Preaching for Doctrinal Discernment

If Christ’s sheep are to discern truth from error, shepherds from wolves, good food from poison, then you must teach them.

I want to challenge the notion that our pursuit of clarity in preaching for the average hearer, absent rhetorical flourishes that emphasize our being well-learned, equates to emptying our teaching of doctrinal terminology and intellectual rigor. Rather, I want to argue that it is pastorally imperative that we encourage our hearers to think hard and well. We must teach them doctrinal and biblical terminology that is largely foreign to the average person’s vocabulary.

 

For nearly twenty years of ministry I have heard Mark Twain’s words ringing in my ear, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” This has become like proverbial wisdom in preaching books, courses, and conferences. There is a certain admirable pastoral concern behind this phrase. It ought to be our desire to teach in a manner that the average congregant understands what we are teaching. We should fastidiously avoid preaching “with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor 1:17).

Yet, I want to challenge the notion that our pursuit of clarity in preaching for the average hearer, absent rhetorical flourishes that emphasize our being well-learned, equates to emptying our teaching of doctrinal terminology and intellectual rigor. Rather, I want to argue that it is pastorally imperative that we encourage our hearers to think hard and well. We must teach them doctrinal and biblical terminology that is largely foreign to the average person’s vocabulary.

Biblical language matters. There are biblical terms people must learn to read their Bibles well. How is someone to read the New Testament Epistles apart from knowing terms like, “predestination, election, regeneration, imputation, justification, sanctification, glorification, propitiation, expiation, atonement, covenant, and dispensation?” Given that many Christians have an underdeveloped biblical vocabulary, is it any wonder that books like Romans and Hebrews are so intimidating to many Christians? Who will teach the sheep in your congregation to understand that biblical language if you fail in your duty? How will they be good readers of God’s word if they are not well-taught by their shepherds?

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