A Taste of a Good Book

T. David Gordon, who has written one of the best recent books on preaching, has given us now a sample of it in the latest issue of Tabletalk.

I’m going to be a bit rude here and suggest that much of what passes for preaching these days is nothing more than constipated, triviality-coma-inducing, stream-of-unconsciousness, bill-of-banality, navel-nuzzling, tritch-tratch twaddle. Someday ask me what I really think, and then I’ll tell you. Listen to Gordon and learn something. Of course, I always find it awkward to recommend a book entitled Why Johnny Can’t Preach to a preacher. However, I defy any preacher to read that book and not learn something from it.



  1. Scott A. Treloar said,

    May 3, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    And coming on June 20th, “Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns,” also by Dr. Gordon and published by P&R.

  2. Tim Keller said,

    May 4, 2010 at 7:09 am

    David Gordon’s excerpt is great. Thanks for pointing it out. But let’s notice that he says preachers need to know poetry (and good literature) as well as the Bible. I suggest Reformed preachers immerse themselves in George Herbert, to start.

  3. greenbaggins said,

    May 4, 2010 at 9:52 am

    Tim, I absolutely agree. Gordon says in his book that he recommends that pre-seminary students become English majors precisely for this reason.

  4. Paige Britton said,

    May 4, 2010 at 9:58 am

    G. M. Hopkins, too.

  5. May 5, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    How about T.S. Eliot? Or is that just assumed?

    I was also challenged and helped by T. David’s book (who was my former prof at GCTS btw), especially the need for clear structure and how useful the discipline of writing is to preaching, even if one is never published.

    However, I found it puzzling that in a book on preaching, he did not interact with I Corinthians 2:1-5. Unless I am utterly misreading this text, I think Paul offers a helpful counterweight to T. David’s main thesis. When I preached regularly in a prison, structure was needed, clarity was needed, but what was most needed was an unction and conviction from the Holy Spirit. It’s no different now that I preach in a college church.

  6. jeffhutchinson said,

    May 5, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    1. For the record, my brother Chris gave me this book for Christmas (hint hint).
    2. As a direct result, I have made use of more poetry in these last few months of sermons than in my previous 20+ years combined, probably.
    3. My sermons are still “constipated, triviality-coma-inducing, stream-of-unconsciousness, bill-of-banality, navel-nuzzling, tritch-tratch twaddle,” but maybe a bit less so.

  7. Tim Keller said,

    May 5, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    Dear Chris:

    I spent almost ten years (as you know) preaching 3 different sermons a week in a small blue-collar town in Virginia, in a church which at the time had only two people who had gone to college, and quite a number that had not finished high school. That’s the only other preaching ministry I have had besides 21 years in Manhattan. Yet David Gordon’s advice works for both settings.

    I think David’s point is that if you immerse yourself in poetry-in which every word counts, every word is agonized over–this can make you a better preacher. In Virginia I never actually quoted the poetry I read, and in Manhattan I seldom do. The benefit of the poetry is this–most preachers are far too wordy and unskillful in crafting words that powerfully and compellingly carry the freight you want them to. Preachers (in our circles) say theologically accurate things (which is essential) but they say it so unpersuasively and poorly that in the end it doesn’t promote the cause of truth. Our sermons are almost always too long because we don’t know how to put the truth in words well. Great poetry and prose rubs off on you after a while. That’s what David is saying, I think.

  8. May 5, 2010 at 5:12 pm


    I completely agree with you and with T. David on *that* point. One of the things I love about our associate pastor’s preaching is that every sentence is so carefully crafted and complete and yet delivered with great conviction and passion.

    And yet, I still have to ask (and I mean to write T. David a letter about this this summer when I get a chance), what did Paul mean in I Cor. 2:1-5, if not that we should crucify our desire to be thought of as eloquent and well spoken, thus gaining the approval of this world? As a negative example, Henry Ward Beecher comes to mind, known as the best orator of his day, and yet look where it took him. (And no, I don’t think your preaching does this at all — you are always plain spoken and direct.)

    I am just curious about T. David’s take on that passage given his overall argument for a literate ministry. I appreciated DA Carson’s thoughts in The Cross and Christian Ministry, though I think he also undersold the “foolishness” of preaching as a medium, locating the foolishness with the content of the message (the Cross), not the medium itself. I *think* it is both, as I read I Cor. 1-4. That a foolish message comes through a foolish medium, which is plain, spoken Spirit-empowered proclamation, even as we do our best to make it clear, structured and literate, for our part.

