Imagine with me, if you will, a father having dinner with his children. At the table, the father waxes eloquent about what it means to be a member of his family. He describes with great passion the sort of people his children ought to be. He talks a great deal about how much he has done for his children, how much he has sacrificed for his family, how much he desires to see his family thrive. His is a love that the children strongly desire, his family is an ideal they long to be a part of. They appreciate the hard work he has done. They know it is an honor to be in this family. Of course they know. Their father tells them constantly. However, after the father finishes talking about his love and the joys of being in his family, he looks his children in their eyes and begins to tell them how they are falling short of his expectations. He questions their work ethic. He wonders why their grades aren’t improving. He knows they’ve been slacking off and playing video games instead of doing homework. He is suspicious of the friends they are running around with. He harps on the music they are listening to and the books they are reading. He reminds them how his love is truly marvelous and unconditional, but then, he looks them in the eyes, and says they ought to do better because of his love.
What would you think of a father like that? If you were the child of this man, how would you feel when you heard all about how much he loved his children, but, then, in direct conversation with you, he would only find fault and impose guilt? Is this a father you would find it easy to love? Is this a father you would work hard to please, or do you think you would just give up and leave the table?
I present the scenario because I wonder if it doesn’t describe a lot of preaching we hear today. We are happy to preach about how gracious and wonderful God is. We wax on about theories of atonement and what a wonderful thing it is to be in the church. We talk about Jesus’ life, fulfilment of prophecy, Old Testament themes, the fruits of the Spirit, etc. with great zeal and passion. And it truly is all beautiful and wonderful. We are great at talking about the Gospel. But, we never get past describing the Gospel. The people in the pews aren’t really sure who the Gospel is for.
But the nature of the discourse changes when it comes to preaching the Law. We know the Law makes all people sinners, so it is simple to accuse the people in the pews. We know the Law is a guide, and so we have no problem giving instruction for what you, the new man or woman in Christ, must do. For some reason, not only do we preachers excel at describing the law, we don’t struggle with directly proclaiming it.
Now, I actually don’t think that is a problem. That is what God has given us the Law to do and how it should be preached. The problem, going back to my analogy, is that everyone at the table knows the demands of the father are directed at them, they just aren’t sure about His love. The father who continually describes his love but never actually gets around to telling his kids “I love you” is not a good father, but one who is rather self-involved.
The good news is that we don’t have such a Father in heaven. Jesus, through His shed blood, has given you a good Father, who sends preachers, not to simply describe His love, but to deliver it, to declare it. When you kneel at the altar and the pastor places the body and blood of Christ in your mouth, He’s not describing anything, but telling you, “You are the one the Father loves. You are the one whose sins are atoned for.” When you hear a preacher proclaim, “I declare you forgiven for Christ’s sake,” you aren’t getting a description of how the Father loves, you are getting the “I love you” of the Father!
Preachers fail when they declare the Law and describe the Gospel.
I was having lunch with a friend the other day and we were discussing preaching. I was trying to explain the difference between primary discourse and secondary discourse that happens in preaching. Primary discourse is the “I love you” of the Father. Secondary discourse is the discussion about that love. I said that it seems preachers have no problem with primary discourse when it comes to the Law, but we tend to back off the primary discourse when it comes to the Gospel.
He said, quite smartly, “It’s basically universal law, but limited atonement.” We preachers are confident that everyone in the pews is a sinner, but for some reason, we’re afraid to tell them theirs are the sins forgiven. We’ll talk about forgiveness, but why do we back off when it comes time to actually proclaim it? Does it worry us they might actually believe it? Isn’t that the point? Or, are we waiting for them to meet some condition before we declare good news?
I mean, what happens to the children at the dinner table when the father sits down at the table, places their favorite meal in front them and says, “I have been looking forward to seeing you all day! Tell me about the day. You got a bad grade? I’m not happy to know it, but I’m glad you told me. Let me work with you on that later. I can get you a better one. Let’s play some video games first, then we’ll hit the books together. I love you guys!”
Certainly the example falls short, but perhaps this is closer to the sort of Father we pastors have been sent to preach the Father who says “I love you.” What kind of children, do you suppose, come from that sort of father? After all, in Christ, that is the sort of Father you have!