Far too many churches today neglect preaching the Gospel. Well, maybe that is not quite accurate. When it is time to do evangelism, they preach the good news that God will forgive all those who admit they are sinners and accept Christ. But once the evangelistic talk is over, and people have come to faith, that message of sin and grace is tucked away in a drawer someplace until the next time that someone wants to do evangelism. It seems that many Christians, especially pastors and Christian leaders, think that the Gospel is relevant for becoming a Christian, but not all that useful for living the Christian life. Instead of making the Gospel the central theme of their preaching and worship, many churches neglect the Gospel in favor of moralistic pep talks, self-help tips, and shallow praise choruses.
“Come on,” someone may object, “how can you preach the Gospel every week? That would be the same sermon over and over again.” If people have repented and turned to Christ, why bother going over the same talk about sin and grace again and again? They’ve got it already. They became Christians. It is time to go on to bigger and better things. The Gospel and grace are fantastic for getting people in the door, in helping them to come to faith in Christ. But once they are Christians already, they need something more than just a simple Gospel outline. They need something that will motivate and inspire them to holy living. They need something that will encourage them when life is difficult. They need something practical for daily living.
And they do need something more! But it is not heaps of rules and good advice for being more holy and getting more blessings. It is the Gospel! And not just the simple message of “admit you’re a sinner, accept Jesus, and have a better life” that passes for the Gospel in far too many places. What people need to both become Christians and to live the Christian life daily is a full, rich, deep Gospel that confronts us with the depths of our own sinfulness and lifts us up to the awe-inspiring heights of God’s grace in Christ above the heavens, reserved for His people, and given to His people daily. The problem is not that we preach the Gospel too much, but that we preach it too little. As long as people struggle with sin, and as long as people are tempted to depend on their own goodness instead of Christ, there will be a need to preach the Gospel to non-Christians and Christians alike. The latter group don’t need the Gospel any less than the former.
The message of sin and grace needs to be repeated again and again because we are all still sinners of one kind or another. We are either, 1) sinners who know they are sinners and need to hear about grace, or 2) sinners who don’t think they are sinners and need to hear about sin.
The main characters in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) are still with us today. It’s me. It’s you. Its the guy in the next pew. Like the Pharisee, there are those who have been in the faith for quite some time and have learned how to speak Christianese and to do all the right things (especially when others are around). They have become proud of their daily quiet times, their passionate worship, or their accurate grasp of theology. They know they are not perfect, but they are certainly doing better than many other people. Do these people need the Gospel? Absolutely! They need to have the rose-colored glasses ripped off of their eyes, and their attention forcibly turned to their own sin instead of that of their neighbor. They need to hear the “bad news” that they still need God and his forgiveness despite having “gotten” the Gospel many years before. If you give these folks more rules for living or a motivational pick-me-up sermon, it will just be stoking the fires of their own vanity. The humility and gratitude that flow from the Gospel can’t be produced with a Gospel-less sermon.
But then there are those who want to follow Jesus, but are trying and failing. These are the tax collectors. They know they are sinners. They’ve screwed up again. They keep falling into the same sins. Their old habits are still with them. What do people in this situation need to hear? Do they need to hear a motivational talk with more tips for how to obey God better? They may think they do but that’s only because the human heart craves rules and control. We want something that we can do. “Ah, if I just start doing THAT, then I can finally overcome such-and-such sin.” But new rules won’t overcome feelings of guilt and defeat. They won’t fix problems of frustration or anger or selfishness. That’s grace’s job. The good news that God’s grace is STILL extended to sinners despite our sins and failings releases us from guilt and gives an opportunity for a new start and a clean slate. An understanding of how much we’ve been forgiven changes us to be more forgiving of the sins and short-comings of others.
Are you like the Pharisee or the Tax Collector? I am like both, sometimes within the same day. If you are honest with yourself, you probably are too. That’s why we need to hear the Gospel again and again. The same old message of sin and grace again and again.
But that doesn’t mean the same, tired, old sermon week in and week out. Human depravity and the grace of God are illustrated and lived out in a thousand different ways in the pages of Scripture. This week, our sermon text may highlight a particular way that people violate God’s law, and how Christ’s grace justifies us in God’s sight. But next week, our sermon text may bring out some way in which we dishonor God through a particular shameful action/thought, and how Christ vindicates God’s name through the cross and resurrection, and brings us out of our shame. Preaching the Gospel every week doesn’t mean going over the Four Spiritual Laws, the Bridge illustration, or the Romans Road ad nauseum with different Bible verses tacked on.
Preaching the Gospel week in and week out is remembering that no matter where we are, and who we are preaching to, we are all Pharisees and Tax Collectors needing to hear about sin and grace. It is looking for how human fallenness shows up in Scripture, and how the grace of God in Jesus Christ meets us and changes us. The Gospel may be the old, old story but it is new every morning as it meets us in at our point of greatest need.
“But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness”
(Lamentations 3:21–23 ESV)