September 29, 2020

How to Preach What’s Not The Gospel

ADRIAN PREACHING-700806Note: Adrian Warnock preaches the Gospel. He also made a great picture 🙂

In a few days, I’ll gather my chapel preachers together for our orientation to the preaching work of the year. As I do every year, I’ll tell them to preach the Gospel. I’ll hand out “Two Ways To Live” and talk about the difference between preaching morality and preaching the Good News of Jesus.

Most of these men know and understand my burden that our students, many of whom we will only have for a year, get a clear and Biblical presentation of the Gospel throughout the year. They may consider me a bit of a “Johnny One Note,” but they want our kids to hear the Gospel as well. All of us, however, will use some of our preaching time to emphasize other messages in the Bible: moral lessons, character qualities, lessons to apply while a student, relationship wisdom, etc.

As important as it is to preach the Gospel, the fact is that there is more than the Gospel in the scriptures. When we are in the business of teaching the scriptures, we need to know how to preach the Gospel, and how to preach it from anywhere in the scriptures. But we also need to know how to preach what is NOT the Gospel, but is still of value.

1. We must preach what is not the Gospel in a way that doesn’t obscure the Gospel. My greatest concern is that my preachers understand that if they preach the story of Samson, they must preach the Gospel of Jesus and not the Gospel of making good decisions. The relationship between the Gospel and the law is basic here. Those good things in all of those stories are easy to preach and easy to apply, but in the scheme of the Gospel, they can benefit our lives temporally, but they cannot save. No amount of principles or lessons will deliver us from our inability to keep the law.

It’s important to let the law be true and helpful without letting it begin to sound like the “Good News” of obedience. It’s essential for a preacher or teacher know how to move from law to Gospel without contradiction or confusion.

2. We must preach what is not the Gospel in a way that points to Jesus. David, Moses and Samson have lessons for us. But where they fall short, Jesus perfectly fulfills all they tried to be. The lessons in Biblical stories are seen in their characters, but they are seen in the Gospel only in Jesus. One greater than David or Moses or Abraham is here.

This means we need to develop a skill that preachers of another era prized and practiced: connecting Biblical characters and stories to Christ. I can offer no one better than the Puritans or Spurgeon. Read Thomas Watson, for example, and watch how his mind is always moving through whatever part of the Bible he is using toward Jesus. How can these characters illuminate Jesus and the Gospel?

3. We must preach what is not the Gospel in a way that recognizes the power of the Gospel. There is power in lessons and examples: namely, my power to follow them. That means, of course, a very imperfect and inconsistent power. There is power in the Gospel: the power that saves, that raises the dead, that remakes the world. God’s power. The power of the Holy Spirit.

How do I get my students to appreciate that only God can save them, change them, raise them and finish all the work that he started? One way is by not leading them to believe that wisdom, proverbs, lessons, principles and other things of value can bring the power of God in the same way.

4. We must preach what is not the Gospel in a way that shows the difference between human effort and faith. Faith is resting upon God’s promise. It is receiving the gift of God. Faith is placing hope in God himself and what he alone has done and will do. In following any lesson in scripture, we are urging obedience, often on the premise of the necessity of faith. But with the Gospel, if we are Protestants, we are urging faith alone in Christ and his grace alone.

The preacher wants to fuel and fire up faith, but faith rests and believes at a level much deeper and fundamental than it imitates, works or obeys. Our preaching should never discourage obedience, but the lasting quality we want to build up is faith first, and everything else later.

We also must be sure not to confuse faith and works, faith and obedience, faith and repentance or faith and intention. While there is a proper emphasis on practice as a path of faith, the Bible goes to great lengths to declare the nature of faith distinctively, even as it recognizes that faith always exists, in an imperfect relationship to, obedience, repentance and so forth.

5. We must preach what is not the Gospel in a way that does not distort or neglect the proper role of what is not the Gospel. There is a proper place for all of the Bible that is not, in itself, the Gospel. We don’t want to lose the characters, the lessons (which the New Testament says are there to help us), the law or anything else in a constant emphasis on Jesus and the Gospel. We want the scriptures to honestly be what they are and say what they say. I am surprised how some preachers will defend the distortion of a text if they are bending it toward Jesus in some way. We must be good workmen with the text and allow the text to say what it says and be what it is. Properly understood, it will testify to Christ and the Gospel without efforts on our part that damage the plain meaning of the scripture.

One last note: The emphasis on expository, verse by verse preaching raises many of these same concerns. If we stake out a book that is mostly law, we must know how to keep the Gospel primary and not spend 6 months in the law without reference to the only one who keeps the law, the only one who fulfills the law and the only one who forgives the law.

