Since it is quite some time since last I wrote to you, I think it best that I try to pick up the tread of our conversation a bit so that it will become clear how this letter is intended to follow upon my last letter to you.
You had written me about practical preaching and its importance in the preaching of the Word on the Sabbath. The general thrust of your letter was to the effect that preaching ought to address itself forcibly to the problems which the people of God face in their walk in the world. It ought not to be far removed from the daily life and experience of God’s people. And, further, you asked about the need to preach about the holy life of the people of God, not as an unattainable ideal, but as something for which God’s people must daily strive.
Some aspects of this matter we have already discussed, and, in general, I agreed that indeed the preaching must be practical—if that word “practical” is correctly understood. But now, there are some particular dangers to which you must be alerted as you strive to make your preaching practical in that good sense of the word.
I think I already mentioned in a former letter that you must be careful not to fall into the error of perfectionism; i.e., that you leave God’s people with the impression that they are able to attain perfection on this side of the grave, or even that they can approach perfection. The teaching of Scripture is very clear on this matter, and our confessions confirm this when, they say that we have only a small beginning of the new obedience.
But in this connection I want briefly to bring up another point. Although it is true that perfection comes to the people of God only when they are brought into glory, nevertheless, Scripture is quite clear also on the point that the dominion of sin is destroyed in us.
While there is no need in this connection to go into this point in detail, it is necessary that you make it very clear to the people of God that this is true in their lives. It is so important that you do this because else you may conceivably give the people of God occasion to excuse their sin by some kind of antinomian self justification so that they condone sin in their lives on the grounds that they are terrible sinners, unable to do any good and in no spiritual condition to heed the admonitions which Scripture holds before them.
But Scripture tells us that we are delivered from sin’s dominion. This is presupposed in every admonition and it is implied in all Scripture’s description of the work of salvation; but this is specifically taught especially in the book of Romans. In Romans 7 Paul speaks of the fact that we are dead to sin (vs. 2), that our old man is crucified with Christ (vs. 6), and that therefore the “body of sin is destroyed that henceforth we should not serve sin.” (vs. 6) He then speaks specifically of this matter when he writes that death hath no more dominion over us (vs. 9), that sin ought no more to reign in our mortal bodies (vs. 12), that sin shall no longer have dominion over us (vs. 14), that God ought to be thanked that we are no longer the servants of sin, but are the servants of righteousness (vss. 17, 18).
The question is, of course, what particularly does this mean? While I do not intend to go into a lengthy exegesis of these verses, perhaps an illustration can best clarify, at least in part, what the apostle has in mind. The matter is at least partly comparable to the freedom granted to a slave after many years of slavery. You must think of a slave who was born into slavery under a very cruel and merciless master. His slavery was so complete that every action of his was determined by his master so that he was, in all respects, the cowering and obedient dog of the tyrant who controlled the whole of his life. He was never given even the slightest opportunity to think for himself, to determine his own conduct, to do anything else but what was told him. He was given only sufficient to keep him alive and reasonably healthy so that he could do what was commanded him. He was a man who habitually wore rags, was totally unkempt in appearance, abject and servile in all his conduct, used to subsisting on a watery gruel made from the slop that came from the master’s kitchen, with no opportunity to know or become acquainted with the outside world. If this man were suddenly set free, you can imagine that it would be difficult, to say the least, for him to live a reasonably normal life in the world of free men. Never having worn decent clothes, he would not know how to dress as other people did. Having never eaten anything which constitutes the normal diet of free men, his whole system would be unaccustomed to our food. Never having bathed or shaved, he would be hardly in a position to pay attention to the needs of his personal hygiene, But; more importantly, never having lived in the society of other people, never having had to make his own way in the world, he would be utterly at a loss to know how to live, how to earn his daily bread, how to conduct himself in the proper way in contacts with his fellow men. The habits of a lifetime of slavery would be so strong that he would constantly revert to them, and would only finally overcome them through the greatest effort, and over a long period of time. Nevertheless, he would be a free man, And, although he would need the constant help of someone stronger than he, he would be forever out of the clutches of his former master and would not any longer be under the dominion of the cruel tyrant who so long determined his life.
