On Dr. Jason Allen’s “Letters on Preaching.”
A sermon is doomed for failure if it is not Spirit-driven and Christ-filled.
I am still very new to the reality of vocational ministry. I began my role as a senior pastor in June of 2019, and since then have sought to inundate myself with as many books as possible that speak to both the functional practicality and theology of ministry. Charles Bridges’s The Christian Ministry comes to mind, as does Patrick Fairbairn’s Pastoral Theology, Charles Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students, and John Henry Jowett’s The Preacher. I have also added Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor, The Pastor as Public Theologian, and a compendium of essays from several evangelical minds, entitled, Portraits of a Pastor to the list as well. (If you have any other suggested titles I should read, especially as it relates to pastoral ministry, be sure to mention those in the comments!) The last of those titles originates from the desk of the editor Dr. Jason K. Allen, who is also the recent author of Letters to My Students, Vol. 1: On Preaching.
Dr. Jason K. Allen serves as the president of not only one of the foremost, thriving ministerial institutions in the United States, but also the seminary at which I am currently enrolled, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS). My enrollment, however, has little influence on my bias of the following review. Dr. Allen’s On Preaching is a work that has grown from his own process of trial and error through the many occasions he has been afforded to speak and expound Scripture. His experiences as a ministerial student and pastor allow him to make keen observations on not only the theology of preaching but also its practicality, too.
Dr. Allen begins by discussing both the nature of the pastorate as well as the purpose of the pulpit. It is easy and tempting to throw oneself into preaching events without prior consideration being given to ascertain one’s call to preach. Such occasions are not to be marred by caustic approaches to the subject at hand. Rather, they ought to be the out-pouring of one’s devotional reflections and personal studies. Almost anyone “can draft a sermon manuscript,” writes Dr. Allen. An understanding of grammar and the basics of proper oratory aid to that end — “but,” he continues, “only the Holy Spirit can make a sermon.”1 For Dr. Allen, for one to rightly ascertain one’s ability to preach, one must first have a genuine calling to preach. This only comes through the ministry of the Spirit. “There is no greater force this side of heaven,” Dr. Allen says, “than the Holy Word preached by a holy man in the power of the Holy Spirit.”2
From there, Dr. Allen moves on to overview a theology of preaching before taking time to discuss what it means to preach “expositorily,” which comprises the bulk of the work. The two chapters which are given over entirely to the subject of expositional preaching continue to color the rest of the book, and rightly so. It is Dr. Allen’s firm belief that expositional preaching constitutes biblical preaching par excellence. “Implicit within the call to preach,” he attests, “is the call to preach the Scripture, and expositional preaching best fulfills this biblical command.”3 He follows that discussion with seven chapters which are predominantly filled with practical advice for preparing sermons, after which he spends the remaining seven chapters discussing how one grows and develops as a preacher throughout their ministerial tenure.
I was appreciative of Dr. Allen’s concerted effort to emphasize the involvement of God’s Holy Spirit not only in the call to ministry but also in the composition of the sermon. For my own part, recognizing the “call to ministry” as a particular function of the Spirit is rather straightforward. That is to say, I don’t question that that is part of the Spirit’s role. However, it is sometimes less recognizable that the same reliance on the Spirit is necessary when drafting a sermon outline. For whatever reason, that task seems more driven by data and research than, necessarily, the Spirit’s out-pouring. “The effectiveness of the sermon rests in God’s power, not yours,” Dr. Allen declares.4 Indeed, having been in the pastorate for a while, I can certify that the entire “event” of the sermon — from selecting a text, to studying it, to attempting to expound, to actually deliver it — is entirely a Spirit-driven event. If it is not, the sermon is doomed for failure, as is the church. “Bible-filled preaching is Spirit-filled preaching,” Dr. Allen writes, “and Spirit-filled preaching is Bible-filled preaching, everywhere and always.”5
What I found most beneficial, however, was Dr. Allen’s emphasis on christological preaching. “The more you know your Bible,” he writes, “the better you will see Jesus in all of it.”6 Dr. Allen implements several passages from the “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Spurgeon, to illustrate his point that any sermon worth its salt will be saturated with Jesus. The Savior must eclipse the speaker. His work for us must be the clear and central part of the sermon. Otherwise, have you really preached? According to Dr. Allen, the answer is a definitive no. “If you have preached a sermon without featuring Jesus,” he affirms, “then you haven’t preached a Christian sermon.”7 This, to be sure, isn’t merely another machination of the “gospel-centered movement.” This is a biblical necessity. “Declaring Christ from the entire Bible is more than a theological trend or one interpretive approach among many,” Dr. Allen confidently declares; “it is a biblical mandate, a Great Commission necessity, and the primary aim of biblical preaching.”8 Philip, St. Paul, and Jesus himself would concur (Acts 8:26–35; 2 Cor. 1:17–22; Luke 24:13–27).
On Preaching is such a beneficial book. It is comprised of an assortment of practical helps and advice for preachers. Its chapters capture the right ratio of theological and practical material, making it a readable volume regardless of one’s ministerial experience. Although by definition On Preaching is directed to students who are still deciphering God’s call to ministry, Dr. Allen’s work is an expedient resource for even the most seasoned preachers. “Growing in ministry is a lifelong pursuit,” he writes in the preface, “and growing as a preacher is to be the same.”9 There ought never to come a moment when a preacher is satisfied with their growth as an orator and expositor of the Word. This book makes that evident.
Jason K. Allen, Letters to My Students, Vol. 1: On Preaching (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2019), 14.
Allen, Letters to My Students, 30.
Allen, Letters to My Students, 41.
Allen, Letters to My Students, 53.
Allen, Letters to My Students, 14.
Allen, Letters to My Students, 90.
Allen, Letters to My Students, 106.
Allen, Letters to My Students, 94.
Allen, Letters to My Students, xviii.