Unashamed Workmen 10: Richard Phillips

April 14, 2015 | by: Bob Schilling | 0 comments

Posted in: Preaching Tags: Preaching, Preachers, Book Review, Sermon Prep, Richard Phillips

We come to the end of this excellent book:

"Unashamed Workmen: How Expositors Prepare and Preach"
edited by Rhett Dodson

We've spent ten weeks looking at these ten pastors and gleaning from them some helps for studying God's word and preparing expository messages. It has been a very profitable book for me - a delight and a very practical help to my preaching.

Rick Phillips is a faithful brother. I've appreciated many of his posts over at Reformation 21, the blogsite (among other things) for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. He is the Senior Minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC. He has authored more than thirty books (I also greatly appreciated his book, "The Masculine Mandate: God's Calling to Men") including a number of commentaries. He is the Chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology - which was out here in the Portland area a few years back, and a frequent conference speaker.

Here's are the links to the previous blogs surveying each chapter of this book:

- Peter Adam, St. Jude's Carlton in Melbourne Australia
- Rhett Dodson, Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Hudson, Ohio
- Iain Duguid, Christ Presbyterian Church (ARP) in Grove City, Pennsylvania
- Ajith Fernando, serves as Teaching Director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka
- David Jackman, former President of the Proclamation Trust, retired, London
- Simon Manchester, St Thomas in North Sydney, Australia
- David Meredith, Smithton Church, Iverness, Scotland
- Josh Moody, College Church in Wheaton, Illinois
- Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Senior Lecturer at Queensland Theological College, Brisbane, Australia
     - Today: Richard D. Phillips, Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina

Section 10: Richard D. Phillips: How I Prepare

Rick Phillips' sermon prep procedure has evolved over the years into four basic steps. His approach was developed prior to the writing of Alistair Begg's brief book, "Preaching for God's Glory" but he credits Begg with the terminology that has since captured his practice:

     I. Think Yourself Empty
     II. Read Yourself Full
     III. Write Yourself Clear
     IV. Pray Yourself Hot

I. Think Yourself Empty

This refers to his practice on Mondays or at the latest Tuesdays of personal study and meditation seeking to "understand what the text says and how it says it." (234) Questions are brought to the passage to discern the mind of the Spirit in these words. 

"Expository preaching means to display what is there; so the first step in sermon preparation is to study what is in the text in order to understand it deeply and clearly. In my view, this first step of study and meditation is the most vital part of sermon preparation. There is simply no substitute for the preacher wrestling with the text so that he has a clear sense of the point, the teaching, and the organization of the passage. This study should yield a working outline of the sermon." (234)

II. Read Yourself Full

"I am often asked how many commentaries I read in sermon preparation. The answer is as many as I can manage. Most weeks I rad more than twenty commentaries, which amounts to every competent volume that I have been able to purchase on the book...I often hear other preachers say that they read only four to six commentaries in sermon preparation. I cannot imagine reading so little when I am set apart for the ministry of God's Word..." (235)

These last two preachers are in that same camp of "as many commentaries as they can manage" (remember O'Donnell mentioned using between five and thirty). This is a classic example of the legitimate differences between conscientiously faithful expositors - some can't imagine, on a regular basis using less than a dozen, others can't imagine using more than half that number. In things indifferent the scriptural guide is, "Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind" (Rom. 14:5). This phase of sermon prep usually involves two days, Phillips says.

He goes on to explain why he purposefully consults so many commentaries:

"...The commentaries do not as a rule provide me with my sermon. Rather, they help me think through the points that I am preaching. I would be perfectly able to preach my sermon without the commentaries, based on my sermon outline, and on many occasions I have needed to do this. But to offer my best in preaching God's Word week-to-week, I need to study so as to gain insights into the text, into the doctrines proclaimed, into applications that should be made to various hearers, and to its connection with the person and work of Christ." (235)

"...Inevitably, there will be a handful of commentaries that are most consistently useful in preaching a certain book. Others, especially those by authors with a lower view of Scripture, will not be helpful as often. Yet, I find that even the worst commentary turns out to be useful enough at times to justify the effort in reading it..."

