Reflections on things that matter.
Welcome back to my blog, post-NaPoWriMo! Thanks to everyone who liked my poems last month. I am returning to my regular posts this month, so enjoy!
Graceless Gospel: Why Sermonizing Doesn’t Work
When a person goes to church, whether he is saved or not, he has generally come because on some level, he wants to know God a little better. But in thousands of churches across the nation, people are going to church and hearing not the good news of God’s grace and Christ’s victory, but bad news. Bad news about themselves, like how they have somehow failed God, the Christian community, or themselves. Pastors often begin sermons in the right spirit. There is a passage of scripture to be illuminated, and some application to be observed. However, at some point between the illumination and application, the pastor may begin chastising his congregation for not living up to the ideal application of the scriptures being taught on. For example, the obvious implication of Ephesians 5: 1, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dear children,” is going to be “you’re not imitating God well enough.” Ephesians 6:14, “Stand therefore…” becomes, “you aren’t standing! Get up!” Sometimes, the lecture isn’t even directly connected to a scripture, but a subconsciously accepted “Christianism.” Pastors go on tangents about politics or ambiguous personal issues, like how children should be raised and what, in the current society, is unacceptable for believers to accept, participate in, or manifest. Somehow, every piece of scripture is applied in the negative, showing the deficiency of the individual, rather than in the positive, showing the capability of God.
While, there are many problems with such manifestations in the church, one core difficulty should be observed: the message of the gospel is not being preached.
What is the gospel? The good news of Jesus Christ. What is that good news? That God’s grace has been extended to humanity, free of charge and full of power to anyone who believes in Jesus Christ. Yet so many things are falsely considered synonymous with the gospel, and many of these things are behavioral. If ever you have walked away from a sermon feeling like someone has just told you “you’re doing it wrong,” you have encountered a behavioral sermonization, not the Gospel. No matter how well-meaning the pastor is who delivers these words, he is taking your focus off of Christ himself and putting the focus on you and your ability to live up to God’s standard. There’s a word for this: legalism. This is the opposite of grace, “for by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is a gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).”
The effects of behavioral sermonization on churchgoers are these: unbelievers don’t meet Christ, and believers don’t grow in Christ. Imagine how an unbeliever, especially a skeptical one, must feel when he makes the decision to show up to church out of conviction or curiosity, and all he hears from “you may be seated,” to “you are dismissed,” is a list of things he is doing wrong in God’s eyes. “Well, how will they know they’re sinners unless we tell them?” you might ask. But that’s not the pastor’s job. The Holy Spirit is the one who convicts of sin (John 16:7-8), not the minister. Furthermore, it is God’s goodness that leads a man to repentance (Romans 2:4). Not castigation, not judgment, but God’s goodness. The stunning lack of explanation of the goodness of God himself in church sermons, coupled with the irrefutable presence of well-meant but ineffectual lecturing, produces a bad atmosphere for meeting the Good God of the Gospel.
The believer, on the other hand, has nearly as much trouble growing in the soil of judgment as the unbeliever has taking root in it. When the believer is made aware of his personal imperfections in the light of the scripture through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, he undergoes growth and change. But once again, it is the part of the Holy Spirit to illuminate such things. When a pastor takes it upon himself to illuminate these things to his congregation, even when he is doing so from scripture, he is, more often than not, going to teach the believer to look at himself for imperfection rather than to look unto Jesus, “the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).” Without the hope that the knowledge of Jesus brings, rebukes lack redemption power, and it is that power, the power of Christ toward the believer (Ephesians 1:19), that makes right living possible. If the believer is not fed this context, which is at the core of the gospel message, he will not grow in Christ, but he will grow in awareness of his personal flaws, and he will try to remedy them in his own strength.
Ultimately, sermonization is a practice that has been in the DNA of the organized church for hundreds of years. It will take a conscious effort on the part of believers to break free from it. Pastors will need to learn to teach a Christ-centered gospel again, and believers will need to learn to listen for a Christ-centered gospel, because after all, the good news of Jesus Christ, not the bad news of personal failure, is “the power of God unto salvation to all who believe (Romans 1:16).”