Volume 18, Issue 2: Presbyterion
Is He Preaching at Me?
Laboring before the Lord in the pulpit is work that involves many tensions. One of them is created by the problem of
sins in the congregation. On the one hand is the cardinal rule of pulpit exposition: The pulpit is never to be used to
settle personal scores, or to single anybody out. When the minister gets to a particular place in the sermon, no eyes
(or thoughts) should swivel to a particular person seated there. "This passage on tithing brings to mind certain problems
in the life of someone whose name rhymes with
bones or tones. Yes, third row from the back. Yes,
you, old greedy Jones!"
But the opposite problem is no better. This is to gather a bunch of the saints together and preach like
renegade thunder against all the sins that are being committed elsewhere in the nation, in other churches, or on the bad side
of town. In this kind of preaching, the entertainment value is high, but that's it. Watching a preacher like this "go off"
is like watching a great fireworks display. Gordon Clark tells the story of an old country preacher who preached on
heaven and hell all the time. Heaven and hell, heaven and hell, every week, heaven and hell. "Why do you do that?" he was
once asked. "Well," he replied, "I did preach on chicken stealing once, but it dampened the enthusiasm." Fireworks
preaching may look courageous, but it is sham courage.
A preacher's task is to build up the saints
in front of him, and to attack and tear down whatever is tearing them
down. What is tearing them down is their sins, not the sins of secular humanists in New York, Washington, or Hollywood.
And so he is called to speak words of comfort to those in front of him, and to speak the words of admonition and rebuke
to those in front of him. If it is a gathering of saints, the encouragement should be the dominant theme, but if good
things are happening in the congregation, then sin as counterattack will always be present. And when sin is present,
the preacher's task is to paint his face blue and attack it with loud whoops. But given the tension outlined above, how is he
to do this?
In the course of counseling people in the congregation, if I encounter three different husbands in the same week
who have an anger problem, I should assume that this is representative of a larger problem and have at it in a sermon. If I
am talking with a lot of young men about Internet porn, why should I steer away from the subject in the pulpit? When I
do this, of course I know the names of those whose behavior alerted me to the problem, and they know that I know
their names. But I always make a point, if using illustrations, of changing all the detailsthree kids instead of seven kids,
sons and daughters instead of just daughters, in his fifties instead of in his thirties, and so on. Part of my responsibility is
to keep the congregation from trying to figure anything out. And the people who know that I know about their
problem know also that I am changing details. This is because the point is to attack the
sin, not a particular person or family. In doing this, I am
defending that person or family from that which is destroying them. Whether they like it or not is
beside the point; the question is whether God likes it.
Sometimes, when a person has sinned in a high-handed and public way, it is impossible for a preacher to keep
that person's name out of it. But it was that person who created the situation, not the minister. The only appropriate way
to make a person's private sin public is through the process of church discipline. It ought never to be done by means
Now this means that there will be people in the congregation who have a problem, but who deny that they are
the ones with the problem, and they will often take offense at such sermons. "I felt that the sermon was directed at
me." Instead of apologizing for this, the minister should say something like, "No, it was directed at the entire
congregation, me included. But tell me, did it apply to you?" D. L. Moody once said that if you were to throw a rock into a pack
of stray dogs, the one that yelps is the one that got hit.
One of the great failures in the modern evangelical pulpit is a failure at just this point. Ministers are not the
courageous heralds of truth that they ought to be. If they preached against the sins that were prevalent in their own
congregations, it could have all kinds of negative consequences. Suppose the sin in question is committed by the biggest tither?
Or by a retired minister who might foment a church split? Or by a couple of the elders? A godly preacher should
expect to get into trouble. He should resolve to preach it, straight up the middle, and without apology. He should pray
regularly for grace so that when the day of trouble arrives, he will not turn aside to the right or to the left.
There are no grounds for taking offense if a minister preaches an
applicable sermon. To do otherwise is to heal
the wound of the people lightly, saying peace, peace, when there is no peace. The apostle Paul spoke of the times
when people would heap up teachers for themselves because the people had itching ears. Encouragement from the pulpit is
a great gift of God, a sign that Christ loves His people. But flattery has the smell of sulfur all over it.