(Note: Over the next few days [or weeks] these series of posts are not intended to portray an angry, vindictive theological cannibal seeking to devour the next victim. Personally, I hate conflict of any kind and do just about everything I can to avoid it [my wife is great in dealing with conflict and has been a huge source of grace for me in this area!].
Rather, these posts are written to reflect the desperate pleas of a believer who is weak and sinful and needs and desires to hear the Gospel’s comfort and absolution every week. These posts are intended to reflect the desire of one who needs to taste the Gospel in the sacraments and thus receive confirmation of the promises of the Gospel week after week [yes, this is for you!]. These posts are meant to reveal a heart that longs to see Christ proclaimed to the Lord’s people so that He is seen and savored every Lord’s Day for the spiritual benefit of the church and for the glory of His Name!)
In Romans 1:15, Paul declares,
“So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.”
I wonder how many pastors today share this same eagerness? How many are truly eager to preach the gospel? It only takes a brief survey of the Evangelical landscape to realize that the numbers seem to be increasingly few.
In the quest for relevance, success, growth and influence pastors have opted for practical, tip-oriented talks (not sermons).
Advice instead of declaration characterizes many Sunday morning “sermons.”
Preaching has become more like a large group, self-help therapy session than an announcement of Good News. In some circles, the “lecture method” or “monologue” or “authoritarian preaching” as it is characterized has been exchanged for “discussions” “talks” “diaologues” “conversations” or “personal stories.”
Sociologist Phillip Rieff points how we have witnessed in our culture what he calls the “triumph of the therapeutic.” Dr. Phil has become the high priest (Oprah the high priestess) of this therapeutic culture and pastors have followed suit.
Sermons no longer aim for conversion but at better living.
In this ecclesiological therapeutic culture, sermons no longer aim for conversion but at “better living.” Themes such as sin, guilt, condemnation, judgment, justification, atonement and propitiation have been replaced with therapeutic topics such as relationship counseling, sexual counseling, Christian 12-step groups, eight recovery principles based on the Beatitudes (that is a very interesting exegesis of the Beatitudes?), parenting strategies, self-fulfillment, i.e., Your Best Life Now, learning true commitment, finding true purpose and true satisfaction, even insights on fitness and nutrition (thanks, but I think I will stick with Jack Lalanne and GNC!).
In many Evangelical churches, on any given Sunday morning, one can hardly distinguish between Dr. Phil and many Evangelical pulpits. In fact, many Sunday morning sermons and services could be mistaken for the topic and setting for the Dr. Phil Show. It has become commonplace for churches to advertise things like:
“We are all about relationships.”
“We have exciting people friendly worship services where Biblical truths are taught in relevant and practical ways.”
“We must listen to outsiders if we want the unchurched to attend church.”
“Come hear a Biblical message you can apply to everyday life.”
“We provide an applicable message relevant to your life.”
“Come, relax and enjoy yourself.”
The triumph of the therapeutic in the church is an illustration of how the heart of man incessantly cries out for law instead of gospel. Here we see the true fountain of legalism in both principle and practice. Church history shows that this is the way of all declining and backsliding churches.
Thomas Boston, in the 18th century, noted that when the gospel is so little understood, the preaching of it is looked upon as a strange thing. He writes,
“See whence it is that the doctrine of the gospel is so little understood, and in the purity of it is looked at as a strange thing. It is like other things which are not known in the country in which one is bred, and therefore stared at, and often mistaken. Hence it gets ill names in the world. When Christ Himself preached it, he was called a friend of publicans and sinners; when Paul preached it, they would not believe but he made void the law by it, and that he opened a door for licentiousness of life, Rom. iii. 8,” (Works of Thomas Boston, vol. 11, p. 270).
The common sentiment among many Christian circles today is,
“Don’t preach doctrine. Rather, give us something practical that is relevant to our daily life. Encourage us to live holy lives but don’t do it with doctrine (i.e., gospel). Such preaching will not help us one bit. Preach to us practically. Tell us how to live so we can go do it.”
Though never voiced, but in practice demonstrated, preaching the gospel is assumed to be too simplistic and impractical. What pastors need to understand, we are told, is that we live in a complex, fast-paced, ever-changing culture. It is naïve to think that preaching the gospel is sufficient for life and godliness. To be sure, the high priests of Christian therapy will say the Gospel is important. But, what one also needs to know is the secret of the Christian life, the secret to prayer, the secret to happier marriages, the secret for successful parenting, the secret for financial freedom, the secret of the abundant and overcoming life.
In other words, what the culture of therapy is really saying (albeit not always consciously) is, “Don’t give us gospel (i.e., doctrine) give us law (i.e., tips, principles, action steps, takeaways, secrets, etc…). However, a life based on legal principles rather than upon gospel principles will never lead to obedience. Such a life will ultimately fail in obeying God because law of any kind never stirs up one’s heart to obedience (cf., Rom. 7; Gal. 3:3).
Pastors who encounter such a legal mentality need to recognize it for what it is and remain faithful to their calling and office, which is to proclaim the gospel (cf., Rom. 1:1-5). Note Calvin’s warning to pastors who neglect their calling and office,
By stating the design of his calling (i.e., Rom. 1:5- J.F.), he again reminds the Romans of his office, as though he said, “It is indeed my duty to discharge the office committed to me, which is to preach the word; and it is your duty to hear the word and willingly to obey it; you will otherwise make void the vocation which the Lord has bestowed on me.
We hence learn, that they perversely resist the authority of God and upset the whole of what he has ordained, who irreverently and contemptuously reject the preaching of the gospel; the design of which is to constrain us to obey God, (Commentary on Romans, p. 48).
The fact is men have always looked down upon faith because man is born wired for the law not the gospel. All men, Boston writes,
“are born under the covenant of works, being “by nature children of wrath,” Eph. ii. 3. It is in the region of the law that we all draw our first breath. And no man will get out from its dominion in a morning dream. We owe it to our second birth, whoever of us are brought into the covenant of grace; but that is not our original state. The law is the first husband to all and every one of Adam’s children,” (Works of Boston, vol. 11, p. 270).
“…even after conversion, believers must work doubly hard to unlearn their legal-obedience and learn how to live by gospel-obedience.”
Hence, man cannot understand faith and the gospel from the light of reason the way he can understand moral duties. Faith and the gospel are foolishness to the natural man. And even after conversion, believers must work doubly hard to unlearn their legal-obedience and learn how to live by gospel-obedience.
Even though believers recognize that the gospel does not require obedience for justification, they are ever prone to turn the rule of obedience into a rule of acceptance (cf., Gal. 3:3). Thomas Boston notes,
In the saints, who are truly married to Jesus Christ, O what hankering after the first husband, how great the remains of a legal spirit, how hard it is for them to forget their father’s house?…There is a disposition to deal with God, in the way of giving so much duty for so much grace and favour with God, in the best, that they have continually to strive with it,” (Under the Broken Covenant of Works, p. 267).
The question that pastors ought to be asking themselves and giving serious deliberation and reflection (which has enormous ramifications for sermons and ministry) is:
Why was Paul eager to preach the gospel?