You are heading to your office after finishing a sermon on “The White-Hot Holiness Of God.” The theme was somber, to say the least, and the congregation seemed quietly contemplative – too hard to gauge whether or not the message hit home. You open the door only to find two men you have never met waiting for you. Uh-oh.
These men are not here to complain, however, but to pour out their souls. Both are full of tears, remorse and shame . . . You listen, nod, share some Scriptures and pray for each of them. As you walk them both out the office you can’t help thinking, this is why I do what I do. These men will be changed people from here on. They thank you for your message again, and it dawns on you – “Pardon me, men. I didn’t get your names.” The first says, “I’m Peter.” The second says, “I’m Judas.” Uh-oh.
What’s going on here? Two men, both under what many would call “conviction.” Both men denied Christ. Both men bailed when it came time for courage. But one man went on to grab the brass ring of church leadership while the other put his neck in a noose. How could two remorseful men end up so differently? The naked eye will not help us; it sees only tears and clenched teeth. The Spirit, however, sees the difference between conviction and guilt. Our preaching hangs on this distinction – it’s a matter of life and death.
The Instant Gratification Of Guilt
Nothing produces more immediate results than a heaping dose of good old-fashioned guilt. A seminary friend of mine used to joke, “Just preach about the importance of prayer- that always nails them to the wall.” And who can disagree, has anyone ever met a Christian who thinks he prays enough? To the frustrated preacher who sees little signs of change in his listeners, the appeal of instant tears and regret is a seductive force when entering the pulpit.
The problem with guilt is that it’s a bear trap, not a springboard. Sure it hurts like the dickens when it chews its way through you, but where do you go from there? A springboard, however, certainly grabs your attention, but it also moves you forward. The problem for the preacher, though, is that guilt looks so darn similar to conviction. Is there anyway to tell the difference?
Those Obnoxious Corinthians
Had I pastored the church of Corinth, I don’t know if I could have resisted guilting them to death. Division, sexual immorality, lawsuits, abuse of spiritual gifts just lend themselves to guilt’s precision-guided missiles. Yet in the middle of Paul’s second letter to them he points us to the razor-sharp distinction between conviction and guilt. Notice the words in bold . . .
Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it – I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while – yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. (2 Cor 7:8-11, NIV)
This passage is a goldmine for the preacher who wants his sermons to bring about repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret. Paul’s instruction to this train wreck of a congregation was aimed to produce godly sorrow, what we might call “conviction,” not worldly sorrow, which we can certainly call “guilt.”
Did you notice all the results conviction brings about? Earnestness, eagerness, indignation (over sin, presumably), alarm, longing, concern – wow, one of these could keep most pastors motivated for months. Guilt, on the other hand, is said to produce only one result: death.
Whenever we preach for life change, we tread on dangerous ground. Like Paul, we must address people in their sin, but like Paul, we must be instruments of grace, leading them to move forward in their walk with Christ.
Three Ways To Tell The Difference Between Grace and Guilt
Since I have often been a champion of guilt, I have ample material to pull from for this section. Don’t get me wrong, I was usually not aware of how much guilt used to be a part of my preaching. After all, guilt knows how to put on its Sunday best just like the rest of us. From this point I will refer to conviction as “grace,” since conviction is a life-giving force (plus the alliterative beauty of guilt versus grace is too irresistible for preachers).
1. Guilt focuses on failure. Grace focuses on the future.
It had been a long summer. Vacations and summer outings had brought tithing to a record low. For my Labor Day sermon I would “serve” the congregation by “gently” pointing out this deplorable example of giving. Surely we were capable of better. Looking back, I could have briefly mentioned that, like most churches, summer giving is always a little thin, but we had a huge opportunity in front of us. We had several autumn outreaches planned and I could sense the excitement in the air. What a joy to think about how we could give of our time, energy and resources to what God might do in the future. Had I spent more time focusing on what God could do in the future than what we did not do in the past, wow – who knows . . .
It has always struck me than when Jesus restored Peter that day when they strolled the beach, the Savior never mentioned Peter’s failure. It was there by implication, no doubt, as Jesus gave Peter three chances to declare his love for his master just as Peter had denied Christ three times. But the Savior’s focus is always on what lies ahead, “Peter, feed my sheep.” (John 21). I wonder how our congregations would respond if they sensed our excitement for what the future might hold.
