A young man approached me after I'd preached on Mark 8:34 ("If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me"). I'd quoted Bonhoeffer: "When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die." The young man hemmed and hawed, then said plaintively, "I feel I never do enough for God, so a sermon like that is hard for me."
There it was—the theological tension between doing and grace. The tension was clearly expressed in that young disciple's face. I felt the weight, too. Had I somehow turned "deny yourself and take up your cross" into a way to earn salvation? Had I shortchanged grace?
In-your-face, prophetic preaching poses a challenge for gospel preachers. How do you get up and preach, "Repent and sin no more," when the congregation has just sung "Jesus Paid It All"? Prophetic preaching often goes to the dark heart of bad behavior just when our people have gotten used to hearing about "grace that is greater than all our sins."
The potency of New Testament preaching is not in scaring the hell out of people. There is the urgency of must in prophetic sermons, sure, but grace adds the beautiful countermelodies of forgiven and able. Our preaching is one way God fulfills his new covenant promise to write his law on our hearts.
Hebrews 12:18-26 explains: "You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire … but you have come to Mount Zion … to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant." Living on Mount Zion has this in common with the responsibility laid upon God's people at Mount Sinai—"See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks." But for gospel preachers, these demands are tuned to grace.
Gospel preachers bring more potency to the oughts and musts of holy living than Old Testament prophets ever could. The gospel sends us out to do right, to deny ourselves, to wash feet—but to do so because God is our loving Father, because in Jesus we are forgiven already, because the Spirit places God's love in our hearts.
Yet there is something about passages heavy with commands that stirs the moralist in us. Why is it so easy to sound angry, to become religious taskmasters? Jesus warned of teachers who "tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them." It is hard to do justice to both law and grace in our preaching.
We are most likely to find the tender balance when we have processed our texts through our own hearts in prayer before we stand to preach. We confront ourselves there in God's presence with his righteous commands and take the measure not only of our righteousness but also of our faith. We see what we can do and what we can't. Then we bring to our sermons sympathy born of our own struggle. We invite people into our own Gethsemane and urge them to "watch and pray lest you fall into temptation."
We misunderstand grace if we think it's only about forgiveness. Grace has backbone. It was grace that confronted the rich young ruler with his poverty. It is God's grace that warns us of hell and shows us the glory of God till we say, "Woe is me!"
Grace is what we're sent out to offer to others, without price. It's not just something that we are forever taking from God. In preaching, we insist that God's people carry grace, and we outfit them with grace. Preaching that is alive with grace wrenches the remote control from people's hands, snaps off the TV, and pushes them out the door to live like Jesus.
My heart went out to the young man who stood before me in the foyer. I told him how I struggled with the same battle of fearing my failures. Then a gospel idea dawned on me.
I'd said in my sermon that Peter received power only after his crowing denials woke him to his deep need. I reminded the young man of that. "When you see your own inadequacy so clearly, you are near that place where Peter died to himself. That is where you find Jesus' grace to strengthen you."
The grace change moved over that man's face like dawn. Muscles relaxed. Eyes widened. He smiled in a kind of relief—the kind only the gospel can give.
—Lee Eclov is pastor of Village Church of Lincolnshire, Illinois.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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