This is an attempt to explain some of the convictions I've gained about the structure of our attempts to share the Gospel with people. Because it is mainly about structure it only skims over the actual content which is the exciting part. It also misses the power which is all found in asking God the Father to act through his Word and Spirit. It also misses the context which should be a loving community of sinners with changed lives! It is also quite hastily written, so please forgive the errors, but feel free to pull it apart in a constructive way.
1. Prologomena - death
As we are both actors and those acted upon the law shows us both that we are sinners and sufferers. So we should connect with unfulfilled desires and with painful experiences as well as with guilt.
There are three ways in which this bad 'news' can be part of preaching:
- Direct communication
- For example you can say, "you are a dirty rotten sinner" or "don't you feel really empty and purposeless without God?" This may be useful sometimes, but generally it is counter-productive. I think too much direct communication is what has given law-Gospel preaching a bad name.
- To get past people's defences tell stories, make cultural references and make people so think that they end up telling themselves the bad news:
- Nathan told David a fable so that he convicted himself (2 Sam 12).
- Bizarrely God gave people a law which said "do this and live" for the purpose of increasing and convicting people of sin! The law may well be "indirect communication" par excellence.
- Tim Keller paints this beautiful picture of what friendship should be and his hearers are broken because as they apply it to their own lives they realise that it is something they have only tasted and barely experienced.
- Kierkegaard in The Point of View for My Work as an Author explains that you cannot communicate directly to one who is suffering under a delusion because "direct communication presupposes that the receiver's ability to receive is undisturbed". Instead you have to "deceive [!] a person into the truth", which means "one does not begin directly with the matter one wants to communicate, but begins by accepting the other man's illusion as good money". To natural legalists the law does just that, but it heightens our illusion to such an extent that is snaps.
- Simeon Zahl comments that "the ‘Law’ is being preached by the Spirit as ‘negative’ experience long before the hearer enters the pew". People carry with them guilt and suffering that weighs them down before they hear anything explicitly Christian.
- GK Chesterton said that "original sin... is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved". It is not essential for the 'bad news' to be declared because it is already known and experienced (Romans 1). As Rob Bell has commented, many people already know an awful lot about hell from their experience
Although I believe in death before life, and bad news before good, I hope this shows that we should not simplistically or insensitively 'lay down the law' at the beginning of any sermon. Instead indirect communication and God's prior alien work can take precedence.
2. The Gospel - The source of Life
The bad news is our point of connection, but in contrast, while there are echoes and similarities of the Gospel in our experience, there is nothing that matches the "love unknown" of the Gospel. Because of this it must be declared and carry the life it promises with it.
The Gospel has three dimensions:
- God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit...
- The identity of God is the Gospel. God gave us not just to eternal life, but eternal life with him, which is good news only because he is so lovely.
- The act of salvation is the Gospel. God did not just symphathise with us in our plight, but did something about it.
- That God and his acts are all directed in love towards us, and not someone else, is the Gospel.
People often seem to emphasise only one of the three and so risk losing the whole Gospel in the process. It is an useful thought experiment to think through which movements/teachers are strong on which point, and which we are weak on.
3. Our goal in preaching - The living of life
Again, in preaching we can aim for just one of the following and fail to have a holistic view of salvation.
- New hearts
- Christianity is an affective faith. We love our God and desire to be with him.
- Christianity requires us to think differently about ourselves, our world and our God. We think through what it means that Jesus is Lord over every square inch of this world.
- We go out in words and deed as part of Christ's Gospel mission and in neighbourly love.
Again, it is an useful thought experiment to think through which movements/teachers are strong on which point, and which we are weak on.