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
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?
But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood. (Ezekiel 33:6, NIV)
Here is what I worry about. I worry that God really means what he said to Ezekiel and that we pastors are bathing in the blood of those we do not warn.
I guess in question form to my readers, this worry goes something like this: What are the stakes of what we do as pastors?
I get the impression sometimes that the stakes are not very high. What we do might make people’s live a little easier or even help them cope with serious problems. But, in the end, God will sort it all out, and, hey, he’s a loving God so no worries.
And then I read John Wesley or Peter Cartwright or watch this video of Paul Washer — who despite being a Southern Baptists talks about repentance, justification, and assurance in exactly the ways Wesley did — and I hear men who take the warning of Ezekiel with deadly seriousness. It is interesting to note that all three men are/were itinerants.
I read Eugene Peterson’s wonderful books on being a pastor, and I struggle to find a place where he speaks about the gravity of the work. There is something winsome about everything he writes and, it seems, being a pastor is a winsome thing as well. No blood crying out against us that I can find.
I read Adam Hamilton’s books on how preaching the gospel is like selling shoes and I wonder how heavy he feels the burden of those who do not buy it all? I read his book on the Bible, and wish he had written about this passage in Ezekiel — or the others in Scripture. I wonder what he thinks about the warnings.
I read all these books and think of the pastors I have admired, and I wonder how heavily they feel the burden that God placed on Ezekiel or the admonishment of James that teachers will be judged more strictly.
I think of even casual encounters I have with people with spiritual questions. Do I take them too lightly? Do I let me desire to be likeable get in the way of my calling? Do I even know what to say — how to sound the proper warning?
These questions get to the nature of the pastoral vocation. And for me the starting question is this: What are the stakes in what we are doing as pastors?
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).
None of John Wesley’s published sermons take as their text verses from the passion or resurrection narratives of the gospels.
That struck me as a curious fact, although I confess I do not know whether to make anything out it. It may just mean that he was not a parish priest.