Sound biblical preaching has become nearly an endangered species. At the same time, sound preaching is needed now more than ever. The behavior of self-proclaimed Christians often is not much different than that of their secular neighbors. Divorce rates and instances of criminal activity are comparable. George Barna has concluded, “Every day, the church is becoming more like the world it allegedly seeks to change.” 1 For some, this may be nothing more than an attempt (as some might put it) to be as liberal as necessary in order to win as many souls as possible. For others, this means to imitate culture so that outsiders will perceive them as relevant. Both are
formulas for disaster. One produces weak Christians while the other produces inauthentic ones.
The pursuit of relevance is little more than an exercise in pragmatism. In order to ensure that the contribution remains high and numbers stay solid, some congregations seem to be willing to trade biblical preaching for other means, including dramatic productions, pop psychology and other entertainment-based forms of communicating biblical principles. The rationale is simple: draw them in now, then give them more in-depth biblical instruction later. It does not seem to dawn on these individuals that those who come for entertainment will leave for greener pastures should the church fail to continue to provide such entertainment.
Preaching and the Spirit
Sound biblical preaching and the Holy Spirit are inextricably connected. When preaching the first recorded gospel sermon in Acts 2, the apostle Peter told his hearers in no uncertain terms if they submitted to baptism for the remission of their sins that they would “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38 ESV). This gift was not a spiritual gift that Paul would later mention in 1 Corinthians 12-14, but rather a general indwelling within the believer. Furman Kearley identified it as “a non-miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit given in fulfillment of the promise to all who repent and are baptized.” 2
Other passages in the New Testament link obedience with the gift of the Spirit. Peter stated that those who obey God receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:32). Paul said something very similar, that God will send the Spirit of His Son into the hearts of His people (Galatians 4:6). Later in Ephesians 1:13, Paul said that those in the church at Ephesus had heard the Word and were sealed with the Holy Spirit afterward.
If a person is to receive the promise of the Spirit, then he will be able to do so only if he has obeyed the gospel. This requires that God’s message be stated and explained properly and accurately. If not, then the sign and seal of sonship in God’s kingdom may not be received by the believer.
Preaching the Truth
At one time, truth signified something universal, objective and transcendent. In the wake of postmodernism it has become localized, subjective and culturally bound. At one time, the truth was considered an instructive guide; now it is merely a therapeutic tool. Truth – and especially biblical truth – is disparaged enough in Western culture. It is all the more appalling to find this kind of abuse among those who consider themselves Christians.
Christians must recognize that a message of individualized, custom-fit truth has an undeniable attraction. Such a view of truth immediately dispenses with argument and dispute. In a culture infatuated with tolerance, we can all “get along.” Of course, our notion of tolerance is really nothing of the sort. Tolerance no longer means to acknowledge other viewpoints with a measure of charity despite disagreements. Rather, it seems now to mean that all viewpoints may claim a measure of legitimacy. For the modern Western mind, “tolerance” means “acceptance.”
Today, anything sufficiently orthodox is characterized as old-fashioned or irrelevant. For instance, the website for ProgressiveChristianity.org claims, “We are opposed to any exclusive dogma that limits the search for truth and free inquiry” and “the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life … we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey.” More familiar examples appear frequently in the mega-church culture. Examples include Rob Bell, whose views on hell have many convinced he has embraced a soft universalism despite his objections to the contrary. Joel Osteen unashamedly promotes concepts drawn from New Age thinking. Brian McLaren seems to espouse theology that is driven more by social consciousness than the Bible. By directly controverting clear biblical teaching, these figures have essentially renounced any claim to Christ.
Preaching vs. Experimentation
There has hardly been a time in the last 2,000 years that the faith has been subjected to such a degree of experimentation. These forays into new methods and worship styles seem to be driven in large part by the felt needs of the congregations themselves. This includes sermons that provide pop psychology instead of biblical truth, saccharine sentimentality instead of genuine encouragement, and therapy instead of accountability. In the end, this kind of preaching writes a narrative in which, as H. Reinhold Niehbur once put it, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Although commenting originally on the Social Gospel, Niehbur’s observation could apply equally to preaching in some churches today. Wrath, sin and judgment are taboo because mentioning them could be perceived as negative and off-putting for beleaguered moderns seeking personal fulfillment. The cross is seen as little more than an example of the lengths to which Christ was willing to go to demonstrate His love for creation.
The kind of preaching the inspired writers of Scripture expect from those who wear the name of Christ is far different than what passes for preaching in some churches today. Preaching should derive its authority from the biblical text itself, handling the truth properly (2 Timothy 2:15). It recognizes the Bible as the inspired Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16). But above all else, it is a word of truth that rests not on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2:5). Biblical preaching glorifies God, exalts Christ, convicts sinners, and encourages believers. Any other kind is not fit to be heard.
1. Tim Stafford, “The Third Coming of George Barna,” Christianity Today (Aug. 8, 2002), 34.
2. F. Furman Kearley, God’s Indwelling Spirit: The Doctrine and History of the Holy Spirit, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 2004), 41.
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