Christian preaching is easily recognizable—you need a preacher with a Bible in a church. But what about less than Christian preaching? Can you have a preacher with a Bible in a church, but actually have something less than, something sub-gospel? Absolutely. Here are some warning signs:
1. Fail to identify the “God” being referenced.
In the West, we have grown complacent with the term “god.” Perhaps due to a strong Christian heritage, or perhaps due to a lack of awareness of our Bibles, we can easily fall into an assumption that people know who we mean when we use the term.
Consequently, there is a generic set of truths that are assumed to be true about God before the biblical content is added on top for a fuller, richer presentation. This is nothing new; it has been happening for centuries at the highest level of theological scholarship as well as in the pulpit.
But in the Bible, which God is being referenced tends to be carefully clarified. Elijah was not satisfied that the false prophets on Mt. Carmel also believed in a single, powerful god figure. Paul on Mars Hill was not prepared to start from where the philosopher-theologians had already arrived in their conceptions of a single divine being.
Perhaps one of the following should be underlined when referencing God in preaching:
A. The Person(s) of the Trinity. Perhaps it is appropriate to clarify who is being referenced in the passage. For instance, in the New Testament, the label “God” typically will refer to God the Father, although there are places where the whole Trinity is in view, or even God the Son. Why not be sure to identify the persons of the Trinity in order to help clarify that the text is speaking of the Father-Son-Spirit God rather than some sort of generic OmniBeing (as I’ve heard Glen Scrivener label this alternative approach).
B. The Character of God. Another way to identify and distinguish the true God from all false gods is to make reference to His character. This was Paul’s approach when preaching to pagans in Lystra and pagan-philosophers in Athens—he described God’s character as the life-giving, generous, patient, kind God who providentially works in circumstance and in the sending of His Son so that people will seek for Him and find Him as they turn from the worthless fashioning of gods in their own image (and this invitation has a terminus).
Within the context of the passage being preached, there will be something that can be offered to distinguish the God who is revealed there from the gods who need little revelation since we come up with them without any trouble on our own!
Christian preaching is easy to spot: preacher with Bible in a church. But maybe it is not so easy? Continuing this series on warning signs that your preaching may be slightly less than Christian.
2. Fail to hear the hiss of serpent-like independence in the way you view people.
We live in a culture that esteems and values and assumes the independence of individuals. Parents are pressured to raise independent children. Counselors seek to get people to a state of “healthy” independence. Advertisers promise us the fulfillment of wealthy independence. We are individuals and we will fight for our independence. The language of freedom and inalienable rights sounds as solid as biblical truth itself.
In the sixth century a certain Boethius defined a person essentially as a “thinking-choosing individual” ... all three elements may be true of us, but is this the sum of personhood? Ever since Genesis 3, it has seemed to be, but it is not the original design. What is more, the original design is still in operation, albeit broken on so many levels. Let me explain.
A. We experience life as thinker-choosers. I am presented with three options (three cookies or three jobs, whatever), and I think and I choose. Simple. But why do I think what I think? Why do I choose what I choose? Where are the values coming from that enable me to prefer chocolate chip over peanut butter . . . many people would argue that my preference for the former is irrational, but that just shows they have differing values.
Where do they come from? And I do make choices, but why is it that I always choose what I want to choose? Why is it, as sales people know, that we actually seem to buy based on what we love and then rationalize and justify our preferences?
B. We experience life as individuals. I have my own private thoughts and desires and dreams. I have my own private thought processes and struggles and difficulties. I make my own choices. There is a disconnect between me and others. Yet I also experience that my life is not really truly independent. My choices make a mark on family and friends. And often in my private independence, there is a loneliness and apparent lack. A beautiful sunset does little for me if I feel genuinely alone in that moment.
C. We were created as heart-driven relational responders. Our thinking is informed by our heart values. Our choices are driven by our wants. Our inherent design is profoundly relational. We will choose what we want, but we cannot choose what it is that we want. Our wants are free to roam around the gravity center of our heart-orientation, and in our sinful dead state, we are dead toward God as an alternative gravity center to our self-world.
Implication for preaching? If we are treating people as thinking-choosing individuals, we may be saying Bible truth to them, but our preaching will be less than Christian. We cannot simply educate people or pressure people into social conformity and call that gospel ministry. The gospel works not from the outside-in, but from the inside-out—it brings heart change that leads to life change. Boethius didn’t get that; let’s be sure we do.
Preacher in a pulpit with a Bible and some thoughts ... Christian preaching? Maybe. Here is another warning sign that our preaching may be offering something less than the gospel.
3. Fail to recognize the gravity of sin.
Too much Christian theology and evangelistic preaching assumes that everyone knows what sin is. Sin is sin, right? Stealing, lying, murder, adultery, etc. So obvious that there is no need to probe the issue; just be sure to make lots of noise about it. But what if our view of sin is altogether too shallow?
A. It is easy to make a lot of noise about half of sin. Everyone is inclined to hand pick which sins are their personal target and then make noise about such things. But the list of sins is typically truncated. It tends to be the ones that I don’t struggle with. But what about the deep sin coming to the surface in other ways? More on the root versus the fruit in a moment, but at the fruit level, what about the acceptable sins?
Why don’t we hear so much on the sins that tend to be an issue within the church? Too easily we aim our guns at people who haven’t even engaged us in our dialogue.
B. It is easy to rage against society, but what does that achieve? I know that theologically the world is clearly in opposition to God and His values. But at the same time, simple raging against people not present doesn’t achieve much. For one thing, if a non-church person happens to visit, they might feel like the church is a place for complaining and arguing with straw-man enemy figures.
For instance, I wonder if people would be so bold in statements about outspoken opponents of religion if they were present? So someone might hear and might actually paint an unhelpful picture of the church. Furthermore, church folk might hear and grow in their fleshly inclination to compare with others, thereby losing sight of the sin that is their own greatest problem. Fanning the flames of fleshly pride is not helpful.
C. In our noisy preaching about half of sin, we may be understating the issue altogether. Even if we add older brother behaviors to younger brother behaviors and make our sin lists more complete, we are still addressing the issue at the level of fruit rather than root and sap. When we treat sin as what comes out, we make it sound behavioral by definition. But the Bible treats sin as a heart-level issue.
The heart of the human problem is the human heart. Out of the heart spews all types of sin: the drunken orgy rebellion type and the prideful religious churchy type ... both from a heart dead toward God. The behaviours weren’t the ultimate issue with those two sons, it was their hearts—despising a relationship with father and loving self. The manifestation was different, but the hearts were equally lost.
Sin is too important to treat as a given. We have to diagnose the depths of the human problem if our gospel preaching is to offer an appropriately radical cure.