Book Review: The Heart Is the Target, by Murray Capill
Murray Capill. The Heart is the Target: Preaching Practical Application from Every Text. P&R Publishing, 2014. 272 pages. $14.99.
I’d love to spend a year in the classroom—or even better, under the pulpit ministry—of Murray Capill. From the first paragraph of the introduction, he riveted my attention with these words:
Through the long history of the church, nothing has won as many souls, changed as many lives, built up as many saints, and strengthened as many churches as the faithful preaching of God’s Word. Although there are many other ways to communicate the gospel and edify God’s people, in his wisdom God has given preeminence to the preaching of his Word. His Word is powerful and, when it is proclaimed clearly and its message is applied pertinently to those who listen, it has massive, Spirit-laden potential to change lives, either suddenly and dramatically or quietly and incrementally. (13)
Now that’s motivating! Never did I get the impression that Capill believes preaching has seen its better days, or that something more riveting and innovative is needed to reach 21st century sophisticates. No, in Capill we have a preacher whose conviction is that preaching has enormous potential—and he encouraged me to excavate the deep, deep mine of God’s Word to unearth its precious jewels for the enrichment of God’s people.
But life-shaping preaching does not happen automatically. If God’s people are to come away from the preaching event sensing that God has dealt with them in a profound way, addressing, challenging, convicting, comforting, and changing them (25), then the work of application must not be an afterthought. Preaching is more than explaining a text from Scripture or giving a sound lecture on biblical theology. Preaching in its very essence demands application. Preachers “must preach so that people experience and appropriate the truth, feeling its sting or tasting its sweetness. . . . They need to bring it up close to their hearers so that they are impacted by it. Truth is not handled as something detached and largely irrelevant to those who are listening. It is real and people must sense its import as the preacher consciously presses it against their lives” (30).
No two sermons need to sound alike when the preacher is conditioned to weave grace-filled, heart-oriented, Spirit-anointed application throughout the message. So how do we get there?
Capill writes for the “ordinary preacher” of a “smallish” church. He himself has pastored churches in New Zealand and Australia, and mercifully, his writing exudes a palpable sense of the high demands and joyous delights of shepherding a flock. His hope is that preachers would spend on average twelve hours of concentrated preparation for each sermon they preach—a reasonable expectation. And he provides for the shepherd-preacher a “living application preaching process” that has this conviction as its baseline: “Fundamental to approaching the biblical text spiritually is the realization that the process we are embarking on is not so much about us working on the text as about the text working on us. Yes, we have work to do, but more importantly God’s Word has work to do”—on us, and then on our hearers (57).
What follows is a masterful workshop on how to become a more applicatory preacher. Capill treads familiar territory for those who have been steeped in reformed, biblical theology—the importance of aiming for the heart and exposing idolatry—but he does so in a way that is fresh and compelling. Here are a few of the unique contributions of this book:
- A refreshing emphasis throughout on the indispensable priority of the preacher maintaining a full reservoir, for true preaching flows not merely out of the study, but out of the whole life of a preacher.
- A sensitivity to the diversity of a congregation, and how to discriminate between the varieties of hearers so that application is specifically targeted (138-139).
- A challenging chapter on “Preaching the Kingdom” in which Capill begins by making some personal “Confessions of a Pietistic Preacher.” I suspect quite a few of us, starting with myself, would agree that we have “a tendency to preach the gospel of individual salvation rather than the gospel of the kingdom, a tendency to address sin in the individual but not sin in society, a tendency to gravitate toward texts about personal spirituality but not texts about social justice, a tendency to set forth a vision for the church but not a vision for the world, and a tendency to preach a narrow view of worship and ministry rather than an ‘all of life’ view” (175). The correctives that follow are sensible and stimulating.
- Capill is not a strong advocate of preaching from a manuscript—instead, drawing inspiration from one of my all-time favorite books on preaching (Thoughts on Preaching by J. W. Alexander), Capill advocates that preachers should “write as if preaching” and “preach as if talking animatedly to friends about something supremely important, as opposed to reading to them a carefully worded essay” (246-247).
Is there a downside to this book? Only, perhaps, in the fact that it is so penetrating and thorough, a pastor could walk away from it feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. But Capill has anticipated that challenge, and he provides searching discussion questions at the end of each chapter that could be used as a means of interaction among pastoral teams. The book ends with an appendix of helpful charts that guide the preacher step-by-step through the living application process. I plan on copying these out and carrying them in my sermon notebook, beginning this week.
Every preacher should read at least one stimulating book on preaching per year. If The Heart is the Target became your choice in 2015, your church would be well-served and grateful.