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Two Common Mistakes Preachers Make

Searching for Reality in Sermons

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Owen Barfield, a friend of C.S. Lewis, once said of Lewis, “Somehow what Lewis thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything.” The more a person’s thoughts are true and comprehensive, the more accurate that statement is about the person.

The biblical writings are the authors’ God-breathed expressions of their true thoughts. How much more, then, shall such a statement be made of them: “What they thought about everything was secretly present in what they said about anything”? This really matters for preaching. Knowing an author’s larger vision of reality will guide the preacher in handling particular texts in ways that are not contrary to the author’s intention.

I am assuming, for instance, that the apostle Paul would be displeased if we pulled his command, “Seek to show hospitality” (Romans 12:13), out of the context of his overarching view of reality and made it serve a vision contrary to his own. He would not be pleased if we made it part of a secular “morals and manners campaign”; or if we made it part of an ecumenical crusade to show how Hindus, Muslims, and Christians all really live the same way because they all practice hospitality; or if we made it serve a legalistic cult that taught us to earn our salvation by good deeds. In other words, I am suggesting that Paul intends for us to see all of his particular exhortations and observations in the light of his all-encompassing vision of reality.

Two Common Mistakes

It is not enough to say (as true as this is) that the goal of preaching from a text like Romans 12:13 is to proclaim the reality that the biblical author is trying to communicate through the text. The scope of the reality informing this particular command is vast.

What Paul wants us to take into account in obeying and proclaiming the command to be hospitable is greater than the mere practical performance of opening our home to others. In fact, the meticulous performance of that practice could deeply contradict Paul’s intention. Not to do it from faith (2 Corinthians 5:7), not to do it by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16), not to do it in the name of Jesus (Colossians 3:17), not to do it for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31) — all these would, in Paul’s mind, be a failure to see and savor and show the realities that matter most. It would not be faithful to his intention.

What reality, then, are we supposed to preach when we have a limited and specific text in front of us? Let me respond to that question by preempting two mistakes that are commonly made in preaching on a text such as, “Seek to show hospitality.”

First Mistake: Moralistic Preaching

The first mistake (“Just do it!”) minimizes the larger, all-encompassing vision of Paul for how and why to do it. It deals with hospitality in limited, moralistic terms without reference to any of its deep roots in grace and Christ and faith, and without reference to any of its high branches in the glory of God.

“Just do it” might seem helpful to some preachers because they think hospitality might provide enhancements for how to get along in the world, or it might earn some points with God, or it might make the church friendlier so more people will come, or it might inculcate some character traits of graciousness and generosity, or it might bring some unexpected rewards if you happen to welcome a wealthy person to your table. This is not faithful preaching. It ignores Paul’s larger vision of reality: grace, Christ, Spirit, faith, joy, and the glory of God.

Second Mistake: Reductionistic Doctrinal Preaching

In the second mistake, preachers say something like, “You can’t do it; but Christ did it perfectly, so turn away from your doing to his doing, and enjoy justification by imputed righteousness.” This minimizes the seriousness of the command, diverts attention from the real necessity of the imperative, leads to a kind of preaching that oversimplifies the urgency and complexity of Christian obedience, and turns every sermon into a predictable, soteriological crescendo that trains the people to tune out and start putting their coats on. It silences the specific riches of the text by preempting them with unwarranted applications of right doctrine.

Both Mistakes Silence the Text

Both mistakes have their own way of silencing what Paul intends to communicate. The first mistake mutes the reality of the text by a vacuous moralism. The second mistake mutes the reality by making every text lie in the procrustean bed of misused orthodoxy. To be sure, justification by faith alone on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone is a glorious and precious truth. But Paul does not use it in a way that diminishes the urgency of practical obedience.

Paul does not embrace an artificial law-gospel overlay that treats every imperative as a way of showing human impotence to be remedied only by minimizing obedience and maximizing divine imputation. As Paul writes to the churches, he treats his imperatives as real obligations to be obeyed because we are justified, and because we are loved by God, and because we have the Holy Spirit, and because grace is a transforming power, not just a pardon, and because justifying faith works by love. So the doctrine of justification is relevant — infinitely relevant! — but not in a way that minimizes the immediate and real concern with practical Christian hospitality.

Theological Concerns

My concern with these two kinds of preaching errors is both theological and homiletical. The theological concerns are the most serious. But the homiletical can be tragic. Theologically, both errors jeopardize salvation. The moralistic error (“Just do it!”) does not lead to salvation, because moral behavior replaces the gospel of Christ crucified and risen for sinners. And it leaves untapped the only power that would make moral behavior acceptable to God, namely, the power of the Holy Spirit appropriated by faith in the blood-bought promises of God.

