When Preaching Feels Like Running in Sand

Those of you with kids already understand what this blog post is about. Have you ever been to dinner with your kids and one of them wanders away from the table? It happens all of the time. Your child (or children) wander off from the table and make their way to the busiest part of the restaurant where waiters/waitresses are buzzing around to serve guests. You see this and begin to call them, "Johnny! Come back here!" 

Little Johnny turns around and you can see his mind-wheels turning. "I'm free," he thinks. "Do I want to go back to the table? Of course not. But Dad has commanded me to." While Johnny is in deep thought Dad makes another command, "Johnny, come back here right now." Johnny slowly turns away from his Dad. That second command confirmed one thing in Johnny's mind: "I'm doing the opposite of whatever Dad tells me to do. I'm free!" If Johnny was your kid, you know what happens next. He either stands still, not returning but afraid to go further. Or he just keeps going further!

In this scenario, Dad is right in calling his son to come back. We all know what happens next. Dad gets up and goes and picks Johnny up, forcing him to come back to the table. There is no other option. He needs to protect Johnny and Johnny doesn't know what is best for him.

If Dad is really in tune with what just happened, he realizes that his commands to return actually provoked Johnny to not return. Parents experience this all the time. It does not mean they should not command their kids to do certain things. It just means commands often accomplish the opposite of what we want. That is why when our kids are little we sometimes have to forcibly pick them up and carry them back to safety.

You may not realize it yet, but your preaching may be a lot like this all-too-real illustration. Could it be that your preaching is accomplishing the opposite of what you want? You want your church to be holy as God is holy, to love each other, to be on mission, and to worship God with all their hearts. In order to see that dream become a reality, you call them to those things. "Church, be holy. Love each other. Worship God with all you are." These calls characterize your whole preaching ministry. The goal is holy living and the tool is commands to live holy.

But you notice your church is not progressing quite like you think they should. If you're honest, you are not progressing like you think you should. Why is that? Why are the calls to holy living and neighbor loving not bringing forth holy living and neighbor loving? Well, think about your parenting. Why is it that commanding your kids to do something sometimes results in the opposite? Why is it that the famous Dad-lecture does not carry the power you wish it did? Why is it that sometimes commands to do something sometimes even provoke the opposite lifestyle of the command?

The short and sweet answer: commands do not have the power to change us. If they did, marriages would never fail. When a husband seems to be letting go of his love for his wife, all she would have to do is look at him in the face and say, "Love me!" and, magically, his heart would be filled with love for her. When a child is doing something she shouldn't do, all her mother or father would have to do is say, "Obey me," and at once the child would obey her parents perfectly.

But that is not how commands work, even God's commands in the Bible. The Bible contains many commands from God that we are accountable to live by. Yet, not only do we often disobey God, His commands even provoke us to want to disobey just for the sake of disobedience. We think obedience is slavery and thus we must disobey, no matter what, to be free! We are all little-Johnny's. We are the problem.

This is why the effect of a preaching ministry that solely challenges, commands, and calls listeners to action by way of God's Law or even a preaching ministry that majors on God's Law above all else actually produces the opposite of the desired effect. This is why preachers who major on the Law, rather than the Gospel, feel like preaching is running in sand.

God's Law does not bring about heart-change, making listeners love God and neighbor. "The Law reveals guilt, fills the conscience with terror, and drives me to despair" (Martin Luther). A weekly majoring on the Law or exclusive law-preaching will exhaust and provoke listeners (including the preacher). Reflecting on his earlier preaching, which he felt accomplished the exact opposite of what he wanted, Bryan Chapell says, "Week after week, I told imperfect people in my church to 'do better.' But this drumbeat for improvement, devoid of the encouragements and empowerments of grace, actually undermined the holiness that I was seeking to exhort. When God's people hear only the imperatives of the Word, they are forced to conclude that their righteousness is a product of their efforts" (XI).

Your law-heavy sermons, devoid of majoring on the gospel or preaching the gospel at all, are not accomplishing what you want. A law-centered preaching ministry does one of two things: it provokes listeners further into disobedience or it produces self-righteous listeners who think they have no need for a Savior.

If the Bible only contained the Law, we would all be doomed. We would continue to do what we have done ever since the Law was given: rebel. Adam and Eve rebelled, Israel rebelled, and you and I rebel. But the Bible contains a better word. A word that saves us and sanctifies us. The Law shows us our need, the Gospel provides our necessary Savior. The Law shows us how to live, the Gospel changes our hearts to want to live according to the Law (though still significantly short of the glory of God until glory). 

Your listeners need a preacher who majors on the Gospel. Your listeners need a preacher who gives them Good News continually. They need to hear that they are not saved by their strict obedience. They need to hear that God loves them on the basis of Christ, not their holy living. They need to hear how to live godly lives but they need to hear that God loves and has mercy on the ungodly.

Beat the drum of the gospel over and over and you might just find that your listeners will want to live according to the Law.