Tom Nettles is well known as a church historian. He’s also an accomplished preacher, and in his latest book these two endeavors at which he excels combine to provide us with an illuminating study of the importance and the role of doctrinal preaching.
I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance, and we’re talking today to Dr. Nettles about his new book, The Privilege, Promise, Power, and Peril of Doctrinal Preaching.
Tom, great to have you with us again.
Thank you very much for having me on, Fred.
You begin your book by asserting, “By its very nature, Christian preaching is doctrinal.” In fact, you say that “there is no such thing as non-doctrinal preaching.” Talk to us about this – I suspect that will be a new thought to some. And what does this have to do with boneless chicken?
One of the earliest Gary Larson cartoons I saw of two that I remember in particular, one was a picture of a pet store that had a cat in it that had wooden legs and then it had a sign on an aquarium that said, Piranhas for Sale, Cheap. So that introduced me to Gary Larson’s The Far Side. Another one he had was a picture of what he called a Boneless Chicken Farm. It had all these chickens just lying around on the ground unable to move. They had their flesh and they were just kind of spread out there and they couldn’t move because they were raising boneless chickens for all the stuff you get in the grocery store.
Anyway, I thought about that as I was writing; you know how some of these things come to you. Maybe later you regret that you put it in, but I think it’s a pretty apt picture of what some preaching is. The contention there, of course, is that doctrine is always sort of like the skeletal system. Doctrine is the thing that continues to give form and strength and the ability to move to a sermon. What we do when we preach, is we just put flesh on the bones of doctrine; and this flesh comes from any text that we may be preaching. Se are preaching expository messages out of certain texts of Scripture that have their own context and have their own particular application; but all of it is related to this central core of consistent doctrine that is throughout Scripture. It has a purpose, it has a center, it’s focusing toward redemption, toward the person of Christ. It’s unveiling for us God’s eternal purpose and the covenant of redemption and as we preach we show all the different ways in which this is manifest in texts throughout the Bible, but unless we had that bone structure of something like the covenant of redemption, then our preaching goes nowhere.
More specifically, what is doctrinal preaching? What do you mean by the expression? Tell us what you are advocating in your book.
Well, the reason I say that all preaching is doctrinal is that there is a sense in which when a person stands up to preach in public, people consider that there is some degree of authority in what he says. That he has studied what he says, he has advice to give, or he has some perspective to give them on the world or something that will change their mind and their worldview. And that can be done poorly, or it can be done well. If it is done poorly, then the things that people learn have to do with shallow issues or they may even be convinced that some of these things don’t really matter. It’s not that they are not learning anything about a worldview. It’s not that poor doctrine or lack of doctrine just doesn’t give any instruction. In fact, it does give instruction. Some people become convinced that these things are just not that important, or things that are not important, that are emphasized by preachers, are more important than what the Bible actually sets forth as its central goals. So you alter congregations and you alter cultures on the basis of what is set forth as important, And if you have someone that is just preaching health and wealth all the time without any central core of sin and redemption and Christ, the doctrine they are learning is that the thing that’s important, that God wants us to know, is that we should pursue our personal self-comfort – that’s their doctrine. So, there’s no such thing as non-doctrinal preaching. It’s just that sometimes those doctrines that should be central to what we preach are left out, and people become convinced of something else.
What, then, is your goal in this book? What contribution do you hope to make, and what is it you hope to accomplish?
Well, the goal is twofold. One, I guess, is prescriptive and another is descriptive. I don’t set myself up as being able to prescribe how everybody should preach and I have never served as a pastor of a church. I’ve been on church staffs many times, but I’ve never had a regular pulpit ministry, so we would be a little bit presumptuous of me to begin to tell pastors how they should do when they are the ones who are doing this stuff week by week and have done it for years. But I’ve developed some convictions about it from the preaching I have done and from the study of history and seeing how preachers have affected the cultures in which they live. My goal in the book is from a descriptive standpoint to just set forth what has actually happened, in America, through the doctrine that has been either set forth or not set forth from American pulpits. And I’ve tried to focus on individual figures within different eras that had a larger-than-life influence on the perceptions that the laity had, and that had a great influence on the way in which ministers perceived they should be preaching. The descriptive aspect locates a place in which I think a major doctrinal change took place how that doctrinal change affected the way in which people preach. As that doctrinal change continues to be popularized and its assumptions become more reified within the culture, then we end up with something that is completely non-redemptive in its orientation, that is focused purely on existential experience in some way, wealth in another, or other manifestations. So that’s the descriptive part of it – to show how a shift in doctrine actually does affect the way people preach.
