My wife makes the best fudge brownies in the world. Fresh out of the oven, they fill the air with hunger-inducing aroma. Not waiting until they cool, you bite into the soft cake, and it nearly melts in your mouth, making you immediately want more.
My wife also makes the worst fudge brownies in the world. If any are left over for more than a few days, they become brittle to the touch and dry in the mouth. Unless you soak one in milk, it’s quite like eating chocolate sawdust.
Unfortunately for our church members, much of what passes for doctrinal preaching is more like the second batch of brownies. Most congregations have the same reaction: They’d rather pass. Why? Too often our doctrinal sermons tend to sound like Systematic Theology 101, a lecture rather than a message from God. Wouldn’t you like to hear a presentation of biblical truth that was like warm, moist brownies instead of cold, dry ones? Hopefully, you’ll soon be ready to cook some up yourself!
A RECIPE FOR DULLNESS
Typically, pastors preach doctrine topically, gathering all verses related to a doctrine and organizing them under headings and subheadings – causing information overload at best. Often lacking practical application or personal illustration, doctrinal preaching can be like spinach – you know it’s good for you, but you sure hate eating the stuff. The result is an aversion to doctrinal preaching. Pastors who are sensitive to the congregation’s feedback may decide to avoid preaching doctrine altogether, focusing instead on needs-based sermons with heartwarming illustrations. The resulting “doctrinal illiteracy among our church members will be devastating for church health,” notes Dr. Bill Northcott, church health specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Convention.1
Generations are emerging who don’t understand the basic beliefs of their faith. When confronted with door-to-door cultists who are well-trained in doctrinal gymnastics, many sincere Christians are quickly overwhelmed by arguments that sound biblical to the untrained ear. Other believers merely assimilate into postmodern culture and adopt the mantra of the age without realizing how contradictory their new positions are to the faith they profess.
Unbelievers, on the other hand, simply put all the doctrinal chaff into the same pile and ignore it as insignificant to their lives. Bill Hybels observed that, “Preaching can soften people to the truths that will affect them for all eternity. But if I don’t do it well, preaching can harden them and drive them away from God.”2
In an interesting dialogue, Erickson and Heflin list several reasons why preaching doctrine can be so difficult in a postmodern culture. In many points, they parallel Leonard Sweet’s outline from Postmodern Pilgrims in outlining several obstacles the pastor must overcome.
First, doctrinal preaching seldom uses visual stimulus. Many preachers rely on linear argumentation when the digital generation is tuned to images, metaphors, and narrative. Second, audiences long for interactivity, but doctrinal sermons seem like lectures filled with authoritarian, dogmatic intolerance. Third, communicating truth ought to draw people to God’s story, yet Erickson and Heflin sadly note that many doctrinal sermons sound more like a course in apologetics. As one writer put it: “People today want to feel God, not just figure Him out.” Finally, the doctrinal duo conclude that most audiences don’t believe that doctrine has much to do with their lives at work, in the home, or at school, and is, therefore, irrelevant at best and divisive at worst.3
RE-MIXING THE INGREDIENTS
Part of the problem is the negative connotation many have for the word doctrine. What we call doctrines are simply the truths of God’s Word. (Yes, my dear postmodern Virginia, there is a source of truth.) Erickson and Heflin point out that these truths are essential to our relationship with God. Far from being mere theological theory, they are practical influences on the lives of believers. Doctrinal beliefs impact our attitudes, values, beliefs, and actions.4
How can we preach the great truths of God’s Word so the sermons are warm, moist, and delicious rather than cold, dry, and tasteless? Allow me to present for your consideration a recipe for a style of preaching that your people will devour like fresh brownies.
Your basic ingredient is the Bible.
That’s always the best place to start in preaching. Focus on a particular text as directed by the Holy Spirit. If you preach regularly through books or large sections of the Bible, you will cover all aspects of doctrine over time. On the other hand, you may feel a need to preach a sermon, or sermon series, on specific biblical truths to deepen your people’s understanding and faith.
Preach the Word, not the doctrine. The doctrine emerges from the Word. If we preach the doctrine first, rather than allow the doctrine to emerge from the text, we tend to impose our theological systems upon the text. Truth systematized sometimes ceases to be truth.We must not take the simple direct meaning of a text and subjugate it to systems of human logic that we have built around a particular topic.
