It is important for ministers of the gospel to, at one and the same time, avoid that theological dilution by which we fail to bring up children “until they are farther advanced” while rejecting that ecclesiastical elitism that refuses to “accommodate to the capacity” of those we are instructing.
“We keep our preaching basic because we have so many new believers. If we give them too much doctrine, they won’t be able to understand it.” I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard church planters and pastors say such things. Sadly, as their ministries begin to grow numerically, mature believers in the congregation are left to languish in spiritual malnourishment and discouragement.
Ministers need to learn how to break down, rather than water down, the truth of God’s word.
On the other hand, there are those churches (though significantly fewer in number) in which ministers seem to wear their academic interests on their sleeve in the pulpit. They burden the congregation with highly nuanced theological subjects or phraseology in the name of faithfulness. Whether it is compromising ministers diluting God’s word to the spiritual malnourishment of the congregation or ivory tower pastors caring little about bringing along new believers, one of the great needs of our day is for preachers to learn how to break down, rather than water down, the truth of God’s word.
We find this important principle at work in the ministry of the sixteenth-century theologian John Calvin. On the whole, Calvin tended to reserve his more academic prowess for his work The Institutes of the Christian Religion and his commentaries rather than for his sermons. In his essay, “Calvin’s Sermons on Ephesians: Expounding and Applying Scripture, ” Randall C. Zachman helpfully observes,
[Calvin’s] sermons differed from the commentaries both in terms of their audience and their objective. The commentaries have, as their audience, the future pastors…with the goal of revealing the mind of the author with lucid brevity. The sermons have, as their audience, ordinary Christians within a specific congregation with the goal of expounding the intention or meaning of the author, and of applying that meaning to their use, so that they might retain that meaning in their minds and hearts, and put it into practice in their lives.
Calvin sought to adjust himself in different ways to his readers and hearers, distinguishing between what he wrote for the academy and what he proclaimed from the pulpit. A brief comparison of his commentary on Genesis and his sermons on Genesis serve to demonstrate this difference of approach. To be sure, it is a task of no small difficulty.
Ministers must be careful to neither deny the sovereign working of the Spirit nor intellectually insult the congregation.
In our day, when ministers water down God’s word they almost always do so from behind a missiological smokescreen. Insisting that a robustly theological ministry is a detriment to reaching the unchurched, they introduce a number of serious problems.
First, ministers—perhaps inadvertently—give the impression that the ability to impart spiritual understanding lies within the power of the messenger rather than in the working of the Spirit and word of God. In essence, they suggest that the outcome of their teaching is commensurate with the supposed intellectual ability of the hearers. This not only denies the sovereign working of the Spirit of God through the word of God—it levels an intellectual insult at the people to whom they minister.