Advice Sermons and the Gospel

Below is an exercise, not in critiquing the author’s post, per se, but rather critiquing a set of assumptions he makes that lead, inexorably, to the material in his post. His assumptions about what constitutes gospel, what it means to preach Christ, and what “the law” is in the New Testament are disputable on the grounds of reading a few more paragraphs of the very book of the New Testament he quotes the most (Romans). 

In a post titled, “How your preaching might increase sin in your church,” author Jared Wilson makes a partially great point:

When we preach a message like “Six Steps to _______” or any other “be a better whatever”-type message — where the essential proclamation is not what Christ has done but what we ought/need to do — we become preachers of the law rather than Christ. (And it is not rare that this kind of message with barely any or no mention of Christ(!) at all gets preached.)

He’s right that sermons that never mention Christ are spiritually dangerous. The point of Christian sermons is, ultimately, the glorification of God the Father in Christ among the people of God. He correctly diagnoses the problem of a great deal (certainly not all, hopefully not even most) of the practical preaching in our churches. But, he’s wrong on several other counts:

  1. He misunderstands (or miscommunicates) the distinction between the Law and Gospel in the New Testament.
  2. He seems to misunderstand the content of the gospel in the New Testament.
  3. He takes the phrase, “preaching Christ” as a cipher for preaching the five solas of the reformation.

What do I mean?

He misunderstands (or miscommunicates) the distinction between the Law and Gospel in the New Testament. 

I want to be charitable here, but here’s what he says:

Preaching even a “positive” practical message with no gospel-centrality amounts to preaching the law. We are accustomed to thinking of legalistic preaching as that which is full of “thou shalt not”s, the kind of fundamentalist hellfire and brimstone judgmentalism we’ve nearly all rejected. But “do” is just the flipside to the same coin “don’t” is on. That coin is the law. And a list of “do”‘s divorced from the DONE of the gospel is just as legalistic, even if it’s preached by a guy in jeans with wax in his hair following up the rockin’ set by your worship band.

This is not quite right. Preaching positive sermons amounts to giving advice, which is a useful skill for a gospel preacher to have (Paul advises people to remain single prior to/during a famine). But giving positive advice is not the same thing as preaching “law.” Paul himself contrasts law and gospel praeching by contrasting the mode of justification preached: by faith or by works.

You’re preaching “law” when you’re telling Christians to live as though Moses’ law were still ultimate rather than fulfilled. On the flip side, I suppose you’d be preaching law in a derivative sense if you told Christians to live up to some standard (aside from those set by Christ) to be justified. In other words, “dos and don’ts” are not “the law.” In any case, Paul and Jesus both note that there is a right way to preach “the law.”
Jesus:

Mat 5:17-19 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (18) For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (19) Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Note: Jesus says to do the commands of which he speaks (probably the fulfillment of the law he gives in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount), not just preach them to show people their sin.

Paul:

Rom 3:31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

Rom 8:3-4 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, (4) in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Weird thing to note, Wilson misquotes this verse on his post…maybe some translation has it the way he does, but its a fairly uncommon way to read it.)

Note: Paul says that the law is fulfilled in those who walk by the Spirit. It is a positive feature in the Christian life when seen as fulfilled. Paul later notes that love of neighbor is the fulfillment of the law. In fact, Paul refers to the love command as thought it were a part of the gospel he delivers in general (1 Cor 13, 1 Thess 1:1-10, Galatians 5:1-6:10, etc). His very defense of his apostleship rests on the fact that he preaches the law, but that he preaches it fulfilled by Christ. This is the point on the fruit of the Spirit, “against such things there is no law.”

The point is that if the fulfillment of the law is taught as a result of living by faith in Christ/as Christ’s disciple/by walking in the Spirit as a positive command it is good. But that is not opposed, in the Bible to giving advice or giving commands positive or negative, but it is opposed to treating Moses’ law as an end in itself, rather than has something which finds its end or τελος in Jesus Christ.

He seems to misunderstand the content of the gospel in the New Testament. 

I do not mean to say that brother Jared is not a Christian. I mean to say that he understands the gospel as, apparently, a message without imperatives (dos and don’ts). Wilson notes:

The message of the law unaccompanied by and untethered from the central message of the gospel condemns us. Because besides telling us stuff to do, the law also thereby reveals our utter inability to measure up.

On his understanding of law (dos and don’ts) the emboldened sentence means that the preaching of commands is categorically not the gospel. While I agree that one of the functions of the commands in the New Testament and of the Law in the Old Testament is to reveal our sin, the main function thereof, is to guide our lives. In fact, I’ll even go further, I’ll say that the commands of the New Testament are a part of the gospel. Wilson calls the commands of the New Testament, “…the practical implications and exhortations of Scripture…” But what do the New Testament authors refer to when they say gospel? Do they see it as a set of facts about Christ’s death, the atonement, and grace with a lifestyle that is only a series of confusing logical implications? Or do they see it as a broader message about Jesus of Nazareth?
Examples:

Mark:

Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ [υἱοῦ θεοῦ]. (Mar 1:1 BGT)
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ [God’s Son]. (Mark 1:1)
So the rest of what follows in Mark is, by his lights, the gospel.

