knowledge” is the goal of our preaching.
Therefore preaching is not just about imparting truth to the minds of listeners; more deeply, it is about facilitating the experience of truth in the hearts of listeners. The goal of preaching, in other words, is not merely to proclaim the love of God, but to bring the love of God home to the hearts of listeners so vividly that it changes them right there “in the seats.”
Keller argued that there are six characteristics of preaching that effectively engages the heart. I list them here, with my top personal takeaway from each.
1. Preach culturally.
If our preaching does not engage with the competing narratives of our surrounding culture, Keller argued, it will simply bounce off the surface of many listeners, rather than engaging their hearts. For instance, take the view that if two people really love each other, it is fine for them to have sex. To deflate this myth, preachers cannot simply expound a biblical view of sexuality and then expect listeners to connect the dots on their own. The preacher must show how biblical truth intersects with these cultural beliefs, and how it is far more fulfilling and meaningful. How many of my sermons have failed to do this! And what a difference it can make!
2. Preach from the heart.
People need to sense the preacher has been wounded and repaired by the text. Many preachers try too hard to be good at preaching, or to be passionate in their preaching. In order to do this, preachers must (1) know their material cold and (2) have a rich prayer life.
3. Preach imaginatively.
One of the great misconceptions about sermon illustrations is that they must always be stories. Images and word pictures can also powerful. For instance, in his famous sermon “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God,” Jonathan Edwards said, “All your righteousness would have no influence to uphold you or keep you out of hell, any more than a spider’s web could stop a falling rock.” Connecting the abstract truth to a concrete, sensory experience can position it for stronger appeal to the heart.
4. Preach practically.
One of the most helpful ways to do application is the dialogical approach: ask questions. The more specific the questions, the better. Keller put it vividly: “You almost need to turn some parts of the sermon into counseling.” Imagine you are sitting in a counseling scenario and talking directly to someone, and then do exactly that in the sermon.
5. Preach wondrously.
J. R. R. Tolkien said that fairy tales continue to be popular because they give you stories in which characters escape time, escape death, hold communion with non-human beings, find perfect love, and triumph over evil. The gospel fulfills all these deep human longings. So do we preach this way? Is there a sense of wonder in our preaching?
6. Preach Christocentrically.
Preachers cannot appeal to the heart unless they preach Christ from each text. Keller referenced a comment from his wife, Kathy, to him early on in his preaching that until it gets to Jesus, it’s just a lecture, not a sermon. But when the sermon gets to Jesus, everyone puts their pens down, and instead of feeling like they are walking, people feel like they are flying. Worship happens.
Difficulty and Majesty of Preaching
I left the workshop with a somewhat conflicted response. On the one hand, I look at my own preaching and see how far I have to go. Keller’s points about exegeting cultural narratives with the gospel especially burned me. Ouch! Time to go back to the drawing board, go deeper, rethink, pray, push forward. I am reminded of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s statement, “Any man who has had some glimpse of what it is to preach will inevitably feel that he has never preached.”
On the other hand, Keller also leaves me with a sense the majesty of preaching. He inspires me to keep stretching forward into this task, to keep giving myself to God in that moment, and to trust that “in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). I am therefore also reminded of what Lloyd-Jones says next: “Any man who has had some glimpse of what it is to preach will inevitably feel that he has never preached. But he will go on trying, hoping that by the grace of God he may one day truly preach.”