Preaching Difficult Doctrines (Without Splitting the Church!)

The history of Christianity and of any denomination is a narrative of spats, splits, and schisms. Many churches and most denominations were born not of an intentional tactic to reach more people but as a reaction to a personal or doctrinal conflict. Doctrine does not have to be divisive, however, if a pastor will employ a few basic strategies as he teaches the Word.


Make It Textual

Christians will never understand doctrine apart from a grasp of the warp and woof of Scripture. A steady diet of exposition teaches both the metanarrative of the Bible as well as the underlying truths. Narrative passages were “written for our instruction” (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11) and as examples to us. They generally hold some sanctifying truth to emulate or some sin to avoid, but even the behaviors exhibited in the text fit within a doctrinal framework that reflects the character and the will of God.

"Every time a pastor preaches a narrative text, he should connect theological truth to the inherent attraction of a good story."

The fourth chapter of Jonah, for instance, is fascinating and has an incredible narrative appeal. One might expect that chapter three concludes the story. After initially defying the Lord, Jonah undergoes God’s chastisement in the belly of a great fish, cries out for deliverance, relents and goes to Nineveh where he delivers a message of judgment and the people repent and turn to God. Nothing could fit Aristotle’s analysis of drama better than that: exposition, complication, climax, reversal, and denouement. Jonah is a prophet (exposition), he refuses to obey God (complication), he is swallowed by a whale (climax), he cries out to God and goes to Nineveh (reversal), and as a result of his preaching the people repent (denouement). 

The fourth chapter is completely unexpected and does not seem to fit. Just when we thought the tension was resolved we are taken to an unanticipated destination: the very heart of God. The prophet who received God’s mercy pouts like an impetuous spoiled child because God has shown mercy to undeserving Babylonians. God exposes Jonah’s ridiculous and misplaced affections and then exposes his own heart, naked and raw and bleeding, for the people of Nineveh. If God destroyed Nineveh for their sin, even though justified, he would also destroy children and people of diminished mental capacity who “do not know their right hand from their left.” He even cares about the innocent animals (Jonah 4:11).

This unexpected turn after what one might expect is the end of the story is a “zone of turbulence,” a rhetorical device that directs the reader’s attention and drives home the main point of the text by dropping something entirely unexpected into the narrative, something that does not at first seem to fit. A preacher must never preach merely the event, but must make clear the meaning of the event. The book of Jonah ends with an intimate glimpse into God’s heart of mercy and how he thinks about his creatures. That is not narrative for the sake of a good story alone. That is doctrine revealed in a beautiful narrative form. Only a heart like this would send his son to die for his people. The God who spared Jonah and the people of Nineveh did not spare his own son but freely gave him up.

Every time a pastor preaches a narrative text, he should connect theological truth to the inherent attraction of a good story. Stories often raise questions like, “Why would God do that?” or “How can someone who claims to know God behave like that?” Good preachers answer those questions even as they preach the pericope within the metanarrative.

Similarly, didactic passages such as the epistles also reveal truths about Christ, about man, about salvation, and other categories of theology. The doctrinal content may be much nearer the surface and therefore easier to mine, but connection to other passages and doctrine still demands careful exposition and correlation. Faithful teaching of doctrine always begins with the text, not a system. If you want to avoid dissension and division in the church, always point to the Scripture as the authoritative source of doctrine.

Make It Biblical

As obvious as this seems, pastors find themselves in a divisive church situation because they use loaded theological jargon rather than the language of Scripture. The problem is not so much that a pastor teaches unbiblical doctrine, but that he uses extra-biblical language. If a church accepts the inerrancy of Scripture, then the pastor’s task is always to show what the Word of God, and not a theological system, actually says. 

If a pastor preaches a system, relies on theological insider language, or employs faddish expressions he is far more likely to create needless controversy. A parishioner can pack the word theologically and incorrectly or, at the very least, differently than the preacher intended the word—and find 100 websites that confirm him in his wrongheaded understanding of what the pastor meant and warn him against such “heresy” that some author warns is part of a satanic plot.

For example, some members of my church have come from denominations that warned them about the dangers of “once saved always saved” because it grants permission to believers to pray the sinner’s prayer and then live as they want with no regard for sanctification. While our church does not hide our belief that a person who is genuinely regenerate and born again by the Holy Spirit can never be unborn and ultimately lost, we also do not believe that a person can simply pray a prayer or walk an aisle and live for the flesh with no change from before salvation and go to heaven. 