Comments

  1. Sometimes it feels like I’m really stretching to do a redirect from some Old Testament stories to the gospel. For example, how do you use the murder of Sisera to point to the Gospel? Your point #5 is well taken.

    For that matter, it feels like a stretch when the preacher in Hebrews 11:32 lists Samson in the faith Hall of Fame, as a point of transition to “something better”. About all I can say is that in Hebrews faith is considered great in hindsight, but in the middle of the story it looks to be about the size of a mustard seed at best.

    • dubbahdee says

      Much like our lives. That is, I think, a real gospel lesson. When we are in the middle of our own stories, Jesus is there even if we do not perceive him. To trust in that is a matter of faith, is it not? To help people to see that we can trust that he is making it all right even in the middle our stories is gospel preaching.

    • Isn’t that crushing the head of the serpent… shiny gospel moment. Looking backwards to the gospel in Genesis 3 as well as forward to the cross.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      About all I can say is that in Hebrews faith is considered great in hindsight, but in the middle of the story it looks to be about the size of a mustard seed at best.

      That reminds me of an axiom from a book about writing plot-drive fiction from my college days. Regarding plot events, it said that “events should seem random and accidental when they occur but inevitable afterwards.” That the pattern of the plot should not be recognizable as it happens, but all fit together by the end.

  2. Wonderful post! It is very important to visit the entire Bible, not just the Gospels, because God gave us the entire Bible. We can see images of Christ all over the Old and New Testaments. And in fact, preaching on the lives of those individuals allows us to see the very reason for Christ in the first place, as they often led fractured and faulty lives. That’s why my favorite Bible character is Peter…flawed, but faithful…just how I want to be.

    • wasabicoated says

      You want to be flawed, hahaha!

      • AsinusSpinasMasticans says

        I have no choice but to be flawed. That’s why I want to be faithful as well.

    • Dan I agree with you.

      I try to find how we are like the characters and stories of the Bible. They, like me, fall short of their calling. Every given relationship shows faith and failure yet God was able to use them and the community found their story important to retain. The Bible talks about God’s love for us in the midst of failure. We are children of God and the Bible points to how and why we can accept that position. If we wonder how far God will go we need only turn to the Gospels!

  3. So you don’t like 2 Ways to live?

  4. Thanks for this post.

    Since your post a few days ago (The Law Gospel Rant), I have been considering my ten years as a youth minister. I constantly felt a pull. I was committed to teaching grace. I wanted my kids to understand the great freedom that comes from a life lived in grace. My slogan for my youth ministry was “Living with a net.” as a metaphor that meant when we lived in the context of grace we can risk great things for God because God’s grace can rescue us from our failure and rebellion. We even had “Sin Boldly” T-shirts one year.

    But (and of course there is a but) I also wanted them to make wise choices. I know that obedience doesn’t always lead to “Your Best Life Now” ™ but when I could protect them from the dreadful consequence of sinful and dangerous lifestyles, I wanted to. What I struggled with then (and now as a teacher of adults) is how to we teach wisdom and ethics without compromising the gospel.

    Last weeks “rant” had me searching again on where I am on this balance. Today’s post will do that same. I suppose what I am trying to say is that it is very hard to preach “Neither does Christ condemn you, now go and sin no more.”

    Thanks for your continual challenge to my ministry.

    • I’m still reeling from that same rant myself. It was life-changing. Now I, too am having to reevaluate a lot of what I formerly believed.

      1. I see now that the work of salvation was finished at the cross, and nothing I say or do will add or detract from that.

      2. I have no personal desire to sin (in the general sense; I don’t mean I’m not tempted or am perfect). Quite the opposite, in fact, even though I have no more fear of sin.

      3. Nor is it my wish to live selfishly; not because I would feel guilty for behaving like the goats, but because I have the opportunity to participate in what the Holy Spirit is doing in this final, blessed age, and what could be more exciting or fulfilling?

      But I cannot explain how points 2 and 3 follow from point 1! This is frustrating to me, because I still rationally expect that people… Wait. Just had a thought. Maybe no one can accept #1 unless the Holy Spirit is at work in them, and 2 and 3 are the continuing work of the Spirit.

      P.S. I don’t suppose you have any of those t-shirts left in a size L?

      • Alas, they went pretty fast. It was an exciting semester. Many were scandalized but for some it was the first time they got grace.

        Our next theme was “Serve Humbly.” We hoped they would form a meaningful balance.

        We also ate a lot of pizza though, it was a youth group after all.

