I have before me your last letter in which you make some inquiries concerning practical preaching. I shall try to discuss the points you bring up, one by one.
You make the observation first of all that you agree with the assertion which is often made that “if doctrine is preached, a proper walk will be obvious, for doctrine and walk are one.” I realize that this is not a question. I think you probably put this in your letter because it is a sort of “stock answer” which you get when you talk to ministers about your problem; but it is a stock answer which, while acknowledged by you to be true, nevertheless does not really satisfy you.
But I want to make a few remarks about this matter nevertheless. I hope you will be sufficiently patient with me not to chaff at my desire to emphasize this truth once again. It needs emphasis. And the whole matter of practical preaching cannot be understood properly without this emphasis.
In a certain sense of the word, the distinction between doctrinal and practical preaching is a false distinction. It is, if properly understood, not to be condemned; and, indeed, it is a useful distinction which we cannot abandon even if we will. Even the apostle Paul, e.g., has what we usually call a doctrinal part to his epistles and a practical part. And the practical part is the application in a very practical way of the doctrines he has set forth in the early part of the letter. But there is a sense in which the distinction is false. And we should be clear on that.
Let me put the matter this way. We believe that the Scriptures are God’s infallible record of His own revelation to us in Jesus Christ. God has revealed Himself. He has revealed Himself in such a way that He has told us about Himself. By means of His revelation we can know Who and What God is. This revelation is always through Jesus Christ, for Jesus Christ is not only the highest possible revelation of God, but Jesus Christ is the revelation of God as the God Who saves His people, and saves them through Christ.
The Scriptures are the infallible record of this revelation. It is important that we see this clearly. This is Scripture. This is its character. This is what Scripture is all about. God is talking in Scripture about Himself. He is telling us Who He is and What He is and what He does.
But the Scriptures are different from any other book because the Scriptures are the record of God’s revelatory Word. You may, e.g., read, “Son of My Tears,” and by means of this biography of Augustine come to know about Augustine. Or you may even read Augustine’s own autobiography, his “Confessions.” But all the knowledge you will acquire of Augustine is a certain amount of knowledge about him. There is no way, short of face to face contact, in which you can come to know Augustine himself. And face to face contact will have to wait till you meet Augustine in glory.
But this is not merely because Augustine is now dead. Even if he were living this would be true. You can pick up a biography of a living man, or even his own autobiography, and these books will not give you anything more than knowledge about that person. This is important. As long as you only know about a person, there is nothing you can really say about any contact with that person. You cannot claim to have talked with him. You cannot claim to have had any kind of personal experience with him. You cannot have sufficient knowledge of him that you can confidently say, “I know him.” And above all, you cannot love him, have communion with him, share your life with him and enjoy his fellowship. No book will ever do that.
But the Bible does this. This is not because the Bible has any magical power in itself. But the Bible does this through the operation of the Spirit and in organic connection with the preaching of the Word of God contained in the Scriptures. The Bible does not only tell us about God—although it does that too. But when God gives to us the Book in which He tells us aboutHimself, He gives us a Book by means of which we can, in the deepest sense of the word, know Him. Admittedly, this is a miracle which defies description and analysis. But, through the Scriptures, we know God as truly and as intimately as we know our own wives. We know God as truly and as intimately as we know our closest friend. We know Him because He talks to us and makes it possible, through the Word, to talk to Him. We know Him because, through the Word, we have the experience of His presence and nearness as really as we experience the presence and nearness of our own wives.
Thus the knowledge which Scripture gives us of God is the knowledge of love. There really is no other knowledge of God than this. In an abstract way we can conceive of a knowledge of God which is a mere intellectual knowledge—a knowledge of the head, though nothing more. But such a knowledge does not really exist in fact. And it does not exist in fact because every man must either love God or hate God. There is no in-between, no middle ground, no neutral position, no evasion of the calling to love. But a person who hates God is also a person who will never allow: the knowledge of God as it is in the Scriptures to stand unchallenged and uncontested. Just as the heathen, according to Pau1 in Romans 1, change the glory of .God revealed through the things which are made into images representing corruptible things, so does the unbeliever change the glory of God revealed in the Scriptures into his own images. He hates God, but his hatred can never leave God alone. He has to corrupt God, to destroy Him.
