Robert Smith is professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, part of Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., where he teaches preaching. Prior to coming to Beeson, Robert taught on the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., which followed 20 years as a pastor in Cincinnati. He is a popular speaker across the country, including the National Conference on Preaching, which is sponsored by Preaching. His book, Doctrine that Dances, was the 2008 Preaching Book of the Year. He recently visited with Executive Editor Michael Duduit.

Preaching: You wrote an excellent book called Doctrine that Dances. Why do you think doctrinal preaching is important?

Smith: Doctrinal preaching serves as a reservoir out of which our preaching ought to come. I’m very much influenced by Jaroslav Pelikan, the great church historian from Yale University. His classic definition of doctrine is “that which the church of the Lord Jesus Christ believes, teaches and confesses on the basis of the Word of God, this is Christian doctrine.” Therefore, when we preach, we are preaching doctrine. It may be heretical or it may be solid theology, but we are teaching something.

So I think it’s very important that if we are going to preach, the teaching ought to be solid; therefore, it ought to be doctrinal, because whether we preach or where we preach it matters not—we are preaching doctrine. The question is: Is it sound doctrine?

Preaching: Are there particular challenges that you find with doctrinal preaching? What makes that kind of preaching dance, rather than thud?

Smith: I think it’s the image. I say to my students that if you cannot image it, if you cannot visualize it, then you can’t say it clearly. In other words, if you can’t say what you see clearly so people see what you say, then you’re not ready to preach it!

It’s the question Phillip asked Jesus in John 14:8: “Show us the Father Lord, and we will be satisfied.” Don’t tell us about the Father conceptually, abstractly, but show us the father. Of course, Jesus responded and gives him exactly what he asked. He said, “When you have seen Me, then you have seen the Father.” It’s imaging that’s absolutely important.

For me, for every major New Testament doctrine, there’s an Old Testament picture. So if I want to talk about the developed doctrine of the grace of God in the New Testament, then there is an Old Testament picture. In fact, there are a lot of them; one is in 2 Samuel 12. David asked a question: “Is there anyone left in the house of Saul that I could show God’s kindness (which is the word for grace) unto him?” That whole story images how grace looks. So it’s the imaging, not just the abstract thought that is detached and divorced from life.

Clarance Jordan was a Southern Baptist New Testament theologian and director of Koinonia Farms in Americus, Georgia. In his Cotton Patch version, he paraphrased 2 Corinthians 5:19. Instead of saying God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, which is great, he pictures reconciliation for us and says God was in Christ hugging the world back to Himself. No one can miss this image of hugging. Reconciliation looks like hugging.

Preaching: You have another project related to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is an important doctrine, and the Bible has all kinds of images for the Holy Spirit to help us understand.

Smith: Exactly. I’m working on a book on the Holy Spirit and preaching. Of course, the imaging is important once again. I believe Trinitarian theology ought to be the basis of our preaching. We believe in the triune God. Even though the word trinity is not in the Bible, the message of trinity is throughout the Bible.

The Holy Spirit is there for the preacher in our study, there for the preacher in the pulpit and there for the preacher even when the benediction has been given. I think Steven Olford was right in his book Anointed Expository Preaching when he comments that the sin of the Old Testament for the Jew was the rejection of God the Father. The sin of the New Testament for the Jew was the rejection of God the Son. The sin of today, in so many instances, is the rejection of God the Holy Spirit.

We deny the One who, as Anne Graham Lotz says, is God who gets inside of our skin. To me, that image is important—the Spirit of God that gets inside of our skin. The Son is God who takes on our skin, and the Father is God who is without skin. He is Spirit.

Preaching: You spent many years as a pastor. What was your approach in planning your preaching schedule as a pastor?

Smith: I devoted probably a month and a half to two months for a doctrinal series. I worked on the doctrinal series because I realized how significant that was, and our people are constantly hearing other messages and sermons. They are affected by the written page, bombarded by all kinds of messages. When they come to church on Sunday…

I say to them often, “Before I can feed you, I’ve got to give you an ‘exegetical laxative,’ because you’ve eaten some things in terms of messages that are not good for you. So you’ve got to be cleaned out and emptied out before I can put the right stuff in you.” So I constantly was preaching doctrine. They expected a series on resurrection or sin or whatever the topic of the doctrine might be. So one of the things I would do regularly is plan a doctrine series.

