In the Protestant tradition the proclamation of God’s Word is central to the edification and equipping of the saints. As an example of the increasing importance of sermons, many great men are remembered principally for their preaching (Charles Spurgeon being the most prominent example). In this long tradition, David Murray writes How Sermons Work to “present the accumulated wisdom of many gifted men in a clear, simple and useable way” (“Acknowledgments”).
How Sermons Work is written as a quick reference resource for a diverse audience of students, elders, experienced preachers needing a refresher, and laymen (9-10). With this large audience in mind, Murray avoids unnecessarily technical language and instead writes casually, incorporating practical examples, pertinent quotes, and helpful summaries (examples on pp. 15 and 17). Murray provides excellent instruction on how “the ‘text’ must . . . be the substance of the sermon” (21), how to choose a text weekly while retaining “expository preaching” (21-25), and providing exegesis that “is practical” and “asks questions” (37-39). Via some of these practical instructions, Murray attempts to course correct the current trend of long, complicated, and overly theological sermons (e.g. the section on “Plainness” on pp. 144-148). Murray has a commendable concern for both preacher and sermon to move the people toward specific, pertinent application (chapters 8 and 9). In chapters on sermon “Introduction” (chapter 5) and “Organization” (chapter 7) Murray provides a remarkable number of subheadings to describe nuanced ways a preacher can proclaim God’s word (76-83, 95-105). These subheadings however are brief and occasionally demonstrate a lack of depth not found in the rest of How Sermons Work.
The beneficial characteristics of How Sermons Work (e.g. brevity, comprehensive nature and simplicity) are also its shortfall. In one place every sermon must “preach Christ” (53) while in another “balanced preaching” should not neglect “neither the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (61). Presuming both to be true, these affirmative statements do not compliment one another when taken separately and without context. In another place, concerned with exegesis and the role of commentaries, Murray states, “usually sermons are far fresher and more interesting if commentaries are read later in the process” (57). The truthfulness of the statement aside, Murray is certainly not endorsing pastoral exegesis that solely strives for “fresher and more interesting” sermons as a goal. Another similar example occurs on the topic of Scriptures’ authority. Murray states, “The preacher must understand . . . the words he preaches are not his own but God’s . . . . They are not optional but binding on all” (16). Though this is primarily an affirmation of God’s authority, it comes off domineering and potentially even hazardous to the Protestant concept of the priesthood of the believer. Disagreements and confusion like these may be expected in a short and practical book such as How Sermons Work. Though certainly distracting, they do not significantly hinder Murray’s overall message.
In conclusion, How Sermons Work does not stand on its own as a hermeneutics or homiletic guide for students. However, Murray’s work is a pleasant introduction and easy-access resource for laymen, experienced preachers, and elders. How Sermons Work was a joy to read for review, remembrance, and reflection on the continuing tradition of Protestant preaching.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Joshua Torrey is a New Mexico boy in an Austin, TX world. He is husband to Alaina and father to Kenzie & Judah and spends his free time studying for the edification of his household. These studies include the intricacies of hockey, football, curling, beer, and theology. You can follow him @AustinPreterism and read his theological musings and running commentary of the Scriptures at The Torrey Gazette.