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The Priority of Doctrinal Preaching

Ernest Reisinger

The volumes that have been written in order to show and teach ministers how to preach are enough to make a small library--we all have plenty of books on the subject. In this little article I only purpose to touch one branch of the subject, and that is Direct Doctrinal Preaching.

Doctrinal preaching is the foundation of all true Christian experience. Without a sound doctrinal foundation Christian experience is like cut flowers stuck in the ground--they soon wither and die. Doctrinal truth is not only the foundation but also the superstructure of all true biblical preaching.

Christian doctrines are nothing less than the truths of Christianity. The Bible emphasizes that "all Scripture is profitable for doctrine."

Generally, the objection to preaching doctrine has reference to those doctrines which the objector dislikes.

All Christian affections and purposes are inspired by a view of Christian truth (doctrine). There are no Christian truths (doctrines) which, if presented in their due proportions and surroundings, do not tend to nourish some holy affections. There can be no doubt, therefore, that it is a fundamental part of true biblical preaching. It is the preacher's duty to make these truths clearly understood as the very condition of true faith, holy living and whatever is involved in right practice.

Doctrinal preaching is sometimes stigmatized as dull, dead and unprofitable. It is referred to as the offering of dry bones to souls craving pure milk and meat of the word. We do not deny that there may be some doctrinal preaching that deserves this charge, however, it is not the doctrinal content, but rather the unthoughtful manner in which it is handled by the preachers. Doctrinal preaching should not be cold theological lectures or dogmatic polemic arguments. Doctrine should always be clearly defined and established and developed in its practical and experimental context. Therefore, all Christian practice must be based on correct doctrines and rooted in Christian principles in order to be that kind which accompanies salvation. A preacher who attempts to edify the church without doctrinal instruction is like a builder attempting to build a house without a good foundation.

Some may call the doctrines dry bones. We must ask what kind of a body would that be which has flesh and blood but has no bones? Of course, if the preacher presents doctrine in skeleton nakedness, apart from a vital relationship to life and experience, it is the fault of the preacher and not the fault of true doctrinal preaching.

Sound doctrinal preaching must always be practical and experimental, applied to the necessity and capacities of the hearers. In fact, the two should never be separated any more than flesh and bones should be separated. If they are separated there is death for sure.

They should always blend together in order to compliment and establish each other, and be pervaded by the unction of the Holy One.

The doctrinal preacher need not be concerned that good people will not attend to his sermons. I have generally found that good people will attend if the preacher gives them something to attend to.

Jesus was a Doctrinal Preacher

In Mark 1 we learn some important lessons from the Preacher of preachers--the wise Master Preacher Himself.

First, we learn that He prayed before He preached (Mk. 1:13). He was forty days and nights in the wilderness before he began to preach. He prayed before He came to Galilee preaching (Mk. 1:14). Note in Mk. 1:35, "Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed." Immediately after He prayed He said to His followers (v. 38) "Let us go...that I may preach...because for this purpose I have come...." He stated very clearly His purpose: "I have come to preach."

In this chapter we can learn some other important lessons from the Master Preacher. In 1:22, 27 we learn that He preached with authority. In 1:41 we learn that he preached with compassion. But what I wish to emphasize is that He was a doctrinal preacher. Mk 1:22, "And they were astonished at His doctrine...." Mk. 1:27, "What new doctrine is this?" This question tells us plainly that Jesus was a doctrinal preacher.

When Jesus gave the church their marching orders preaching was the priority--"Go ye into all the world and preach" (Mk. 16:15). In Mk. 16:20 we see that they understood His orders--"And they went forth and preached everywhere"--the priority of preaching.

Doctrinal Preaching Must Be Direct

Bishop J.C. Ryle has some very good advice for all preachers on direct preaching. Bishop Ryle was First Bishop of Liverpool and was instrumental in founding twenty-five churches. Doctrine, experience, and practice based upon and shaped by the pure word of God were to him the essentials of the on-going life of the church.

In the book, The Upper Room, published by Banner of Truth, there is a chapter called "Simplicity in Preaching." In this chapter Ryle gives five hints for attaining simplicity in preaching (I wish all preachers would study it); the fourth hint will help us in discussing direct preaching. A quote from his sermon:

The fourth hint is this: If you wish to preach simply, use a direct style. What do I mean by this? I mean the practice and custom of saying "I" and "you." When a man takes up this style of preaching, he is often told that he is conceited and egotistical. The result is that many preachers are never direct, and always think it very humble and modest and becoming to say "we." But remember good Bishop Villiers saying that "we" was a word kings and corporations should use, and they alone, but that parish clergymen should always talk of "I" and "you." I endorse that saying with all my heart. I declare I never can understand what the famous pulpit "we" means. Does the preacher who all through his sermon keeps saying "we" mean himself and the bishop? or himself and the Church? or himself and the congregation? or himself and the Early Fathers? or himself and the Reformers? or himself and all the wise men in the world? or, after all, does he only mean myself, plain "John Smith" or "Thomas Jones"? If he only means himself, what earthly reason can he give for using the plural number, and not saying simply and plainly "I"? When he visits his parishioners, or sits by a sick-bed, or catechises his school, or orders bread at the baker's, or meat at the butcher's, he does not say "we," but "I." Why, then, I should like to know, can he not say "I" in the pulpit? What right has he, as a modest man, to speak for any one but himself? Why not stand up on Sunday and say, "Reading in the Word of God, I have found a text containing such things as these, and I come to set them before you"?