The second error (“You can’t do it; but Christ did it perfectly, so turn away from your doing to his doing, and enjoy justification by imputed righteousness”) jeopardizes salvation by giving people the impression that faith without works is alive — that it really can save (against James 2:17). It emphasizes Christ’s obedience as a replacement for ours, rather than showing that it is an empowerment of ours. It thus tends toward the error of Romans 6:1, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” It leaves people utterly at a loss to grasp that there is a real, practical “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14; also Galatians 5:21; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10).

This way of preaching, I fear, will be cursed on the judgment day by those who hear the Lord Jesus say, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. . . . ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21, 23).

Homiletical Concerns

My homiletical concerns are that the first kind of preaching (“Just do it!”) trains people not to see what is really in the Bible. It reduces the Bible to a handbook of good morals and manners endorsed by God. It marginalizes the gospel. As a result, such preachers do not lift burdens but, as Jesus says, “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:4).

Their preaching leads to despair or pride. A bit of moral success leads to pride. A bit of moral failure leads to despair. Grace is not there as a ground. The glory of God is not there as a goal. Preaching shrivels up to become a pep talk for positive thinking. Therefore, preaching ceases to be expository exultation. It is no longer part of worship.

My homiletical concerns about the second way of preaching (“You can’t do it; but Christ did it perfectly, so turn away from your doing to his doing, and enjoy justification by imputed righteousness”) are that it simply does not take seriously the very words of the text, and therefore teaches the congregation bad habits about how to read the Bible. It is controlled by a theological scheme that, instead of illuminating the riches that are resident in the text, short-circuits the discovery of those riches. There are some kinds of overarching theological convictions that cloud the specifics of a text, and there are some that impel us deeper into the specifics.

Finally, this kind of preaching has the lamentable effect of dulling a congregation’s hope of discovery, because instead of finding fresh specifics in the text, a monotonous “discovery” of the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works is made again and again. The tragic result is that one of the most glorious truths in the world becomes commonplace in the name of preaching Christ.

What Reality Do We Preach?

What reality are preachers supposed to proclaim as we do our exposition of the text at hand? It does not suffice to answer, “Proclaim the reality that the biblical author is trying to communicate through the text.” The reason this doesn’t suffice is not that it is untrue, but that it is too general. It doesn’t make clear that almost every sermon text demands that we know something of the author’s larger, all-encompassing vision of reality in order to handle the limited revelation of reality in the text.

Paul believes in God. He believes in sin and the necessity of God’s sacrifice of his Son so that guilty people can be dealt with graciously (Romans 8:32). He believes that the grace of God gives both pardon for sin and power to be godly (1 Corinthians 15:10). He believes that Christ welcomes us before we are worthy (Romans 15:7), and that in union with him we die to sin (Romans 6:11). He believes that, as new creatures alive from the dead (2 Corinthians 5:17), we now are being transformed by looking to the glory of Christ as our supreme treasure (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Paul believes that this change, and all the good we do as Christians, is a work of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16), and that, when we call out to God (1 Thessalonians 5:17) with thankfulness (1 Thessalonians 5:18) and faith (2 Corinthians 5:7), the Spirit stills our anxiety (Philippians 4:6), fills us with joy (Philippians 4:4), overcomes our bent to grumbling (Philippians 2:14), and frees us for humble acts of love (1 Corinthians 16:14) — like hospitality. Paul believes that these acts of love, done by faith and in the power of the Spirit, are genuine acts of worship (Romans 12:1) that reflect the character of our heavenly Father (Ephesians 5:1), adorn the name of Jesus (Colossians 3:17), and glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

So, we ask again: When the preacher makes it his goal to proclaim the reality that the biblical author is trying to communicate through the text (as I think he should), what reality does the preacher have in mind? The scope of the biblical author’s larger vision is so vast, and so multifaceted, that the preacher cannot proclaim it all in one sermon but must make choices.

With regard to Romans 12:13 (“Seek to show hospitality”), what is the preacher going to proclaim? It will probably include the nature and the ground and the goal and the means of this hospitality. But all of that — anything that is truly Christian and truly significant about hospitality — the preacher will say on the basis of Paul’s larger vision of reality. And he will learn this from careful attention to the immediate context, and, in this case, especially to the more or less distant contexts of Paul’s writings.