There are times when a “hard word” must be preached, even to God’s people. However, the church and the individual believer do not grow by daily helpings of “hard words,” but by being nourished and encouraged by the full counsel of God. The greatest catalyst for spiritual maturity in the truly converted is a greater revelation of the love of God in Christ. Another thing that “budding prophets” need to understand is that a preacher carries a Sword, a basin, and a towel. He is quick to use the basin and towel with great joy. But he is slow to use the sword, and he always does so with tears and fear and scarred knees.
– Paul Washer, in an interview with Tim Challies
Theology, to be Christian, is by definition practical. Either it serves the formation of the church or it is trivial and inconsequential. Preachers are the acid test of theology that would be Christian. Alas, too much theology today seems to have as its goal the convincing of preachers that they are too dumb to understand real theology. Before preachers buy into that assumption, we would like preachers to ask themselves if the problem lies with theologies which have become inconsequential.
– Stanley Hauerwas & Will Willimon, Resident Aliens
In a letter to a Methodist preacher in 1750, John Wesley cautioned Joseph Cownley against preaching nothing but God’s love and thereby neglecting the law. Here are Wesley’s words:
Let the Law always prepare for the Gospel. I scare ever spoke more earnestly here of the love of God in Christ than last night: But it was after I had been tearing the unawakened to pieces. Go thou and do likewise.
Remember, Wesley preached in many churches once, but far fewer twice.
It is true, the love of God in Christ alone feeds his children; but even they are to be guided as well as fed; yea, and often physicked too: And the bulk of our hearers must be purged before they are fed; else we only feed the disease. Beware of all honey. It is the best extreme; but it is an extreme.
I really wrestle with how to follow this advice of Wesley. It is hard to preach the law, especially in congregations where few people are bold and open sinners and most believe themselves to be good, earnest Christians. The specter of hypocrisy and legalism hovers over my shoulder whenever I try to do this. I never come close to tearing them to pieces.
Just last week, I was preaching on Matthew 10:24-39. It was not a Law text, really. It was about the apostles getting abused in word and body and about not being worthy of Jesus if they did not love Jesus more than family and did not take up there cross.
It was a tough sermon for me to preach. I was determined not to preach it in a way that rounded off the hard edges of that text, but I’m sure my distress over the text showed in the preaching — as well as not managing my week terribly well and not leaving myself enough time to work on it. Thank you lectionary for forcing me to attempt it.
Wesley writes in this letter — and elsewhere — that he too finds the preaching of Gospel pleasing. He suggests that he preached Law because it was necessary to the salvation of his hearers.
His insistence on these points stands as a challenge to me. Do I need more Law in my preaching? Am I tearing the unawakened to pieces?
The Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston School of Theology in a sermon last year made the most pointed attack on local pastors I’ve read in a while. (I added paragraph breaks to make it a bit easier to read.)
Unwilling to invest in elders, the superintendents are driven to hire non-elders, people who are not trained, not educated, not ordained, not in covenant, not traveling elders. In our yet to be fully born conference, this means that 540 of 931 pulpits are occupied, occupied by good hearted people, but people who have not studied the Bible in depth, do not know the history or teaching of the church, have had no preparation in counseling, in sacramental understanding, in worship and preaching, in administration, in pastoral care.
It is one thing to have laity Sunday once a year. But every Sunday? Do you go to laity Wednesday when the emergency room lets people who would like to be doctors administer drugs, set bones, and use ct scanners? Do you go to laity Friday when people who would like to be bankers get to open and close the vault, establish accounts, and make investments of your savings? How about housing? Do you sign up aspiring carpenters, who think they might have some talent in digging foundations and setting roof lines to build your house? Is it OK with you if the principal of your daughter’s junior high school never graduated from high school himself? Granted: education alone is not enough. Heart and head we need together in the influential, delicate, personal, salvific work of pastoral care and preaching.
Not 540, but 40 non-elders is all we should accommodate. Have the elders preach multiple times: better one good sermon preached 7 times, than 7 bad ones once each. Our annual conference provides everything but the one thing needful—a chance to confer. Our annual conference attends to everything except its job—providing excellent clergy.
John Wesley in his June 1742 journal recounts a question from a woman that caught him by surprise. She asked:
Ought not a Minister of Christ to do three things: First, To preach his Law, in order to convince of sin; Then, To offer free pardon, through faith in his blood, to all convinced sinners; And, in the Third place, To preach his Law again, as a rule for those that believe? I think, if one does otherwise, he is no true Minister of Christ. He divides what God has joined, and cannot be said to preach the whole Gospel.
Wesley’s surprise, I assume, was that she asked one of those questions that completely confirmed what he believed and practiced.
If the Bible is (or should be) as important as we say it is, then much of what passes for preaching and teaching will have to change. Google searches for witty jokes or inspiring anecdotes will have to go. Preachers and teachers will have to do harder work with the Bible itself, the only Holy Scripture the church recognizes. Catchy series or kitschy themes designed to hook a congregation may do more harm than good if they don’t lead us into a deeper, more sustained knowledge of scripture, “the Book of God,” the one we should live our lives by. Less sermon illustrations from camp or the grocery store are in order, and more exegesis of the text called for—if, that is, we care about creating Christians who are fluent in what should be their native tongue, who know what to say when they are “on stage,” as it were, because they’ve memorized their script(ure).