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Preaching with grace is an approach to the task of preaching that preachers would be wise to consider.

You may have wondered how you came across to your listeners as you preached on difficult passages. I remember Ben approached me following a sermon on Psalm 100. He said, "Your preaching is too Calvinistic for me." He continued, "After I've heard you preach, I leave the sanctuary discouraged."

While visiting a church I had served, Harriet confessed to me, "You expected a lot from us, and I never felt I could meet those expectations." These comments have haunted me in my sermon preparation, as well as the actual preaching itself.

What does it mean to preach with grace? After reflecting on this question for some time, I intend to encourage you with what I've learned about preaching with grace.

When We Think of Grace

As preachers, we can go to Bible dictionaries and commentaries and put together a list of the biblical categories for the word grace. We know the biblical writers used a variety of meanings when employing the word grace.

The first way we understand grace is that which gives joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, loveliness or charm. For example, a man or woman may be an absolute delight and described as someone who "brings grace to every situation." Psalm 45:2 says a person's "lips have been anointed with grace."

A second consideration of the word grace is that of goodwill, lovingkindness and mercy. We know from Scripture and by living life that when a person extends goodwill toward another it is a gesture of grace. We see this aspect of grace pictured in Jesus' teaching in Luke 6:27-36 about loving one's enemies.

The third manner in which grace is understood by biblical writers is the kindness that a master extends to a slave. Thus, by analogy, this understanding of grace has come to signify the kindness of God to humanity (Rom. 6:1-23). We see this in Luke 1:30 where Gabriel said to Mary, "Do not be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God." John wrote, "From the fullness of His grace we all have received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:16-17).

This favor of God with humanity is seen in the New Testament letters as the writers invoked God's grace upon the readers. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 1:3), and he concluded his letter to the Roman church by praying, "The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you" (Rom. 16:20).

Grace often is used to express the concept of kindness extended to someone undeserving—the favor God has on sinners through Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:4-5).

Finally, the biblical writers considered the gifts of the Holy Spirit—spiritual gifts—to be the grace (gifts) of God (1 Cor. 12).

What to Do About Grace

The question these definitions raise is: What do we do with grace? Randal Pelton warns that when preaching passages that call for obedience, we can fall into a Do-This mode that gets in the way of practicing grace: "Believe this and receive this."

Pelton challenges us not to moralize the truth on which we preach. Graeme Goldsworthy warns against moral sermons that impersonate biblical sermons. These sermons become Do-This sermons that lead to legalistic living. This is not preaching with truth and grace.

What about going the other way? That is, we can preach grace to the point of ignoring truth. Kent Anderson recognizes this tension—and balance—of preaching grace and truth. He says, "My personal dependence on grace predisposes me to a grace-full preaching diet. I would just as soon leave holiness to the pulpit pounders on TV."

Preaching with Grace

The tension Pelton and Anderson cite is a reality—one that most preachers wrestle with every time they stand in front of an eager congregation.

Let me suggest some considerations for preaching with grace.

First, cultivate a theological humility. Our theology sometimes comes into conflict with the biblical text. Whatever theological position a preacher might come from, we may not have the entire picture of what God is doing, which leaves us in need of some theological humility.

I tell my students, "Hold onto your Bible tightly, and hold onto your theology lightly." When we have theological humility, we may not come across as prickly as we are prone to do.

Second, nurture a pastor's heart. Here's where your responsibility as a shepherd comes into view. The tenderheartedness of a pastor gives pastoral softness to our preaching. When we appreciate the condition of our flock, when we know and understand their questions and resistances, we'll better be able to preach to them. A pastor, a shepherd, is one who cultivates patience—lots of patience. The individuals of a congregation aren't going to mature overnight. Growth in Christ takes time. A pastor's heart sees to it.

Third, grace is preached with an appropriate tone. We don't talk about the tone of our preaching very often. One colleague in ministry said that after the first month or so preaching, her husband told her that she sounded angry in the pulpit.

I'm reminded of the Mary Chapin Carpenter song, "I Take My Chances." Carpenter sings about watching television late at night, flipping through the channels. She happened upon a TV preacher who had "brimstone in his throat."

Preaching with grace demonstrates tenderness in one's voice, even when talking about difficult matters.

Fourth, grace is communicated in the kinds of illustrations one uses. The illustrations picture grace, but they also exude grace. The illustrations aren't preacher one-upmanship where we show ourselves better than others, heroes of the faith. They are not insulting of others. Too many times I've heard preachers skewer others with whom they disagree.

Preaching with grace takes into consideration the multilayered role of illustrations and employs them with grace.

These four suggestions for preaching with grace have helped me in my approach to preaching, and I hope they help you.

I want to encourage you in your ministry of preaching. Preaching isn't easy, especially if you work hard at it and try to communicate God's Word to God's people Sunday after Sunday.

At the beginning of this article I mentioned my conversation with Ben. Our conversation continued after he confessed to feeling discouraged after he heard my sermons. I told Ben I was sorry he felt discouraged. He paused and then said, "That's OK. What you have to say may be something God has to say to me."

In his words, Ben demonstrated grace. From our conversation, I sensed God was at work in Ben and in me—by His grace.

Dr. Gibson joined Gordon-Conwell in 1992 and has brought with him both academic and experiential knowledge of preaching. An ordained Baptist minister, he has served as a pastor and interim pastor in four churches in Pennsylvania and New York since 1985. Dr. Gibson’s scholarly interests include contemporary issues in preaching, pastoral ministry concerns, the history of preaching, the history of evangelicalism and discipleship. His personal interests include fishing, various sports, reading, writing, art, theater, films, antiques, books, and traveling. He and his wife, Rhonda, live in Beverly, MA.

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Terry Phillips

commented on Feb 7, 2015

Timely advice, to me, anyway. Thank you.

Lawrence Webb

commented on Feb 7, 2015

Good pointers, indeed. I may not be very gracious in mentioning a couple of examples of preachers who need to work more at sharing grace in their sermons: (1) Clark knew his biblical and theological vocabulary, but I often left church feeling he had beaten us over the head with God's grace. (2) I get regular devotional messages by email from a friend. Most of the time, his stories are negative, lacking in things that upbuild. One small point: I try never to end with a negative, judgmental story. If I need to be negative, I try to come back with a constructive point to "redeem" my negativity. Most people are aware of the sin and wrong in their lives. We need to point them to forgiveness and restoration. Grace.

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