Why do we Preach Doctrine?
If you visit Immanuel Fellowship Church, one thing you will notice is that, especially in the evening service, you will hear doctrine. And you might wonder, is it really a good idea for a church that is trying to be faithful in this generation to preach doctrine? Well, really we have no choice. To remain faithful to God’s charter for the church, churches must preach doctrine. When Paul instructed Timothy on how to he was to conduct himself as a gospel minister he was emphatic: “Give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine…take heed to yourself and to the doctrine” (1 Timothy 4:13, 16). One of Scripture’s primary uses is doctrine (2 Timothy 3:16).
So we are not ashamed to be a doctrinal church. We believe that doctrinal preaching is an essential part of God’s plan for our growth in godliness, our protection from error, and our fitness for our mission to the world.
There are a number of ways to preach doctrinal. Our primary way is to preach the Scriptures with the help of a doctrinal catechism that has been tested for centuries and has proved dependable in promoting the great doctrines of Scripture.
Just a few years after the Heidelberg Catechism was written (1563), ministers began using it to help them preach the central doctrines of the faith. This task was aided by the fact that the 129 questions and answers are laid out in fifty-two sections called “Lord’s Days.”
But is the practice useful today? More importantly, is it right to use a man-made document as preaching material?
To respond to the second question, catechism preaching is merely another kind of Bible preaching. In some sermons the minister expounds one text. When he preaches catechetically, however, he preaches on a series of texts which form a unified topic. One minister explained it this way: In some sermons you hear “textually specific” preaching; whereas, in others you hear “topically specific” preaching. In catechetical preaching “the minister takes the whole Bible as his text and shows his flock how different parts of Scripture have a bearing on this or that particular biblical…teaching.”
In what follows I hope to demonstrate the benefits of catechetical preaching—not so much to defend a unique ecclesiastical tradition—but to help us desire the pure milk of the word (1 Peter 2:2) as it is preached catechetically.
Catechism preaching makes use of a good teaching tool. Every sermon has (or ought to have) a structure. When preaching catechetically the minister uses the catechism as the sermon (and series) structure. And it’s a good structure; its outline—following Paul’s letter to the Romans—teaches the deepest realities of life; from mankind’s pervasive guilt, to God’s amazing grace, to the believer’s heart-felt life of gratitude. Like a great teacher, the catechism communicates these deep truths by way of questions and answers John Milton Gregory explained that one of the most important rules of teaching is to prepare beforehand thought provoking questions. Not surprisingly, the Bible too frequently uses this method (e.g. Micah 6:8, Mark 8:29, 36).
It is sometimes suggested that man-made confessions usurp Scripture’s authority. But, by the very way the Catechism handles Scripture, we are taught to submit to God and his word. The so called “proof-texts” are like arrows pointing to places in Scripture where readers can explore the great truths of the Christian faith. Abraham Kuyper says they are like signs that proclaim: “From these mines this gold has been dug.” For example, question and answer nineteen provides more than twenty-five texts to help us better understand the gospel and how it teaches us about Christ our mediator.
Catechism preaching also honors Scripture by helping the minister tell the Bible’s story. When the Catechism explains the Apostles’ Creed (Lord’s Days 8–22) it begins with God and creation. It follows redemptive history by then unfolding God’s plan of salvation in Christ. It recognizes the critical ministry of the Holy Spirit who came to empower the church to march forward under Christ’s banner, looking forward to the coming of the great day of restoration and eternal life.
The catechism is not just a string of texts, but an organized presentation of great Bible themes. Someone has well said that “The whole of Scripture, not just some parts of it, are explicitly or implicitly doctrinal in content.” Doctrine is the first stated use of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16)!
The Catechism can help pastors preach doctrine well. Without a time-tested organizing structure some ministers might fail to build up their congregants in certain essential truths of Christianity (e.g. The Creed, sacraments, prayer, Ten Commandments). The Catechism helps ministers to major on the majors and avoid imbalanced, “hobby-horse” sermons.
Catechism preaching can also help congregants know what they believe and why they believe it. Most churches have statements of faith even if they are sometimes minimal and inconspicuous. But when churches minimize doctrine, churchgoers might hear a lot about how to be a successful person, but know very little of the Christian faith.
Catechism preaching can make for doctrinally strong believers who will not fall prey to every wind of teaching (Eph. 4:14).
The Catechism helps the contemporary church resist the urge for doctrinal innovation. Charles Spurgeon spoke to our age when he said, “Rest assured that there is nothing new in theology except that which is false…” Believers should applaud creativity, but not in doctrine. Doctrine is a trust, a deposit (Jude 3). The Catechism unites us with our predecessors as well as with Christians in our own day as we confess essential Christianity.
Catechism preaching emphasizes heart-focused application as it joins doctrine and life. The Catechism answers the question many church-goers ask after a sermon: “how is this information useful?” The word “benefit” is used eight times. For example, “What does the resurrection of Christ profit us?” (Q. 45). Or, “Of what advantage to us is Christ’s ascension into heaven?” (Q. 49). The Catechism addresses direct questions about the use of the sacraments (Q/A 67) and more specific questions like, “Who are to come to the Lord’s Table? (Q/A 81).”
The Catechism is rich devotional material which aims at warming the heart as well as informing the head, thereby promoting personal piety. Several of the questions can be used as prayers with just a few word changes. From the first question we sense the authors’ emphasis on experiential piety by their use of personal pronouns: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” Likewise, question and answer twenty-one stresses the importance of appropriating the benefits of Christ through personal faith. Clearly, the Catechism was written by authors who were intimately familiar with the personal piety of the Psalter.
The Catechism can help us better plumb the depths of the riches of our great salvation. When blessed by the Holy Spirit, catechism preaching kindles in our hearts a love for the God who has saved us by his boundless grace. Isn’t that what all preaching is meant to do?
For an illustrated children’s introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism, see Pastor Boekestein’s “The Quest for Comfort: The Story of the Heidelberg Catechism.”