But to get back to the point I am trying to make: the knowledge of God which comes through the Scriptures is a knowledge of love. I.e., it is a knowledge born out of love; it is a knowledge of the intimacy and fellowship of love; it is a knowledge which results in love.
But you see here the connection. The whole keeping of the whole law of God, and the whole observance of all His will for us is the one great commandment: Love God: All the hundreds of admonitions of Scripture are only detailed explications of that one command: Love God, And here doctrine and life come together in an inseparable way. It is for this reason that the confession of the, truth is not a mere verbal confession of one’s conviction concerning certain intellectual beliefs, but it is rather a way of life, a levenswandel.
It is true, of course, that this has to be made clear ‘to your people. And you must do this again and again. There is always the danger that people in the Church forget this for one reason or another. You see, though it is true what I said above that one either loves God or hates God and that, therefore, one either loves the truth or hates the truth; nevertheless, it also usually happens that within a given congregation, the love for the truth which once burned as a hot light, does not turn into hatred overnight. It can never work this way, nor does it work this way in history. What usually happens is that there is a spiritual lethargy which creeps into the church. There is a sort of “ho-hum” attitude towards the truth of the Scriptures. There is an indifference, a shrug-of the-shoulders response to the preaching. People do not really take it very seriously any more. There is nothing very important about it, after all. There is nothing to get excited about. There is nothing to stir the soul. One can take it or leave it as he sees fit.
This attitude arises; obviously, when the truth of the Scriptures is no longer preached as the truth of love. The result is an attitude of carelessness and indifference towards the truth which is also followed by a carnal and worldly walk which is at total variance with the love of God. From this springs dead orthodoxy and antinomianism. But the solution to the problem is not to down play doctrine and make a false disjunction between doctrine and practice; the solution to the problem is to get across to the congregation what true doctrine is all about.
I suppose an illustration at this point would perhaps be helpful. Supposing that a young engaged couple separated because the man is called by his government to serve in the armed forces. This service involves his going overseas to live for a time far from his home and far from the girl he loves. As has happened so often in the past, the girl asks in her letters that her fiancé tell her all about himself. She wants to know what he does every day. She would like the latest pictures which he has had taken of him. She wants to know the smallest details of his life. This might appear to be puzzling to the young man who may wonder why in the world his girlfriend wants to know all these meaningless and insignificant details which are of no importance to him and which seem totally boring. If he inquires of her as to the reason for her interest in these things, she could conceivably answer that she wants to learn as much as she can about him because she wants to discover for herself whether or not he will be a husband who can provide her with the good things of life when once they get married. She may answer that she wants to be sure that he will, after their marriage, enable her to live a life of complete leisure in which she can do as she pleases and enjoy life to the full.
But if this is the gist of her answer, her fiancé will have good reason to doubt her love for him, and will have every reason to conclude that she loves herself only and simply wants to use him for her own selfish purposes. That will be sufficient to break the engagement. But if on the other hand, she really does love her husband-to-be, she will answer that she wants to know all she can about him for no other reason than that she loves him. Love prompts her to want to know all she can about him. Love is its own reason. Love is sufficient reason. It is in the nature of love to want this. And it is precisely because of that love which expresses itself in that way that she will also keep herself pure for him, waiting anxiously the time of his return.
Do you see the analogy? We are engaged to Christ. We are destined to be His bride. If the love which is stirred up in us by the letters He writes to us in the Scriptures is a genuine love, that love will not only, for its own sake, want to know all that there is to know about Christ, but that desire to know all that there is to know about Christ will also prompt us to keep ourselves unspotted from the world while we anxiously await the coming of our Lover to take us to Himself in the marriage supper of the Lamb.
It is in this way that doctrine and practice are related.
I will have to save your other questions for the next letter.
With Christian greetings,