Charles Swindoll is one of the best-known Christian preachers and teachers in America, and his work has influenced countless preachers. The voice of the “Insight for Living” radio program, he is the Senior Pastor of Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco (suburban Dallas), Texas, and Chancellor of Dallas Technological Seminary. Chuck is author of more than 70 books, including his newest volume which launches a series on New Testament texts. The release of that new series prompted this, our third Preaching magazine interview with Chuck.
Preaching: You are author of a new series being published by Zondervan called Swindoll’s New Testament Insights. I’ve just had an opportunity to look at the first volume on Romans, and it’s a wonderful resource—lots of great material that will be of interest to anyone studying the Book of Romans or preaching or teaching on that book.
Swindoll: We’re deliberately not calling it a commentary. There are a whole lot of those out there. This is a little more of a user-friendly, practical type work. It really is for persons who may or may not have had seminary training, and it helps them see the flow in the book, get the stories from the book, plus stories from my own life and illustrations along the way that really makes it reader-friendly. That was a big thing for me.
Preaching: What drew you to Romans?
Swindoll: You know Romans is really the Christians’ constitution. There’s a foundation laid there—I call it the sine qua non of theology, because it really represents Paul’s presentation of the gospel. He portrays the sinful life and lifestyle as vividly and darkly as one can imagine in the section I call “Cinerama and Panorama,” and he takes us from there to the matchless grace of God—where the Lord reaches down and finds us where we are and declares us righteous by faith in Christ alone, then puts us on our way as we begin the journey.
You and I know it to be sanctification, but what the reader will read about is the horizontal growth chart, if you will, from earth to heaven as we mature in Christ, and then some of the practical guidelines for living in the family of God for the rest of our lives. So it really does cover the waterfront. No other letter or book does it quite like Romans.
Preaching: I know many of your books have come out of your own preaching. Have you preached series in Romans?
Swindoll: Anyone who has preached as long as we have certainly has dealt with Romans. I’ve preached through Romans a couple or three times—I forget [during] these almost 50 years—but it never had come to my mind to do a book on Romans. First, there are a number of them; and I have most of them in my library, I’m grateful to say. No one is more respected in Romans than one like the multiple volume set of Barnhouse on Romans, and I thought, “Well who needs another book on Romans?”
This last time when I preached Romans, it began to dawn on me: I might want to do something, not just on Romans but on maybe the letters of Paul. Then thinking further on that, it finally came clear: I needed to bite off the whole chunk and do it all. Ultimately it will be 15 volumes through the New Testament, all 27 of the letters and books.
Preaching: As you’ve said, Romans is such a profound book. There is such a richness to it. What do you find to be some of the unique challenges of preaching in the Book of Romans?
Swindoll: Some challenges would be true of any book that highlights doctrine. Certainly Hebrews would be one of those. Another would be the Gospel of John, which requires a good deal of theological knowledge, and Romans.
I think you can get bogged down. I think there are some subjects in Romans that frighten a young pastor. The subject of predestination in
Then you get into
I hope it’s interesting. I hope it isn’t boring. I don’t skip the hard sections; I go into them, but I do them in a way that I think is believable, sensible and balanced. That’s what I’ve tried to do in this book on Romans.
Preaching: What is your favorite biblical book to preach from?
Swindoll: You know, I honestly can’t answer that, Michael. I don’t have a favorite verse. I don’t have a favorite character. I don’t have a favorite book. I know it’s disappointing to people. They’ll say, when they ask me to sign something, “Just put your favorite verse there.” I often may put the verse I just preached on if it follows a particular meeting where we were there together.
I am crazy about books from the Old Testament. Some of them are easier to preach through than others. Of course there are some in the New Testament I am drawn to [such as] II Timothy because of its emotion, Paul’s last letter. I love the letter to the Hebrews. Romans is a magnificent letter. I’m preaching right now through Mark, and it’s fast becoming my favorite gospel. It used to be John but that’s what I preached last.
Preaching: You’ve been at this calling for a long time. How has your preaching changed through the years?
Swindoll: I don’t think you can preach for decades and not go through changes. I believer I’m different now than when I first began, with the feeling of a little more confidence in style or approach to a particular message I’d be delivering. I don’t struggle as much with how I want to introduce a message or if I want to.
