Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content

Skill Builders

Home > Skill Builders


Preaching As Reminding

The power and simplicity of reminding folks of what they already know
"I love to tell the story; for those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest."
Katherine Hankey

In The Silver Chair, Aslan commissions Jill to find the find the lost prince, and he gives her Signs to guide her in her quest. Then he issues this solemn warning: "Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. Remember, remember the Signs."[1] If Aslan had given these instructions to preachers, he might have said: "Remind, remind your people of the Signs. The air here is thick."

Preaching-as-reminding will come as good news to preachers who feel the false guilt that every sermon has to be an original work of art.

Preaching doesn't always have to explain new truths. Neither does it always have to persuade people believe those truths. Nor does it always have to exhort people to obey the truths. Sometimes it can simply remind folks of what they already understand, believe, and are attempting to obey. To be sure, those functions of preaching—explaining, proving, and applying—are indispensable in any well-rounded pastorate, but sometimes sermons can simply inspire with the old, old story.

The drive to always preach something novel is a homiletical treadmill. We think: "They've heard this before! I don't want to bore them! They already know John 3:16!" But we should remember that our people are like the hobbits who "liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions."[2] Preaching-as-reminding will come as good news to preachers who feel the false guilt that every sermon has to be an original work of art.

But other preachers will raise a skeptical eyebrow. "Preaching-as-reminding sounds monotonous," they say. "Repeating what believers have heard since they were children sounds like a homiletical nightmare, like preaching at Christmas fifty-two weeks a year." If you feel that way, realize that preaching-as-reminding is not empty repetition, formalistic, and perfunctory. Rather, it is the work of soul-watchers who minister where the air is thick. Our people (and we) need reminders of the great truths of the Faith.

Jonathan Edwards put it this way: "God hath appointed a particular and lively application of His Word to men in the preaching of it … to stir up the minds of the saints, and quicken their affections, by often bringing the great things of religion to their remembrance, and setting them before them in their proper colours, though they know them, and have been fully instructed in them already."[3]

Notice that preaching-as-reminding "stirs" and "quickens the affections." It inspires, and when that happens, then the other functions of preaching (explaining, proving, and applying) occur without too much rhetorical effort.

When we examine preaching in the Bible which addresses people in the covenant, we discover that preaching-as-reminding is common. Stirring of memory as one of our primary tasks, as modeled in Deuteronomy, the Prophets, and the Epistles.

Preaching in Deuteronomy

The covenant people are poised on the border of the Promised Land, and Moses is making his farewell address. This generation had not witnessed the redemptive acts of the Exodus as their fathers had, and they were not present when Yahweh made the covenant, yet these people, not just their fathers, were still participating in the ongoing story of redemption. They depended on memory as the link between the past and the present. Thus Moses stresses time and time again that they must remember. What must they remember? Their slavery in Egypt (16:12, 24:22); their deliverance (5:15, 6:12, 7:18-19, 8:14, 15:15, 16:3, 24:18); the making of the covenant at Horeb (4:9-13, 23); YHWH himself (4:39-40, 8:11, 14, 18, 19); the commandments (11:18, 26:13); and their rebellion in the wilderness and God's discipline (8:2, 14-16, 9:7, 24:9).

The rhetorical situation which Moses faced is similar to the one Christian preachers face today. We too stand on the brink of full deliverance, but we too are separated from the great deeds of redemption. So Christians lean heavily on memory to keep our hope alive and faith strong. Our ceremonies, particularly the Lord's Supper, and our discourse, particularly our Scripture reading and sermons, should prompt memory to bring the past into the present with compelling power.

The Prophets

The prophets were reminders par excellence. They drummed a metronomic cadence of covenant stipulations, incentives, and warnings. Their cadence was so uniform and unceasing that Andrew Thompson claims they were in danger of being monotonous: "Even a casual reader will find the same themes over and over again: God's goodness, God's deliverance, God's law, the people's rebellion, God's judgment, God's salvation. Short oracles are stacked together by the dozen, prophecy after prophecy, repeating the same thing."[4] Harkening back to the Exodus and Sinai, the prophets drummed a message of deliverance, gratitude, and obligation.

The prophets' task, like Moses,' also parallels the task set before Christian preachers. Thompson states:

They both (Israel and the church) live under the same covenant LORD, who does not change in his character or affections. They both live in the light of his past deeds for their good … . They both live under his demands for love and obedience … . And they both live in hope that God's promises of ultimate salvation and judgment will be fulfilled. Our hope is the return of Christ, the Second Advent, when he will defeat his enemies and pour out his grace to his church. The church's covenant situation is remarkably similar to Israel's.[5]


Paul and the other NT letter writers regularly remind the recipients of what they already know and believe. A handful of examples demonstrate this:

(Rom 15:15-16) But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles.
(Phil 3:1) Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.
(Jude 5, 17) "Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe … . You must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ."
(2 Peter 1:13-16) I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder … And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.
(2 Peter 3:1-2). In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder ….

Some scholars feel that the epistles are the best examples we have of what preaching to believers sounded like in the infant Church. If that is so, then to preach to the Church, as the apostles did, we should stir memory.

(2 Tim. 2:8, 14) "Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel … . Remind them of these things, and charge them before God."

