Uncovering the Doctrine in Your Text

 |  July 8, 2019

You’ll probably feel a slight loss of control and a vibration. There might be a distinct sound. Your new car is telling you something about your driving. In fact, when you feel the steering wheel course correcting your automobile because you’re weaving out of your lane, it means you have the automotive technology known as a Lane Keeping Assist System (LKAS).[1]“Lane Keeping Assist,” MyCarDoesWhat.org, accessed June 5, 2019, https://mycardoeswhat.org/safety-features/lane-keeping-assist/. It helps drivers stay in their lane by gently asserting some control over the steering of their car.

Having LKAS is far better than scraping guardrails, hitting other vehicles, or simply running into a ditch. Wouldn’t it be nice to have systems in place to keep you out of the ditches in other areas of life too?

In a way, discovering the doctrine embedded in your preaching text is a lot like taking advantage of a spiritual LKAS. Identifying the doctrine which underpins your text might keep you from veering off the path of biblical truth, so you can avoid bad interpretations.

Doctrine, in other words, guides and helps center our interpretation and thus our preaching. The question is: How do we uncover doctrine for sermons and stay in the right lane?

There are a few practical principles that can assist the interpreter while preparing a message. The first is almost too obvious in its simplicity: There aren’t really that many doctrines! For instance, when Southern Baptists define their major theological positions, they list only eighteen definite doctrines.[2]“Baptist Faith and Message,” adopted June 14, 2000, Southern Baptist Convention, (Nashville: LifeWay, 2000), 6. When you know what the doctrines are, it makes spotting them in a text much easier. In that same vein, Malcolm Yarnell, Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Southwestern Seminary, advises his students to memorize the brief Apostles Creed for the same reasons.[3]Dr. Malcolm Yarnell in a personal phone conversation with me on June 19, 2019. As preachers, eventually, we should become almost immediately familiar with the major biblical doctrines as we do our exegetical work.

Next, in my ministry, I keep a work of theology nearby. I refer often to James Leo Garrett’s Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical. [4]James Leo Garrett, Jr., Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, 2 vols., (North Richland Hills, TX: Bibal Press, 1990, 1995). I also refer to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.[5]Wayne Gruden, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994). These resources (or something similar) not only provide helpful theological insights into the conversation we’re having with our text, but they also provide Scriptural indexes. As a result, we can immediately consult the experts and determine exactly what the scholars have discovered about our specific passages.

When it comes to the practical process of thinking doctrinally while we exegete our text, it’s usually easier if the passage is located in the epistles. The epistles, after all, compared to other types of biblical literature, are the usual source of our most clearly stated doctrinal positions. But, we don’t always preach from the epistles. When preaching from another genre, doctrine may be less obvious; but we must not ignore its presence.

For instance, as of this writing, I am preaching a verse-by-verse exposition of Genesis on Wednesday nights. When I was teaching through the Cain and Abel narrative of Genesis 4, I was struggling with finding the preaching point or anything remotely like a contemporary, practical application. As I kept working, I finally realized what should have been obvious much sooner. The story of Cain and Abel demonstrates how far sin can take us—from a parent’s bite of the forbidden fruit in chapter three to brother killing brother in chapter four. In other words, the Cain and Abel story is a brutal illustration of the doctrine of sin. Once I realized that, my spiritual lane assist system kicked in. The story of a man gripped with murderous rage fueled by jealousy leaps off the page with passion and contemporary application, dripping with unlimited illustrative possibilities. I went from drawing a blank about how to preach the text to surging with ideas and excitement about delivering a word from God.

When preaching, uncover the doctrine taught in your text and let it guide the development of your thesis, your explanations, and your applications. We can steer clear of the ditches of error in our sermons and put guardrails up for our hearers when we uncover the doctrine in God’s Word.

J. Kie Bowman is the Senior Pastor of Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin, Texas.


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