Doctrine and Practice

There is a very common tendency among us to separate what we often call doctrinal preaching and practical preaching. And I am quite sure that if a poll were taken of our people as to which they preferred, the vote would be very strongly in favor of so called practical preaching. And if we take a hurried glance about us in the church world, then I think we would discover that most often the cries of the people for practical preaching have been heard by the ministers and have influenced very strongly the content of countless sermons in many pulpits. There is the extreme in our modem churches where the Word of God is not even preached any more, and the emphasis is laid on all kinds of practical subjects upon which the minister discourses. I think that if you would attend some of these services you would probably have to listen to sermons on such themes as “Displaced Persons,” “Get Out And Vote,” “Our Need for Better Hospitals,” “Clear the Slums,” “Juvenile Delinquency,” “Integration,” “The Cold War,” and many others of like kind. This is practical preaching at its best. The sermons preached in Madison Square Garden and in Times Square by Billy Graham were sermons on this order with perhaps a little more emphasis on sin and the need to accept Jesus Christ as our personal Savior.

But if you would come a little closer to home in some of the churches that are Reformed in name, then you would discover much the same thing. Many of these subjects which I listed above, and many like subjects would not be considered strange at all to serve as the theme of a sermon. And if these seem a little too far afield from the Word of God, then some ministers would probably turn only to those texts which speak of the practical life of the saints and limit their discourses on a Sabbath Day to them almost exclusively. But even then, a text only becomes a nail on which to hang a sermon about all kinds of strange subjects foreign to the Word of God. The text is read, but that is about all. Sometimes perhaps a little doctrine may slip in unawares, but this can easily be rectified by means of an altar call of sorts and a general invitation to come to Christ and accept him as our personal Savior. In many articles in many magazines it is argued that the gospel and its preaching must change to fit the (modern times in which we live. The minister must be vibrantly aware of all that transpires about him, and must form his Sunday discourses in such a way that the problems of the day are recognized and faced.

The result is of all this that doctrine has no longer a place in the preaching, and the minister is satisfied that he has fulfilled his calling if he has talked for a few minutes on the practical life of his congregation. Doctrine is completely foreign to the service, and the truths abiding and eternal of the Word of God are put away on a shelf to collect dust throughout the ages of time.

But even in our own churches there is often a hue and a cry raised that the emphasis in preaching is altogether too doctrinal, anti the practical is neglected. The

practical life of the church is scarcely touched upon, and the saints no longer know how they ought to conduct themselves in the midst of the world. The young people receive nothing from the preaching, for they can only assimilate something that has reference to their daily life; consequently it is to be expected that they are often found in company with the world and enjoying the pleasures of this present time without any interest in the church or in church affairs. While a minister may have difficulty holding the attention of the congregation on any doctrinal theme, he may expect close attention whenever he arrives in his series on the Heidelberg Catechism to the Ten Commandments.

It was especially true that these things were said during the time of controversy in our churches. One of the charges made against us by those who left our fellowship was that we had forgotten how to be practical and had been satisfied with long doctrinal discourses without ever telling how the church ought to live. We were accused of appealing only to the intellect and not paying attention to the daily life of the saints. We were regarded as sitting in the ivory towers of intellectual dogma, and refusing to enter the arena of the battle of faith. We were said to have been concerned only with formal dogmatics which should be limited to the seminary, and not aware of the fact that the saints must live after all in this present world. It is all right if ministers are theologians; but the people are those who stand in the forefront of the battle lines, and they must know how to cope with a strong and persistent enemy. The study of the parsonage is the place for theological reflection, but the pulpit is the place for the people to learn how to carry their spiritual weapons and use them in the fight of faith, in the problems that face them, in the world in which they must live. Too much dogma makes miniature theologians, while what we need is soldiers in the field who know how to fight. The Sabbath services must be the training ground for raw recruits where soldiers who march under the banners of the church are drilled and trained to enter the battle which is the heart of the life of the church militant. When we arrive in the church triumphant, the smoke of the battle will have cleared away, the enemy will have been defeated, the battle cries will be silenced, the spiritual guns will have ceased firing, and we can spend eternity in growing in the knowledge of the truth. Practical preaching is necessary and of chief importance; doctrinal preaching does little good and will result only in dead orthodoxy.

Is there any point to these objections? Is it true perhaps that we lay altogether too much stress on doctrine, and not nearly enough on the practical life of the church? Would it be well if our preaching took a strong turn in the other direction so that the formal truths of Scripture were relegated more and more into the background, and only those parts of Scripture which had to do with walk and conduct, with conversation and action be spoken on in the church? Is it the place of the pulpit to deal with problems of politics and our economy, problems of society and society’s relationships? Must ministers deal with problems international and national, problems of the state and local government? Must the rising crime and divorce rate, the foreign policy of our country and the spread of communism form themes for sermons in our churches?

It is perhaps well that we look into this problem for a little while and come to a clearer understanding of these very important matters which affect the life of the church and the preaching of the Word. This I intend to do, D.V.