Good News from a Far Country: Preaching Law & Gospel
I believe it’s no small charge to assert that there’s a massive problem in the majority of America’s pulpits. A lot of pastors step up to preach week after week and instead of feeding the hearts that sit before them with grace, they give them a lot of fluff. Instead of speaking to their souls, they itch their ears and fill their egos. One of the continual temptations as a pastor, among other things, is to pander to your congregation and begin speaking more towards results rather than redemption. The focus goes to crafting “seeker-sensitive” messages and services that cater to bodies coming back Sunday after Sunday. And as long as the pews are getting filled, the preacher deems his job a success. After all, there’s no denying the “fruit” of his labors, right?
Actually, this isn’t at all what a pastor’s called to do. The preacher’s job, while precarious, is simple: Preach Christ crucified. (1 Cor. 2:2) Period. Full stop. He’s not called to be a political analyst or social inquisitor or defacto father or quasi life-coach. His job doesn’t require him to help people live better, parent better, spend or save money better, or have better marriages. These may result from his preaching, but the pastor is called to do one thing only: Relay God’s glad tidings of the Son’s incarnation, ministration, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension on behalf of poor and paltry sinners like he is and you are. He’s commissioned with proclaiming this good news and what it means for us in the establishment of God’s redemption of both the creature and creation.
In short, the pastor’s called by the Father to preach from many different texts and in many different ways the resolute truth of God’s law and the resounding truth of God’s gospel. Always and everywhere we should be preaching something “somewhat tending to Christ.”
And because it is the special office of the ministry to lay him open, to hold up the tapestry, to unfold the hidden mysteries of Christ, labour we, therefore, to be alway speaking somewhat about Christ, or tending that way. When we speak of the law, let it drive us to Christ; when moral duties, to teach us to walk worthy of Christ. Christ, or somewhat tending to Christ, should be our theme and mark to aim at. (Sibbes, 168)
Growing up a pastor’s kid, one of the platitudes I became used to hearing over and over is that my dad only had one sermon that he kept preaching many different ways. He’d reiterate this from the pulpit occasionally, but it never really hit me how true this sentiment was until I began stepping behind the pulpit regularly to teach and preach. The allure of capturing a congregation’s attention is certainly strong. The temptation to conjure elaborate and exaggerated stories in hopes of relating and impacting your listeners is definitely present. There’s a grave tendency to change your message to curtail to the whims and fancies of those in the audience. But the tried and true method of preaching is to say the same thing, over and over, from many different texts of Scripture. The same thing about grace, Jesus, and redemption, and letting the Spirit do his mighty, life-changing work. The same grace that’s come to you is that which you’re then called to extend to others.
Your charge is to speak the same grace that you’ve been given with passion and boldness. (1 Pet. 1:10) The minister of the Lord and the child of God are tasked with the incredible mission of bringing the waters of saving mercy to dry, thirsty souls. “Good news from a distant land is like cold water to a parched throat.” (Prov. 25:25) Preachers, you are that voice, bringing the otherworldly message of full and free pardon for sinners, to lives in desperation. You speak the unexpected Word of Grace that perpetually surprises and scandalizes, humbling the pride of the self-righteous and removing the despair of the lost.
Zack Eswine calls pastors “long-distance grace runners” (124), intimating that the task of a preacher is rarely one that’s coupled with immediate results. Pastors tend to change their message when they’ve whetted their appetite at the table of numbers and figures and buildings. Hoping to continue the trend and effect quicker results, law and gospel are discarded, ignored, and lost. But God isn’t into quick fixes or silver bullets. He’s not about brightly burning kindling that’s eviscerated in a flash — he’s about the smoldering embers that keep their heat. He’s into mercy meeting messy sinners right where they are: in the mayhem and malaise of life. He’s into grace liberating guilty souls and bringing them unflinching peace. And pastor, you’ve been commissioned to bring this message to the Church in and out of season, for the long-haul, as a long-distance grace-runners with news of God’s cool springs of mercy.
This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
Zack Eswine, The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).
Richard Sibbes, “Bowels Opened,” Complete Works, Vol. 2, edited by Alexander Grosart (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1862).