Truth seems to exist always in tension. Apparently contradictory statements each have a way of containing an element of truth. Paradox, dialectic, polarity, duality, balance — these are some of the other ways by which we often speak of this delicate idea of tension in truth.
In the realm of Christian truth, the Scriptures simply do not present truth as a “pat answer” or a tensionless dogma. Those servants of the Word who have spent years in its honest interpretation and proclamation are frequently driven to the inescapable conclusion that full truth lies somewhere between the simplicity of a monolithic assertion and the irrationality of a blatant contradiction.
Although we cannot express truth as indisputable dogmatism, neither can we relax it into the disruptive chaos of total relativism. Truth is rather like the twin sons of Tamar struggling together in her womb for birth.
How then shall we — the practitioners of homiletical midwifery and spiritual obstetrics — proceed to deliver the twin sons of truth when they struggle together in the Scriptures and the anointed mind of the preacher?
The birth pangs of this travail seem almost endless — election and free will, freedom and responsibility, the divine and the human, grace and nature, personal holiness and social involvement, faith and works, justification and sanctification, God’s preservation and man’s perseverance. These often appear incompatible, but in our experience we know them to be complementary. How shall we speak of them? Upon which hand shall we choose to bind the scarlet thread?
Before an attempt is made to give guidance on this question, it may be helpful to probe more deeply into the problem as to why the truth we proclaim exists in such tension. This attempt is intended to be suggestive rather than exhaustive.
First, spiritual truth is ultimately a Person and not a proposition; thus, it is irreducible to exact, final propositional statements.
Second, all language — and particularly religious language — is symbolic and draws upon rich analogies that may not always be pressed in literal detail.
Third, the sacred writers each have their own distinctive individualities and vocabularies which we violate when we assume that they always use words and concepts in the same way.
Fourth, the relative character of much truth enables otherwise incongruous statements to be true at different levels.
Fifth, man is more than a rational mind and he must communicate as a total person. Since this is the case, his communication is better served by the poetic use of language than by necessarily univocal terminology.
Sixth, if the complexity of man’s person requires equivocal expression, how much more the nature of reality and the character of God demand a suprarational way of speaking. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”
Recognizing that proclaiming the whole truth involves the preservation of the tension without which truth ceases to be truth, the question of how this can best be done is a real one. There is not a single answer to this question; many, and perhaps all, of the following observations deserve a place from time to time in the ministry of each pulpit practitioner.
First, embody the whole tension in a single sermon.
This meeting of the problem “head on” is one of the most daring and difficult of approaches. The difficulty is likely to be felt by both the preacher and the parishioner, and much skill and hard work are usually necessary to make the undertaking a success. However, pulpit masters have done quite well and some of the classic sermons of all time are sermons on paradox.
One pastor may see in Psalms 127:1 a helpful approach to the tension between God’s unconquerable plan for the ages and the necessity of human faithfulness. In a sermon on this text, he will want to talk about both “the keeping of the city” which is God’s responsibility and “the waking of the watchman” which is man’s.
This same idea is expressed on the level of personal salvation in Philippians 2:12-13 which embodies the tension between “work out your own salvation” and “God is at work in you.”
Again, James 1:27 may provide opportunity for dealing with the tense necessity for both personal purity (“to keep oneself unstained from the world”) and social involvement (“to visit orphans and widows”).
Second, preach “back-to-back” sermons that complement each other.
Whole truth will best be served at times by preaching pairs of sermons, each of which will deal with a single prong of the duality. Both people and preacher are usually more adept at focusing at one strand of a basic truth at a time since most are not skilled in the subtleties of dialectics. The embarrassment and frustration of seeking to explain the sometimes unexplainable is avoided; at the same time, the tension of truth is preserved.
From James 2 the pastor may want to preach one sermon on “Dead Faith” and follow it with a sermon based on “Dead Works” from Hebrews 9:14.
A message from Acts 1:8 on the extensiveness of the dream of salvation may be entitled “The Uttermost that Reaches Out.” Hebrews 7:25 can provide the basis for a message on the counteremphasis of the intensity of the drama of salvation under the title, “The Uttermost that Reaches In.”
Third, balance your preaching calendar.
This approach to proclaiming the truth and preserving the tension is a simple way of coping with a complex problem. It is as vital as it is simple. By it an opportunity is provided for evaluating one’s preaching both in retrospect and in prospect with regard to this delicate balance.
For example, the wise pastor will want to make sure he is giving sufficient emphasis both to the theme that we may depend upon God and to the truth that God is depending upon us. The emphasis on the act of grace by which we are justified and the assurance it produces needs to be complemented in every pulpit and by an emphasis on the process of grace by which we are sanctified and the good life it produces.
A periodic evaluation of the pastor’s preaching calendar will produce this balance.
Fourth, concentrate on a neglected aspect of the truth.
There are situations in which the pastor finds that his work is unmistakably defined. It may be that, due to one reason or another, the tension has already been lost. In the interest of total truth and the well-being of his congregation, the sensitive pastor will want to seize the neglected aspect of truth and focus almost exclusively upon it in order to restore the tension.
Various factors may contribute to this loss of tension. The pastor in a new pulpit may have had a predecessor who has accentuated one prong to the neglect of the other. His intensely practical or promotional approach may have created a vacuum for doctrinal depth or spiritual motivation. The reverse may be true and the need may be for practical guidance and implementation.
Sometimes, a church will experience a singular need because it has arrived at a juncture in its life or in the life of its community. This need may have arisen without reference to the preaching program of the previous pastor and may be largely sociological or psychological. The church may have gone through a period of expansion and numerical growth; the need now is for consolidation and cultivation. Different situations require different preaching emphases.
Fifth, maintain that distinctive feature of the Gospel that God has entrusted to your segment of the Christian Church or to you as a chosen vessel.
Varying psychological temperaments and “gifts of the Spirit” equip different servants of the Word to have different types of preaching ministries. It would seem that the economy of God manifests itself in such distribution throughout Christian history.
The fiery Elijah was followed by the milder Elisha. Israel was the recipient of the simultaneous messages of a judgmental Amos and a compassionate Hosea. Even our Lord had His way prepared by so different a one as John the Baptist. The Corinthian church successively benefited by the sowing, watering, and reaping of a Paul, an Apollos, and a Cephas. Who can estimate the contribution to the great spiritual awakening of the balance of a charismatic Wesley and an orator like Whitfield?
In a similar way, the schisms that have divided Christendom have had their appointed tasks in the proclaiming of the truth and the preserving of the tension. The Calvinistic and the Arminian communions, the liturgical and the non-liturgical churches, the nurturing fellowships and the revivalistic sects — all have helped to preserve some facet of truth without which the Christian faith would be direly impoverished.
In the interest of total truth, we must be good stewards of that place in history and those peculiar gifts with which we have been endowed. As “every man stands in his place about the camp,” the tension shall thus be saved and truth served.

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