The Good News We Must Never Neglect

Every once in a while, someone gives you the great gift of feedback – thoughtful, constructive, and timely.  It happened this week when a friend said, “You don’t preach the gospel.”

Most of the feedback I get on sermons is…well…silence.  Most who listen to my sermons don’t say anything at all.  I learned a long time ago not to base my professional self-esteem, or my sense of call, on the comment-o-meter.  If I did, I’d quit most weeks.

The responses I get are generally positive and brief – everything from “I enjoyed that” to “you were speaking right to me.”  Often the most appreciated response is an e-mail or comment that comes days or weeks later as I learn how God’s word has touched and changed someone’s life.  I had no idea at the time.

Rarely does someone do what a friend had the courage and wisdom to do this week.  After weeks, if not months, of careful consideration, he came to me in person with his critique.

His words took me somewhat off guard.  When he said, “You don’t preach the gospel,”  I don’t think he meant I never do.  He just doesn’t hear enough gospel in my sermons.

We talked about what he means by the gospel, and he gave me a book to read:  The Transforming Power of the Gospel, a 2012 publication by Jerry Bridges of the Navigators.  I went home and read it immediately, cover to cover.

Reading the book took me back about 35 years.  It’s Bible College 101.  I don’t say that pejoratively.  Bridges is a long-time staff member and author with the Navigators, an evangelism and discipleship ministry primarily geared toward college students who have little Christian training.  He systematically lays out the basics of the core of our faith:

God is holy.  Sin is sinful.  Jesus gave his life for us in “the great exchange.’  This gospel needs our daily embrace.  It motivates us to live a life of gratitude.  [Bridges’ use of the Heidelberg Catechism in this chapter caught my attention in this section.]  The Holy Spirit transforms us through the instruments of grace, including our active disciplines of Scripture and prayer, our faithful response to adversity, so that we are conformed to the image of Christ.

I am surprised to hear from one of my listeners that this message is not coming through in my preaching.  My friend was raised in a church that did not deny the gospel message – but neglected and obscured it.  I think he fears I’m doing the same.

The church of my adolescence, by contrast to his, was a place where “the gospel” was the theme of every sermon, an altar call was the climax of every worship service, and the “sinner’s prayer” is what every person must sincerely say in order to go to heaven.  I am grateful for my spiritual roots, and do not disdain them.  The Christian journey does begin with repentance and trusting Christ.

My own Christian life and teaching ministry, however, have become intentionally broader than the church of my youth.

The Gospel.  The word “gospel” means “good news.”  It is the central and familiar message of Christianity – that God has entered our world in the person of Jesus Christ.  By his incarnation, death, and resurrection alone we are saved.  The gospel is so much more, however, than just how bad sin is, what Christ did to pay for sin, and the response of faith and repentance.  As Bridges says, the process of becoming like Christ is Gospel as well.  Paul, who practically coined the word “gospel” in its New Testament sense, spends as much if not more time on the practical application of the gospel in our lives than he does expounding the central message itself.

The Bible.  The Bible invests most of its ink on subjects other than “the gospel,” at least the way that word is narrowly defined.  The first 2/3 of the Bible has an occasional hint of the gospel, but most of it is what I like to call a “setup” for Jesus’ coming.  The books we call “the gospels” only rarely expound “the gospel.”  Those who heard most of Jesus’ sermons would not know “how to be saved” (in the way many evangelicals mean that phrase) after hearing them.  That is also true of the bulk of content in Paul’s letters.   Ephesians, for example, certainly lays out the heart of the gospel clearly in 2:1-10.  All of chapters 1-3 support that central message in one way or the other – but not as explicitly as 2:8-9.  In chapters 4-6 Paul spells out what “a life worthy” of this gospel looks like – but he doesn’t “preach the gospel” again.

Clichés.  I work hard in my preaching not to say the same things we’ve all heard in the same ways.  This is part of the “golden rule” applied to preaching.  When I hear other preachers using proverbial phrases – or even reverting to the same Scripture verses and familiar themes – I tend to tune them out.  In preaching I try hard not to say things I often heard and said decades ago, like ….

