Preaching Jesus versus Pleasing People

Preaching Jesus versus Pleasing People

The Very Rev. Dr. Curtis I. Crenshaw, Th.D.

31 October 2008

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Luther Preaching the Gospel

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

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Suppose you visit a church.  The sermon is about how to succeed in life.  Point one is to be kind to yourself, for Jesus said that we must love our neighbors “as ourselves.”  It is negative not to love ourselves.  Point two is to think positive thoughts, for how can you achieve success with negativism?  Thus, believe in yourself.  Point three is to follow three easy steps to financial success.[1] After all, God wants to bless His children, doesn’t He?

If someone who knew nothing about Christianity were to visit this church a dozen times, hearing basically the same things, would he understand what Christianity is all about? Does this sort of teaching help us to know Christ?

Now suppose you enter a Mosque.  You hear: “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.”  You attend a dozen times, and always hear that creed and the Koran explained.  Would you know what Islam is about?

What is wrong with this picture?  Can we win spiritual battles with materialistic mantras while Islam teaches their people the essence of their faith?

At the so-called Christian church mentioned above, there is no mention of sin, no mention of the Triune God, no mention of the Incarnation, no mention of the death of Christ on the Cross for our sins, no mention of His bodily resurrection or ascension, no mention of the Bible as the Triune God’s infallible revelation of Himself, indeed, no mention of anything that is distinctively Christian.  At too many local churches, the Bible has been turned into a popular psychological manual, and Christ-centered preaching has been traded for motivational pep-talks designed for self-improvement.  God may not be glorified, but worshipers go home happy, and that seems to be all that matters.

We are told that people do not want to hear about sin, judgment, and the crucifixion, but are the congregation’s preferences relevant?  Has the Church in the past taken its message from the people’s desires or from God’s infallible Word, the Bible?  Is the pulpit determined by the pew or the pew by the pulpit?  Let us consider a few reasons why preaching must be focused on the message of the Church and of God’s Gospel as revealed in the Bible.

First, if anyone who reads the Bible, he will quickly discover that the majority of the content is narrative, but there are some shorter books of the Bible that contain primarily theological and moral instructions in light of God’s law.  In the Old Testament, for example, historical narrative begins in Genesis and ends in Esther, which is most of the Old Testament.  The poetry and wisdom literature (Job through Song of Solomon) are given to help one to be wise and “successful” from God’s point of view, which means knowing how to live for God.  Then the five Major Prophets and the twelve Minor Prophets are God’s concerns with sin in the lives of His people.  These are supporting documents that are not intended to advance the historical narratives but to bring God’s covenant lawsuit against His erring people.  These books supplement the narrative sections of the Bible and often address issues that were prevalent at the time written.

The New Testament follows basically the same pattern.  The four Gospels and Acts establish the basic narratives about Jesus and the history of the Church, with Paul’s epistles supporting the theology of the first five books of the New Testament.  The seven very short General Epistles provide us wisdom regarding how to live pleasing to God, and the Revelation is the victory of the Church through the ages, a fitting end to the 66 books of the One Book.  (Read Genesis 1-3 with Revelation 21-22, and you’ll see how the Bible begins and ends with the same themes.)  In other words, the Gospels and Acts tell us what happened, and the epistles give us the divine interpretation of the Gospels and Acts.  For example, the Gospels tell us that Christ died (history), but Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “Christ died for our sins” (theology).  Then Paul adds: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,” which ties the Old Testament to the New Testament, demonstrating that one theme is common to both testaments.  In other words, the Bible reveals basically one message, which is the fall of man into sin and redemption, and it reveals this by historical narratives.

Second, one way to know whether a religion is true is to find out whether it is anchored in history. If so, and if the history is reliable, the religion may be also.[2]  The Bible is not a philosophy but history, though it contains philosophy.  One can read the Koran for a philosophical approach to God, or one can follow Buddhism, Hinduism, or New Age for the same, which is a great weakness of these religions.  How would we know whether Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism is correct?  We must either make a leap of faith against our intelligence, based on some experience, or we must use reason to figure it out.  Thus either experience or reason is enthroned, both of which are man-centered, and the result is to rule out revelation as final authority.  But God is revealed historically, especially in Jesus of Nazareth, for the one who has seen Him has seen the Father (John 14:9).

