Want to Change Your Congregation? Kill the Taskmaster.

The first legalist you must agitate is yourself.

At the start of the year, many of us are mindful of how we want this year to be different. Which means sooner or later we have to ask, “How do I change?”

I’ve been thinking about how the Bible answers that question and what it means for preaching.

“Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (not your willpower). — Romans 12:1

“Apart from me you can do nothing.” — Jesus

“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” — Galatians 2:20

The Bible is clear that the power for change comes externally, works internally, and is personal. That is, Christ himself is the power, graciously working in hearts.

How will your first sermon of 2019 reflect this?

Kill the taskmaster

My mind has returned to a moving Christianity Today article by Bill Giovannetti from several years ago, “Why I Preach Grace-Filled Sermons.”

At one point he confesses,

I’ve preached my share of sermons that flog rather than forgive, hurt instead of heal. I wish I could go back and “unpreach” them.

I still grapple with my Inner Taskmaster whenever I preach.

Taskmasters are unrelenting. They pile on duties. They punish slothfulness. They motivate with fear and demand bricks without straw.

A taskmaster in the pulpit is a barking dog, a passionate voice that hearers tune out.

Whereas grace-filled preaching—hearts swarm to it like moths to light. People listen because deep in their hearts grace registers as their only hope.

Be careful what you preach—to yourself

Bill’s article offers five wise pieces of advice for how to preach grace-filled sermons, which is why I highly suggest reading the whole article. (It seems you need to subscribe to CT for access. You can also get the article in the CT archive collection on Logos.)

Another element I would add is that grace-filled preaching can only come from a grace-filled heart.

My pastor said it this way recently:

If you can’t find a place of restfulness, you can’t give your people restfulness. If you are anxious, you will make your congregation anxious. What you expect from yourself, you will expect from your congregation. What’s in your heart will come out. If you are going to be a giver of rest, you have to be a receiver of rest.

The law you live by is the law you preach.

If your inner taskmaster is ruling over you and forming your heart, it will form your preaching. Your sermons will reek of all the same burdens that haunt you.

But if the gentle, liberating voice of God is residing over you and reforming your heart, it will do the same to your preaching. Your sermons will drip with the kindness of God like honey from a honeycomb.

As songwriter Aaron Weiss says, “A glass can only spill what it contains.”

Agitate the legalist

So your “duties” as a preacher are twofold in this regard. First, kill the taskmaster in your own heart. Second, kill the taskmaster in your pulpit.

And you will do both by grace alone. Christ has broken every curse that hangs over you—you are free (Romans 8:1–11).

Let me leave you with the powerful closing of Bill’s article. I love the phrase “agitate the legalist.” May your every sermon do this to the glory of God.

I’ve come to realize that the only way to properly preach grace is to scandalize the hearer. To agitate the legalist. To make those who insist they can buy salvation at any price drop their flagellum and exit the premises. Nobody in the Bible ever “got” grace without an intervention. Some force had to pierce through the fallen heart’s resistance.

Someone had to say, “Yes, it sounds too good to be true, but it is true, because Christ is that good.” Why not become the church in your city that unburdens, unshackles, and de-stresses people? Keep shifting the burden to God. Build a bigger trust in a God more gracious than your people ever dared dream. Buy your Inner Taskmaster a one-way ticket to a permanent vacation.

That one-way ticket comes to you the same way obedience does your congregation: by grace.

The first legalist you must agitate is yourself. And there is endless grace for that.

***

For more insights on preaching, I commend Tim Keller’s book Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism. It won Preaching Today’s 2016 Contributor’s Choice award, and it’s on sale this month.

Matthew Boffey (MDiv) is a writer for Faithlife and a licensed minister. He is an alumnus of the Chicago Plan, a biblical exposition and pastoral training program.

Comments

  1. One item that is disturbing me about this article is that you, Matthew Boffey, go through great pains to describe the taskmaster, but never give a clear definition of what you mean by grace-filled preaching. Surely, you do not mean to blot out parts of the New Testament that are indeed items we need to live by, albeit, commandments?

    • Matthew Boffey says:

      Robert, let me reply by quoting Paul from Romans 6: “By no means!” I could’ve been more explicit about what I mean by grace-filled preaching, but I mean preaching the grace that feeds work-producing faith, even if you are preaching an imperative-heavy text. I love the way Romans 6 draws the connection between grace and righteousness. That’s what I have in mind (and what Giovanni did in his article) when I say grace-filled preaching.

  2. Alejandro Morales says:

    I understand that preaching has to communicate grace and hope for the soul. In spite of that, I can not understand how I lead a church without presenting the clear requirements of the word referring to the commitment and seriousness of the faith, and the consequent service to the Lord. How do you combine the ideas in this article with the message of the prophets that was often direct and that made a radical call to repentance and a commitment to the Lord that demands effort and sacrifice? Could you throw a little light on it? Thanks

    • Matthew Boffey says:

      Alejandro,

      Certainly. I would look to passages like Ezek. 36:26-27, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” That last sentence especially gets at the connection between grace and works: “I will put my Spirit in you and move you” (God’s grace in giving us the Spirit) “to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (works).

      The same theme is represented in Jesus’ words in John 15: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Other passages that come to mind are 1 Thess. 5:19-24, 1 Cor. 15:10, Phil. 2:13, Col. 3 (esp. the “therefore” connecting vv. 1-4 with 5ff), and John 17:17. Of course there are others, and there are tomes written on the subject.

      You mention “effort and sacrifice,” which reminds me of Rom. 12: “… present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Verses 1-2 contain several imperatives (implying effort and sacrifice), but they’re mixed with “Therefore” (that is, all that Paul has said thus far about God’s grace in Christ) and “in view of God’s mercy.” Even the prophets, when they get quite feisty about repentance and obedience, draw attention to God’s steadfast love and mercy and covenant promises. I think of Lamentations 3, for example. The book is quite bleak but for the shining light of chapter 3, those verses where hope for repentance is restored when the author remembers God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.

      So it’s not about not preaching obedience. I’m not sure what preaching is if it doesn’t include a call to believe or obey something God has commanded. Preaching is revelation, and revelation confronts our hearts with the reality of who God is—which inspires repentance. But to preach obedience without the grace and forgiveness of Christ, without reminding the saints that they have the Spirit to empower their obedience, without the reminder that their power is in Christ and not their own effort and sacrifice… well that’s also not preaching, at least in the biblical sense. For one, it doesn’t represent the full character of God, so you would be driving repentance apart from revelation (consider Exod. 20:2, God’s prelude to the 10 Commandments). Second, the biblical writers teach that our devotion and obedience find their life and power in Christ’s completed work and the indwelling Spirit.

      So my advice on how to preach repentance in light of grace is to look as closely as you can at the language the Bible uses to describe the relationship between the two, and use that language over and over and over in your preaching. You will begin to saturate the conscience and transform the mind of your hearers with the message of grace, leading to repentance.

      Blessings to you,
      Matt

  3. Great article, thank you for this. Just what I needed to start the new year and also loved the Bill Giovannetti article. I think this will help shape my preaching this year. As to a couple of the other comments, I didn’t take it that you were trying to water down the commandments of the Bible at all, just trying to reshape our motivation and way we preach and interact with the congregation.