Many people, I am sure, do not understand what the preacher's "we" means. The expression leaves them in a kind of fog. If you say, "I, your rector; I, your vicar; I, the curate of the parish," come here to talk of something that concerns your soul, something you should believe, something you should do--you are at any rate understood. But if you begin to talk in the vague plural number of what "we" ought to do, many of your hearers do not know what you are driving at, and whether you are speaking to yourself or them. I charge and entreat my younger brethren in the ministry not to forget this point. Do try to be as direct as possible. Never mind what people say of you. In this particular do not imitate Chalmers, or Melville, or certain other living pulpit celebrities. Never say "we" when you mean "I." The more you get into the habit of talking plainly to the people, in the first person singular, as old Bishop Latimer did, the simpler will your sermon be, and the more easily understood.

George Whitefield, the greatest evangelist that ever set foot on American soil, had some distinctives that will help us. One author said of Whitefield's preaching:
  • He preached a singular, pure gospel--much wheat and little chaff.
  • It was preeminently a manifestation of truth. Sin--sins--your heart--Jesus Christ--the Holy Ghost--absolute need of repentance, faith, and holiness.
  • His preaching was singularly lucid and simple.
  • He was a bold and direct preacher, not that abstract expression "we." "I have come to speak to you about your souls." There was a constant vein of application all the way through the sermon, not a tail piece stuck on at the end. This is for YOU--YOU--YOU.
  • He was descriptive. He turned men's ears into eyes.
  • Earnestness marked all his preaching.
  • He preached with pathos and feeling.
  • The glory of Whitefield's sermons was in their directness.
William Perkins, one of the great puritan fathers, in a Treatise, The Art of Prophesying (preaching) had a chapter entitled "How To Use And Apply Doctrine".

The ways of application are chiefly seven, according to the different conditions of the people, which is seven-fold:

  1. UNBELIEVERS, who are both ignorant and unteachable.

  2. SOME ARE TEACHABLE--BUT YET IGNORANT.
    To these men the Catechism must be delivered. Acts 18:25, Apollos was catechised...in the way of the Lord. Perkins was very strong on this point. He said, "The catechism is the doctrine of the foundation of Christian religion, briefly propounded for the help of the understanding and memory, in questions and answers made by lively voice."

    The matter therefore, of the catechism, is the foundation of religion.

  3. SOME HAVE KNOWLEDGE--BUT ARE NOT YET HUMBLED.
    In such the foundation of repentance ought to be stirred up, that is to say, a certain sorrow which is according to God. Sorrow according to God, is a grief for sin simply because it is sin. Under this point Perkins tells how to use the Law to stir up the heart.

  4. SOME ARE HUMBLED.
    "Here we must very diligently consider whether their humiliation be complete and sound, or but begun, and but light, or slight; lest that he or they, receive comfort sooner than is meet, should afterwards wax more hard, like iron, which being cast into the furnace, becomes exceedingly hard, after it is once cold."

    In reading Jeremiah, chapter 6:13, 14, I noted again one of the marks of the false prophets is just this point, "Even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely, they have healed also the hurt of the daughters of my people slightly, saying peace, peace, when there is no peace."

  5. SOME DO BELIEVE.
    He points out how these must be built up (expository preaching).

  6. SOME ARE FALLEN.
    Falling is either in faith or manners.

  7. THERE IS A MINGLED PEOPLE.
    If the preacher is aware of these different kinds of hearers he will be balanced in doctrinal preaching.

Let me close with a question from the Larger Catechism:

Question--How is the word of God to be preached by those that are called thereunto?

Answer--They that are called to labor in the ministry of the word, are to preach sound doctrine, diligently, in season and out of season; plainly, not in the enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power; faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God: wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers; zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at His glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation.

Note carefully the six areas emphasized in this answer:

  1. Diligently--The Scripture, in speaking of Apollos, who was an eloquent speaker says, Acts 18:25 (KJV) "This man was instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord, ...."

  2. Plainly--1 Cor. 2:4--see the pattern of a faithful minister, "And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power."

  3. Faithfully--making known the whole counsel of God (expository).

    Jer. 23:28, "He that hath my Word, let him speak faithfully."

    1 Cor. 4:1,2 "Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful."

  4. Wisely--Col. 1:28, "When we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom."

  5. Zealously--with fervent love to God, and the souls of His people.

    2 Cor. 4:14, "For the love of Christ constraineth...." This is heavenly fire.

  6. Sincerely--2 Cor. 2:17, "For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ."

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