We have already begun to discuss your last letter. You were concerned in your letter about practicalpreaching which you called “preaching on more specific sins.” We talked at some length about the relation between doctrine and practice, and the total importance of doctrinal preaching. I do not think that this relation between doctrine and preaching can be emphasized strongly enough. If a minister abandons doctrinal preaching, he has really only two paths he can follow. He can become a “Sunday-School preacher” who gives little more than a Sunday School lesson to which is appended a pious moral homily of some sort. This type of preaching is, I think, far more common than you and I realize. It reminds me of one of the newer Bible Story Books. In this book the author is discussing the miracle which Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee by which He changed water into wine. The title of this chapter is already a dead give-away: “Jesus goes to a party.” The little moral homily tacked on the end reads like this: “This was the first miracle Jesus did. Do you know why I think He did this first? It was because He wanted us to know that we must serve Him first of all in our daily lives. You do not have to go to Africa as a missionary to serve Jesus. Perhaps some day He will call you to go to Africa. And if He does, He will give you the special rewards He has promised to all those who leave family and home for His sake. But you must not wait till that day comes to start serving Him. He wants you to love Him, and obey Him, and to enjoy Him too, right now, beginning today, at home, at school, yes, and in your play and fun, and even at your parties.” Now what in the wide world all this has to do with Jesus’ marvelous miracle at Cana escapes me. In fact, I dare say that this kind of moralizing is down-right wicked and of untold spiritual harm to those who read this trash. But to forsake doctrinal preaching leads to this.
The other path you can follow if you forsake doctrinal preaching is the path of the social gospel. I think that even “ministers” who do not want doctrinal preaching see the wretchedness of moralizing; they weary of it and see that this sort of thing is worse than useless. And so they go the way of preaching a social gospel. They identify the Christian’s life with social involvement and address themselves on the pulpit to berating their audiences with stem calls to be busy with the social problems of the age. I’m not interested here in discussing this miserable caricature of preaching. I only want to insist that this is the end of a man when he does not want doctrinal preaching any more.
And so, I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is for you to resist all those who make strong and steady pleas for less doctrine and more practice.
But now I have to turn more specifically to some of the questions in your letter. There are several remarks which you make in your letter which are of interest to me, and which are worth some discussion. E.g., you remark: “Ministers and those who are strong in faith don’t realize all that goes on and is said by the weaker brother.” And I think you mean that ministers especially do not always realize the specific sins with which many members in the Church struggle. It is in that connection that you write: “Shouldn’t the Word be more specific on current sins in’ this generation? Examples: TV, birth control, Sabbath observance, working on Sunday, novels, plays, drama, working mothers, false ideas of Christian liberty, unprofitable servants?” And you sort of sum it up when you write: “We should have preaching in which the walk of a Christian is not to be treated as an ideal which is unattainable; but it should be something that should be strived for daily. “I fear,” you write, “for the Church on this earth. Temptation from within ‘Israel’ is very subtle.” And again: “I would like stronger application of the preaching, on current prevalent sins that have crept into the Church.”
Let’s talk about this for a while.
Let me say first of all that in general I agree with you. The preaching must include all this. I recall vividly that my father tells a little story about this. And, while the story itself is not all that interesting and exciting, it does illustrate the point you are making. He tells about a minister in a neighboring Church where years ago my father shepherded a congregation. This minister in a neighboring Church had come out of the Seminary as one of the shining lights of the school. He was a gifted preacher, a man of no little ability to make a sermon, and he was extremely popular in the pulpit. When the time came to send out calls, he was inundated with calls from many Churches which desired his services. There was strong competition for his services. This kept up for a number of years after he was in the ministry. After two years elapsed and he was once again eligible for a call, he received them almost with every delivery of the mail. And he moved around quite a bit too. But gradually this began to change. The calls came with less frequency until they ceased coming altogether. At last he was caught in the backwater of the Church and for years he never received even one call. One time when Rev. H. Hoeksema was visiting at our home, my father asked him about this: “Why is it that this man, once so popular, never gets any calls any more?” What was the answer, do you think? Rev. Hoeksema’s answer was this, (and it was apparently correct, although I never knew the man and cannot verify it): “He failed to keep up with the times.” That answer may surprise you; but that was the whole answer. And that answer meant, I assume, that he failed to be relevant. He failed to make his preaching useful for the times. He failed to address the Word to the problems which people were facing in the hard realities of life. He didn’t know what was going on in the congregation. He didn’t know the struggles, the temptations, the sins, the burdens of his flock. He retreated into the privacy of his own study and made his sermons in 1944 the same as his sermons were in 1921. They ceased to mean anything to his people.
