Skipping over our sin

“I’m a sinner, but I’m forgiven.”

If you have been around church or been a pastor, you’ve heard these words. You may have even said them.

One of the things I find myself struggling to communicate to people is the importance of not skipping over the first part of the sentence too quickly.

We like to get to the forgiven part quickly. We don’t like to dwell on the sinner part. That, of course, makes perfect sense. Dwelling on our sinfulness is rather unpleasant.

But here is the thing I often encounter in my ministry.

Many Christians struggle because they have not really experienced the good news of the gospel. Oh, they have heard it. They have sung about it. They’ve sat through countless sermons about it, but there is something that has not yet grabbed hold of them.

They are like the pre-Aldersgate John Wesley, who spent his life in admirable Christian service, but had himself not come to know the joy of the gospel. For him, the key moment was when he came to a deep realization that his sin had been forgiven.

In the Bible, Jesus puts the contrast this way. Those who have been forgiven much rejoice much. Those who have been forgiven little, rejoice little.

And our problem so often is that we want to convince ourselves and others that we have little to be forgiven for. We do not really dwell on the ways that we reject God. We do not think on our sins. We do not experience the cold hard truth that we are in dire need of forgiveness. Instead, we rush ahead and grab the warm comfortable mantle of forgiveness and so fail to really know what it means to come out of the cold and into the warmth of the Father’s love.

We skip past our sinfulness like someone running on hot coals. We move so quickly, that we barely need the healing that awaits on the other side.

And so, this is work I continue to seek the wisdom to do better. For I do know this to be true. The tepid relief of “I’m a sinner but forgiven” often provides little comfort when a person is lying in a hospital bed with their heart failing or cancer assailing their body. At the hour of their death, they need the full assurance that only comes from the full gospel.

Lord, help me to learn better how to help the people in my care die a good death.

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The test of a false prophet

As I was pondering in recent weeks what it means to preach about the way to heaven, I was caught short in my ponderings by the words of John Wesley in his sermons on the Sermon on the Mount (there has to be a less awkward way to phrase that). I want to explore part of one of those sermons with you today, not to cast criticism on anyone else but to test and examine my own ministry.

I turn to Wesley’s 12th sermon on the Sermon on the Mount in which Wesley considers the warnings in Matthew 7:15-20.

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

If you have any doubts that preaching the way to heaven is one of Wesley’s chief concerns, this sermon will clear such confusion away. The biblical verses warn of false prophets, and so Wesley begins by explaining what a prophet is: “those men who profess to be sent of God, to teach others the way to heaven.”

And he continues this emphasis on heaven as he explains what makes a preacher a false prophet.

“Those are false prophets, who teach a false way to heaven, a way which does not lead thither.”

And what is the true way? Wesley finds his answer in looking to the beginning of Christ’s sermon, at what are commonly called the Beattitudes of Matthew 5:1-12.

Now the way to heaven pointed out in the preceeding sermon is the way of lowliness, mourning, meekness, and holy desire, love of God and our neighbour, doing good, and suffering evil for Christ’s sake. They are, therefore, false prophets, who teach, as the way to heaven, any other way than this.

To give an all-too-short a summary of Wesley’s point, he is saying that the way to heaven is a way of spiritual grief over our own sinfulness, a way of a changed life animated by the love and forgiveness of Christ, and a way of worldly reproach for our obedience to a God the world does not recognize as its own.

It is a narrow way and often a difficult way, which makes it usually an unpopular way. We all want to be told that the way to heaven is a broad way and that everyone arrives on that happy shore. We want to be told that it does not matter if we let our pride, sloth, ego, lust, and rage rule us because the doors of heaven will still be open to us. None of us want to hear that we are wrong about that, preachers or laity.

But if it is true, then what we want to hear — and what we pastors find it easy to say — is irrelevant. If it is true — as Christ says — that the way to the Kingdom is narrow and few find it, then woe to us who ignore this truth. We should seek earnestly what has been revealed to us about the way to heaven in the Bible. It should be of highest priority to all who preach and, indeed, everyone else as well.

And so the question I put to myself today is this: Have I been a false prophet or true? Do I preach in a way that makes the narrow way clear? Or do I tend to comfort those on the broad way to destruction too much?

These are questions for me to weigh but not answer in this moment as I write this post.

I will, however, close with Wesley’s exhortation to preachers that closes his sermon. I read it as words written for me, but I share them with you as well.

Humble yourselves before him. Cry unto him out of the dust, that he may first quicken thy soul; give thee the faith that worketh by love; that is lowly and meek, pure and merciful, zealous of good works, rejoicing in tribulation, in reproach, in distress, in persecution for rightousness’ sake! So shall “the Spirit of glory and of Christ rest upon thee,” and it shall appear that God hath sent thee. So shalt thou indeed “do the work of an Evangelist, and make full proof of thy ministry.” So shall the word of God in thy mouth be “an hammer that breaketh the rocks in pieces!” It shall then be known by thy fruits that thou art a Prophet of the Lord, even by the children whom God hath given thee. And having “turned many to righteousness,” thou shalt “shine as the stars for ever and ever!”

Another reason we don’t talk about heaven

When I was writing my last post, I thought maybe I should write this one first.

My last post suggested that one reason mainline pastors don’t talk about heaven much is because talking about heaven requires us to deal with questions about who does not end up there. I believe there is truth in that, but I’m not sure it is the biggest reason why so many pastors say so little about heaven.

My fear is that many pastors do not talk about the way to heaven because of doubt about the doctrine itself.

This doubt can take more than one form.

The mildest form of this is an impulse to “correct” the flaws in popular piety about heaven. If you read the Bible, it does not take much effort to notice that the Bible speaks about eternity with God not in terms of wings and harps and clouds, but in terms of a physical life in resurrected and redeemed creation. The idea that life after death involves living on as a some sort of ghost among angels is popular but not biblical. The biblical promise is that after Christ returns again creation will be redeemed and heaven and earth will be one. We will live on in bodies of flesh and bone, but free of the death and frailty that so marks our existence now. It will be utterly different than life as we know it, and yet we will still have lungs full of air, stomachs taking in food, and skin feeling the softness of a puppy’s fur.

Observing all these things is mere orthodoxy.

But sometimes, we pastors can be so devoted to clearing away the errors of popular piety about a heaven full of ghosts that we sound like we are calling into question the idea of heaven itself. We want to appear wise more than we want to help our people love God and trust in what they believe.

This can be fixed with more care in the way we speak.

Some problems, however, run deeper than words.

Some pastors don’t talk about heaven because they do not believe the orthodox teaching embodied in the great creeds of the church. They do not believe that Christ will come again and judge the living and the dead. They do not believe that some of us will spend eternity with God and some will be consigned to hell. They do not believe in a final reward for the righteous and final punishment for the wicked.

I love my brothers and sisters in the clergy who struggle with doubt or secretly disbelieve the things we say in the creeds of the church. I do not know how I could stand up and preach every week if I seriously questioned the baptismal faith I am called to preach as a pastor. It would cause me deep pain to be so divided, but I hope that we would all recall that we are called to preach the faith of the church rather than “our own theology” and not let our own doubts keep us from sharing the great hope of heaven and eternity with God with the people who gather in worship with us each week.

I appreciate you taking time to read my thoughts here. I’m curious what you think. Do mainline pastors speak and preach about heaven too little or too much? Why do you think this is so?