I used to believe that effective preaching should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I still believe this but with a modification – we are all somewhat comfortable and somewhat afflicted. This means that effective preaching should afflict and comfort all of us.
How is preaching to afflict us? It must preach sin – not only the things that we do wrong but also the things that we neglect to do. We have failed to raise our voices on behalf of our persecuted brethren. Across the Islamic world, our brethren have become the objects of persecution, even of genocide. Tens of thousands of Christians are being routinely slaughtered, and many of our churches remain silent. But silence is culpable:
- Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done? (Proverbs 24:11-12)
If we do not fulfill our responsibility in this regard, we cannot point the indicting finger against the governments, media, and universities of the West for remaining silent. Meanwhile, these institutions are asking, “Why is the church silent regarding their own brethren!” This is doubly tragic, because it is our loving concern for our brethren that is supposed to demonstrate the reality of Christ in our midst and consequently, draw the outsider to Him (John 17:20-23).
If we know to do right and don’t do it, we sin (James 4:17). Why then are our churches not preaching against evil and our failure to address it? In reference to the evil of abortion, World Magazine offers several reasons for the silence:
- Preaching on the issue might seem uncool or anti-intellectual.
- Preaching on the issue might discomfort church members or hurt women in the congregation who’ve had abortions. (Jan. 25, 2014, 42)
Effective preaching should discomfort so that it also might comfort! The Apostle Paul did not want to cause his churches sorrow. However, he charged them with sin so that they might experience real comfort and healing:
- 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. (2 Cor. 7:8-11)
“Godly sorrow” produces real comfort, earnestness and healing. This should be the aim of effective preaching. However, such preaching must also provide the elixir of grace. Paul understood the sorrow of the Corinthian church within the framework of grace. The sorrow was what “God intended” in His mercy to produce the healing of repentance.
I think that we have lost our taste for the offensive – preaching to convict of sin. “Fire and brimstone” preaching has been broadly discredited, and is now seen/experienced as “politically incorrect.” However, this is the very thing we need.
Nevertheless, I must confess that I had utterly abhorred this type of sermon – the “try harder, do better” sermon. I would often leave church feeling like useless trash, incapable of doing better. I felt like a spiritual failure. Consequently, I resented the pastor and everyone else in the church who seemed to resonate to this kind of preaching. Instead, I wanted the grace-sermon – the sermon that would tell me that I was okay just as I am.
For me the works-sermon was a denial of grace, and the grace-sermon was a denial of works and the need for obedience. However, as I grew in my appreciation and assurance of grace, I began to understand that the two – grace and obedience – were actually complementary and not antagonistic. They worked together in supporting each other.
I now hope to be convicted of my sin and to see anew how unworthy I am of the grace of God. Why endure this grief? When I do endure it, it brings me back to something far sweeter – the reminder that God loves and forgives me, despite my unworthiness (Luke 17:10). How precious then is His grace, renewed for me through this kind of preaching! This process does not allow grace to become something stale but rather activates it to the point of tears. It brings grace before me as a living Entity – “He loves me; He loves me, and I don’t deserve a morsel of it!”
Pastor Mark Driscoll preaches an anti-abortion sermon regularly to a church where many have either had or encouraged an abortion:
- “You men who have encouraged, forced or paid for the abortion, you women who have killed your own child, murdered your own child… The good news is that Jesus died for the murderers… You need Jesus, and you need him to forgive you for your murder, and he will.” (44)
World reports that one woman “began worshipping and weeping”:
- Then her four living children hugged her, supported by her husband. Eventually, she started comforting another post-abortive woman. (44)
Now that’s healing! World mentions another reason why pastors are reluctant to preach on sin, namely abortion:
- Preaching on the issue might politically stigmatize the pastor or politicize the pulpit, scaring seekers off. (42)
Perhaps to the contrary - the seeker might see the healing, relief, and comfort that result from both the preaching of sin and grace and note the authenticity and sincerity of the community that emerges from such biblical preaching.