One of the things I've learned after about two and a half decades of ministry is that if you aren't occasionally accused of being an antinomian then you are probably not putting enough emphasis on grace. While it is true one can focus on grace to an extent that it appears to be a cheap thing, the majority of critics are simply legalists who take sermons, articles, books, etc. out of context by not looking at the greater body of work done by so called “antinomians.”
Merrium-Webster's online dictionary defines Antinomian as, “one who holds that under the gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation.” True antinomianism is indeed a heresy, but the term gets thrown around far too freely in theological circles.
In fact, if the word had existed at the time Jesus Christ was on earth I'm quite sure the Pharisees and other legalists would have dubbed him with the label. Let's just take one single instance. Matthew 9:11, “And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, 'Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?'” Jesus embraced these types and showered them with grace. This sentiment from the Pharisees in Matthew 9:11 is precisely the same type of attitude and comment often tossed about today.
The basic problem is the same everywhere. Typically what is heard on Sunday morning is law and not gospel. It's “saved by grace through faith, but...”. And if you boil it down what you get is “here is what you are suppose to do, do it, if you are not doing it get out there and start doing it.” So, let's make this practical. My aim is to provide seven tips, or thoughts to consider, regarding grace in the pulpit. What is the meaning of grace for the pulpit?(1)
7 Tips (or Thoughts):
1. A Personal History
Preachers need to have a personal history of grace in regards to their own sin and sorrows. Unless preachers have personal and intimate awareness of their own original sin and total depravity, they don't have anything to offer that is relatable to those listening. Grace has to be the backbone of the preachers personal story in order for their words to have any impact. In fact, this is a major qualifier for them to speak to those who are suffering. Otherwise, they will merely be preaching the law.
Another important ingredient of grace as it relates to the pulpit is humor. Paul Zahl writes, “Humor is an embodiment of humility, because it demystifies human importance and transfers the importance to God.”(2)
I think humor in the pulpit tells the people that the preacher takes their own position, or role, with a grain of salt. Of course I don't mean the significance of the role, but that they take themselves that way in the role. Another thing it does is lower the instinct of denial that people carry with them, in particular when being addressed in public. It also allows those listening to feel more comfortable. Not that they are to be coddled or told what their “itching ears want to hear,” but when a person is comfortable they are going to be more attentive and absorb more of what is said.
So, humor plays two roles in the pulpit. First, humor “deconstructs the preacher. He...is just a fool and martinet and narcissist like everybody else.”(3) Humor, for the preacher, goes hand in hand with humility. Second, humor can help knock down the defenses of those listening.
3. Knowing Law From Gospel
The preacher has to know the difference between the law and the gospel. Typically, if the sermon ends with something that I “should do” then it's a sermon of law and not grace.
It's a funny thing because you can actually see the difference between the law and grace by paying attention to the body language of those listening. When it comes to a section of “challenge” in a sermon people kind of stiffen up and lean away. Their bodies may still be sitting there, but their hearts and minds are headed for the door.
When a sermon is repeatedly peppered with phrases like “discipleship,” “accountability,” “good fruit,” “living holy,” etc., and not much of anything else, you are hearing law preached. When you hear “forgiveness,” “assurance,” “cleansed,” “substitutionary,” etc., you are hearing grace preached. I admit, this is overly simplified, but the general principle is true.
The reason using illustrations is important is because they “earth the concept.”(4) To put it another way, illustrations connect with common and shared experiences of those who are listening. In fact, this is precisely the reason Jesus was so fond of using parables. “He was seeking to offer access points to his listeners, most of whom were farmers, shepherds, and fishermen.”(5) Using parables was literally Jesus using illustrations.
5. Consider The Length Of The Sermon
This one is admittedly more of a matter of opinion, however, studies show an ever decreasing attention span.(6) You can't reach people if they are zoning out half way through the sermon.
Sadly, I think a large part of the problem regarding sermons that are too long is the ego of the preacher. They think they have a lot to say, they love to talk, and think everyone wants to listen to them. The psychology label for this particular type of original sin is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The point being, many “performances” behind the pulpit these days are merely exercises in NPD. I believe this is an honest, cut to the bone truth for many of those who preach. They carry this inner need to express themselves simply for the goal of self-expression. It's all about them and being in the spotlight. They like being the “front man.”