2. Guilt focuses on deficiencies. Grace focuses on growth.
One of my former co-pastors, a retired truck-driver-turned-minister, has the most intense prayer life I know. While he’s never told me how much time he spends praying every day, I have been with him enough to figure it out. At least 2-3 hours per day. Who is this guy, Daniel? A few years ago, I saw him interact with a member on the subject of prayer. The man told his pastor he just could not focus on praying very much. He was lucky is he could spend five minutes alone with God. I was watching this conversation, waiting for the pastoral equivalent of a hydrogen bomb, this poor guy had no idea what a prayer warrior he was talking to! Instead of a rebuke, however, this pastor simply asked him, “Do you really think you can devote five minutes to prayer each day?” The member thought he could. “That’s great,” my co-pastor said with a smile, “don’t worry about the minutes on the clock so much – just know that those five minutes are the best minutes of your day.” That five-minute-prayer-midget has become a prayer juggernaut over the years.
Read the first nine verses of 1 Corinthians chapter one when you have some time. Knowing that he has to address the myriad of deficiencies (referenced earlier in this article) in the Corinthians, he actually starts by calling attention to areas where he has seen growth and change! He commends them for the grace he sees at work in them, the way they have been enriched in every way, the way they are not lacking in spiritual gifts (that’s right, even in this area of significant abuse he finds something to celebrate!), and the certainty that Christ will bring them all the way to glory. Paul is committed to celebrating grace’s effects first, before he points areas in need of correction.
3. Guilt pressures. Grace encourages.
Remember that old song by the Fugees, Killing Me Soflty? Change the lyrics slightly and you’ve got several of my past sermons. Stoking my pain with his sermons/ slicing my life with his words/ killing me softly with his psalm/ killing me softly with his psalm. The psalm was 119. The occasion was the second week of a Sunday School series I had been teaching on memorizing the word of God. A whopping three people had been in attendance the first week, and the time had come for a sermonic thrashing. Sure the sermon was biblically sound, who could argue with the psalmist’s commitment to meditate on the Scripture? But the stench of pastoral desperation must have been wafting through the sanctuary that day. Anybody with two ears could have seen that the message was little more than a high-pressure infomercial for the Sunday School class. Next week, two people were in attendance.
A year later I was on Sabbatical visiting another church that had been promoting a similar class. The “inside information” I had obtained suggested attendance was sparse here as well. I was kicking myself when the pastor invited a member in the class to share just what a positive experience she was having memorizing Scripture. No preaching, no platitudes, no pressure. Why didn’t I think of that? Grace always encourages. I love Phillip’s words to the skeptical Nathaniel when Christ was just starting his ministry, “Come and see.” Grace knows how life changing the gospel is when people are invited to experience it; it has no need to pressure.
Championing Grace From The Pulpit
I used to think that if I preached enough sermons on the topic of grace, I was a grace-oriented preacher. But grace can be served up in a sea of guilt-gravy. Conversely, it’s actually possible to preach on repentance and sanctification in grace-saturated message – this is the way of the New Testament, the way of Paul, the way of Jesus. True, guilt is great for short-term dramatics, but grace is for the long road of life in the kingdom.
With an eye trained to look for conviction’s subtle impostor, guilt can be exposed and eliminated before we step into the pulpit. And when we do slip back into guilt’s clutches (and we will), we may see the many “Judases” we have made in a given Sunday and rush to their aid before its too late. May God make our very mouths fountains of grace for our sheep that wander in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.
I recently heard a retired Presbyterian minister recall how someone who had had heard him preach at, if I remember correctly, a funeral service, told him, “You have a crystal clear voice and a crystal clear message.”
Is there a greater compliment for a preacher? is there a greater aspiration in terms of our ministry effectiveness?
What’s the point in having a crystal clear message but no crystal clear communication of it? What’s the point in having a crystal clear voice but no clear message to communicate with it?
May we have both for the good of our hearers and the glory of God.
