Jon Moffitt: Preaching that leads to despair versus preaching that leads to encouragement: what do we mean by that?
Justin Perdue: Preaching that breeds despair, preaching that breeds condescension and harshness toward one another. Immediately, when I hear this—and in some ways, I feel bad because this brother has said many things that are useful… not that there hasn’t been value in this, and not that people haven’t been helped by it—but I think Paul Washer’s sermon jam where he basically is telling all the young people that they’re going to hell, and this uber discernment stuff where guys get up and start screaming at people telling them to wake up—I think there is a time and a place for that. The Bible speaks that way; it points to people who are in ongoing unrepentant sin. But I feel like that’s just the general approach in preaching, broadly speaking, in the Calvingelical world. It Is one of wanting to be theologically precise and scholarly in the approach to Scripture. We want to preach sequential, expositional sermons. That’s fine. We always need to look for applications.
But then, I think that many times there is this implicit emphasis and goal of trying to smoke out the nominal believer and those who are lazy or apathetic or who don’t love God enough. It just has this fire-and-brimstone, revivalistic, threatening tone to it all the time. It basically becomes this session where the pastor gets up there and rebukes everybody for their lack of love and zeal for the Lord. What that does, I think, is it flat out discourages and crushes the weary, the sensitive, and the tender. It only serves to fuel the arrogance and self-righteousness of those who think they have it together because the ones who think they have it together hear that and say, “That’s right. You tell them. They need to get it in gear.” It just breeds all the more that kind of harsh posture. Like I was alluding to before, “The people of this church just exhaust me. If they would just grow in godliness and love for the Lord, and joy, and zeal, and everything else, that would be fine. But I’m surrounded by a bunch of slackers.” That becomes the posture of many. Then the bruised reeds and the smoldering wicks in the congregation think they might as well give up now because they will never measure up.
Every preacher who preaches this way, I trust, would never want to do that. They would never want to crush the weak, and they would never want to fan the flames of self-righteousness or arrogance. They would never want to do it—but I think they do that not meaning to and unwittingly, because of the theological framework and system that they have, where they have bought into a system of constant improvement. It’s kind of a theology of glory. It is pietism where the emphasis is on obedience, performance, affections, and disciplines. How are you doing with those? If you’re not doing well enough, you should be concerned. If you are doing well, you should be encouraged.
Jon Moffitt: Going back to your comment about Washer, that sermon…
Justin Perdue: I’m not trying to pick on Paul.
Jon Moffitt: Paul said a lot of great things. People send it to me all the time. Be aware that we’re not criticizing everything that Washer’s ever said—just that famous sermon. The struggle with that sermon is that he’s using the first use of the Law in a Christian context, which doesn’t necessarily work that way. You can use the first use of the Law in an unbelieving context, and you should: you should lead the sinner to despair, and then what brings the relief from the first use of the Law is the gospel.
Justin Perdue: I think it’s totally fine to preach the first use of the Law to the saints every Sunday, but you give them the gospel. You help them see how much they need Jesus, and then you give them him.
Jon Moffitt: What I’m getting at is that he’s using the first use of the Law as if it’s attainable. That’s my point.
Justin Perdue: He’s using the first use like it’s the third use.
Jon Moffitt: For those of you that don’t understand what we’re saying, the first use of the Law is a mirror to show you how imperfect you are. You should look at it and say no one can do that. That’s the point of the first use of the Law. My discouragement in that is there’s a mixture of Law and gospel. There’s a lot of Law in that sermon—a lot of Law. If you go back—and I’ve listened to it several times and I’ve even read it—there’s just not a lot of gospel. What I mean by gospel is he goes straight from the first use of the Law to the third use of the Law.
Justin Perdue: Third use, just to be clear, is to guide our lives in Christ.
Jon Moffitt: Right. They feel the condemnation and then he goes straight to obedience. The thing is, the gospel has to be that message that you fall on. Paul has gone in and clarified on other sermons and other things that he’s preached in, but what it made it sound like is that hope can be found in obedience.
The first use of the Law should come in and crush you, and then the gospel comes in and brings you hope. But the way it sounded like was that the first use of the Law came in and crushed you, now the third use of the Law brings you hope. No, you missed the gospel in there.