The prescriptive part of it is to try to urge people to have a fully formed confessional theology that informs their preaching, and that when they build the flesh of their expository sermons, they are putting it on the bones of the well-constructed, biblically historically confessional doctrine.
You spend a good bit of time analyzing the historical progression of preaching in America. I thought it was fascinating. Tell us about the representative preachers you select and what it is you observe about preaching from their examples. Take your time here if you’d like to give us a feel for what preaching has looked like over the years and what we might learn from it.
I start the book with just some exposition of why I think doctrinal preaching is important and try to affirm that that’s what Jesus expected us to do, that the apostles began to build very powerful doctrine in their epistles, and indicating that when they were preaching to people this is the kind of thing they preached. It was an expansion even on what Jesus did because Jesus had said, “greater things than these greater you will do.” And he referred at least to the amount of revelation they would be giving and how they would preach that. I try to build a biblical foundation for the reality of letting our preaching not be something less than that which is possible through the apostolic material and the completion of revelation in the apostolic ministry that we have available to us. I illustrate it through Jonathan Edwards.
Now a person who has spent a good bit of time in Edwards knows that when you isolate some of his sermons, you think that he was not an exegetical preacher because he just takes a doctrinal idea out of a text and then expands on it into uses and applications and that sort of thing. But if you look at what his whole ministry was, there are several times that he would preach large series of sermons on the individual ideas or on books or on chapters. Everyone thinks of his 1 Corinthians 13 exposition, Charity and Its Fruits, and the power of that. But from the standpoint of individual sermons I try to focus on how Edwards would take a text and he would spend maybe what came out in its printed form a page and a half, just setting its context, dealing with the words, showing what it meant, there, in its context. And then, in Puritan fashion, he would immediately set forth a doctrine of the text. Then he would give different aspects of that doctrine of the text, showing how it related to other doctrines in Scripture. Then he would have a section uses in which he would go back through the doctrine of the text, showing how all the individual parts of it related to the evidences of true Christian faith, or to the kind of irrationality that unregenerate people might have in not paying attention to these things. It’s very powerful applications, point by point of the doctrine. There was no application in Edwards that was not based upon doctrine and demonstrably so. I try to set Edwards as a paradigm for this. Now I don’t advocate anyone trying to imitate Edwards. I think he’s inimitable. He’s obviously someone far beyond what most of us are capable of. But nevertheless, the theory he had about the centrality of doctrine to every text of Scripture and how doctrine could be applied that would make the doctrine itself cause us to transcend the rigors and the tyranny of our every-day existential concerns and culture and try to focus our minds on those things that the Bible says we should be concerned about. That is what is to me is so powerful in Edwards. He is able to recognize how we get caught up in temporal, changeable things and we try to use the Bible to give advice about those particular things and we don’t ever allow the text to cause us to transcend that and focus our mind and attention on the things the Bible actually says should occupy our energies. I try to show that this model of Edwards is something that we should work at recapturing, because I do think that it is a very faithful, biblical model.
Then I give some examples of how other people followed him. Particularly I talk about Asahel Nettleton as someone who did that. He didn’t have quite as robust and as comprehensive a theological grasp of things that Edwards did, but nevertheless, I think he is a very good representative of a post-Edwardsian preaching.
