Skip to main content

Should Doctrine be Preached to the Unconverted?

Douglas Groothuis asked:
Why do so few sermons revel in the glory of Jesus Christ's matchless achievements and the eternal blessedness of knowing him? Why are so few sermons even focused primarily on God?
Perhaps it is because we forget that "real preaching is born in long and laborious study of the Word of God and in the agnony of the preacher soul" (Machen, p73).  Perhaps it is because forget that The Cross is where our life is found, where our righteousness is declared.

Spurgeon wrote:
"More and more am I jealous lest any views upon prophecy, church government, politics, or even systematic theology, should withdraw one of us from glorying in the cross of Christ.” (C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to my Students, I.83).
And as Mark Dever commented:
What stops us from so glorying in the cross? This is my threatening enemy.
What will encourage us to glory in it all the more? This is my loving friend.
Enemies abound, and we need many friends to urge us back to the cross. John Gresham Machen sounds a warning from 75 years ago, if we'll listen:

...According to the tendency of religious work which is prevalent at the present day, Christians doctrine, including the central doctrine of the atonement, is to be presented to people, if at all, after rather than before they have been saved.

The advocates of this method sometimes have kind things to say about doctrine; it is necessary, they admit, in its proper place. A man who has already entered upon holy living, some of them no doubt say, will go on to study his Bible and will attain an ever more correct view of Christ and of the meaning of Christ's death. But at the beginning all that, it is held, is unnecessary; at the beginning all that is needed is surrender of the human will. What a man needs to do first, it is thought, is to put away his sin by his own act of surrender; there is time enough later for doctrinal instruction.
Whether that non-doctrinal, anti-intellectualistic method of religious work is right or wrong, it may be observed at any rate that it is quite contrary to the New Testament from beginning to end. The New Testament does not, in the manner of these modern religious workers, offer a man salvation first and then preach the gospel to him afterwards; but it preaches the gospel to him first - with the blessed doctrine of the atonement at the center of it - and then, through his acceptance of that gospel, it brings salvation to his soul.
It was to the unconverted people that Paul preached in Galatia the message of the Cross of Christ; and when they accepted that message - that "doctrine" - they were saved...
--J. Gresham Machen, Notes on Galatians p165.First published in Christianity Today, 1931-1933.
The content of the gospel needs to be said. The doctrine must be communicated. But... the gospel of Jesus must be communicated and that effects much we say... and how we say it... More on that here:
You can't say that. Hard questions, real people, offensive Bible verses.


  1. This is great stuff. Preached on Sunday evening from 1 Peter 1:13 "Set your hope on future grace". It was unintentionally evangelistic. Unintentionally because someone attending Christianity Explored was there, and was thrilled by the preaching (her assessment not mine).

  2. When I saw the post title, and before reading the post, the thought of Gresham Machen almost boomed in my head!

    How can you preach the Lord Jesus Christ without doctrine? It's impossible: a name without definition is useless.

  3. This is SO true - and the attitude Machen desribes is SO prevalent in evangelical Christianity today.
    "Get them to live a holy life - oh and also teach them doctrine."

    This is really helpful, and encouraging to me in writing my sermon on Ephesians 3.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with you and Machen (hard to disagree with Machen). RM McCheyne's Bible reading plan is in Acts 13 today which just happens to be Paul's sermon to the Jews (unconverted) in Antioch. It is a redemptive historical look at the atoning work of Jesus. Evangelistic and doctrine rich.

  5. I couldn't agree more, doctrine should be preached to the unconverted.

    I became a Christian only last November. I remember the first time I went to Church of my own accord last summer, it blew me away. I went and heard a sermon that was meaty and full of doctrine and thoughts to ponder. Which thrilled me! I just assumed that your average sermon was very simplistic, but to not be treated like small children and to look at the doctrine of the Bible was thrilling.

  6. Interesting post. I think you are using two different senses of 'doctrine.'

    1. A core gospel truth (a doctrinal truth - a true proposition or reality of doctrine)
    2. A doctrinal approach in terms of the 'docrinal' style of teaching theology

    To use the 1st when preaching to the unconverted is essential. To use the 2nd not only an unbiblical approach (using biblical truth) it is damaging and doesn't start with a right view of human beings. It would also tend to stifle creative evangelism and be ineffective in terms of teaching discipleship as transformation, not merely learning.


  7. I don't think I mentioned anthing about style, just content....

    Nor did I say that I believe in any form of teaching doctrine that does not necessarily intend to lead to transformation.

    Some peculiar form of doctrinal teaching that has as its goal mere education is idolatrous and not true to scripture and clearly therefore utterly inappropriate for any audience.

