Why Is It So Hard To Preach The Gospel From The Gospels?

Was re-reading Luther’s treatise on The Freedom of the Christian, and there are some interesting insights on preaching. Luther points out two specific problems with preaching the story of Jesus. The first is preaching the story of Jesus as a story which ought to be imitated and emulated:

I think it is made clear by these considerations that it is not sufficient, nor a Christian course, to preach the works, life, and words of Christ in a historic manner, as facts which it suffices to know as an example how to frame our life…

Luther also critiques another approach the preaching the story of Jesus:

There are now not a few persons who preach and read about Christ with the object of moving the human affections to sympathize with Christ…

This seems a little trickier to get a handle on, but I suspect it’s something like what we hear in the words of Albert Schweitzer in The Quest of the Historical Jesus:

The Baptist appears and cries: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign.

This is looking at Jesus not so much as one to imitate but to admire. Here is a great man, maybe the great man of history who takes the stage of human history and makes it his own.

Luther thinks the key to preaching the Gospel is seeing in it what has been wrought objectively for me:

Now preaching ought to have the object of promoting, faith in Him, so that He may not only be Christ, but a Christ for you and for me, and that what is said of Him, and what He is called, may work in us. And this faith is produced and is maintained by preaching why Christ came, what He has brought us and given to us, and to what profit and advantage He is to be received.

To know Christ is to know his benefits:

This is done, when the Christian liberty which we have from Christ Himself is rightly taught, and we are shown in what manner all we Christians are kings and priests, and how we are lords of all things, and may be confident that whatever we do in the presence of God is pleasing and acceptable to Him. Whose heart would not rejoice in its inmost core at hearing [118] these things? Whose heart, on receiving so great a consolation, would not become sweet with the love of Christ, a love to which it can never attain by any laws or works? Who can injure such a heart, or make it afraid? If the consciousness of sin, or the horror of death, rush in upon it, it is prepared to hope in the Lord, and is fearless of such evils, and undisturbed, until it shall look down upon its enemies. For it believes that the righteousness of Christ is its own, and that its sin is no longer its own, but that of Christ, for, on account of its faith in Christ, all its sin must needs be swallowed up from before the face of the righteousness of Christ, as I have said above. It learns too, with the Apostle, to scoff at death and sin, and to say: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. xv. 55-57.) For death is swallowed up in victory; not only the victory of Christ, but ours also; since by faith it becomes ours, and in it we too conquer.

Some Thoughts About Preaching…

“Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise.”- Thomas Cranmer

The reason why most preaching misses us is it misses the “unruly wills and affections” that drives us all. This should not surprise us because a lot of our psychological and emotional energy is spent repressing and suppressing these forces. They are scary, painful, and have an incredible capacity to shame us. Often times we think if we can present a self that defies them to others then we we will convince ourselves that these monsters in the closet have been conquered. The problem is the monsters are us. They are not outside us, they are us. They don’t need to be conquered or split off or destroyed because that would be to conquer, split off and actually kill ourselves. They need what we need: to be loved. Most preaching fails to aim at getting to the place where we can be reintegrated by the one who made us with an integrative dream of who we would become in the first place. Preaching must aim to get to the deep place of the cross, where the Creator was unmade so that we can be remade, renewed, and love again for the first time. When it doesn’t, either through a kind of exposition that degenerates into a religious lecture, or morphing into inspirational talk about the church’s vision, or tips for a better family, it will actually exacerbate the problem. The real power is when the Law does its crushing work, and in our brokeness we fall before the cross, seeing our suffering substitute with arms outstretched. There is the place of the embrace of grace. As Bonhoeffer said: only the suffering God can help.