Machen on Theological Terminology in Sermons

The Preacher

Every preastudy-bible-open-1307514cher faces the constant struggle of crafting a sermon (or at least should face the struggle). The reason it is a struggle is because preaching is much more than simply rightly understanding a text or theme of Scripture. As important as correctly understanding the text or theme is, the preacher must also consider the structuring of the address, the illustrating of the points, the application of the truths, and the overall communicating of the meaning among other things. A large part of this struggle is deciding on the use of theological terminology in the sermon.

The preacher can often be found asking himself, ‘should I use the term sanctification, or simply say being made more holy?’ ‘Whenever I speak of God’s characteristics do I proclaim him as omnipresent or simply say he is everywhere all the time?’ ‘I never actually read the term trinity in the Bible, should I use it at all?’ And so on and so forth.

J. G. Machen

For all those preachers out there asking themselves the same questions here is Machen’s advice from an address found in God Transcendent (Banner of Truth, 1949):

Some men would be horrified by this use [justification by faith] of a theological term; they seem to have a notion that modern Christians must be addressed always in words of one syllable, and that in religion the scientific precision of language which is found so useful in other spheres must be abandoned. I am by no means ready to agree. (pg. 88)

In my opinion this could just as easily have been written or spoken last week as opposed to almost 100 years ago. Today we are told that we must simplify everything, no one wants to hear heavy theological sermons on a Sunday morning – they want something easy to listen to, not too guilt-ridden and above all else, short. What Machen suggests we lose in that instance is precision in our language. I agree, the term sanctification contains much more within it than just ‘being made holy’ – it includes the source of being made holy, the purpose, the means, etc.

However, Machen does acknowledge that there is often a gap to be bridged whenever it comes to the use of theological terms in preaching. He continues:

One way [to bridge the gap] is to bring the Bible down to the level of the people; the other way is to let the people be lifted up to the level of the Bible. For my part I prefer the latter way. (pg. 88)

In modern vernacular we either dumb the Bible down, or smart the people up. The principle being espoused here is clearly giving time over to the detailed explanation of theological terms so that the people come to understand and love these terms. Therefore, Machen concludes,

I am by no means ready to relinquish the advantages of a precise terminology in summarising Bible truth. In religion as well as in other spheres a precise terminology is mentally economical in the end; it repays amply the slight effort required for the mastery of it. (pg. 88-89)

Hence Machen’s advice on theological terminology in sermons would be to inclued it. He encourages the preacher to mentally tax his congregation slightly in the hope that they will master the scientifically precise language of theological terminology.

Next Week’s Preparation

For the preacher who is now looking toward next week’s preparation what does this mean?

Firstly, I think this advice gives us the courage and impetus to include theological terminology in our sermons. It is not something to be shied away from. Secondly, I think this advice acknowledges that we must take the time to explain in a fair amount of detail what these terms mean when we use them. As noted by Machen this may be mentally taxing for our congregations (and, if we are honest, for us as preachers). However, if we do so the reward is great – a people who possess a repertoire of theological terms, who can succinctly summarise biblical truths and whose thoughts and understanding will have been lifted up to the level of the Bible. This can only be for everyone’s good.

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