  8. Tom,

    I , like Dave, don't accept that one can be teaching Biblical doctrine accurately, and the emphasis not be on tranformation.

    By the way, where are you? Everyone in the office thinks you have been raptured!

  9. Well, perhaps I'm reading into your post too much but think I see the two senses at play in it. I certainly see them at play in UK Christian culture.

    My point is about the structure of the argument. Doctine 1 doesn't automatically mean Doctrine 2.

    I think we are getting a half-measure of what God has for us because we are slow to get this.

    We need more, much more of doctrine 1.


    ps. Not raptured much lately been howling at the moon and

  10. ... stuff

    When you dropping in? I'm offski on the 7th Aug.


  11. as in u leave uccf on 7th? was thinking visiting leicester sometime after that...

    u around berkshire anytime?

  12. Yeah, it's soon eh! If you follow my ID link here and look at my blog then you should find a google calendar on the right hand side of the blog detailing my geographical intentions.


  13. So when did a discussion on doctrine become a social networking service?


  14. ...isn't it nice when talking about doctrine is so natural it can be found in the midst of ordinary conversation!

    above example of social networking has since moved onto email.

    ...back on topic, someone...

  15. It is one of my favourite drums but perhaps the problem is because people are always thinking about the 'usefulness of things'. If the point of our life is in bare terms to
    1. convert people.
    2. to live good lives.
    Then it is unsurprising that doctrine gets sidelined. Of course doctrine (and more importantly the person that doctrine refers to) is foundational for these things. But is not just a foundation for something more important – something more useful.

    Perhaps if we focused more on how we exist to worship, then our attitude to doctrine (and everything) would be transformed. Doctrine is a thing to delight in and praise God for, and that should be why we hunger to know more of it.

    Doctrine is often a despised concept (and so replaced with works or feelings) because it is so often forgotten why we should care about it. Is it a tool, so we can explain why people should be converted? Or a job-list, so we know what we should be doing? We should rejoice in the doctrine itself, because church services that don't rejoice in the truth as well as teach it will produce people who despise doctrine.

    gareth has got it.

    I pray I will as much.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

"Big eyes full of wonder"

Books. Fiction. Libraries. Second only to churches as are the best gateways in your community to ultimate reality and new possibilities.

Our local library has just re-opened after refurbishment, and I love that our boys have spent several mornings there during the summer holidays, discovering some wonderful new stories.

I realised a few months back that I wasn't reading enough fiction. My work necessitates reading a lot of non-fiction, a mix of historical and contemporary thinking, biblical studies and theology. But fiction is the cinderella. Easily overlooked, and yet able to awaken my imagination and show me the way things are meant to be.

So I've picked up a few more lately - bought and borrowed. Not every book attempted flies, and that's ok. These have been winners though.

Ink. This is Alice Broadway's debut novel. It's young adult fiction and tells the story of Leora who lives in a world where the events of your life are tattooed on your skin. Nothing gets hid…

Uniquely Matthew

Reading gospel accounts in parallel is sometimes used to blur the differences in perspective between the evangelists, seeking to harmonise the texts and find a definitive historical account of what happened. No such thing exists because every account is biased and limited. You simply can't record everything. You have to hold a vantage point. And that's not a problem.

Matthew, Mark and Luke take a very different vantage point to John who was of course an eyewitness himself of the events. Comparing the text of Matthew, Mark and Luke across the death and resurrection of Jesus yields two steps.

Firstly, the common ground. All three accounts tell of...
Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross…. · Jesus labelled as King of the Jews…. · Criminals crucified with Jesus… · Darkness in the daytime… · Jesus' loud final cry… The women who witnessed Jesus death, and Jesus' burial… · The tomb lent to Jesus by Joseph of Arimithea… · The women who went to the tomb on the morning of the…

Songs we're singing in Church

Christians are a singing people, it's part of what we do when we gather.

Our church meets morning an evening on a Sunday - normally using 5 songs in each service. So, over the year that's about 520 song-slots available. The report from the database system we use ( tells us that in the past year we've sung about 150 different songs.

Our current most used song has been sung 11 times in the last year, just under once a month. Our top 10 are used about every 6 weeks. By #30 we're talking about songs used every two months. The tail is long and includes loads of classic hymns from across the centuries, plus other songs from the past 40 years, that we have used around once a term or less.

1. Rejoice - Dustin Kensrue

2. Come Praise & Glorify - Bob Kauflin

3. Man of Sorrows - Hillsong

4. Cornerstone - Hillsong

Rejoice was a song I didn't previously know, along with a couple of others that have quickly become firm favourites for me: Chri…