Founders Journal

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Founders Journal 65 · Summer 2006 · pp. 24-30

Doctrinal Preaching: The Central Task of the Christian Minister

Tom J. Nettles

Before reading this article, review these texts: 1 Corinthians 2:6–13; 2 Corinthians 5:11–21; Ephesians 2:20–3:13; 4:7–16; Luke 24:25–27; 2 Timothy 1:8–15; 3:10–4:5.

Preaching that is not doctrinal is not preaching. The task of the Christian minister in his public proclamation amounts to this: the dissemination of a truth of divine revelation in such a way that each hearer will grasp the truth in content and be aware of how it should shape his thinking and conduct thus giving visibility to an incipient or increased love for God, love for fellow Christians, and love for neighbor.

Doctrinal preaching might, and often should, involve one of the great central themes that are reflected in the historic ecumenical and evangelical protestant confessions of faith. An excellent example of this comes to us in John Flavel’s fifth sermon from The Fountain of Life. Each of the forty-two sermons, after a brief exposition of the text, deduces a doctrine that serves as the controlling idea for the sermon. Taking as his text John 1:14 in sermon five (“And the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”), Flavel set forth the doctrine: “That Jesus Christ did really assume the true and perfect nature of man, into a personal union with his divine nature, and still remains true God, and true man, in one person for ever.”[1]

An example of a doctrine, not expressed within the body of classical confessional theology, but nonetheless a truth of divine revelation and vitally related to the whole of redemptive revelation comes from Edward Veal’s treatment of the confession from the converted thief, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42). After discussing the stark difference between the two thieves and giving special attention to the power and freeness of the divine grace that came to the penitent, Veal inferred the doctrinal proposition: “That though a very late, even a death-bed, repentance may be sincere, yet it is not safe to run the hazard of it.”[2]

This article has the purpose of expressing several assumptions and convictional principles that necessarily produce doctrinal preaching.

Guiding Assumptions for Doctrinal Preaching

Doctrinal Preaching assumes that an objective divine revelation initiates Christian experience and is the perpetual arbiter of personal and corporate experience. Christian truth is revealed truth, it is big truth, pervasive and overwhelming in its scope. Unfolded in an inspired narrative, the resultant writing concerns God’s redemptive operations toward a fallen creation in a way that preserves His holiness, reveals His attributes, and embraces sinners into an eternal love relationship intrinsic to the life of the triune God. In its whole, it constitutes one doctrine, and in its parts it contains many interrelated doctrines. The preacher must communicate both the whole and its parts in a way faithful to the inspired narrative. This task is doctrinal preaching.

While Paul pushed aside human wisdom and philosophy, considering it as pure rubbish compared to the glory of divine revelation, he nevertheless expressed pleasure in the wisdom and fullness of truth that he preached. The phrase “Christ and Him crucified” as a summary of his evangelism overflows with doctrinal implications. Who is Christ? Why was He both God and Man? Why is the unity of His person important? Is there significance in the fact that He died by execution under Roman law, under the instigation of Jewish religious leaders? What happened in His death beyond the merely physical? What must I believe about this death, and its implications about me, in order to derive its intended benefit? More questions are suggested by the pregnant summary of Paul’s preaching, but the answer to each of these is doctrinal. Their doctrinal status does not render them less relevant to human experience; instead, these doctrines regulate and determine the genuineness of it.

The initiation of Christian experience through such a message means that the continued revolution of the redeemed human is a matter of doctrine also. Paul said that he spoke a wisdom among those who are mature (1 Corinthians 2:6). The words he spoke were taught by the divine Spirit designed to impart knowledge of “the things freely given to us from God” (1 Corinthians 2:12). This involved how Christ is made unto us wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification and redemption.” Understanding these issues gives elevation and expansive power to the working of sanctifying grace. Paul’s message, implanted experientially by the Holy Spirit, allowed each Christian to “appraise all things.” Their complete renovation into Christlikeness depended on the continued doctrinal instruction through those that were faithful “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1).


Doctrinal Preaching always has the whole Bible for its text. No text can be taken in isolation from the whole message of Scripture. Everything included in the biblical text by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration plays some part in filling out the complete picture. Some parts of Scripture loom so large that they almost appear complete in themselves. Christians often hear speakers point to John 3:16 as a text that could stand alone in its fullness and power and salvific efficacy. I personally doubt that. We may slip carelessly into such assumptions without realizing how much we naturally import into such a text from our knowledge of the whole. Who is God? Who is His Son? What evidence exists that the Person Christians say is the Son of God, is actually the Son of God? Why is such a gift indicative of the sort of love God has for the world? What does it mean to perish and why is that a possibility for anyone? What constitutes belief? Does it naturally and necessarily imply “free will?” Does it come as a result of human volition from the perishing sinner’s natural state or does belief involve something effectually supernatural in its origin? What is everlasting life? Are we of such a nature that eternity should be a concern for us? Coherent and credible answers to these questions emerge only in the fullness of the biblical revelation. The big passages that seem to be self-contained in their biblical content gain their power over our souls only because they condense and use short-hand language for concepts that developed through many years and exude clarity within the framework of a multitude of texts, each text adding to the richness that dwells in the mature summary.

