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Volume 18, Issue 2: Presbyterion

Is He Preaching at Me?

Douglas Wilson

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 details—three 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 of sermons.
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.

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