Don’t choose a text based on pet themes. Be careful at this point. Michael Quicke warns: “While providing solid thematic teaching, continuous doctrinal preaching can run the risk of becoming too cerebral. Preachers who use doctrinal triggers can also organize Scripture around preferred topics and miss the wider counsel of Scripture.”5 Quicke defines a trigger as “that which causes a sermon to be born, the reason for its conception and delivery. Just why did a preacher choose that particular text or theme rather than another.”6
Preach contextually. Preach the doctrine within the context of the passage. Avoid textual sermons based on a single verse or even a phrase. Doctrine is not gold to be extracted from the surrounding, worthless quartz. All Scripture is inspired and profitable. If you merely pull the doctrine from a passage and ignore the context, you will tend to distort the doctrine and abuse the Scripture. If God gave us the doctrinal truth within a larger context, then He must have meant us to understand that truth within the context.
Focus on analyzing the text, not the doctrine. Let the doctrine emerge naturally from the text. If you have to manipulate the natural interpretation of the text to meet a predisposition to a certain doctrine, you may not understand the doctrine accurately.
Dig deep. Wiersbe advises: “Surface preachers are satisfied with outlines, stories, academic explanations and surface applications; but depth preachers want to stir the heart, excite the imagination, and eventually capture the will.”7
Stay with the text at hand. Not every sermon has to incorporate every passage related to a doctrine. Resist the temptation to tell everything from every verse in the Bible about that doctrine. If you need to say more than the particular passage contains, preach a series of messages.
If the text is not completely clear, bring in corollary texts — as you would in any other sermon — to support and illustrate.Avoid using too many or you will be distracted and the people will be confused. For example, consider a sermon based on Acts 2:37-38: “What shall we do? … Repent and be baptized.” Because Scripture interprets Scripture, this sermon needs one or two corollary texts to amplify and clarify the doctrine, lest someone mistakenly believe that baptism alone saves.
Olford adds that we must be careful to “rightly divide the word of truth” by ensuring that our interpretation of the text is historically accurate, contextually accurate, grammatically accurate, and, therefore, doctrinally accurate. He writes: “Never leave a passage without asking: What is the theological message of this passage? What are the principles that transcend centuries, cultures, countries, and other barriers that may be derived from the passage?”8
Draw out a key idea, proposition and objective.
Harold Bryson and others point out the advantage to developing the Essence of the Text in a Sentence (ETS). Whether you call it the Big Idea (Robinson), the CIT (Central Idea of the Text, Vines), or the Take Home Truth (Sunukjian), the preacher must wrestle with the entire text until he can restate it in one crisp, concise sentence. Doing so forces the preacher to digest the passage for himself before he passes it on to his hearers.9
Make sure the proposition is based on the Scripture, not the doctrine. In this way, you ensure you remain true to the biblical passage, making the doctrine more biblically sound as well. The proposition relates to the timeless truth/principle found in the ETS/text. The doctrine should be parallel to that timeless truth. Propositional truth may not be popular among postmoderns, but their preferences should not prevent the pastor from proclaiming the truth of the text.
Every sermon needs a goal. The objective should reflect an action, not just a knowledge goal. Yes, people need to know the truth, but equally importantly, they need to live out the truth. A major objection to doctrinal preaching is that it doesn’t do anything. By having a specific action goal, the sermon will stay balanced with something to know and something to do about what you know.
Blend together a variety of styles and structures.
Doctrinal sermons tend to be didactic, deductive and dry — not that didactic and deductive sermons have to be dry! However, try different kinds of sermon styles and arrangements to add variety and spice to the mixture.
Inductive arrangements, such as Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, can bring listeners along the journey of discovery with the pastor. If you give people the same opportunity that God gave you in searching the text, they may come to the same conclusion without kicking and screaming along the way. Unlike Craddock and others who believe the pastor should preach as one without authority, you can use inductive arrangements and still lead people to propositional truth, make specific applications, and offer conclusions.
Narrative sermons can be wonderful vehicles to convey doctrinal truth. Couched in a story about the legal beagles at Galatia, the doctrine of grace can come alive. Walking the halls of heaven in John 1, you can paint a beautiful portrait of the pre-existent Christ — thus, teaching Christology without using the word. What pastor has not related the drama of Abraham bending his son over an altar, a sharp knife poised in his hand, as he teaches the doctrine of substitutionary atonement?
Preaching the great doctrines offers wonderful opportunities for evangelistic sermons. People don’t just need to know they can be saved by grace through faith; they need to be saved by grace through faith. The doctrine of sin, matched with the doctrine of grace in Romans 6:23, makes a motivational mixture for sinners to receive God’s free gift in Christ.
Yes, you can still use deductive, didactic structures; just don’t do so exclusively. Too, don’t be satisfied with a teaching objective. Incorporating an action objective can invigorate the outline with a clear purpose that moves the hearer along to a strong conclusion. By varying your style and structure, you keep your people interested and eager for the next installment — sort of like mom mixing vegetables in with a bit of applesauce to get nourishment into finicky babies.
Word your main points in full, presenttense sentences. Verbs move people to action. Points that use a word or two as if they were titles, even if alliterated, do not mean much to the average listener. For example, would you rather listen to a sermon from John 1 with these points:
I. The Pre-existent Christ
II. The Creator Christ
III. The Incarnate Christ
or with these points:
1. Before the world was formed, the Father and the Son walked the halls of heaven.
2.When God formed the world, He spoke it into being through the Word.
3.When the world was ready for its Savior, the Son of God became the Son of Man.
Many pastors want their people to be able to follow the sermon with a “fill in the blank” outline. Unfortunately their idea of visuals is limited to a text-only PowerPoint slide show. You can offer an outline during the sermon or have summaries of the sermon available after the service, but avoid turning the sermon into a doctrinal lecture.
Use pictures (even cartoons) with your PowerPoint outline to help people connect with the ideas. Images do not have to be pictures of the point, but should help the people understand abstract ideas. A picture of a father holding his newborn baby helps people relate to the point from John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son …” A background image of the Milky Way galaxy could be superimposed by the words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The doctrine: God is the Creator. A photo of the congregation itself could be used to illustrate the doctrine of the church, using the point, “The church is a specific group of believers” from a text such as Colossians 1:2.
You can even incorporate drama into a doctrinal sermon. Find a script based on a modern prodigal son to illustrate eternal security — “He may be a prodigal, but he’s still my son.” Several scenes from the drama could be woven into the sermon, much like you would use illustrations following each point.
Use metaphors and word pictures to help people understand the abstract. McDill points out that, “Concrete language brings ideas and principles down to earth for clarity and understanding. Concrete means those things which can be perceived by the senses as actual and particular. The opposite is abstract, which means conceptual, transcendent.” 10
Add a generous helping of practical application and people-oriented illustration.
Jay Adams was wrong in attacking expository preaching because it, in his view, lacked application. Bad expository preaching might do that, but good exposition is accompanied by relevant application.
Ask, "How does this doctrine affect my life?" If you can’t answer honestly, don’t preach the sermon. It is one thing to preach that the Holy Spirit has certain characteristics and functions. It is quite another to see how the Holy Spirit works in your own life. If you can understand the actual application of the doctrine for your life, you can explain to others how this truth affects them.
Bryan Chapell argued that all doctrine is applicable doctrine: “Paul expects Titus’ doctrine (Titus 2:2-5) to give the people of his congregation specific guidance for their everyday lives. Such instruction does not merely characterize this one passage; it reflects the patterns of Paul’s epistles. The apostle typically begins each letter with a greeting, moves to doctrinal instruction, and then applies the doctrine to a variety of circumstances. Paul refuses to leave biblical truth in the stratosphere of theological abstraction. He earths his message in the concerns of the people he addresses.”11
Populate the word. Don’t use a lot of personal illustrations, but put people into the passage. You can do this in two ways: First, take your personal example and universalize it. You don't have to say “me,” but you can see how this truth is universal in human experience and say “we.” Put the experience into an everyday situation that the average person can understand and say, “Yes, that’s me!”
Personalize the word. Often the problem is that we preach with lofty ideas unrelated to the average person. How many people will bless God as you expound on superlapsarianism? Chappell argues, “Biblical preaching moves from doctrinal exposition to life instruction. Such preaching exhorts as well as expounds because it recognizes that Scripture’s own goal is not merely to share information about God, but to conform his people to the likeness of Jesus Christ. Preaching without application may serve the mind, but preaching with application requires service to Christ.”12
Bake the mixture in your heart until you develop a conclusion that moves people to the objective.
