I used to hate the “try harder, do better” sermons. I didn’t find them uplifting, but condemning. I found that I was never able to “do better.” Instead, I would leave church feeling like a loser, a spiritual failure, barely acceptable to God.
Slowly, the Lord began to open my eyes to a deeper understanding of grace – what Christ had accomplished for me on the Cross, taking all of my sins, inadequacies, and failures upon Himself. Consequently, the Gospel set me free.
However, I continued to disdain the slightest whisper of an obedience-oriented message. I knew that my fruit fell far short of what the preacher was requiring from me. Therefore, I convinced myself that grace had replaced the need to be obedient and to bear fruit.
However, I also began to see that it was not just the preacher who was making demands of me; it was also Scripture. Even the One who had died for me and who had directed me to just believe (John 6:29; 8:24) was requiring fruit from me:
· For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
· For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:46-48; ESV)
How could I possibly be perfect? I couldn’t, and, once again, I felt like a spiritual failure. I also began to see that repentance was not an option:
· “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:3-5)
In fact, so many of Jesus’ parables seemed to demand a high degree of righteousness as the ticket to enter into heaven. Right after His teaching about the need to repent, Jesus told a parable about a fig tree that didn’t bear fruit. After fertilizing it, if it still didn’t bear fruit, He would have it cut down (Luke 13:6-9). Gulp!
I struggled with the idea that perhaps Scripture was hopelessly conflicted and that all of my hope was for naught. How could salvation be a free gift and still be something that we earned through our good deeds?
My confidence in the Gospel hit bottom. I was in despair once again until the Spirit opened my eyes to the fact that, while the Good News of the Gospel still stands, a real faith along with a real new life will bear fruit as Jesus taught about a good tree:
· “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 7:15-19)
If we are a good tree, by the grace of God, and have a real living faith, based upon the new life He has given us, then we will bear fruit as does the good tree. If we continue to bear bad fruit as the fig tree had, then we are not a good tree and should be cut down.
What then must biblical preaching look like? The Bible! It must include Gospel and law (obedience). Although the law, even the law of Christ, is not the Gospel, the two are inseparable. Faith and obedience always go together, and they should. If we trust God, we will do what He tells us to do. We will abide in His Word and keep His commandments. If we do not, we do not have a real living faith, the faith that comes to us as a gift from God:
· And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him. (1 John 2:3-5)
While obedience does not save us, it gives us the assurance that we are in Him. If we do not obey Him, we do not know Him savingly.
In fact, obedience is also necessary for growing in grace. They are interdependent. How? While trying to obey the Gospel, we reap blessings, but also frustration. Our failures to live obediently cause us great distress, knowing that we must conform our lives unto Christ (1 Peter 1:15:16). Even more troubling, we begin to see how unworthy we are of anything that comes from God (Luke 17:10).
This can throw us into crisis mode, where we see that our only hope is in the mercy of God. We therefore confess our sins and repent in brokenness. Through this humbling process, our Lord lifts us up, so that we can again see His mercy in neon lights. Encouraged, we recommit ourselves to the Lord and to obedience to His teachings.
This cycle is something we continue to experience. Each time, it deepens our appreciation of our incredible Lord and His Gospel.
Please note, that without pursuing obedience, we are not adequately humbled. Without the humbling, we will not be lifted in order to receive a more vibrant portrait of the Gospel and recommit to the Lord with ever-increasing vigor.
What does this suggest about biblical preaching? We need to preach both the law and Grace, the Gospel and our complete obedience to it. We must preach to expose and indict all sin and to comfort with the all-sufficiency of the Gospel.