A pretty common question is reflected in today’s email from a young woman from Sweden, a listener to the podcast. And Pastor John joins us over Skype today to answer. “Dear Pastor John, hello to you and the team at DG. I’m a relatively new Christian in Sweden, and I have a problem with my church. I got baptized four years ago and became a member. As time passed, I noticed our sermons don’t touch on sin and never call for repentance. I’ve asked one of the pastors about this, who said they are not preaching contradictory to the Bible; they just decided to not talk directly about sin. They want to focus on the love of Jesus and his acceptance of sinners. It sounds well with me, as an effort to attract lots of people into the church. At the same time, they don’t celebrate repentance and obedience. What do you think of a church that doesn’t preach against particular sins?”
I think the church is profoundly defective. It is unfaithful to the word of God. Over and over, issue after issue, controversy after controversy, sin after sin is traced back up the stream to this watershed issue: Do leaders and people treasure the word of God above gold? Do they savor the word of God as sweeter than honey? And do they submit to the word of God gladly in its truth and in its proportions? That’s the watershed issue over and over again, Tony, that I’m seeing in these days — as it is right here.
“Christ conquers sins by the new birth, and then he commands us to kill what he has conquered.”
Why would pastors presume to be wiser than the Scriptures in the way they speak to God’s people? That baffles me. And yet, over and over I find that to be the case on this issue and other issues. Church leaders think they know better than the pattern of the Scriptures themselves. So, let me give four reasons from the Bible why it is defective, why it is unfaithful, not to explicitly name, denounce, and call for repentance from specific sins that are in the world and in the church.
Prophets, Apostles, and Jesus
First, whether you look at the prophets in the Old Testament, or Jesus preaching before the crucifixion, or the apostles preaching after the crucifixion and after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit — wherever you look in biblical preaching — God’s spokesmen included not only the glorious good news of forgiveness for sins, but also a blood-earnest denunciation of sinning and specific sins, and a call for repentance and obedience in the power of God’s grace. For example, to look to the prophets, here’s Malachi 3:5:
I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
In other words, they named the sins; that’s the way they preached. Or take Jesus’s examples:
- On the sin of lust: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Matthew 5:29).
- Or greed: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24).
- Or hypocrisy: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (Matthew 23:29).
Or take Paul: “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18).
Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9–10)
So the prophets, Jesus, the apostles — this is the way they preach. They named sins and they denounced them, and they called for repentance and obedience in the power of the glorious good news of forgiveness that they preached. So if a pastor wants to find an authority for preaching that does not name and denounce and call for repentance from sins, he’s not going to find it in the Bible.
Pattern of Sanctification
But there’s something even more important than the fact that, in all biblical preaching, sins are named. The New Testament reveals that the actual way that sanctification works — and I presume these pastors want their people to be holy and loving and good and beautiful representatives of Jesus. The way that actually comes about is by a combination of God’s conquering sin by divine action, together with God’s command to kill sin in reliance on that divine action. That’s the pattern. It’s unbiblical to separate God’s conquering of sin and his command for us to kill it.
Now, I’m going to give you three illustrations of that pattern of sanctification. This is the more fundamental problem. These pastors just don’t get how God works; that’s their problem. They’re making it up as they go along, instead of submitting to the pattern of how sanctification actually works. And so, they’re cutting the legs out from under their own goal to make a beautiful people. Let’s take the cross, then let’s take new birth, and then let’s take the fruit of the Holy Spirit. So, how does the cross work to get sin out of our lives and make us holy? How does new birth work? And how does the fruit of the Holy Spirit work?
Commands from the Cross
Peter says in 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”
So Christ died not only to forgive sin, but also that it might die in the lives of his people. But that glorious triumph of Jesus over sin’s power on the cross is given as the basis in 1 Peter 2 — the basis — of verses 22–23: Don’t revile when you are reviled. Don’t threaten when you suffer. In other words, Peter did not assume that the way the cross kills sin — the sin of reviling and threatening — was automatic. Instead, he named the sin and he called for obedience on the basis of the cross and the power of the cross.
Christ conquered vengeance on the cross for his people. Then he commanded us, on the basis of his conquering, not to revile those who revile us, not to threaten those who cause us to suffer, not to return evil for evil. That’s how we are made new: the divine sin-destroying work of Christ and the divine sin-naming, sin-denouncing word of Christ. That’s the pattern: the conquering of Christ and the command to kill it; the work of God and the word of God to name it and put it to death.
Born Again to Fight Sin
Here’s another illustration: the new birth. Peter says in 1 Peter 1:23 to Christians, “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.”
So there: that’s the decisive, divine work in us to make us new, to turn us into the kind of people who hate sin and love righteousness. That’s the work of the new birth: hate the dark, love the light, turn from Satan, embrace Christ. That was worked for us by the Spirit in the new birth. But three verses later he says, “So” — in other words, on the basis of this new birth, because this miracle has happened in your life — “put away malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all slander” (see 1 Peter 2:1).
Now, we might ask — maybe these pastors ask — “Why? If we’re born again, and we have the divine DNA in us to make us holy, inclining us away from sin, inclining us to love God, why, Peter, why, Mr. Apostle, inspired by God Almighty, why would you bother to name sins and tell us to put them away?” And the answer is this: because that’s the way God has designed for sanctification to work. Christ conquers sins by the new birth, and then he commands us to kill what he has conquered. He does not say, “Christ conquered it, so I never need to name it anymore; I never need to summon my people into battle against their sins.” No, that’s not the way God designed it. These pastors are making it up as they go along. They’re not submitting to God’s way in the Bible.
Spiritual Fruit, Fleshly Works
One more illustration — namely, the fruit of the Spirit. I remember back in Germany — goodness, it feels like a hundred years ago when I was studying there — sitting in my pantry, wrestling with this very issue of how the word of God and the fruit of the Spirit related to each other. In Galatians 5:22–23, Paul says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience” — and all the rest, all nine of them. “Those who belong to Christ,” he says, “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24).
“It’s unbiblical to separate God’s conquering of sin and his command for us to kill it.”
The Spirit is going to bear fruit in your life. So you are dead with Christ, and the Spirit is alive and bearing fruit in your life. “Oh, what a beautiful, positive, positive, positive way to look at the Christian life. Let’s preach that — and only that.” Well, you can be unbiblical if you want to, and make it up as you go along, and draw inferences that the Bible doesn’t draw — that’s not a good way to minister. So we might think, “Well, that’s all we need. We’ve got the Holy Spirit, we’ve got the cross, we’ve got the new birth — just love, joy, peace.”
Paul, in the preceding verses, names fifteen works of the flesh. I’ll read them:
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. (Galatians 5:19–21)
And then he adds for the sake of Christians to hear — now, this is what these pastors are not doing. Paul thinks this is essential. He says, “I warn you [Christians in Galatia], as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21).
So I ask again, Why name the works of the flesh and tell us not to do them if the fruits of the Spirit are mightily at work in our lives? Why? That’s what I wrestled with those hundred years ago. The answer is this: that’s the way God designed it to work. Don’t try to be smarter than God. God conquers our sins by the Spirit and commands that we kill those sins by means of the Spirit. That’s the biblical pattern.
So, I conclude that a church that fails to name sins — denounce them, call for repentance — puts human wisdom above divine wisdom by ignoring the way the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles preached, and by failing to grasp how sanctification in the Bible really works: how the cross, the new birth, the fruit of the Holy Spirit actually conquer sin through God’s command for us to kill it.