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.