Preaching to the Heart
An interview with Bryan Chapell on sermon applications.
Preaching Today: We're well aware that one of your biggest passions as a preacher focuses on preaching to the heart, applying the text in a way that leads people to encounter God's grace. So tell us what you mean by that and how you get there in preaching.
Bryan Chapell: I think early in my pastoral ministry my main concern was to get people to do the right things. Early in my ministry I incorrectly assumed that if people just did the right things they would be okay with God. But that can lead people astray in two ways. First, you think you're okay with God because you did the right things, which of course is a statement of your pride and unawareness of your true sinful and broken nature. You become like the rich young ruler saying, "All these things I've kept since I was a youth" so God ought to bless me. We don't recognize our best works are only filthy rags to God. Second and at the opposite end, it can cause people to say that they can't do all the right things. I'll never measure up; God must hate me. So a ministry that focuses on doing the right thing is ultimately a ministry that creates either pride or despair. Those are the only two possible human reactions to a do-the-right-thing primary message.
The only way to preach in a different direction is to recognize that the real issues of life flow out of the heart. So as preachers we must speak to people about the nature of the gospel whereby God has loved them despite their unrighteousness and loves them still despite their failures. This is what actually generates love in their hearts and that is the foundation of biblical obedience. Jesus said, "If you love me you will keep my commands." He didn't say if you keep my commands I'll love you. His understanding and the one that we need to remind ourselves of over and over again is that love for Christ is the first and greatest commandment because of a purpose. It is out of that love for Christ that obedience finds its proper direction, ground, and source.
Can you give us a concrete example on how this plays out? Obviously, Scripture does promote and forbid certain behaviors. So how do you uphold biblical commands and still preach that to the heart?
The Bible certainly does have behavioral instructions, and we fail and betray God's people if we don't give them those behavioral commands. The commands of God are a reflection of his character, and therefore they are intended for the safety and strength of his people. So to deny people the path to safety and goodness that God intends for them is not gracious at all. But if all we do is describe the path then we imply that if you get off the path you no longer will know God's goodness. We imply that his goodness is conditional upon your obedience.
Whereas here's the biblical understanding: our obedience is a response to his unconditional grace. That is the only thing that makes our obedience true obedience. If we are obeying in order to gain God's favor we trample on the blood of the Cross. We say it's not really necessary. The only way in which obedience fulfills its purpose is if we say God has loved me unconditionally and therefore I will love him fully and wholly in response. If the reason I'm serving God is to keep the ogre in the sky off my back so he will not hurt me, then we actually have inverted God's purposes for the Scriptures. We must recognize over and over again our best works are only filthy rags (Luke 17:10). When we've done all that we should do we are still unworthy servants. Our works are not the basis of our standing. Christ's grace is the basis of our standing before him, and it's on the foundation of that grace that we respond in obedience.
So we certainly teach obedience, but it has to be in proper priority and proportion. Which means that, to quote Herman Ridderbos here, "The imperatives are built on the indicatives, and the order is not reversible." That is, what we do is based upon who we are, and the order is not reversible. Who we are is not based on what we do, or else we're all in deep trouble. I've discovered the need to keep both the imperatives and the indicatives essential to every message, but also in proper priority. By that I mean that the imperatives have to be built on the foundation of grace, which is what I meant when I said to make sure that the heart is engaged not just the hands.
Let me give an example from my pastoral ministry at my church. We have a magnificent large church with a long history, and yet if you look at this church (which was just a noble, wonderful church for well over a hundred years in this community), in the last twenty years it has basically been emptied of its young families. If you talk to them you will find out that they said, "I could no longer measure up. To go to that church you had to look right, act right, appear right. I got tired of that." Now, bless their hearts, the leadership of this church ultimately confessed that and in humility said, "We have led by our pride rather than by the gospel, and we are committed to leading in humility as we move forward into the future." That's really what brought me here; the opportunity to be in league with literally wonderful, godly, humble leaders who were willing to repent of past practices. I don't mean only from the pulpit, but I mean messages of the way we looked, the way we dressed, the way we presented ourselves in the community that said you need to come and be as good as we are. That worked in a certain time, but ultimately it drove away even the children of the people who were here.
What's happening now, a reflection of why I told you I am even more committed than ever to making sure we address the heart first, is a fresh wind of grace where people are profoundly being moved to love God and desire to serve him. So that I have a man in the choir who would say something like, "I've been a member here for forty years and I've never known joy till now." And to say, "But you knew Jesus" he would reply, "Yes, I knew Jesus died for my sins, which got me into the kingdom, but then I knew I had to be on my best behavior or else I was out of here." Say, no, that's not the gospel.
Now it can be hard rowing sometimes against the past wind. It's not like everybody at once says, "Oh, I get it." Yet, for those who do get it you see joy that is strength and new zeal and new warmth and new families and growth patterns that are very sweet. This is still not without challenge. But I am committed even more to say that I have to make sure that we address the heart before we address behaviors, not apart from behaviors but before behaviors.
How do you structure your sermon? How do you bring in the commands and the gospel message of grace?
I think it's a quick reminder that application, if it's complete, is always answering four questions.
- What do to?
- Where to do it?
- Why to do it?
- How to do it.
The Why? and the How? questions (number 3 and 4) are what we often forget. I think the Why? and the How? are actually the same question. Why we do what we are called to do is out of love for Christ. And how we do it is rooted in the good news that we're already new creatures in Christ Jesus who are no longer slaves to sin. How we serve God is by displacing love for the world with a greater love for Christ because people will ultimately and profoundly do only what they love the most. That is precisely what they will do—what they love the most.
I try to end the sermon candidly with inspiration more than with direction of behavior. Behavior has happened. Behavior instructions, I pray, are happening in the body of the sermon, and sometimes it happens at the end. But primarily at the end I'm trying to give people a sense of their hope, security, and joy. That's the real fuel for doing what they have been called to do at other stages of the sermon.
I'm not using the conclusion primarily to instruct. I'm using the conclusion primarily to inspire. For instance, if the subject of my sermon is sexual immorality, in the conclusion I'm not trying so much to condemn sin as to celebrate marriage, and God's faithfulness, and the gospel truth that you can have a different life by pursuing the purity to which God has called us. Or I can even celebrate the fact that God would love us enough to warn us. If he didn't love you he'd just let you go. I try to inspire with the goodness of God very consistently in what I leave people with, rather than to say "So be a better person. Let's have the benediction." No, the benediction is about blessing God for his goodness, so that we have deep assurance of his power and affection, as we move forward to do our calling.
So it sounds like every sermon is "where sin increased grace increased all the more." It sounds like all of your sermons focus on that gospel declaration.
Yes, and people will say, because people are people, that if you keep assuring others of grace you're just going to encourage license. Of course everybody's ready to quote Romans 6:1. "Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?" People always do the math of the mind. Well, if God will forgive me later, why be good now? So we do the math and we say grace just leads to license. I always respond, "No, there is a chemistry of the heart that is stronger than the math of the mind." The chemistry of the heart says if he loves me so much I will live for him. That is why we inspire with the gospel. The gospel does not give license; the gospel gives hope and strength. That's why grace is not license; grace is fuel.
I think the more I preach the more I recognize that addressing people's heart is what results in healthy behavior, and if you ever reverse that you actually create heartache and hard people.
Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois.