Mr. Doeksen, we have decided to tackle another one of your sermons. It would be rash to judge your teaching ministry on the basis of just one. If you listen to and absorb the comments that we make, we have no doubt that it will do you some good. We urge you to appeal to God for support as you read this analysis through.
Mr. Doeksen, Deer Park Alliance, Confession of Sin: Habits.
Summary: There are two works that need to be done: arresting and lifting. The questions I want to leave hanging in your soul are these: Am I for real? Who do I really belong to? Maybe there’s a habit that has reared its ugly head again, and you think, ‘I don’t know if I’m for real. Maybe I’m of the devil.’ In our text, you have people practicing sin and people whose sin is not to practice a law. This last group may have looked religious. These two groups are really of the same crowd. They just don’t hang with each other. (He’s in 1 John 3.) “What do my habits really say about who I think I am—about who I believe I am—about who I believe I belong to.” What it means to be born of God is to be practicing things that look right—that bring wholeness—that care for creation. We are redeemed to this, in Jesus Christ. Jesus died for our sin—for our lack of doing righteousness. He rose to redeem us to the practice of righteousness. He who abides is confessing at every turn. He does not practice sin. He does not want to sin anymore. You say, ‘I keep sinning. Am I born of God?’ Yes you are, for you are not still building this life on the practice of sin. And in your question is this desire not to keep on sinning. Making excuses for sin or ignoring it is to build a life that has more of it. We all begin in the same condition and can only sin until we see a Person who has never sinned. Maybe today’s the day for you to take your first look. “If you have seen Jesus’ life, in part, his death on the cross, and his resurrected life, and you believe it very simply, and want to enter into it, you are a child of God.” But you have not seen him in full. And you go to the Bible to see more of him; you pray, and ask for help. So what can you do to grow? You confess that you are not all that you desire to be. And then you practice acts of obedience. The first act is baptism. (He touches on what that symbolizes.) Then there’s the continual act of Communion. (He touches on what that signifies.) “I’m convinced that no doubt, this morning, as many mornings when we do Communion, there will be those that do this for the very first time because their hearts are awakened to want to be a child of God, and…they experience the Spirit of God in them.”
Remarks: From statements made in this sermon it appears that Mr. Doeksen knows that the gospel concerns the death of Christ for sin. Happily, this sermon contains no long, titillating stories. There is a little conviction in his preaching. And the preaching convicts a time or two. For instance, when addressing professors of faith who may in fact be unbelievers, he says, “When was the last time you stopped and cared for someone even though you were busy.” This is good.
Here are the faults. (1) The text is not really exposited. The several verses he speaks on that regard the commission of sin all come across as meaning the same thing because he does not deal with any verse to the depth that would bring out its distinction from the rest. Usually, when he attempts to unfold a verse, he just ends up repeating himself: “Everyone who makes the practice of sinning—they are really doing sin.” The mere recital and repetition of the words contained in the text is all we get. We could get this without going to church, just by reading. Truly, it would be better and safer to stay at home and read, for when he does attempt to go beyond tautology, he just confuses the text and leaves it in a garbled condition. We don’t know whether to rebuke him or commend him for saying, “Feel free to zone out on what I’m saying if it means that you’re reading this text again because this text will do a work in you just by reading it.” True, we would get more by reading the text than by listening to this sermon. But the teacher is supposed to be able to take us from reading to learning. This is why we have teachers. This is why we come to church.
(2) The teaching is too abstract. When modern pastors do not exposit their chosen text, they usually use it as a springboard to loosely and falsely teach on the theme found there. But when the chosen text is not exposited, and yet the teacher chooses to stay with it, you get abstractions instead of teachings. This is the case here. And the result is this oddity: a sermon that is all theory, yet without any doctrinal content. He promises to show us the textual framework. But we never get to see it because no exposition has been done. He gives us no sense at all of how this text should be divided and classified. And so no wonder that his theory does not connect with the particulars of life. The only part of the skeleton we get to see is the head: confession of sin. He tries to give us the rest. But how can he? He has not seen the rest any more than his listeners have. And so he tries to attach the skeleton to this head without having seen so much as the next bone to be assembled. What can the outcome be but a desperate, clumsy grasping after words? He is like a hummingbird hovering before a feeder without a beak to drink from. We don’t know how a pastor can go on in abstract language for forty-seven minutes without really saying anything. But the main cause is likely the absence of exposition.
