I recently led a small group at my church through a study on the early Church Fathers based on Dr. Michael Haykin’s book, Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church. In preparing to discuss the chapter on the Epistle to Diognetus, I was reminded of something very important regarding the role of doctrine in stirring the affections of the believer. More about that later.
Most preaching in evangelical churches today is anemic at best, useless at worst (and most often). Most preachers are content to deliver countless series on anything from “7 Steps to a Happy Family,” to “5 Laws of a Balanced Budget.” We’re told that people require a hint of entertainment, a modicum of laughter, and just a touch of charm; combine that with the right number of alliterated points and you’ve got the best sermon that will never matter to anyone. So it would seem quite strange indeed for me to say, “preach some doctrine every once in a while” (gasp). After all, people can’t listen very long anymore; they have short attention spans that need to be held captive by visual aids and comedic relief. What possible good could come from a dry dissertation on doctrine?
There’s a false equivalency here isn’t there? Who ever said that doctrine should be dry, boring, or lifeless?
I return now to our epistle from earlier. The author is writing to Diognetus in order to present an “apology,” or a “defense,” for the Christian faith against some of the common Roman misconceptions of Christianity of that day. But I’m not aiming to give an exposition of the Epistle to Diognetus, I only wish to make one point; Theology or doctrine, done right, leads to doxology. Good doctrine leads to good praise. At the end of a long letter covering everything from early Christian family ethics to the substitutionary nature of Christ’s atonement, the author suddenly erupts into ecstatic worship saying,
“O the sweet exchange, O the inscrutable
creation, O the unexpected benefits; that the iniquity
of many should be concealed in One Righteous Man, and
the righteousness of One should justify many that are
iniquitous!” (Diognetus 9.5)
After rehearsing a long litany of doctrinal truths and theological categories, the author can no longer contain himself, he must open his mouth (or pen) and glorify God for these truths.
When we learn about God, when we speak about God (theology), when we teach about God (doctrine), his Holy Spirit is present, attending the word and giving life to those who hear in faith. The Spirit warms our hearts, enlivens our affections, and causes us to declare our worship to this great God and Savior.
So where do we go so wrong? Why is it that preachers avoid doctrine for fear of its lifelessness? Perhaps it’s the memory of bad preaching in which mind was separated from heart and nothing but dry, lifeless words were spoken with little to no impact on the people because they had first never impacted the preacher. But it just may be that some preachers simply don’t take the time to learn and deliver good theology themselves. They’ve never even thought about preaching on the nature of the Trinity or building a sermon outline around the substitutionary nature of the atonement of Christ. Maybe they’ve been all too content to posit a sort of Dr. Phil program every Sunday in which life-problems are king and felt-needs reign supreme.
If you preach doctrine right, if you preach it with affection because it has first affected you, if you preach it with authority because it has authority over you, if you preach it with passion because you have a passion for truth; how could you and your congregation not respond with heartfelt and sincere worship? The author of our epistle could no longer contain himself, Paul could typically not contain himself. The fact is, truth has power and there is no power without passion. God’s truth stirs passion, it creates worship, it not only shines light, it gives immense heat. So if you find preaching doctrine to be cold, dry, and lifeless, don’t blame the doctrine, blame the preacher.