By Damien Spikereit
When my wife and I learned she was pregnant with our second child, we decided to name him after one of my favorite preachers. Several options came to mind, but in the end, we decided on Haddon, after Haddon W. Robinson—who was named for Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
Why Haddon Robinson?
Many articles and biographies tell of Robinson’s humble Harlem upbringing and his distinguished career as a pastor, seminary president, and preaching professor. My purpose here, however, is more personal: to honor a man who taught us to be servants of the Word.
Of the many prominent biblical preachers, why did we choose to feature Haddon Robinson?
His influence: Christianity Today listed Haddon Robinson in the top 10 of its “25 Most Influential Preachers of the Past 50 Years.” In 2008, Robinson was given the E.K. Bailey “Living Legend Award,” and in 2010, Preaching magazine named him one of the “25 Most Influential Preachers of the Past 25 Years.” And most recently, a Baylor University survey named him one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. These honors affirm Robinson’s legacy of influence in the kingdom of God.
His faithfulness: Robinson taught at Dallas Theological Seminary for 19 years and served as president of what is now Denver Seminary for 12 years. His final teaching post was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In both ministry and marriage—Haddon was devoted to his wife, Bonnie, for 66 years—Haddon Robinson remained faithful.
His sermons: As a young preacher searching for my voice and learning how to craft messages that were both faithful to the text and engaging to the audience, I looked to Robinson’s sermons as a case study in effectiveness. Some of my favorites among his messages are “Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There,” “The Wisdom of Small Creatures,” and “Surprised at the Judgment.”
His writing: Robinson’s influence, faithfulness, and sermons were all good reasons to name my son after the legendary teacher of preachers, but his greatest impact on me came through his writings. Robinson penned several books on preaching, such as It’s All in How You Tell It. He wrote books on topics dealing with grief, improving your prayer life, and making wise choices. But the book that has had the greatest influence on me is Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Preaching.
The almost 40-year-old book has been re-released twice, and in 2010, Preaching.com named Biblical Preaching the “Most Influential Preaching Book of the Past 25 Years.” Various translations of the book have sold, in total, more than 300,000 copies. Biblical Preaching has for decades been the primary preaching textbook in seminaries and Bible colleges.
I own three copies of Biblical Preaching: a hardback for everyday use, an electronic version for quick reference, and a third version that I show on the first day of classes each semester. That day, as I introduce my preaching students to their textbooks, I tell them the story of when I met Haddon Robinson.
In 2003, Robinson was the featured guest at a preaching lectureship at Lincoln Christian College and Seminary (now Lincoln Christian University). I was excited when, as a new adjunct professor, my wife and I were seated near him one evening at a banquet. During the meal, I summoned the courage to tell him we’d named our then 1-year-old son after him. He was grateful and humble.
Robinson taught and preached on campus that week, and, a few days later, he sat in the college bookstore signing copies of his books. I brought him my copy of Biblical Preaching —the one I would come to show my students each semester. In it, he penned this inscription:
In the years to come, may God use you as a servant of His Word.
2 Cor. 4:5
Each week as preachers stand at the church doors at the end of service, they’re encouraged with, “Good sermon, Preacher”—or, as one minister heard in a moment of honesty, “Nice try, Preacher.” What makes a sermon good? More specifically, what are the elements that make a biblical sermon effective—or at least a “nice try”? In Biblical Preaching (the second edition), Robinson offers at least five key ingredients.
Virtually every preaching textbook extols the virtues of a central idea or thesis statement in the message. Robinson’s great contribution here is not in merely exhorting preachers to have a “big idea.” It’s in the helpful methodology he provides. Mark Scott, director of preaching at Ozark Christian College, writes:
What he did with “The Big Idea” and Subject/Complement was truly unique. The subject (what am I talking about?) and the complement (what am I saying about what I am talking about?) became a very good way to frame up the big idea. Whole worship services can be built off of that sentence, once it is in place.
Thank you, Haddon, for not only teaching us the need for a big idea, but also for giving us a sound methodology for deriving that idea in a way that is faithful to the biblical text.