Because of this, and the above mentioned attention span of people, I believe most sermons should be shorter than they are. Brief but significant and to the point. When presenting a message of grace through the instrument of humanity I find it's best to err on the side of brevity. Just an estimated preference from my experience, I'd say 20 to 35 minutes is a good goal. This has much to do with the humility and the “grace-full deference of the preacher.”(7)
6. Expository Preaching
I'm quite sure I'll receive more push back on this point than the others, and rightly so. I say rightly so because expository preaching is essential to learning. However, we must remember who our audience is. Sunday mornings are not usually filled wall to wall with an entire group of seminary students paying for a costly education. Sunday mornings are primarily for the average “Joe” (and “Jane”).
What Christians want, and they should, is an approach that lets the Scriptures speak on their own terms. This is great. It's an approach that listens and receives. But the problem begins when we start giving every single verse of Scripture the same amount of importance and value. Of course all of God's Word is inspired, but not all of it is inspiring. What is happening, usually with good intent, is preachers are taking verse by verse, or even word by word, of Scripture believing that the overall effect will result in something powerful and transforming. The idea is to frugally treat every single verse, checking the verse against all instances of parallel or comparable verses, trying to get the meaning correct using cross comparison, resulting in incremental power that transforms people.
Granted, there are a few preachers who preach expository sermons and do it effectively. They can pull it off with a connecting effect. But the majority of the time the effect is dry. The Bible, or anything for that matter, can only be enjoyed in relation. The Bible needs a listener who is hearing and understanding. It needs an interpreter. We see in the book of Acts, chapter 8, the Ethiopian eunuch reading a passage from Isaiah but he doesn't understand what he's reading. He needed an interpreter. In God's providence he has Phillip overhear what is going on and he comes over and becomes the man's interpreter.
The Bible is the “Word of grace to a respondent, to the passive listener to which the Word speaks.”(8) The preacher is not merely a public reader of the Bible, they are the interpreter bringing the Word of biblical “one-way love” to those listening. Scripture stands far above the preacher, but at the same time they depend on the preacher.
7. Interpreting Scriptures
This brings us to the question, what does it mean to be an interpreter as opposed to an expositor? Grace in the pulpit comes by way of interpretation not by way of exposition. Let me try to explain. Those listening to Scripture are listening to life, and what life tends to bring us is condemnation. What people too often hear is judgment, it's so natural to us that we often infer it everywhere and in everything. Grace is the opposite of judgment and therefore the opposite of what we are used to hearing.
Grace in the pulpit needs to interpret the Bible and not just expound it. There is a capturing theme in Scripture, all the way from Genesis to Revelation we read of God's proper work of “one-way love.” But at times it can get hidden among foreign work of “dismantling and destruction.”(9) To put it more familiarly, there is law, which is demolition, and there is grace, which is uplifting and building. The tension between these two words, law and grace, is nearly everywhere in the Bible and so it requires an interpreter. Exposition by itself is not enough. The theme of grace requires discovery and revealing. Grace is not usually discerned automatically as it is not the norm in life.
Grace in the pulpit will refresh and strengthen the poor in spirit. Law in the pulpit will press down those who are have already been pressed flat and send them away thinking of excuses for not attending service next week.
Law & Grace Contrasts:
Grace in the pulpit should make you smile and cry in equal amounts, law will make you wonder why you came to church in the first place. Grace in the pulpit will bring to life things inside of you that you didn't even know you had. Law will stuff down the little you thought you had and make you feel smaller than a gnat. Grace will pull you out to see the big picture. Law will make you want to recoil back into your personal cocoon of daily misery.
Grace will grow the fruits of the Spirit in one's life, it will expand you. Law will stunt your growth and keep you in a cage. Grace in the pulpit, actually grace period, is the secret for church growth. I don't necessarily mean numerical church growth. I'm talking about growth in each individual, so the church universal. Growth in Christ, growth and maturity in faith, growth in love.
Article adapted from Zahl, Paul F.M. Grace In Practice (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007, pp.232-239).
(see preachingtoday.com, “Statistics on Our Drop in Attention Span”; National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2015 study; getreligion.org, “A Pew Research Center study on the varying lengths of Sermons in Christian churches? That'll preach”; journal.physiology.org, “Attention Span During Lectures, vol.40, No.4).
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