The doctrinal preaching of the word of God is a vital necessity. The proclamation of the scriptures with clarity and precision is God’s method of transforming the lives of men and women. It is the authoritative link between the heart of God and the souls of men. The modern world has had enough of theories, conjecture and rationale—it hungers for the truth of God plainly spoken. It longs for the “thus saith the Lord”. It is waiting for men of God, like Jonah of old to whom God spoke, saying, “Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee” (Jonah 3:1). Unfortunately, the preaching of the word of God has fallen out of favor with many evangelical church leaders. Today there is a growing opposition toward doctrinal preaching of the word of God. Social action is more appealing to many Christian leaders. They question the use of mere words, when the lost of this world are looking for deeds. In addition, Church growth experts contend that biblical preaching is old-fashioned; therefore, videos, panel forums, discussions, music, and multimedia presentations are now filling the place once occupied by preaching. Evangelical leaders defend their views by stating that the churches are filled, para-church ministries are in demand, and Christians are busier than ever. But what is the spiritual condition of the church? Are these new methods in agreement with the word of God? Let us examine these issues more closely.
Dangerous Trends in Evangelical Churches
Those who continue to value preaching are calling for radical changes in the traditional methods. A growing number of church leaders throughout North America maintain that the faithful preaching of the word of God is no longer an effective means of reaching the lost and developing mature believers. The cry now is for preaching that addresses “relevancy” and the “felt-needs” of the audience. This technique is now being espoused by many church growth institutes and ministries throughout the U.S. and Canada. However, under closer investigation one discovers that this technique was examined and rejected by Bible-based Christians 70 years ago, when the modernist preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick urged its use in Christian churches. In 1928, he scolded godly men of the Book, writing,
“Preachers who pick out texts from the Bible and then proceed to give their historic settings, their logical meaning in the context, their place in the theology of the writer, are grossly misusing the Bible. Let them not end but start with thinking of the audience’s vital needs, and then let the whole sermon be organized around their endeavor to meet those needs. This is all good sense and good psychology.” (1)
Sadly today, a growing number of evangelical leaders are urging the use of this same technique, albeit redressed in evangelical terminology. In his book on reaching out to “Baby Boomers”, Doug Murren, the pastor of a large charismatic congregation in the Pacific northwest, provides readers with the following seven suggestions for preparing messages:
1. Visit the “how-to” sections in your local bookstores 2. Regularly have a small group submit a list of their greatest challenges at home and on the job. 3. Similarly, acquire inventories of needs from several secular (unsaved) people in your community. 4. Periodically, examine issues of Time, Newsweek, and USA Today, as these publications are on the cutting edge of the felt needs and fears people are facing. 5. Apply practical aims to every study, message or program in your church. 6. Practice composing practical, catching titles for your messages. 7. Limit your time to 20 minutes. And don’t forget to keep your messages light and informal, liberally sprinkling them with humor and personal anecdotes. (2)
It is remarkable that all of these suggestions are adapted to meet man’s social, emotional and material needs; furthermore, not one refers to the word of God or to meeting man’s most important need—spiritual separation from God. These new methods are not resting upon the bedrock of the word of God, but rather upon the shifting sand of psychological and humanistic principles.
The Need for Doctrinal Preaching
This raises several new questions: What negative consequences will these new methods bring? Is this new preaching method harmless? Is it merely an evangelistic fad and nothing more? Furthermore, should Bible-believing Christians embrace it as an effective evangelistic tool? A closer investigation may serve to help us answer these and other questions. Professor James Davidson Hunter, a researcher from the University of Virginia, has studied the views of evangelicals at 16 leading seminaries and Bible colleges, and reported his findings in 1987 in his book entitled “Evangelicalism: the Coming Generation.” Hunter argues convincingly that seminaries are moving away from doctrinal orthodoxy.