III. Write Yourself Clear

Hopefully by Thursday, sometimes not until Friday, the time has come to compose the sermon. Phillips writes and preaches from a full manuscript. He rightly distinguishes this from "reading a manuscript" in the pulpit. A man familiar with his manuscript can preach "with little apparent dependency."

"Having a manuscript does not inhibit me from departing from it as led by the Spirit during sermon delivery, but it does inhibit me from having a disorganized or unclear sermon." (237)

He's also in the same school of thought as O'Donnell when it comes to illustrations (I find the unconventional comments of these men on this subject to be very refreshing. We all have to work out the way we deem most useful to the edification of our hearers). "Illustrations should be used either to make the teaching more clear or to drive home the application." He has good words of critique and caution regarding the exploitation of illustrations:

"In a great deal of preaching today, the illustration 'carries the freight' of the sermon. This should not be the case. The point of the sermon is to deliver the Word of God - proclaiming, explaining, and applying it - not to tell clever and heart-warming stories. An illustration-laden sermon is likely to make the preacher popular but it is less likely to make his hearers godly. For this reason, I do not regard illustrations as necessary to the sermon, although they are often very helpful."

His conviction is that the best illustrations are found in Scripture and in the regular habit of lots of reading. He uses separate files for each sermon series and drops illustration ideas in the appropriate file when matters strike him as potentially helpful. 

I've greatly appreciated Rick Phillips' comments on the "grace-only-sanctification" controversy that has been debated, defended and critiqued the last few years. Here are a few of his blogs on that matter: link 1, link 2, link 3. He asks the question under this heading in this chapter, "How do I practice Christ-centered Preaching?" I appreciate his comments here as well:

"This subject is worthy of its own chapter. Perhaps it should be first addressed in terms of what it is not. Christ-centered preaching does not mean that every sermon must be focused on the doctrine of justification. Christ-centered preaching does not forbid the application of biblical commands or reproofs. Nor does Christ-centered preaching require the sermon to conclude in a less-than-plausible attempt to connect details in the text to Jesus. Christ-centered preaching means that the context in which every text is preached is the redemptive achievement of God through the saving work of His Son..." 

IV. Pray Yourself Hot

This is a well-worded point. By Friday afternoon at the latest, hopefully this is taking place beginning Friday morning - he prayerfully edits the message.

"Editing a sermon manuscript is essential to excellent preaching."

That's the blade that I repeatedly mention that needs to pierce me deeply.

Prayerful editing, says Phillips serves several functions:

     - This is where he can calculate the length of his sermon.

     - This is the place of ruthless and rigorous cutting. His rule: "If it even occurs to me to remove material, then I always remove it." He shoots for three or four edits between the first draft and the preaching of the message - usually "one on Friday night, two on Saturday, and a final edit early on Sunday morning (or afternoon for the evening sermon)."

     - This is where the sermon is written on his mind and heart.

"The reason I do not appear to be note-dependent while preaching is that I have gone over the material in such detail that I merely glance at a paragraph and I know what is in it." (240)

     - Sermon-editing is a rich context for praying over the sermon.


Good, basic stuff. Preaching is to be an absorbing work accomplished with diligent and persevering effort. People ask him, 'How long do you take in preparing your sermons?'

"My honest answer is that the entire week is given to sermon preparation...The preacher should spend his days and nights in continuous meditation on the sermon - its glorious message, the challenge of explaining it clearly and potently, and the need for effective application. This is the life of the preacher, not merely a working process that occupies a few hours. Having thought himself empty, read himself full, written himself clear, and prayed himself hot, the preacher appears not merely as a craftsman with a sermon. He stands as a man with a message, passionately declaring divine truths to needy hearts, speaking from God through His Word to His people for the building of His church." (241)


Richard Phillips sermon is on 1 Kings 13:1-34, "The Man of God and the Word of God"

I didn't care for this sermon. I love the text - it is such an intriguing passage and I was really looking forward to seeing how he would open it up. I do like his big idea / preaching point / main point; I think it is a good stab at the intention of the text:

"The man of God must be a man of the Word of God"

I would refine that a bit, it seems a little too generic and this text highlights something that should nuance that main point. But I see that point in the text - very good. 