I preach through books of the Bible. My favorite book of the Bible is the Book of Joshua. So that would take awhile with 24 chapters. I would preach through a book. Of course, I would respect the church calendar to some degree, but it wouldn’t become a straightjacket for me. I would recognize Mother’s Day. You can’t get by ignoring that!

Preaching: You might get in trouble there…

Smith: Yeah, you might neglect Father’s Day. There won’t be any flowers on the altar for Father’s Day. You can kind of get by there, but on Mother’s Day you could get crucified!

So obviously we would address Advent—mainly Christmas—and Easter, sometimes Pentecost. I would recognize special occasions through the year in which I would allow the gospel to address the occasion or sometimes a social issue that was significant on the minds of people. Then I would preach in such a way that I would gospelize the social instead of socialize the gospel. That is, I would let the gospel address the social event or the social issue and inform it and transform it, rather than try to use a social issue to address the gospel, which would water it down and compromise the integrity of the text, which I never was willing to do or to settle for.

Preaching: One thing I’ve noticed when you preach or teach—even when you lecture for an hour—is the absence of any notes. Do you have a photographic memory, or do you have a system you use either to memorize or internalize your preaching content?

Smith: I like the word internalize rather than memorize, even though memorize might be kind of a preliminary step to internalization. I have plenty of notes. I believe in writing every single sermon word for word, not only to retain the written sermon in the file, but also to retain it on the screen of the mind. I trust the Holy Spirit will put it in my mental file system, and when I need fragments of it to draw from even on the spur of the moment of preaching, the Spirit can locate it in the file system of my mind to bring it up to the first floor of my mind, and I’ll be able to repeat and say it with precision and accuracy.

It’s hard work. It requires a lot of thinking and a lot of preparing. Organization is absolutely crucial, to know the trip ticket of the sermon where you’re going to start and where you’re going to finish, where some of the exits are—places you stop. Even if there is some change in the preaching—something you haven’t planned on saying or if there’s a memory lapse—if I know where the next stop is, I can just keep going and hopefully return to what I may have left out. Sometimes it fits in better when I bring it up later than its original place where I planned to say it.

So for me, it’s this matter of organization and memorization, internalization, familiarization and (last of all) visualization, so I can see it. I know where I’m going. I’ve been through it enough. I’ve turned the ink of the written material into the blood of my life. Every moment from the time I’m through with the manuscript to the time I preach it—every moment I can, I’m thinking about it. I’m going to bed thinking about it so my mind can work on the sermon while my body is sleeping.

Every walk I make, every drive I take, I’m thinking about the movements through the sermons—not so much the points—but the movements so it becomes as easy to me as breathing. So that it’s so tender, it’s like putting it in the Crock Pot®, and letting it simmer to the point the meat falls off the bone. You don’t even need teeth to chew it!

So I’m saying it’s hard work. It takes time, but the premise is when the Spirit of truth comes, He will lead you and guide you in all truth; and He’ll bring to your remembrance the things that have been taught.

I think preachers ought to able to have different approaches. There will come times when we need to read a manuscript word-for-word with good eye contact; sometimes we’ll have a homiletical outline, sometimes a note card, sometimes a sticky note in the Bible, sometimes no notes at all. I challenge those who are excellent in visualizing the sermon—seeing it on the screens of their minds—that they ought to learn to preach from the manuscript. Those who preach well from the manuscript ought to learn how to preach from a homiletical outline. I want my students to have a deep repertoire of homiletical delivery approaches because they might be in a different context that will call for something else that might challenge and stretch them, to be at home any place in which they find themselves.

Preaching: How long do you typically spend in the process of creating a message?

Smith: Probably 30 hours. That’s about right. What I tell my students to do is read the passage 50 times before doing anything. Just read it. Maybe not all in one sitting, but just read the passage 50 times so you can engage all your senses and ask: How does the text smell? How does it look? What do you hear in the text? What do you feel? How does this taste?

