Doctrinal Preaching

Doctrinal Preaching

Doctrinal Preaching

Timothy George

[This article was taken from Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, Michael Duduit, Editor, Broadman Press: Nashville, TN, pp. 93-102.]

In a handbook such as this which features models of contemporary preaching, it is not at all obvious that there should be a chapter on doctrinal preaching. Expository preaching, creative preaching, evangelistic preaching, incarnational preaching, narrative preaching, yes; but doctrinal preaching? The very word doctrine, like its cousins dogma and dogmatic, has fallen on hard times. For many people it connotes authoritarianism, intellectualism, and legalism. When applied to preaching it comes out rigid and stultifying rather than dynamic and edifying.

Yet despite those misconceptions, the recovery of doctrinal preaching is essential to the renewal of the church. The crisis of identity which engulfs contemporary Christianity, especially in the West, has resulted in large measure from the loss of a persuasive message clearly proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit. What does the church have to say that no one else can say?[1] What does the preacher have to say that the psychologist, politician, stock broker, or social commentator has not already said with more passion and insight than most pastors can muster even on Easter Sunday? The credibility of the church’s proclamation will not be restored by acquiring new communication skills or devising better sermonic forms, as helpful as these may be. The answer is a preacher in whom the Word of God burns as a fire in his bones, one who must speak because he cannot keep silent, one who preaches with fierce humility (“Who is equal to such a task?” 2 Cor. 2:16, NIV) yet also with unstinted audacity (“Such confidence…is ours through Christ,” 2 Cor. 3:4, NIV) in the certain knowledge that God Himself is speaking in the faithful proclamation of His Word. Or, as Second Helvetic Confession (1566) put it even more succinctly: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”[2] This is the burden of doctrinal preaching.

The strategy of this essay is first to examine the presupposition of doctrinal preaching, then to give practical suggestions as to how this approach might affect the craft of the sermon, and finally to present several examples of doctrinal preaching from the history of the church.

The Message Is the Medium

Without a doubt the most influential theologian between the Reformation and the twentieth century was Friedrich Schleiermacher, who died the same year that Charles H. Spurgeon was born (1834). While working out of the Reformed tradition, Schleiermacher defined religion not in terms of the doctrinal concerns of historic Christianity but rather a “feeling of absolute dependence.” This principle enabled him to recast traditional Christian doctrines in terms of the relative God–or Christ-consciousness of the believer. Thus in his major theological work, The Christian Faith, he relegated the doctrine of the Trinity to a slight appendage at the end since it seemed to him to have little relevance to the religious experience or actual life-situation of the individual Christian.[3]

Schleiermacher was a preacher as well as a theologian. His homiletical theory provided a new paradigm for preaching in the modern world. According to this understanding, the preacher dares to step forward and address the congregation only in order “to project his innermost self as a subject of shared observation.” His purpose is “to lead them to the sphere of religion, where they feel at home so that he can instill his [own] sacred feelings.”[4] The emphasis is not on the content of the message, which may be quite irrelevant, but on the authenticity and self-expression of the messenger whose “inspired speech” gives concrete form to the religious sensitivities of the congregation. In this scheme the preacher is a divine virtuoso, a spiritual guru, whose role is to tap the innate yearnings and inner quests of his hearers. To this way of defining the preaching task, one can only ask with Karl Barth: “Where is the Word of God in this immanent sea of feelings? Where is the ongoing seeking if all that is done is simply the expression of an inner possessing?”[5]

Against the modern, subjectivistic understanding of preaching stands the earlier Reformation model of preaching as the central sacramental moment of worship. According to Luther: “The Preaching and teaching of God’s Word is the main part of all divine service.”[6] The German word for worship, Gottesdienst, is a double entendre: it means not only our response to God in adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and praise, but also–and in the first instance–God’s service to us, the Word of God addressed to us in law and gospel, promise and fulfillment, judgment and grace. For this reason we who have been called and appointed to preach have no business regaling the congregation with “our own prophetic booming,” however eloquently expressed or aesthetically framed such booming may be. Our vocation is that of the postman: we have been entrusted with a message which has to be delivered. As John H. Leith has put it: “The message is in a real sense the medium, and the worst heresy in preaching is for the medium to become the message.”[7]

If anything, Zwingli and Calvin stressed even more rigorously than Luther this uni-directional doctrine of preaching. In October, 1523, Zwingli addressed the ministers of Zurich on the true nature of ministry. He declared that the false shepherd or pastor was one who put forth his own ideas rather than teaching the “certainty and clarity” of Holy Scripture. The Reformation had been introduced in Zurich on January 1, 1519, when Zwingli entered the pulpit of the Great Minister and began a series of expository sermons through the Gospel of Matthew, discarding the “canned Homilies” provided by the church authorities. In 1525 he began “The Prophecy,” a regular seminar on preaching which met in the cathedral choir, in order to train Reformed ministers, presumably “true shepherds,” in biblical exegesis and doctrinal theology.