    • Justification means ‘just as if I’d never sinned.’
    • Grace is an acronym for ‘God’s riches at Christ’s expense.’
    • Whenever you find the word ‘therefore’ in the Bible, find out what it’s there for.
    • Jesus is the reason for the season of Christmas.

It’s not because these phrases are untrue but because they seem to me like salt that has lost its flavor.  I’m aware that for others these phrases may seem fresh and memorable – maybe even a sort of spiritual comfort food – but if they seem overused to me, the words will limp out of my mouth.  The word preached needs to be fresh in my own heart.

Omissions.  I have often said that while I am grateful for my evangelical heritage, I believe I’m a better Christian for having broadened my exposure and relationships in the Body of Christ.  The Reformed faith has given me a deeper appreciation of the sacraments than I was taught growing up.  Anglicans like C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright helped me filter out sectarianism from “mere Christianity.”  Richard Foster pushed me to appreciate spiritual disciplines other than reading the Bible and ticking off a prayer list.  The United Church of Christ has taught me to pray Jesus’ prayer for a visible unity of his church and has also given me a greater concern for compassion and justice.  Pentecostal Christians make me realize how dry my experience of worship can be.  The African American heritage exposes the dangers of power and privilege.  Philip Schaff reminds me that there was a church faithful to Christ between the first and sixteenth centuries.  A Lutheran minister named Stephen Haugk taught me again that sometimes the gospel has more to do with listening than talking. All those themes were largely omitted as an application of the gospel in my early Christian training.  Jerry Bridges’ three primary points of gospel application (integrity, sexual purity, and interpersonal relationships) while important, are far from the only ways the Gospel needs to be applied.

Humility.  In my observation, most expressions of the church, ancient and modern, eastern and western, foster arrogance.  I’m most aware of my own culture and time, but it seems to me contemporary American Christianity is the guiltiest of all on this point.  In the same way that our political views have fostered what author Bill Bishop calls “The Big Sort,” freedom of religion in America allows and even encourages us to gather with the like-minded who simply reinforce our insights and ignore our collective blind spots.  We become critical of those who don’t believe or behave as we do, completely ignoring a fundamental biblical theme that is essential to the gospel – both in terms of conversion and the Christian life:  humility.  There’s something about intentional exposure to believers outside my circle and visible expressions of the unity of Christ’s body across racial, denominational, political, and class barriers that humbles me before God and others.  That’s a gospel theme that needs preaching as well, especially in response to a culture of sectarian arrogance.

Holiness and Love.  Part of what my friend said to me was that he doesn’t hear me expound enough the holiness of God – which includes God’s perfection, his wrath, and his justice.  God hates sin and cannot look upon it, which is why the cross was necessary and why salvation comes only through Jesus Christ.  The criticism is fair, and God’s holiness is a theme that doesn’t come through with clarity and consistency in my preaching.  Our Heidelberg Catechism, after its introduction and overview, strongly words its section on guilt as foundation before moving on to grace and gratitude.  Without going back and doing a thorough analysis, however, I would say God’s grace is overwhelmingly more dominant as a biblical theme than his justice, especially in the New Testament.  This is why I say the Old Testament is a setup for grace.  While the New certainly doesn’t neglect the wrath of God, neither does it dwell long or frequently on the subject.  Paul and John can write long letters with little or no mention of judgment on sin, preferring love as our primary motivator.  John perhaps says it most succinctly, just after a reference to “the day of judgment”:  “There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 4:18, NIV).  Paul’s primary motivation is also Christ’s love (2 Corinthians 5:14).

There is much more to preaching the gospel than “the gospel.” Even when I preach it, I try to find a fresh way to tell “the old, old story.”  But if I’m to practice what I preach on humility, I need to receive humbly the sincere assessment of a friend.

I am so grateful for my friend’s courage in coming to me in person and in love.  He did me a ginormous (one of my daughter’s words of choice) favor on more than one level.  First, I have been asking myself all week whether I make the gospel clear in my ministry.  I assume a knowledge of the gospel – do I explicitly proclaim it?  My friend is right when he tells me that there are people there every Sunday who need to hear the gospel again – some perhaps for the first time.  Jesus is still “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and my number one job is to point people to the Father through Christ.

