Pure Gospel

Red rope in a heart-shaped knot in the woods
Photo by Will O on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

As you know, Working Preacher, a sermon might do many things: inspire, challenge, inform, and even entertain at times. But the one thing a sermon should always do, in my humble opinion, is convey the gospel. This week’s reading in Romans 5:1-8 provides a gem for preachers to do just that, since it summarizes the gospel and its effects.

“But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

What a powerful, concise expression of the gospel!

The one true God who created the world has no obligation to prove anything to anyone. Yet, the God who is love (1 John 4:8) so desires loving relationship with humanity that God sent God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to bring this about.

How did Jesus accomplish this? By giving his own life for all people to free them from everything that robs them of true life, which is found in an eternal relationship with the Triune God that brings peace and wholeness. By the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, God’s love in Christ enables us to persevere and have hope in even the most challenging circumstances. The selfless character of divine love is powerfully expressed by the fact that God brings this all about through the gift of Christ not for the pious or apparently deserving but rather for all of us who, on our own, are alienated from—or even openly hostile to—God (see also Romans 5:6, 10).

This is pure good news that everyone needs—whether they realize it or not. Indeed, as you’ve probably experienced, it can be difficult to convey this gospel in meaningful ways to various audiences.

For those who have spent their whole lives in the church, the good news might seem like old news. The “justification by grace through faith” that Romans 5:1-8 proclaims may sound so familiar to some parishioners that they no longer seem to be impacted by the life-changing power of this truth.

For those hearing your preaching who do not identify as Christian, or as “religious” in any way, the very concept of being a “sinner” who needs (or even wants) reconciliation with God may seem strange or even offensive. In some contexts, this may especially be the case of the younger generations that many churches are hoping to attract. I’ve spoken with many such people who see “sin” as an outdated concept used to shame people into embracing a narrow religious morality that constrains them and their freedom to live according to their own values. One cannot receive the “good news” of the gospel if one does not perceive need of it.

The good news for you, Working Preacher, is that in any scenario, it is the Triune God who brings the gospel to life through your preaching for the sake of creating and sustaining faith. As both the Gospel (Matthew 9:35—10:23) and Romans texts show, all Christians are dependent on, and empowered by, the Holy Spirit, including to proclaim the good news that the reign of God (or “heaven”) is near (e.g., Matthew 10:7, 19-20).

Acknowledging this truth, let me highlight some ways that the texts for this week might provide resources for addressing the preaching challenges mentioned above.

Matthew 9:35—10:23 speaks to the situation of those for whom “justification” has largely become a concept that stays tucked away in their mental doctrinal library. Jesus’s calling and sending of his disciples provides a vivid illustration of how justification leads to vocation. The disciples have witnessed Jesus’s healing, liberating ministry, and now Jesus sends them to continue this same ministry to a world in need, calling them to give freely of what they received freely (Matthew 10:8).

One goal of preaching, therefore, is to remind Christians that the freedom from sin and death that the gospel gives them is freedom for sharing this good news with others. As valuable as you and your calling are, Working Preacher, your parishioners need to know that by virtue of their baptism, they are also called and equipped by the Spirit to tell those around them that God is seeking a loving, life-giving relationship with them too.

The Matthew text also attests to the resistance that the gospel and those who share it meet in a world that is often hostile to the power and presence of the God who acts in ways beyond human understanding or control. Jesus clearly states that some type of persecution or rejection for preaching the gospel is an inevitable reality—it is not an “if” but a “when” (e.g., Matthew 10:19). Christians around the world today know this all too well, as they experience marginalization or persecution for proclaiming a crucified and resurrected Messiah. While most Christians living in the US probably do not regularly experience violence or political oppression for their faith, those who venture to share the gospel probably have experienced mockery, criticism, or rejection. It’s no wonder that Paul needs to exhort believers that the Spirit helps them endure suffering (Romans 5:3-5).

Naming the reality of suffering, in fact, can help people who have not yet embraced the gospel truly hear it as good news. One way to depict “sin” for those who have been hurt by misuse of this concept, or see it as irrelevant, is as part of the reality that the world—including our individual lives—is not yet the way God intends it to be. Sin is fundamentally about broken relationships—between people and God, each other, and the whole creation—and is manifest in all that works against God’s loving, life-giving purposes.

All people have experienced brokenness—whether as betrayal by others, societal injustice, or death of their loved ones. As preachers, you can help people name this and the pain it brings, while also proclaiming the promise of God’s redeeming presence in the midst of it. After all, the self-giving love of Christ, declared on the cross, demonstrates that God is especially at work in human weakness and impossibility.

May the presence of the Holy Spirit give you boldness to preach the gospel, this week and always.

In Christ,

Jenny Pietz