Doctrinal preaching is all about handling biblical truth as the “true and living Word” that it is, with the sermon functioning as a privileged partner with doctrine in what can be described as a joyous doxological dance to the glory of God.

“Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:6). These are the words of Jesus. Used in the context of preaching, they reflect a critical linkage between didache (teaching) and kerygma (proclamation). Doctrinal preaching is both content centered (teaching to instruct the mind) and intent centered (preaching to move the heart). Doctrine and joy interpenetrate and are intertwined.

The attitude of the doctrinal preacher must be, “Hallelujah! What a privilege it is to preach about a great God.” The truths of Bible doctrine are appropriated, and the preacher serves as a personal witness of those truths because the text of Scripture not only works on the preacher but works in the preacher as well.

The apostle Paul, in 2 Timothy 2:15, admonishes the minister to rightly divide the word of truth. The writer of Hebrews 4:12 speaks of the Word of God as a “two-edged sword” that divides. Ministers who dare to preach doctrinally must always remember that they not only participate in rightly dividing or “cutting straight” the Word of truth before their congregations but that they are also divided by that same Word. Ministers can be guilty of spending much of their time preparing messages that will impact others but not enough time allowing the text of Scripture to impact themselves.

Preachers cannot effectively, with the gospel, address people by an intellectual engagement alone. This is exactly what biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad has asserted:

No understanding at all is possible without some form of inward appropriation. It would be an illusion to think that we could deal with the transmitted intellectual content as a foundry worker handles molten ore with long-handled ladles-and thus keep them at a distance from ourselves. Moreover, no understanding is possible unless what is to be interpreted is applied to ourselves, unless it touches us existentially.[i]

The preacher who handles the Word must first be touched by that same Word. Doctrinal preaching has an impact within both the cognitive and the emotive sectors. Preaching that leaves the cognitive untouched produces hearers who may leave the sanctuary feeling better but without having been helped by the deep doctrinal truths of the Scriptures. Classical rhetoricians attempted to be holistic in the speech act: enlighten the mind, touch the heart, and move the will. Preaching that avoids head engagement will lead to blindness, and preaching that ignores heart engagement-the emotive realm of the believer’s existence-does so at the cost of boredom and dullness, which prevents the result of an engaged hearing for a transformed life.

Believers who receive solid doctrinal messages find help to persevere during times of crisis. This is exactly what took place during the period of nazification under Adolph Hitler. The Confessing Church endured persecution and threats under the Nazi regime because their pastors refused to compromise the doctrinal verities of the Bible and proclaimed the Word of God substantively. Pastors like Theophilus Würm, Martin Neimöller, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer refused to replace the cross with the swastika and Christ with the Führer. Their nonnegotiable creed was, “Jesus is Lord.”

Preaching that is not joyous comes across as sterile and is often not received. Dorothy Sayers challenged the thought of many naysayers of her time who claimed that doctrinal preaching led to boredom and a lack of interest. She wrote:

Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine-“dull dogma,” as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that staggered the imagination of man-and the dogma is the drama.[ii]

The naysayers were aware, however, that while some actors can read a script based on fiction in such a moving and convincing manner that it becomes real in the minds of the audience, some preachers voice their message in such unconvincing and unpersuasive ways that it comes across as fiction in the minds of the worshippers.

After Peter preached the pentecostal sermon and approximately three thousand people were added to the church, the church continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine (Acts 2:42). Let the rocks cry out as an indictment upon us if we fail to pick up the mantle of doctrine!

Does theology exist in order to make preaching as hard as it needs to be? Can the same be asked about doctrine? Doctrine frames and monitors the church’s proclamation of the gospel. It also serves as a reservoir from which preaching draws its resources. Doctrinal preaching not only serves as corrective surgery on a congregation; it also offers an element of disease prevention. It is more than attaching a Band-Aid to a wound; it is also a prophylaxis to prevent the affliction. Doctrinal preaching is trifocal in nature.

Apologetically, it affirms what is orthodox, or correct, teaching; it contends for “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Apologetics argues for what the church has believed on the basis of God’s Word. Polemically, doctrinal preaching stands against false teaching; it sets the church in order when heresies have infected her life. Catechetically, doctrinal preaching nourishes the congregation and thus edifies the body of Christ; the sheep are fed.