But then, during the time of Nettleton, we have another person who was influenced by that stream of affirmation of revival preaching that Edwards was so strong in, Charles Finney, but who set himself with self-consciousness to reverse the Edwardsian trend, to reverse the impact that Edwards had had on preaching. In several different aspects, but most notably is what I point out and then I trace this out through the book, most notably was his view of the will. Finney just did not accept Edwards’ understanding of the bondage of the will, and that we are free because we are free agents, not because the will is capable of contra causal action. He believed that we actually could act in opposition to what had been prevailing dispositions. In fact, the will, somehow, was more a manifestation of just pure rationality than it was of affections. He was inconsistent in this, but his purpose was to make the will the central focus of the preacher’s attentions and energy in his preaching and that the preacher could actually devise means by which he could make a person listening to him change his ultimate intention. That’s what he says that repentance is: it’s basically that a person alters the direction of his ultimate intention. And the preacher plays a part in doing this. He had four causes. He said there are four causes of how a person is converted. He says that first-of-all, there is the Word of God which sets forth the truth. Second, there is the preacher who devises a means of setting forth what the Bible says, but also means of insinuating himself into the will of the listener. Third there is the Holy Spirit who brings to bear certain ideas and convincing influences that can go beyond even what the preacher does, but it’s not effectual. And the final cause of a person’s conversion is the sinner’s will, himself. He is the one that takes into account all of these other influences and finally, he is the only one that can change his ultimate intention. So, everything that the preacher does should be moving toward creating the atmosphere and creating the motives that will make a person change his ultimate intention and thus he will convert himself to God, as it were. Finney was very sophisticated, theologically; he was just loaded with theological ideas. As far as filling his sermons with theology and arguing from theology, just from the standpoint of the mechanics and the particular way that he related all of his arguments to theology and related his applications to theology, I still think he’s a good model. It’s just that the content is what changed. That’s why I have that word, the Peril of doctrinal preaching in it. Because, if you shift a doctrine that is vital to our understanding of what the world is and how man is rightly related to God and you press that erroneous doctrine, then that is going to alter the entire discipline of preaching in the way that all people perceive who God is and who they are. That feeds into the idea that there’s no such thing as non-doctrinal preaching, because we’re always learning, we’re always developing a worldview out of what is set forth as important by the preacher. So, Finney makes this radical change in the sort of doctrine that was preached and applied.
I follow that up with several representatives that I think were very influential in their age, and that served as a model for many preachers. I talk about D.L. Moody. He didn’t embrace all of the theological fallout that Finney had involved in, but nevertheless, he embraced this idea of the will, how the preacher could play on the will. Then he began to do not as much through rational discourse as Finney did, but he did it through folksy stories and through attaching oneself to emotions and to sentimentality and things like that. Now, his doctrine was certainly not bad, and there are places in which he really talks about these things… He adopted these three ideas of Ruin, Redemption, and Regeneration. And when he would focus on those particular theological ideas, he was, I think, a very effective preacher. But still, the central idea of what Moody did was to reach the will of the person, basically through sentiment.
Then you have someone like Sam Jones, who was called the Moody of the South. Some of his sermons are really, really, strange, but he had this same sort of idea of telling folksy stories and appealing to people through memories they had of their mother, or their childhood, or of certain things. The doctrine of repentance was so diluted by that time that it’s hard to recognize that he even had some kind of doctrine of repentance. He basically called it, “just quit your meanness.” He has a long sermon on quit your meanness, and repentance, basically, is just a person just deciding that he is not going to be as bad as he used to be or something like that.
And again, all of these preachers are crossing the plane of truth many times. They are dealing with the Bible and so as they moved their course around through the Bible they will cross the plane of truth, they will say things that are clearly historically, doctrinally, confessionally within the framework of what it means to preach the Gospel; but there is so much within it that is other than the kind of emphasis that arose out of Edwards and out of a truly confessional theology, and so much emphasis on the priority and power of the will of man, that it just continues to lose the fervency of the worldview that someone like Edwards would preach.
And then we come to somebody like Billy Sunday, also. Many things I admire about Billy Sunday: he focuses on the Blood and the Book; strong on inerrancy and strong on the power and inspiration of Scripture; sometimes very attractive in the folksy way that he would tell Bible stories and deal with biblical events. But he seemed to focus on the idea that the way you get a person to change… He admired Finney a lot. He just talks about Finney and then he’ll mention Edwards and Whitfield and just go through the whole line, though it’s clear that he is not preaching the doctrine of Edwards and Whitfield. Finney is the one that he admired, and he gives a definition of revival that is very much like Finney’s definition, that just has to do with if you use the right means and apply the means in the proper way, then, just like planting seed in the ground, you get corn, you use these means you’re going to get revival. He developed his own means. And his own means was sort of a confrontive, bombastic kind of sensational presentation of his being a champion, fighting against sin, and fighting against immorality, and fighting for the American way. And he set forth Christianity as basically the thing that’s going to save American values. Now, again, he crossed the plane of truth and I’m sure there were genuine conversions in his preaching and I learned to admire his zeal and wish I had half of it sometimes. But zeal without knowledge, many times is a dangerous thing. His effort was to get at the will, to change a person’s will basically through insulting them, calling them all kinds of names like, “you lobster-necked, baboon-faced, black-whiskered, stupid man, why won’t you do so and so.” (Laughing) I don’t know where he came up with this long list of stuff that he could just say, just piling insults upon his enemies and insults upon his audience and that is the thing that he believed would get them down the aisle, make them hit the sawdust trail. If that wouldn’t work, then he would begin to appeal like Sam Jones did. You know, your mother would do this, and your mother would do this, and all the sentimentality. So, there’s a loss of any kind of extended doctrinal application within the sermon and a reverting to seeking to manipulate the will through a particular method either of sentiment or of insults. But he was very popular, of course, and he set the stage for what many preachers did at that time.