By the same token, apparently insignificant texts gain power beyond their immediate words and context in light of the teaching of the whole. “Their foot shall slide in due time” (Deuteronomy 32:35) served as the text for Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. His exposition of the text itself and its historical context set the stage for a powerful sermon giving faithful exposition to the central idea of that text within the redemptive-historical flow of biblical theology.


Doctrinal Preaching recognizes the specific meaning of individual texts. Setting a text within it larger biblical framework must not make one ignore the specific meaning of the text itself. Its own particular grammar, its peculiar genre and the intent of the language in the flow of its immediate context must be foundational to the larger doctrinal inferences one draws from the text.

Francis Wayland gives good advice concerning the importance of this kind of careful engagement with texts as unique in their biblical function. After dismissing several types of erroneous uses of biblical texts, Wayland says, “We profess to believe that the revelation of God is pure truth from heaven; that the teaching found in that revelation is dictated by the Spirit of God, and contains within it the mind of the Spirit.” We are bound, therefore, to ascertain the mind of the Spirit “in that particular text; and having found this, to explain and enforce it upon our hearers.” As ambassadors of Christ we can do nothing less. In this way doctrine will be seen, not as the contrived imposition of human systems, but as the pure manifestation of divine truth. The minister will gain a profound, accurate, increasingly extensive and pastorally useful knowledge of the Word of God. In addition, the variety of uses and applications of biblical doctrine will be seen, in a most salutary way, as virtually endless. Wayland notes:

If we ascertain the precise meaning of the Spirit, and make this the theme of our discourse, we shall attain to endless variety. We can scarcely find two texts of Scripture which, if attentively considered, give us exactly the same idea. Sometimes a truth is presented under one aspect, and sometimes under another. In our different places, the same duty is enforced by different considerations. By observing these different phases of the same truth, we shall be able to present it continually in different aspects, and thus avoid the necessity of ever repeating ourselves. If on the other hand, we pay no attention to the variety of circumstances with which the Spirit of God has associated it, we shall fall into abstract views of truth, and say all we have to say on a particular doctrine in one sermon.[3]

While the necessity and strength of this assumption appear self-evident and guard one from fanciful or dismissive exegesis, a warning must also be given. Concentration on the uniqueness of each text must not make us “hyper-textual” so that we miss its meaning by failing to integrate it with the whole message. Uniqueness must not drive us to diminish the internal doctrinal coherence of Scripture. This leads to our next point.


Doctrinal Preaching takes seriously the historic Christian witness to distinctive Christian truth expressed in the confessions. Confessions are not inspired, but they offer several advantages to the biblically-oriented doctrinal preacher. They stand as a witness to the coherence that historic Christianity has seen in Scripture. One can organize from a large number of literary styles in Scripture a full-orbed biblical presentation on creation, sin, providence, holiness, justification, economics, sexuality and a continually expanding number of topics. These topics thus organized as discreet discussions can help in the interpretation of difficult passages. For biblical interpretation, confessions provide the most prominent body of exegetical options on major biblical teachings.

Another helpful aspect of confessional awareness in doctrinal preaching is the development of fullness in instruction. One should regularly read through historic confessional statements and ask, “Has my preaching over the past year given attention to the full range of biblical doctrine?” Even a perusal of the Abstract of Principles, the confession that governs the teaching of both Southern and Southeastern Baptist Seminaries, would discipline a person in the balance of the topics he must be sure regularly to inculcate from the pulpit. Twenty topics, each of which suggest several others, include the Scriptures, God, the Trinity, Providence, Election, the Fall of Man, the Mediator, Regeneration, Repentance, Faith, Justification, Sanctification, Perseverance of the Saints, the Church, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Day, Liberty of Conscience, the Resurrection and the Judgment. The Second London Confession contains thirty-two articles, each with several highly suggestive paragraphs. A year’s time should see at least some teaching done from the pulpit on each of these important ideas given us by divine revelation in the merciful redemptive purpose of God.


Doctrinal Preaching is always Christological. The flow of history as revealed to us in Scripture is inextricably the working out of redemptive history. All of this is summed up in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). God judges all nations, He has committed all judgment to the Son, and this judgment arises from the implications involved in the incarnation of the Son of God as Son of Man for the saving of a people (John 5:19–30). The Christian minister can speak of no issue in culture without seeing it in terms of Christ’s Lordship and His redemptive manifestation of divine righteousness.

Not only should history and contemporary culture be seen through Christological eyes, but the whole Bible should be seen this way. The Father and the Spirit want us to be driven to Christ as we read and consider every part of the Bible. The Father was pleased to have all fullness dwell in Him and the Spirit does all of His work to glorify Christ. Christ saw all the Scriptures of the Old Testament as pointing to Him, specifically the entering into glory as a result of His redemptive suffering, and He taught His disciples to see it in this way (Luke 24:25–27). His Spirit still teaches those that obtain the new birth this principle of biblical interpretation (2 Corinthians 3:14–18).

