Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Preaching on Sin

My father-in-law early on was not altogether proud to have a preacher in the family, but on one occasion when I told him that I was on my way out to preach, he urged me, “Well, give ‘em hell.” I tried to retort that this was not really what I was supposed to do. On later reflection, though, it seemed to me that I certainly was intended to give them, or at least display to them, hell. And in showing them hell, the preacher must show them the road to hell—the pathway of unrepented sin. Preachers must preach on sin.

Of course, there are great temptations not to preach on sin(!) Brian McLaren tells us that this is not the way to reach Gen-Xers. Robert Schuller told us this was not the way to reach Boomers. Harry Fosdick told us this was not the way to reach Moderns. I am sure we could find such sentiments all through history, and the reason is that we do not like to be told that we are sinners, and so, preachers who preach on sin take the chance of alienating their congregations, or at least some members of their congregations. Here is the problem with that fear—at a certain level the task of preaching is precisely to alienate. We are to expose the sinfulness of the congregation by preaching the gospel, and such gospel preaching includes preaching on sin. If we are unwilling to do that, then we are, in A. W. Tozer’s words, “water-boys of the pulpit.” Let me explain what I do mean by alienation, and what I don’t mean by it.

Both Paul and Jesus begin their gospel presentations with a discussion of sin. After a few introductory words and a preliminary consideration or two, Paul spends two and a half chapters at the opening of Romans discussing the sinfulness of humanity—all humanity. And of course, he does so eloquently and passionately. These words are endemic to the gospel itself, since, in telling the gospel story we have, presumably, to tell why Jesus ever came to die on the cross in the first place. Without sin, there is no beautiful manger scene (and of course, it was not all that beautiful, anyway); without sin, there is no healing of the sick or raising of the dead; without sin there is no Sermon on the Mount. Here is the point: sin is the context in which all of those things took place, and so, we cannot preach the gospel without preaching on sin. In other words, you cannot tell people about their best life today until you remind them first of their worse life yesterday.

Paul is not alone in this. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, after some preliminaries, expounded on the sinfulness of humanity—all humanity. In Matthew 5 beginning in verse 21, Jesus, in this wonderful inaugural message in Matthew, in which the gospel is explained with great clarity, expounds on six commandments and the ways in which the Jews were, on the one hand, misunderstanding them, and, on the other hand, breaking them. I have space here to elaborate on only the first two. Jesus addresses the laws against murder and adultery. He makes it clear that the common understanding of those laws is superficial, and in his truly authoritative fashion, he says, “Amen I say to you that you shall not live in a state of settled anger with your brother; Amen I say to you that you must not stare at your sister to lust.” Those two sins indict the entire human race. And this is something that was obvious even to pagans. In Greek mythology Ares, the god of war, was romantically linked to Aphrodite, the goddess of sex. War and sex. Anger and Lust. They seem opposite, since anger pushes the other away while lust lures the other close, but they are actually very similar. At the root of each lies the ego. “I have decided you are unworthy. I have decided to want you.” They are different in content but similar in intent. Even the Greeks knew there was a link between these illnesses, and that even their gods were infected with the disease. Of course, by the time the Greeks were anesthetized by the Romans, they no longer cared.

So, for Jesus, as well as for Paul, an explication of sin is an essential, a non-negotiable part of the gospel proclamation.

How deeply this infection runs in modern culture! So, do we simply let the disease take its toll, or do we do something about it? Let me tell you—their momma is not going to do anything about it in many cases. In a day when Baptist septuagenarians are shacking up, just who is going to try to keep the fox out of the henhouse? Well, if no one else will do it, then the pastor gets the call. And he should. And he better.

The preacher must declare that unrepented sin itself is alienation. The unrepentant sinner is alienated from God—either as a non-believer or as a believer under discipline from the Lord. The unbeliever, even the one in my church or your church on Sunday morning, stands in danger of hell-fire, as Edwards reminded us in his famous sermon. Curiously, in Jesus’ even more famous sermon, after discussing the sins of anger and lust, he said exactly the same thing. “If you do not deal with your sins of anger and lust, you are in danger of hell-fire.” Let me tell you something, fellow pastor, your members will not all faint if you occasionally use the word “hell” from the pulpit. (Well, not all of them!) I know the word was probably overcooked at one time in history, but undercooking is no more palatable than overcooking.

So, we preach on alienation, but not in order to alienate. We preach on alienation in order to reconcile. So, when you preach on sin, do it with tears in your eyes and not a flash of anger. (Don’t preach against anger angrily.) When you preach on sin and alienation, do it recognizing your own sinfulness and alienation. Admit that you, too, have been where they are, and that you are not the expert come here to lecture them on getting their lives right. You are simply the one who got out of the mire before they did, so that you could throw them a rope of rescue. But when you preach on sin, make it clear that this is a crucial moment. With both anger and lust, Jesus said, “Do something now! This is not the time to mull it over. Get out now, or you may be in hell by morning.” Preachers need to remind themselves of that, too.

Chad Brand

(This article also appears in the current issue of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology)


  1. Thank you for this post. Humbling and illuminating -- twins I often need a visit from.

  2. Amen and Amen!
    It was the consistent preaching of a minister in upstate NY 10 years ago on the very topic of sin, our need for Christ, and a clear message of the Gospel that God used to draw me to Himself. It was the continuned ministry of this preacher to teach on sin that drew me to a deeper love for God and showed me the power of repentance and sanctification. Keep preaching on sin and our need for Christ, that truth changes lives!

  3. Thanks Denise, that is very encouraging for a pastor to hear. And Garvis, those are twins I need as well.