So, if the reminding-function of preaching is central, not peripheral, when communicating to people in the covenant, then expository preachers ask how can we can serve as "remembrancers." A bland recitation of salvation history will not prompt memory and kindle faith. No, we must embody the Word like the prophets and apostles. Here are some suggestions.

1. Taste, then serve.

Preaching-as-reminding is not a Bible lecture. It is worship. Preachers should worship as they prepare the sermon and as they step into the pulpit, and thus prompt the congregation to worship as they listen. To illustrate this concept, Timothy Keller uses the analogy of parents feeding their child baby food. The child is uninterested, so the parents taste the food: "Mmmm! Yummy!" They model the response they want and the child follows their lead. They are partakers of the glory of the food. Likewise, preacher-reminders taste the glory of statements like these: "God is the creator and owner of all that is"; "heaven is our hope"; and "whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life." To mix my metaphors, when the preacher burns, the people catch fire. Much of this "burning" comes through the nonverbal channels of delivery, but passionate delivery cannot be conjured ex nihilo; it is the fruit of meditation and worship.

2. Clothe Stirring Thoughts in Stirring Words.

Listeners are rarely moved if the sermon is not phrased movingly. This is one of the lessons we learn from the prophets. Their message was potentially monotonous, but they found fresh ways to repeat the covenant curses and blessings.

Three specific tools of language can help. The first is the refrain as in Tony Campolo's famous sermon, "It's Friday, but Sunday's coming." The sermon is about the problem of evil. Alluding to Jesus' passion, Campolo says that we currently dwell in "Friday," but "Sunday"—resurrection and victory—is coming! That is not a new thought for most churched listeners, but Campolo stirs our affections with a memorable refrain.

Closely related to the refrain is the epitomizing phrase. Followers of big idea preaching already know the value of communicating the essence of the sermon in a crafted sentence, so why not take this homiletical wisdom to the next level: big idea ministry? For example, in his books and sermons, John Piper often repeats this thought: "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him." Piper relates all topics (missions, preaching, giving, etc.) to that overarching concept. It reminds his audience of their raison d'etre. It is woven into the fabric of his ministry, a supra big idea.

A third way to use stirring language is parallelism. When a preacher rhythmically restates an idea rather than saying it only once, it has a greater chance of stirring the affections. Here is an example from one of my sermons entitled "Cover or Be Covered" (Psalm 32). My goal was to stir the affections with a truth they already believed—we sinners sin, and we sinners try to cover our sins. I began with a light mood, but then turned serious.

My hope is built on nothing less that Belichick and Patriots.
I rejoice inordinately, as if a name were written into the Lamb's Book of Life, when the Patriots win.
I prayed more fervently for the Patriots than for my pastors, elders, and leaders.
Who will confess?
I have zipped into a parking spot in front of someone who got there before I did.
I look at myself every time I pass a mirror.
I wish other people would shut up so I can tell my story.
I have promoted myself at every opportunity.
I have not considered others better than myself.
Who will confess?
I have been proud.
I have spun the truth to make myself look good.
I have blamed others when I was at fault.
I have drugged myself with television or the internet so I wouldn't have to think about my failings.
I have lied.
I have hidden.
I have clammed up.
I have pretended.
I have deceived.
I have tried to cover my own sin.
Who will confess?
I have put down my friends.
I have cut up those I love.
I have blown up at those who matter most to me.
I have not prayed.
I have not sacrificed.
I have not stewarded God's money.
I have acted as if it were my money.
I have not played my part in the Great Commission.
I don't care much about the Great Commission.
I don't care much about the poor, homeless, prisoners, infirm, illiterate, suffering, widows and orphans.
I do care about myself.
I have taken up and set down and taken up and set down my cross.
I have not left all to follow him.
Who will confess?

3. Use Induction

If the truth causes a yawn when it should cause a gasp, let it sneak up on the congregation. The outline my sermon on Psalm 32 does that. The author's goal was to prompt the readers to confess their sins, so that was my goal also in this sermon. Prompting confession is daunting for preacher and people, so I took them on an inductive journey:

  1. We sinners sin.
  2. When we sin, we try to cover ourselves.
  3. When we try to cover ourselves, we bake in the heat of discipline.
  4. Therefore, we sinners confess.
  5. When we confess, we experience the shalom of God.


Preachers are not only teachers of the untaught, persuaders of the skeptical, and exhorters of the listless. We are also reminders. As modeled in Deuteronomy, the Prophets, and the Epistles, we should remind people of the covenant. Their knowledge may lie buried under an ash heap of neglect, and their beliefs may be muted by the white noise of the world, or as Aslan would say they may be confused by the thick air of this world, but the truth nevertheless resides in their hearts. So we step into the pulpit in faith trusting the Holy Spirit to bring to remembrance the things Jesus taught (John 14:26).

1. C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: Macmillan, 1953), 21.

2. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Ballantine Books, 1954), 9.

3. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, ed. John E. Smith (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1959), 115-116.

4. Andrew Thompson, "Community Oracles: A Model for Applying and Preaching the Prophets" Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society (10/1, 2010): 53.

5. Thompson, "Community Oracles," 42.

Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Related articles

The Listener's Agenda (Part 2)

What regard should those committed to the exposition of scripture have for the felt needs of their hearers?

Every Sermon Should Be How-To ...

... but none should be do-it-yourself

If It's Not How-to, It's Not Preaching (pt. 1)

A forum on protecting and respecting this practical preaching style.