Thoughts on preaching Christ

John Wesley held that a preacher needed to offer people both law and gospel.

In a 1751 “Letter on Preaching Christ” he wrote that preaching gospel means “preaching the love of God to sinners, preaching the life, death, resurrection, and intercession of Christ, with all the blessings which, in consequence thereof, are freely given to true believers.”

Preaching law means “explaining and enforcing the commands of Christ, briefly comprised in the Sermon on the Mount. I took note when I read this that he said to preach the commands of Christ. He did not instruct us to call people sinners or get them to focus on wrath, but to recount the commands in the Sermon on the Mount. That alone, he seems to argue, will convict where conviction is necessary.

Wesley wrote that he believed the best method of aiding and nurturing belief was to preach a mix of law and gospel “in every place, if not in every sermon.”

I think, the right method of preaching is this: At our first beginning to preach at any place, after a general declaration of the love of God to sinners, and his willingness that they should be saved, to preach the law, in the strongest, the closest, the most searching manner possible; only intermixing the gospel here and there, and showing it, as it were, afar off.

After more and more persons are convinced of sin, we may mix more and more of the gospel in order to ‘beget faith,’ to raise into spiritual life those whom the law hath slain; but this is not to be done too hastily neither. Therefore, it is not expedient wholly to omit the law; not only because we may well suppose that many of our hearers are still unconviced; but becasue otherwise there is danger, that many who are convinced will heal their own wounds slightly; therefore, it is only in private converse with a thoroughly convinced sinner, that we should preach nothing but the gospel.

Wesley wrote that the commands of Christ (the law) are food for the soul just as much as the gospel and should not be omitted. But he lamented that many preachers had turned to gospel preaching – leaving out the law entirely – which caused havoc in the Methodist societies. (Note: A cordial is a strong, usually alcoholic, drink with sweet or spicy flavors.)

Why this is the very thing I assert: That the gospel Preachers, so called, corrupt their hearers; they vitiate their taste, so that they cannot relish sound doctrine; and spoil their appetite, so they cannot turn it to nourishment; they, as it were, feed them with sweetmeats, till the genuine wine of the kingdom seems quite insipid to them. They give them cordial upon cordial, which make them all life and spirit of the present …. As soon as that flow of spirits goes off, they are without life, without power, without any strength or vigour of soul; and it is extremely difficult to recover them, because they still cry out, ‘Cordials! Cordials!” of which they have had too much already, and have no taste for food which is convenient for them.

Wesley closes the letter with a recounting of a congregation destroyed by gospel preaching contrasted with societies invorgated by law and gospel preaching.

From the beginning they had been taught both the law and the gospel. ‘God loves you; therefore love and obey him. Christ died for you; therefore, die to sin. Christ is risen; therefore, rise in the image of God. Christ liveth evermore; therefore live to God, till you live with him in glory.’

So we preached; and so you believed. This is the scriptural way, the Methodist way, the true way.

As often happens when I read Wesley, I find him speaking to our current problems and conditions.

NOTE: This is a republication of a blog post I wrote in 2009. I was re-reading this letter this morning and thought I might write about it, but when I discovered I had written about it before, I thought my previous post summed up what I wanted to share quite well.

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No wonder preachers don’t like hell

In Part II of his “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley challenges his fellow clergy to not be slack in their calling. He scolds the clergyman who sees no greater burden in his office than to preach once or twice a week and refuses the hard, continual work of shepherding the flock into spiritual growth and maturity.

He challenges them and us with a series of questions for clergy.

Have I not said, ‘Peace, peace, when there was no peace?’ How many are they also that do this? who do not study to speak what is true, especially to the rich and great, so much as what is pleasing? who flatter honourable sinners, instead of telling them plain, ‘How can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ O, what account have you to make, if there be a God that judgeth the earth? … How great will your damnation be, who destroy souls instead of saving them!

Reading these lines from Wesley, I understand the appeal of those forms of theology that do away with the idea of eternal judgment and hell. Such theologies are soothing to people but even more are they soothing to pastors who no longer must carry the burden of risking their own souls if they neglect their work or turn aside when they see sinners rejoicing in their sins.

Wesley’s words certainly sting me today as I read them and consider my own answers.

A sermon on divorce – Mark 10:2-16

This is the text of a sermon I preached for my seminary Introduction to Preaching class this fall. It is meant to reflect David Buttrick’s Moves and Structures approach to preaching. There are some things I like about Buttrick’s approach, but there are also some things that I struggle with when trying to use it.

The text is Mark 10:2-16

The preacher stands at the front of the church and holds aloft two golden bands. There in front of him, the couple stands. Young. Smiling. Hand in hand with hearts in their throats and tears of joy glistening in their eyes.

O Lord, the pastor says, bless the giving of these rings that they who wear them may live in your peace and continue in your favor all the days of their life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The rings they exchange are perfect circles, indicating an eternal and never-ending promise. They shimmer with precious beauty in the lights of the church. And when the best man hands them to the pastor, they are hard and cold, awaiting the warmth of flesh. Although we do not often pause to reflect on the hardness of the rings and the coldness of the bare metal, this day we are invited to do so because of this simple truth, brothers and sisters: Our hearts are hard. Our hearts are cold as a stone hidden in the dark of the earth. Our hearts drift like lonely asteroids through the black silent void. Continue reading “A sermon on divorce – Mark 10:2-16”