(3) The preaching is careless. We’ll mention just one instance. To be anxious about our state may in fact be an indication that we are in a state of grace. To be worried about our sin may indicate that we are born again. But if the states of nature and grace are left undefined or even inadequately defined, then we must assume that the listeners may still be confused about such matters. Therefore, it is risky business to assure any of these anxious listeners that their anxiety is a sign that they are in possession of grace, and therefore safe for heaven. Their anxiety may be misplaced, and therefore constitute no proof whatsoever that they are in a saving state. For instance, suppose that you are anxious about your state, but to you a saving state is the belief that man is ‘resurrected’ to become one with the universe. Does this anxiety point to your being saved in the real biblical sense? Or suppose you are anxious over your sin only because of the physical or even psychical harm it is doing you? Does a selfish anxiety point to any true possession of grace? And so anxiety itself must be defined before we dare assure anxious persons that the anxiety they have is proof that they will be found righteous before the God who will soon judge the world. His teaching has not torn down falsehood nor explained the way to heaven well enough to assure anxious persons of anything except that they must be in danger.
(4) There is no depth. To say that we ought to confess is not enough. We need to be told what confession is and what sins might need to be confessed. And no incentive for confessing is ever given. He could have told us something about the devil that he mentions here and there, or something about an angry God, or something about hell. But we get nothing on these moving truths. The closest he comes to mentioning hell as a possible destiny is when he says something like, “Am I of the devil?” Who is this devil? Why should I not want to be on his side? What’s the difference? He tells us no details. There is absolutely nothing in this message to give a soul a shiver, much less make one tremble. He prays for trembling. But this kind of curtsy preaching will never produce any.
(5) His approach is timid. We’ll go out on a limb (a very short, safe, and sturdy one) and guess that this pastor is called ‘Pastor Carlin’ by the members of his church. In like fashion, the apostle John is called ‘Pastor John’ by Pastor Carlin. If we were to search long enough and hard enough, some praiseworthy preacher might be found identifying the apostle in the exact same way. But if so, we doubt very much that he would do so as a matter of practice. Pet names are for boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives. But regardless of whether Mr. Doeksen is called Pastor Carlin or not, his habitual identification of the apostle as ‘Pastor John’ points to his low opinion of the pulpit. The minister is supposed to be above his members, a person to look up to, a person to emulate. He is not supposed to be just one of the boys. Clearly, Mr. Doeksen is no more holy than his members are. His demeanor does not elicit any desire in us of aspiring to his level of sanctification. When you are not separate from your people, you have no authority, and because of this there will be no power in your message. A man is not likely to reprove his peers. It will be an uncomfortable thing to reprove them of anything. Mr. Doeksen seems to want to humble his people, but without hurting anyone. This is impossible to do. He doesn’t want to warn, and he doesn’t want to command. He tries to make the children of God obey. But any biblical tool he might use to accomplish this must be too awkward or frightening for him to wield. He never comes down to what sins ought to be confessed, except when he swiftly alludes to the habits of gossip and backbiting. And yet he says that the visitors are getting harassed for their lifestyles by this sermon! The whole service is downy and soft. And it lacks the solemnity required by the subject at hand. For example, is it exalting enough to the Lord to say that when he appears he will greet us with ‘a hug and a handshake’? Does this not seem like an underestimate of what will occur? Does a meeting like this not strike us as too familiar and informal? When we meet Jesus, will we not be prostrate before his glorious presence or at least on bended knee? Where in the Bible do we read of Jesus coming back to simply shake our hand and give us a quick hug as if he just returned from a weekend away from his friends? What posture does the Lord’s glorious presence provoke? What does the apostle John, the son of thunder, reveal to us, “The four and twenty elders fall down before him” (Revelation 4.10.) Handshakes are for equals. Worship is for Jesus.
