In Spurgeon’s Lectures to my Students, in addressing the matter of ‘The Sermon’, Spurgeon exhorts his students ‘to give a clear testimony to all the doctrines which constitute or lie around the gospel.’ His point is simple. Some preachers are reticent to teach the whole counsel of God fearing the truth they teach may be irrelevant (or perhaps, even offensive!) to their hearers. Spurgeon was a great believer in all of God’s word as good and profitable, and therefore, in his usual straight-speaking manner declared that ‘No truth is to be kept back […] Cautious reticence is, in nine cases out of ten, cowardly betrayal’.
However, it’s the illustration he gives to make his point which provides some real food for thought. Spurgeon beautifully writes:
Harmony requires that the voice of one doctrine shall not drown the rest, and it also demands that the gentler notes shall not be omitted because of the greater volume of other sounds. Every note appointed by the great minstrel must be sounded; each note having its own proportionate power and emphasis, the passage marked with forte must not be softened, and those with piano must not be rolled out like thunder, but each must have its due hearing. All revealed truth in harmonious proportion must be your theme.
It’s a beautiful illustration because Spurgeon is making two important points to his students. The first, which we’ve already seen, is ‘to give a clear testimony to all the doctrines’. Yet, the second, is to be careful in so doing that right proportion and harmony is maintained. Thus, Spurgeon goes on to say:
Those doctrines which are not vital to the soul’s salvation, nor even essential to practical Christianity, are not to be considered upon every occasion of worship. Bring in all the features of truth in due proportion […] a doctrine may be very important, but an exaggerated estimate of it may be fatal to an harmonious and complete ministry. Do not paint the details of the background of the gospel picture with the same heavy brush as the great objects in the foreground of it.
What Spurgeon was critiquing in some of the preachers of his day was an obsession with particular doctrines. By all means, give a clear testimony to all doctrines as you are able, but do not emphasise and prioritise all doctrines in the same way. Spurgeon was making clear that biblical revelation has an emphasis. The Bible is the revelation from God about what He has done in Jesus Christ His Son to save a people to the praise of His glory. The gospel message about Jesus is to be the emphasis. The salvific preaching of the cross is to be the priority. Transformation into Christlikeness to the glory of God is to be the goal. The preachers’ job is to reflect that emphasis and priority in their sermons. To do otherwise is to distort the harmony of revealed truth. Indeed, it is to teach something true and yet speak falsely because your teaching is at the expense of the emphasis and priority of God’s revealed truth.
Now, Spurgeon’s critique still has some relevance for us today. There are some, like in Spurgeon’s day, who are more interested in preaching endlessly on their favourite doctrinal topic rather than sticking to all revealed truth in harmonious proportion. Each teaching occasion becomes a regurgitation of the latest scholarly debate on the topic. However, in my experience, that is not the norm in our Sydney Anglican circles. If anything, perhaps our interest in learning and teaching doctrine has waned over the last little while (but that is a topic for another day…)!
If Spurgeon were to address the preachers of today, I wonder if he would warn us about a disproportionate focus on the cultural issues of our day? To rephrase Spurgeon’s words above, he might say to the modern-day preacher:
A cultural issue may be very important, but an exaggerated estimate of that cultural issue may be fatal to an harmonious and complete ministry.
For preachers in our part of the world, the pressure is growing to make the Sunday sermon about the latest cultural hot topic. The choices are endless. Environmental concerns. Family and domestic violence. Indigenous issues and the Voice to Parliament. Gender equality. Race. The economy. Local politics. World politics. The poor and marginalised. This is compounded by a growing desire for sermons to become more anthropocentric and felt-needs based instead of Christocentric. People want to be taught on how to become a better you. A better parent. A successful worker. A greater friend. A more loving spouse. These sorts of sermons, we are told, are what we need to preach if we are to be relevant to our people in our day. That’s the growing pressure. Less Jesus (not that anyone would ever put it that way, but that’s what they mean!). Less expository preaching. More relevancy please.