From Doctrine to Doxology

Doctrinal preaching serves not only to usher people into the presence of God to learn about Him but also to worship the God who is the object of study. Jesus said to the woman of Samaria, “You worship what you do not know” (John 4:22). The doctrinal preacher must prevent the church member from engaging in unintelligible worship. The 19th-century Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard critiqued the liturgical model of his national church and many other churches. He argued that God is the audience. C. Welton Gaddy explains:

Concerned about attitudes toward worship and practices in worship in the churches of his time, Søren Kierkegaard, a 19th-century Danish philosopher/theologian, compared what was taking place in the theater and what was happening in Christian worship. In a theater, actors, prompted by people offstage, perform for their audiences. To his dismay, Kierkegaard found that this theatrical model dominated the worship practices of many churches. A minister was viewed as the on-stage actor, God as the offstage prompter, and the congregation as the audience. Unfortunately, that understanding of worship remains as prevalent as it is wrong.
Each ingredient of the theatrical model mentioned by Kierkegaard is an essential component in Christian worship. Crucial, though, is a proper identification of the role of each one. In authentic worship, the actor is, in fact, many actors and actresses-the members of the congregation. The prompter is the minister, if singular, or, if plural, all of the people who lead in worship (choir members, instrumentalists, soloists, readers, prayers, preachers). The audience is God. Always, without exception, the audience is God!
If God is not the audience in any given service, Christian worship does not take place. If worship does occur and God is not the audience, all present participate in the sin of idolatry.[iii]

Preaching is an act of worship. Preaching that simply investigates a body of truth without leading people to worship the God who is truth personified in the person of Jesus misses the ark.

Doctrinal preaching desires to bring people into the presence of God, singing:

Then sings my soul, my Savior, God to Thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou art![iv]

Doctrine without worship is empty. Worship without doctrine leads to ignorance.

What then shall we say to this matter of doctrinal preaching? What if people remain disinclined about hearing it? What about the reports of killing a church if a consistent diet of doctrine is served from the pulpit? These are some of the questions that R.W. Dale of Birmingham, England, had to consider when he was interrogated by a minister many years ago. Dale had insisted on preaching doctrinal sermons to his congregation of the Carr’s Lane Church. His son, A.W.W. Dale, recorded this pertinent incident:

One day, soon after he was settled in the pastorate, he met in the streets of Birmingham a congregational minister-a Welshman and a preacher of remarkable power. “He had reached middle age, and I was still a young man, and he talked to me in a friendly way about my ministry. He called: ‘I hear that you are preaching doctrinal sermons to the congregation at Carr’s Lane; they will not stand it.’ I answered: ‘They will have to stand it.’”[v]

Ministers who are called by God must preach doctrine even when it is unpopular. Doctrine must be preached because ministers are under divine compulsion and have been given a divine mandate to preach the Word. Paul reminds us that we can be confident in the Word, for “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine” (2 Timothy 3:16). The church of Jesus Christ is often concerned about fanaticism; the greater concern should be about infanticide. Christians are experiencing spiritual immaturity and spiritual death. One of the reasons for this is that worshippers are being served sermonic snacks instead of the doctrinal meat of the Word of God. If doctrine is presented with joy and accuracy, the hearers will not only stand it, they will crave more of it.

In 2005 I discovered a statement made by Dorothy L. Sayers that confirmed the idea of “doctrine that dances.” In a low moment of her life, Sayers’ reading of G.K. Chesterton reinforced her faith. In the preface of Chesterton’s autobiography, The Surprise, Sayers composes the words of the preface and pictures Chesterton as a Christian liberator who “like a beneficent bomb . . . blew out of the Church a quantity of stained glass of a very poor period, and let in gusts of fresh air, in which the dead leaves of doctrine danced with all the energy and indecorum of Our Lady’s Tumbler” (emphasis added).[vi]

This Is My Story

As a teenage boy I had the misfortune of not knowing how to dance. I remember giving one of my friends a dollar to teach me. He made a diligent effort but to no avail. As a result, I did not go to community parties or junior high dances after school. I did not even attend our senior high school prom. Although a teenager, I was a preacher, and everyone in my church knew that preachers did not dance. I was attracted to Ian Pitt Watson’s work, A Primer for Preachers, because in the book I saw a glimpse of my story.

In the chapter “Biblical Truth and Biblical Preaching,” Watson admitted that as a teenage boy of 14, he could not dance. He was awkward and uncoordinated. He missed out on certain social fringe benefits because of his inability to dance. He was envious of his friends who could dance. He decided to master the art of dancing by buying the book Teach Yourself to Dance and practicing in private until he perfected his dancing skills. Then he would come out of his privacy and step into the public arena with confidence and coordination. The book contained detailed dance instructions and elaborate diagrams, which he learned and memorized. He acknowledged:

I really knew the book. Intellectually, I had mastered the subject. I also spent many hours trying to put what I knew into practice. I did so alone in my bedroom, using a pillow for a partner and studying my progress in the wardrobe mirror. What I saw in the mirror was not reassuring! I was putting my feet in all the right places, for I knew the book, and I was doing what the book said. But something was clearly missing. I was thinking the right things and doing the right things, but I couldn’t get the feel of it, and in consequence everything I did seemed clumsy – graceless.[vii]