14 ¶ Μετὰ δὲ τὸ παραδοθῆναι τὸν Ἰωάννην ἦλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν κηρύσσων τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τοῦ θεοῦ
15 καὶ λέγων ὅτι πεπλήρωται ὁ καιρὸς καὶ ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ· μετανοεῖτε καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ. (Mar 1:14-15 BGT)
After John was handed over, Jesus went into Galilee preaching the gospel of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15)
Jesus’ gospel is the gospel about God’s kingdom and it includes commands: repent and believe.

Acts:

τὸν λόγον [ὃν] ἀπέστειλεν τοῖς υἱοῖς Ἰσραὴλ εὐαγγελιζόμενος εἰρήνην διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, οὗτός ἐστιν πάντων κύριος,
37 ὑμεῖς οἴδατε τὸ γενόμενον ῥῆμα καθ᾽ ὅλης τῆς Ἰουδαίας (Act 10:36-37 BGT)
You yourselves know the word which came all over Judea, which he sent to the sons of Israel, preaching the gospel of peace through Jesus the Messiah, who is Lord over all… (Acts 10:36-37a)
Here, the gospel of peace, is the message that was preached through/by Jesus the Messiah. So, whatever Jesus preached is the gospel.

Luke:

 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτοὺς ὅτι καὶ ταῖς ἑτέραις πόλεσιν εὐαγγελίσασθαί με δεῖ τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ, ὅτι ἐπὶ τοῦτο ἀπεστάλην. (Luk 4:43 BGT)
Then he said to them, “It is necessary for me to preach the gospel about the kingdom of God, because I was sent for this purpose. (Luke 4:43)
In the prequel to Acts, Luke describes Jesus’ gospel as, “the gospel about the kingdom of God.”

So, here’s my beef with Wilson then.  If the early Christians saw that gospel as the whole message about Jesus, including what Jesus preached and taught, then the early Christians understood and taught that Jesus’ commands were part of the gospel. Jesus’ commands are not in conflict with the good news. They aren’t a difficult to reconcile implication of the good news. They are part of the good news. This is because the goodness is not just good news about feeling forgiven, it is good news about God making the broken world right. That means the people who make is worse than it is (sinners we all are) need forgiveness, but they also need reform. The gospel is a summons to the true king of the world, not simply relief for guilty consciences (though it can be that). Also see how Paul describes his gospel in Romans 1:1-7. He never mentions forgiveness (though he does elsewhere), but he does mention the need for the apostles to bring “the obedience of faith” to the nations of the world. Sounds rather commanding to me.

He takes the phrase, “preaching Christ” as a cipher for preaching the five solas of the reformation. 

But let us not forget that the message of Christianity is Christ. It is the message of the sufficiency and power of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Let’s not preach works, lest we increase the sinfulness of our churches and unwittingly facilitate the condemnation of the lost.

Here, I think, is the crux of the issue. By preaching the gospel, Wilson means preaching “the finished work of Christ” as he says earlier in the article. This is a useful phrase, but it typically refers to the finished work of atonement of sinners or payment of sin-debt. So, the only proper way he sees to preach the gospel is to preach a message about what God does/has done in Christ for sinners. This is a useful topic for the church, no doubt. But is it, strictly speaking, what Paul meant by preaching Christ? I submit that the answer is, “No.” Rather, the sermons in Acts, the gospel summaries quoted above, and the four gospels tell us what Paul meant by “preaching Christ.” It means to tell the story of Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament in his life, teachings, death, and resurrection, what that means for believers, as well as what they are to do about it. It’s interesting that in Jared’s taxonomy of law and gospel, it appears that the gospel writers only ever implied the gospel (because they only implied the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement), that Jesus hardly ever preached the gospel, and that the sermons in Acts are “law” because they don’t usually mention atonement but do include commands.  Preaching “Christ” very well could mean preaching the reformation solas, but in the Bible is seems to mean something else most of the time.

Wilson is right. Advice sermons should not be the meat and potatoes of Christian homiletic fare. Though Proverbs would do many of our young people well. We live in a world of people who barely understand cause and effect. But, the point is this: we should get our understanding of the gospel from the New Testament. If we take our favorite bits of the gospel (atonement, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, etc) and oppose them to the things Jesus says we must do to be his disciples/to have saving faith then we are creating a system of cognitive dissonance and perhaps even a tremendous logical contradiction in the heart of our preaching.

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