Old Truths in New Robes

Several years ago, I purchased a set of books by a preacher named 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, 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) but we do need to change the way we present that Gospel in modern times (we need new robes).

If old truths need new robes at any time, they don’t just need them once. Sadly though, Bible classes are taught, articles are published, and sermons are preached around the world that were written in other times and for other audiences. The stated reason occasionally offered for this is, “If it was true before, then it’s true now.” While this isn't totally wrong reasoning, there are at least three potential problems with it.

First, some recycled material was 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 Bible passages largely taken out of context. The worst example of this was when he asked us 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 that the preacher took out of its context and used to prop up his “loafer” point. Sadly, when I told a few fellow preachers about this sermon, I learned that it has made its rounds in several churches.

Second, when we present the messages of yesteryear simply because they’re true, we run the very real risk of creating a dangerous habit. The habit, simply put, is not thinking. I’ve noticed a troubling trend in some Christian material of writers who seem to run too quickly to extra-Biblical sources, particularly regarding hard topics. Sometimes, articles are comprised of little more than quotes. Sometimes, the quotes run two or three deep, i.e., a Christian quotes a brother, who had himself quoted a brother, etc.

The potential trouble here is not citing the material of others; it’s good to learn from others and good to honor others when we have benefited from their material. The question we have to ask ourselves though when citing material is this: have we thought through the issue with study and prayer as the original writer did, or have we simply copied and pasted someone else’s thought? True disciples of Christ simply must “abide in [His] word” (John 8:31) and hold themselves personally accountable for not thinking “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 copies someone else nearly verbatim, he’s undermining what could possibly be the very reason that God chose “the foolishness of the message preached 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 person in a given culture, place, and time is for it to be passed along by another person in that same culture, place, and time (or by someone who has adapted himself/herself as Paul did – cf. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23). A Christian simply must teach from his heart to the hearts of his/her 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 intended recipients).

Upon heartfelt consideration of his/her audience’s needs, a Christian communicator might hear a lesson or see some material in a book and view that specific presentation as being just what his/her 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: to ensure the content is Biblical, the passages are used in context, the applications are valid, and the illustrations are appropriate for the intended audience. We should always keep in mind that “old truths” continually need “new robes.”
-Patrick Swayne