Many years ago I sat under a preacher who always preached the gospel. Every Sunday. Morning and evening. Every sermon was a gospel message. One way or another, it always came down to "Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Repent and believe, and you will be saved." And to tell you the truth, it became terribly tedious. The man was wonderfully imaginative. He even preached one sermon that was all questions! He had an orator's gift for the well-turned phrase. Still, the gospel got boring. What's worse, I do not think Jesus' disciples grew.
That pastor believed it was his calling to preach the gospel, but he only knew the gospel as a set of directions to the Father's house. That's unfortunate, because the gospel—and the grace that pulses at its heart—is more than a series of right turns. Grace is a meal and a mansion, a pearl and a tree, a shepherd's staff and a watchman's lamp. There is grace, too, in a wrestler's limp and in bitter tears. The gospel is in the 12 leftover baskets and in the keys in Christ's hand. Grace is on the cross, to be sure, but also in a running father and a King bowed like a servant over dirty feet.
The gospel preached to lost people when God is moving is the first wonder of the world. Years ago I gathered with some other pastors to watch a video of Billy Graham preaching in Moscow. When he gave the invitation, as familiar to me as my home address, I saw people running down the stadium steps toward the platform, running across the field, running to the gospel like starving people to food. It took my breath away.
One reason our preaching goes flat when we come to familiar gospel ideas is that we think we know the neighborhood.
But I preach mostly to people who have been well fed on gospel (though I'm not sure they have always tasted its grace). Usually, my role as pastor is not to preach the gospel to those who have never heard it, but to those who have heard it a lot—the people who know John 3:16, the Romans Road, the Four Spiritual Laws, the Bridge to Life, and at least one verse of "Just As I Am."
Paul prayed that we might have the power "to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ" (Eph. 3:18), but if we aren't diligent, we will preach Christ's gospel love in one dimension, like the Platte River—a mile wide and an inch deep. It is the great privilege of the preacher—especially the preacher who stands before the same people every week—to help those beloved, gospel-baptized people of God grasp grace in its infinite dimensions.
I know, of course, that the gospel can be presented simply and thoroughly in a very short sermon indeed: "Repent and believe the Good News." The evangelist must master the fresh and powerful expression of the gospel's essence in one sermon. Some Sundays that is what the text requires of me as well. The Lord expects all his Timothys to "do the work of an evangelist." But as an expositor of Scripture, I often find that a text asks to speak of just one strand of the gospel cord.
Consider all the doctrines that twine together to make the gospel so strong, so "able to save to the uttermost": election, justification, redemption, reconciliation, adoption, sanctification, eternal life. The scepter and gavel, blood and embrace, new name, long walk, and breath of God—each of them is a wonder, a jewel. Each of them has a library of texts behind them, and not all from Paul's epistles either. You'll find them all in the stories of the patriarchs and kings, the psalms and prophets, the gospels and the Revelation.
I sat in an ordination council once where a young pastor was asked to define justification. He recited the old Sunday school quip, "Justification means just-as-if-I'd never sinned," and sat back. That was that. I don't quibble with that definition, but it surely doesn't do justice to justification. If that's the best the pastor can do, what kind of spiritual Valley-speak will his people have? How soon will the gospel lose its luster?
One reason our preaching goes flat when we come to familiar gospel ideas is that we think we know the neighborhood. You can drive down a street every day and think you know every house and driveway and landmark. Then you walk it, or sit there stuck in traffic, and you see a lovely garden or a hidden house, and wonder, Has that always been there? So it is with Scripture. I think the hardest study skill of all is looking slowly and thinking hard about a passage. Why did he put it that way? That's a strange choice of words. Haven't I heard that phrase before? If what he says is true, what would that mean for the way I pray?
What's more, it isn't enough to only understand what a text says; I must feel what the text feels. We have not finished exegesis of a passage if the passage raises its voice but we don't, if the passage weeps while we remain dry-eyed, if the passage groans, and we don't even take a breath. The gospel in its various dimensions has emotions. Proper exegesis means our hearts are filled with the same breath of the Spirit that filled the writer till we soar or sigh or sing as he did. Once we sense what the text feels, we can reach for our preaching tools—stories, artful language, inflection—to give the gospel its natural voice.
I think of the time when Charles Haddon Spurgeon, an ardent Calvinist, attempted to preach the doctrine of election to a small congregation of Methodists—passionate, shouting Arminians. He wanted them to feel the wonder of God's sovereign election and not get waylaid by the controversy hiding in the bushes. I'll let him tell his own story:
At last a part of text led me to what is styled high doctrine. So I said, "This brings me to the doctrine of Election."
There was a deep drawing of breath. "Now, my friends, you believe it."
They seemed to say, "No, we don't!"
"But you do, and I will make you sing 'Hallelujah' over it. I will so preach it to you that you will acknowledge it and believe it." So I put it thus: "Is there a difference between you and other men?"