Don’t just stop the sermon abruptly with a prayer. The conclusion aligns the primary doctrinal ideas with the objective for this sermon. Keep your eye on the goal of the sermon throughout its development. Why are you preaching this particular message? Do you want people simply to know, understand and accept this doctrine? Or, do you want people to live in accordance with the biblical (doctrinal) truth of the passage?
Vines and Shaddix understand the need to connect the biblical doctrine with daily life. They wrote, “As you expound the theological truths in your text, allow them to address subjects that portray God and mankind’s relation to Him. Talk about the meaning of the cares and sufferings that people know.”13
You can summarize the points of the sermon, tell a story that embodies the doctrinal truth, or restate the basic proposition. Whatever method you use should help the people connect emotionally, not merely intellectually, with the central idea of the text. Stuart Briscoe agrees that we not only preach to the mind, but also to the will and emotions.14 If you would move people’s will, you must convince them of the truth (intellectually) and also help them feel the need to apply this truth in their lives (emotionally).
When you transition to the invitation, be sure the invitation is faithful to the sermon as well as to the doctrine. For example, you can preach the doctrine of Christ’s Lordship in the context of the marriage relationship using texts such as Eph. 5:18-33 and Psa. 127:1. You want people to know that Christ is Lord and that His Lordship affects their homes. More than that, you want people to submit to the Lordship of Christ (doctrinal invitation) and to experience His Lordship to their relationships (sermonic invitation).
Knowing where you want the sermon to end up, you can now develop an introduction that relates to people’s daily lives. It should make them want to know what is coming and how it applies to their lives.
Serve piping hot and fresh.
Deliver the sermon with power, passion and conviction, which can only happen if you preach personally. Experience the sermon’s truths as you prepare the message and, again, as you preach. The height of hypocrisy is to preach a doctrinal message that is entirely cerebral. Yes, you need to be correct in the doctrine you believe, but correct belief is impotent if not actualized in your own life.
Perhaps many doctrinal sermons are dry and uninteresting because the preacher has an intellectual understanding of the truth, but has not fully connected belief with his own life. If I am merely passing on facts I have learned, I will not preach with experiential power, regardless of how firmly I believe the doctrinal truth.
What kind of relationship do you have with the triune God? Translate the transcendence, awe, love, gratitude, and security you have because God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Don’t you want your people to have that same kind of relationship with God? Let your heart be filled with love for your people and love for the Lord and it cannot but overflow with enthusiasm in the pulpit.
Speak simply, in terms appropriate for the people in your pews. Wiersbe reminds us that “Depth in preaching doesn’t mean obscurity, as though our aim is to confuse people or impress them. Depth in preaching means that we make the profound things simple, the simple things profound, and all things practical.”15
Take a deep breath. Do you smell a sweet aroma from the sermonic kitchen? It might be your next doctrinal sermon — warm, moist, ready to melt in the mouths of your hungry people.
1 Bill Northcott. "How Important is Doctrinal Preaching in a Healthy Church," The Baptist and Reflector. Dec. 13, 2006, 5.
2 Bill Hybels, Stuart Briscoe, Haddon Robinson. Mastering Contemporary Preaching. (Portland: Multnomah, 1989), 11.
3 Erickson and Heflin. Old Wine in New Wineskins. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997), 13-19.
5 Michael Quicke. 360 Degree Preaching. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 135.
6 Ibid. 133.
7 Warren Wiersbe. The Dynamics of Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 88.
8 Stephen Olford and David Olford. Anointed Expository Preaching.Nashville: Broadman, 1998) 72-74.
9 Harold Bryson, Expository Preaching. Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching. Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix, Power in the Pulpit.
10 Wayne McDill, The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching (Nashville: Broadman, 1994), 229ff.
11 Bryan Chapell, Christ-centered Preaching. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 45. The term "earthed" is referenced from John R. Stott, Between Two Worlds, 140.
12 Bryan Chappell, Christ-centered Preaching. 45.
13 Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix, Power in the Pulpit (Chicag Moody, 1999), 238.
14 Stuart Briscoe, op cite, 68ff.
15 Wiersbe, 88.