Now, I don’t happen to like the word “relevant.” But my dislike for that word is not because it is not a good word. It is so distasteful to me because it has taken on, in the context of worship, such bad connotations. It means today in the ecclesiastical world, to be so like the times in which we live in dress, preaching, conversation, worship, liturgy, and all the rest, that we lose what Scripture has to say to us. But the word itself is a good one; and I think you mean that preaching ought to be relevant in the good sense of the word. With this I agree. It does not mean a bearded minister on the pulpit with a cross over his turtle-necked sweater who blasphemously begins the sermon with a “Good morning, God,” and who pompously prates about things that are of no interest to anyone with an IQ somewhere above the level of 35. But it does and can mean to preach in such a way that the living and abiding Word of God speaks to us in our walk and path of life. And this should always be the case.
This is true because of the nature of the Word of God itself. We do not believe that, as the proponents of the New Hermeneutics put it, the Scriptures are time-bound and historically conditioned. We do not believe that there are huge pieces of Scripture which are of no immediate concern to us in our day because they were merely addressed to problems current in the times they were written. To take this position is to deny that the-Scriptures are our rule of faith and life. And, finally, of course, to take this position means to take the position that Scripture is not the Word of God which He gives to His Church.
The Scriptures were certainly written under specific historical circumstances. Who can deny this? Isaiah spoke to problems present in Judah during the reigns of Uzziah, Ahaz, Hezekiah, and Manasseh. Zechariah spoke to the Church which had returned to Palestine from captivity and was having trouble finding the spiritual courage to go on with the important work of building the temple. Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians because there were wicked men in these Churches whose teachings on the place of the law in the life of the Christian had to be contradicted. Nevertheless, the Scriptures are totally and completely relevant to the Church of every age. They speak to us with exactly the same authority and power with which they spoke to the Church which existed in that day. In fact, this is so true that in order to learn what the Scriptures have to say to us today, we must learn first of all what they said to the Church in the days when they were written. You may not and cannot preach out of Galatians and make your sermon relevant without telling your people exactly why Paul wrote to these Churches.
But this is not so hard to understand. After all, we still believe in the doctrine of providence. And, among many other things, that means that God so controlled the circumstances in the Galatian Churches by His sovereign power that when He inspired Paul to write that beautiful and powerful letter, He did so with His Church of all ages in mind. God knew then already that the principles and truths which He inspired Paul to write to that situation were going to be of abiding use to the Church—even 2000 years later. And you must remember that, after all, the Scriptures are a part of the miraculous. They belong to the wonder of grace. God is speaking through Christ to His Church; and God is revealing Himself. Everything is there that the Church will ever have to know. Our Belgic Confession speaks of the fact that “We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe, unto salvation, is sufficiently taught therein.”
So, my answer is, Yes. Of course. By all means. These problems must be discussed on the pulpit. The minister must address himself specifically and concretely to all the evils which are present in the Church. He must do so explicitly and with force. His words must carry the authority of the Word of God. His preaching has to be relevant in the good sense of the Word.
And to do this he must know his people and their life. He must know the difficulties of their way in the world. He must know their struggles, temptations, weaknesses, and battles with Satan and his host. He cannot live the lives of his sheep, of course. He cannot spend a month out of the year working in the factory to learn what it is like. He cannot go out as a salesman to see what are the temptations peculiar to one with such a calling.
He cannot live for a week or two in the homes of his parishioners. But this is not necessary either. What he can do and must do is, first of all, know himself. His own sins and temptations and struggles are not all that different from those of his sheep—not in their deepest character anyway. And, in the second place, he can be a faithful student of the Word. In countless places the Word tells him (as it tells us all) what sin and temptation is all about. Solomon says there is really nothing new under the sun. This is true too as far as our life in the world is concerned. And, finally, he can listen. He ought not to be talking all the time, you know. He can listen to His sheep. He can listen with his heart as well as his head and ears. He can listen with sympathy and understanding, with love and concern. And if only he learns once to listen, he will learn too what is going on—even among those whom you call “the weaker brethren” who do not always dare to say what is on their minds.
There are dangers though. But enough for now. Another letter is a better place to discuss them.
Fraternally in Christ,