Assumptions are powerful things, and no more dangerous than when someone asserts to have transcended them, to have reached a true objectivity and impartiality that is, by definition, impossible. People who avoid going to certain churches – or any church – because they “just want to read the Bible and follow it” are misguiding themselves. It isn’t that they can read the Bible impartially. They simply have their own assumptions about it.
As a preacher, I have to constantly acknowledge and identify my own assumptions. What do I assume about the Bible? What do I assume about Jesus? What do I assume about myself? What do I assume about my parishioners? The reality is that I’ll never be able to identify all of my own assumptions. But I can identify some of them, and this is incredibly valuable and necessary. In this range of assumptions, over the past few years I’ve been dealing with what are my assumptions about the role of preaching? What are my Sunday morning sermons intended to do?
I started out for Seminary years ago with the assumption that people need to be guided towards proper behavior. They don’t know what is expected. They don’t know what is right. When presented with the Gospel, the natural reaction is likely to be Gee, now what do I do? So the sermon should conclude with some very pointed encouragements and exhortations. Not the Law, mind you – but something applicable.
But I’ve changed my mind about this.
Everywhere I go, I hear people talking about the Law. Christians. Parishioners. Non-Christians. I have yet to meet anyone who isn’t aware of the Law, who truly feels as though it either doesn’t exist, doesn’t apply to them, or that they already obey the Law fully. Everyone I know will admit that there is a Law (God’s or their own, in addition to societal laws), will admit that it applies to them, and 99% will readily acknowledge that they don’t fully obey it. Ever.
The problem I experience isn’t that people don’t know the Law, but rather that they don’t know the Gospel. Not really. Not fully. Not in it’s complete, world-altering, mind-blowing, life-granting, death-defeating totality. And grant you, I won’t be able to convey the fullness of the Gospel because I’m a poor, sinful being. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s my job to try. I need to try to give people on Sunday morning purely good news. Good News contextualized by the Law they already acknowledge failure of. Good News that doesn’t allow them to justify themselves and earn the Good News of Jesus Christ. Good News that doesn’t allow them to sit in smug superiority over those other, lesser people who don’t vote the same way or dress the same way or talk or drive the same way.
And if that’s what I want to convey, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Law still plays a role in my sermons – but it plays an earlier role. That’s the role it has always played – highlighting our own shortcomings, my own failures in areas that we might not be aware of. The Law prepares us – drives us to the Gospel. But once we get the Gospel, once we get forgiveness of sins based on the perfection of Christ, once we get citizenship in the Kingdom of God based on faith in the resurrection of Christ, then I’ve done my job and I need to shut up and sit down and let the Holy Spirit work that Gospel realization in each person’s heart, just as He does in my own.
So I fight the tendency – the near-manic need – to direct people at the end of the sermon as to what to do next. Be more loving. Be nicer. Be honest. Because these aren’t helpful encouragements. This is the Law again. Because they aren’t more loving. Aren’t nicer. Aren’t more honest. Little by little, hopefully – but never to the point at which they can say well now I’ve done what Pastor told me I should do. I wonder what advice he’ll give me that I can completely fulfill next?
It’s uncomfortable to end with the Gospel, to let the Gospel predominate despite the fact that my denomination (and most Christians for that matter) claim that the Gospel should always predominate! We say it, but we don’t really mean it. We say it, but we’re terrified that people will hear the Gospel and decide that there really isn’t any more work to be done in their lives, that they’re perfect and can go on blithely sinning in peace.
I don’t believe the Gospel really allows for that sort of calmness. The essence of the Gospel is not that now I’m good enough, the essence of the Gospel is that Christ is good enough. The essence of the Gospel isn’t that there aren’t areas I need to improve in my life, the essence of the Gospel is that much-needed self-improvement is never enough, and can never equal the grace of God I’ve been granted through faith in Jesus Christ.
If I want to assume anything, then, about my hearers, I need to assume that the Law is crushing them in one way or another, leading them to despair and frustration, and that they haven’t really heard the Gospel. I try to assume that they really need to hear the Gospel as the solution and escape from the condemning voice of the Law. I need to assume that having heard the Gospel, their immediate result is not going to be licentiousness, but rather thanksgiving to God and changes in their lives that sprout from their new identity in Christ rather than some internal desire to be better people.
It makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me worry I’m not discharging the duties of my office properly. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe I’ll be led to change my mind again, to shift my assumptions to a better place. So be it. I trust the Holy Spirit will lead me to that conclusion if I’m in error. That’s part of how I see the Gospel functioning in my life, part of the way I assume it functions because I need it to function that way. And maybe that’s how it functions in my parishioners lives when they hear it each Sunday. I pray it is. Not to my glory, but always and only and forever to God’s. Sola Dei Gloria.