It's been a while since I've sent out a 'thought' for your consideration and encouragement. I was preparing for, and then doing, two weeks of ministry in India. Now that that has passed, it is back to work as normal!
This thought comes to you from the Spring 2011 edition of Leadership Magazine.
It is written by Lee Eclov, pastor of Village Church in Lincolnshire, Illinois. Though it is aimed at preachers, I found it a good word for all Christians to consider, since if we are sharing our faith (as we all should be) we will eventually face the difficulties that come when we need to share hard truth without violating the grace of the Gospel. Enjoy.
Preaching Hard Truth in the Age of Grace
"A young man approached me after I'd preached on Mark 8:34 ("If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me"). I'd quoted Bonhoeffer: "When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die." The young man hemmed and hawed, then said plaintively, "I feel I never do enough for God, so a sermon like that is hard for me."
There it was -- the theological tension between doing and grace. The tension was clearly expressed in that young disciple's face. I felt the weight too. Had I somehow turned, "deny yourself and take up your cross" into a way to earn salvation? Had I shortchanged grace?
In-your-face, prophetic preaching poses a challenge for gospel preachers. How do you get up and preach, "Repent and sin no more," when the congregation has just sung, "Jesus Paid it All"? Prophetic preaching often goes to the dark heart of bad behavior just when our people have gotten used to hearing about "grace that is greater than all our sin."
The potency of New Testament preaching is not in scaring the hell out of people. There is the urgency of MUST in prophetic sermons, sure, but grace adds the beautiful counter-melodies of FORGIVEN and ABLE. Our preaching is one way God fulfills his new covenant promise to write his law on our hearts.
Hebrews 12:18-26 explains: "You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm...but you have come to Mount Zion... to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant." Living on Mount Zion has this in common with the responsibility laid upon God's people at Mount Sinai -- "see to it that you do not refuse him who speaks." But for gospel preachers, these demands are tuned to grace.
Gospel preachers bring more potency to the oughts and musts of holy living than Old Testament prophets ever could. The gospel sends us out to do right, to deny ourselves, to wash feet -- but to do so because God is our loving Father, because in Jesus we are forgiven already, because the Spirit places God's love in our hearts.
Yet there is something about passages heavy with commands that stirs the moralist in us. Why is it so easy to sound angry, to become religious taskmasters? Jesus warned of teachers who, "tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them." It is hard to do justice to both law and grace in our preaching.
We are most likely to find the tender balance when we have processed our texts through our own hearts in prayer before we stand to preach. We confront ourselves there in God's presence with his righteous commands and take the measure not only of our righteousness, but also of our faith. We see what we can do and what we can't. Then we bring to our sermons sympathy born of our own struggle. We invite people into our own Gethsemane and urge them to "watch and pray lest you fall into temptation."
We misunderstand grace if we think its only about forgiveness. Grace has backbone. It was grace that confronted the rich young ruler with his poverty. It is God's grace that warns about hell and shows us the glory of God until we say, "Woe is me!" Grace is what we are sent out to offer to others, without price. It's not just something that we are forever taking from God. In preaching, we insist that God's people carry grace, and we outfit them with grace. Preaching that is alive with grace wrenches the remote control from people's hands, snaps off the TV, and pushes them out the door to live like Jesus.
My heart went out to the young man who stood before me in the foyer. I told him how I struggled with the same battle of fearing my failures. Then a gospel idea dawned on me. I'd said in my sermon that Peter received power only after his crowing denials woke him to his deep need. I reminded the young man of that. "When you see your own inadequacy so clearly, you are near that place where Peter died to himself. That is where you find Jesus' grace to strengthen you." The grace change moved over that man's face like dawn. Muscles relaxed. Eyes widened. He smiled in a kind of relief -- the kind only the gospel can give."
As a pastor I can assure you it is difficult on many occasions not to stumble into preaching a mere morality that suggests that we can become more acceptable to God the more we do for him. Yet thankfully the Spirit brings to mind the Gospel truth that jolts me from such vain fantasies and reminds me we could never earn even the smallest bit more of God's acceptance, or love, than Jesus purchased for us through the merits of His life, sufferings, death and resurrection.
It is He (and He alone) who made us, and makes us, acceptable to God! As believers we work FROM God's grace, not FOR God's grace. We work from a position of acceptance and security, not to earn a position of acceptance or security.
The merits of Jesus, credited to me by faith, not only make me acceptable, they make me responsible -- that is, "response-able" (able to respond to the gospel's imperatives). Commands not grounded in grace merely leave us feeling hopeless, but commands issuing forth from grace give us both the desire and ability to do as He commands. And there is a big difference between the two approaches! One crushes, the other liberates. One drives us into the ground, the other helps us to "soar on wings like eagles" and fly (Isaiah 40:29-31).
With you in the struggle to remain true to the Gospel even when sharing hard truth, Pastor Jeff