    But what is more needful than all that is weakness, desperation and prayer. For me, those are the sermons God appears to bless most.

  9. jeffhutchinson said,

    May 5, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    I, for one, am enjoying listening in on two of the finest preachers I know discuss preaching.

    By the way, I highly, highly recommend my brother’s sermons.


  10. May 5, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    man, Jeff, gollee, I like to keep a low profile. and no, I did not give you that book as any sort of suggestion! just thought it would be an interesting read for both of us. btw, I actually registered for GA and so look forward to going with you. can you believe it?

  11. Paige Britton said,

    May 5, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    Yet, Chris, I don’t think eschewing eloquence, which calls attention to the speaker, precludes preaching with elegance, by which a preacher chooses apt words to carry his message — apples of gold in settings of silver. And often it’s the uncluttered simplicity of good speech (or writing) that says the most, best. It’s a kind of deliberate thoughtfulness, I think. (But I do also think that, as in singing, some people have a good ear and can be trained to it, some do it naturally, and some won’t ever really sing in tune, but that’s okay, too.)

    And I agree with Jeff about your preaching — AND your writing. :)


  12. Todd said,

    May 5, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    Tim and Chris,

    I didn’t take away from the book that Gordon wants us to understand poetry to help us craft our sermons, but to help us understand Scripture; to be sensitive to not only the doctrine it teaches, but how it is written; learning to ask questions of the passage and its literature to plumb the riches in the text itself.


  13. May 5, 2010 at 8:22 pm


    I think you are right. But additionally, as I remember it, Gordon was arguing that reading poetry and good prose, and writing well, helps US to think well, and thus craft better sermons; as well as understand the Biblical text better.
    I don’t disagree with that at all.


    I readily agree. My problem is when I *don’t* craft a sermon well and pithily enough, (cf. Mark Twain’s famous quote), what do I do? Is all lost? Nah, I just pray more than I usually do and come into the pulpit a bit more humble than is my wont, and then just see what happens. That is not an excuse for poor preparation, but sometimes, sermons just don’t come together easily and we have to throw out tattered efforts into the wind and let God the Holy Spirit form them into something useful, by his gracious and immediate work. That is my only real hope as a preacher.

    Blessings sister, Chris

  14. Tim Keller said,

    May 5, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    Chris –

    A quick reading of 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 seems to indicate that Paul did not use logic, argument, or learning in his preaching, that he simply explained the gospel and expected the Holy Spirit to convict—or not. However, while Paul seemingly says here he does not use ‘persuasive’ words, in 2 Corinthians 5:11 he says that he does use logic and argument. It is hard to argue that Paul never gets eloquent or never uses careful argument or never speaks beautifully in his exposition of the gospel. So what is he rejecting in 1 Cor 2?

    I think the fullest and best treatment of the meaning of the words ‘eloquence’ and ‘superior wisdom’ and ‘wise and persuasive words’ in 1 Corinthians 2 is in Anthony Thistleton’s enormous commentary on 1 Corinthians. In sum, he says Paul is rejecting 1st, verbal bullying (using force of personality, witty and cutting disdain, super-confident demagoguery to beat the listeners into wanting to be on the speaker’s side) rather than a spirit of humility. 2nd, he is rejecting the opposite, namely applause-generating, consumer-oriented rhetoric which plays to a crowd’s prejudices, pride, and fears rather than making sound, careful arguments. Finally he refuses manipulative stories, or overwhelming the crowd with shows of verbal dexterity, wit or erudition rather than an exposition of what the text says.

  15. May 6, 2010 at 7:45 am


    Thank you, that’s very helpful. Thistleton’s speculations seem correct given the context of I Cor. 1, 3 & 4. I was certainly not implying Paul did not employ logic or careful speech — just look at the structure of I Corinthians (not to mention Romans!).

    I was simply pointing out, that in my opinion, a book on preaching ought to interact with that passage; and that it is possible to rely too much on logic and elegance and careful thought, and forget that unless the Spirit comes down, “all is vain” to quote the hymn.

    This does not mean that I think a preacher must yell; it is not a matter of style. Likewise, we don’t always know how the Spirit blesses; I trust where the Word is faithfully expounded with sincerity, good things are always happening, regardless of whatever weaknesses abide.

    I appreciate the helpful interaction. God’s continued blessings.

    Chris H.

  16. Frank Quijada said,

    May 27, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    i just wanna take 10 secs to say i appreciate this type of medium, thnk u tim keller and hutchinsons for some very stimulating conversation. i regularly read here i jus dont post but man! am i luvin this dialogue!! thnx green baggins

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