Recently someone told me about a church in a certain city where my name had come up in a conversation. Evidently someone in that church had suggested that I be invited to come and preach or consult with them and “they” (whoever “they” might be) said, “Randy has an agenda, we are just going to preach the Gospel.” Now, I am not sure how accurate this is, I certainly wasn’t told this to my face, but I did find the whole thing interesting. I feel like I need to write an apologetic for myself.
I have been preaching for well over forty years and at times I have felt that some churches and preachers were putting me in a “box,” so to speak. Maybe they thought if they wanted to have someone speak on mercy, or poverty, or race, or justice, or reconciliation then I might be a person they would consider, but not for other Biblical or spiritual issues. Of course, some put me in that box because those were things they didn’t ever want to consider and so those particular churches never invited me to come and visit.
Thankfully I am not writing about this because I suffered from not getting enough speaking engagements. I am humbled by the fact that I have often been invited to preach, and now even more so. It has been a joy to go to other cities and churches and preach the Word of God. I have been blessed to preach to those who were enthusiastic for what I said and even for those who have been skeptical.
My apologetic has to do with what it is that I preach. I use the word not in terms of giving an apology, and not as an admittance of failure or guilt. I give it as a defense of my calling, the Scriptures, and my life. It is good for me to ask myself as a preacher if I do indeed preach the Gospel. When I come among other churches and believers, and even unbelievers, have I known something else besides “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” when I proclaim the Word of God?
It would be interesting of course to ask other preachers in my own denomination if they have had a particular agenda, maybe such as “Reformed Theology?” Is that what they were known for in their preaching? Would they consider that wrong? Would their defense be that they were attempting to preach “the whole counsel of God?”
I wonder how many preachers of any stripe have preached “hobby horses” (a tendency to always come back to one of their favorite subjects) and maybe in the midst of a moral encouragement, or theological explanation, seemed to have left the cross of Jesus completely out of the sermon? Maybe a sermon was given on marriage, or how to raise children, or how to manage money, or maybe on social issues like abortion, or homosexuality, and somehow the explanation of salvation was not given, the hope of the empty tomb completely left out?
Now, I admit there has been a movement to preach “only the Gospel,” and by that I mean a preaching of grace that refuses to make Christianity into a “works” religion by putting obligations for righteousness on God’s people other than believing in Jesus and his accomplished work. There are those who become nervous with any moral or ethical implication or challenge as it might tend to make people feel guilty. Maybe the thinking is that those who have believed in the justification they received from Christ, the imputation of his righteousness to them, and his adoption of them as his sons, (as well as sanctification being the work of the Holy Spirit), might be led (actually misled) into thinking that they have to do something besides have faith in Christ in order to be saved.
This is a delicate subject because I do believe many grace and Gospel preachers have been maligned as antinomian, and some even ridiculously painted as those who are soft on sin. Now that may be true of some, but those whom I have admired in the strong teaching of grace, and our relationship to God as sons, actually teach a strong message of our fight against sin.
I grew up in a fundamentalist church where the central preaching of the cross, the substitutionary atonement, and the need for faith was always paramount. The fundamentalism kept deflating the hope of what we were preaching. We were saved and forgiven but there were still so many rules and I wasn’t too good at keeping them. This incipient legalism kept stealing my joy and actually distorted my understanding of the grace that could and would actually help me to live a holy life.
I have never lost my commitment to preach the atonement, the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the necessity of faith, and the power of God to save and deliver. God forbid that I should. In fact I try to weave those central ideas into all my preaching. I have however read the Gospels and the entire New Testament. I don’t think one can read the teachings of Jesus and escape the ethical implications of what it means to follow him. This is the very thing that I believe saved me from simply preaching a “cheap grace” message for most of my life. It is what helped turn me away from preaching a “decisional regeneration” message, where all I did was call people to make a decision and then assure them they were saved, even if they never followed Jesus in discipleship.
I am sure many of those who would dismiss my preaching, or criticize it for including strong ethical components of discipleship, love, and justice, would agree that Jesus wants disciples to live out the faith they proclaim that they have. Maybe their problem with me isn’t that they think I am not preaching the Gospel, but that while I do it I explicitly teach that you can’t honestly claim to have believed the Gospel unless it has changed you. Maybe it is that I often emphasize that it is doubtful that you are actually a Christian unless you love your brother whom you can see as you claim to love the God we cannot see. I mean I’m not trying to make stuff up and add anything to the Gospel message. It is just that when I read the Bible I seem to keep running into things like the idea that loving your neighbor as yourself is important, and Jesus teaching that love is the proof of our actually being his disciples.
Never have I preached that love, mercy, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation and unity with the saints are necessary for salvation, only the required evidence of it, and totally possible through the power of the Holy Spirit that works within us. Much of fundamentalist preaching implied the necessity of moral change to be a Christian, and seemed to confuse what came first. Obviously we believe that grace comes first, then the moral change, or more specifically the moral combat. Liberal preachers may have taught that ethical involvement is what makes one a Christian, and sometimes those ethics were set adrift and cut loose from a firm connection to Biblical absolutes and followed the relativistic politics of the day.
It seems obvious that there might be some disagreement as to how to affect the social justice that the God of justice calls for, or how to heal racial division, or how to provide ministry to the poor. I would submit that one would have to read the Scriptures selectively to leave out God’s great compassion for the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the hungry. Yet, many do just that, while claiming to preach Christ and his gospel. I wonder sometimes if some preachers really know and hear the heart of Jesus in the Gospels, or simply see him as a forensic kind of instrument to take care of their own guilt.
He is my savior from my sin, and I love all that doctrine that the Reformers loved so dearly concerning grace and faith. I confess and sincerely believe (and here I do apologize) that I have at times failed in my preaching. Maybe I have been too harsh, too scary and not gentle enough. Maybe I was too confusing when I should have been more precise. I am sure there have been times when I should have been more encouraging, or even failed to be understandable, and tragically I may even at times have failed to give due glory to God. God forgive me if I have ever been legalistic, loading people with guilt or giving anyone the idea that something other than God’s grace could save them. In good conscience I don’t think that has ever been the case, and certainly not by conscious choice. May God, and the people who heard me, forgive me if I have called on them to do the impossible and not told them to trust in the God for whom all things are possible.
But to imply that I don’t preach the Gospel while “they” are, as they consistently dodge and avoid the hard issues of discipleship, (such as how to live out love and justice in this world, how to confront racism and materialism), while they continue to leave off teaching that it is God’s will to do those good works which he has prepared in advance for us to do is, I believe, not only hypocritical but a slander and a lie. If I wasn’t so busy with all these speaking engagements I might have time for my feelings to be hurt.