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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Who Is the Gospel For?

When I was a teenager, I used to attend youth rallies on Saturday nights with some friends at Kansas City Youth for Christ. One night in particular, I remember being exhorted by Ronnie Metzger to bring our unbelieving friends to the rallies because otherwise, "We're just preaching the gospel to a bunch of Christians." Now even at age 16 I remember thinking, "So what's wrong with that?"

Certainly I understand that the rallies were largely supposed to be evangelistic. And I agree with the advice to bring unbelievers to places where they'll hear the good news about Jesus Christ. But is the gospel message just intended for unbelievers? How often do Christians need to hear that their sins are forgiven?

I believe that as a pastor, it is my calling to proclaim the cross of Jesus Christ every time I step into the pulpit. Occasionally (but not that often) I get criticized for all the talk of sin, repentance, cross, blood, etc. Some people would like me to talk more about "practical" things or life applications.

I've heard some clergy and laypeople express the idea that the gospel - in the narrow sense of atonement and justification - is really only for unbelievers or backslidden believers. Now that we know about what Christ has done for us and believe it, we should talk about other stuff like marriage, family, finances, morality, emotions, leadership, and so forth.

So thus my question: Who is the gospel for? Should pastors preach the crucifixion of Jesus every time they open their mouths? Or is once in a while sufficient? What about all those pressing life application issues?

Let me tell you what I think. A pastor must teach his flock about these life application issues. Yes, we are called to teach people what God's word says about marriage and family, about morality and a whole host of issues. In Martin Luther's Small Catechism and Large Catechism, he devotes a good deal of time on these things in his explanations of the Ten Commandments, the Table of Duties and elsewhere.

We can deal with these in Bible classes, special presentations, pastoral conversations and sermons. But I also firmly contend that as we teach these matters, we are not only informing people of God's Will, we are also condemning them. The Law always accuses. Who of us perfectly lives what we are teaching?

And that is why each and every message must center on Jesus and his cross. If we are going to speak God's Word which we know will burden people's consciences, it is pretty important to give them the balm of God's forgiveness.

So, here are some other questions to ponder.

  • Can a sermon be called Christ-centered if it does not mention Jesus?

  • Can a sermon be called Christ-centered if it talks about Jesus but not about his death and resurrection?

  • Has the gospel been proclaimed if Jesus is mentioned but primarily as the object of the verbs instead of the subject? Ie. "I love Jesus. I trust Jesus. Give your heart to Jesus."
My answer to all three above questions is "no."

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Kletos Sumboulos said...

When I first began to attend a Lutheran church as a compormise between my wife's Roman Catholicism and my own confused reformed-influenced Evangelicalism, I started to listen to the Lutheran Hour online. I remember thinking that this was clearly outreach oriented becuase I already knew about salvation and all about Jesus. This was like entry-level stuff. I remember thinking that I shouldn't be bored with Jesus, but that there was just a finite amount of things one could say about him, and then you would need to preach on the rest of the bible. Since then I learned the truth that all of scripture is about our Lord. There is this implicit assumption in american evangelicalism that after you get the basics down you can start to focus on how to live a good life and make God happy. My new LCMS home is blissfully free of topical sermon series. Sometimes character studies (the life of David) can be just as unhelpful and distracting.

Ryan Schroeder said...

While I do not think that we can ignore the "Life Application" part of being a Christian, I do not think that a Sermon is the appropriate place to do so. A sermon is part of a WORSHIP service. In a WORSHIP service, we are to be focused on what God does for us, not what we do for God. In a Worship Service, all of our actions should be nothing more than reactions or response to God's work.

This is why, for instance, most Lutheran Churches have the offering after the sermon instead of before. Our giving of an offering should be a response to hearing the saving Word of Christ. Most evangelical churches have the offering before the sermon, to me this almost feels like pay per sermon church. It is a small detail, but the offering makes so much more sense as a resonse to what we have heard.

We must also remember the point of a Chapter like James 2 (not traditionally a Lutheran favorite). The point of the chapter is that works and faith go together, we cannot seperate them. However it is also important to remember that truly good works can only come as a result of Faith. Faith cannot be built up by works. Faith can only be built up by the Word of Christ. Because of this simple fact, Christ needs to be at the center of each an every message, whether it is taught in a service, bible class, or privately. Christ's death and resurrection are necessary in every sermon, with out Christ crucified we have an example with whom we cannot keep up. Without Christ risen, we have not hope of our own resurrection. Without Christ, crucified and risen, there is NO faith. Without faith, Life application and Good Works are completely meaningless.

Christ says "I am the way, the truth and the life"

Why would we want to preach anything else?

elaine p said...

The answers to your questions are no, no, no, but there are unfortunately many Christians who don't think they need to hear the gospel any longer-maybe they are too busy leading the victorious life to see the continuous need for repentance and the forgiveness of sins? They are distracted from the cross while thinking they are working on their own sanctification? I think this is also the underlying issue you have with The Purpose Driven Life and other such programs. There is a very basic difference in doctrine- A Theology of the Cross vs a Thelogy of Glory. Your friend, Pr Matzat's essay, "Hitting for the Cycle" beautifully demonstrates why the Christian continues to have need of the gospel. Maybe you could post it and/or link to it for your readers.

CR said...

It really should not be that much of a surprise regarding the motives
of those who first of all claim that *they* decided to follow Jesus, give Him their heart, etc.
If it's up to *me* to *do* the faith then it's also up to *me* to
stay in the faith and "get sanctified," et al, right?! But if
God does it in the beginning, He does it all the way through til I breathe my last breathe!

VirginiaLutherans said...

I think daytrip got it right. The answer to all is (a resounding) no. If you want to live as God intends, there is only one thing you can do. Imerse yourself in God's Word. But even then, that's useless without faith. Luther talks about works being done as a regular thing in your vocations (parent, spouse, citizen, etc) that you are completely unaware of. It isn't something you read about, just something you do. God provides the works through your vocations. I don't think any of the "Christian Fads" will ever say that. Then again, if they did, they wouldn't be a fad!

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