I believe in the old idea of a good flight. You have a good takeoff and the flight hopefully is not too bumpy along the way. It’s safe. It’s enjoyable. It’s meaningful. It’s interesting as you’re able to see things from that perspective. Then the landing is often very close to where we took off, like a circular flight in a sermon, so that it comes back to where we started. I’ll often refer to something in my conclusion that I dealt with in my introduction.
I really know who I am now. When I first preached, I was a little bit of other mentors that I’d been around. I was a great model of the beast in Daniel,
I remember my wife hearing me early on when I was preaching as a senior pastor. It happened to be in New England. She said to me as I mentioned the struggle of the morning, “I wish you were just who you are more.” I said, “I am who I am.” She said, “No, when you stand up to preach, you change. I just enjoy being with you, and you’re fun to be with; but you’re not fun to be with when you’re in the pulpit.” I said, “Well, I’m not there to be a comedian.” She said, “You’re not a comedian at home, but you’re real.” Then she said, “So when you’re real, you certainly have touches of humor, and that wouldn’t hurt either. I would like to see the reality of your personality come out a little more.”
Well, you know I’ve learned that the voice of the Holy Spirit is often very close to the voice of one’s wife! The Lord spoke to me that day in a very real way, and I began a journey of giving myself permission—I would use those words—I need to give myself permission to be who I am. It takes years to learn who you are.
Some preachers are busy all their lives trying to be who someone else wishes they were. So they’re not themselves. When I see that in young preachers, and sometimes in older preachers, my heart goes out to them because I remember the struggle of that. I’m no longer struggling with who I am. Warts and all, flaws and all, I am who I am. I don’t try to hide it; and because I don’t, I’m freer. I don’t spend as much time struggling with what they may think of how they may feel.
I struggle now with: “Is this an accurate presentation with what the writer meant when he wrote that in the text? Am I communicating it in a way that is interesting? Does it make sense?” One of my favorite questions at the close of a service, when a person comes by to shake my hand—and I usually wait till the last person leaves—I will say to them, “Did it make sense?” When a teenager stops to talk to me—which I think is the greatest compliment a preacher can get—I’ll often ask, “Did that make sense?” You know, teenagers will tell you! They’ll say, “well, some of it did,” or they’ll say, “You kind of lost me toward here, but you found me again,” or something like that. I love the way teenagers describe it.
So I now know what it takes to connect. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to know that, Michael. I don’t know how to teach another person how to do it except you go through it year after year after year. I can sit in my study, and I’ll shake my head and I’ll say—after working on something for an hour—”That is not going to work. I like the story, or I like the approach, but that’s not going to connect.”
I’ve got to connect with the people in the pew, and I work at that diligently. I’ll spend sometimes 20, 30 hours on a sermon; and I’ve been preaching now almost 50 years.
Some sermons don’t take that long. Others are very delicate, controversial or maybe tender. I remember preparing after 9-11. Oh man, I worked on that day and night; I hardly slept working on that sermon—and the church was packed to hear a word from God regarding that tragedy. I remember thinking later, “I’m so glad I worked so carefully on that.”
Preaching: I know you work very carefully on your messages. You told me in a prior interview that as you write a sermon you’ll run it by other people, staff members or others, before preaching. As you are looking at a message in anticipation of preaching it—you mentioned sometimes you look at it and realize it just isn’t going to connect. Are there some things you can look for that help you recognize that?
Swindoll: It really hurts when it happens early Sunday morning and you know that’s a bad introduction, that you can’t use it. I remember going back in and scratching out what I wrote in my notes and putting a 3×5 card there in place of it, which is better; I’m always glad when I’ve done that. I always go with my gut with things like that. I’ve learned the gut is rarely wrong.
Preaching: Are there some cues that you look at as you’re looking at a message—you’ve been working on it, and something triggers for you that sense that this just isn’t going to do it?
Swindoll: Yes. If it takes too long a time to get to the kernel of what I’m saying, I’m getting too tedious. See, I get very excited about Greek words; if I’m not careful, I want everybody around me to be just as excited!Now for them to be as excited, I’ve got to connect the meaning of that word with something in their [lives].
Theasthai is an example—theater is the word we get from it, and the drama of the theater comes to mind. If I were to deal with that word in the text, I would use the drama, the theater; and I would spend more time on that than on the etymology of the word, for example. A person doesn’t need to know that it’s rooted in such-and-such a term, that it means so-and-so. Years ago, I would have gone into all of that, and that’s much too tedious. If it requires tedious explanation, it’s too much for the hearer.