How do we know that Christianity is correct?  There are real events in history that can be validated, such as the great works of redemption, which are creation (Romans 1:18ff), the flood, the exodus from Egypt, the death of Christ on the Cross, and especially the empty tomb.  We rest our entire case on the bodily resurrection of Christ as historically revealed and easily validated by early sources.  Indeed, there was never a discussion of whether the tomb was empty, but the discussions were always how it got that way.  Then there is the creation of the Church from twelve men who hid from the authorities when their Lord was crucified, afraid they would be next, but then gladly went to their deaths after His resurrection.  How do we explain the change?  We have hundreds of eyewitnesses to His resurrection, four early written documents with witnesses to His resurrection (five including Acts).  The New Testament manuscripts are the best attested documents in ancient history; nothing else even comes close.  We have real cities that still exist and are in the daily news (Nazareth, Jerusalem), real people (Pontius Pilate who is well known in history), secular writers who speak of the Lord’s resurrection (even though they may not have believed it), of the period of darkness when the Lord was on the Cross, and so on.  The fact that these historical events have been independently attested lends tremendous credence to the rest of the story.  In these events we are confronted with God Himself, not just given thoughts or experience to analyze.

Take Islam for example.  How do we know it is true?  One man claims that an angel appeared to him and dictated the Koran.  (This is the same in Mormonism, both Islam and Mormonism being copycat religions of the Judeo-Christian heritage, but without historical validation.)  Where are the miracles?  Where is the history to validate this?  Where are the cities in the Book of Mormon that allegedly existed in the USA centuries ago?  Where are the multiple witnesses?  Are we to trust one man’s word without historical confirmation, without a death and resurrection?  By contrast, the Bible was written in historical circumstances over a period of 2,000 years if we go back to Abraham and by about 40 different authors, and archaeologists keep digging up artifacts that support the biblical account.  In a court of law, which faith could be proved, the one with one witness and no confirmations from circumstances, or the one with at least 40 witnesses and centuries of independent confirmations?[3]

Moreover, if Christianity is grounded in history, revelation is Lord, not reason.  I don’t mean that we believe something contrary to the evidence or that we don’t use our minds to understand or to conclude, but that reason is not final authority.  Rather, reason is servant to revelation in Christianity,  whereas in Buddhism and Hinduism, not to mention the psychological approach to modern preaching, reason must be the judge of what is being presented, or some kind of mystical experience that cannot be communicated.  Today with the human-centered approach to preaching, anyone who does not like what he hears can go down the street to some other church, and in smorgasbord style, choose what soothes his ego.  But if the great works of redemption were presented at all churches, as they once basically were, every worshiper would be confronted with God in whatever church he attended.

Third, the psychological pep-talk approach to preaching really makes Christianity just another natural religion, not a supernatural one, and eviscerates its power in confronting people with God Almighty.  The power of God for salvation is the Cross, not our so-called wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18ff).  It is precisely in the offenses of Christianity, such as the Cross, where the power of God resides to convert people.  Pep-talk preaching is basically a liberal approach, making Christianity just another moral religion that can be molded into what one wants since one’s reason is in charge, not revelation.  This was the approach of Thomas Jefferson, who took a razor blade to the Bible and cut out all the supernatural works of redemption that Christ did while on earth, especially His miracles, reducing Christianity to morals only.  In a private letter, Jefferson wrote to John Adams on April 11, 1823:

And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors.[4]

Unfortunately, Jefferson’s “prophecy” has come true, as evidenced by the mess Christianity is in, especially in the West.

Positive thinking churches do not confront culture because that they have nothing unique to say, no powerful word from God about sin, judgment, and the life to come, but are just another human voice to make people feel good. John Gresham Machen wrote an incredibly insightful book, Christianity and Liberalism, that I highly recommend, in which he argues that Christianity without its historical, supernatural revelation is not Christianity at all, but some hybrid religion.

Fourth, we are changed by viewing God, not ourselves.  The modern approach to preaching tends to focus on ourselves, our needs, our wants, our successes, how we can live a wonderful, fulfilled, and happy life.  It’s all about me.  But we become like that which we behold.  God has revealed Himself in the great works of redemption, and Paul states in clear terms in 2 Corinthians 3:

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord (v. 18).

In other words, Paul says we are to behold God in Christ, for in Him God is revealed finally (Hebrews 1:1ff), clearly (John 14:9), and sufficiently (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).  Reducing Christianity to psychology[5] makes us the focus, makes us the glory of ourselves.  As we are encouraged to behold ourselves, we become selfish, self-centered, wanting God to bless us according to our understanding of blessing, which means, of course, that we should have money, a wonderful self-image, a fantastic marriage, a great place to work—in short, God becomes the genie in the bottle to jump out and grant our wishes if we only rub the lamp correctly.

