Murray Capill on faithfulness and application in preaching (The Heart is the Target)

Am I preaching well? Is my preaching hitting the mark? Expository preachers will often answer these questions in terms of biblical faithfulness. A biblically faithful sermon is a good sermon and a biblically faithful ministry is a sound ministry. Results, the argument goes, are out of our hands. It’s God’s Word and he can use it as he pleases. We know it will not return to him void but will accomplish its purposes. So, for our part, we just need to be faithful. The potent question that needs to be asked of this argument, however, is, faithful in what? Faithful in explaining the original meaning of the text, or faithful in discharging the duties of a preacher? If it is the former, an exegetically sound sermon is indeed a good sermon. But if, as we saw in the introduction, a sermon is God speaking through the preacher to people today, then faithfulness must be not only to the text but to the preacher’s calling to proclaim the truths of the text today. Preachers must be faithful in teaching and rebuking, training and correcting, testing and convicting, encouraging and exhorting. They must faithfully interface biblical truth with the realities of life, as understood from a rich and full reservoir. They must faithfully press God’s Word against heart, mind, conscience, and passions. They must faithfully speak to the saved and the unsaved in their varying heart conditions. They must faithfully fire arrows deep into people’s hearts, engaging every homiletical skill with which God has endowed them.

(pg. 250)

Of course, we will often come away, after our best efforts, feeling that we preached a dud. But, thankfully, God’s Word does not return to him void, and he is able to use even the poorest of sermons to bring about gospel fruit. Such is his grace. But preachers must not presume on his grace. We need to work as hard at applying biblical truth to people’s lives as we do at understanding and explaining what the text meant for the original hearers. We should undertake this work believing that God is pleased to own such preaching and is able to endow it with great power to accomplish his purposes.

(pg. 258)

I was going to say that Capill’s The Heart is the Target was the best book on application in preaching that I have read but then realised that actually I have never read any other preaching books which focus only on the application side of preaching. (So I guess that does make it the best book on application in preaching I have read) Nevertheless, even with it’s specificity, it is still easily one of the best and most helpful books on preaching overall that I have read. The work is clear, well written, simple but not simplistic, and dripping with thoughtfulness. And as I read the introduction (nodding my head in agreement) and later finished the book, something which particularly resonated with me was his challenge of what is passed off as ‘faithfulness’ in preaching within reformed evangelical circles – mere explanation of a passage. This book has the rightful push-back, reminding preachers of their responsibilities to work hard at application, and then providing the framework to help with that.

How can or should The Heart is the Target be used?

  • For first-time preachers it probably should be read after or alongside another book on preaching that lays out in a step by step way some of the exegetical framework elements first.
  • For young preachers (like me), or experienced preachers, here is a truly encouraging book to dive into as we consider how better to be faithful preachers of God’s Word. At the very least Capill’s work will provide ample categories to provoke prayerfully creative thinking through of application for the latest passage you might be preaching on. Read the book thoughtfully, get to the end, print out the sheets and stick it on the wall in front of where you do your sermon prep. Voila.
  • Furthermore, because tacked on application is a weakness not only of sermons but of bible studies too, I wonder if his list of application questions (summarised at the end) could likewise be used to aid bible study groups to think through how a passage should be applied to us.

If you’re a preacher, I’d heartily recommend it. Gift a Kindle copy to your pastor or bible study leader – that’ll be for his good and yours.

Application doesn’t need to be the forte of topical preachers while remaining the nightmare of expository preachers. It doesn’t need to be confined to a few closing remarks. It doesn’t need to be predictable and hackneyed, nor does it need to be moralistic and damning. There are endless ways of presenting life-giving applications from God’s Word—applications that are compelling and engaging, heart-oriented and grace-filled, practical and penetrating, varied in intensity and focus.

(pg. 257)


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