One way to preach doctrine


I believe pastors should preach doctrine. I really do. I certainly believe that expository preaching that also works consecutively through books and sections of Scripture is a wise staple in the diet of a church. But I also believe that doctrine should be preached. I’m with Calvin on this, who thought that both his Institutes and his commentaries were equally necessary.

It would be wrong to insist that there is just one right way to preach doctrine. Here I will outline one; I don’t encounter it much in the preaching I hear but I think it has much to commend it. It takes a very short text that expresses a particular doctrine, and it focuses just on the particular aspect of the doctrine expressed by that text in its context.

Here’s an example - John 17.19: ‘For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified’. Sanctification is the doctrine that’s obviously in view here. In the context of the chapter, Jesus’ ‘sanctifying’ himself is his offering of himself on the cross. In our verse, that sanctifying of himself is linked to his disciples’ (and consequently our) sanctification by a ‘that…’ clause. Jesus is saying that he sanctified himself in order to make our sanctification possible (the result), or perhaps with the aim of sanctifying us (the purpose) - or maybe he means both.

Now, what’s the theological link between these two halves of the verse? Is Christ saying (i) that he will consecrate himself in his wrath-bearing death in order that he can subsequently be raised and ascend and pour out the Holy Spirit who will sanctify us? Or is he saying (ii) that on the cross he will complete his sanctification in his ultimate act of obedience to his Father so that by virtue of our faith-union with him we will also be truly sanctified? Both options are biblically/theologically true.

Looking at the immediate context, it’s striking that language of the Son indwelling us comes immediately after (vs.20-23), so my hunch is that in context option (ii) is more strongly in view. 

So what would be preached about the doctrine of sanctification in a sermon like this on this verse?  That aspect of the doctrine of sanctification would be preached that explains what possible basis there can be for God making people like us holy: that the Son of God reached (as it were) the perfection of holiness himself in his death, and that his holiness is ours if (v.20) we believe in the message of his first disciples, because by that faith we come to be in him (v.21). In such a sermon there’s a lot about the doctrine of santification that hasn’t been said. But by (hopefully) careful exposition of a short passage a particular and crucial thing has been said.

Tim Ward is a Crosslands faculty member and Tutor in Homiletics at Oak Hill College

Tom Olyott