Calvin carried this emphasis further still by insisting that when the Bible is purely preached, it is as if God Himself were speaking in person. Richard Stauffer has claimed that preaching for Calvin was not merely an essential task of the church and preacher but also an occasion for divine epiphany.[8] It is the work of the Holy Spirit and not the personality or skill of the preacher which produces such an occasion of transcendence. As we sing: “All is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down…Pray…while we try to preach.” Thus true ministers of the divine Word–Calvin’s preferred term for set-apart preachers–are to “invent nothing themselves, nor teach whatever they please, but faithfully transmit [only] what God has committed to them.”[9]

The presupposition of doctrinal preaching is that the God who has once and for all come in Jesus Christ and once and for all spoken in Holy Scripture still comes and still speaks to His people through the faithful proclamation of His Word in the power of the Holy Spirit. “Doctrine” is not an abstract formulation of belief divorced from this saving reality and divine revelation. To the contrary, it is the irreducible content of this very reality, conveyed through God’s authoritative, infallible Word and elucidated through what the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of that Holy Word.

Preaching Doctrinally

What has been said thus far concerning the presupposition of doctrinal preaching could well apply in a general sense to the entire task of preaching in the life of the church. We must now examine more concretely how these principles are applied in the art of sermon construction.

It is unfortunate that “doctrine” and “Bible” are frequently pitted against each other as polar opposites between which the hapless preacher must choose. This dichotomy reflects a long-standing tension on theological faculties between biblical scholars on the one hand and systematic theologians on the other. Such turf wars may have their place in the obscure guilds of academic life, but they are disastrous in the pulpit. Every doctrinal sermon must be contextually rooted in sound exegesis; and every expository or biblical sermon should place a given passage in the widest theological framework possible. Both the unity and the historicity of the Bible demand no less.

Building on the insights of the Reformation, the English Puritans developed a pattern of preaching which was both biblically based and theologically responsible. Reacting against the “bare reading ministry” prescribed by statue and the rhetorical ornamentation practiced by many Anglican divines, the Puritans sought to cultivate a “plain style” of preaching, a style which focused on the message rather than the messengers who, as Calvin had warned, “must not make a parade of rhetoric, only to gain esteem for themselves …the spirit of God ought to sound forth by their voice, so as to work with mighty energy…or doctrine is cold unless it is given divine efficacy.”[10]

One of the principal handbooks on preaching in the Puritan tradition was William Perkins’s The Arte of Prophesying (1592). In this pithy treatise of eleven brief chapters Perkins summed up his homiletical methodology in four basic rules:

The order and sum of the sacred and only method of preaching

  1. To read the text distinctly out of the canonical Scriptures.
  2. To give the sense and understanding of it being read, by the Scripture itself.
  3. To collect a few and profitable points of doctrine out of the natural sense.
  4. To apply, if we have the gift, the doctrines rightly collected to the life and manners of men in a simple plain speech.

The sum of the sum:
Preach on Christ by Christ to the praise of Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria[11]

True preaching thus requires the measured reading of Holy Scripture and its proper interpretation, followed by doctrinal exposition and pertinent application. Concerning the third step, doctrinal exposition, Perkins distinguished those texts which are freighted with doctrinal meaning (for instance, Rom. 3:9-26) from other texts where the doctrine is implied rather than expressed in an obvious manner. In the case of the former, the preacher’s task is like that of a weaver unloosing a braid; in the latter case the preacher must compare Scripture with Scripture in order to properly place a particular text within the scopus of the entire drama of redemption. Such “collections,” as Perkins called this latter exercise, are to be soundly gathered and derived from the genuine and proper meaning of the Scriptures. They are not to be forced upon the text by the fancy of the preacher. Still, it is necessary and proper to “rightly divide the Word” in this sense because the Bible is not a hodgepodge of literary texts from the ancient world but rather the perfect record of God’s dealings with humankind in creation and redemption, inspired and given definitive canonical shape by the Holy Spirit.

The sermon is not complete until the fourth step of application has been taken. The purpose of preaching is never merely to dispense information or to display the erudition of the preacher. Perkins was critical of sermons that were too “garnished with skill of arts, tongues and variety of reading.”[12] The sermon is not a seminar! The preacher must apply the doctrine rightly collected from the text in such a way that its spiritual impact is felt by the hearers. In order to do this effectively, the preacher must be as good an exegete of the congregation as he is of the text. He will know how to reprove the wayward, comfort the disconsolate, rebuke the obstinate, encourage the disheartened, and extend the invitation of grace to the unsaved.