Justin Perdue: It’s like, “Here’s the Law. Be crushed by it. Now go obey.” That was basically the message. The Law has crushed you, now go and obey better, and then you’re good. That is not a Christian message. The Christian message is this: here’s the Law, it has crushed you, run to Christ who has kept the Law for you and who has satisfied for your sins, and now go live in him and live this way. But that’s not the pattern that you see—at least not explicitly and clearly preached in many pulpits. There is this collapsing of categories and this confusion that exists. We just go about the business of crushing people with the Law all the time, and then just exhort them to obedience because they should obey—and if they’re not, they should be afraid. “You don’t want to be a faker, do you? You don’t want to be lukewarm, do you? You don’t want to be one of those people that Jesus says he never knew you because you didn’t take obedience seriously enough.” That’s the implication.
Jon Moffitt: Even what they consider to be obedience to the Law or what they consider to be a good faithful Christian, I tend to push back on it and say a lot of it sounds like Colossians 2 issues where you’re putting requirements on people. Paul says if it’s not in Scripture, then it’s not a requirement. If it’s not given to us from God, it’s not something we have to adhere to.
What we ended up doing is creating comparative righteousness charts. When you look at the chart, you’re realizing that is not what the Christian should be pursuing. As a matter of fact, that’s not even sanctification. This gets into voting habits, what you can and cannot watch, what you can and cannot drink, what you can and cannot listen to. We create these Christian rules. Unfortunately, a lot of these guys are going to point to it and say, “See? You’re not a good Christian. You’re a carnal Christian. Or you’re maybe not even a Christian at all.”
John MacArthur makes that statement that you cannot be a Christian if you vote anything but Republican. That’s Colossians 2 right there. He just can’t say things like that. I’m not saying John MacArthur is a bad man, or I disagree with what he’s doing. Those are the kinds of things that if you’re not careful, I feel like we’re not following biblical patterns here.
Justin Perdue: What you’ve done by making such a pronouncement that if you vote this way, you’re not a believer, you have elevated something that is a tertiary issue of practice. It’s a wisdom call but you have now elevated that to becoming a test of Christian orthodoxy and fidelity to Jesus—which is just flat out bananas. We can’t do that. The Scripture doesn’t allow for that.
Jon Moffitt: To John’s defense, I understand what he’s saying. The moral issues surrounding the two parties is a serious issue. There’s no disagreement there that there are some moral issues that are going on, but we have to be careful about creating standards that the Bible just doesn’t create.
Justin Perdue: Agreed. And we’re not going to go down this road as this is another conversation. Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying, but you can be very clear on a moral issue. For example: abortion is sin. Then you can disagree with people as to what is the best way to pursue justice in society. Public policy is complex. I’m just going to stop talking about that before we get way down that road, but this is where we need to be charitable with one another and agree that wisdom in public policy and those kinds of things might lead Christians who all agree on moral issues to make different decisions in the voting booth.
Back to our topic of how preaching is handled in a way that just breeds a lack of charity and all that, and what this sort of preaching sounds like. There’s a lot of preaching, not only to some of the things that you alluded to, like abstinence from certain sins or whatever it may be. There also is a lot of preaching towards how we should feel. There’s a lot of preaching towards the affections; you should be feeling this or you should be thinking that. It’s interesting the way this is done. For example, the pastor sets out to preach a sermon on hope because we should be hopeful as Christians. Then they end up preaching a message that is just flat out hopeless because all they end up doing is lambast the entire congregation because they don’t hope enough in the Lord. How does a sermon on hope sound hopeless? It sounds hopeless because you just yelled at me for 45 minutes about how I don’t have enough hope, and this did not motivate me or help me be hopeful. Or we’re going to preach a sermon on love towards God, for example, or even love towards neighbor. It’s ironic that this sermon on love sounds angry. Again, I’m just getting scolded for 45 minutes about how I don’t love the Lord enough. All that they’ve done in those moments is preached Law to us.
