Pastors, Let’s Stop Preaching Good Sermons

A Challenging Series

I am preaching a sermon series on Sundays that is inspired by one of my living heros, Jerram Barrs. His book, Learning Evangelism from Jesus, is such a helpful portrait of how Jesus engaged sin-ravaged men and women. However, rather than base my messages on the content of his book, I am just using the passages from the gospels that frame each chapter. 

While my sermons would be better (likely plagerized!) if I began with Jerram's commentary, sitting, soaking, and studying these passages (just a Bible, the Spirit, and me) is proving to be more challenging than I expected. 

Not exegetically challenging but emotionally challenging.

In fact, I am wrecked

My Shallow Understanding of Grace

As someone who aims to make the distinctive hallmark of my ministry to be preaching the centrality of the cross (read this to see what I mean), I am begining to realize just how shallow my understanding of grace really is.

When I am honest about who I would be in the gospel narratives, intellectual integrity demands that I confess the strains of Phariseeism that not only remain in my flesh but tend to control my heart. 

I subconsciously assume that there must be something meritorious about me that would cause God to look on me with favor. I have advanced theological degrees. I am a Christian leader. People gather on Sundays and listen to me talk.  

When I function with a sense of spiritual and moral superiority, I have become a Pharisee in full dress, looking down upon "the sinners." Ugh.

Of course, when I blow it and lose my moral superiority card (usually behind the closed doors of my home but sometimes in wide-open but totally stalled Atlanta traffic, too), I free fall to the other extreme of being a spiritual orphan who feels profoundly unloved and unwanted, overcome with guilt and shame and anger for being a sinner who can't manage the beast in such a way as to make me at least "look" morally superior. Ugh... again. 

I, as a preacher of grace, have a very hard time shaking the law-centered gravity of my sin nature that pulls me toward my Pharisee nature. 

But I'm not alone.

Martin Luther understood. He wrote, "I have been preaching grace for almost twenty years and I still feel the old clinging dirt of wanting to deal with God that I may contribute something, so that He will have to give me His grace in exchange for my holiness. And still I cannot get into my head that I should surrender myself completely to sheer grace."

Oh, what will help me be released from that orbit of self-righteous arrogance and deceit?

Stop Preaching Good Sermons

Here is one idea: I need to stop preaching good sermons. 

Let me explain.

I do not saying that we should preach bad sermons! It is just that, with a tendency toward Phariseeism, I need to preach the fullness of the gospel to myself and for others.

By the fullness of the gospel, I mean the scandal of the gospel.  

A good sermon will leave everyone politely nodding.  

A good sermon is a safe sermon. It navigates very carefully between the law and gospel but never really red lines into either. It is calm and rather reserved. Well-structured, clear and articulate, maybe. But lacking in zeal, urgency and... offense.

After five weeks in the gospels examining Jesus' encounter with Pharisees and sinners, here is what I've concluded.

If my sermon does not offend the Pharisee, I am not preaching the gospel. 

The Scandal of the Gospel

In Galatians 5:11, the apostle Paul calls the cross a scandalon, the Greek word from which we get the English word scandal. The word may be translated literally as "a  stumbling stone that causes offense," something that people just can't get over and blocks them from going forward. 

For the Pharisees, the wall that kept them out of the kingdom was the mercy of God being lavished on "sinners" apart from any merit. Sinners were pure demerit!  They didn't deserve God's favor. For a sinner to be accepted before changing his or her life to conform to the law and traditions was not only unfair but unthinkable. 

As you know, Pharisees were members of a strict group of Jews who were concerned with moral purity — at least the appearance of moral purity which for them was moral superiority. For the Pharisee, this moral superiority was obtained through a combination of obedience to the Jewish moral and ceremonial laws, the keeping of a variety of religious traditions, and through their separation from having contact with "sinners." 

This is why Jesus befriending sinners, and especially eating with them, was such a scandal.

It may be hard to see this from our contemporary context, until we realize that Jesus's calling someone like Matthew (a despised tax collector who was forbidden from membership in the local synagogue) to be in his inner circle would be akin to Jesus walking into a strip club and calling the owner to "come and follow me." Not just to follow, but to be his friend.  

Isn't that going soft on sin?

Again, part of the scandal of the gospel is that, like with Matthew's call to discipleship, the call to discipleship preceded any change that would take place in Matthew’s life. What we see over and over again is that Jesus calls people just as they are (in the midst of their mess) but he doesn’t leave them just as they are. 

Theologically, we use this formula: those whom God justifies he sanctifies.

More colloquially, it is not change that leads to grace, it is grace that leads to change. It is not change that leads to being accepted. It is being accepted that leads to change.

We must keep these in the correct order, lest we sow and water seeds of Phariseeism in our sermons (and thus, among Christians, uninitentionally multiplying the leaven of legalism.)

If my Pharisee nature is not unsettled by my sermons, I wonder if I have truly preached the fullness of grace. 

​The Continental Divide

One striking feature of Jesus's preaching ministry, as well as Paul's, is that people were offended by practically every sermon he ever delivered. There was very much a Continental Divide response, where some clung to him with grateful tears while others wanted to kill him.

Jesus's sermons were not good. They were scandalous - scandalous because his life and ministry were scandalous. Indeed, everything about Jesus and the cross is utterly offensive to the self-righteous who seek salvation through personal morality. Because in the gospel, the way of rescue from the flames of hell is not improving my morality but receiving God's mercy, where Jesus is condemned for the condemnable. Not for theoretical but real sinners.

Like me. And like you.

Brothers, let's be freshly wrecked by God's grace, looking upon Calvary with tears of gratitude so that, with passion, zeal, and urgency, we might preach the offenseive but beautiful scandal of the cross this Sunday and every Sunday until Jesus returns.