My best move as a pastor, therefore, is to avoid any terminology that implies something other than I mean to my congregation and to default to a strictly biblical vocabulary. I can talk about being born again to never be unborn or rejected. I can show them in the Scripture that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. I can point them to Paul’s confident word even to the Corinthians, with all of their sin and disobedience, that Jesus Christ “will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:8). I can explain clearly and decisively that once one becomes a new creation in Christ Jesus (2 Cor 5:17) becoming an old creation again is impossible. I can show passages about perseverance in faith and holiness and deal honestly with warning passages because I do not reduce the issue to one banal buzzword or facile phrase but rather strive to say precisely what the Bible actually says.

Make It Personal

Doctrine, even the most controversial doctrine, does not exist in as antiseptic quarantined ecclesiastical space but in the grit and grime of life and spiritual struggles. The pastor who preaches a sermon on the doctrine of Christ’s humanity which merely describes the hypostatic union and its role in church history will face yawns or, worse yet, divisiveness from the armchair theologians in the church. 

"Belief always drives action. Faith inevitably leads to works. Doctrinal preaching requires application in real life and in the real world."

When a pastor relates theology to the lives of listeners, when he connects doctrine and duty, then congregants more readily catch the consequence and significance of the teaching. Just as the writer to the Hebrews relates that Christ’s humanity makes him a faithful high priest who actually feels our weaknesses, so the wise pastor will always show the practical aspects of doctrine. Belief always drives action. Faith inevitably leads to works. Doctrinal preaching requires application in real life and in the real world.

More than that, however, a pastor needs to make it personal in relation to Christ. All true doctrine ultimately finds its expression in the person and the work of Jesus. When a pastor shows how the doctrine in view relates to Christ and a proper understanding of it leads us to follow him, doctrine comes alive.

Make It Proportional

Pastors sometimes make the mistake of preaching what they love or what they are most passionate about to the exclusion of the rest of God’s revelation in the Bible. One can find a lot of passages in the Scripture about social justice, for instance, but to preach those texts exclusively without the balance of justification, prayer, or evangelism a church would soon begin to list dangerously toward a social gospel that only makes the world a better place from which to go to hell. 

Expository preaching that systematically goes through books from both testaments, from multiple genres, and with a balance between law and grace is the best steady diet for a congregation. Expositional series through major sections of Scripture help both the pastor and the congregation gain a strategic grasp of the metanarrative of Scripture. One cannot adequately appreciate the whole without a knowledge of the parts, but the inverse is equally true. 

Some churches and denominations focus on specific doctrines above and to the exclusion of all others. Churches and ministries will define themselves by their obeisance to those specific things, even while they tend to ignore themes and theological movements that are much more pronounced throughout the Bible. It might be footwashing, women’s hairstyles, missions methodologies, or some other minutiae, but they nonetheless strain at gnats and swallow camels. The best doctrinal preaching refuses to ride a hobby horse and deals with the grand sweep of God’s Word.

Make it Loving

"The pastor whose knowledge of doctrine has swelled his head rather than his heart will find himself without a church or, perhaps worse, with an arrogant church and a distorted gospel."

Nothing should be more obvious, but 1 Corinthians 13 is for preachers as well as practitioners of glossolalia. Without love, no doctrine will matter. The pastor whose knowledge of doctrine has swelled his head rather than his heart will find himself without a church or, perhaps worse, with an arrogant church and a distorted gospel. 

Sometimes I have had tough doctrinal conversations with church members who disagree with me. If I remind them that I have a PhD in New Testament, that I know the biblical languages, and that I have been a seminary professor for twenty years and in ministry for nearly forty, they are not impressed or moved one bit—nor should they be. If I lovingly thank them for taking the time to meet with me, remind them that above all else I want to honor Christ and His Word, and tell them that I love them even if we don’t reach agreement, they tend to be much more open to what I teach. Even if they don’t see things my way in the end, they usually still leave as my friends and Christian brothers and sisters. Would Jesus have it any other way?

Pastoral Pointer | Finding Great Illustrations

The more experienced a preacher you become, the less time it will take you to do exegesis, outlining, and preparation. You can become very proficient at that. Illustrating the sermon, however, will become harder because of the demand for fresh, culturally relevant illustrations that truly serve and illuminate the text. So, where do you find illustrations that are both memorable and relevant? Here are a few suggestions about where to look—and what to avoid.

If you liked this video by Dr. York, view the other Pastoral Pointer installments at HERE

Pastoral Pointer | Saying "Goodbye" with Grace

Few things are as awkward or as hurtful to a pastor as the unexpected departure of church members for another local congregation. Their decision to leave may cause fear, defensiveness, and anger in the pastor’s heart while clouding his judgment and threatening his peace of mind. Left unchecked, his emotions might even compromise his ability to shepherd the ones who stay. How can a pastor not only manage his feelings, but also sow seeds of friendship and kindness that salvage the relationship and leave the door open that might one day welcome them back?

The Long and Short of Sermons

“How long, oh Lord?

