If you have inhabited the world of Evangelicals for any length of time, then you have likely encountered all manner of pious sounding rhetorical jukes and derogatory quips about the matter of doctrine. “Doctrine divides; love unites!” “Deeds not creeds!” “Don’t be the doctrine police!” “It’s not a gospel issue!” The river of popular Evangelicalism flows down a wide bed of doctrinal minimalism.
But, doctrinal preaching is unavoidable. It is unavoidable for the simple reason that preaching is irreducibly a doctrinal activity. All that the word doctrine means is “teaching.”
Preaching by its very nature is an exercise of what Presbyterian theologians historically have called potestas dogmatica, that is the doctrinal power of the church. To ascend into the pulpit and to preach is to exercise dogmatic church power. It is to hold forth the truth of God’s word with the demand that it be believed, that it would be the content of your listeners’ confession of faith, and thus that it would also be the pattern for that faith working itself out in love in all the practical details of life.
Preaching is irreducibly doctrinal for the simple fact that preaching is a form of teaching about God. But not all doctrine is good doctrine. We are called to teach doctrine that is sound (1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3; Tit. 2:1). But, what constitutes teaching sound doctrine?
It is tempting to view that task merely in a restrictive way, especially if you are a preacher who subscribes to a confession of faith which has outlined doctrine in the extensive way that the Westminster Standards have. It is tempting as a preacher to view such a confession of faith solely as a set of doctrinal guardrails for preaching which are established to keep you from crossing over certain theological lines. This way of defining the biblical directive to teach sound doctrine understands it merely to mean something along the lines of “I don’t say this set of things, because they are not sound doctrine.” The doctrinal restriction of a confession of faith should indeed interface with a man’s preaching. But if it is the only way the preacher thinks about that interface, then it will short circuit the full biblical goal of teaching sound doctrine.
The doctrinal call of the confessional preacher is something more robust than only to avoid teaching things contrary to the doctrine expressed in their confessional standards. Rather, those confessional standards represent the essential summary of what a preacher believes to be the whole counsel of God. As such, they represent something more than a set of things to try to avoid contradicting in your preaching. They represent the full scope of what your congregation should expect you to teach them in the course of your ministry.
Confessional standards should represent a pastor’s aspirations for his congregation. One of the goals of pastoral ministry is to see the members of the Body of Christ to whom you minister mature to the level where they truly own, believe, and practice the robust theology contained in their church’s confession of faith. Preaching is the primary vehicle for the accomplishment of that goal. It is the most consistent place where Christians will encounter doctrine proclaimed and applied to their lives.
Consequently, the preacher needs to take care to be self-conscious about the range and depth of what he gives to his sheep. I have written elsewhere about the way doctrinal precision practically impacts the Christian life. Preaching is the primary place where that doctrinal precision will be shaped in the Christian as they listen to the Word proclaimed Sunday after Sunday. But, preaching is also the primary place where the full scope of the Christian’s doctrinal understanding is shaped as well. Doctrine is to impact preaching not only in the practical precision it provides but also in the wide-ranging territory it covers in all the manifold questions raised by Scripture about God and how we relate to him.
To be sure, preaching must not be a theological lecture intended for pointy headed academics. It must be adapted to “the necessities and capacities of the hearers” (WLC 159). But that is by no means a summons to a pulpit ministry that is doctrinally nebulous or doctrinally anemic. It is the laborious call of the preacher to digest and proclaim in clarity the complexity, difficulty, and encyclopedic range of sound doctrine. But, the preacher does not accomplish that by gutting his preaching of those difficult doctrines altogether and paring his preaching down to a minimal set of theological points. He must have a much more comprehensive way of measuring his call to teach sound doctrine.
The imperative for such a broad doctrinal goal in a preaching ministry can be seen in the vision Paul outlines for the church in Ephesians 4. Paul lists a sampling of the officers whom Christ has given to his church as the spoils of his conquest and ascension in Eph. 4:11. Though these officers are variegated in the specifics of their office, they are bound together in Paul’s catalogue by the fact that they are all entrusted with some form of the ministry of the Word. Their task in the discharge of the ministry of the Word is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:12) with the overarching purpose of the building up of the body of Christ.
This construction project has its goal in the vision Paul lays out in Eph. 4:13-15.
“until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” (ESV)
The unity of the faith towards which Paul summons the ministry of the Word to labor does not call for doctrinal minimalism. To the contrary, this unity of the faith has as its final goal the complete maturity of the whole church in the knowledge of the Son of God. We can only assume that it has as its end goal a doctrinal maximalism aligned with Paul’s previously mentioned prayer in Eph. 3:18-19, the hope of the day when at last every one of us will comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.
Such a comprehensive goal for the ministry of the Word can be seen also in the Great Commission itself. The Great Commission does not terminate in the simple act of creating converts but in the long-term, encyclopedic doctrinal project of teaching the observance of all that Christ has commanded through his apostles in his Word (Mat. 28:20).
To teach sound doctrine is no small calling. It does not mean giving your sheep all that there is to say in every sermon by attempting to make them drink from a fire-hose. Preaching sound doctrine takes the long and patient approach of expositing the Scriptures week after week, laying brick by brick the glorious edifice of the whole counsel of God. It is a calling in which the preacher will spend all his energies in all his life in the comfort that he is not alone, but serves alongside of fellow laborers in the grand construction project of the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:9).