That Sermon Was Perfect For Those People
Some time ago, I was an elder in a congregation during a pastoral vacancy. One of the pastors we chose to supply our pulpit for a period decided to teach on sexual morality for his sermon. The teaching was good, but it did not strike me as a sermon. It struck me as good Adult education material, or possibly the early part of a sermon. But if there was a proclamation of grace, it was an afterthought, given in the sense of “just in case anyone needs this.”
After the sermon I ran into two friends. The first friend was really pleased with what he heard. “Some people just need a good kick in the pants,” he said. Some people. Other people. Not him. A few minutes later I ran into a woman friend who was in tears. It wasn’t over sin, per se, from what I could tell. Talking to her it seemed that she had come from an evangelical background that was long on morality and short on grace. The pastor who had left had preached Christ well. But now the morning’s sermon made her feel like that was a fluke. The pastor must not have been teaching something that could be found in other Lutheran churches. It was his own concoction. A future stretched before her of unending James Dobson lectures purporting to be the Gospel. I led her by the arm to the first friend, and said to him, “This is why Law and Gospel preaching matters even in the interim.” Thankfully, this actually got through to him.
This illustrates several points pertinent to the sanctification debates.
The first is not theological. The first is that many people listen emotionally. The “kick in the pants” mentioned by the one friend was not the work of the Law as any Lutheran thinks about it. It is a this-worldly experience most of us received, first from our parents (that or something similar), and early on. “Don’t touch the outlet!” Spank. People who are careful about how they live often want to see the careless ones given a verbal spanking, in hopes that it will curb bad behavior. More importantly for this discussion, ANY kick in the pants would have pleased them. Things are crazy around here and somebody needs to put a stop to it. They judge the sermon, not by how carefully it expresses the teaching of the Scriptures, but by the fact that some people (the few renegades in the congregation) got a good surprise they weren’t expecting. The person who listens emotionally like this will identify any “kick in the pants” as Law and any benevolence from God towards us as Gospel.
Do remember. Outsiders listen to the service emotionally, too. I remember a friend telling me about his girlfriend’s reaction upon visiting church. She heard a prayer directed against a particular sin. She got angry. This meant those people were “sinners.” Of course, I thought. We all are. Except to this woman, “sinners” were notorious people. Pariahs. She imagined that the righteous church members were comparing themselves to the unrighteous outsiders.
I knew she had heard it wrong. But when I stopped to think it through, I realized that I was listening through a filter. I thought it was the filter of good theology. But how could I expect an outsider to bring this understanding to what they heard in the service? People hear our language through an emotional filter. If the “kick in the pants” idea fails at the level of theology, it cannot be rescued by saying, “Yes, but most people don’t really think on that level, anyway. So it will probably just do them good.” The one who says this imagines they know what an “untheological filter” looks like. But they don’t. Not really. They, too, have been in church too long to imagine this. The outsider who hears the sermon won’t filter the message the way the moralist wishes. They’ll just hear, “God hates people like you.”, and conclude that other people in the pews are clueless about what most people’s lives are really like.
The second is how moralism tends to leave many people out of the sermon. With moralism, the emphasis is on cleaning things up. The idea is that the goal is within reach. In fact, many in the congregation have reached the goal, and it’s just a few stragglers who need to catch up with the rest. The sign of a moralistic sermon is that the hearer wishes other people they know could have been there to hear it. It might have done the other person some good. But Scripture speaks differently. “Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God” (Romans 3:19). Good Law preaching should do this. It closes EVERY mouth, not just those of a few renegades.
The third is the other kind of despair that bad preaching creates. This is not talked about enough. Someone watching from the outside would have likely seen my friend’s tears and jumped to the wrong conclusion. “She must have had a wild night last night and is sorry over it. Oh, well. Now she’s been reproved and can turn around and do better.” No. The sorrow was not over sin, but over the idea that the grace she had heard preached before must have been a sham. The former pastor’s understanding of the Gospel was his own peculiar teaching. There is no good news out there. Just the same “Clean up your life” message you could hear from any pulpit, or from any religion. Bad preaching does not only hurt those whose sin it reproves. It hurts all hearers. “But if I’m not guilty of what’s being preached against, how could I be hurt?” You could be hurt if it paints a false picture of the God we worship. You could be hurt if it paints a false picture of what the church is. You could be hurt if you are left imagining you measure up to God’s standards.
If you walked out of a sermon thinking that the pastor delivered a good kick in the pants that some people in the congregation needed, it is time to mourn. You did not hear the Law. You did not hear the Gospel. And what little practical good you imagine may come of the sermon is likely imaginary. A handful of poor souls who took things to heart may make a turn in their lives. From going to church to hear good news, to staying home because there isn’t any to hear.