Often, the environment includes a good bit of talk about Jesus. But the takeaway of the message is most definitely not “Jesus paid it all.” After a message like this is delivered, you’re probably confused by the time you get to your car. Here’s how it goes: You go to a church service. The pastor is well spoken, knows the Bible, and loves the people in the pews. Biblical truths are taught, and you feel challenged to live more wholehearted for Christ. You may even learn something interesting from the Bible you never knew before. After the service, you say your pleasantries to the church folk while you drink a bad cup of coffee after poking down those powdered creamer clumps to the bottom of the cup. By the time you get back to your car, the gospel has vanished. You get situated in your seat, clasp your seatbelt, check your mirrors, and drive away. Then the sermon takeaway comes to mind. But the message is not: “Jesus loves you and forgives you.” It’s more like: “Here’s one more chance. Don’t blow this.” From the church’s front door to your car, the good news has dissipated into the ether. In this situation, it’s the “Transformed Christian Life” that has taken center stage and not Jesus who died for sinners. Sure, Jesus is central to this message, but only as a means to an end.
If you’re feeling confused about your standing with God after a sermon, there is a good chance you have not heard a gospel sermon (what has been done for you), but a sermon principally based on what you must do. This is a law-based sermon.
I can recall this uneasy feeling after I’d heard a sermon a few short years ago. Our church was in the middle of a long series on marriage; every time, on the drive home, I felt like I’d just wasted an hour of my life. Don’t get me wrong. Good marriage advice is invaluable, especially if you and your spouse are struggling. My wife and I have received good counsel from wise pastors and leaders in the past, and we have appreciated it very much. But is a Sunday church service the best place for this kind of message?
I remember sitting with a friend a few years ago who was devastated and crying with mascara running down her cheeks. She was a young, anxious mother, and she was convinced she could never be a domestic hero like the pastor’s wife. Though the message was advice on how to be a good wife and mother, all she could hear was the accusation that she wasn’t adding up. Mothering and marriage opinions and advice have its place. Occasionally. But in the church, it should never take top billing over the proclamation of the gospel.
It seems to me that the most important thing a pastor has to share with people in the pews is Jesus, the forgiveness of sin, and the proclamation that God is renewing all things in the world. We need to hear Scripture, to sing songs together, and to partake of communion. I can get sound marriage advice down at the local bookstore, or by seeing a trained psychologist or even during a teaching hour at church. When I come to church on Sunday, I need to hear a message I’m not going to hear anywhere else. Occasional life tips in a sermon may be fine, but an entire months long series? This sort of pulpit advice often says do more, be more, achieve more. Fit the mold. And when you’re unable to fit the mold, what does that say about you?
Often when practical tips for life are presented in preaching, the true law of God has been softened. The law of love of God and neighbor gets presented as steps for life success. The problem is, no one can live up to it. Have I loved God with my whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and my neighbor as myself? No, I have not. Therefore, what I most need when I go to church is forgiveness, not life tips.
From Matt Johnson’s new Key Life/New Growth Press book, Getting Jesus Wrong: Giving Up Spiritual Vitamins and Checklist Christianity.
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