Here's what struck me after reading the sermon:

This strikes me as either (1) a sermon that was looking for a text, or, more likely, (2) a text that became a launching pad to expose some pet-peeves, going beyond the text to address some contemporary burdens. His headings:

     I. The Man of God and the Word of God
     II. Sola Scriptura
     III. The Treat of Novelty
     IV. The Sufficiency of Scripture
     V. Here We Stand

Where are points 2 and 4 in the text? Is this a passage about "Sola Scriptura"? A passage about "The Sufficiency of Scripture"? Amen to the first point. And yes, the third point is a good point of application from this text, as is number 5. But the text ended up being a pretext for a Reformation Day sermon on "The Authority, Priority and Sufficiency of God's Word" (pg. 252). I think that flattens out the passage and doesn't open up in a fuller way the gems that are there. Instead, other pet doctrines were imposed on to the text - some good truths were taught, but is that what this text was inculcating?

His over-reactions are patent in some comments he makes under the third heading, "The Threat of Novelty." From this point on the sermon became predictable and cliché-ish. 

He writes:

"I hear one particular phrase all the time today: 'We believe that God has fresh light to break forth from the Scriptures.'"

I ask myself immediately - isn't that true? Of course it is, and he knows it is - but - and he has a big "but" ready after conceding that this statement is indeed a true statement. He continues, 

"That is almost the motto of our day. You see that phrase in magazines and as a header in academic catalogs. I suppose it is true, for the Scriptures are not done speaking to us. But..."

What do you mean, "I suppose" it is true? Of course it's true. And here's my problem: because some people abuse the phrase - you want to throw out the phrase! That is the frequent error of over-correction, over-reaction. And it undermines any good point you're trying to make. 

He does it again in the next paragraph:

"Again we hear all the time the famous quotation, 'All truth is God's truth,'"

And again, he follows it with this forced concession:

"I suppose that too cannot be refuted. But..."

His "but" is this: "But all claims to truth are not God's truth." Of course. But don't overstate the case in trying to make a case. All truth is God's truth, and God does still have fresh light to break forth from the Scriptures - and yes, all such truth and light must comport with the Scriptures and be tested by the Scriptures. There is a better way to make your point and defend your argument. 

He goes on:

"People say we need new formulations of doctrine for a new age."

So shall we throw out all contextualization? Shall we just speak in Greek or Latin or Elizabethan English? His own explanation contradicts his point. He asks in so many words, 'Are things really so different now from say, the sixteenth century and the Reformation or from the seventeenth century and the great doctrinal statements like the Westminster Confession?' Gladly he extended the argument back even further; has anything "really changed in the last 2,000 years since Jesus ascended to heaven? Is man's situation before God any different? Is God less holy? Are we less sinful?" etc. 

I want to scream: So when should the revisions and formulations and contextualizations stop? Has anything really changed since the days of the Nicene Creed? Why not just go with that? Pick a hundred other benchmark moments - what's your end-all? Why does everything stop with the Puritans? Oh, and I knew it was coming - the favorite text of the lovers of the good ol' days (Ecc. 7:10) - not the Ecclesiastes text, the Jeremiah text:

"Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is,
and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls."
Jeremiah 6:16 (NIV)

He later alleges that we live in a day "when the Church again needs reformation once again." (252) I ask, 'Shall this new reformation be complete with new confessions?

The sermon made some good points - but it didn't rightly preach the text fully and it then it became a platform for some favorite pot-shots at the errors of some of the young, restless and whatevers. No doubt this sermon was sure to get some amens from some of his reformational hearers, but he overstated his case, and even undermined the good that he was seeking to communicate. 

A little less "reading yourself full" and more "thinking yourself empty" in the text might have led to "writing yourself clearer" and then blessed your hearers with more light than mere heat.

I write as a brother who has preached many sermons that could be rightly critiqued in many needful ways. Richard Phillips is a faithful man, I just think some of his pet peeves got in the way here. It happens to the best of men.


What a terrific book. Highly recommend it my fellow preachers for a careful and thoughtful read.