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5Cutting to the Heart - Applying the Bible in teaching & preaching

Author: Chris Green
Published By: IVP (Nottingham)
Pages: 243
Price: £14.99
ISBN: 978 1 78359 293 7

Reviewed by Richard Dormandy.

I found this book perplexing. It is easy to read, but sometimes hard to understand. I understand all the words, but I don’t always understand the sentences. The writer communicates fluidly, yet, as I ploughed through, I sometimes felt I was no wiser than when I started. Yet there are some excellent moments.

This is a book of theology – 95% – with about 5% useful tools for preaching. Funnily enough, taking Chris Green’s own example of Ephesians, which is 50% theology and 50% application, the proportions don’t seem very ‘biblical’. That may seem like a cheap comment, but it raises the question of whether you can call something ‘biblical’ simply by framing it within a scriptural passage - which Green frequently feels obliged to do.

The book is actually an annual series of lectures given at Moore College, Sydney, broken down into very manageable chapters. This is perhaps why it reads so smoothly - the words have been flowing straight from the mouth into the ears of a ready audience. Moore College is a Conservative Evangelical college, and Green had worked out much of this book in lectures at Oak Hill College here in the UK. So like is talking to like. No wonder I sometimes felt I was eavesdropping on another world - I am certainly an evangelical, but I didn’t always feel I shared quite the same anxieties.

Green starts off promisingly by describing one of those awful moments when he realised that his preaching was just words burbling on and the congregation was miles away. He becomes convinced of the need to apply the text, so that it reaches people in a more gripping way. Well, this is fine and most people would say he is stating the obvious. However, Green doesn’t seem to think it is obvious and therefore spends time explaining why - theologically and biblically - it is so important.

A similar moment (one example of many) comes on page 31 where he asks, “How does preaching bring God glory?” I really wonder who else would be asking this question. Green answers it in the main by quoting at length from Colossians 1-2 and then simply stating that preaching, like every other aspect of the Christian life should bring God glory. Well, we all knew that, didn’t we?

At other times he agonises over points which simply wouldn’t occur to most people. For example, he quotes another writer as saying: “What do I want people to do in the light of this passage?”(p.199) Now, anyone reading a book on Applying the Bible knows what this means, but Green, as at many other points in this book, is anxious that such an approach will lead people to ‘idolatry’ (one of his favourite words). It may lead them to a religion of ‘works’ and away from the gospel. My response: well, yes... but that is to miss the wood for the trees...

Green’s main point, it seems, is that our preaching must be Christ-Centred. Regardless of the scriptural passage, we must always relate it to Christ, the cross and the gospel. This, it seems, is what ‘applying the Bible’ means. He sums it up neatly on page 65: “So the Bible is a book about God in relationship with his people; and because Jesus Christ is the hero of the story, if we gaze at him we will find ourselves addressed.” But now he almost seems to be saying there’s no need to apply the Bible! The word properly preached will apply itself! My problem with this is although I can believe it to occasionally be the case, I still think, as does Green in fact, that it normally needs... applying!!

Green doesn’t build his case from anecdote or experience, but purely from his reading of the Bible itself. Occasionally he quotes from another writer, but this is nearly always to show how their perspective is lacking. However ‘pure’ this ‘biblical’ approach is, I found it strangely unsatisfying. I had picked up the book hoping that it would help me relate it to the current world and the people I preach to, but I was mistaken. This book is neither a toolbox nor a handbook. It is a book of connected theological principles.

Having said this, there are some very useful passing moments. For example, at the beginning of Chapter 10, he offers a very helpful framework for closing an evangelistic sermon. In Chapter 12 he offers a couple of models (approved because they are ‘biblical’) for framing an effective, relevant sermon. In Chapter 14, there is another model - each stage suitably propped up by a biblical text - showing how to make sure the gospel movement from sin to salvation is framed in our preaching. Chapter 19 begins with quite a useful description of sin, and later (on p.223) there’s an extremely useful summary of what we might be seeking to do when we preach. These, along with many other little lists or results of research, are excellent.

Each of the 21 chapters ends with questions for reflection or discussion. The front cover is very odd and there are too many words on the back. I was disappointed by this book. Clearly I came with the wrong expectations. If you want a book that discusses the theological implications of preaching with application, then maybe this is for you. If you are looking for practical help, there are some excellent tools scattered throughout the long grass.

Richard Dormandy

Vicar, Holy Trinity, Tulse Hill, South London

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You are reading Issue 66 of Ministry Today, published in March 2016.

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