What we preach

The_Last_Judgment_Michelangelo

My recent post about idioms in preaching did what it was supposed to do – it started a conversation. My friend Scott Hoezee responded – humorously at first, and then thoughtfully – and so I asked him if he had other thoughts about preaching that he might like to blog about.

And being a preacher and a teacher of preachers, Scott said yes.

I’m happy to introduce Scott to you. He is director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is also the author of several books, most recently Proclaim the Wonder: Preaching Science on Sunday (2003).

Recently in an interview with a student who would soon apply to become a pastor, I asked if there were any parts of Reformed theology (since he was becoming a pastor in a Reformed denomination) that gave him pause. Somewhat predictably the matter of election (and its dim opposite of reprobation) was mentioned. This is, of course, a knotted area of theology and not just for Calvinist types. Most people are fine with the idea that we want to keep salvation as 100 percent God’s doing and 100 percent God’s initiative by grace alone, but just how people get on board with that program is where things get interesting.

But I mention this in a blog post on preaching because of one side comment the student made. At one point, even as he indicated his broad agreement with this area of theology, he also said, “I can’t see that I’d ever preach reprobation but . . .”

At the time I did not follow up on that little remark but what I wanted to say was “Well of course you would never ‘preach reprobation’ because that would be the very opposite of what preaching is supposed to be!” If you scour the New Testament, you will discover that basically all of the verbs and nouns used to refer to the act of preaching tie in snugly with the notion of proclaiming, heralding, shouting Good News. To preach is to present hope, joy, grace.

Yet I am not naïve: there are long traditions of the so-called “hellfire and brimstone” preachers who in a sense really did “preach” not just reprobation but all kinds of other scary, frightening scenarios. Many sermons in history were loaded with bad news, with threats and warnings and dire predictions. These themes dominated. Fear, therefore, was often the primary “take away” of such sermons.

But is that authentic preaching?

Well, let’s admit that you cannot have Good News without that message standing in contrast to something else, something less-than-good. Even to admit that you need the cross of Jesus as your only way to salvation is to grant in the same breath that your need is so great because your sin is so great. Preaching, therefore, cannot dispense with the prophetic voice, with the call to turn around and repent.

Still . . . at the end of the day what we preachers should be able to affirm loud and clear is that what we preach is Good News, not bad news. We preach salvation, not damnation. We preach the grace of a sovereign and loving God, not the dark sorrow of anyone’s being flung into perdition. Whether it is a sermon aimed primarily at those who have never yet believed the Gospel or a sermon in a more established church where most people have been serving God for many years already, in the end the sermon should be a heralding of a message that will fill people with hope and joy.

Preaching in the New Testament tradition should be a joyful heralding of profoundly Good News. People should be drawn to that Gospel—whether for the first time or for the thousandth time—not because the minister did such a good job preaching hell fire but because the preacher did such a good job at depicting the beauty of holiness, the listeners could not help but yearn to be inside such beauty themselves.

(Art credit: that’s a photograph of Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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7 Responses to What we preach

  1. mike February 26, 2014 at 8:23 am #

    Thanks Doug/Scott….

    I enjoyed this post – and, more importantly, I enjoyed the result. About the time I finished reading it the 2nd stanza of Amazing Grace (“Twas grace………”) came to mind. You guys got my day off to a great start – thanks for that.

    Mike

    • Doug February 26, 2014 at 8:40 am #

      You surprised me, Mike. When I posted this, I expected my preacher friends to be all over it. I’m glad you’ve found it interesting.

  2. Bob Sadowski February 26, 2014 at 8:27 am #

    pop quiz: can you find the artist in his painting? Yes, he is there.

    • Doug February 26, 2014 at 8:42 am #

      So, I found this in Wikipedia—

      Some have hypothesized that Michelangelo depicted himself in the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew (see below) based on feelings of contempt Michelangelo may have had for being commissioned to paint “The Last Judgment.” Michelangelo often drew himself in a way where he had lost all his power and might. He questioned over thoughts of dying and the Day of Judgement, which is seen as a reference to this work. Michelangelo was in his late sixties when he finished this painting, and it has been argued that the peeling of Bartholomew signifies the peeling of the flesh awaiting a new rebirth.[2] The bearded figure of St. Bartholomew holding the skin was theorized to depict the satirist and erotic writer Pietro Aretino, who had tried to extort a valuable drawing from Michelangelo; this theory has been conclusively refuted because the conflict between Michelangelo and Aretino did not occur until 1545, seven years after the fresco’s completion.[3]

  3. Georgia Hamilton February 26, 2014 at 8:40 am #

    Such an encouraging message. I find I constanatly need reminding of God’s love for me. Great way to start a day. Thank you!
    Georgia

    • Doug February 26, 2014 at 8:56 am #

      I’ll respond to you, Georgia, the same way I responded to Mike. I expected my preacher friends to be the first to comment. But it’s early, and maybe they’re not out of bed yet.

  4. Don Fortson September 15, 2014 at 4:48 am #

    While I resonate with Scott’s sentiment on one level, there is another side. Let us not forget the Creed – “he shall come to judge the living and the dead.” Jesus told the disciples that the Son of Man will return and it will be like the flood and the destruction of Sodom (Luke 17); he also told parables where the master destroys his opponents – parable of the Ten Minas (Luke 19) and the Wicked Tenants (Luke 20). John the Baptist said that Jesus will “burn the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3). This is all sobering, but a part of the Gospel, and we dare not neglect it if we are faithful to preach the full Gospel message of the New Testament.

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