Old Truths in Newer Robes
Several years ago I purchased a two volume set of books by brother Franklin Camp entitled, “Old Truths in New Robes.” The books are of a variety that I often bought as a younger preacher but don’t buy anymore: sermon outline books. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve gotten a few ideas from sermon outline books in my time as a preacher, but as I’ve matured I’ve found myself turning to them less and less. In fact, over the course of my family’s three country existence, the size of my “sermon outline book” library has decreased dramatically. The reason that I don’t often use sermon outline books is the very reason that I suspect led brother Camp to write his books — old truths need new robes. Or, to put it another way, we don’t need to change the gospel for modern man – we don’t need new truths – we just might need to change the way we present that gospel – we need new robes.
The point so often missed (and perhaps even by some who own brother Camp’s books) is that if old truths need new robes in the first place, they don’t just need them once. However, many teachers and preachers do not appear to be aware of this fact. Bible classes are taught and sermons are preached in the United States and around the world that were written in other times and for other audiences. The stated reason occasionally offered for doing so is, “If it was true before, then it’s true now.”
There are at least three things wrong with the “true before, true now” mentality. One, some of these recycled lessons were not really all that good in the first place. I listened to a sermon some time ago which asked, “Which shoe are you, spiritually?” The preacher asked us if we were high heels, loafers, flip-flops, rain boots, etc., backing up his questions with passages largely taken out of context. The worst example of this was where he asked the audience if we just wanted to avoid work and be comfortable (like loafers, evidently), citing the following passage: “Are not my days few? Cease then, and let me alone, that I may take comfort a little” (Job 10:20). Anyone who knows anything much about the book of Job knows that Job had no desire to be spiritually lazy, and yet this was the verse the preacher took out of its context and used to prop up his “loafer” point. The sad thing regarding this sermon is that upon sharing this story with a few Christians, I’ve learned that this sermon has made its rounds in the brotherhood.
Two, when we present the messages of yesteryear simply because they’re “sound,” we run the very real risk of creating a dangerous habit. The habit, simply put, is not thinking. I noticed some time ago a trend in our brotherhood lectureship books where writers seemed to run too quickly to brotherhood material for source information, particularly regarding hard topics. Troublingly, I noticed that sometimes the quotes in these books ran two or three deep – where a brother quoted a brother, who had quoted a brother, who had quoted a brother, etc.
The reason this is troubling is that while that original brother thought through the issue with study and prayer, subsequent brethren might have simply copied and pasted his thought. True disciples of Christ simply must “abide in [His] word” (John 8:31), and must not “think beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). They must think things through for themselves. The goal in this is never to discover new truths, but to uncover old ones and, with full appreciation and understanding of those old truths, preach or teach them in relevant ways.
Three, whenever someone presents material that someone else has written, he’s eliminating what is likely the very reason that God chose “the foolishness of the message preached [i.e. preached message – PWS] to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21). When you really think about it, God could have commanded Christians to be publishers and distributors, whose sole task was to make copies of the Bible and get them into the hands of men. Or, having allowed preaching and teaching through the apostles, God could have made the task of Christians to record these lessons, translate them if needed, and repeat them verbatim. However, He did neither. Why?
While I won’t pretend to know all the reasons, it is my belief that God knew that the best way to convey truth to a man in a given culture, place, and time is to convey it from another man in that same culture, place, and time (or from one who has adapted himself as Paul did – cf. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23). A man simply must teach from his heart to the hearts of his audience – not from someone else’s heart (otherwise, the lesson will seem out of touch) or to someone else’s hearts (otherwise, the lesson may never reach the hearts of its recipients).
Upon heartfelt consideration of his audience’s needs, a preacher or teacher might hear a sermon preached, hear a class taught, or see some material in an outline book and view that lesson as being just what his audience needs. It is not surprising for this to happen from time to time, as truly there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). However, the burden is still placed upon the preacher or teacher to restudy the message himself: to ensure the content is Biblical, the passages are used in context, the applications are valid, and the illustrations are appropriate for his own audience. He should always keep in mind that “old truths” continually need “new robes.”