Among many others who give beautiful expression to this truth, John Flavel’s first sermon in The Fountain of Life established the principle in a comprehensive and undeniable way. Knowledge of Christ is “the very marrow and kernel of all the scriptures; the scope and centre [sic] of all divine revelations; both Testaments meet in Christ.” Also, knowledge of Christ is “fundamental” to all graces, duties, comforts, and happiness. Ministers in particular, who have a calling vitally connected to Christ, must “present him in all his attractive excellencies, that all hearts may be ravished with his beauty, and charmed into his arms by love.”[4]


Doctrinal preaching always puts the temporal in subjection to the eternal. Many times ministers of the gospel are tempted by their own immediate observations and even encouraged by formal prescription to gain a hearing by entering the conscience of their audience through a door of temporal interest. Such an approach determines that only by the greatest difficulty, if ever, can one rise above the self-interest inflamed by the preacher’s starting point. From the beginning a preacher dooms his sermon to the status of remedial psychology and Jesus to the status of a guarantor of present security and happiness.

The entire story line of Scripture presents the problem of sin and resultant eternal condemnation as the ever-present burden of fallen man. Nothing can transcend the horror of the condemning wrath that from the moment of conception hangs over the head of every son of Adam. No economic strain, no domestic difficulty, no battle with depression, no awkwardness in coping with co-workers, all issues that plague the day by day lives of all people, matches the wrath of the great abyss into which the ungodly will be cast.

The remedy for our problem as the Bible reveals it is nothing less than the sacrificial death of God’s own eternal Son. Such a solution for any problem less than that of cursedness would be grossly disproportionate to the crime and unworthy of a God of justice. But since the problem is eternal in dimension the solution must be commensurate, infinite and eternal in excellence and moral status. The approach of the preacher must be to lay out this eternal dimension of the divine/human interaction as foremost in his ministry of proclamation. The paradigm of felt needs can never replace the biblically revealed construct of Law/Gospel. In light of trespasses and reconciliation Paul summarizes his task as the “ministry of reconciliation,” his message as “the word of reconciliation,” and his only admonition as “Be ye reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:18–20). His hearers must know that they are to labor, not for the bread that perishes, but for that that endures to eternal life. Christians are to receive the doctrine that all troubles of this life are but light and momentary affliction when put in view of the eternal weight of glory that shall be ours. We should not place our concern on things seen; they are temporal. We look at the things not seen for they are eternal.

Conclusion

Richard Furman, revered South Carolina Baptist, denominational statesman, promoter of education, incomparable pastor, and consummate preacher set forth the ministers task in preaching—and preaching to him meant the exposition of doctrine—as the preeminent task of the gospel minister. He described it in a sermon on the Constitution and Order of the Christian Church. His words serve as an apt conclusion to the dominant concern of this article.

In preaching, they are to be instant in improving all suitable opportunities, as well those which may be out of the ordinary. … ever actuated with a holy fervor, as speaking in the cause of God, and to immortal creatures, on the subject of their everlasting interests: that they may pluck the sinner, as a “brand out of the burning;”… So that it may be done… as his great work, in which he must, as it were, send forth all his soul. … Here again, he must distinguish between the law and gospel; and between the characters of men, as saints or sinners; must point out the ruined and guilty state of all, by nature, under the curse of a broken law; sound as it were, Mount Sinai’s thunder in the sinners ear; present the flaming mountain to his eye; and thus produce the awful evidence, to that momentous truth, “that by the deeds of the law, shall not flesh living be justified.” To the humbled sinner, and believing soul, he must describe Jesus, as “the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world;” As the only, the almighty, and the willing savior. He must describe him, in his person, his offices, his works of love and grace, his bleeding passion, and his triumphant state. He must open, as it were, Immanuel’s heart, in the description of divine compassion, and publish the gracious invitations of the gospel, to perishing and heavy-laden souls; must shew the abundant grace contained in the promises, and the foundation on which faith may rest, in the faithfulness, infinite goodness, sovereign mercy, and unchangeable purpose of the promiser. To him belongs the important work of drawing aside the veil of time, and opening the awful scenes of eternity, on his hearers’ minds; of describing the joys of paradise; and the terrors of the infernal world. To present man with the humbling scenes of his mortality; and erect the throne of decisive judgments in his mental view.[5]


Notes:

1 John Flavel, The Works of John Flavel, 6 vols. (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982 [second reprint]), 1:74.

2 Edward Veal “What is the Danger of a Death-bed Repentance?” in Puritan Sermons 1659-1689 being the Morning Exercises at Crilpplegate, etc. 6 vols. (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, 1981), 4:347.

3 Francis Wayland, The Principles and Practices of Baptist Churches in “The Bunyan Library” vol. 1, ed. John Howard Hinton (London: J. Heaton & Son, 1861), 239–45.

4 Flavel, 1:34–40.

5 Richard Furman, The Constitution and Order of the Christian Church (Charleston: Markland & McIver, 1791), 26, 27.

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