July 6, 2014.
“[A]s it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside;
together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
I heard a great sermon today on the topic of sin. That may seem a bit peculiar, especially in today’s religious society, but sin is a topic that is saturated throughout the bible, not one that we should just glance at every once in a while, blowing it off. I believe the problem so many have with this topic, besides the guilt we may feel when hearing about sin, is the fact that so many people have heard a message on sin that was done incorrectly. Perhaps “incorrectly” is too strong of a term, but I do think there is a right way to talk about sin and there is a wrong way. Several wrong ways, actually, as I am sure there are several right ways. Below, I am going to explain two ways we should not introduce sin and one way that I think does it justice.
1. Hail, fire and brimstone (or hell-fire and brimstone, if you wish).
Ah yes, this is a stigma that has been attached to many conservative churches today. Coming from a conservative church myself, I can honestly say that usually when you hear a sermon like this, the intention behind it is not to send you to hell. The preachers you hear that do this are honestly concerned for your soul and this is how they think they will do the best work. Now, after awhile and a bunch of criticism and no response, I believe these preachers tend towards bitterness and an attitude that the world just doesn’t want to hear the truth any more. I don’t believe this to be the case, nor am I justifying this kind of constant preaching, but I just want to point out the side that not many people see to help you understand where they are coming from. Fighting negativity with more negativity never really solves problems.
But that is what this kind of preaching about sin is. It is a problem. Not because this kind of preaching isn’t the truth, because it often is, but because of the way it is presented. No one wants to sit through a sermon that just tells them they are an awful person, full of sin, and bound for hell. This attitude often gives off a “holier than thou” feeling and doesn’t exemplify well the love of Christ. Christ never said “you’re all going to hell!” when he was talking to the lost world. He did, however, say very similar things to the religious leaders of the day. In one instance he even called the Pharisees sons of hell (Matthew 23:15). Think about who that addresses- the people who should have had it right. Not the lost world. To the lost world He says:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Hell-fire and brimstone? No. Paul has this to say about preaching the truth:
“Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
He also tells the Ephesians to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). What does that look like? I Corinthians 13 gives a great definition of love and it is worth the time to read and apply to how we talk to unbelievers, because this is so important. People do not need the church to wound them any more than they are. They need comfort. The need rest. They need Jesus, just like we do. For we have all sinned and fallen short of glory of God (Rom. 3:23).
Is that to say that you should never preach hell-fire and brimstone? I honestly think that a well placed and well timed sermon of this caliber can do a lot of good. Not the key words, well timed and well placed. If this is what is heard every Sunday morning, that is neither well timed or well placed. And honestly, you are probably preaching to the choir. But if this is not your regular style of preaching, I think that a sermon here or there on the disparity of sin and the very real implications that come from it is much needed and even will be well recepted. If people know you care about them first, shown by other sermons and actions, they are much more likely to listen to hell-fire and brimstone every once in a while and actually take a lot away from the lesson. It just takes some forethought and preparation.
2. Love love love.
On the opposite end of Hell-fire and brimstone, you have those who preach nothing but love. This too I believe to be a misrepresentation of the truth. It is very true that God is love and that love bears, believes, hopes and endures all things. It is the greatest commandment:
“And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Love is the greatest commandment. But it isn’t the only commandment. If you take a test with three sections, A B and C, and section A is worth 50% of the grade whereas B and C are worth 30% and 20%, respectively, section A is the most important part of the test. But if you only turn in section A, even if you get everything right in that section, you will still fail the test. You forgot sections B and C. They might not be as important as section A, but they are still vital to the test. This is the way I see the commandment of love. It is the most important thing, there’s no doubt about that. Jesus says it right here. But we still have the other sections of Christianity, if you will, that we cannot neglect. Notice the reason Jesus says love is the greatest commandment. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. If you love God, you are going to do His will and follow the rest of His commandments. If you love your neighbor, you are going to share the gospel with them and care for them, just as Jesus said to do. See, if we get the love part right, the other things will fall into place.
The problem is, the religious world has gotten the love part wrong. Love is not just some bubbly feeling you have inside of you when you talk to or help someone else. Love is not just an emotion that we should have. Love is a choice. When Paul writes the command for husbands to love their wives, this is not a suggestion. This is not a “well, love them as long as they reciprocate things or as long as you feel affection towards them.” No, love is a choice that we make to sacrifice ourselves for another. To help another. To but someone else’s needs before our own. This is a choice that can be made regardless of affection. Ask any couple that has been married for longer than 10 years. The honey moon stage goes away, and that bubbly feeling we so often mistake for true love wanes. Not completely, I would hope, but true love is beyond that. Perhaps it sets in after that stage (maybe I’ll let you know if and when I get married).
Yes, we must love the people we preach to, but if your version of love is a gospel that brushes over sin and does not hold people accountable for their actions, then you actually don’t love that person, because you are leading them down a false pathway that will not end in salvation. The truth is, we are accountable for our actions, and we will meet our judge one day. A sad day it will be for those who go in unprepared.
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”
(2 Corinthians 5:10)
3. Bad news, good news.
Up until this point, you may think my joy in life comes from criticism. It may sound like I’m just knocking on the way other people preach, but that is not my goal. My goal is to reach lost souls. I believe more and more souls can be reached if we fine tune the way we preach and present ourselves to others. You don’t have to agree with me, but I would hope you would agree with the scripture that forms the foundation of my position. As with many issues in life and religion, I believe a middle ground approach is the most effective way of reaching the lost. It can’t be all hell-fire and brimstone nor can it be all love love love. Neither approach fully represents the gospel of Christ. What we need is a genuine concern for souls that is articulated well though encouraging words that still show the realities of sin.
See, before people can hear the good news, they must know the bad news first. The bad news is that we are all unworthy of eternal life, for we are all filthy sinners. That includes me and that includes you. Refer to the opening passage to see this in full. Isaiah says this:
“Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.”
Our sins separate us from God. The bad news is that we are all doomed for a sinners hell. But here’s the good news. There has been an atonement made for our sin, from the perfect sacrificial lamb, Jesus Christ. And he bids all who are willing to come. Anyone, no matter how sinful you are. He bids you come to repent of your past life and start anew in Christ, being buried with him in baptism and raised a new creature to live for His glory (Acts 2, Romans 6, Col. 2-3). Will you be perfect after that? Certainly not. But if we are faithful unto death, He will give us the crown of life (Rev. 2:10). So we keep getting up when we fall, and we press on towards the upward calling of Christ. Let us do all for His glory.
Suggested Daily Reading: Romans 3-6.
Hallelujah to the King.