Then we get to Billy Graham. Billy Graham recognized that because of the failures of some evangelists and some of the histrionics that they were involved in, that evangelism had developed a bad reputation. And while he agreed with the zeal and there were many things that he adopted from all the other evangelists that he’d seen – he adopted some things out of Finney and believed that there was great revival under Finney, and he adopted some things out Moody and believed that Moody also had a tremendous genuine revival taking place – but he recognized that there were things that had become caricatures of evangelists that he wanted to avoid. He and his team set forth, I can’t remember all four of them, but there were four different principles that have been called, by observers, the Modesto manifesto. He didn’t call them that, but there were four basic ideas that they thought had made revivalists unpopular. One was counting the numbers, one was the sexual escapades that became reported, another was the great amount of money that they tried to collect, and then there’s a fourth one that I can’t recall, right now. But they set these goals and admirably, all of his teams stayed by these things. There were no scandals surrounding his ministry either from sexuality or from perversion of the monetary side of it. They all were on salary; they didn’t just gather the money and put it in their own pockets. They created a ministry out of it so people recognized that with what Billy Graham was getting, he was producing movies and he would support other evangelists. There was the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association that had this way of spreading the influence, and he and his team were simply on salary from that, so that was an admirable thing. Also, his personal character and personal charisma – I just have a lot of admiration for Billy Graham. All of us know people who were converted at Billy Graham Crusades because he was so simple and so centrist on the Bible. The Bible says… The Bible says… There’s an attraction to that, and that, in itself, I think, created the very positive doctrinal commitment to those who heard him. There was a renewal of the centrality of biblical authority without all the shenanigans that went around that and without the necessity of emotional manipulation. It was simply: here’s the proposition from Scripture, here’s what it says, and therefore this is what you ought to believe about that. And I really admire that and think that it actually set the stage for Evangelicalism’s recovery of the doctrine of inerrancy and giving all the evidences for the inspiration of Scripture. Billy Graham’s ministry helped recover the Princeton arguments for inerrancy. There was a very positive influence, I think, theologically, and culturally and spiritually in the ministry of Graham. However, he maintained the doctrine of the will and so you’ll find within Billy Graham, that when he comes to the final appeals, he will say, “You can be saved at the snap of your finger when you receive Jesus. You just receive Jesus as a matter of your will, right now, God has left it up to your will, you receive Jesus now.” And so, in the context of all of these good things and the presentation of the Cross and the necessity of repentance and faith, in which many people were saved, he still prolonged this opposition to the idea of the bondage of the will and the necessity of a sovereign work of God to change the heart. And so that continued to open up the idea that a person saves himself through his will. If you just can formulate a careful prayer and get a person to pray this prayer, then you can give them assurance that they are saved. And we see, at the end of his crusades, he would say, “If you pray this prayer with me, and you mean it in your heart, I can assure you right now that you are saved and we’re going to give you some material.” So, it is at that moment of the praying of the prayer that salvation comes. This is why much of his ministry was based upon decisions. The Decision magazine, and his radio program, The Hour of Decision. Because he was moving people toward getting them to make this decision that, in his mind, would be worded in a carefully constructed prayer that emphasized repentance and faith in Christ, but, nevertheless, it was the willingness of the person to pray that prayer that brings them salvation. So that simply perpetuated what my book is arguing is the major doctrinal problem that then led to other things.