That lament echoes through the Psalms, appears in Habakkuk, recurs in Revelation—and pervades the meandering minds of restless parishioners obliged to suffer the pastor’s preaching past the point of effectiveness and endurance. An expression of extreme suffering and bewilderment is hardly the response a pastor hopes for when he delivers himself of a week’s worth of preparation.

How long should a sermon be? As a preaching professor and a pastor, I’ve asked and been asked that question a hundred times. Today, after 35 years in ministry, I have a definitive answer: You can preach as long as you hold their attention.

Obviously (though perhaps not to everyone) that means some preachers are able to preach longer than others, not because of mere natural gifting, but because of faithfulness to biblical and practical techniques, which are not at all contradictory. In fact, they go hand in hand. Many preachers have on the one hand consoled themselves that their churches are filled with people who have itching ears, and on the other prided themselves that they don’t compromise the truth when really all they’ve done is preached God’s Word badly.

While such situations certainly exist—and my heart goes out to any faithful preacher who lovingly and skillfully preaches the Word to people with cold, indifferent hearts—we shouldn’t be so quick to assume the problem lies exclusively in the pew with no responsibility in the pulpit.

Lest I be misunderstood, I am not arguing for shorter sermons. If anything, I believe many churches need to devote more time to preaching, not less. The preaching of the Word is the central act of worship for the gathered church. The widespread biblical illiteracy among professed Christians neither will diminish because pastors shorten their exposition, nor will it change because pastors preach longer dull sermons.

How can one preach better and still afford to preach longer? Faithful preachers who are also interesting learn four key moves to delivering the kind of sermons that help listeners remain engaged.

First, fill your sermon with biblical substance. Perhaps it seems counterintuitive, but the way to keep the attention of disengaged church members is not by feeding them a steady diet of spiritual cotton candy. It may be sweet to the taste, but it has no nutrition; too much of it will make them sick! The Word of God is what will draw and keep them interested. Don’t dumb it down; serve it up! Christ promised that if He is lifted up He will draw them to Himself. So, point to Christ in text and type, in redemption and relationship.

Second, arrest their attention. Once you know the content of your text, think on the perceptual level in developing the sermon. Find a way to get their interest at the very beginning. Peter did it on Pentecost. Paul did it on the Areopagus. Ezekiel did it by building a model city and laying siege to it. Jesus did it in Galilee with eight promises of blessedness. Spurgeon did it. Jonathan Edwards did it. Listen to the preachers you admire and notice how they adorn the gospel with thought-provoking and engaging delivery.

Third, constantly weave personal application into biblical explanation. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 drove his audience to ask, “What shall we do?” Explanation without application leads to frustration. Content without conviction breeds boredom. The inherent power of the Word and the Spirit demand a response, repentance, renewal. Without that, sermons may seem to be merely Bible trivia games.

Fourth, the best preachers develop audience awareness, always discerning how well folks are listening. Respond to their restlessness with energy, focus and excitement about the text. Is your voice lulling them to sleep? Change your pitch, pace and volume. Let the Word that has saturated you in your study overflow in your pulpit to them in the pew. You may preach as one who knows the Word, but do you preach as one who loves the Word? They’ll listen better—and sit longer.

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Putting the Cookies on the Lowest Shelf

I recently met with about 80 contractors who will be working on a new building for the church I serve as pastor. I introduced myself and the 200-year history of our church, told them about our mission to glorify God by proclaiming Jesus Christ and serving others, and then I turned it over to our architect. From that point on, I might as well have been in Uzbekistan at a goatherders’ convention because I had no clue what they were saying. 

    The lingo that the architect and the contractors spoke was completely foreign to this seminary professor and pastor. Every now and then someone would use words and concepts that I understood, but soon they would leave me with a sense of isolation, completely out of my element once again, while they shared a camaraderie and enjoyed a fellowship from which I felt impossibly excluded.

    Preaching and worship can leave a new Christian or a visitor overwhelmed by that same perception of being an outsider and not a little unwelcome. Some pastors and churches have attempted to solve this problem by removing any insider lingo or theological terms, but they run the risk of losing the gospel itself since the good news of Jesus relies on concepts of sin, alienation from God, repentance, justification, propitiation, substitution, and sanctification. How can one’s preaching be true to the gospel but also accessible to anyone?


1) Don’t dumb it down, explain it.

    Murky enlightenment, vague clarification, and partial explanation are oxymorons! Preachers often underestimate their congregation’s intelligence and willingness to learn and consequently tend to reduce deep theological truths to something they can say in 140 characters. Twitterworthy and pithy sayings rarely go deep or far enough to elucidate robust biblical truth.  Followers of Jesus are indwelled by the Spirit and have a propensity toward learning spiritual things. Don’t assume their disinterest or inability to appreciate theological truth. Take the time to explain carefully and clearly.

