Preaching for Doctrinal Discernment

For nearly twenty years of ministry I have heard Mark Twain’s words ringing in my ear, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” This has become like proverbial wisdom in preaching books, courses, and conferences. There is a certain admirable pastoral concern behind this phrase. It ought to be our desire to teach in a manner that the average congregant understands what we are teaching. We should fastidiously avoid preaching “with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor 1:17).

Yet, I want to challenge the notion that our pursuit of clarity in preaching for the average hearer, absent rhetorical flourishes that emphasize our being well-learned, equates to emptying our teaching of doctrinal terminology and intellectual rigor. Rather, I want to argue that it is pastorally imperative that we encourage our hearers to think hard and well. We must teach them doctrinal and biblical terminology that is largely foreign to the average person’s vocabulary.

Biblical language matters. There are biblical terms people must learn to read their Bibles well. How is someone to read the New Testament Epistles apart from knowing terms like, “predestination, election, regeneration, imputation, justification, sanctification, glorification, propitiation, expiation, atonement, covenant, and dispensation?” Given that many Christians have an underdeveloped biblical vocabulary, is it any wonder that books like Romans and Hebrews are so intimidating to many Christians? Who will teach the sheep in your congregation to understand that biblical language if you fail in your duty? How will they be good readers of God’s word if they are not well-taught by their shepherds?

Doctrinal language matters. Doctrines like the Trinity, the hypostatic union, and penal substitution were forged in the battle of doctrinal controversy. Athanasius battled with the Arians over the Trinity. Augustine battled Pelagius regarding original sin. Chalcedon articulated a well-defined doctrine of the Person and natures of Christ. The Reformers fought to recover a biblical doctrine of justification. Luther replied long ago to the Antinomians. Three different French Reformed Synods rebuked the denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ taught by men like Piscator. The Dutch Reformed Church canonized a response to the deeply problematic soteriology of Arminius and the Remonstrants. Owen disabused the church of Baxter’s Neonomianism. We need to teach our people this history of heresies and the doctrinal language developed by the orthodox, if we hope to make some headway toward preventing a repeat of the same errors.

Do not underestimate the sheep. They can learn. They want to learn. As a pastor you need to put your hand to the plow in reading and study so that you can teach them helpfully and clearly. You need to teach them the terms, the history, and the biblical grounding for orthodox conclusions. Yes, you will have to define the vocabulary. You must patiently take your time teaching the sheep (2 Tim 4:1-5 cf. Eph 4:11-16). If Christ’s sheep is to discern truth from error, shepherds from wolves, good food from poison, then you must teach them.

Wolves always tenderize the sheep with biblical language. They prepare them for the meal with false piety and scripture twisting. These wolves that arise are not just outside the church; they arise from our own number. Therefore, we must be on the alert and teach and warn the sheep (Acts 20:28-31). How will they recognize the dark message proceeding from these “angels of light,” and avoid quickly deserting the gospel, if we leave them vulnerable (Gal 1:6-9)?

Brothers, we must exposit the text of Scripture. We must teach every word. It is imperative that we help the sheep see how the Scriptures come from one Author, how each text ties to the story, and how the Bible provides coherent doctrinal truth. We need to teach them how the church forged historic creeds and confessions in the heat of doctrinal controversy. To achieve this end we must study God’s word, know our church creeds and confessions, and do so with the conviction that from the time the serpent slithered into the Garden Satan’s emissaries have been committed to using God’s word to deceive God’s people.