"Yes, yes, glory be to God!"
"There is a difference between what you were and what you are now?"
"O yes, yes!"
"There is sitting by your side a man who has been to the same chapel as you have, heard the same gospel; he is unconverted, and you are converted. Who has made the difference, yourself or God?"
"The Lord," said they, "The Lord! Glory! Hallelujah!"
"Yes," cried I, "and that is the doctrine of Election; that is all I contend for, that if there be a difference [between you and the unconverted], the Lord made the difference."
Finding the gospel in the Bible's back alleys
The gospel is not always in plain view in the Bible. The Scriptures take us into back alleys sometimes—sunless, trash-strewn, narrow, sinister, bums lurking. Over there—Saul huddled in the firelight with the witch of Endor. There—Jezebel and Ahab plotting. The scrawled graffiti—"Darkness is my only companion" and "I curse the day of my birth." And there's Simon Magus leaning over his abacus, toting up the profit margin in the gospel. Here, a snake; there, a lurking lion. Yet I imagine the gospel hiding around the corners of that dark alley, as delightfully out of place as a laughing child. Sometimes our job as gospel preachers is to portray the dark alleys of life, mirrored in Scripture, till people shiver at the thought. Then we show them the laughing gospel-child. Bad news before good news.
I'm considering a sermon series on Jacob. I'm not sure that man ever actually walked the gospel aisle, even when he limped. It is pretty hard to say to people, "Do what Jacob did," or "Trust as Jacob trusted." And it is certainly not a gospel sermon to say, "So don't be like this old flim-flam man. Be good and honest instead." But the gospel is there nonetheless, in the promise-keeping, wrestling, con-man-blessing God of Jacob.
I've been reading Kenneth E. Bailey's extraordinary meditations on the parable of the Prodigal Son (Jacob & the Prodigal, IVP, 2003). In one chapter of the book, Bailey reflects on Luke 15, when the Pharisees take issue with Jesus' view of sin. He writes, "In effect, they are saying to Jesus: 'Rabbi Jesus, we perceive that you do not take sin seriously. Your doctrine of sin must be superficial because you are willing to welcome and even sit down and eat with these defiled types.'" Then Bailey summarizes the essence of the reply Jesus couched in the story of the Prodigal:
Gentlemen, I see that you think my doctrine of sin is shallow. Please allow me to explain my understanding of sin. I think sin is so heinous that it is like a young Jewish boy who demands his inheritance while his father is in good health. He sells his portion of the estate with his father standing on it. He goes away from the holy land of Israel and loses the money among the Gentiles. In the end he works for them feeding their pigs! In fact, his degradation is so profound that he longs to become like a pig so that he might eat their food! This is my doctrine of sin!"
By making sin look that way, the gospel will shine all the more brightly when the father begins to run toward the faraway son.
I've been to the mountain.
A woman once came to tell me that she believed she had discovered what would be "the new reformation." She had heard a traveling Bible teacher proclaim grace as she'd never heard it before, including from me. In teaching that grace is free—that there are no strings attached—he also taught that grace carried no obligations. She chastised me for preaching sermons with too many "oughts"—never mind that they came straight out of Ephesians. I was being legalistic, she said. It just goes to show you, it is hard to preach the gospel of grace well and still persuade people to behave themselves.
When you preach the gospel message week after week to the redeemed rather than the lost, that gospel must bear the responsibility for the church's holiness. Holiness is always easiest to preach from Mt. Sinai—rules carved in stone, the ground smoking and trembling, putting the fear of God into people. If you want people to be good, that is the default approach. But it is not the approach of the gospel. Hebrews 12 is a passage about how Christians are to behave. It tells us to "live in peace with everyone" and to be sure "no bitter root grows up to trouble and defile many." The bottom line: "without holiness no one will see the Lord." Then the preacher reminds the congregation, "You have not come to a mountain … that is burning with fire." Sinai is no longer our pulpit. Rather, "you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God." Every orienting phrase in those mountain-top verses, Hebrews 12:22–24, is holiness inducing. They tell preachers to urge holiness from the streets of the new Jerusalem, the city of peace. They plant the pulpit in "the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven." They take us into the courtroom of the Almighty where convicts are declared "righteous and perfect"—where blood evidence points to mercy rather than murder. Then the gospel sermon clincher: "See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks."
The challenge in preaching the gospel to the gospel-born is that we have an abiding inner suspicion that it isn't the best way to get results. Smoke and mirrors seem better suited to sinners. Shape up or ship out! But God has called us to preach holiness from the grace-climate of Mount Zion. If we want people to be good, preach the gospel. The gospel is the only way to be saved, but the gospel does not tell us only how to be saved. It is the country and culture of holiness. Not every sermon should be evangelistic, but every sermon should proclaim the "wide and long and high and deep" dimensions of the gospel.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.