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Preaching Grace Rather Than To-Do Lists

When we share five ways to be a better parent, what are we communicating about the gospel?

I once had a seminary student say to me, “I can’t wait to start preaching so I can tell people what to do!” That’s the popular conception of preaching: someone standing in front telling other people what to do. The assumption of inadequacy is built into that understanding of the word preach: “You are not living the way I (or maybe God) want you to live, so I need to tell you all the ways you are disappointing me (and maybe God) and give you ways to improve.” We can picture the furrowed brow and wagging finger.

Who would want to listen to that?

But so often this is exactly what we do when we preach. We are subtle, most of us. We don’t usually wag our fingers at our congregants and tell them all of the ways they are messing up. But how often do our sermons end with ways our people can improve?

  • If your relationship with God is important to you, you will make a commitment to talk to him every day.
  • If you want to take your discipleship to the next level, you will start incorporating service into your life.
  • Our children deserve the best this church can give them. What can you do to invest in the lives of our children?
  • Isn’t it time for your money to be invested in eternity?

Too often, we make following Jesus sound burdensome.

A student plunked down in the chair next to me. “My boyfriend broke up with me,” she began. “It wasn’t a good relationship, and now that it’s over I realized how far I am from God. I really want to get close to God again.”

I consoled her over the breakup and commended her desire to grow closer to God. “Tell me,” I asked her, “what do people usually do to get close to God?” She was easily able to list the usual spiritual disciplines: read Scripture, pray, go to church. “You know all the right answers,” I said.
“What’s keeping you from doing them?”

“They sound like so much work,” she said. “I don’t know if I have it in me to do the work.”

Many of the people we preach to know the right answers. Some of us have the joy of discipling new believers who don’t know how to follow Jesus. In either case, we invite them to read Scripture, serve, pray, worship. Why don’t they do it? Because we make it sound like such work!

As one middle-age dad said to me, “I come into church carrying all the burdens of the week. I have a long list of things I need to do at home, at work, as a spouse or a friend or a parent. I am well aware of where I am not measuring up. When I go to church, I long to hear comfort and assurance, something that will lighten my load. What I get instead are more things for my to-do list—pray more, read more, serve more. Here are five ways to be a better parent. Three ways to evangelize at work. I leave thinking that I am simply not enough. It’s exhausting.”

Becoming the Congregational Parent

If we are honest, our desire to tell our congregants what to do often arises out of our own anxieties. We spend hours reading and studying Scripture every week, we scan articles about leadership and attend conferences that give us ideals of what the local congregation could be. Then we look out on our church on Sunday morning and see all that is not happening. Leon was supposed to call someone to check the leak on the water heater. Kate was going to write up the minutes of the evangelism committee. It’s been weeks since you asked the worship committee to think about an outdoor Easter service for the neighborhood and you’ve heard nothing.

At times like these we feel like the mom who walks into the house to find the shoes and boots scattered in the breezeway, coats thrown on the floor and backpacks blocking the door. She wants to yell, “How many times have I told you to put away your things when you get home from school?!”

“How many times have I told you to be kind to visitors?”

“How many times have I told you to set up a budget?”

“How many times have I told you to pray every day?”

The temptation is to place ourselves in the position of congregational parent rather than pastor. By doing this we are saying that we are the adults, we have our acts together, we have outgrown all the immature behaviors we see in our church, and we have the right and the authority to tell them how to live.

When we place ourselves in the role of congregational parent, we are communicating to our parishioners that we do not see what they are doing, we only see what they aren’t doing. Or we only see them doing the things we don’t want them to do. We are telling them that we do not accept them where they are.

A distance grows between us and our hearers. Our perception of them and their lives becomes small, anemic, and sad. And then our views of our own lives and the choices we make can become twisted. We can actually come to believe that if everyone lived as we are living, the church would be lively and healthy. Then whatever burden the sermon contains (pray more, serve more, improve your parenting) gets placed on them and not on us. We assume that we are already doing it.

A second danger in being the congregational parent is that the relationships between us and our congregants can become transactional. Instead of loving them because it’s our calling and our job, we unintentionally communicate to them that we will love them more if they do what we are asking them to do: “I am doing all of these things for you as your pastor, therefore you should do these things for me.” “If you do the things I am asking of you, I will like you more than I like the people who don’t do what I ask.” “If you want to get me to like you, here are the ways.” Then it affects how they see each other: “The preacher likes me because I [recycle, tithe, volunteer] more than you.”

If this goes on too long, the transactional relationship does not stay pastor-people. People translate it to God-people. They come to believe that their relationship with God is also one of give and take. “If I do what God asks, God will do what I ask.” “If I am obedient, God will love me more.” “If I live a good life, God will protect me from hardship.” “I know how to earn my way into God’s affection.” “I’m on God’s good side.”

Remember the Gospel?

The gospel, thanks be to God, is not about a transactional relationship. The gospel tells of a God who so loves us that he sent his only Son to save us. This is important: we do nothing; God does everything. “While we were still sinners,” Paul writes in Romans 5:8, “Christ died for us.”

When we preach as if we could work to make God like us more, we are selling out the gospel. As best-selling Christian author Philip Yancey puts it, “We need to let it soak in that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more . . . and nothing we can do to make God love us less.” God loves us. It is nutty, crazy, go-to-the-ends-of-the-earth-for-you love. And that’s exactly what God did. God in Christ died for us, rose for us, and wants nothing more than to be with us forever. All of the things we have done and will do wrong, all of our sins, our shortcomings, our additions and our depravity itself are done away with in the cross of Christ:

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!

My sin, not in part but the whole

Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!*

Whenever we preach anything that makes our hearers think they need to work harder to make God (or us) love them more, we are not preaching the gospel.

We need to preach grace.

Grace says that God did it all and we can do nothing. Not that we don’t have to do anything, but we actually can’t. All our righteousness is like filthy rags, says Isaiah 64:6. We are actually incapable of contributing to our salvation. As Paul writes, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

So if every sermon needs to preach the good news of a gospel of grace, does every sermon end the same way? “Well, God loves you and there’s nothing you can do to lose that love so, you know, just go do whatever this week.”

If we are preaching grace, where is the application? How do we call people to holy living or tithing or kindness or commitment if we preach grace? How do we call them away from believing in moralistic therapeutic deism?

To preach grace isn’t to let people off the hook. To preach grace is not to tolerate poor behavior, in ourselves or in others. To preach grace is to remind people that we get to live differently because of what God has done. Living a holy life is not a burden. Obeying God’s will for our lives is not to check things off yet another to-do list. Living as God invites us to live is a gift! Living as a disciple of Jesus Christ is to live in response to God’s grace.

*Lyrics from “When Peace Like a River” by Horatio G. Spafford

Mary S. Hulst is the college chaplain at Calvin College. She previously served as a professor of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary and as senior pastor of Easter Avenue Christian Reformed Church. Taken from A Little Handbook for Preachers by Mary S. Hulst. Copyright 2016 by Mary S. Hulst. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

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