If someone who knows the gospel well sits in the pew in front of me week after week and says he doesn’t hear a simple explanation and invitation to faith in Christ for salvation, I need to listen humbly and receive his reminder as from the Lord.  Paul would speak of many things in his letters, but throughout his correspondence he would also include what he called in 1 Corinthians 15:4 “of first importance” – that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”  This gospel we must never neglect.

Rethinking Homosexuality

The following is a guest post by Bob Thompson.  It was originally written in June of this year while the Obergefell case was before the Supreme Court and just on the cusp of the United Church of Christ’s General Synod at which Bob was scheduled to speak.  I’ve reposted it here.

 


It’s hard for all of us not to think about homosexuality and same sex marriage this week.

On Monday, Tony Campolo wrote a blog calling for “the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the church.”  Robert Gagnon posted a strong and critical response on his Facebook page.  Both Campolo and Gagnon have spoken at Corinth in years past, and I have respect for both.  Christianity Today also posted a response to Campolo’s statement this week.

On Tuesday, the Charlotte Observer reported that Franklin Graham’s Facebook page had called for boycotts of companies like Wells Fargo and Tiffany’s that advocate for LGBT concerns.  I also have deep appreciation for the Billy Graham Association and Samaritan’s Purse, both led by Franklin Graham.

Yesterday we received a newsletter from a church where Linda and I served many years ago.  The church is proposing an extensive addition to their constitution and bylaws defining marriage as between a man and a woman, listing all sorts of unacceptable sexual sins, and urging compassion on people no matter who or where they are.

This morning, the Hickory Daily Record ran an Associated Press article that predicts “legal chaos” if the Supreme Court, which will issue some sort of ruling later this month, allows states to decide whether to recognize gay marriage.  Also today, the Charlotte Observer printed an LA Times piece about Miley Cyrus, who has said she is open to any sexual relationship between consenting humans.

Also this morning, I had a voice mail from a church member who said his Sunday School class at our church spent the entire class this past Sunday discussing homosexuality.

For me, the topic is even more unavoidable.  Tonight I will speak at Concordia Lutheran Church in Conover on “Humility and Homosexuality,” a speaking engagement set up months ago.  Next week, I will attend the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ, a perennially strong voice for gay and lesbian concerns.   (I chose Romans 1 as my text for the preaching festival!)  The final week of June, Linda and I will represent Faithful and Welcoming Churches at the General Synod of the UCC.  I expect that the Supreme Court will announce its decision while we are mingling with some of the most passionate religious advocates of LGBT causes.

Maybe in a rapidly changing culture you can avoid rethinking what you believe about homosexuality and how you speak about it, but I can’t.  Not this month.  Not even today.  As a Reformed (motto: “Always Reforming”) pastor, I am always rethinking everything, but always under the authority of Scripture, alone.  So in my mind I’m reviewing the themes and texts that have become so central to me in conversations across the years about homosexuality.

Creation (Genesis 1). The reason I can’t join Tony Campolo and the large shift in American culture toward affirming same sex marriage and homosexual practice has little to do with the half-dozen oft-discussed biblical texts that explicitly refer to homosexuality.  It has more to do with a cohesive and pervasive biblical ethic that begins in Genesis 1 when God created humans male and female.  I search from one end of the Bible to the other and although I see a variety of sexual behaviors, I find the only consistent affirmation of sexual expression is between a man and woman in marriage.

Self-denial (Mark 8).  Christian proponents of same sex relationships need to find a basis other than explicit biblical texts, and generally join the broader culture in finding that basis in exploring and affirming “who you are.”  In other words, look within yourself, to your desires and impulses in order to find your identity, sexually or otherwise.  The “right to be me” and the “freedom to do as I choose” are thoroughly American values.  This approach to identity and ethics is so pervasive that it also lives among Christians of all ideologies and types on a broad range of topics – not just sex.  “It can’t be wrong if it feels so right” has become a mantra in culture and church.  We forget that Jesus’ message was quite the opposite.  We only find true life through self-denial.  When I look within, the natural impulses are to be mistrusted and resisted.  To follow the desires of self is to invite destruction.

Calling (1 Corinthians 7).  What Paul says in the middle part of the chapter directly resists our impulse to seek fulfillment by changing our circumstances.  Certainly there are times to seek change, but the default choice in calling is to assume that God has placed you where you are.  That includes your relationships, your job, your church, everything.  Trust God enough to believe that he knew what he was doing when he made you like you are and put you where you are.  This is about another pervasive biblical value: contentment.  The beautiful irony is that God will often change our circumstances, but only after we have by grace accepted our current situation.  A restless and mobile society is constantly on the run for something elusive that feels like it’s just around the corner.  Paul says my current situation is where God wants to work in me and through me.

Sins (Romans 1).  You might think you know where I’m going when I bring up Romans 1, but I doubt it.  Read carefully verses 18-32 about the wrath of God and the sin list that follows.  Note especially the pronouns.  Romans 1 is about “the sins of them” – sins that cause us to condescend toward others because we aren’t guilty of those acts.  Paul wants you reading Romans 1 thinking about how bad “they” are – no matter who your “they” is.  Then he lowers the boom in Romans 2:1.  As soon as you judge “them,” you judge yourself.  When you clobber someone with Romans 1, you get clobbered by Romans 2. Thinking your sins are less sinful than theirs makes you just as deserving of God’s wrath.  You are often most disturbed when “they” don’t even acknowledge how sinful “they” are.   I will guarantee you “they” think the same about you. One reason I can’t join Franklin Graham in a call for a boycott over affirmation of homosexuality is that every Christian (including me), church, and era tends to have its list of sins it overlooks and its list it condemns.   If I target one area of sin, I contribute to the self-righteousness of those who don’t see themselves guilty of that sin – while excusing so many others.

Compassion (Psalm 103).  All through both testaments are beautiful texts that speak of God’s compassion for us and exhort us to compassion for others.  In Psalm 103, David the psalmist is keenly aware of his sins, but they are forgiven.  He knows what he deserves, but God will not treat him that way.  He’s aware of his human brevity and frailty, but God is aware too.  (If you want to point out that in Psalm 103 God’s love is “with those who fear him…and obey his precepts,” re-read the above paragraph on “Sins”.)  I would be terrified if I believed God forgives only the sins I name, the sins I acknowledge, or the sins I never return to.  God’s compassionate forgiveness in Christ treats me as I never sinned and never will again.  In gratitude for that love I seek to live a life of holiness, including a life of compassion extended to others.  Whether their behavior I find unacceptable is due to willful sin, ignorance, a wounded past, or heredity – or whether it’s my own blindness that makes their action offensive – I’m willing to leave judgment to God and offer the same compassion I hope they will offer to me.  I keep reminding myself that I should be especially compassionate when someone else’s sin is not my sin and more so when their sin is not even my temptation.  Kindness, listening, caring, loving, learning – these are all biblical values I need to apply to every person I meet.

Unity (John 17).  One greatly overlooked biblical text is Jesus’ number one strategy for evangelism: the visible unity of the church.  As more Christians target each other privately and publicly, the world will continue to see our fractures and public flogging of one another as their number reason not to believe.  We’re going to see more churches taking their “stand,” meaning that the message will be that no LGBT person (or their advocates) need show up.  If polls are true that the majority of Americans now affirm same sex relationships, and we make it a critical part of our identity that we don’t, then essentially we’re saying to half or more of the world around us, “If you want to find a relationship with God and Jesus, don’t come here.”  Other churches proclaim their full affirmation of same sex couples, and their message to the world is, “If you don’t identify as LGBT (or side with those who do), don’t come here.”  What will be lost in both cases is Jesus’ prayer for unity and our ability to convince the world that we have any credibility.  The way we often do business is no different than the rest of the culture, where people make up their minds, slam their opponents, and separate into ever-narrowing cliques of the like-minded.

Humility (Philippians 2).  I find it intriguing that Paul may never have written (or quoted, some think) the hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 about Jesus’ humility and exaltation if he had not been trying to make the point about humility in our relationships with one another.  For Paul in Philippians 2, humility is first and mostly about how you think, not so much what you do or say.  We often (mis)judge humility – our own and others’ – by what we can see from the outside.  Paul says where we need the change is with our “attitude.”  I must own my own sins and brokenness, I must admit there’s so much I don’t know, I must confess that I might be wrong because, after all, so many Christians down through the years are now almost universally acknowledged to have read the Bible wrong on a plethora of topics.  Gamaliel was right in Acts 5 – sometimes you have to let God sort it out over time.  Whatever word I have to say will not be the final word on this or any other subject.  I have to learn to think that way.    This is not to say that there is no absolute truth.  There is a remarkable and consistent consensus around the essentials of the Christian faith that stretches from the early church until the present day, all around the world.  That consensus has been often challenged, but given a generation or so, it returns intact even in the midst of swirling blind spots.  Ultimately humility results in patience.

Prayer (1 Timothy 2).  On the heels of his own humility as the “chief of sinners” in chapter 1, Paul reminds Timothy to urge everyone to pray for governments and their officers.  But he doesn’t urge us to pray that they would see things our way or order society on Christian principles.  He wants us to pray that government will get out of the way so that we can live “peaceful and quiet lives in all gentleness and holiness” so that we can proclaim the truth of Jesus, the “one mediator between God and mankind.”  I’m not all that worried about whether the state or federal government allows gay marriage, although I oppose that shift.  I’m more concerned that we continue to live in freedom to proclaim and live the gospel.  God has left humanity with a remarkable level of freedom – as individuals and as societies.  He rarely interferes directly, for reasons I do not fully understand.  Maturity in the faith  sees our primary role as one of prayer – because prayer acknowledges that God’s in control and not me.

I’m glad God didn’t leave me in charge.  I couldn’t handle it.  Not this week anyway.

When You Give Yourself a ‘B’

This post comes from Pastor Bob Thompson (D.Min.) of Corinth Reformed Church in Hickory, NC. Bob has been a minister in the UCC for two decades.


Last week I decided to watch myself on TV.  I wasn’t glad I did.  I don’t know that I’ve watched my own sermon on video since seminary.  It is, at the least, kind of strange.

We not only don’t record our worship sermons on video at Corinth; we don’t even record them on audio.  The reason I was preaching on TV was that I had been a guest at Exodus Missionary Outreach Church.  Their services are taped weekly for editing and broadcast on WHKY-TV.

Honestly, I thought it was better sermon when I was delivering it than I thought when I watched it.  I found lots of ways it should have been improved in content and delivery.  I’d give it a ‘B’ if I were grading it as a preaching professor.

As most of you know, Linda and I have also been working on a home improvement project recently.  As I look around the room, I give myself a ‘B’ for floor refinishing, carpentry, sheet rock repair, and painting.  Hopefully the casual guest in our home will not notice the flaws, but I will always see them.

The combination of those two areas has me thinking about other areas of my life – parenting, pastoring, and, most importantly, living out a personal relationship with Christ.  ‘B’ at best.  Maybe not even that most days.

This column is not designed to evoke praise or encouragement.  I’m not looking for, or needing, words of affirmation.  I’m not down about life or ministry.

Instead, I’m very aware of grace.  God used that sermon at Exodus in spite of me to connect two very different congregations.  The “new” living room looks pretty good overall, and has created the larger, more open space we intended to create.  My kids are turning out great in spite of my flaws. ( As of this Sunday, for example, we’ll be 3 for 3 graduating from college – on time!  On Mother’s Day, Jeni will receive her Bachelor of Music degree from Appalachian State University, graduating summa cum laude [with highest honors].)

God is not looking for perfection.  That quality belongs to him alone.  He’s looking for people who are willing to let him take us where we are, willing to give our best, and willing to admit our own flaws, sins, and shortcomings.

So take courage if you feel in one area (or all of them, like me lately) you’re doing ‘B’ work.  God loves you and is using you.  If you’re perfect, you don’t need him.  Trust me – you need him.