Fifth, let us not run past this last statement too fast: “rub the lamp correctly.”  This faulty idea is that if we take a particular action, then God must respond, which is moralism and legalism, and what is worse, it means that our obedience is the condition for God’s grace.  This is what I call “ought” religion.  Our obligation (“ought”) is the condition for God to change us.   We initiate, God responds. But that is backwards.  This formula makes the horizontal the basis for the vertical, by which I mean we relate to God (vertical) from ourselves (horizontal).  But throughout Paul’s epistles, Paul gives us the “is,” the grace, and then commands the “ought.”  In other words, our obedience rises out of God’s grace: the vertical relationship with God is the basis for our relationships with Him and with one another.

Do we want to be successful in our marriages?  We must preach Jesus’ love for His bride and the bride’s submission to Him (Ephesians 5:22ff).  Do we want to know how to forgive and how to be forgiven?  We must see how God for Christ’s sake has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32).  Do we want success in life?  We must see how God defines success and pursue that (Psalm 1).  Do we want our people to change and be conformed to the moral image of Christ?  We must hold Him up so people can see Him, for if He is lifted up, He will draw all people to Himself (John 12:32).  Anything else is just playing church games to be popular.  We are not in a popularity contest with other ministers, but in a judgment contest to please Him who is “the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:15-16), whom to know is life eternal.

As Anglicans in the liturgical tradition, we have a tremendous advantage over other churches, for the Book of Common Prayer requires preachers to read and generally preach on the Gospels, historical acts of redemption, to confront the people with revelation, and not to skirt the miracles, for they especially are God’s revelation to us.  Furthermore, the epistles are read with the Gospel Lessons to give the theology of the Gospels.

Moreover, reciting the Creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, Athanasian) grounds the local church in the faith.  Notice how the Nicene Creed, which is the most basic Creed held by all branches of Christendom, is designed around the Holy Trinity and the great historical acts of redemption in Christ:

I believe in one God,

the Father Almighty,

Maker of heaven and earth,

And of all things visible and invisible:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,

The only-begotten Son of God;

Begotten of his Father before all worlds,

God of God,

Light of Light,

Very God of very God;

Begotten, not made,

Being of one substance with the Father,

By whom all things were made:

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven,

And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary,

And was made man,

And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate.

He suffered and was buried,

And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures,

And ascended into heaven,

And sitteth on the right hand of the Father.

And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead:

Whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost,

The Lord and Giver of life,

Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son,

Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified,

Who spake by the prophets.

And I believe one holy Catholic and ApostolicChurch.

I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.

And I look for the resurrection of the dead,

And the life of the world to come.  Amen.

Now when people come into our churches and hear this, they will know what Christianity is about.  It is this faith that will overcome the world, overpower Islam, and save the soul.  Anything less is self-serving.  This Creed is the wonderful combination of historical revelation from God to us and of theological meaning of those historical events.

These truths are those which the Holy Spirit can use to work grace in someone’s life, just as the Lord said in John 16:

7 “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. 8 And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: 9 of sin, because they do not believe in Me; 10 of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; 11 of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.” (John 16:7-11)

The Holy Spirit does not convict of sin if we do not preach it, especially the sin of not believing in Jesus.  The Holy Spirit does not[6] convict of righteousness if we do not preach the commandments and preach the righteousness of Christ who was received by resurrection and ascension back into His Father’s presence.  The Holy Spirit does not convict of judgment if we do not preach it, especially that Satan was judged by the Cross and resurrection (Hebrews 2:14-17), which means that if the worst sinner of all time was judged, so will everyone else be judged.

But we do not really believe this passage in John 16, so we withhold preaching the truth of sin, righteousness, and judgment.  We think we can do a better job than the Holy Spirit, so we don’t mention these three interlocked truths.  They are negative, and we want to be positive.  As a result, we leave people feeling great about themselves but unprepared to face God in the judgment and impotent to live for Him now.  May the Triune God help us not to “improve” His Gospel, but just to proclaim it.  God the Holy Spirit will do the rest.  Amen.


[1]  (Yes, the Bible has a lot to say about finances, and there is a proper time to teach on these matters, but not when we come to worship God and proclaim His Gospel.)

[2] There are other ways, of course, such as the impossibility of living life without assuming the Triune God and His commandments.

[3] We are speaking of legal proof, not the formal logical proof of apologetics.

[4]http://www.beliefnet.com/resourcelib/docs/53/Letter_from_Thomas_Jefferson_to_John_Adams_1.html. Apparently John Adams was a Calvinist.  Jefferson began his letter to Adams thusly: “The wishes expressed, in your last favor, that I may continue in life and health until I become a Calvinist . . . would make me immortal.”

[5] There is a place for psychology, but not in presenting the Gospel.

[6] When we say God “does not” do these things, we do not mean He “cannot,” for He is sovereign, but He has chosen normally to work through His people for the salvation of others.

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