Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Gospel Idea of Preaching

By Robert Lewis Dabney, 1820-1898

FROM the days of Enoch, who prophesied (Jude 13), and of Noah, who was a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter ii. 5), to our day God has employed “the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” To us who hold that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is the religion of Protestants, both the warrant for preaching, as a religious ordinance, and the model for its performance, must be given from the Word of God. The patriarchs, the prophets, probably the Aaronic priests and the pious kings, preached to Israel. But the first full description of the nature of the exercise is the oft-cited passage from Nehemiah viii. 1-8, when Ezra and his associates “read in the book of the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” Here we have the true scriptural idea of the preacher’s function: to make the people understand what is in God’s word. The Christian minister’s commission is in these words: “Preach the word; (herald the word;) be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and doctrine.” (2 Tim. iv. 2.) The object of preaching is the salvation of the soul; and that salvation consists in a redemption from the guilt, love and practice of iniquity. The instrument of this redemption is God’s truth, as he has revealed it. “Sanctify them through thy truth.” The preacher is most explicitly called a herald; that is, the deliverer of a message. Now, the herald does not make his message, he merely transmits it. He has nothing to do with judging its wisdom or fitness; let him simply proclaim it as it is given to him. This was God’s command to an ancient preacher: “Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.” (Jonah iii. 2.)

Or, the preacher’s office may be illustrated by the work of one who uses a die put into his hands, to form impressions on some plastic substance. The sinful soul is that substance. The Word of God is the die; and the divine image of knowledge and true holiness is the impression to be formed. God, who made man’s soul, and therefore knows it made the die; and of course he best knew how to make it, to produce the impression he desired. Now, the workman’s business is not to criticize, re-carve, or alter the die which is committed to him, but simply to press it down upon the substance to be shaped. In this view, how plain is it that all preaching must be accurately representative of Bible truth, and in Bible proportions? Else it is not God’s work. The preacher’s business is simply to take what he finds in the Scriptures, and as he finds it, and press it down upon the understandings, hearts, and consciences of men. Nothing else is his business as a preacher. The die is just so sharp and hard, so large and so perfect as God would have it. He judged it was the right die to produce the impression he intends. This is enough for us. . Here we have a few obvious truths which none will dispute who are known as evangelical Christians. But if we are not mistaken, they contain the following deductions by which many things, very prevalent in the practice of persons considering themselves evangelical, are condemned.

1. Not only must Bible topics form the whole subject matter of preaching, but they must be presented in scriptural aspects and proportions. ... “The preacher’s business is just to show the people what is in the Bible,” as God has there set it forth.

2. These principles cut up by the roots the whole fashion of “preaching up the times,” as it was quaintly called by our Scotch forefathers. ... “Are Bible principles never to be applied, then, to the correction of the social evils of the day by those who are the appointed expounders of the Bible?” So far as God so applies them in the Bible, yes; but no farther. Let the preacher take the application of the principles, as well as the principles applied, from the Word of God; let him take, not only his starting position but his whole topics, from God’s word, and he will be in no danger of incurring that sarcasm, as biting as it is just, directed against those who “take their texts from the Bible, and their sermons from the newspapers.” ...

3. From the scriptural idea of the preacher’s work we may learn what is the true nature of that spirit in the minister, which thinks it is necessary to take a more ample range in preaching than simply showing the people what the Bible means. How many are there who would shrink back with dread from what they consider so confined a walk of ministerial labour. ... There have been two stages in the defection of the church from the simplicity of the gospel in past days. The first has been when the ministry have held to the truths of the gospel system, but have insisted on arranging and presenting them according to the methods of the fashionable human philosophy of the day. The second—and it is close to the first—has been when they have gone to human philosophy, both for their arrangement and their doctrines. The eras of efficiency and spiritual might have always been prior to both stages, when the ministry was content to set forth Bible truths in Bible aspects. ...

4. If the business of the preacher is simply to make the people see and feel what is in the Word of God, preaching should usually be what is popularly known as “expository.” In most cases it is no fair exposition of the divine meaning to single out a single proposition from its connection, and fix the whole attention on it, to the exclusion of those truths which God has placed beside it. The Scriptures are a whole. ... Passages of Scripture must be unfolded in their connection. Yea, whole books and epistles must be so applied to the Christian soul. And where we depart from this method, to preach topically upon a single proposition of the Scriptures, it should yet be a true exposition, an evolution of the meaning of the spirit in that text.

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R.L. Dabney was a Southern Presbyterian pastor, theologian and professor at several universities. He enlisted in the Confederate army as a chaplain and became chief of staff to General "Stonewall" Jackson. He distinguished himself in several battles. “He was a matchless teacher. He possessed a clear, powerful intellect, which grasped the substance of the most profound philosophical themes and made them plain. He had had that close contact with men, that practical experience of affairs, which enabled him to present difficult subjects in their relation to the thought and needs of every-day life. He exemplified the difference between a learned book-worm, who knew his subject only from a theoretical viewpoint, and the profound master who presented it in relation to the actual experience of his hearers. Dr. Dabney had that rare gift of making systematic theology not a study of dry bones, but a living system, most interesting and instructive, because throbbing with reality and power" (Henry M. Woods).