Well, I think that it is within the sweep of that that we see the phenomenon of Joel Osteen. Now Joel Osteen received plenty of criticism from Evangelicals all across the spectrum, from Arminians, from Calvinists. From a lot of different people because it’s so transparently self-centered, that people of all different varieties criticize him. But he’s obviously very popular and thousands and thousands of people go to his church and thousands will come to these various conferences where he goes and he sells tickets to them. And it is just the same message every time. It is amazing how, as I think I said in the book, he’s very impressive for the way that he is able to make pure self-interests seem like Christian truth. But it is all built upon the will. This is the fruit of the will. You think this, you envision this, you want this, and you can get this. This is the power of the will. At the end of his book, he may not have any doctrinal message and nothing about the Gospel in a book, nothing about the death of Christ unless it’s a passing reference. “We only have one Savior; he died for us.” That’s one line in one of his books. But all of this self-interest, how you can get a better job, you can get a better house, you can get a better salary, you can get better friends, you can get rid of all the losers that you are around all of your life and be an important person if you’ll think this way, if you’ll claim this promise and all of this. And then at the end of the book he has about a half a page of a prayer. He says, “I’m always interested in people coming to know Christ and I want to know if they’ve been benefited by my ministry and so here’s this prayer.” Then he’ll have them pray the prayer and then send in a letter to him that they prayed the prayer and it’s very similar to a Billy Graham prayer. I look upon this, basically, just as the triumph of the human will over all doctrine. It doesn’t matter what you think, you don’t need doctrine, all you need is to get a person to decide to pray these words. And that’s the height of the triumph of Finney’s understanding that the sinner is the one that finally converts himself. That’s the peril of a particular kind of doctrinal preaching that has destroyed the Gospel.
And the notion of the supernatural in conversion is all but completely lost.
Yeah, it is. It just becomes a matter of a human saying the right words and then you’re in; that’s all God wants.
Why does your study focus primarily on evangelists rather than pastors, and what are the “four theological dynamics” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that left their mark on preaching? And just how have these dynamics left their mark?
You warned me you were going to ask me that question, so I had to start thinking about four dynamics? When did I say that? (Laughing.)
I think I remember what they were: one, of course, was liberalism. Liberalism at the end of the 19th century began to seep into all denominations and liberals had some very good preachers from the standpoint of proclamation. I mean, who doesn’t think that Harry Emerson Fosdick as the counselor of America really was attractive in his pulpit style and then in his radio style. People listened to him all the time, but he basically was just counseling from basic principles of Scripture as to how people could have better self-esteem and deal with living life on the basis of life’s second choices and these sorts of things. But, denial of the deity of Christ, denial of the inerrancy of Scripture, denial of substitutionary atonement, just pure liberalism. But living on the memory of people wanting to have stable and meaningful lives and have some sort of devotional connection to Christ. And so, he thrived on that and many people just thought Harry Emerson Fosdick or some of these other liberal preachers just had their best interest in mind. As a reaction to that, then, there was fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism, in its early days, of course, was much more comprehensive in its attempt to reduce the impact of liberalism. But as it developed, it focused more and more just on central objective doctrines that were clearly recognizable as having been rejected by the liberals. They would focus on the deity of Christ; they would focus on the Fall of man; they would focus on the inerrancy of Scripture; they would focus on the literal meaning of the Scripture when it speaks of miracles and such things; they would focus on the necessity of repentance from sin and belief in Christ; but, they did not continue then to develop a… It was a reductionistic kind of orthodoxy that didn’t have the threads that connected all the doctrines together as you have when you have a central theme like the Covenant of Redemption or something like that or when you have a very strong confessional theology that supports your Scripture. And so, it becomes just sermons based on three or four notes, all the time. And it does not create a very robust kind of worldview and sustaining theological positions for those who hear.
There was also the Princetonian kind of attempt which was much more comprehensive, but it was for intellectuals. It didn’t make its way into the pulpit as much as fundamentalism did.
You have liberalism, you have the Princetonian response, you have the fundamentalist response, and then you have the evangelists’ response. And it’s the evangelists’ response that picked up from the fundamentals this reductionistic kind of approach to opposing liberalism. You combine that, then, with their admiration of Finney and the loss of an understanding of the necessity of sovereign regeneration, of total depravity and that sort of thing and those of the dynamics, then, that created the idea that the evangelists are the ones actually setting the broad theological agenda for American Christianity. You have these other little pockets that are developing, but because the evangelists are the ones who are the populists and they picked up the very strong affirmation and assertion of specific doctrines without the doctrine of the bondage of the will and then setting forth those doctrines in their particular personal style. And so that is what actually became a model for populist theology in America.
