Letters to My Students: A Book Review

by Drake Osborn October 3, 2019

Living in Exam Week

Recently I have taken on the joyfully indomitable task of regular, weekly preaching. This was not my decision, or my goal. As a young pastor with little experience, I joined the staff at a young and growing church. I was eager to wait my turn. No one predicted that the resignation of the founding pastor would create a pulpit-size hole that God would call the freshly graduated seminarian to fill. But with a keen awareness that the work of preaching calls for readiness in every season, I considered myself prepared when the congregation called. 

In many ways, I was. But I underestimated the work required. After graduation from seminary, it becomes easy for the young preacher to believe that a certain chapter of ministerial life has come to a close. “Study for four years, preach for forty”—and maybe go back for a terminal degree later—this is the mantra I led myself to believe. By God’s grace, my mantra could not sustain even a month of regular preaching. In my short time taking the pulpit, I’ve learned that to preach is to constantly mature, grow, work, and yes, to study. There are no “easy” sermons. Already feeling the strain of my enrollment in the classroom of experience, I breathed a heavy “amen” when I received Dr. Jason Allen’s new book, Letters to My Students, Volume 1: On Preaching and read the confirmation of my experience: “To be a preacher is to live perpetually in final exam week” (74). In this short volume, I found a refreshing and personal teacher to help me prepare for my weekly exams. 

Dr. Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, is well known for his work in the field of preaching. Besides having plenty of experience on the ground in various preaching contexts, he hosts the weekly podcast ”Preaching and Preachers” and regularly takes the time to lecture and teach the students in his care. Allen shows in his new work that he is further devoted to remembering those unmemorable servants of God: all the faithful shepherds filling the pulpit week after week. 

Clarity and Precision

Allen sets up his book in three sections: “Preparing to be a Preacher”, “Preparing Your Sermon”, and “Growing in Your Preaching”. With this kind of outline, Allen shows intentionality in reaching a wide audience. This book could easily serve as a resource for the brand new preacher, the maturing preacher, and the seasoned preacher, yet the reason for this width does not lie in its expansiveness. The volume clocks in at less than 200 pages, hardly an exhaustive treatment on the topic of preaching. What the book lacks in scale, it more than makes up for in clarity and precision. 

Allen knows he is not the first preacher to write to other preachers. Rather, he stands in a long line of faithful expositors and pulpiteers willing to provide example and advice. He admits his main influence is Charles Spurgeon, a man renowned for his tireless preaching. Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students serves as the namesake for Letters to My Students, and it shows. When Spurgeon set down to confer his own wisdom, he didn’t do so with a comprehensive textbook, he did so in a set of practical lectures. Allen’s wisdom shines in the same way; his text is full of refreshing brevity, honed precision, and crystal clarity. 

On reading, Letters to My Students feels as if Allen is preaching through the text a sermon that he has carefully crafted. “Combat ambiguity at every point” (153) he counsels, and he practices what he preaches. There are no rabbit trails, and the only time a parenthesis is used is to reference Scripture. Consider how many times in the book he utilizes a structure of clear points to get to his main idea: chapter one shows three marks of a call to ministry, chapter two lays out five aspects of a theology of preaching, chapter four gives five reasons for preaching with authority, chapter six, twelve reasons for expository preaching. I stopped counting after that. Suffice it to say that Allen is a preacher at heart. His polished structure gives his book vitality and preaches to the preacher the importance of delivering sermons that allow the orator to get out of the way and the Word of God to shine. The author says it best: “When you preach, make sure Christ eclipses you” (52). Because of his commitment to clarity, Allen has crafted a book where Christ is clearly the main character. 

Commitment to Practicality

Letters to My Students also stands out as a worthwhile resource because of its commitment to practicality. This letter is also a handbook. In reading I found myself often storing away sentences, not for use in the theoretical hereafter, but for Sunday’s sermon just a few days away. Both the eager preacher and the weary preacher will find immediately practical reminders of the honor of preaching (“If God has called you to be His servant, don’t stoop to be a king of men, [9]), the immutability of the Word of God (“Remember, a text cannot mean something now that it never meant” [67]), the aim of preaching (“Aim to inform the mind, impact the heart, and challenge the will” [85]), and the pastoral heart of preaching (“The preacher must always be exegeting his own congregation” [118].” Allen’s book can be read in a few sittings, and yet it touches on helpfully pragmatic topics again and again: included are chapters on engaging cultural concerns from the pulpit, on public invitations, on what words to take out of your sermons, on christocentric preaching, and on pastoral perseverance, just to name a few. 

In the age of social media, brevity is not uncommon. But too often, fewer characters leads to more assumptions, and conciseness breads a desire to be cute instead of clear. Allen avoids these pitfalls by skillfully pairing brevity with clarity via a commitment to practicality over opinion. If you are looking for some theories of preaching, try another book. Letters to My Students is full of practical assertions, not to abstract assumptions. 

Focus on Gospel Proclamation

What would clear and practical preaching be without a purposeful focus on clear and practical proclamation of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Allen’s book succeeds not simply because of his skill in preparation or application, but because it accomplishes it’s far greater purpose: to equip ministers of the gospel in order to preach the gospel. God is glorified when sinners are saved and sanctified as the word of his gospel is preached with conviction, authority, and passionate faithfulness in pulpits far and wide. “Ministry is gospel work… don’t embark on ministry without a love for the gospel and the Great Commission,” Allen counsels his students. “It’s the one passion every pastor must have” (164). 

While preparing for ministry, I had the privilege of having Dr. Allen as a professor of preaching. With the release of his new book, Letters To My Students, now all sorts of preachers can take part in the same experience. I trust that they will benefit from Allen’s clarity and precision, commitment to practicality, and focus on gospel proclamation. Perhaps there are other books on preaching that will guide the minister of the gospel into deeper, specific facets of gospel proclamation, but that is not the aim of Letters to My Students. The call of Paul to Timothy is simple: preach the Word. Letters to My Students takes this simple charge at face value. The aim of this book is to equip growing students of the Word with lessons aimed at faithfulness in preaching the Word. To that end, the book succeeds, and I commend it to gospel preachers of all kinds.