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Four Points On Preaching by Tim Keller


Here's a man who proclaims the gospel every sermon.


We still have much to learn from Keller. And as a distillation of the preaching task it would be hard to improve on these four points (from this nifty little 9 page paper)...



Because the gospel is the root of both justification and sanctification.

The typical approach to the gospel is to see it as the ABC’s of Christian doctrine, or merely the minimum truth required to be saved, but to rely on more “advanced” biblical principles for progress in the Christian life. If that were the case, then we truly could not focus on both evangelism and spiritual formation at the same time. However, Martin Luther understood that the gospel is not only the way we receive salvation but is also the way to advance at every stage in the Christian life. This is why the first of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses was “All of life is repentance.”

Jonathan Edwards, in his Religious Affections, argues that belief and behavior are inextricably linked and that any failures in Christians are due to unbelief. The antidote to unbelief is a fresh telling of the gospel. Preaching, therefore, is not either for evangelism or edification, because all of us have the same underlying problem.


My sermons used to follow this approach:

+ Here is what the text says
+ Here is how we must live in light of that text
+ Now go and live that way, and God will help you.

I came to realize over time that I was doing exactly what Edwards said would not work. I was relying on fear
and pride to prompt obedience to God. Although I was doing it indirectly and unconsciously, I was employing
preaching to trick the heart instead of reorienting the heart.

I have come to realize that my sermons need to follow a different outline:
+ Here is what the text says
+ Here is how we must live in light of it
+ But we simply cannot do it
+ Ah—but there is One who did!
+ Now, through faith in him, you can begin to live this way.


There are, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: It is either about me or about Jesus. It is either advice to the listener or news from the Lord. It is either about what I must do or about what God has done.

Jesus is the true temple, the true prophet, the true priest, the true king, the true sacrifice, the Lamb, the Light,
the bread. The Bible is not about you—it is about him.


We must not assume, for example, if our listeners are materialistic that they only need to be exhorted to give more. Though guilt may help with the day’s offering, it will not alter one’s life patterns. If people are materialistic and ungenerous, it means they have not truly understood how Jesus, though rich, became poor for them. They have not truly understood what it means to have all riches and treasures in Jesus Christ. It means their affections are causing them to cling to material riches as a source of security, hope, and beauty. Thus in preaching we must present Christ in the particular way that he replaces the hold of competing affections. This takes not just intellectual argument but the presentation of the beauty of Christ. Jonathan Edwards defined a nominal Christian as one who finds Christ useful, while a true Christian is one who finds Christ beautiful for who he is in himself.

14 thoughts on “Four Points On Preaching by Tim Keller

  1. theoldadam

    "+ Now, through faith in him, you can begin to live this way."

    So if you don't seem to be able to live that way, does that mean that you don't have enough faith?

    I think I would work on that wording a bit (differently).

    But I'm a bit tired right now to do so.

  2. Glen

    Yes you'd want to be careful about how you go about that final point (lest you undo the rest of the sermon), but Luther on the First Commandment (which Keller quotes) would say that we're all struggling with unbelief at the heart of every sin. And therefore always in need of repenting

  3. Matthew Weston

    I can't believe I haven't come across that Keller article before. It says what I've wanted to say to many people in a much better way than I've ever said it. I still have questions about a law-gospel-type structure being the only way to preach, and what "being faithful to the text" actually means, but that's perhaps something I'll think about another time :)

  4. theoldadam

    The law, to expose us, and our need of a Savior (bring us to repentance)...and the gospel to free us raise give us new life.
    Over and over and over again. We wander off constantly and this is the way that God uses (along with the sacraments) to bring us back.

  5. Brian Midmore

    Edwards idea that 'The antidote to unbelief is a fresh telling of the gospel' may have worked for him. Sometimes i believe we need more than just words to transform our faith. The apostles needed the day of pentecost.

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  7. Glen

    Well said Matthew - the day of Pentecost was also a day of preaching. Neither the apostles, nor Edwards, nor Keller, nor (for what little its worth) I want to separate Word and Spirit.

    Matthew, law and gospel (done rightly) is just another version of that basic dichotomy: Adam/Christ, flesh/Spirit, old man/new man, old creation/new creation. Letting law *kill" and gospel resurrect is just the way we ensure salvation is apart from us and wholly in Christ.

    in a nutshell.

  8. Brian Midmore

    The parable of the sower teaches us that the proclaimed word of God is not always effective against sinfulness. For Edwards a fresh telling of the gospel may have been the antidote to unbelief but maybe his Spiritual life was free of weeds and rubble. But what if your spiritual life is full of rubbish and you attend a church which has made the preaching of the Word the near exclusive means of grace?

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  10. Josh

    Here's a recent thought I've had (that I can just about crow-bar into this discussion) which I'd love some thoughts on.

    What if the "you" of Romans 2 are subsets of those in Rome, loved by God and called to be saints (Rom 1:7) - i.e. [some of?] the Gentile Christians in Rome in Romans 2:1-16 and [some of?] the Jewish Christians in Rome in Romans 2:17 onwards, and not, as I had previously thought, 'moralising unbelievers' and 'Jewish unbelievers.'

    I had previously assumed that Romans 1b-2 cover the immoral, moral and Jewish unbelievers with 3a being the summary that everyone is sinful, and now, 3b we have the gospel to deal with sinful unbelievers, chapter 4 backs that up, and chapter 5 onwards is application to us Christians. In this reading the Christian needs to re-hear the gospel as a reminder of what it was that addressed them when they were sinners.

    However, if Romans 2 addresses the reader directly - 'you' - then the gospel announcement in Romans 3 also addresses them just as directly: thus what these proud sinful Christians need is the gospel proclaimed to them (and not just a reminder of the gospel that had been proclaimed to them followed by application of the gospel).

    Not sure if this reading totally works (what about Romans 3a?) but if it does its an even clearer example of preaching the gospel to Christians than I had previously thought.

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