Preaching from Head to Heart


Some preaching is sweet to the emotions but has all the backbone of a gummy bear. It gives us no solid doctrinal convictions on which to build our lives. Other preaching may inform the mind but leaves the heart cold and empty. It stirs no holy affections to love God and neighbor.

The goal of every church should be, as Paul says, to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16). In context, that means being “renewed in knowledge” (v. 10) and transformed in affection, character, and relationships (vv. 12–15). How do we do that? In part, Paul has in view the praises of our public worship: “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (v. 16). However, Paul also is calling the church to “teaching and admonishing” (v. 16). This takes focused form in the preaching of the Word. What kind of preaching is the Holy Spirit pleased to use to cause the word of Christ to dwell in us richly? It is preaching the Word from the head to the heart. This may be analyzed in a series of steps.

1. From the Lord’s Word to the Preacher’s Head

The process starts when a preacher opens the Bible with the attitude of Samuel, praying, “Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth” (1 Sam. 3:9–10). He studies the Word as a disciple listens to the voice of his Master, just as God said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him” (Matt. 17:5). He bends the powers of his intellect and takes up the tools of exegesis and theology to understand the divinely revealed message. His question is not, “How can I get people to do what I want them to do?” but, “What saith the Scripture?” (Rom. 4:3). He knows that he is a steward of the revealed mysteries of God; he aspires to be found faithful (1 Cor. 4:1–2).

2. From the Preacher’s Head to the Preacher’s Heart

The process continues as the Word sinks deep into the preacher’s soul, for by grace he has a good and honest heart (Luke 8:13, 15). He ministers as one who stands in the presence of “God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:1). His work is less like a chef who prepares meals for others than a nursing mother who must ingest all the nutrients her child needs so that she can pass them along (1 Thess. 2:7–8). Therefore, as Jeremiah said of old, so the faithful preacher says, “Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart: for I am called by thy name, O Lord God of hosts” (Jer. 15:16).

Before he preaches to others, he preaches to himself, laboring to convince his own mind, stir up his own affections, and activate his own obedience. Without engaging his own heart, all his sermon preparation is merely an empty form. God, of course, can still use truth that is divorced from the preacher’s heart, but his normal way is to bless the Christ-centered, heart-felt preaching of the minister who is involved with his whole man in the sermon he brings.

3. From the Preacher’s Words to the Listener’s Head

After the Holy Spirit fills the preacher’s head and heart with the Word and empowers him to prepare a wise and focused sermon, he is ready to prayerfully address his listeners. However, the preacher cannot simply gush forth his own feelings, for he does not preach himself but Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 4:5). He is “the messenger of the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 2:7).

Therefore, his preaching is “the manifestation of the truth” (2 Cor. 4:2), a plain and open declaration of what God says and how it applies to our lives. He preaches the Word with “doctrine” or clear teaching (2 Tim. 4:2). His hearers must base their response not upon their respect for him but on their inner conviction that “thus saith the Lord.”

4. From the Listener’s Head to the Listener’s Heart

Though the preacher brings the radiant light of God’s truth to illuminate the mind, he aims to reach deeper until by grace truth touches the heart and ignites its affections with divine glory (2 Cor. 4:6). He preaches knowing that “we all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ,” and earnestly pleads with men with an intensity that may make him seem beside himself (5:10–11, 13, 20).

If his hearers’ hearts are like rocks, he wields the Word as the hammer that breaks the rock (Jer. 23:29). If they are humbled under the holiness of God, then he speaks comfortingly to them in the Spirit of the Christ who will not break a bruised reed but revives the contrite in spirit (Isa. 40:1–2; 42:1–3; 57:15). He is not merely broadcasting information, but warns the unruly, encourages the faint of heart, strengthens the weak, and is patient with all (1 Thess. 5:14), looking meekly to the Holy Spirit to grant repentance, knowledge, and deliverance to sinners (2 Tim. 2:24–25).

The preaching of God’s Word aims at the transformation of the whole person, and so engages the whole person of both preacher and listener. Though we may analyze it in steps, in reality it is an organic and integrated process by which Christ writes his Word upon our hearts not with ink but with the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:3). Who is adequate for such a ministry? Yet our competency is from the Lord, not ourselves.

Therefore, brethren, let us preach the Word from head to heart with humble dependence on God, and all the glory will go to him.

Joel Beeke

Joel Beeke is President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and a pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Paul Smalley

Paul Smalley is a teaching assistant to Dr. Beeke at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and a bivocational pastor at Grace Immanuel Reformed Baptist Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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