The attitude of the doctrinal preacher must be, “Hallelujah! What a privilege it is to preach about a great God.” The truths of Bible doctrine are appropriated, and the preacher serves as a personal witness of those truths because the text of scripture not only works on the preacher, but works in the preacher as well. Ministers who dare to preach doctrinally must always remember that they not only participate in rightly dividing or “cutting straight” the word of truth before the congregation, but that they are also divided by that same word. Ministers can be guilty of spending much of their time preparing messages that will impact others and not enough time allowing the text of scripture to impact themselves.
Preachers cannot address people effectively with the gospel by an intellectual engagement alone. This is exactly what biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad has asserted in his statement that “No understanding at all is possible without some form of inward appropriation. It would be an illusion to think that we could deal with the transmitted intellectual content as a foundry worker handles molten ore with long-handled ladles—and thus keep them at a distance from ourselves. Moreover, no understanding is possible unless what is to be interpreted is applied to ourselves, unless it touches us existentially.”
The preacher who handles the Word must first be touched by that same Word. Preaching that is not joyous comes across as sterile and, oftentimes, is not received. Dorothy Sayers challenged the thought of many naysayers of her time who claimed that doctrinal preaching led to boredom and a lack of interest. She wrote, “Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine— ‘dull dogma,’ as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that staggered the imagination of man – and the dogma is the drama.”
After Peter preached the Pentecostal sermon and approximately three thousand people were added to the church, the church continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine (Acts 2:42). Preaching doctrine can lead to huge response! Let the rocks cry out as an indictment upon us if we fail to pick up the mantle of doctrine!
Does theology exist in order to make preaching as hard as it needs to be? Can the same be asked about doctrine? Doctrine frames and monitors the church’s proclamation of the gospel. It also serves as a reservoir from which preaching draws its resources. Doctrinal preaching not only serves as corrective surgery on a congregation, it also offers an element of disease prevention. It is more than attaching a Band-Aid to a wound; it is also a prophylaxis to prevent the affliction. Doctrinal preaching is trifocal in nature. Apologetically, it affirms what is orthodox, or correct teaching; it contends for “the faith that the Lord has once for all entrusted us, his people, to the saints” (Jude 3). Apologetics argues for what the church has believed on the basis of God’s Word. Polemically, doctrinal preaching stands against false teaching; it sets the church in order when heresies have infected her life. Catechistically, doctrinal preaching nourishes the congregation and thus edifies the body of Christ; the sheep are fed.
Doctrinal preaching has an impact within both the cognitive and emotive sectors. Preaching that leaves the cognitive untouched produces hearers who may leave the sanctuary feeling better, but without having been helped by the deep doctrinal truths of the scriptures. Preaching that avoids head engagement will lead to blindness, and preaching that ignores heart engagement— the emotive realm of the believer’s existence— does so at the cost of boredom and dullness, which prevents the result of an engaged hearing for a transformed life. Solid doctrinal preaching should be joyful, filled with engaging ideas and provoking appropriate emotion.
This Is My Story
As a teenage boy I had the misfortune of not knowing how to dance. I remember giving one of my friends a dollar to teach me to dance. He made a diligent effort, but to no avail. As a result, I did not go to community parties or junior high dances after school. I did not even attend our senior high school prom. I was attracted to Ian Pitt Watson’s work, A Primer for Preachers, because in the book I saw a glimpse of my story. In the chapter “Biblical Truth and Biblical Preaching,” Watson admitted that as a teenage boy of fourteen, he could not dance. He was awkward and uncoordinated. He missed out on certain social fringe benefits because of his inability to dance. He was envious of his friends who could dance. He decided to master the art of dancing by buying the book Teach Yourself to Dance and practicing in private until he perfected his dancing skills. Then he would come out of his privacy and step into the public arena with confidence and coordination. The book contained detailed dance instructions and elaborate diagrams which he learned and memorized. He acknowledged,
I really knew the book. Intellectually, I had mastered the subject. I also spent many hours trying to put what I knew into practice. I did so alone in my bedroom, using a pillow for a partner and studying my progress in the wardrobe mirror. What I saw in the mirror was not reassuring! I was putting my feet in all the right places, for I knew the book, and I was doing what the book said. But something was clearly missing. I was thinking the right things and doing the right things, but I couldn’t get the feel of it, and in consequence everything I did seemed clumsy—graceless.
Watson said that he attended a party one night and was befriended by a girl who could see that he was having difficulty transferring content into coordination. She invited him to dance with her. He had been accustomed to dancing with a pillow in front of the mirror in his bedroom. Initially, he was quite reluctant to dance because she was so graceful in her movements, and he was so awkward and uncoordinated in his attempts to dance. Finally, he yielded to her invitation. After she began to dance with him he immediately became aware of a tremendous transformation. He revealed:
Then something strange happened. A little of her grace seemed to pass to me and I began to get the feel of it. For the first time, all I had learned in the book began to make sense, and even the painful practice in front of the mirror started to pay off. What had been contrived now became natural, what had been difficult now became easy, what had been a burden now became a joy —because at last I had got together what I was thinking and what I was feeling and what I was doing. In that moment I experienced a kind of grace, and it was beautiful.
Preaching is both cranial and cardiological; it involves head and heart, fact and feeling. It is important to proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord.” This is the prophetic signature of one sent from God. However, one cannot proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord,” until that person knows “what saith the Lord.” Once again, Watson gives preachers a much-needed and refreshing word which calls for the remarriage of the substance of the text and the style or delivery of the message:
It comes to us when we get together truth thought, truth felt and truth done. We’ve got to know the Book; that comes first. And we’ve got to know what the Book says, follow in Christ’s steps. But we can know truth and even do it and still be awkward, inadequate, graceless, until we get the feel of it. That is when we need to remember that it is not meant to be a solo dance. Christ wants us, his church, his clumsy bride, to try it with him. To begin with, we often feel more inadequate than ever when we do that, because we are so awkward and he is so full of grace. Then it happens, in our preaching as in our Christian living. We share in his grace. All the Book says comes alive, and, when we preach it, what used to be contrived now becomes natural, what used to be a labor now becomes spontaneous, what used to be a burden now becomes a blessing, what used to be law now becomes the gospel. Why? Because we are learning the meaning of grace; because now God’s truth, thought, felt, and done, is embracing us in the dance—the Truth that stood before Pilate but that Pilate never recognized, because Pilate thought truth was a proposition not a person, a diagram not a dancer.
If preachers doxologically dance as they escort the hearers into the presence of God for the purpose of transformation, they must relinquish their solo sermons and dance with the Savior. The One who is full of both grace and truth will teach us to dance doxologically as we escort exegetically. We are invited to follow in His steps (1 Peter 2:21). “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Dr. Robert Smith, Jr. holds the Charles T. Carter Baptist Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School where he teaches Christian Preaching. The Robert Smith Jr. Preaching Institute is named in his honor. This article is an excerpt from his book Doctrine That Dances: Bringing Doctrinal Preaching and Teaching to Life (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008).
 Gerhard von Rad, Biblical Interpretations in Preaching. Translated by John Steely. (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1977), 12.
 Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1969), 1.
 Ian Pitt-Watson, A Primer for Preachers (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999), 102.
 Ibid., 102-103.
 Ibid, 103.