Book Review: Preaching the Whole Counsel of God, by Julius Kim
Julius Kim, Preaching the Whole Counsel of God: Design and Deliver Gospel-Centered Sermons. Zondervan, 2015. 240 pps. $24.99.
Amid all the evangelical advice about how we ought to preach for maximum impact and influence, Julius Kim’s book stands out as a simple, reliable guide for faithfulness in the trenches. It reminds me a little bit of reading selections from Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students, not in metaphor or humor, but in scope and sequence of sermon development and delivery—hermeneutics to hand gestures, parallelism to pitch and pace. He takes Brian Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching as a framework, so there’s a good bit about discovering the fallen-condition-focus (FCF) and the Christ-Focused Connection (CFC), both of which are strengths of the book.
The table of contents itself preaches—discovering truth, discerning Christ, designing the sermon, and delivering the sermon.
DISCOVERING THE TRUTH OF THE TEXT
Kim introduces the reader to linguistic, literary, and life-setting analysis as a three-pronged approach to the exegetical task. He then advocates a problem-solution structure to most sermons to focus our attention on how the gospel itself solves the problem raised by the storyline or argument of the text. Following Chapell, he encourages the preacher to boil down the point of the whole sermon into one simple sentence with an indicative-imperative structure—because God has done X, then we should do/think/believe/trust/feel Y (40).
That may seem constricting to the young, restless expositor who’s chomping at the bit to show he has not only Spurgeon’s sideburns, but his skill. And to the seasoned veteran, it might feel pedantic. But even so, it’s an excellent discipline that can help us turn exegetical cogency into homiletical coherence, without which all our linguistic rigor can harden into sermonic rigor mortis. Incoherence sounds the death knell for a sermon, because no matter how many illustrations you add, you can’t have people asking “What was he trying to illustrate there?”
It will undoubtedly come across as a bit formulaic to some—follow these methodical steps and out will pop a faithful sermon. Perhaps it will seem un-Spiritual or too cerebral for those who equate spontaneity with spirituality. But Kim is careful from the outset to include prayer as an indispensable element of sermon prep. Besides, clarity only enhances Christ-centeredness, which in turn encourages grace-motivated obedience while avoiding both legalism and license.
DISCERNING CHRIST IN THE TEXT
Kim writes: “Preaching Christ presupposes interpreting Christ from all the Scriptures” (59). Here Kim follows in the cavernous footsteps of G.K. Beale, Frances Foulkes, Dennis Johnson, Edmund Clowney, Leonard Goppelt, and Geerhardus Vos (60-61). Patrick Fairbairn would be proud. Kim even gives us some tracks to run on by suggesting we discern Christ as penalty payer, probation preserver (he kept the law Adam broke), power provider, and passion producer (64-65). His alliteration may have gotten the best of him there, but who among us could fling the first flint?
Kim then introduces us to genre analysis, and gives a three-layered strategy for preaching Christ from any biblical genre: (1) discovering the meaning through linguistic, literary, and life-setting analysis; (2) discerning how the passage points to Christ; and (3) discovering how the gospel should transform us all as a result (79-81). This three-layered strategy then re-appears on subsequent pages with each layer fleshed out a little differently based on the biblical genre you’re preaching.
He then gives two sample sermons, one from the OT (90-99) and one from the New (124-137). They’re both faithful and useful models, not because you wonder how he did it, but because he shows you how he did it. He doesn’t pull a Christological rabbit out of a hat. The sermon itself shows you clearly how the text itself preaches Christ. It demonstrates how the sermonic inferences and applications are waiting there in the text to be drawn like water from a well.
DESIGNING THE SERMON
Kim handles the design element under the rubrics of truth, goodness, and beauty, drawing on the Vetruvian architectural model that stands behind da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man. Sound sermonic design, then, will show how the sound truth of the sermon benefits the listener, and will exhibit an aesthetic appeal that plays its own part to persuade the listener not only to agree with the point being preached, but to take pleasure in it. Kim then walks us through six final components of structure: transitions, applications, illustrations, introductions, conclusions, and composition. Again, this stuff can feel more granular than grand, but Kim keeps the forest in view even while examining the trees.
DELIVERING THE SERMON
He apparently limits the ideal sermon length to 25 minutes or so, which seems light. But if you’re a young guy coming into your first church, it’s a humble and potentially wise place to start. We all think we should be able to get away with preaching for an hour, but not all of us can pull it off equally well, and not every congregation is ready to pay attention that long. Expositional listening can cause intellectual soreness if the brain has atrophied at church for a while.
Kim includes a chapter on what can best be described as “Neuroscience for Dummies: With Implications for Preaching.” This is where he mentions dress and demeanor as elements of ethos, selectivity in content, simple sentence structure, application as you go, repetition, anticipating questions and objections, cognitive breaks, silence, and the like.
I found myself most encouraged that Kim was so careful in urging us to put the gospel of Jesus Christ and the call to repentance front-and-center in all our sermons. He’s very clear as well that we should motivate people with the grace of the gospel, not the lash of the law. Listening to Dr. Kim can help the young preacher avoid many freshman faux pas.
If you’re looking for a technical manual on hermeneutics, then don’t expect Kim to rehash E.D. Hirsch, Vanhoozer, or Osborne. There are book-length treatments of each of his four main sections elsewhere. But if you’re an aspiring preacher looking for a good intro to the discipline, a seasoned pastor looking for a good discipleship tool or intern text, or if you’re starting to wonder quietly to yourself “Have I been doing this right?” then you’ll want to read this.
You’ll find it a good refresher, both for content and delivery. If you’re like me, you’ll find some of your own weaknesses exposed. You might even hear your dear wife’s gentle yet incisive criticisms reverberating in your ears, and you’ll be challenged to take up the call with renewed love for Jesus and affection for your own congregation.
There’s no rocket science here, no silver bullet. Kim may even knock some of the youthful idealism out of us. After all, preaching is really hard work. But it’s glorious, it’s fruitful, and it’s well worth it.
I can see using this with brothers in our church who want to develop their own preaching skills. It’s relatively short (224 pages), written with a simple style and patient tone, and it’s a one-stop-shop to introduce the preaching task from soup to nuts, with helpful footnotes guiding you to the next level of reading. I gave a copy to one of our elders recently to sharpen the gift God’s given him. I expect his hungry mind and sincere heart will gobble it right up. And I hope you will, too.