2) Don’t avoid difficult theology, illustrate it.

Nothing puts a handle on theological truth like a narrative. Use vivid biblical, personal, or cultural stories that connect the intellectual content of revealed truth with the emotional experience of an appropriate enlightening illustration. To be sure, illustrating a sermon well is hard work and requires a lot of searching. Preachers may consider a hundred possible illustrations to find that one gem, but the congregation will be grateful for the effort of one who illustrates well. Remember the SHARP acronym: stories, humor, analogies, references, and pictures can serve well to make doctrinal truth memorable.

3) Don’t merely explain it, reword it and repeat it.

Preachers need to develop their vocabularies, not in the sense of using big words, but for the purpose of saying the same truth in multiple ways. The concept of justification, for example, might be defined, then pictured in a story, then reworded and restated in a more earthy way. Within the congregation are different kinds of learners. Preachers who connect well learn to restate, reword, and repeat in diverse ways in order to engage the entire audience.

4) Don’t preach to your church like you would to a group of seminary students.

After three or four years of sitting in classes with other students, listening to preachers in chapel preach to seminary students, and learning from professors who spend most of their time communicating with seminary students, young pastors may naturally expect that what nourishes them will also work with their congregation.  Preaching to the average church requires a slightly different approach, however. The preacher must not only convey truth, but also make it accessible. The congregation is not dumb, by any measure, but they live and think in different categories. A wise preacher puts the cookies on the lowest shelf, finding a way to teach deep biblical truth in such a way that the simplest believer and the educated church member can both feed on the richness of God’s Word.

Choosing the Right Lens

Last year, while far away from home in Manaus, Brazil, I made the mistake of trying to run across the busiest street in that city of 2 million people. While dashing wildly across five lanes of traffic to reach a tiny concrete median and pause before sprinting the opposite five lanes, I recognized I had joined a real-life game of Frogger (to date myself) and that I faced the distinct possibility of being squished.

When I finally made it across, the heart-pounding terror turned into triumphant exhilaration. As I entered the door of my destination and took off my sunglasses, I felt my shirt pocket for my very expensive no-line progressive trifocal prescription glasses so I could see indoors, but to no avail. They were gone. The short-lived elation gave way to the despair of realizing they had jostled out of my pocket and by now had been ground to dust under the weight of a hundred speeding cars.

A Brazilian friend, realizing my plight, offered to get me a pair of glasses that would suffice temporarily, but he only had three lens thicknesses from which to choose. He randomly chose the prescription that corrected my distant vision, so until I got home a week later, I felt handicapped. If someone waved to me from across the room, I could recognize them, but I couldn't recognize people 4 or 5 feet away; and when I preached, I constantly was taking glasses off or putting them on, sometimes alternating between reading glasses, my new stop-gap glasses and none at all. I only could see one distance, but life required more than that.

The congregation who only sees Scripture through one type of lens is missing something, too. Some pastors always look at Scripture with a wide-angle lens. They show their people the big picture of the book they're preaching, or perhaps the grand narrative of redemption history, yet fail to get the nuances, the warp and the woof, the grain of Scripture up close. On the other hand, some pastors are so oriented to a magnifying lens or microscope that their congregations never see the big picture.

Part of pastoral preaching not only is alternating texts between Old and New Testaments, between law and gospel, between different genres, but also switching lenses. While pastors should have a careful strategy to preach the whole counsel of God, that strategy should include different depths and fields of vision.

First, the Bible itself does this. God chose to reveal truth in different doses. Some passages such as Romans 8 are saturated with gospel content and require a closer look, a more deliberate pace. Others such as Joshua 13—21 (the allotment of the land to the tribes) don't require as much time and legitimately can be taken together without doing injustice to the text.

Similarly, congregations need to know the overall argument and application of entire sections or books, as well as the exegetical peculiarities and distinctions of individual verses or small passages. In other words, they need gospel trifocals. Pastors need to plan preaching that sometimes looks from a distance so it catches sight of the whole, other times from mid-range to grasp a smaller section, still other times exposing the text thoroughly and closely to provide an intimate look at an author's intended meaning.

So change the lens. Preach 12 overview sermons of the Minor Prophets that give the gist and application of each with a clear explanation of its place in the story of redemption. Follow that with a lengthy series in an epistle, carefully laying bare the meaning of each verse. Then preach a series of sermons in an extended Old Testament narrative such as the life of David, taking representative chapters of the great king's life to preach the story of redemption and to make your congregants long for the greater King.

If sameness and predictability are enemies of being interesting and engaging, changing the focal length of the lens through which we look at Scripture not only will make preaching more effective, but also more interesting.