Be Careful with How-To Sermons

I was taught by many that good preaching must be practical, focusing on action. I was even told in a couple seminary classes that every point in a sermon should be a command. I appreciate the emphasis on practicality and desiring to see people moved, changed, and empowered. But we need to be careful here. This emphasis is what often pushes the how-to, can-do, you-do sermons that amount to little more than a preaching of the law without the hope of the gospel.

How-To Preaching Leaves Us Helpless

It's easy to slip into law preaching because we want direction. We need direction. How should I pray? How do I fast? What does forgiveness look like in my life? Good preaching will answer these questions, but if all we give is how-to we leave our people with no real help or hope. The problem is how-to (law) ultimately only shows us that we-don't, and we-can't.

Let's consider prayer. Tell me that prayer is the cry of a needy soul for undeserved grace; that it is an act of worship involving praise, confession, and supplication; that in it I should reason with God according to his character and promises. Give me helpful tips. I need this. But I will continue to fail and fall in prayer even after hearing the law. So, what is my hope?

Who-Did Preaching Comforts and Compels

My hope is not that I can become better in prayer (though I need to grow in that discipline). My hope is that Jesus has faithfully and perfectly prayed for me. In Jn 17 Jesus prayed for his people, not the world. He prayed for those the father had given him, for those who would believe in his name. And he prayed that we would be kept by the power of God, sanctified by the word of God, and united as the people of God. And here is our great hope: Jesus didn't only pray for us as supplicant, but also as substitute.

Our justification means that we are forgiven of our sins (including or corrupt prayers) and that we have received the righteousness of Christ (including his perfect praying). So even when I fail in prayer, Christ's prayer not only keeps me, his prayer is counted as my own. The Father hears and receives my prayers for they have been perfect by Jesus. You see, the gospel comforts me in my failure to pray, but it also compels me to pray because I have the assurance that God hears me; that my messy prayers are beautiful to my God!

The gospel is what gives power to any practical advice we may give in a sermon. A how-to sermon is powerless without a who-did foundation.

 

Preaching to the Choir

The idea of preaching to ourselves is popular today, though my experience suggests that it is under-practiced. Perhaps the reason for this is that we aren't clear what it is or how it should take form. But I believe the biggest reason we don't do it is because we believe we don't need to hear the truths we already know. You ever hear the phrase, "preaching to the choir?" We use that phrase to explain that what one is saying is already known, and saying it again isn't needed. "Hey man, you're preaching to the choir!" translates to, "I do not need to hear your message." We tend to believe that we only learn something once.

But the reality is, the more important the truth the more dangerous it is when we drift from it. And we all tend to drift. We forget. So we need to hear, and hear again, the truths we think we already know...

Read the entire article at my new monthly column on Christianity.com

Is Your Sin Bigger Than Jesus?

A friend was recently confessing to me that his sins were exceeding great. He felt truly overwhelmed by them, crushed under them, and was deeply discouraged. As he was sharing this my thoughts were drawn to a passage from William Bridge's, A Lifting Up for the Downcast. In fact, what I had read that morning spoke directly to his situation. Below is what I shared with my friend. Bridge explains that the Christian should be convicted and humbled by his sin, but not downcast.

But again you say, suppose that a man’s sins be exceeding great, gross and heinous; for I do confess that possibly a godly man may sin some sin against his light, and against his conscience sometimes; but as for me, my sin is exceeding great, gross and heinous, and have I not just cause and reason now to be discouraged?

No, not yet, for though your sin be great, is not God’s mercy great, exceeding great? Is not the satisfaction made by Christ great? Are the merits of Christ’s blood small? Is not God, the great God of heaven and earth, able to do great things? You grant that God is almighty in providing for you, and is He not almighty also in pardoning? Will you rob God of His almightiness in pardoning? You say your sin is great, but is it infinite? Is not God alone infinite? Is your sin as big as God, as big as Christ? Is Jesus Christ only a Mediator for small sins? Will you bring down the satisfaction of Christ, and the mercy of God, to your own model? Has not the Lord said concerning pardoning mercy, that His “thoughts are not as our thoughts, but as the heavens are greater than the earth, so are his thoughts (in this respect) beyond our thoughts”? Has not the Lord said, in Isaiah 43 unto the people of the Jews, at verses 22-24, “But thou hast not called upon me, O Jacob; but thou hast been weary of me, O Israel. Thou hast not brought me the small cattle of thy burnt offering, neither hast thou honored me with thy sacrifices...Thou hast bought me no sweet cane with money, neither hast thou filled me with the fat of thy sacrifices: but thou hast made me to serve with thy sins, thou hast wearied me with thine iniquities.” Yet, verse 25, “I even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for my own sake, and will not remember thy sins.” Here are sins, and great sins; and if the Lord will therefore pardon sin because it is great, unto His people, then surely they have no reason to be quite discouraged in this respect.

- William Bridge, A Lifting Up for the Downcast

This has been an encouraging book, and I hope you will check it out. It is a great tool for preaching the gospel to yourself.