Robert Smith is a gifted preacher and teacher of preachers. Now Associate Professor of Preaching at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, he also taught at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville. A member of Preaching’s Board of Contributing Editors and a frequent speaker at the National Conference on Preaching, Robert is also author of the book Doctrine That Dances (B&H), which was recently designated as the Preaching Book of the Year. Preaching editor Michael Duduit visited with Robert to talk about the importance of doctrinal preaching-and how such preaching can “dance.

Preaching: Your new book, Doctrine That Dances, is about doctrinal preaching and teaching. How did that book come about?
Smith: When I was pastoring-I started as a pastor at 27 in 1976-I’ve always been concerned about doctrine. So for 32 years I’ve been preaching doctrine. I would preach doctrinal sermons. In every text doctrine comes out, as you know, good or bad doctrine. So you might say this has been a book under construction for a while.
But this book is arguing that doctrine doesn’t have to be dull. Doctrine can dance. I’m using that metaphor of dance-the whole idea of rhythm and excitement and joy and exuberance-and marrying exegesis with exuberance. In fact, I use the metaphor of the exegetical escort and the doxological dancer. Those are the two pillars that hold it up.
The exegetical escort has to do with substance; our purpose as preachers is to escort people into the presence of God with exegesis. Exegetical escorts are to escort people into the presence of God for the purpose of transformation. But the doxological dancer exists to embrace the doctrinal verities of Scripture so that the exuberant hearer can exalt in the exaltation of God-exalting in, rejoicing in God.
Doctrinal preaching and teaching was the first thing the early church participated in after the 3,000 people were saved. In Acts 2:42 it says, “After they added to the church they continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine.” That was the very first thing, and I believe that there’s a sanctified sequence there. When we realize who we are preaching about-that we’re not ultimately preaching about a doctrine or a principle-that we’re preaching about a person; and when we preach about that person, we help people come to understand Him by familiarizing people with doctrine and principles. When you put person and principle together, then you can’t help but be excited about dancing. I’m not talking about emotionalism; I’m just talking about assurance and thanking God for the privilege of representing Him.

Preaching: Why do you think some pastors are reticent to spend a lot of time in the pulpit doing doctrinal teaching?
Smith: I’m reminded of R.W. Dale, who pastored the Carr’s Lane Church in Birmingham, England. When he started that pastorate, he started preaching doctrinal sermons. Of course, this was well over a hundred years ago-probably about 115 years ago-and one of the Welshmen who was an established pastor sent word to him that, “If you keep preaching doctrinal sermons your church will eventually not take it. They’ll get tired of it, and they won’t put up with it.” And his response-with all respect to the Welsh pastor-was, “They will have to take it.” He felt like that was the backbone of the gospel and that doctrine is not dullness-doctrine is delight.
In fact the Westminster Confession reminds us that God created us that we might obey Him and enjoy Him forever-not endure Him forever. So maybe we avoid preaching doctrine because, number one, we don’t see the person in the doctrine. It’s not preaching about the resurrection ultimately but preaching the One who is the Resurrection.
Job had, of course, a limited theological understanding of the resurrection, but that’s what he used to talk about. He’s talking about a person: “I know that my Redeemer liveth”-my Redeemer, not redemption, but “my Redeemer liveth.”
So when I talk about God, I can allow the doctrine to serve as the container; but the content is the person of God. I’m excited about God within my own personality, which has nothing to do with noise, loudness, softness, expression, exertion, lack of exertion but a real essence. So when people see us standing to preach, even though we may be ever so quiet and less expressive or very noisy and more expressive, it’s the essence of our presence that is being moved by the Spirit of God by the Word. It’s always Spirit and Word together, never separated. And so they get an idea clothed with the joy of God as we talk about God in a doctrinal way.
So for me the dance and the excitement have nothing to do with volume or rhythm or anything like that. It has to do with an individual who is encountered by God through the Scripture, and the Spirit of God making plain what the text says. People can see that, and they catch on fire.

Preaching: Is there a particular doctrine you most enjoy preaching?
Smith: Well, Christology is my heart. I love preaching Christ because I believe that the Bible is a Him book-H I M – B O O K. As Jesus was talking to the two on the road to Emmaus, Luke recounts in Luke 24:27 that He started with Moses and went through the prophets, showing Cleopas and the other disciple the things concerning Himself written in the Old Testament. And then He reinforces that in Luke 24:44 in the same chapter-He went from Moses to the prophets to the writings (which comprises, of course, the whole Old Testament), showing that everything in the Old Testament had to be fulfilled in Him. So if that’s true, and I believe that is true, and God is so excited about His Son being exalted, then that ought to be the doctrine upon which everything else stands. So Christology, Christ-centered preaching, is really the Alpha and Omega of my preaching.

Preaching: So what’s the toughest doctrine for you to preach?
Smith: I’ve never been asked that before. Probably, hell. I believe in it. I believe that it exists-I don’t believe in annihilation at all. I believe that hell is just as real as heaven. It’s separation from God. In fact, Luther said that God’s hell is God’s love for us-the fact that God loved us so much is God’s hell.
But this thing about separation from God-which I think Jesus had a foretaste of in His cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”-it’s tough for me to preach on that, and not because I don’t believe it but because it breaks my heart to have to say things that are true that will mean the eternal separation from God for people. It’s kind of like Paul saying, as he writes in Romans, “I would consider myself accursed-I would consider myself a candidate for hell-if it would result in the salvation of my Jewish people.” He loved his people that much. I could not say that. I have not come to that place. But Paul had incredible love for his people. So that’s one of the things-that to speak the truth of God’s Word with such a great cost when it comes to people rejecting it and ending up in hell. That’s the first thing.
Second of all, I know that there’s going to be congregational disinclination. They’re not going to want to hear it. So I start off knowing that. I announce the text. I announce the title. Immediately the red flags go up. Immediately I start feeling like Isaiah: “Lord, who hath believed our report?” Maybe even like Jeremiah: “Lord, who hath even heard our report?” They don’t want to hear it.
It’s anti-authoritarian-who am I to talk about that? It’s political incorrectness. Then all of this other stuff about universalism, which some people are moving toward-God is too good to allow anyone to be lost, that eventually everyone will be saved.
It’s difficult because there is some ambiguity there. A text like in 1 Peter 3:18-24, as Jesus went to the lower environs, went to hell, went to Hades, preached to the spirits that were in prisons. Is that hell? I preached a sermon on that one time during Beeson Divinity School’s sermonic series on the Apostle’s Creed. I took that part, “…and he went to hell and preached to the spirits.” I titled the sermon “Going to Hell for All the Right Reasons.”
I said what I thought the Scripture was saying, took that text, married it to Psalms 24, saying that Jesus went to hell-not for an evangelistic meeting, because once a person is lost there is no transfer, there is no second chance, no purgatory. He went there to declare Christus Victor-that Christ is Lord. I closed by saying what the psalmist said, “Lift up your heads, oh ye gates”-that Christ went there to declare, “I’ve won. It’s victorious,” which I hoped would whet the appetite of those who listened if they were not saved, that they would want to join in the victory celebration.
I think the greatest deterrent against people going to hell is for them to see the love of God and how much God loves them rather than to scare them, which is not what Jonathan Edwards was trying to do at all in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But let them see how much God really, really loves them and the cost He was willing to pay that they might forever be with Him. So my emphasis on hell-why I would preach it-is not what you can avoid in terms of the fire but what you miss in terms of the intimacy.

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