Watson said that he attended a party one night and was befriended by a girl who could see that he was having difficulty transferring content into coordination. She invited him to dance with her. He had been accustomed to dancing with a pillow in front of the mirror in his bedroom. Initially, he was quite reluctant to dance because she was so graceful in her movements, and he was so awkward and uncoordinated in his attempts to dance. Finally, he yielded to her invitation. After she began to dance with him, he immediately became aware of a tremendous transformation. He revealed:

Then something strange happened. A little of her grace seemed to pass to me and I began to get the feel of it. For the first time, all I had learned in the book began to make sense, and even the painful practice in front of the mirror started to pay off. What had been contrived now became natural, what had been difficult now became easy, what had been a burden now became a joy-because at last I had got together what I was thinking and what I was feeling and what I was doing. In that moment I experienced a kind of grace, and it was beautiful.[viii]

Preaching is cranial and cardiological; it involves head and heart, fact and feeling. It is important to proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord.” This is the prophetic signature of one sent from God; but one cannot proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord” until that person knows, “What saith the Lord.” Once again Watson gives preachers a much-needed and refreshing word that calls for the remarriage of the substance of the text and the style or delivery of the message:

It comes to us when we get together truth thought, truth felt and truth done. We’ve got to know the Book; that comes first. And we’ve got to know what the Book says, follow in Christ’s steps. But we can know truth and even do it and still be awkward, inadequate, graceless, until we get the feel of it. That is when we need to remember that it is not meant to be a solo dance. Christ wants us, his church, his clumsy bride, to try it with him.

To begin with, we often feel more inadequate than ever when we do that, because we are so awkward and he is so full of grace. Then it happens, in our preaching as in our Christian living. We share in his grace. All the Book says comes alive, and, when we preach it, what used to be contrived now becomes natural, what used to be a labor now becomes spontaneous, what used to be a burden now becomes a blessing, what used to be law now becomes the gospel. Why? Because we are learning the meaning of grace; because now God’s truth, thought, felt, and done, is embracing us in the dance-the Truth that stood before Pilate but that Pilate never recognized, because Pilate thought truth was a proposition not a person, a diagram not a dancer.[ix]

If preachers doxologically dance as they escort the hearers into the presence of God for the purpose of transformation, they must relinquish their solo sermons and dance with the Savior. The One who is full of both grace and truth will teach us to dance doxologically as we escort exegetically. We are invited to follow in His steps (1 Peter 2:21). “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

I received an email from Rebecca Pounds George, which further illustrates the truth of John 1:14. The email was titled “Dancing with God”:

When I meditated on the word GUIDANCE, I kept seeing “dance” at the end of the word. I remember reading that doing God’s will is a lot like dancing. When two people try to lead, nothing feels right. The movement doesn’t flow with the music, and everything is quite uncomfortable and jerky. When one person realizes that, and lets the other lead, both bodies begin to flow with the music. One gives gentle cues, perhaps with a nudge to the back or by pressing lightly in one direction or another. It’s as if two become one body, moving beautifully. The dance takes surrender, willingness, and attentiveness from one person and gentle guidance and skill from the other.

My eyes drew back to the word GUIDANCE. When I saw “G,” I thought of God, followed by “u” and “i.” “God ‘u’ and ‘i’ dance.” God, you and I dance. As I lowered my head, I became willing to trust that I would get guidance about my life. Once again, I became willing to let God lead.

My prayer for you today is that God’s blessings and mercies be upon you on this day and everyday. May you abide in God as God abides in you. Dance together with God, trusting God to lead and to guide you through each season of your life…And I hope you dance![x]

This article adapted from Doctrine that Dances by Robert Smith. Copyright © 2008 by Robert Smith. Published by B&H Books, Nashville, Tennessee. Used by permission.

[i] Gerhard von Rad, Biblical Interpretations in Preaching, trans. John Steely (Nashville: Abingdon, 1977), 12.
[ii] Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” in Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 13.
[iii] C. Welton Gaddy, The Gift of Worship (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 35.
[iv] Stuart K. Hine, “How Great Thou Art,” 1953.
[v] A.W.W. Dale, The Life of R. W. Dale of Birmingham (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1902), 108–9.
[vi] G.K. Chesterton, The Surprise (London: Sheed & Ward, 1953), 5.
[vii] Ian Pitt-Watson, A Primer for Preachers (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999), 102.
[viii] Ibid., 102–3.
[ix] Ibid., 103.
[x] Anonymous e?mail received on November 9, 2004 by Rebecca Pounds George.

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