Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Catch 22 Of Preaching

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
1 Corinthians 2:14

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
1 Corinthians 1:21
If you take a slow read through 1 Corinthians 1 – 4, and you really understand and believe what it says, it will inevitably shape the way you view preaching, and the ministry of the gospel in general.

This afternoon, as I prepare to preach tomorrow evening, the Lord led me to slowly read from 1 Corinthians 1:18 through the end of 1 Corinthians 4. There is so much in these verses. But in particular I was left pondering the catch 22 of preaching that emerges from the connection between verse 14 of chapter 2 and verse 21 of chapter 1.

One of a preacher’s main goals as he prepares a message is to be understood by his hearers. Indeed, this must probably be the highest priority on the list of his goals because if the people who are hearing the message don’t understand what the preacher is saying, they cannot believe what he is saying. Not in any fruitful way at least.

As a preacher prepares to address a congregation full of people, not only does he need to make his sermon understandable to his hearers. But he needs to make it understandable for a wide variety of people, some with more biblical knowledge than others. There are many different categories of people that a preacher must make his message understandable for but it really all boils down to two categories: believers and non-believers, those who have been born again and those who haven’t been, those who are spiritual and those who are natural.

Some believers with a more conservative mindset might say that a preacher really only needs to make his message understandable to believers since preaching is mainly for the building up of the body of believers, and even though non-believers can derive some benefit from preaching, messages should not be prepared with them in mind.

The only problem I have with that opinion is that it won’t stand against the book of Acts. The preaching in that book is almost all directed at non-believers with the aim being their conversion to saving faith in Jesus. In particular, Paul’s sermon in Acts 17 is directed at philosophers and stoics who have no knowledge of the Old Testament.

But then there are believers with a more liberal mindset who say that you need to make sure that your message is completely understandable to the non-believer. You don’t want to say anything that won’t make any sense to them or that would turn them off from wanting to continue to “check Jesus out.”

This is where the juxtaposition of 1 Corinthians 2:14 and 1 Corinthians 1:21 is so helpful.

The problem with the non-believer is that he/she doesn’t understand the things of the Spirit of God. They are blind to the glory of God and sin and wrath and hell, among many other things. In order for us to make the message understandable to them, it would require that we either significantly obscure or completely remove references to the glory of God or sin or wrath or hell. Why? Since they don’t understand these things (both liberal and conservative evangelicals would say this is true), these things would sound like foolishness to them if they heard them. This is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14. Spiritual things are foolishness, or folly, to the person who has not been born again.

So if our desire is for the person who cannot understand spiritual things to come to saving faith (which I imagine is the desire of both liberal and conservative evangelicals), do we remove from our messages the things that non-believers won’t understand or will deem foolish so that the message will be completely understandable to them?

Paul’s answer is back in 1 Corinthians 1:21.
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
1 Corinthians 1:21
Paul’s answer to that question that I just asked is a resounding “NO!” Why? In God’s wisdom, the world doesn’t come to know God by making the wisest decision based on all the intelligible information that is presented before them. That is exactly the way God decided NOT to save people. So how do people come to know God and be saved and understand spiritual things? Through the folly of what we preach when, by the supernatural work of the Spirit of God, they are enabled to believe on that which otherwise sounds like foolishness. There’s no other way.

And hence the catch 22 of preaching. The penultimate goal of preaching (I say penultimate because the ultimate goal of preaching and everything else that exists for that matter is the glory of God) is that the men and women who hear will understand the things of God (non-believers and believers). But the problem is that by nature nobody can understand the things of God. Juxtaposing 1 Corinthians 2:14 with 1 Corinthians 1:21, the conclusion I arrive at is this: The only way for men and women who don’t understand the things of God to come to understand the things of God is for us to preach to them (directed at them, with them in mind) the things of God that they don’t understand. Or, to say it another way, the only way for men and women who view the things of God as foolishness to be transformed so that they no longer view the things of God as foolishness is for them to hear preaching (directed at them, with them in mind) about the very things of God that they regard as foolishness.

This is tremendously encouraging for me as a preacher. I am by no means a seasoned preacher, but when I first began preaching a couple of years ago, preparing to preach seemed like only excitement. But the more and more I preach, though it is still exciting and glorious beyond description, it’s becoming harder and harder to prepare. What I mean by that is that whereas early on I felt such excitement in preaching things that I had never preached before, with each new message I prepare I find myself asking, “Am I really going to say this again? No doubt they’ve heard this before.” I find myself more and more aware of the resistance that my hearers will have to the things that I am going to say (both non-believers who don’t understand and believers who have surely heard it before and don’t want to hear it again) and, believe it or not, the temptation for me not to say those things is overwhelmingly strong. It would be so easy to begin to say those things that they don’t want to hear less and less (about the glory of God and sin and wrath and hell) to the point where one day I might realize that I’m not saying them at all. I wonder how many preachers have fallen casualty to this slow, gradual descent into the death of being rendered spiritually sterile in the pulpit. Probably more than we can count.
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.
1 Corinthians 4:2
Please pray for me.

O Lord, keep me faithful and trustworthy. Take me out of this ministry or kill me before that day would ever come where I would bring such dishonor upon Your name. For Jesus’ sake.

1 comment:

David said...

This is really great insight. Thanks!