I recently heard a sermon that missed the gospel – twice. I’m still intrigued by the combination.
Early on, the preacher pointed to Jesus’ baptism and observed that the Father spoke these powerful words to the Son, “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” He then applied the text to his hearers. “We all need to hear those same words spoken by the Father to us. We, too, are his beloved. With us, too, He is well pleased.”
Even if it is proper to apply these words to us (which raises complicated questions, given the unique event of the baptism of the Son of God), the pastor should have certainly offered some kind of qualifier – “If you are indeed born again,” or “If you’re in Christ,” or “If you’ve come to the place where Christ has redeemed you,” etc. Something needed to be inserted in the encouragement to hear God’s pronouncement of his love for us. Without such a caveat, the message implied universalism.
That’s the first way he missed the gospel. He implied God’s saving love for all, regardless of regeneration.
Later in the message, he merely lapsed into legalism, another common, Gospel-missing mistake. The message was about prayer but it could have just as easily been about any aspect of the Christian life. We were told to pray, pray always, pray a lot, pray until we prayed, etc.
It wasn’t so much what he said. It was what he omitted. At least once, we could have benefitted from a grace motivation to pray instead of a self-reliant, duty-driven, just-do-it prompt to obedience.
I kept waiting for words like this: “In light of all that Christ has accomplished so we can have access to the Father, let us deepen that relationship through prayer” or “When you see that we are now part of God’s household, don’t you just want to converse with him?” or “If you can’t find the words for prayer, try starting with ‘Thank you’ for all you have in Christ and then see where that gratitude leads.”
Instead, we just got a pep talk to pray more and stop being so busy doing less important things. That’s the second way he missed the gospel. He appealed solely to duty instead of to grace.
What intrigues me most is that the same preacher, in the same sermon, missed the gospel in two distinct ways – universalism and legalism. You would have thought that some people would fall into one ditch and a completely different group would fall into the other. But I’ve heard this odd combination in the same sermon before.
In fact, I have fallen into both ditches, mere minutes apart, in far too many of my own sermons.
If there is some explanation, it may be this: A lack of deep reflection on the counterintuitive nature of grace can lead you astray – in many different directions all at the same time. You either preach (out loud or to yourself) grace or you preach works. You either preach Christ or you preach self. The alternative to Christ’s righteousness is self-righteousness. And self-righteousness can take many forms – universalism (“we already have the righteousness we need without Christ”) or legalism (“we can perform adequately to earn our righteousness”).
I think it’s easy to miss the gospel. I certainly do far more than I care to admit. But when we remember it and preach it, it’s the sweetest sound anyone can hear. It makes people sing and rejoice and feel loved…and pray.