So those are the for dynamics, and that’s the reason I began to focus on these evangelists, because they were the ones who actually could be most effective in opposing liberalism. Conservative Christianity in America was more influenced by these evangelists than they were any other single factor.
Explain your concern in chapter 12, “Polluting the Prophetic Word.” What are you after here?
Yeah, boy, I don’t know what I was after there; I probably shouldn’t have put it in. (Laughing). It’s not quite symmetrical, is it, to the rest of what the book is about. But it does have a central concern that I think is related to it.
I struggled with that because I’m talking about people who are really good friends of mine and I think have made tremendous contributions to the overall theological discussion in Evangelicalism. For a couple of decades or more, I have just sort of ignored it, but I think the idea of continuing revelation, prophetic ministries, these things, are beginning to become more and more prominent. The people who believe that they still are functional is not just related now to Pentecostals or Assembly of God but it’s coming into very solid evangelicals and even into reformed thinkers. And they are arguing that those who do not accept these things are quenching the Spirit and are sinning by not pursuing this. I’ve seen more and more people embracing this, or at least making themselves open to it, when I think that there are very sound theological reasons for saying that those extraordinary gifts have ceased, that they are not operative in the church, that they have served their purpose. And so, the title, Polluting the Prophetic Word, comes from the idea that the basic defense of this is that we still have prophecy, we still have tongues, we still have these revelatory gifts, but now we can misinterpret these or misapply these in a certain way. We might even say that God told me something and we found out later that he wasn’t really the source of that, but that shouldn’t make us give up, we should still keep trying. And the model they do, they take Agabus out of the New Testament and they say that Agabus made mistakes in his prophecy. So that serves as the model for today’s practice of prophetic ministries and they can make mistakes. These things need to be done carefully, they need to be compared to Scripture, they need to be passed by the elders and so forth, but even at that, still people who say they have a word from the Lord might make a mistake. I compare that to what we have as revelation in Scripture – apostolic revelation and the revelation of prophets in Scripture. According to Ephesians 3, these things are revealed to God’s holy apostles and prophets and that is the mystery of Christ. So what I’m arguing is that there is no such thing as revelation from God, and those, as prophets, that served the church in the first century, that gave prophecies that were liable to be mistaken, that the prophets did not speak falsely. They served as coworkers with the apostles and in the local churches where apostles could not always be, because their number with limited. But the local churches needed to have New Covenant revelation, New Covenant theology constantly pouring into the churches for ethical reasons, for doctrinal reasons, for being able to test and set aside false teachers that were coming among them and false prophets that were coming among them. The prophetic ministry in the churches was necessary for the fleshing out and fulfilling of New Covenant theology as it was rapidly developing during the first century. So they were given the same intensity of revelatory truth and the same certainty of its truthful content as the apostles were. And so, to say that you can develop the theology of a prophet receiving revelation that is liable to mistake, in my mind pollutes the biblical understanding of the prophetic ministry.
So that’s why I entitled it Polluting the Prophetic Ministry. I’ve had conversations with people who disagree with me on that, and they’ve challenged me on certain points, and I’m willing to be challenged on it. I have continued to work on some issues and I think that I have developed some pretty cogent theological reasoning that carries my argument further than it is in this book; but I still am of the persuasion that the idea of continuing revelatory ministry, that there are certain things that we need revelation for that Scripture can’t take care of, is actually a violation of the principle of the sufficiency of Scripture.
I think one way that you characterize it was particularly helpful when you speak of the continuing revelations today as coming in the nick of time and it’s a good thing we have this, or we wouldn’t have had a particular insight in this particular situation or whatever, and the shadow that casts on the sufficiency of Scripture. I think it’s an important point to press.
Right. I do, too. Paul says, be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind that you might test and prove what the good and perfect and acceptable will of God is. So, I think that we don’t need special revelation immediately to our mind about things. Paul is saying, when Scripture is complete, you have your life transformed by paying attention to the truth. You trust in the illumining power and the providential arrangements of the Holy Spirit, you look at your gifts, you look at your providential situation, you discern what would what would be most to the glory of God in the situation, and then you do that and trust that in God’s providence you are pursuing the will of God. And I think that that is the sanctifying power of trusting in the truthfulness of the Word of God and the continued work of the Spirit in sanctification and in illumination. And if we are now waiting for a special revelation to tell us what to do, we are bypassing the very principles that are established in Scripture by which we are to be sanctified.