Each Wednesday we highlight a sermon that exemplifies expository excellence. This week, the ministry is by Alistair Begg.
Alistair Begg has been in pastoral ministry since 1975. Following graduation from The London School of Theology, he served eight years in Scotland at both Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh and Hamilton Baptist Church.
In 1983, he became the senior pastor at Parkside Church near Cleveland, Ohio. He has written several books and is heard daily and weekly on the radio program, Truth For Life.
When we preach we explain the meaning of details in a Bible passage. We do more than that too, of course. But here are five quick reminders about handling the text carefully:
1. Remember that the passage was originally written in another language, even though you probably don’t need to mention it. As one of my teachers put it, “Greek is like your underwear, it is important to have it on, but don’t let it show.” I think there is wisdom in both halves of that thought. We should use the languages as best we can in preparation, and generally, there is wisdom in not talking about it when we preach. For people who have never learned Hebrew and Greek, it is important to remember that there is both linguistic and cultural distance between the original text and our translation. It is wise to consult serious commentaries as you are preparing, and it is very wise to not support your presentation by appealing to the original language, especially if you are not comfortable translating the passage for yourself.
2. Be grateful for the English translation you have. While it is good to interact with some heavyweight commentators to help you with the original, be thankful for the translations we have. We don’t need to undermine our listener’s confidence in good translations by how we explain the text.
3. The meaning of words will change over time, so don’t build a point on the origins of a word. I read a few deliberately outrageous examples in a Moises Silva article. He demonstrated how we should not trust ranchers because of the old French etymological connection to our term, deranged. Or the argument that dancing should be forbidden for Christians because the word ballet comes from a Greek term that also shows up as part of the origin of the term translated “devil.” Words mean what they mean in their context, in their contemporary usage at the time of writing.
4. Don’t read every possible meaning of a word into a specific instance. Let the context identify the meaning of a word. The other possibilities listed in the dictionary or lexicon need not concern you as you preach it. Take the term “chip” in this sentence – “The problem with your computer is a burned-out chip.” It doesn’t matter that the term can be used for a deep-fried potato chunk served hot in England, or a fried slice of potato served cold in America, or a piece of wood flying as the lumberjack chops at a tree trunk, or a useful shot for a golfer stuck in a bunker. Other possible meanings do not matter when the sentence itself clarifies the intended meaning.
5. Context really is king. When it comes to explaining the meaning of a detail in a text, context is always the golden guideline. Don’t get caught up building a point on a nuance of grammar, or a subtlety of vocabulary. Those finer points can usually be left in your study notes, or used to support what you are saying, but if you are going to make a big point about meaning, generally it should be made using context as your primary evidence.
We have to explain the meaning of the text whenever we preach. Let’s keep prayerfully pondering how we can do that in a way that is clear, helpful, instructive and not distracting.
I still look back with huge gratitude at the opportunity to have studied with Haddon Robinson in the mid 2000’s. Here is his oft-quoted definition:
“Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.”
Importance of the “concept” – the central role of the “big idea” is vital to coherent preaching. Preaching is not the conveying of random details held together by their proximity in a biblical text. It is easy to let a Bible text nudge you into your favourite theological themes, your anecdotes of choice, or even other disconnected biblical truths. This definition urges the preacher to study the passage in order to determine the big idea of the passage. What, specifically, is this passage saying?
Importance of the study method – among the expository definitions that I’ve read over the years, I think this one is unique in including a definition of the hermeneutical approach advocated. In order to get to the biblical concept in a passage, the preacher is to use a historical, grammatical, literary study of the passage in context. What, accurately, is this passage saying?
Importance of the transmission – many people miss the two words “transmitted through” that come before the hermeneutical element. Not only should a preacher use good hermeneutics in the study, but they should exemplify good hermeneutics in the presentation. After all, the preacher is modelling Bible handling before a crowd who will pick up habits from what they observe. How will they read their Bibles after listening to you preach?
Importance of the Holy Spirit – again, many definitions of preaching seem to omit any reference to the Holy Spirit. This one recognizes the role of the Spirit in applying the biblical concept in the life of the preacher, then through the preacher in the listeners too. Apart from Him, we can do nothing.