Monday, November 23, 2015

The Word Applied to Life

Murray Capill, The Heart Is the Target: Preaching Practical Application from Every Text (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Publishing, 2015). 272pp. Paperback.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan McGraw

Applicatory preaching is a vital topic. Murray Capill presents a holistic view of sermon application that aims to apply the whole sermon, to the whole man, to the whole of life (25-26). This book is a clear step-by-step guide to lead preachers to engage their audiences through their entire sermons. It helps readers wade through the minefield of debates on the subject with much needed biblical balance in an irenic spirit.

Capill’s approach to applicatory preaching is holistic. He aims at the entire human personality, which includes the mind, conscience, will, and affections (103). This approach prevents application from devolving into what he calls “bolt-on” statements that do not always flow from the text. He usefully grounds application in searching out the purpose of each text and in grounding application in the preacher’s personal godliness (chapters 2-3). This allows for a wider range of application than most preachers are accustomed to, including nine “arrows” for the preacher to aim at people’s hearts where a text itself admits them to do so (chapter 6). He walks readers through the process of preparing sermons, illustrating how to aim at application through indicatives, imperatives, and subjunctives throughout the sermon (esp. chapters 9-10). He also provides a positive model for taking the best of the redemptive historical approach to preaching without losing sight of biblical application (chapter 8). He makes this material concrete by illustrating how to apply his principles to diverse texts such as Haggai 1, Psalm 73, Eph. 1 (all on pp. 122-126, 145-149), and Romans 9 (166-170). These features will challenge ministers to rethink the process of sermon preparation and delivery.

Capill’s conclusions could be tightened through greater precision. For example, he urges readers to preach sermons in light of the theme of the kingdom of God (chapter 7). While this is a vital biblical theme, over-stressing it runs the risk of stressing Christ’s kingly office over his priestly and prophetic offices. To this reviewer’s knowledge, he also mentions prayer in the process of sermon preparation on only two occasions (46, 239). Yet prayer should be prominent throughout the entire process of preparing and preaching sermons. This emphasis should be more explicit in the material. Theologically, he gives the impression as well that salvation is virtually equal to conversion, instead of including the entire order of salvation (17).

However, the biggest set of difficulties stem from his definition of the heart as mind, conscience, will, and passions (103). While he shows ably that “heart” in Scripture often includes the entire person, he subsumes every faculty of the soul under the heart. This differs from classic divisions of faculty psychology into the basic components of mind, heart, and will. Historic Reformed authors ordinarily included the passions, or affections under the heart, under the will, or under aspects of both.

While Scripture rather than historical theology bind our thinking and practice, it is strange that he treats such a well-documented topic without evidence of interacting with the common literature on the subject. This results in a different model for sermon application than many Reformed predecessors. For example, most Puritans aimed, indirectly, at the will in preaching. The mind and the heart served as the means of addressing and moving the will. They viewed changing our thinking, informing our consciences, and redirecting our practices as acts of the will, informed by the mind and fueled by renewed affections. The heart was the target in preaching, but the will was the goal of preaching. This was also why Puritan application predominantly pressed meditation and changing the way people thought and felt. This means that some of Capill’s emphases require amendment or further reflection.

The Heart is the Target is one of the best available books on sermon application. Many preachers have learned his principles intuitively through trial and error. Others never fully discover how to connect Scripture adequately to their hearers. All preachers can benefit greatly by sharpening their thinking about preaching and by reorienting their hearts in preparing sermons by reading this book.

The preceding review is scheduled to appear soon in The Banner of Truth.