What should a good sermon look and feel like? One Christian scholar and Reformed brother answered the question this way:
- Sermons and Bible studies that focus on “law” (the demands of Scripture for our obedience), no matter how accurately biblical in context, tend simply to add to the burden of guilt felt by the average Christian. A friend of mine calls these sermons “another brick in the backpack” – you arrive at church knowing five ways in which you are falling short of God’s standards for your life, and you leave knowing ten ways, doubly burdened. In my experience such teaching yields little by way of life transformation, especially in terms of the joy and peace that are supposed to mark the Christian life.
There is truth in this. To understand the Bible is to perceive its Christo- grace- and Gospel-centricity. It’s all about Christ and what He accomplished for us on the cross. Because of this, all the promises of God are fulfilled in Christ:
- For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. (2 Cor. 1:20)
Jesus also repeatedly pointed back to show how Scripture is about Him (John 5:39; Luke 24: 25-27; 44-48). Peter (1 Peter 1:10-11) and Paul did likewise (Acts 26:22-23).
Understandably, the above scholar warns against the do-better-try-harder sermon as unbiblically burdensome, tending “simply to add to the burden of guilt.” After all, since He is the One who has secured our grace and forgiveness through the cross, shouldn’t our teachings be Christ-centered, focusing on His mercy and not the moralistic, death-dealing requirements of the law? Yes! However, I think that this assessment requires some modification.
Christ is not only the mercy of God; He is also the righteousness of God. He is the all-in- all, embodying the fullness of God (Col. 2:9-10):
- But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. (Romans 3:21-22)
- It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.(1 Cor. 1:30)
However, the gift of Christ’s holiness does not let us off the moral hook. Instead, we too must be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). Jesus taught the very same message:
- Be perfect, therefore, as
your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
Paul claimed that we must follow God’s unchanging moral dictates, even though no longer under the law:
- Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:31)
Having been freed from the Covenant of the Law doesn’t mean that we are now free to murder and steal. Instead, we are now freed so that we can live under Christ and bear moral fruit by the Spirit:
- So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code [the Covenant of the Law]. (Romans 7:4-6)
Under the headship of our Savior, we have been reconciled to God, have received the Spirit, and He has His laws upon our hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34). And these laws are there for a purpose. They not only instruct us but they also guide us into moral obedience, and our teaching should reflect the Spirit’s plan.
Consequently, although Paul’s Pastoral Epistles are Christ-centered, they also law-centered. They require that our teaching and preaching demand moral holiness. In line with this, Paul insisted that all Scripture “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), not just the parts that emphasized God’s mercy.
He instructed Timothy to ”Teach these things” (1 Tim. 4:11). Which things did Paul think that Timothy should teach? Just things of grace? No:
- For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Tim. 4:8)
Paul taught about how servants and masters should treat one another. Then he instructed Timothy to teach “these… things”:
- These are the things you are to teach and insist on…If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. (1 Tim. 6:2-4)
Understandably, it would have been difficult for servants to obey a harsh master, and so this command would have provoked feelings of guilt and possibly disdain. However, this should not be the last word for a Christian. Instead, the guilt should continue to lead us to Christ, forgiveness, and restoration.
Paul then instructed Timothy:
- Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. (1 Timothy 6:17-18)
These commands were not to simply be expressed on a personal level but also through teaching and preaching. It is unthinkable that these moral teachings could not be expressed in sermons or Bible studies.
In his next letter to the young pastor Timothy, Paul instructed:
- And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. (2 Tim. 2:2)
Paul didn’t simply teach Timothy about grace, but also the need for grace in the face of ubiquitous moral failures. Teaching adherence to the requirements of the law was central to Paul’s message to Timothy:
- Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen… Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly… Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. (2 Tim. 2:14, 16, 22)
Paul then instructed Timothy about the lawlessness in the last days when people would no longer be interested in hearing moral teachings. What was the answer? Teaching a message consisting only of “God loves you?” No! Preaching Scripture in its fullness would be required:
- Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. (2 Tim. 4:2)
This would be a message that would not only embody encouragement but also moral correction and rebuke!
Paul’s instruction to Titus about the substance of his teaching was similar – it had to include moralizing:
- You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. (Titus 2:1-3)
It is the teaching of the law – the commandments of God – that serves to highlight grace. Moralizing and preaching obedience must not be isolated from grace. They should work inseparably:
- For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age. (Titus 2:11-12)
“Grace… teaches!” What does grace teach? “It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness!” The law should not be taught without the hope of grace; nor should grace be taught without the requirements of the law and our failures in light of them.
In light of this, theologian Iain M. Duguid wrote:
- To put it simply, he [Paul] never preached Ephesians 4-6 (the ethical imperatives) without connecting them to Ephesians 1-3 (the Gospel indicative.) (Is Jesus in the Old Testament? 12)
Law (requirements) and grace (the gift) should not be separated in our teaching and preaching. They are partners that complement each other. The law highlights the exceeding beauty and necessity of grace, while grace is the necessary answer to our ubiquitous failures in light of the teachings of our Savior.
Paul observed that the law was instrumental in leading us to Christ (Galatians 3:22-24). I think that the convicting and humbling power of the law continues to show us the relevance of Christ:
- Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. (Romans 3:19-20)
God continues to humble us so that He might also exalt us:
- Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (James 4:9-10)
Good preaching should grieve us, but it must also lift us! Okay, we are no longer under the law. We are under Christ, but even His teachings still humble and provoke guilt. However, these difficult teachings serve to lead us back to the mercy of Christ where we again grasp what He accomplished for us on the cross. It is when I am overcome with the sight of my own sins that the cross appears in its glorious splendor.
Without this, the God-loves-you message can become insipid and uninspiring. Instead, we need constant reminders of how much we need His love and forgiveness. Without these reminders, our preaching might be casting God’s precious seeds upon hardened ground unprepared to receive them.
I therefore think that the law still leads us humbly to the cross, while the cross gratefully and confidently leads us back to the law – a functional and growth-producing marriage.