This is roughly analogous to what Paul means when he speaks of the fact that sin has no more dominion over us. Sin is no longer our master. The habits and actions of sin are still strong in us, for they are deeply imbedded in our depraved nature. But, by grace, we are delivered and stand in the freedom of the children of God. We are given a new life which is, as it were, a life in the palace of the King where all the blessedness and joy of life in the King’s court is ours. But we need the constant instruction of the Word of God, the constant assistance of divine grace, the constant attention of Him Who has delivered us if we are to learn to throw off all the habits of our past life of slavery to sin.
It is this glorious truth which must be taught the people of God. Sin has no more dominion over them. The habits of sin are strong, and there are innumerable relapses into the old ways. For these we must daily seek forgiveness. But the greater we can be made to see the joys of life in the King’s palace, the more we will strive towards that goal of living a life compatible with the principles of the kingdom of heaven.
Shall we sin that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we who are dead to sin live any longer in it?
That is one truth which must be driven home.
But there is another matter which we must consider yet in connection with practical preaching. This has to do with the fact that it is entirely possible for the minister to address himself in his preaching to problems of life and conduct which are not directly connected with his sermon. Let me illustrate once again. In some church circles where there are different views of the covenant held than in our own it is customary for the minister to consider a large portion of his congregation as unconverted. This is not the place to enter into the doctrinal questions involved; but you know that in these circles it is customary for and expected of the minister that he end each sermon which he preaches with some kind of call to the unconverted and some kind of “toepassing” which confronts the unconverted with the need of conversion. Now, apart from the erroneous doctrine which is involved in this matter, you must understand, of course, that God’s people must be constantly called to repentance and conversion. There is no dispute about this. But the fact of the matter is that when this kind of preaching comes from the pulpit, the minister tacks on his little call to the unconverted no matter what text he may be preaching on. He may, e.g., be preaching on Eph. 1:3, 4: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should ,be holy and without blame before him.” How totally inappropriate it would be to end a sermon on this text with a call to the unconverted when the text is a personal confession of faith put in the mouths of people of God.
Or, to use another example: suppose a minister hears that his young people are increasingly guilty of the sin of movie attendance. He decides, and correctly so, that he ought to mention this from the pulpit and discuss this sin in the preaching. But if he would do that in connection with a text such as is found, e.g., in the last verses of Ephesians 1 (“And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.”) everyone would immediately sense how totally inappropriate that would be.
But the error is not only one of inappropriateness. The fact of the matter is, (and this needs the greatest emphasis), that if God’s people are to hear admonitions of a practical nature which point them to their calling in life in connection with very specific sins, then they must hear the Word of God. They must not hear a minister telling them about life. They must hear God Himself speak to them through the Word. The commands to live spiritually must be firmly rooted in the Scriptures. Only then will these commands come with the very authority of God Himself.
I cannot emphasize this strongly enough. It happens too often. The minister must be on his guard against the evil of dragging something into his sermon which has nothing to do with his text. If he wants to warn the people of God against a particular sin, let him choose a text appropriate to that and show in a very careful way that God’s Word opposes that sin. If he ever hears his parishioners say, after a sermon: “The minister can easily talk. He really does not know what life is all about, and what its difficulties are,” then he had better ask himself first of all whether he has carefully shown from God’s Word that this sin is condemned by God. Practical applications which do not flow naturally from the text do more harm than good. Avoid them as you would the plague.
And finally, and in connection with this, beware of being harsh on the pulpit. You must be authoritative. You must be able to say: “Thus saith the Lord.” But you will not attain that if you harshly rant and rave against God’s people and castigate them for their sins. The Dutch have an expression which warns against making the “preekstoel een steekstoel.” Roughly translated, I suppose this would mean that one makes the pulpit a whipping post. Jesus deals with his people as a shepherd deals with his sheep—tenderly, carefully, lovingly. You can do no differently—even when they stray. And the best way to avoid this danger is to see yourself as one of those wandering sheep. When you preach to yourself, understanding your own sins and weaknesses, you will not deal roughly with those for whom Christ died.
Fraternally in Christ,