(6) There is no church discipline. For the honor that is due Jesus for his vicarious death, for the protection of sinners, and for the maintenance of purity among saints, Communion is reserved by careful pastors for those who have demonstrated a valid profession of faith. But this pastor invites, without any examination at all, anyone, including visitors, apparently, to participate in this holy ordinance. Is Communion holy when it is no longer set apart for those alone who have appropriated Christ by faith? If any person chancing to come to church on Sunday is permitted by us to join with the saints in holy Communion, then are we not saying that God really makes no difference between saints and heathen? Are we not saying that faith is no more necessary to an admission to God’s privileges than unbelief and irreligion? If Communion is open to all, then there must be no distinguishing holiness about it, for something holy is by definition ‘set apart.’ If Communion is this open, it is no more holy than a pancake breakfast at the rodeo. By such openness we are saying that all persons, regardless of belief or lifestyle, have the sufficiency of Christ’s death to their account—this body and blood of Christ for their present and future hope. And this is not true. This indiscreet, indiscriminate openness is like tossing the body and blood of our Lord to the dogs. Is the Lord’s Supper holy? Then “give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine” (Matthew 7.6.) This pastor might never be so ‘impolite’ as to speak like this. But this speech of our Lord is to be highly valued; and, if not to be copied in conversation, it is at least for the pastor’s practical imitation in the sanctuary. We cannot think of a more apt application of these words than to the ordinance of Communion. It’s as if Jesus is warning his disciples to make a proper memorial of him, set apart from unbelievers, hypocrites, and nosy, unrepentant visitors. The impure treat the priceless jewels of the gospel like a swine would pearls. And this pearl of ours in Communion is all that signifies the holiest deed that was ever done or that ever could be done. Shall we not set apart, then, what has been consecrated by the Lord himself as most holy? Do we love him enough to do this? Do we love him so much as to be ‘impolite’ to others for his sake?
Conclusion: We perceive that the lesson in this sermon comes down to this: You’re not going to see Jesus fully until he comes back; so don’t be too hard on yourself. For lack of exposition, or out of fear, or because of nervousness, this pastor is guilty of mealy-mouthed speaking. What does this mean? By this rude sounding term we mean that the sermon seems to proceed from someone who is “unwilling to express facts or opinions plainly and frankly” (Funk and Wagnalls.) Here is an instance of that to show what we mean. Near the beginning of his sermon he states that his intention is to leave hanging in the listeners’ souls the following questions: Am I for real? Who do I really belong to? But when it comes time to challenge the people to examine themselves, the best he can do is: “What do my habits really say about who I think I am—about who I believe I am—about who I believe I belong to?” You have to go out of your way to speak like this. It is a typical case of mealy-mouthed language. ‘Who I believe I am’ and ‘who I believe I belong to’ speak of my being assured or not, of salvation. But this question of assurance is not the fundamental issue that he said he was going to deal with. More important are the questions, ‘who I am’ and ‘who I belong to.’ But he does not come down to this most basic, vital issue of our actual state because his foremost intention is not to offend anyone. To come right out and question the salvation of anyone is unthinkable to him. He can barely insinuate the possibility of someone being not ‘for real.’ Now this mealy-mouthed behavior comes with a sort of insincerity. It just goes with the territory. But we are convinced that he is sincere in his effort to preach, so long as no one gets hurt. Because of this sincerity we would like to be more positive. But he minces words throughout his whole message; he even does it in the prayer preceding the message. To mince: “diminish or moderate the force or strength of language; to say or express with affected primness or elegance; to alter (an oath, etc.) to a milder or euphemistic form; to walk with short steps or affected daintiness” (Ibid.) Remember this question he uses, ‘Am I for real?’ This is euphemistic language for, ‘Am I really saved from the penalty of sin, which is, ultimately, eternal torment in hell?’ He cannot bring himself to speak plainly, bluntly, and biblically. And so instead he suggests that we ask ourselves, ‘Am I for real?’ or at most, ‘Am I of the devil?’ This is poor preaching indeed. Truly, the summary does not come close to exhibiting the poverty of this sermon. We have been generous, though not dishonest, in our construction of it. Much of his chaos is due to his careless delivery. If he were to simply read cautiously prepared statements in place of extemporizing, much chaos would be avoided. But the harsh truth is that Mr. Doeksen does not have what it takes to make and deliver a good sermon. He doesn’t have the heart, nor the understanding, and perhaps not the will. He certainly doesn’t have the tools. Neither does he have the discernment and discipline required for conducting a holy service. It seems as if he has never once read a single textbook on systematic theology. Neither is there any evidence of his having studied any basic rules for interpreting Scripture. And we should like to apologize for saying so, but it seems like he has never so much as read the Bible through. He probably has. But if so, he’s just not thinking through the sweep of Scripture when he’s preparing his sermon. Something is disconnected. All we can do is to put it as honestly as that. More harm would be done, and no doubt has already been done by others, through flattery.
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