While the pattern of doctrinal preaching developed by the Puritans can still be used with great profit, it is not necessary to follow their precise order of presentation. All sermons should have a strong doctrinal content, but there are many special occasions and preaching opportunities which lend themselves to a particular doctrinal emphasis. The following suggestions may be helpful in planning a schedule of preaching throughout the year.

1. Use confessions and catechisms to give a framework for doctrinal sermons. Some preachers, including even renowned evangelical ones, have been reluctant to follow this method. They prefer the sermon to arise directly from the Bible and not from human formulations, not even very good ones.[13] However, it need not be either/or. After all, confessions and catechisms are derived from the Bible. They have no independent authority apart from the Bible, and they must always be tested by, and stand revisable in the light of, the Bible. They are deeply anchored in the history of particular faith communities and can be a useful device for passing on the faith intact to the next generation.

2. Preach on the grand events of salvation history throughout the church year. In Jesus Christ, God has redeemed not only individuals and the cosmos but also time itself. Christians celebrate this fact throughout the year by ordering their lives and worship around the events of Jesus’ advent, birth, baptism, death, resurrection, ascension, and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Preaching with the aid of a lectionary will bring these themes into focus for sermon preparation.

3. Prepare for the celebration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper by sound doctrinal preaching. One of the great themes of the Reformation was the coherence of Word and sacrament. The “visible words” of God in bread, wine, and water should always be accompanied by thorough instruction. Such sermons need not be restricted to the administration of the ordinances. A message on the unity of the church would be especially appropriate for the Lord’s Supper, just as the theme of discipleship would comport with the meaning of baptism.

4. Use great hymns of the faith to accent the theological content of the sermon. In the absence of consistent doctrinal preaching, hymns have often been the primary carriers of Christian meaning for many believers. They are best used, however, in concert with sound theological exposition. Who could not preach on the grace of God after singing Charles Wesley’s “And Can It Be?” or on forgiveness after “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven?”

5. Show the importance of doctrine in the lives of great biblical and church historical characters. Doctrine has both a propositional and an incarnational dimension. It is the truth of God’s Word distilled and applied to fallen and redeemed human beings, but it is that truth lived out in the flesh and blood reality of the people of God. To show how Athanasius staked his life on the doctrine of the Trinity, or how Luther struggled against the fury of hell for the doctrine of justification by faith, is to impress on the congregation the gravity and relevance of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

Three Examples

In conclusion, we want to look briefly at three examples of doctrinal sermons from the history of the church. Each comes from a different period of church history–Patristic, Reformation, Modern. Each represents a distinctive point of departure in preaching: the first is a sermon on the Apostles’ Creed; the second, a sermon taken from the routine of an expository series; and the third, a thematic approach to a great doctrinal topic. All three, however, follow in varying measures the essential elements of the fourfold pattern outlined above.

The first sermon was preached by Saint Augustine to new Christians preparing for baptism. It is entitled, “On the Creed: A Sermon to the Catechumens.” Augustine encouraged his hearers to receive, believe, and confess their faith in the words of the Rule of Faith, what he called the Apostles’ Creed. This statement, he argued, is indeed a summary of the principal teaching of the Bible itself. “These words which ye have heard are in the Divine Scriptures scattered up and down: but thence gathered and reduced into one, that the memory of slow persons might not be distressed; that every person may be able to say, able to hold, what he believes.”[14]

The biblical basis of each phrase of the creed is explicated. Special attention is given to the relation of the Son to the Father. Disputes over the Trinity were still troubling the church in Augustine’s day, and he clearly affirmed the equality and co-eternality of the Father and the Son. “Hold ye therefore boldly, firmly, faithfully, that the Begotten of God the Father is what Himself is, Almighty.”[15] He also discouraged those young believers from prying too inquisitively into the hidden things of God. Concerning Christ’s ascension and session at the right hand of the Father, he admonished: “And let not your heart say to you, What is he doing? Do not want to seek what is not permitted to find: He is there; it suffices you.”[16]

By treating the entire Apostles’ Creed in one brief sermon, Augustine passed lightly over many deep truths of the faith. His purpose was to ground the catechumen under his charge in the essentials of the gospel. He sought to apply these truths by pointing out their relevance to daily Christian living: “He shewed us in the cross what we ought to endure, He shewed in the resurrection what we have to hope.”[17] By using the framework of the Rule of Faith, Augustine was able to present a comprehensive statement of Christian theology within the confines of a single sermon.

