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Haddon Robinson on Preaching the Gospel Today

How to stay on course with your most important message

Editor's note: When planning our current theme of "Getting the Gospel Right," we knew we needed to turn to one of the most trusted voices in the world of preaching—Haddon Robinson. Here are the insights and concerns he shared with us about the current state of preaching the gospel.

Preaching Today: What's good about how preachers today are presenting the gospel?

Haddon Robinson: Many are preaching the gospel without using theological lingo. They are giving the old message in fresh, vital ways with different images and in ways that connect with folks who have not yet come to faith. They have a greater consciousness of what it means for people to be lost, and they're able to speak to that condition effectively.

Many in our culture are conscious they are lost, though not necessarily that they are non-Christians. They sense they are like sheep who have wandered off. They didn't intend to. They got taken up with a tuft of grass here and another tuft of grass there, and they looked up and realized they were lost. Scads of people feel that but don't have any notion the church could speak to them. Many non-Christians are asking our questions but don't believe we have the answers. But there are preachers speaking to them in effective ways.

What concerns you about how preachers present the gospel today?

The flipside of what I said above is we can be so eager to speak to people in our society, that in the end we have not really preached the gospel. We have only touched a felt need. What is sometimes offered as the gospel is more of a psychological approach to make people feel good.

Use any method you can to get the gospel across to people in our society, but beware of the danger of preaching a different gospel.

Another concern is that in the past preachers were more concerned with helping people begin the Christian life. They would ask questions like, "When did you trust Christ?" Now there's not much emphasis on starting the faith. Many young preachers are rebelling against the kind of preaching they heard in their youth in which at the end of the sermon, the preacher said, "Give your heart to Christ," without clearly giving the gospel. But by rejecting a truncated, superficial gospel, young preachers may not be giving a clear call to come to faith in Jesus Christ. The reality is, as an adult you don't just drift into the Christian life. There is a place where it begins. That doesn't mean everybody is conscious of when they cross the line, but they better cross that line.

Is there any great void you see in our preaching of the gospel?

Yes—we don't preach the gospel! As I listen to some preachers, if I were an outsider, I honestly wouldn't know what I was to respond to. I don't hear the terms of becoming a Christian.

For example, the big issue the gospel addresses is how a holy God could have anything to do with the likes of us. The issue in Romans is: How can God be just and still be the justifier of the ungodly? How can a just and holy God declare sinners to be righteous? That is a key issue, but I don't find that being talked about much. I hear: "Jesus loves you, and he wants the best for you. He certainly doesn't want you to be sick, doesn't want you to be poor. It certainly isn't his will that you suffer." But you can't read the New Testament and make statements like that.

We want to reach people, but the clear terms of the gospel are seldom enunciated. It's probably an exaggeration, but I don't think in my lifetime I've heard twenty messages that I would say were clear gospel messages. If you didn't know any jargon, didn't have any religious background—if you came to church and wanted to know how to have a relationship with a holy God—the sermon would not tell you.

We'd be wise to tell our people that on every eighth Sunday, we're going to make every effort to clearly present the gospel. We should tell them, "If you have friends who are on their way to faith, by all means bring them!" If we do our job right, two things will happen: the unchurched who come will hear the gospel clearly, and our own people will hear it, too. The assumption that the guy who regularly sits in the eighth row has the gospel straight is not a good assumption.

Do you think the majority of preachers really understand the gospel?

I sometimes wonder. We don't understand grace. Much of our preaching tends to be moralistic—you must, you should—such that listeners would never guess they need the life of Christ surging through them if they are to live that kind of life. As Augustine said, "Give what you command, and command what you will." Even when we understand the gospel, we keep losing it. It's amazing how easy it is to turn the gracious terms of the gospel into commands. So no, I'm not sure how many preachers fully understand the message. I don't mean they themselves are not Christ-followers, or they don't have a grasp of some of the message. But getting the gospel right takes a great deal of thought and theology, in the best sense, so we can make it clear to non-Christians.

Earlier you talked about finding fresh ways to express the gospel without theological lingo. Do you have any examples of preachers doing this well?

One is Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York. His general approach is to start with a problem and go to the text. Work with the text and speak to that problem. Then he says you can't put that solution into practice on your own. You need the enabling power of Jesus Christ.

Tim creates a need, and he does it in terms that New Yorkers, crass and hard as some of them can be, can hear. Tim wants his messages to be relevant to people's deepest needs in terms they can feel. The gospel is relevant just as bread is relevant to hunger or water is relevant to thirst—but people have to feel that hunger. Tim takes the hunger people already have and drives it back to a deeper hunger in their lives. People have a hunger for sex; the deeper hunger is for relationship. All our relationships come up short, because we have a deeper craving for a relationship with God. Other desires are real, but they are symptoms of that deeper need. Then Tim asks, "How do you have that relationship with God? How would that hunger be filled?"

What would you especially like to say to young and emerging preachers, and then to established preachers?

To younger preachers I would say, by all means seek out different forms for presenting the message. The Bible does that. You have the forms of parable, story, didactic literature, and so on. Find different forms, such as first-person narrative.

But in using different forms, be sure you don't preach a different gospel. I have had younger preachers say to me things like, "I work with a need-centered message."

"Like what?" I ask.

"Well, how do you have self-esteem?"

I look at the message, and when they're all through, the gist of it is: God loves you, and because God loves you, you can have esteem.

So I ask, "Does this message preach the gospel?"

"Oh yeah."

"What's the gospel?"

"The gospel is thinking well of yourself because God loves you."

That's a pep talk, not the gospel. So to younger pastors I would say, use any method you can to get the gospel across to people in our society, but beware of the danger of preaching a different gospel. That's like creating a hunger for bread but then giving people a stone.

To the established preacher I would say, the way you preached in the day gone by might not reach people in the current culture. For example, preachers are accustomed to using familiar images like that of being lost and the Father welcoming home his son from the far country (as Jesus uses in Luke 15). These images say there's a great estrangement between us and God, but God has already done everything we need to be reconciled to him. Preaching today, though, you might also want to try a fresh image: God has signed a peace treaty with the blood of his Son, and he asks you to sign that treaty. For established preachers the danger is your preaching becomes the same old, same old. There's no freshness, no vitality.

It's a great help for preachers to do personal evangelism where you talk to individuals one-on-one about their relationship with God. The reason for that is, I can preach to two hundred people and talk nonsense, but if I talk to a thoughtful person eyeball–to-eyeball, heart-to-heart, I've got to make it clear.

Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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