Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content

Skill Builders

Home > Skill Builders


Lessons I Learned from Haddon W. Robinson

Wisdom from a preacher for preachers.
Lessons I Learned from Haddon W. Robinson

A year has passed since my friend, mentor, and preaching model Haddon Robinson died. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about him and thank God for his impact on my life. Regularly I've reflected on the ways in which Haddon Robinson taught me. Below are some of the valuable lessons I learned about preaching and the living of life.

Preaching lessons

We preach ideas. Robinson's homiletic is simple: We preach ideas. The preacher's currency is language—words. These words communicate ideas. The preacher's responsibility is to communicate ideas clearly. Communicating clear ideas is central to good communication.

Preach the idea of the text. Robinson was insistent that the idea of the sermon is rooted in the biblical text. His entire homiletic is based on a faithful rendering of the biblical text underscored by rigorous exegesis. Robinson emphasized the importance of working with the original languages and engaging in solid study in the historical and literary backgrounds of the text.

Clarity is king. Clarity rules exegetical study and homiletical practice. The preacher wants to be clear about what the text says and he or she wants to be clear in communicating it in the preaching of the sermon. Haddon Robinson was the first person I heard say, "A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew." This piece of wisdom has stuck with me for decades and is what I've tried to build into my students.

Haddon Robinson was the first person I heard say, "A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew.

Preaching is serious business. Haddon Robinson took preaching seriously. He was known to have squirreled himself away in the library as an undergraduate reading sermons and biographies of great preachers. This serious study of preaching followed him all his life. I have a few books that he gave me. They have underlining and comments on most every page. His monumental textbook, Biblical Preaching, is a testimony to how serious he was about preaching.

To bore one's listeners is a sin. Haddon Robinson took preaching seriously to the extent that he believed that the preacher was responsible to keep the attention of his listeners and hold them throughout the entire sermon. He wanted preachers to connect with listeners on all kinds of levels, helping them to understand where the truth of the text intersected with their lives. He said that through the preacher "the steel of God's Word strikes the flint of people's lives" and it was the preacher—used by God—who had the task of engaging this text with those who hear the sermon.

Teaching preaching is a passion and privilege. Haddon Robinson ate, talked, walked, and slept preaching. It was his life, his passion. He preached at hundreds of conferences, churches, Bible colleges, and seminary chapels. His passion was preaching. No more prophetic was the name his parents gave him—Haddon, after the great 19th century preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Robinson also considered preaching to be a privilege. He never forgot that he was God's spokesperson, and not the other way around. These two passions led to his commitment to the teaching of preaching. Over the years, he had several invitations to serve as the pastor of recognized churches, but he said no for, as he told me, not many people have the background to do what he's been privileged to do, to teach the current and next generations of preachers.

Life lessons

Not only did Haddon Robinson shape me in the task of preaching and teaching preaching, he also modeled for me significant life lessons.

Invest in others. Haddon Robinson had a way of helping others achieve. Personally, Robinson invited me to work with him as an assistant professor of preaching almost thirty years ago. He didn't know me, but he wanted to support me as a young homiletician. He took me on and cheered me all along the way. We spent twenty-one years together in teaching ministry. I was changed by his investment in me, for which I'm forever grateful, and it's a practice that I, too, try to model.

Be generous (with time, home, money). Over the many years that I worked with Robinson I saw regularly that he spent time with others. He would drop everything when I rapped on his door to talk. He would lean back in his chair and engage in hearty, thoughtful conversation. In addition, Haddon and his wife Bonnie opened their home regularly to friends, colleagues, and students. We held preaching classes in his home. For decades, several of us celebrated birthdays together with the person celebrating his or her birthday wearing a special birthday crown (of which I am now the keeper). To our teasing and delight, the crown was too small for Haddon's head. He was also generous with money. Countless times we went out to lunch and regularly he wouldn't allow me to pay. He helped me to purchase my first car as a young faculty member. He and Bonnie underwrote my 50th birthday celebration, paying for it before my wife Rhonda could scribble out the check. Haddon Robinson exemplified generosity.

Encourage others. Whether you were a student, a staff member, or a faculty member, Haddon Robinson was interested in you. He was an encourager. He'd take interest in what you were doing, whether it was Florina, the baker in the school cafeteria, or a student who was struggling with a relationship, or a faculty member like me to whom he said, "You teach Big Idea preaching better than me." These words of encouragement have nourished souls, including mine.

Keep a sense of humor. Haddon Robinson had a sharp wit. He didn't take himself too seriously and was often the punchline of his own jokes. His sense of humor was often dry and sharp, but always respectful and self-deprecating. He loved to laugh and I can even now picture his smiling face during times of celebration with friends and family.

We are expendable. At the end of his teaching ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Haddon was cleaning out his office. Stacks of books and papers surrounded him. I walked into his office to see how he was getting along. He looked bewildered. We talked about his transition to retirement and he said to me, "Scott, I'm concerned about my legacy." I thought, Haddon Robinson concerned about his legacy? He should have no worries about that. But Haddon is like all of us. At some point, we're faced with our own finitude, our time on the stage of life and the ministry role to which God had called us comes to an end. God had a Moses, but then there came a Joshua. As I reflect on Haddon's life, I have come to realize that even though there are great men and women, and Haddon Robinson numbers among them, their lives, and his life, too, are a mist. God remains the real hero of the Bible, and of our lives. We are expendable—and I am, too. But God remains God.

Never complain. After Haddon Robinson retired, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, a progressive debilitating illness. As he experienced decline, his wife Bonnie observed, "Haddon never complains." He had reason to do so. Parkinson's had attacked his incredible, distinctive voice, which went from a strong, powerful, deep resonance, to a barely audible whisper. His frame shrank and he struggled to walk, ending his days in a wheel chair. Yet, in letter after letter from Bonnie she underscored, "Haddon never complains." A vital pulpit ministry withered before Haddon's eyes as he would cast a glance into the mirror as he went by. But he knew that God was in all and was his all in all, and he trusted him in every aspect of his journey in this life, and in the next.

My life is forever changed by knowing Haddon Robinson. He taught me significant lessons not only about preaching but also about living life. Although a year has gone by since his death, these important lessons live on in my life—and I hope will also live in yours.

Scott M. Gibson is the Professor of Preaching and holder of the David E. Garland Chair of Preaching at Baylor University/Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. He also served as the Haddon W. Robinson Professor of Preaching and Ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, where he was on faculty for twenty-seven years.

Related articles

Gardner C. Taylor

The Preacher's Dialogue

Son of man, can these bones live again? How does one answer that kind of question?
Samuel Rodriguez

Preaching the Exalted Savior in a Fallen World

The preacher needs to contemplate the person, purpose, and precedent of Christ.