What if preachers were to give in to this pressure? The term-long sermon series would then develop along these lines: Term 1 on sexuality. Term 2 on work. Term 3 on hot-button issues. Term 4 on the Christian and politics, and so on. What’s more, the preacher would then spend a disproportionate amount of time becoming au fait with the latest cultural issues, with their head buried in what the experts and self-help gurus have to say, all whilst spending less and less time in the Scriptures themselves (because let’s be honest, the Scriptures do not speak in great detail about these cultural issues). The congregation too would spend less time hearing the Scriptures.
Now, I’m not saying that this is the current state of affairs amongst Sydney Anglican churches. But there is a growing trend. And the pressure is mounting. We need to remind ourselves that the local church is not a medical centre. It’s not a political movement. Sundays aren’t designed as self-help conferences. Furthermore, we need to ask ourselves why the Scriptures are not as concerned about these topics as much as our world is. Why didn’t God say more on human sexuality, given all the intricate questions of our day? Why isn’t there a section in the New Testament dedicated to Christians and the workplace, considering how central work is to the modern person? Could it be that God thought other things more relevant for Him to reveal to us? Could it be that God would rather us be consumed by other things, like Jesus His Son and His glory?
It’s at this point where academic swear words begin to be hurled. ‘That’s reductionistic!’. ‘False dichotomy!’. ‘It’s both/and!’. To which I say, please hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that God has nothing to say to us about all those things I mentioned above. We do need to become better in making space for topical sermons tackling the cultural issues of our day. The Scriptures do speak of parenting, work, friendship, and marriage. God does inform us on right (and wrong) human sexuality. We are to preach and teach on these things and understand what can be gleaned from the Scriptures about them. However! All revealed truth should be preached in harmonious proportion. If all the preacher does is preach and teach in light of modern-day issues, the harmony of God’s revelation is being distorted. If all the preacher does is start with the questions of the world, seeking to glean the Scriptures for answers on how to be a better you, then the harmony of Scripture will be distorted.
Here is my bold assertion. Can we preach things that are true from the Scriptures, yet speak falsely, because our preaching disproportionately deals with the questions of our world at the expense of the emphasis of the revealed truth of Scripture? As I read the Scriptures, it seems to me that God’s concerns and priorities are to do with His glory and the proclaiming of the message of Jesus. Jesus himself is concerned primarily about preaching that message in his own ministry when you read the early chapters of Mark. In what is very familiar to all of us, instead of Jesus prioritising only what is good (the healing of many, Mark 1:32-34), he insists on what is best – going on to the next village so that he may preach there too (Mark 1:38). Indeed, that is why he has come. This is the same priority we see in the early church with the Apostles. While the issue concerning the widows in Acts 6:1-7 is very important, THE issue is not the distribution of daily needs but the neglect of the preaching about Jesus. It really is surprising what the Apostles say. Amidst the racism, inequality, and protection of vulnerable people (the preferencing of Hebraic widows over Hellenistic widows), the Apostles declare: It would not be right for us to give up preaching about God to handle financial matters (Acts 6:2). To be sure, the Apostles deal with both issues – but one is clearly more central than the other. As one of our favorite theologians would say, ‘there’s the good and there’s the best’.
In a piece of this length, we cannot explore and consider every nuance of what I’m asserting. There is often much misunderstanding when we begin to speak of priorities and things of most importance (1 Cor 15:3). People quickly jump to what is not being said rather than listening carefully to what is being said.
Let us be careful preaching what is true that we are not teaching falsely. Let us preach all revealed truth in harmonious proportion. Let us make sure that the priorities and emphasis of all our ministries are in harmony with what God himself has told us in His Word.
To give Spurgeon the last word:
Our great master theme is the good news from heaven; the tidings of mercy through the atoning death of Jesus, mercy to the chief of sinners upon their believing in Jesus.
We must throw all our strength of judgement, memory, imagination, and eloquence into the delivery of the gospel; and not give to the preaching of the cross our random thoughts while wayside topics engross our deeper mediations.
Brethren, first and above all things, keep to plain evangelical doctrines; whatever else you do or do not preach, be sure incessantly to bring forth the soul-saving truth of Christ and him crucified.