Robinson’s preaching is rich with soaring imagery and descriptive language as he presents biblical stories. He writes in Biblical Preaching, “In interpretation, we determine what the passage means from what the passage says. . . . Imagination goes one step beyond the biblical facts and yet stays tied to them.”
For example, Robinson’s sermon, “Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There,” based on the story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42, opens this way:
Have you ever wondered how Jesus spent his evenings and his nights? Some of his disciples came to him early on to ask about the fringe benefits of discipleship. Jesus told them the foxes had holes and the birds had nests, but the Son of Man had no permanent place to put his head. So I gather that there were times in Jesus’ life when he slept out in the field, with the sky for a blanket and a stone for a pillow.
Thank you, Haddon, for challenging us to imagine the biblical narrative while we honor the historical record.
I tell my students that our job as preachers is to work hard at the right things, so our audience doesn’t have to work hard at the wrong things. Preachers should work hard at things like structural clarity, clear direction or purpose, transition statements, and utilizing a proper key word. This allows audience members to work hard at conviction of soul, application to life, and reflection on the nature and will of God. Biblical Preaching challenges preachers to work hard at sermon details so the audience won’t have to work hard at the wrong things.
I was once in a preaching seminar led by a well-known preacher in our movement. During the question and answer period, a student asked, “What’s the difference between a good sermon and a great sermon?” The preacher thought a moment and answered, “The difference between a good sermon and a great sermon . . . is about five hours.”
Haddon, thank you for teaching us that the details leading to greater clarity matter.
Many preachers have found themselves “stuck” as they prepare, questioning the relevancy of their message. Robinson urges us to wrestle with the question of “why?” as a way to reignite a passion for the “what.”
No matter how brilliant or biblical, a sermon without a definitive purpose is not worth preaching (Biblical Preaching).
Robinson suggests that a sermon’s aim or purpose takes form in one of three questions—or in some combination of the three—each serving as a way to intentionally develop the homiletical idea:
1. We explain it: “What does this mean?”
2. We prove it: “Is it true?”
3. We apply it: “What difference does it make?”
Thank you, Haddon, for urging us not to just articulate what we communicate, but why we are doing so.
5. Biblical Exposition
Herein lies perhaps the greatest contribution of Haddon Robinson’s preaching and teaching. The opening lines of Biblical Preaching’s first chapter articulate his conviction well:
This is a book about expository preaching, but it may have been written for a depressed market. Not everyone agrees that expository preaching—or any sort of preaching, for that matter—is an urgent need of the church. . . .
God speaks through the Bible. . . . The type of preaching that best carries the force of divine authority is expository preaching.
This passionate plea for preaching that “lets the text win” is followed up with an often-cited definition for expository preaching:
Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies it to the hearers.
Thank you, Haddon, for reminding preachers and teachers to make the ministry of the Word central to the work of the church.
Haddon, Meet Haddon
The last time I met Robinson was in 2012, when he served as guest lecturer and preacher at OCC’s annual Preaching Emphasis Day. Robinson taught that day on narrative preaching, and he preached on the parable of the sheep and the goats. Before the event began, I volunteered to pick him up from the airport. I brought along my 10-year-old son.
Haddon, meet Haddon.
We shared a meal together, and I watched in awe as my son got to know my “mentor.” Five years later, Robinson passed away.
Many people can say they’ve been directly impacted by the ministry of Haddon Robinson: preaching students in colleges and seminaries around the world, members of the churches where he preached, my son, me. But countless more have been indirectly influenced by him through the ministry of his students. Most have no idea who he is. But through the faithful preaching of people he influenced, there are now millions around the globe who more faithfully serve the Lord. So it is with the preaching of the Word and in the kingdom of God.
I’ll end this with a few words from Biblical Preaching’s dedication page:
To the men and women
who keep a sacred appointment
on Sunday morning.
Bewildered by seductive voices,
nursing wounds life has inflicted upon them,
anxious about matters that do not matter.
Yet they come to listen for a clear word from God
that speaks to their condition.
And to those who minister to them now
and those who will do so in the future.
Damien Spikereit serves as executive vice president of Ozark Christian College. He also teaches preaching at OCC and serves as a teaching pastor at Carterville Christian Church.