Nobody preaches perfectly. Nobody has a perfect theology. Nobody understands God perfectly. This can be a source of frustration for those of us seeking truth. We long for fullness of understanding. Unfortunately, we have to live in that barbarous and torturous realm known as reality. Imperfect theology and flawed understandings of God. And when it comes to imperfect preaching, there is a trend I have noticed in America among most preachers: They tend to preach either to the left or the right of the gospel.
What do I mean by that? I am borrowing political language here, because it seems that "right" preaching churches usually end up politically right as well, and vice versa. The right and left in this illustration? Law and grace. Most preachers I have heard tend to err on emphasizing either one of these to the distortion of the other. Let's look at some examples.
Law preachers preach to the right. They preach the law of God as the definitive mark of the Christian living. We are Christian because we do this, and we don't do that. What WE DO makes us holy. Not only is this untrue, but it doesn't work either. As Robert Capon has said: “Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to teach the teachable; He did not come to improve the improvable; He did not come to reform the reformable. None of those things works.”
The law cannot impart eternal life. As I understand from scripture, the law brings one thing: death. And that is exactly the culture of right preaching churches: There is NO spiritual vitality. These tend to include legalist and fundamentalist churches. The KJV only crowd, bible belt Baptists, and even some more recent denominations like Calvary Chapel. The proclivity to the political right is extremely strong here. Pro-life, anti-gay marriage, intelligent design, and young earth creationism uber alles. Focus on the family and the right to bear arms.
Law sermons tend to make you feel bad about yourself. The tag line? "Jesus came and took the whoopin that you had comin, because you are just so rotten. So knock it off! Can't you see what you did to Him? Stop it already." The crucifixion of Jesus is the emphasized part of their gospel, often to the exclusion of His resurrection, ascension, and future coming.
Also in this category are many of these "fundamentalists 2.0" churches who teach the law with a smile. This is heard as: "We obey the Bible because it is helpful,” or, “Jesus loves you and [everybody else] has a wonderful plan for your life.” (“Wonderful” here potentially meaning getting eaten by lions.) These churches are apt to give you, as Pastor Tim says, "5 principles to help prevent hangnails." Our faith is all about giving you your best life now, a better marriage, perfect kids by Friday, and purpose for your life. Most of these churches could operate just fine if Jesus never even came! The ethos is that or moralistic therapeutic deism, and results from teaching the law of God by itself.
Even in Fundy 2.0 churches, after you have tried and failed to apply successfully all the "life principles" you have been learning, despair and resignation are the inevitable results. Your life will never be as fulfilling or holy as the people on the platform, and God isn’t pleased.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, we have churches who preach to the left. It is all about grace. These have slogans like "Open hearts, open minds, open wallets". They tend to be very socially active, and the singular thrust of their messages is: "God is love so let's spread a little Jesus around." Sounds pretty good right? Left preaching churches are typically in mainline denominations and progressive on gender issues. They are accepting of more people than just about anyone else, and they require very little of you. The message? Jesus came to give us love so that we can give more love to more people! Then he gave us his power to carry it out more effectively. *cue Beatles theme song: "All you need is love..." Indeed, loving is held as the essence of the Christian life. Good or thoughtful deeds are considered inherently Christian.
The problem with this? The reason we do not love isn't typically addressed: We are self centered, self exalting, God belittling sinners who are incapable of altruism. Jesus gives us His Spirit to love after we repent. But who wants to clean out all the skeletons in the closet of their life? It's much easier to give a hug and a bowl of soup. After all, Jesus wouldn't send anyone to Hell would he? He's too nice, like the fairies at Disneyland.
To their credit, these churches are known for compassion. They will stand up for anybody who needs it. They were the first to accept African Americans and women into their seminaries, and the first to ordain homosexuals. They shelter illegal immigrants and have the oldest buildings in urban areas. Their worship tends toward high church, and their denominations are constantly loosing churches who break off in groups seeking for a less progressive approach.
These communities tend to be more warm and welcoming, though they seldom have anybody under 50. They use the gender-neutral Bible translations that the Right leaning churches always rally against. Where as right-preaching churches tend to emphasize the crucifixion above all else, these churches could get by fine without much mention of it at all. Jesus was a good moral teacher and example. He opened His arms to the poorest of the poor, and so our purpose in life ought to be to eliminate poverty at all costs. They go on many crusades, but rarely for people's souls. “Thou shalt be politically correct” has been added to their ten commandments, I believe.
This category even includes the "liberalism 2.0" churches, such as "emerging" churches, were people paint pictures on the platform during the singing. The ethos seems to say, “Who cares what the church believed for 2000 years? They are obviously wrong. Let’s throw all their baggage out and finally be the first generation to actually get it right.”
Sermons in these churches tend to make you feel good about yourself and good about living. They make you want to go climb Mount Everest and join the peace core. They tend to focus on the life of Jesus more than the rest of scripture combined, emphasizing the ways he helped people. You leave these Churches feeling pretty confident that God has to love you just because He's so nice, and you're not that bad a person anyways. After all, you did volunteer at the soup kitchen last month, right? Surely that's got to count for something.
Now I have been blessed tremendously by outstanding preaching and teaching in both of these kinds of churches. I sometimes resent how these different approaches have drastically polarized the body of Christ. But I am convinced that there is a better way. We ought not to preach guilt and condemnation as a motivation to good works. Who has that ever really helped, anyways? Likewise, as fallible humans, we often need more than simply a little encouragement to stir ourselves up to love and good works. The answer is not found in either the law of God or the Grace of God, but in the right use of BOTH law and grace.
Law without grace spells doom for all, no matter how hard you try. Grace without law denies justice and lowers the greatness of God to the point that his involvement in our lives is marginally important. But if both are present and handled rightly, then the results should reflect the parable of Jesus in Luke 7:41-43:
“Then Jesus told him this story: ‘A man loaned money to two people -- 500 pieces of silver to one and 50 pieces to the other. But neither of them could repay him, so he kindly forgave them both, cancelling their debts. Who do you suppose loved him more after that?’Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he canceled the larger debt.’‘That’s right,’ Jesus said.”
The law reveals to us the magnitude of our debt. Grace reveals to us the even surpassing greatness of God’s forgiveness. When both are used in right relationship to each other, the result is not a message that makes you feel bad or good about yourself. Instead, we feel good about our Savior. The highest aim of good preaching, in my opinion, should be to stir up love for Jesus.