I am also asking, “Does that make sense?” I ask myself that 20 times in preparing a message. “Does that make sense?” I’ll say that to myself: “Does that make sense?” I’m in
So I was going in a certain direction with prearing that, then as I got through writing it out, I thought, “Does that make sense?” I’ll read it out loud, I’ll say it out loud. I do all my study alone, so I do a lot of talk back, a lot of feedback. My ears need to hear what my mouth is saying.
Preaching: What do you find most enjoyable about preaching these days?
Swindoll: Knowing that it is life-changing—knowing that if the individual hearing this really would connect, his or her life wouldn’t be the same. That keeps me awake at night with excitement. Each Saturday, I think, “Tomorrow, Lord, there are going to be people hearing this whose lives are never going to be the same; and I need You to make that happen. I can’t make that happen.”
I learned years ago—another way I’ve changed—years ago, I used to try to fix people. Ever gone there, Michael?
Preaching: Oh, yeah.
Swindoll: Oh my, and So-and-So wasn’t changing. I knew their marriage was a mess. I knew if I preached on this, they’d hear that and their marriage would be fine. Their marriage stayed messy. I used to say, “Lord, I’m messing up here. I’m not getting through.” Finally He made it clear: “You can’t fix their marriage. You communicate the truth. It’s My job to take it from there.”
So much ties in with the will. I get excited about how the Lord will grab someone’s will in the midst of a message. I’ve watched people in an audience literally burst into tears. I didn’t tell the story or preach to make them cry. Quite candidly, I sometimes tear up. I’ve learned not to apologize for that. He isn’t performing. He is communicating truth, and it’s touching him deeply. That’s why tears would come. I tear a little more readily now than I did. I think you do when you’re a grandfather.
I think you do, also, when you’ve been hurt. Pain. I read somewhere pain plants the flag of reality in the fortress of a rebel heart. I’ve had the flag of reality planted in my heart. Pain does that.
I think it was Joseph Parker who said to young theologians, “Preach to broken hearts, and you’ll never lack for a congregation. There’s on in every pew.” So I always remember the people there who are broken. I never chide them for being broken. I commend them for being there. I tell those who are there who are struggling with an addiction that I thank them for being there. I’m proud of them for coming. In fact, I’ll say to them we have an opportunity for you to share your life with others in this small-group gathering on Tuesday night; but today, I want you to know you have come, you are here, and the two of us are going to meet as broken people. This is going to really minister to you and to me.
In that sense, if you will, I bring myself to their level, and I bring them to my level. I don’t say up or down as if I’m talking down to them; we are at the same point—all ground is level at the foot of the cross. So invariably I take them to the cross where we all look up to Christ.
Preaching: You mentioned young theologians. If you were sitting with a group of young pastors, young preachers, and had a word of counsel to share with them about their preaching, what would you share?
Swindoll: I would say first, find out who you are. Your wife can help you. Your closest friends can help you. Discover who you are. Know who you are.
Second, go through the process of learning to like who you are. Stop trying to be someone else. Quit comparing. Give up envy. Your gifts are not their gifts; and frankly, their gifts are not your gifts. Learn to like who you are, how you’re put together, how you think, your personality, the way you’re made. You don’t like everything about yourself, but you certainly need to like the way you’ve been put together. You know you’ve been designed by God. Know who you are; like who you are.
Obviously, be who you are. I spoke to Mark Young, who’s just become president of Denver Seminary. He asked me if I had any piece of advice—I rarely give unrequested advice—I said to him, “Be real, Mark. The greatest gift you bring to the school is Mark Young. Be who you are. Don’t let a day pass when you played a role. Don’t pose, If something angers you, say, ‘That angers me.’ If something thrills you, used the words: ‘This thrills me.’ Don’t be afraid of that. Don’t be afraid to tingle. If this excites you, tell them, ‘I’m so excited I can hardly describe it.’ Let them see your excitement. If this grieves you, say you’re grieved. Let the truth out, because I think preaching is the truth of God through the personality of the preacher.”
What made Spurgeon so great was the personality of Spurgeon under the fire of the Spirit of God. What makes Graham great is the Graham we’ve all heard, who with that Southern accent, can deliver the gospel like few people we’ve ever heard; and it’s just Graham. He never tries to be Donald Barnhouse. He never tries to be John McArthur. He is authentically Billy Graham, and I think that’s what I would say: Be authentic.