  5. I did some reading, thinking, praying, posting and discussing which I really enjoyed because of a conversation here last week re: the Reformer’s categories of “Law” and “Gospel.” Thanks for sparking that research. Even growing up in the SBC, that wasn’t anything that anyone covered in detail, at least that I recall. I still don’t think splitting Jesus into those two categories with the effect of only calling some of him “gospel” or “grace” is a road I can walk on, but I don’t mind having and keeping some Lutheran friends around to remind me of how much we all need God’s acceptance, given freely.

  6. Thank you for posting this. I study at a Dispensational seminary and I’m not sure that Jesus is as far away from some of the OT texts as they say He is, but I’m not ready to go all Pink on the text either. I do know that I want to make sure that any sermon is Christ-centered to the point that Oprah could not use the sermon. In other words, there has to be Christ in it somewhere or else a lot of OT narrative just turns into self-help and morality.

    I cannot imagine a pastor subjecting his flock to 18 weeks of Leviticus, but I could see using Leviticus quite a bit in a long series on Hebrews. I’m glad for the Law in its proper place.

    • Chad Rushing says

      There are probably quite a number of OT and NT passages or even entire biblical books that complement each other and could be used together effectively in a Bible study. Such an approach would do much towards confirming the relevance of the Old Testament to New Covenant Christians and emphasizing that faith in the promises of God has always been the key.

      The fact that some Bibles totally omit the Old Testament as if it is no longer relevant, including only the NT and maybe the Psalms, strikes me as an unnecessary and potentially outright negative practice.

    • I dream of a long series in Leviticus – maybe not 18 weeks but the way the gospel shouts out from that book it demands to be preached. Try Andrew Bonar’s Geneva Commentary on Leviticus, or a four part series by Justin Mote at http://www.uccf.org.uk which could easily have been twice that length.

    • cermak_rd says

      Leviticus 19 will go quite nicely with some of the sermon on the mount (plains, depending on the source used).

  7. Where can I find the link to Two Ways To Live. I don’t see it on the side bars to the right?

  8. T Freeman: Lutheran theology isn’t about splitting Jesus (or even Scripture per se) into “Law vs. Gospel,” but about properly distinguishing between the two functions that they have. In fact, the same verses can hit the hearer in many different ways, depending on whether they are complacent in their sins, in despair and in need of comfort, and so on. A good pastor will preach the text and “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” with the ultimate intent of driving everyone to the Gospel once the Law has done its work.

    I don’t think you need to make unrealistic stretches in OT Scripture to point things back to Jesus. If we truly see ourselves in these OT figures, we will see people who are struggling with sin and people of faith. The same Law that applied to them applies to us, too, and drives us to Christ. And whenever we see God’s undeserving grace and sacrificial love given to his people, we see that fulfilled in Christ as well.

    Leviticus makes for an excellent sermon series. We did one during Lent one year, and it’s absolutely full of Jesus. How could it not be? It’s all about God’s work of atonement, sacrifice, and the forgiveness of sins. It’s not like God was making up arbitrary rules back in the OT that have no relation to the Christian faith.

    • Kelly,

      Even if we say “distinguish” according to function, then I’m not comfortable distinguishing only some of Jesus’ life, words and actions as “gospel” or “grace” and other parts not when I study him for myself or present him to others. God’s leadership, IMO, is a gift he gives (grace) and it doesn’t help in the long run us to keep calling it something else. Unfortunately, I think this hermeneutic has only contributed to the lack of discipleship to Jesus in the West–because we don’t generally present his leadership or shaping of our lives into his as part of the good news. We just leave too much good (too much of Jesus) outside of our idea of “good news” using this lens.

  9. Greatest blog piece on hermeneutics I have ever read. This will be INCREDIBLY helpful to me in my feeble attempts to run a youth ministry. Thank you for this one!
    The first church I worked for (SBC) had a former military chaplain for a pastor, and so he was very steeped in practical ecumenicism. He lead the leadership to include in the church statement of beliefs that “The criteria for interpretation of scripture is Jesus Christ.”
    I knew that sounded right, but didn’t quite fully understand how a person could be a criteria. I think this article goes a long way toward explaining that concept.

  10. Michael,
    This is my first visit to your blog. I read your bio and feel that we are at a similar point from different roots. You might say it seems we were grafted to the same plant. Glad you are posting, now let’s see if I can respond.

  11. I serve a congregation that doesn’t know the Bible. Most members are adult converts who haven’t heard all the old stories. I can’t mention Jonah or Moses without giving a recap of the stories. It’s a wonderful, awesome opportunity and responsibility to teach the Bible. Telling the stories and telling about the stories is part of the process, but is not my primary purpose. It doesn’t matter what text I’m working from, I hope to preach in a way that people meet Jesus. I hope the men and women in the congregation are actively participating in the sermon, encountering the risen Christ. If he really is the Word made flesh, then this can be true regardless of what passage serves as the core of that moment’s message.