This is a repost from Jan 2007. I think it might be something I wrote for CRC-Voices.
This phrase of yours caught my attention:
All good preaching and leading will have the blessed balance of both content and process because the Christian life is both content (Gospel) and process (living the Christian life.)
I might not be talking about exactly what you are but this is what struck me.
I think it is precisely the implicit acceptance of this distinction that has led to what you are describing. I don’t know that “balance” is the best response. In this case it might be to obliterate the distinction.
Let me muse a bit:
I’d say that preaching has migrated because of an assumption:
Gospel is implicitly understood as: the grace thing that delineates saved from damned and sorts who goes to heaven/ who goes to hell.
It is understood that this is a binary event and therefore, with whatever system a particular church has: going forward, profession of faith, being part of the pack, being a good person, being tolerant, etc. once you’ve made the cut there isn’t much to talk about. Per expectations some churches keep hammering the altar call but that’s another subject.
People quickly move on to what they assume is the relevant business at hand. Figuring out how to live and/or figuring out how to fix things/being entertained/amused/inspired. These are the sermons they want to hear. “Gospel” is something you graduate from, kind of like “driver’s ed”. Once you’ve got your license your good to go, unless you’ve accumulate points on it via misbehavior.
In right leaning churches the sermons will tend towards morality: public and private, admonitions, warnings, etc. This for them becomes “christian living” and it is something different from Gospel. It is process. All of it is essentially, however, carrots and sticks. Do these things and you’ll be blessed (you, your family, your nation). Do these things and you won’t be blessed.
In left leaning churches the sermons will tend towards their favorite schemes for fixing things: be tolerant, be nice, do good, be generous, use the resources at hand to help the kids get over the divorce. Sermons will tend to dwell on the therapeutic.
One might argue that the real genius of the seeker movement was to bring the therapeutic into the conservative camp. Now you can be conservative AND therapeutic at the same time! This is often as evangelical gospel PLUS therapeutic via wisdom literature. Wisdom teaches us how to live and gives us credibility because mainstream America has so little of it. Gospel gives us what we need to feel OK about being put in the ground.
In both cases as you differentiated “gospel” is distinct from process and Christian living.
One of the really transformational tidbits I’ve gleaned from Keller is Luther’s idea that gospel isn’t something we just apply or recognize for justification, but it is also the chief vehicle for sanctification. Gospel is process too.
Now that scares us for some good reasons but hear me out. I’m going also to link it with Realized Eschatology.
Via Keller I read Kierkegaard’s “Sickness Unto Death”. Fascinating little piece. I’ll spare you the details but in this piece he basically equates despair with hell. (I’m reworking his ideas here.) Despair is our inability either to have the “self” located properly and so it is driven to cease to exist. It cannot, however, stop existing even though death and so it is “the worm that doesn’t die, the fire that isn’t quenched”.
CS Lewis in his terrific little piece called “The trouble with X” in “God in the Dock” talks about the fact that each of us as something in us that we can’t see in ourselves, people can’t tell us about it because we won’t listen, and it threatens to damn us. “While that something remains there can be no heaven for you, just as there can be no sweet smells for a man with a cold in the nose, and no music for a man who is deaf. It’s not a question of God sending us to Hell. In each of us there is something growing up which will itself be Hell unless it is nipped in the bud.”
Now as I mentioned on my piece on hell and parties hell is also a place where the exiles are gathered so their grumbling won’t spoil the party, a party which they themselves wouldn’t enjoy at all but a few might seek enjoyment by spoiling the joy of others. Yet what Kierkegaard and Lewis home in on is the notion that hell is not fundamentally geographical, it is relational. That is of course how Jesus suffers hell on the cross right there in front of everyone.
Hell is not just a final state, it’s a process, one that begins here in all of us and the final judgment is simply its natural conclusion. The same is true of our salvation and the salvation of the world. Gospel isn’t some sorting mechanism by which some “make the cut” and are lucky enough to go where the company and furniture are far improved over that other place.
I was struck in watching the Barbara Walter’s Special “Where is Hell? How do you get there?” (So nicely, pragmatically, Americanly approached) how so many of the different spokesmen for the various religions talked about the furniture of heaven. The Muslim was the most interesting with the “youths there to wait on you and satisfy your desires…” Icky! In the the story of the lost son both sons want the father’s stuff but not the father. Gospel is the process by which we begin to want the Father and find our pleasure in him alone, then all the stuff is added on top (seek first the kingdom…)
Gospel is the process of both our justification and sanctification and although we can name the distinction the process is the same. I think that is what the HC gets at when it talks about the fact that being saved by grace won’t simply make us libertines, it can’t. It’s all the same process. We are drawn to Him and the hell that is growing in us is attacked. Gospel in some strange way is like chemo therapy against the cancer of hell in our hearts.
This should inform our preaching and this should help us to not have to separate preaching to “seekers” and preaching to Christians. It’s all the same gospel and it’s all the same process and both the seeker who might be taking first steps and the long term Christian who might be living it for years both benefit.
Gospel is not the “basics” and then we move on to “meat”. If angels are endlessly fascinated by the Gospel then it ought never to bore us because its something we never exhaust or fully grasp.