A Warning Against Experience-Based Theology

Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions – Colossians 2:18

This is a warning against basing theology on experience. The person described here claims to have seen something (some translations say “visions”), possibly something supernatural associated with angels, and uses this to puff himself up and gather followers.

But, Paul says such a person is “unspiritual” and full of “idle notions.” What the text literally says is “puffed up by the mind of the flesh of him.” This implies his visions are the product of his flesh, not encounters with God or angels.

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How Sermons Work by David Murray

How Sermons Work by David Murray
Raphael, St Paul Preaching in Athens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I want to learn to build a birdhouse or make Coq au vin or speak German there are any number of simple,  step-by-step guides from which I can choose. But what if I want to learn how to prepare and preach a sermon? Though there are many books on preaching, my experience is none of them is what you’d call simple and straight forward. Most read like seminary text-books (perhaps that’s because many of them are seminary text books!). But, David Murray’s How Sermons Work, is not like that at all.

This is the best book on sermon preparation I’ve read. Murray approaches preaching as a skill that can be learned, not a mystical talent delivered from on high to a select few. While it is true certain men are more suited for ministry than others, it is equally true that having a “calling” to ministry does not negate the need to learn good sermon preparation techniques. Murray makes it clear that a man called of God to deliver His word has a responsibility to put in the time necessary to become good at what he does.

The book is very logically organized with chapters on how to select a text, how to organize the information and how to apply the text in a way that is helpful to the listener. Never having been to seminary, the most helpful part for me was the chapter on exegesis. I found the list of exegetical questions particularly helpful. I’ve created a template of these questions and have begun using it to prepare Bible lessons.

While a systematic approach and simplicity are the book’s strengths, Murray doesn’t assume those are all that’s needed to teach God’s word. He has an excellent chapter on preparing to preach that emphasizes the importance of prayer and familiarity with scripture as prerequisites for God-honoring, life-changing preaching. He also emphasizes the importance of character in one who teaches the Bible, quoting Al Martin:

Next to the presence of Christ, there is no greater companion to the minister than that of a good conscience. To have the Lord at your side and a peaceful conscience in your breast – these are the preacher’s two greatest companions.

The only complaint I have about the book is not about the content but the Kindle version I read. There was no active table of contents, in fact, no table of contents at all. I find the table of contents helpful both in getting a feel for a book before reading it and in gathering my thoughts about it for things like this review after I’ve read it. With that in mind, you may want to consider the print version of this book unless that has been changed in the Kindle version.

If you teach the Bible either as a pastor or otherwise, this is a book to read and add to your library. Like William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (which interestingly Murray references in his book) this is a book I will review periodically and keep handy as a reference.

How Sermons Work