In one sense, they have rightly applied the Law that we are to not only obey God at the deed level, but we are to obey, love, and honor God at the level of the heart, mind, affections, and everything else. But the reality is at the end of the day, we can’t do it. If all you’ve done is expose my sin, but you never come in and give me Jesus, it’s not a Christian sermon—it’s a Law sermon. It’s not a gospel sermon, it’s a Law sermon. All you end up doing is crushing everybody and then giving us nothing to cling to and nothing to hope in. I just find it to be very ironic, at points, the way that some of this goes down. Whereas if you want to foster and encourage hope and love amongst the saints, what do you do? You preach Jesus Christ. You preach the extravagant grace of God in Christ. You preach the sufficiency of Jesus. You herald that from the rooftops, metaphorically speaking, and then as the saints have been comforted in Christ, now let’s talk about some practical things that this means for our love for one another.
If I want to encourage the saints to hope in God, let me preach not only of Jesus and his sufficiency, but let me preach of the utter faithfulness of the Lord and then fan the flame of the saints hoping in God. I don’t think it’s going to work to just yell at them and tell them that they don’t have hope. It’s just strange to me, brother.
Jon Moffitt: They are preaching hope, but it’s in the wrong direction: they’re preaching hope in yourself, hope in your abilities.
Justin Perdue: Or hope in your affections.
Jon Moffitt: Right. Whereas the Bible points us to the hope in God’s faithfulness and accomplishing God’s purposes in rescuing sinners. That’s hope. We are awaiting the return of Christ, and Christ isn’t waiting to come back so that we can prove our faithfulness—that we can finally prove that we are good Christians who deserve salvation—that’s not what we’re hoping. We’re hoping that God is faithful to His promises even though we are not.
Justin, as you were talking, one of the things that I realized as a pastor now for many years, and struggling with my own sins, is that the most self-righteous people I find end up being the people who hide the most sin. The people who were the most vocal and constantly slamming others are the ones I tend to find out down the road to have had sins that they were hiding pretty egregiously.
There’s a phrase my dad told me all the time when I was a kid. He said, “Son, the loudest opposing person typically is the one who struggles with whatever they’re opposing.” It wasn’t like a one-for-one always-always, what he was saying was to pay attention. It’s been helpful for me in the moments where I’ve sat across the couch or across the table from people who are pretty adamant. I’ll just ask them, “How about you just be honest with me? Are you struggling with that sin?” And the look on their faces is adamant like they’re saying, “How could you even ask me that?” I would say, “Wouldn’t this be a great moment to confess and realize that the reason you’re so opposing it is that you actually struggle with it?” I’m telling you, the breakdown has been unbelievable.
We like to feel good about our Christian life. That gives us a sense of control. Then the gospel comes in and says you have no control; you’re not in control of it so that no one may boast—that’s what Paul means. You have zero control of your Christian life so that no one may boast.
Justin Perdue: Basically, you have not decisively done any of it like God has done it.
One other thought on that whole self-righteousness bit, a lot of times when people make a big deal about something, it’s because it’s a big deal in their own lives. But then people tend to be very self-righteous about sins. It is not that they make a lot of noise about it; they tend to be self-righteous about things they don’t struggle with because it’s like, “I don’t struggle with that. Why do you?” Or perhaps the worst, in terms of their self-righteousness with respect to sins, is that they understand themselves as having struggled with something and now have victory over it, whatever that means in their minds. They feel that if you would just be as godly and diligent and disciplined as them, you too could be delivered. That’s just a nightmare. Praise God for His grace in your life, that He delivered you from such struggle and you don’t experience it the same way you once did, but do not for one second assume that that means that that will be everyone’s experience because that’s harmful in the church.
Last comment is when the Bible speaks in the New Testament, particularly the apostles write of us, for example, being presented pure and blameless before the throne of God. Think Ephesians 1. We often tend to turn that into getting about the business of purifying ourselves and making ourselves blameless—and that’s not what the new Testament says. Think about 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” Then I think Revelation 7 where John has seen the great multitude that no one can count and is trying to figure out who these people are. He is told that these are the people who are wearing white robes are the people who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, and they are now white. This is what the New Testament means: that in Christ, we have been purified in him by the power of the Holy Spirit working in us, and we will be presented pure and blameless before the throne of God forever and ever. It’s not something that we have done decisively, it is something that God has done. That promotes grace and charity, and it only serves to foster the things that we’ve been discussing on this podcast today in terms of how we want to live together as saints in the church.
Jon Moffitt: Amen, brother. There are so many thoughts, but we just can’t today. We’re going to save them for another week.
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