Give us a brief overview of the book and how you pursue your agenda.
Well, the title, The Privilege, Promise, Power, and Peril of Doctrinal Preaching. I’m affirming that it is only by grace that we are allowed to preach this kind of doctrine that is revealed truth, so it is a privilege. It is by this revealed truth that our lives are changed, and people converted; it is a promise. It is this particular truth that the Spirit takes and makes it have a transforming effect in the lives of those who will hear; it has power. All of the privilege, promise, and power is setting forth those things that are edifying and positive and should be transforming in our preaching. Peril has to do with the idea that anytime we preach we are communicating something about doctrine. We are communicating things that will be creating a worldview for persons who will make decisions, and if our doctrine is wrong or if it is shallow or if it is man-centered, then we will create people who are wrong, shallow, and man-centered. So, that’s the purpose of the title.
Then I tried to show how the privilege, promise, and power was set forth in doctrinal ways in Scripture, itself, was practiced by many people, but I use Edwards as an example. And then I try to trace out how a loss of a central theological idea, and the nursing and fondling of that error, all the different things that it produced, that have created, I think, a confusion and then, finally, just some positive idolatrous error under the guise of Christian truth.
I have a final chapter in which I try to give a statement of how Paul viewed his doctrinal preaching. The power that was in it, his trusting of the Spirit, his setting forth of the truth plainly as he has believed, therefore he has spoken, that his confidence is from God. I base it on 2 Corinthians 3, 4, and some verses in 5. I try to close it out with another exegetical defense of exactly what doctrinal preaching can accomplish.
Sum it up for us: what is the need and the value of doctrinal preaching? Why is it something we preachers must pursue?
Paul said that as a minister of the New Covenant, he was a steward. It’s not something that he invented himself. It was not his subtlety; it was not his ingenuity; it was not even his convincing power. Though we should give our whole soul to it, we should work as hard as we can; but the idea is that it is a truth that was given to him by God and he was a steward of it. And we, as preachers, are stewards. We have not invented this; we don’t get to make it up as we go along. If we are ministers of the Gospel, we have a body of revelation. We are to give ourselves to understand it personally, to live according to it personally, and to make sure that we are communicating it with all the love and fervor that should be characteristic of a disciple of Christ, but with as truthful and as clear a statement of the beauty of this revealed truth that we possibly can muster. It is in this that is the power. It is in the biblical content, itself, in all of its contours and all of its coherent relationships. We should work throughout our ministries to build up the entire biblical system before our people, so that they are transported out of this shallow, God-denying, materialistic, pleasure-consumed world and are lifted into the world of truth where God dwells and where holiness is. That should be our goal. And it’s only through creating this fabric of biblical understanding of our sin and the tendency of sin to destroy and bring death, the redemptive work of Christ, the holy inclinations that come into our heart through the work of the Holy Spirit, the glory of God the Father. And the more that we can build this biblical framework and lift our people up into that, then the more useful they are going to be in this world, and the greater their hope will be as they look forward to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I’ll cap it off with a quote from your Prologue:
This book is an argument for a clearly stated, biblical, systematic, historically Reformed, confessional doctrinal commitment as a necessary element of true expository preaching. Etymology, syntax, immediate context, author, and historical location all contribute to expository accuracy, but no message is complete until the overall canonical doctrinal message is explored. How does the message of the passage relate to the mature doctrinal outcome of revealed truth? …
Preaching is doctrinal. When pursued within a fully canonical, historically confessional context, one may expect its effects, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to develop a people that will “walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:12).
I’m Fred Zaspel, and we’re talking to Dr. Tom Nettles about his excellent and engaging new book, The Privilege, Promise, Power, and Peril of Doctrinal Preaching. Buy a copy for your pastor and every preacher you know! It is a most important subject and a genuine treat to read.
Tom, thanks so much for your faithful ministry and for your time with us here again today.
Well, thank you for having me on, Fred. I really do appreciate your labors at this, too.
The Privilege, Promise, Power, and Peril of Doctrinal Preaching