With Rick being away this summer I have been preaching more frequently at Nicosia International Church. This time has given me the opportunity to think more intentionally and contemplatively about the Biblical passages to teach on and what to focus on and why. Teaching in a very international setting, like NIC, I always wonder how people from so many cultural and linguistic backgrounds will take what I say and how I say it.
People like to hear the Biblical teachings about grace and “the gospel” but once in a while some will say they want to be told “the rules.” “Just tell me what I should and what I shouldn’t do to please God,” they might say. This is certainly not just something that happens here in Nicosia… it is everywhere. Our human nature desires to be told what to do, so we can do it, and feel like we made the grade.
I have come to realize it would be easy for me just to tell people some rules about how they can please God. “Do this and do that, but never do that or God will get very angry.” It would be quite simple to come up with a list of do’s and don’ts on Sunday morning and read it off to the people. But that is not what Jesus did…that is not gospel. There are expectations God has for us, they are all over the Bible but how we get to living those out…that takes the gospel.
I have been reading a book on preaching that has been guiding me on this journey. The author has helped me process how and why to preach the gospel of grace through all of the Bible even in the midst of what we consider “the rules” sections. The book is Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture. Below is an excerpt.
Preaching in the right manner involves a certain amount of exhortation (advice, warnings, commands) as a part of the application of the Bible to the lives of the hearers. If for no other reason exhortation is important because the Bible contains so much of it.
A former colleague of mine used to express the conviction that often congregations seem to have an almost masochistic approach to preaching. If the preacher really told them what a hopeless bunch they were and what they need to do about it, or if he really laid down the law about how they needed to improve their spiritual lives and performance, they would come away feeling really good. Battered and bruised, but good!
Why do we like to be given this kind of treatment? We may not enjoy being taken to task, but somehow we feel that, when we have been so treated, we have benefited all round. Things are looking up. There’s a chance if we all pull together that we can get this church, this community, this nation back on track. I now know exactly what I need to do in order to be living the victorious Christian life. And so on. I suggest that we love this kind of treatment because we are legalists at heart. We would love to be able to say that we have fulfilled all kinds of conditions, surrendering fully, or getting rid of every known sin, so that God might truly bless us. It is a constant temptation to want to take our spiritual pulse and to apply the sanctificational barometer. This is not necessarily the same as the worthwhile discipline of self-examination. True self-examination is a means of going back to the source of our salvation because it reminds us of the constant need of grace.
The preacher can aid and abet this legalistic tendency that is at the heart of the sin within us all. All we have to do is emphasize our humanity: our obedience, our faithfulness, our surrender to God, and so on. The trouble is that these things are all valid biblical truths, but if we get them out of perspective and ignore their relationship to the gospel of grace, they replace grace with our own performance.
If we constantly tell people what they should do in order to get their lives in order, we place a terrible legalistic burden on them. Of course we should obey God; of course we should love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. The Bible tells us so. But if we ever give the impression that it is possible to do this on our own, without the grace of Christ, not only do we make the gospel irrelevant, but we suggest that we can really be “good people” and get God to bless us by our “good behavior.”
If we lay down the marks of the spiritual Christian, or the mature church, or the godly parent, or the obedient child, or the godly society and if we do this in a way that implies that conformity is simply a matter of understanding and being obedient, then we are being legalists and we risk undoing the very thing we want to build up. We may achieve the outward semblance of conformity to the biblical pattern, but we do it at the expense of the gospel of grace.