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The Biggest Idea (part 2)

Doctrine is huge. Bigger than life, in the minds of many. Too much for feeble minds on Sunday morning, say others. Here's how to keep your feet on the ground when preaching about the things of God.

This is part two of a two-part article. In part one, Robinson differentiated doctrine from other ideas of the Bible, and shared some healthy ways to preach it.

What is the traditional definition of doctrinal preaching, and is that a good way for us to understand how we do this?

There are denominations in which, every Sunday, at least one sermon deals with doctrine, and the doctrine is usually derived from the creed of that church. So the pastor will take a doctrine and proclaim it. It doesn't necessarily mean that the pastor is going to go to the Bible to help his people understand it—it's sort of, "We believe our creed, not in so far as it's true to the Bible, but because we believe the creed is the expression of the Bible." I think you're better off coming to it that way than to ground it in the biblical text, so the doctrine doesn't sound like something a group of theologians came up with in a smoke-filled back room to serve their own purposes.

The world doesn't need good advice—it needs the power, authority, and wisdom of God.

Why does doctrine have a bad name among Christians, particularly today?

It has often been preached in very abstract ways. It's often preached as though the purpose of it all was just the propositions we put up on a blackboard. "I believe that Jesus is the theanthrophic person"—what in the world does that mean? And if the preacher stays at that level, the fellow in the pew gets glassy-eyed. You have got to do better than that in order to establish the need for knowing what is true.

Other times, when people have preached the doctrine of their faith group or denomination, it has been preached with the smell of gun smoke: We believe this, but other Christians don't believe this (or other people who profess to be Christians don't believe this). We're right; they're wrong. They preach doctrine in this way because they have emphasized what I would call minor doctrines and have ignored the major affirmations that we all have about God.

I hear you saying there are a couple of things we can do to redeem doctrinal preaching. One: We need to show relevance early in the sermon. Two: We need to show that doctrine is practical to life. Three: We need to make sure we tie this to a text. Is there anything else you would add?

It's helpful to have practical applications. I think of the writings of someone like C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. He tried to set out the basic doctrines of the Christian faith—mere Christianity, essential Christianity. He did this for listeners to the British Broadcasting Company. And his book is an effective example of how you take the great affirmations of the faith and teach them in such a way that listeners will get it. He is excellent at using analogies and raising the thoughtful questions that a listener might have.

There are always the questions after you're through: "So what? What difference does this make?" It's better to start there, because you are trying to convince the audience that this is not just something incidental but something crucial.

If our sermons are light on doctrine, what do they have?

They end up being nothing more than moralisms: We should, we must, we ought. Or, here are three ways in which we can be better off financially. A sermon I heard a while ago on how to deal with procrastination had as its first point to get a Day Timer. You knew you were in trouble when you heard that. I have no doubt that when people left that church, if they were procrastinators, they thought it was a helpful sermon. But it was simply something that a motivational speaker could have done.

If people are raised on cotton candy, they are not going to grow as Christians. When Paul writes to his young associate Timothy, he says that "all Scripture is inspired by God," and that all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for teaching, for putting the fundamental truths in front of people, and for "reproof, for correction, for instruction in right living." We have ignored that first affirmation—that the Bible is given to teach doctrine. It's not the only thing it does, but doctrine is first, and out of that there is reproof and then there is correction and then instruction in right living.

Kevin Vanhoozer has written a book called The Drama of Doctrine. What does that title say about how we can or should preach doctrine?

That's an interesting title; most people have never thought of the drama of doctrine. One reality we have to deal with is, all doctrines about God and the Bible are held in tension—and in that sense doctrine is drama, because drama deals with tension. God cannot exercise his holiness apart from his love. He can't exercise his grace apart from his omnipotence. Our Lord was full of grace and truth—that's an enormously difficult tension. I know people who are big on truth but can be very, very ungracious. There are other people who are big on grace and are willing to sacrifice truth so they can be gracious. But our Lord was full of grace and truth—there is a drama about God. There are some things we can affirm, but we can never speak completely about, because we can't put God into a box, we can't put him into a formula. But it does give us a glimpse of what it means to know God. These glimpses are not tired affirmations when we are talking about the living God.

We need to ask ourselves, do I really believe that God gave the Bible merely for some practical advice on how to have a happy marriage, how to get along with people, or how to be healthy and wealthy? Do I believe it's merely a textbook on good behavior, on how to be moral? If I believe that, then I am going to go searching the Bible for practical truth, and what I'm really looking for is just good advice. We don't need good advice; the world's got better advice than it knows how to live up to. It needs God; it needs the power of God, the authority of God, the wisdom of God. Christians need sound doctrine, and it's out of that that we can live well, both eternally and temporally.

Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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