J. Gresham Machen on True Preaching and Christian Growth
December 30, 2020
In 1932, Westminster Seminary founder and Gospel stalwart J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) delivered a message to the Bible League of Great Britain in London entitled “Christian Scholarship and the Building Up of the Church.” As you might suspect, the message dealt with the topic of the place of scholarship and education when it comes to building up God’s people in the faith.
In that message, Machen defends and commends what he refers to as “doctrinal preaching,” by which he essentially means systematically teaching through the Scriptures and bringing God’s meaning out of the text (as opposed to reading our meaning into the text)—or, as we would say it today, expository preaching.
What Machen means here is that systematically teaching through the Bible—book by book, verse by verse, and laboring to understand God’s meaning in any given text of Scripture—exposes God’s people to the full body of divine truth that God has revealed to humanity in his Word.
It is only this kind of preaching, Machen argues, that truly builds up God’s people into greater degrees of Christ-likeness.
The alternative to this kind of preaching is what he calls “exhortation:” “Do this! Don’t touch that! Read your Bible more! Don’t drink, smoke, or chew or run with girls who do!” And that kind of preaching, however motivating it might be, doesn’t build anyone up.
“It is only systematic, doctrinal preaching that truly builds up God’s people into greater degrees of Christ-likeness. The alternative to this kind of preaching is what Machen calls “exhortation:” “Do this! Don’t touch that! Read your Bible more! Don’t drink, smoke, or chew or run with girls who do!” And that doesn’t build anyone up.
To be clear, there is certainly a place for exhortation in Christian teaching, and the Bible itself is full of just this kind of thing. But the kind of teaching that Machen was talking about was the kind that is characterized by exhortation. Instead of being primarily concerned with explaining and applying God’s Word book by book, verse by verse, week in and week out without neglecting or skipping over parts, these so-called teachers are constantly calling the Lord’s people to standards, activity, and relevant how-to’s.
That kind of teaching may be loud. There may be conviction behind it. It may be exciting. It may contain biblical themes or content. It may even be true and not heresy so far as it goes. But it never really deals with God’s Word the way he intends for it to be dealt with.
As a result, God’s people are not only undiscerning and not able to distinguish sound teaching from unsound teaching, but they are also like those who are constantly being called to run a marathon without proper training or equipment. They are literally dependent on the word of their leader for too many matters of life and godliness, and they are simply not equipped to live with any kind of real spiritual effectiveness the kinds of lives they are always being exhorted to live (Eph. 4.11-14).
In any case, here is a powerful—and powerfully-relevant—insight on the place of “doctrinal preaching” in the life of Christians from one of the greatest Christian minds of the past 150 years:
“[Paul’s] epistles are full of the edification or building up of those who have already been won; and the whole New Testament clearly discourages the exclusive nourishment of Christians with milk instead of with solid food. In the modern Church, this important work of edification has been sadly neglected…even by some of those who believe that the Bible is the Word of God. Too often doctrinal preaching has been pushed from the primary place, in which it rightly belongs, to a secondary place: exhortation has taken the place of systematic instruction; and the people have not been built up. Is it any wonder that a Church thus nurtured is carried away with every wind of doctrine and is helpless in the presence of unbelief?… One thing that impresses me about preaching today is the neglect of true edification even by evangelical preachers. What the preacher says is often good, and by it genuine Christian emotion is aroused. But a man could sit under the preaching for a year or ten years and at the end of the time he would be just about where he was at the beginning.”
Machen’s 1932 message “Christian Scholarship and the Building Up of the Church” was reprinted and can be found in What Is Christianity? (ed. Ned B. Stonehouse; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), as well as in Selected Shorter Writings of J. Gresham Machen (ed. D. G. Hart; Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004).
About the Author
Tony de la Riva is an elder and pastor at Firm Foundation Bible Church where he has served since March of 2020. He is an MDiv student at The Master’s Seminary, and also runs his own studio, de la Riva Brands, which specializes in branding and web development. Tony is originally from Fresno County in Central CA, and he and his wife Beki have been married since 2007 and have four children, Chloe, Daisy, Manasseh, and Israel.
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What is “Expository Preaching”?
"Expository preaching" simply means working hard to understand God's meaning in the text, and then applying His truth to our hearts and lives. We are committed to exactly this kind of preaching—verse by verse, book by book, right through the Bible, week in and week out.