One example I share with them is from John 18:18, where Peter is in the high priest’s court yard warming his hands by the charcoal fire—in the process of denying his relationship with Jesus three times. There’s a distinct smell when it comes to charcoal. Then three chapters later, John 21:9, Peter recognized three days later Someone on the Sea of Galilee, on the shore. He recognized it was Jesus. He swam to the shore, and Jesus didn’t need his fish. Jesus already was baking fish…on a charcoal fire.

I think that’s intentional by John, because I think when Peter smelled that charcoal fire, he recognized a distinctive smell. It was just three days prior when he smelled charcoal, when he was denying his Lord. I think the charcoal fire prepared Peter for the confession he made, three of them in contrast to the three denials he made three chapters earlier. So it’s the smelling. What’s the significance of the smell?

As Helmut Thielicke says in his Notes from a Wayfarer, the olfactory gland is the nose is the organ of remembrance. The nose causes the unconscious to become conscious. I think that is what happened when Peter smelled charcoal three chapters after he denied the Lord. Conviction was setting in before the Lord asked him, “Do you love Me?”

Preaching: You’re working on a text book on preaching, so you’ve certainly been thinking a lot about preaching. What do you think is the greatest challenge preachers face today?

Smith: For me, the greatest challenge is: How do I talk about the same old thing, the doctrinal verities, in fresh new ways? How do I put new wine into new wine skins rather than new wine into old wine skins? How do I do that? How do I remain relevant when I’m talking about revelation? How do I retain the theological dictionary so the theological and biblical words remain the same? Sanctification, glorification, propitiation, justification—how do I retain the theological dictionary, yet adopt a relevant contemporary theological vocabulary so I can let the theological word mean the same?

I’m using a language that is helpful in understanding what propitiation is…kind of like what I was discussing with you concerning Clarence Jordan. “God was in Christ reconciling the world back to Himself,” (2 Corinthians 5:19), and he said God was in Christ “hugging the world back to Himself.” How do I use that image-filled language? Instead of saying, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2), J.B. Phillips says, “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its own mold.”

I think a word always must mean what it meant. I believe a text never can mean today what it never meant when it was originally written. It may mean more in terms of implication, but I must go back to what it originally meant. It may have a fuller sense of the text, but I never can have the fuller sense until I recognize the original sense of it; then I can make the contemporary application.

I’m just concerned about ignoring originality and moving to the contemporary setting and doing eisegesis, because we’ve never taken the time to look at a text in its exegetical soil—to grow the plant from the exegetical soil instead of just transplanting seed in different soil and growing plants that are foreign as it relates to the original soil of Scripture.

Preaching: You’ve been at this for a good many years now. What do you know about preaching now that you wish you could go back and tell yourself when you were first starting as a young preacher?

Smith: Well, it’s been 45 years, and I’m telling you I realize how unfathomable Scripture is. In terms of the width, breadth and height of trying to preach, just what an impossible task preaching is when it comes to forming it in my own strength. I used to think that talent, gifting and association with people who excelled at the art of preaching was enough.

Now I didn’t say that as a young pastor; I’d talk about the Holy Spirit and all the other things—but living that out in preaching, there was some distance between what I said and what I really, really did in terms of my reliance on the Spirit of God. I wish I had approached it with what Paul called the sufficiency of God. Who is sufficient for these things? Paul, of course, asked a rhetorical question. Of course, none of us is sufficient apart from God.

So preaching has helped me understand that every time I attempt to preach, I need the Spirit of God who writes the Scripture and enables us to understand what is written. I need that regardless of how often I’ve tried to preach in 45 years. Regardless of training and everything else, I still need to say, in the words of the song,

“Open my eyes that I might see,
Glimpses of truth thou hast for me.
Place in my hand the wonderful key
That shall unclasp and set me free.
Silently now I wait for thee,
Ready my God thy will to see.
Open my eyes, illumine me.
Spirit divine.”

That’s it. That’s it. 

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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