The paradox of pastoral preaching.
This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
At times, evangelical Christianity can be a paradox. For as much as Protestants have spurned Roman Catholicism, they’re much more Catholic than they’d ever like to admit. By which, I mean, we operate with a stricter conditionality that we’d probably ever feel comfortable confessing. Besides our functional theology of grace plus works, which so often creeps in, the pastoral office is continually lofted to heights above where Scripture mandates. Growing up a pastor’s kid, I was privy to see and experience this firsthand. There’s an invisible target on the backs of the minister and his family, as they endeavor to serve the church without messing up. And in one sense, there is a peculiar calling and standard that any aspiring pastor must live up to. God’s Word is clear on that. (1 Tm 3:1ff) But in another sense, the pastoral office is much less complex than that. All preaching boils down to a dying man preaching to other dying men.
The religion of the Bible is itself a paradox. It’s book brimming with apparent contradictions that, apart from the Holy Spirit’s superintendence, would leave us all absolutely befuddled. The selfsame Word that calls us the cherished jewel of Jehovah’s creation also curses us to labor and die. Within the same book, we’re labeled his betrayers and his beloved. And, furthermore, this same Word that calls us weak and foolish also calls us to be the shining lights of God’s redemption of man on this earth. These enigmas and countless others throughout Scripture ought to spark curiosity and investigation. And, indeed, this is primarily where the work of a preacher begins: in pointing to the genesis and climax of all these paradoxes, that is, Christ himself.
Because of Jesus, we who are depraved can be called dignified. We who blaspheme the name of God’s Son can be called his “dearly loved children.” We who slander his truth can be redeemed. Entering into these paradoxes and seeming conundrums of Christendom is what it means to be a preacher. The office itself is a paradox. Where other positions of leadership necessitate a force of character and will that ooze competency and self-assurance, the pastoral office is made up of those who recognize how incompetent they are. The remarkable fact of the gospel is that God doesn’t use the most skilled or the most qualified to tender his news of absolution to the lost and guilty. Rather, he uses those who know just how unqualified they really are.
Speaking from experience, preachers put a bevy of undue pressure on themselves when walking up to deliver their message. Under the surface of the lion’s share of all our sermon construction is the drive to knock the spiritual socks off the audience. There’s almost no avoiding the impulse to preach a “grand slam” sermon every time you get up to speak. The preacher’s inundated with the pressure to speak eloquently, accurately, and relationally, all while hoping to find the optimum blend of comedy, history, and theology, in order to serve up the perfect sermon cocktail that speaks to men’s souls and kindles the fires of revival. Along with this is the weight of repeating the same verses and truths that have filled church halls for centuries, but reiterating them in a new or original way. It might seem as though we’ve set preacher’s up for failure, right?
So, what makes for a good preacher, then? Is it his charm or his wit? Is it his perfect mix of sincerity and creativity, with a dash humor? Or is it his command of the pulpit and dexterity with the text? Does it all come down to his ability to quickly put the attention of his audience in a vice grip? Certainly, these are all valid qualities to have in a speaker, let alone a preacher. And, no doubt, they play significant roles in determining which church we attend and plug ourselves into. But, in the final analysis, these are merely cursory factors when determining the merits of a “good preacher.” We put a lot of emphasis on these small ingredients and twist them into idols. But the truth of the matter is this: The good news of Christ for me — the simple gospel of Jesus’s one-way love for sinners — is what saves, not my vast array of original linguistic proficiency.
It seems as though, ever since the first declaration of this news, mankind has been feverishly searching out ways to bastardize that news. Man loves to insert his own reasonings and understandings into what God has established, deeming his grasp of the creative order better than that of the Creator himself. But all our addendums to God’s gospel always result in a forgoing of the gospel itself. Everything gets lost in translation. In conditionality. And, when dealing with something as weighty as Jesus for you, as Christ crucified for sinners, nothing could be more important than to let the gospel say and do what it will. And perhaps that’s what makes preaching so difficult. It necessitates getting out of the way. It entails shining the spotlight on Another, with the recognition that you’re nobody’s savior. Someone better has done it all already. A preacher’s job is to drive sinners to the Word of God’s grace.
For many today, going to church is a time to be encouraged or entertained or taught how to “be better.” At least, that’s what a lot of sermons set out to do. But the reality is, a preacher’s job is singular — sermon construction ought to have one goal in mind: to drive sinners to the Word of God’s grace. A preacher’s mandate is to speak with boldness and clarity both God’s law and God’s gospel, in season and out, convenient or not. By speaking these otherworldly truths, he’s not preaching himself, but preaching Christ, the One who is the Living Word. This is the rhythm of Scripture itself, after all. The Bible’s plot line is focused on revealing in innumerable ways the incarnate Word of the Father. This is the power of God unto salvation.
Scripture is crystal clear that the redemption of sinners — even the worst, most vile of rule-breakers — is only found in God’s gospel of grace. Not more law, not more rules, not discipline, not behavior modification. Therefore, notwithstanding your charisma or skill, salvation is sola gratia. Grace alone contains the paradoxical power that delivers damned souls from death to life by the Life’s death.