When "read your Bible and pray" fails

Jan 15, 2015

A review of Heart is the Target by Murray Capill.

(P&R Publishing, 2014)

Originally posted at Eternity.

Weird confession time: I read preaching books for the sheer joy of the thing.

There’s a few degrees of fascination for me: how do you teach something as strange as preaching? Further, how do you teach something as lively as preaching—a physical, verbal, performatory act—from a book? Is doing so more akin to “dancing about architecture”? Why do some people seem like they were born to hold the microphone (sometimes despite a relative lack of scholarship)? Why do some seem like they were born to institute naptime (sometimes despite overabundance of scholarship)?

Enter Heart is the Target by Murray Capill. This is Capill’s second book about preaching, his first being Preaching with Spiritual Vigour, a fine book on preaching informed by the sermons and method of Puritan Richard Baxter. When he’s not writing about preaching, Capill is the principal at the Reformed Theological College in Melbourne.

Heart is the Target is in an uncommon category: a book not just about preaching, but about application in preaching. Application is usually left to the last chapter or so of books about preaching—books that are only about application are few and far between.

There’s a reason for this: application is a slippery beast for the preacher. If you don’t do it enough, people lose focus, and you’ve just preached theory rather than the practice. If you preach application too much, then you risk emphasising human action, and taking the focus away from God’s sovereign grace. If you preach application too narrowly then you exclude hearers. If you preach application too widely then it loses its edge, and becomes a blunt thing best represented by the “pray, read the Bible, tell the gospel” school of application.

But for those who are willing to try and rein in the slippery beast of application, I’m happy to say that Heart is the Target is the best book I’ve read on the subject.

The book is structured in two parts: the process, and then the practice of “Living Application”: “First, it must always reflect the grace of the gospel because biblical preaching is gospel preaching, and second, it must always be heart-oriented because the gospel demands a heart response to God.”

The first part, the process of living application, begins with a theology of the Word of God, but then proceeds through the life of the preacher, the life of the hearers, and then what actually makes for a good application.

The second part, the practice of living application, digs into the nitty gritty of sermon craft: how you preach application that applies to the kingdom (and not just individuals), how you preach narrative, how you move from the indicative (what God has done) to the imperative (what we should do). And then how you put it all together for Sunday.

What marks this book as a standout is the confident tightrope that it walks in a few different ways.

Firstly, it’s a book that is thoroughly steeped in wisdom of preachers from other ages, and other places. There are some preaching books, unfortunately, that seem to believe that they’re the only ones who’ve managed to figure this thing out. That kind of shallowness shows itself. In contrast, the thinking, wisdom, and history (and bibliography) in Heart is the Target runs deep.

Secondly, it’s a book that practices what it, well, preaches. It would of course be a severe irony to have a book on application that remained theoretical. Avoiding that, Capill provides worked examples from biblical texts and his own sermons. More than that, his writing is lively and eminently readable.

Thirdly, it’s a book that’s thoroughly usable. The frameworks that he provides for application are flexible, rather than over-prescriptive. The best compliment I could give is that they made me excited to prepare my next sermon, rather than shaking my head, wondering how I could actually use them.

Fourthly, it’s a book that gets it’s theological anthropology right. It understands that the best way to understand those of us who listen to sermons, is in listening to what the Bible says about us. Capill gets that sermons are not directed to thinking machines who are able to isolate brain from body, but to whole people, hearts included. But when application is done rightly, well, the result will speak for itself:

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.

I’m buying two copies, one to give away and another one to sit on my shelf. If you (or someone you know) needs to sharpen the application edges of your sermon, get this book.