“Preach on sin, Pastor!”
When the old gentleman urged that bit of counsel upon me, being young and a know-it-all, I assumed he wanted me to harp on the ways of drug addicts and murderers and terrorists, sins no one in our congregation was committing. But I know now what he was saying.
The old man was right.
Preachers who love the Word and are committed to the Lord’s people—well, a large number of them—have found that it is pleasant to the hearers and strengthening to his job security to leave out the sin business.
I’ve noticed this a lot. And it’s not just one or two preachers.
Here’s what happens: You preach a great text and share some wonderful insights you’ve gleaned. And they are good insights. You end your sermon, satisfied that you have fulfilled your assignment from the Lord. Little old ladies—God bless ’em!—brag on you at the exit, and you go home pleased with yourself.
But not so fast.
You left us wanting.
You left out something. Something that drives the lesson home, that God uses to bring conviction, that people are sorely in need of.
You forgot to tell us where we were not living up to that lesson. An area where we were failing to receive what God has given in Christ. Our area of disobedience.
Here’s what I mean: Let’s look at a few random texts, in no particular order.
And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isa. 6:3)
The typical preacher tells us about Isaiah’s grief over the death of Uzziah and waxes eloquent on the glories of worship. Scripture is filled with exalted praise of our Lord, and the pastor can find plenty instances in Revelation to fill his sermon.
But not so fast.
The concept of holy means “other than.” God is different from us. “Be holy, because I am holy,” our Lord says (1 Peter 1:16). We’re not automatically holy. Our lives are soiled, our hearts are wayward, our souls are tainted with sin.
An insight from Psalm 50 hits it out of the park. God’s people were ignoring his teachings and violating his instructions: “When you did these things and I kept silent, you thought I was exactly like you” (Ps. 50:21).
Wow. There is the danger with our too-familiarity with the things of God and the loss of holiness. We end up believing God must like what we like and hate what we hate. Which was the sin of the slavers and the racists who carried on their legacy. And it’s the sin of many in the pews, Pastor. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you how.
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice …” (1 Sam. 15:22)
The typical way of handling this is to talk about King Saul and his failure, and then extol the virtues of obedience. All are good points. We know lots of texts on obeying, beginning with 2 Corinthians 2:9: “Another reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything.”
But the prophet Samuel, who was fearlessly confronting the king with this bit of straight talk, was contrasting what we so often give to the Lord in place of obedience, substitutes for faithfulness.
And that is where the rubber hits the road. There is your cutting edge for this sermon, Pastor. Without that, the sermon is a nice little study that comforts everyone and lulls them to sleep. But by camping out on this point—the substitutes we offer our God in place of obedience—we can think of all sorts of scriptures making the same point: 1 John 3:18; Luke 6:46; John 13:17; and so forth. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you how to drive this home.
The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures … (Ps. 23:1)
That’s everyone’s favorite psalm for good reason. But the typical pastor will be tempted to list the wonderful things being said about our Lord’s shepherding of the Lord’s flock and stop there.
Doing that is a travesty. Take the opening line: “I shall not want.” Everyone sitting before you today, Pastor, is violating that. So, why not talk about this and not scoot by it as though they weren’t?
Why does the Lord have to “make us lie down in green pastures”? What does that reveal about us? We “fear not evil” because “thou art with me.” Why are the people in the pews paralyzed by myriads of fears? Why doesn’t the presence of the Lord with us make more of a difference? This is where we deal with the sinful, unbelieving heart.
Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. (Psalm 1:1–2)
It’s not enough to brag on the law and urge people to meditate on it. The psalmist urges us not to walk in ungodly counsel, not to stand with those who flout God’s law, and not to be found sitting among the scornful. That carries a punch.
When we preach on the dark side, when we deal with the unbelief in people’s hearts, we become instruments of the Lord in bringing conviction. But no one is going to fall under conviction from hearing our nice little devotionals on these great Scriptures.
Here are some questions to ask of the text when preparing your sermon:
- What is the larger message of this Scripture? The full thrust of the passage, not just an isolated portion of it.
- What is God saying to each subgroup within the congregation? That includes those needing comfort, searchers who need light, the faithful who need encouragement and the compromised who are desperately in need of a good rebuking.
- Put yourself in the place of the lukewarm church member and ask what in this message speaks to them. Ask yourself whether anyone is going to be convicted of sin, anyone drawn to Jesus for forgiveness and healing.
- What is the other side of this text? When a well-loved verse says, “The Lord God is a sun and a shield; the Lord gives grace and glory,” then we might ask what does the sun do, what about the people who are in darkness; what does a shield do, and what happens to people in battle who have no shield?
Why do we do it? Why do we omit the full treatment of these Scriptures and fail the people we were sent to help? I think we know.
People love to have their ears tickled. That’s 2 Timothy 4, among the final words we have from the apostle Paul. He said, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths” (4:3-4).
People don’t like sin-preaching, even though it’s as practical and helpful as a doctor’s prescription. Imagine going to the doctor’s office and receiving the full examination, then hearing the doctor brag on you for a half hour and skirt his real diagnosis of the disease.
Pastors have found they can stay in a church longer if they go easy on the sins of their people and skim over the rough treatments Scripture gives to their hypocrisies.
I’ve noticed denominational people develop the skill of almost saying something in a sermon, but not quite. They learn to give us these glittering generalities that would convince you that you were getting the meat of the Word if you didn’t know any better. But they don’t want to offend anyone—these churches pay their salaries—so they find safe Scriptures and harmless subjects. In doing so, they fail the people they were sent to help.
Pastors love the compliments of their little old ladies and the adulation of search committees. And search committees are notorious for wanting preachers who can fill the pews without offending anyone. So far, to my knowledge, no one has ever found a way to preach on sin without offending those who are cheating on their taxes, cheating on their spouses and cheating on their responsibilities.
No one wants a negative preacher. The gospel is called “good news” for a reason. But news is good only if it addresses a bad situation. Otherwise, it’s just filler.
Tell them why the gospel is good news, Preacher. It might not help your job security, but when you stand before the Lord, you’ll be mighty glad you got this right.
Joe McKeever spent 42 years pastoring six Southern Baptist churches and has been writing and cartooning for religious publications for more than 40 years. This article was originally published on McKeever’s blog.