Our second example, Calvin’s “Sermon on the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” is a more focused message based on a specific text, Matthew 26:36-39. Calvin presented a masterful interpretation of this passage which records the Gethsemane experience of Christ. Calvin claimed that the Scripture intends to confront us with three truths in this event: first, God’s inestimable love toward us; second, our detestable sinfulness; and, third, that we should value the salvation won for us by Christ so dearly that we will forsake the world and find our true joy in the inheritance acquired for us at so great a price.

Calvin emphasized the voluntary character of Christ’s suffering and the empathy produced by His ordeal. “For if he had not felt in his person the fears, the doubts, and the torments which we endure, he would not be so inclined to be pitiful toward us as he is.”[18] Calvin also pointed out that Christ’s fears were not merely confined to the physical agony, but stemmed from His experience of the eternal death and damnation which He endured as our substitute. “For even if there be only a single sinner, what would the wrath of God be?”[19] Calvin was careful to affirm both the full deity and true humanity of Christ in this most vulnerable moment of His incarnate life.

What is the purpose of rehearsing this event in the life of Jesus Christ? Calvin made a threefold application in this sermon. First, the contemplation of the sufferings of Christ should reorient us more fully to the things of God. In the second place, Calvin preached this sermon as a preparation for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper which was to take place on the following Sunday in Geneva. Finally, the good news of Christ’s suffering and atonement should inspire us to encourage one another and reach out to the lost. “Let us not grow weary in the middle of the journey, but let us profit so much day by day, and let us take trouble to approach those who are out of the road, let this be all our joy, our life, our glory and contentment, and let us so help one another until God has fully gathered us to himself.”[20]

Our third example is a sermon on “The Perseverance of the Saints,” delivered by Charles H. Spurgeon on June 24, 1877. Spurgeon did not believe that a preacher should ever plan a series of sermons in advance. Instead, he felt that the Spirit would guide the preacher to the appropriate text for each occasion. His text for this sermon was Job 17:9: “The righteous also shall hold on his way.” Spurgeon declared: “I take our text as accurately setting forth the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints.”[21]

The sermon is divided into three parts: introduction, the proof of the doctrine, and its practical application. Since this particular doctrine had been hotly debated in the Calvinist-Arminian disputes, Spurgeon’s presentation had a slight polemical tone, although he stayed close to the scriptural arguments and never indulged personal slurs or partisan remarks. He set forth seven arguments on behalf of the doctrine: the nature of regeneration, Christ’s expressed teachings, the intercession of Jesus, the character and work of Christ, the covenant of grace, the faithfulness of God, and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Having marshaled his evidence in an impressive manner, Spurgeon turned to the impact of this doctrine for the life of faith. He found first that it is a great encouragement for those who are on the way to heaven. The divine assurance of a successful finish keeps the pilgrim on the road in the most trying of circumstances.

One might hardly undertake a difficult journey if he did not believe that he would finish it, but the sweet assurance that we shall reach our home makes us pluck up courage. The weather is wet, rainy, blusterous, but we must keep on, for the end is sure. The road is very rough, and runs up hill and down dale; we pant for breath, and our limbs are aching; but as we shall get to our journey’s end we push on. We are ready to creep into some cottage and lie down to die of wariness, saying, “I shall never accomplish my task” but the confidence which we have received sets us on our feet, and off we go again.[22]

In addition, Spurgeon declared, this doctrine is an enticement to sinners who are seeking salvation. “I am happy to preach to you a sure and everlasting salvation….Grasp at it, poor soul; thou mayest have it if thou dost but believe in Jesus Christ, or, in other words, trust thy soul with him.”[23]

Of the three examples cited here, Calvin’s sermon comes closest to fulfilling the requirements of the Puritan model. Augustine’s sermon is strong on doctrinal content but weak in its exegetical basis. Spurgeon’s sermon is thoroughly interlaced with Scriptural exposition but only related tangentially to his primary text. All three preachers took pains to apply doctrinal truth to the lives of their hearers. All three dealt with major concerns of the faith, not with obscure points of doctrine. Each preacher–Augustine, Calvin, and Spurgeon–spoke powerfully to his generation out of a core of conviction. Each desired to declare the whole counsel of God because each knew something decisive was at stake every time a minister of the divine Word stands to declare: “Thus saith the Lord.”

The rich treasury of doctrinal sermons in the history of the church can help us to recover an endangered genre of preaching in our own generation. If our sermons are to be more than “cozy chats on small matters,” we must apply ourselves to this challenge with all of the gravity and gladness of our souls.[24]