Among the students he interviewed, over 50% said that the Bible should not be taken literally in matters of science and history. There were 33% who disagreed with the statement, “The only hope for heaven is through personal faith in Jesus Christ”; 46% felt preaching to unbelievers “about hell” is in poor taste.3 Jay Kesler, the president of Taylor University, a Christian college in the Midwest, stated, “I agree with Hunter’s observations of the changes taking place not only at Christian colleges and seminaries, but in evangelical culture generally.” (3)
Moreover, in 1994 Josh McDowell Ministries conducted an extensive study on the Christian character of evangelical young people in the U.S. In the study 3,795 young people between the ages of 11-18 were asked 193 questions concerning their commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Although 86% stated that they had trusted Jesus Christ as their Savior, the results of the survey uncovered an array of troubling statistics. The study revealed that 45% watched MTV at least once a week; 57% said that the Bible was not a reliable standard of truth. The study also revealed that many young people are cheating, smoking, gambling, watching X-rated movies and engaging in premarital sex. (4)
Further research has shown that many Christians do not possess a satisfactory understanding of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity; such as justification, the deity of Christ, inerrancy, imminency and sanctification. Why are evangelical young people engaging in such harmful activities? Why is there so little understanding of biblical doctrine? One reason must be—the failure of the evangelical churches to preach and teach the great doctrines of the faith. When the Holy Scriptures are taught with conviction, lives and lifestyles will be transformed to the glory of God (Isa. 66:2).
The New Testament Model of Preaching
The New Testament models this practice of doctrinal preaching and demonstrates the blessing that will follow. The preaching of doctrine characterized the teaching ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostles. As Christ was teaching His disciples, it was said of Him, “He taught them many things by parables, and said unto them in His doctrine” (Mark 4:2); as others heard His teaching it was said, “...the people were astonished at His doctrine” (Mt. 7:24); the early New Testament Church “continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine” (Acts 2:42); and they were exhorted to “Preach the word…exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2); they were entreated to refute the false teachers with doctrine, “Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (Titus1:9). Doctrinal preaching was the charge, challenge, and resource to all who sought to serve and honor the Lord Jesus Christ. Another crucial factor in favor of doctrinal preaching is its ability to preserve the church from false teaching. Doctrinal preaching by definition involves doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction (2 Tim. 3:15). Corrective preaching, therefore should address doctrinal error and also the false teachers who are bringing the error. Paul charges the New Testament believers, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Romans 16:17). The failure to do so will open the door to false teachers and cause many sincere believers to be spiritually imperiled. A sad account is given by Henry Theissen, a former professor of theology at Wheaton College, who points out that in the absence of passionate doctrinal preaching, doctrinal error found fertile soil in which to flourish, leading to the formation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He writes,
“Oratorical preaching may bind the congregation to the preacher; but when the preacher leaves, the people leave also. It has been often demonstrated that only when people are thoroughly taught the word of God do they become strong Christians and effective workers for Christ. There is a definite connection between doctrinal preaching and mature spiritual growth. Thomas DeWitt Talmadge may be cited as a man of great oratorical powers who built up a large congregation by his ability. However soon after Talmadge’s death, the Brooklyn Tabernacle(which seated 4,000 persons) fell into the hands of Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society(known to us today as the Jehovah’s Witnesses).” (5)
Today, the total number of Jehovah’s Witnesses world-wide is estimated to be 11.5 million strong making the Jehovah’s Witnesses the largest religious cult in the world. However, this sad situation may have been averted through vigorous doctrinal preaching. May this illustration serve as a warning and wake-up call to all serious believers. New Testament churches must put aside the current popular fads, the glitter and sparkle of the newest trends, and return to the rock-solid foundation of doctrinal preaching and the unchanging power of the word of God. Then the church will be strong, believers vigorous for Christ, and the world attentive to the life-changing power of the gospel.
(1) Harry Emerson Fosdick, “What is the Matter with Preaching”, Harpers Magazine, July, 1928, p135
(2) Doug Murren, The Baby Boomerang, (Regal Books, Glendale, CA, 1990), p. 227-228
(3) James Davison Hunter, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1987), p. 198
(4) Josh McDowell, “Help Your Teen Make The Right Choice”, Focus on the Family Magazine, Nov. 1994, p. 4
(5) Henry Thiessen Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology, (Eerdmans Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI, 194), p. 30