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—or, as we would phrase it today, expository or expositional preaching. Implicit here is that systematically teaching through the Scriptures—book by book and verse by verse rather than picking and choosing verses here and there—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: