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.