|Same Text Different Message|
This post is an excerpt from author Douglas Bond's forthcoming book, GRACE WORKS (And Ways We Think It Doesn't), (P&R, 2014)
VISITING DIFFERENT CHURCHES on summer vacation can be both a healthy rebuke and a rich blessing. When we encounter joyful reverence in worship and a Christ-centered ministry where we did not expect it, the monster of our pride is confronted; we’re not the only ones who get it right after all. Getting out of our cave and enjoying fellowship with God’s people in a different community, in a different denomination, can help correct our tendency to think that we are members of an exclusive club, that we alone rank as initiates.
My family and I had an uncanny experience while on a recent summer vacation. Two consecutive weeks we visited two different churches, many miles apart and neither from the same denomination. Two very different preachers (neither knew the other), with different gifts, different levels of public speaking skill—and here is the uncanny part—both preaching from the exact same text of Scripture!
Two Kinds of Preachers
Unbeknown to either preacher, that experience was a remarkable demonstration of how the Bible can be disastrously mishandled. These two men represented in flesh and blood the two kinds of preachers: one zealous for finding and elucidating what we must do; the other zealous for discovering and adoring Christ for what he has already done and continues to do in us by the free grace of the gospel.
Hearing those two sermons back-to-back cemented the problem in my mind. Consider with me briefly 2 Peter 1:1–11, the biblical text from which both preachers preached two very different sermons: "Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ: May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called
us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort . . ." (1:1–5)
An engaging speaker, the preacher of the first sermon on this text was witty, relational, a fellow who clearly wanted to connect with his flock.
Same Text, Different Message
The first preacher read out the text and then spent two or three minutes hastily summarizing the opening four verses, as if Peter were just giving perfunctory, introductory chatter, “Hi, folks, how’s it going?” sort of material. We heard nothing about Christ’s righteousness (1:1) being the means of obtaining faith, nothing about grace being multiplied to us (1:2), or God’s “divine power” granting to us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (1:3), nothing about God “call[ing] us to his own glory and excellence” (1:3). And nothing about God granting us in Christ “his precious and very great promises, so that through them” we are being made holy like Christ and so we will escape the corruptions of sinful desire (1:4).
It is no exaggeration to say that this misguided pastor spent virtually no time at all expounding the meaning of these magisterial proclamations. Eager to get on to the word effort (1:5), he settled into the important part of his sermon, where Peter was saying what we must do. It was as if Peter had not grounded what followed in verses 5–11 in the phrase, “For this very reason” (1:5), thereby rooting everything that follows in the doctrinal indicatives that the preacher just skipped over.
The sermon that followed fell somewhere between the relational and the therapeutic, often on the menu of the broad evangelical pulpit, and the covenant moralism gaining steam in some reformational pulpits. This well-intentioned preacher did what so many preachers do when they open their Bibles. They latch onto what they can urge their congregations to be up and doing. But he neglected the glorious foundation: what God has already done in Christ. It was tragic but, alas, all too common.
Godliness Grounded in Christ
One week later, many miles away, we listened as the second preacher invited us to turn to 2 Peter 1:1–11, the exact same text as the week before. I passed the word to my wife and children for us all to sit up and pay particular attention. Clearly God our Father in his kind providence wanted us to learn something particular from this passage of his Holy Word. "Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ: May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord" (1:1–2).
There was nothing perfunctory about what followed. To this preacher Peter’s opening words were not to be skimmed over lightly. They were the foundation on which not only the next paragraphs were built, but also the remainder of the epistle. He took pains to root the coming imperatives in the gift of
By this time in the sermon we had heard the previous week, the minister all about works was elucidating what self-control looked like in marriage, in parenting, in the workplace, in politics, in cultural engagement. And then he really warmed to his address when he launched into the need to diligently “confirm [our] calling and election” (1:10), because it’s all contingent on us fulfilling our part and doing all that Peter is warning us we’d better be up and doing—or else. Listeners to this kind of preaching are left bewildered: election must just be a broad-sweeping covenantal thing for the group, but as far as the individual is concerned, it’s so uncertain that we’d better try harder or we may in the end forfeit the whole enchilada.
Sanctification Rooted in the Redeemer
Meanwhile, in the second sermon, the one rooted in the imputed righteousness of Christ and the grace of the gospel, we were hearing that “his divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature” (1:3–4).
In other words, the pastor who cared about grace was actually expounding the text, taking Peter’s inspired words seriously and thereby rooting sanctification in what the divine power of God has already accomplished in the gospel. As he rounded up on his conclusion, he pointed to the larger context of Peter’s letter; the apostle would end the book as he began it, in an inclusio of grace, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity” (3:18).
Some are hasty to claim that preachers who care so much about grace will go light on holiness and sanctification. But a faithful preacher of grace knows that his flock will never be able to fulfill the imperative commands of the Bible without enabling grace. Precisely because he’s so committed to the sanctification of his flock, he will never, never want his congregation to hear imperatives disconnected from their doctrinal foundation in the power of God by the grace of Christ in the gospel.
The best theologians and preachers always get this right. They are careful to be like the apostles, never diminishing the power of God and the grace of God when they preach holiness and sanctification. In a sermon, Sinclair Ferguson put it better and more succinctly than most: "We must never separate the benefits (regeneration, justification, sanctification) from the Benefactor (Jesus Christ). The Christians who are most focused on their own spirituality may give the impression of being the most spiritual . . . but from the New Testament’s point of view, those who have almost forgotten about their own spirituality because their focus is so exclusively on their union with Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished are those who are growing and exhibiting fruitfulness."
I am confident that the first preacher, the one who skipped over the Benefactor to get to the benefits, had the best of intentions. He probably wanted to see more holiness, more piety in his congregation, perhaps especially among the young people. And so he exhorted with zeal their need to grow in self-control, in virtue. But he skipped over the foundation; he failed to dazzle his congregation with Jesus the Benefactor, the source of self-control, virtue, and the rest. Ironically, inverting the priority never produces the desired result: true godliness.
Which One Are You?
That unexpected episode in our summer vacation demonstrates the two kinds of preachers: one hones in on what we must do (the benefits of grace), while the other grounds the benefits and motivates his congregation to godliness by placarding Jesus Christ the Benefactor.
Which one of these men are you? Which one of these men is your pastor? Which one of these men do you resemble when counseling the wayward, when disciplining your children, when engaging culture, when nurturing loved ones in the Word of God? When confronting sin in your own heart?
This post is an excerpt from Bond's forthcoming book, GRACE WORKS (And Ways We Think It Doesn't)