We preach grace, so we must preach with grace.

A sermon from a preacher who lacks grace is similar to a lecture on music instead of the symphony. You may hear the truth and understand its genius, but you will not leave with your heart stirred. A gospel preacher must be born again, of course; but that is just the grand opening of God’s grace in Christ. Other graces shape the effective preacher.

Recently I was surprised to read what Jesus said to His followers in Matthew 23:2-3. “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat,” He said, “so you must be careful to do everything they tell you.”

I didn’t expect that. I assumed those hide-bound preachers so distorted Scripture that they amounted to heretics, but not so. When you think about it, Moses’ law is laced with grace. If Pharisees did nothing more than read the Pentateuch, people were exposed to the grace of God in stories, symbols and laws. However, they garbled the message so badly, according to Jesus, that they barred the door to God’s kingdom and made converts who were children of hell.

Jesus’ issue was the preachers themselves, not their texts. In the same breath, Jesus said, “for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

Holiness, from those preachers, became dead weight.

In Matthew 23:13-32, Jesus brought seven indictments against the Pharisees, seven woes. As preachers, they were perfect failures. They were all show—all yeast and no manna—not because of their texts, but because they never preached with grace.

During a recent sabbatical, I heard several preachers and visited with others. One was three months into his first church and one four months from retirement. One brother had been restored to the ministry from crushing failure. Two had been forced out of churches. Some had endured seasons of desperate depression. It’s a tough business!

Still, they all came to preaching with grace. You could see it in them and hear it in their voices. They each personified Jesus’ invitation, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Similar to Jesus, they each helped God’s people bear the holy weight of righteousness in their sermons but also in the way they conveyed God’s help in Christ. They were the antithesis of the woe-filled preachers Jesus confronted.

What do those grace-full brothers have? What shapes a shepherd to preach with grace?

Come Graced
When I was a boy, I usually was required to take one bath a week on Saturday night. At the time, even that seemed to me to be unnecessarily often. I’d show Mom my forearm and protest, “I’m not dirty!” I was oblivious to my sticky skin and the grime ground into my neck and feet.

Sometimes I’m still like that with my heart. Oh, there are surely weeks when my sin has left me feeling as filthy as a chimneysweep, and I have been only too happy to bathe in Christ’s forgiveness; but often the grime just builds up within unnoticed and unwashed. I’m oblivious to the ground-in dirt between my ears and the stains that ministry frustrations have left on my heart. On Sunday morning, spiritually speaking, I can put on a clean shirt, slap on some cologne, and who’s going to know? I dress up well.

Jesus said in His fifth woe, “Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matt. 23:26). Food served from a filthy vessel is neither appetizing nor sanitary, and the same is true with sermons. Our listeners may not realize it, but our grimy souls leave smudges on our sermons and our preaching takes on a slightly sour smell.

Thankfully, I remember other baths from my childhood, probably those that were supervised, when I climbed out of the tub scrubbed from head to toe. After all these years, I remember how good clean felt. I love to come to Sunday mornings (any mornings, actually) feeling that way inwardly. It is wonderful to preach clean.

More than 14 years ago, when I came to the church I now serve, they were not so much divided as shell-shocked. They had gone through a grueling conflict; the church reminded me of those war-ruined cities where bridges are gone, the power and water supplies are gone, and people are scared to come out of their bunkers. So we prayed.

I began by preaching from 1 John to reorient us to God’s love. Then a few months later, we went to Joshua to lead us into the land of God’s promises. I felt the most important sermon would be on chapter 7, about the hidden sin of Achan that sabotaged Israel’s success. There had been a rather long history of difficulties in the church, and I wondered often if spiritual toxic waste below the surface of our life together was poisoning us in ways we couldn’t see.

I decided this would be a kind of line-in-the-sand sermon. I asked God to make clear if there was sin in the camp so we either could address it or keep moving. I prayed a great deal as that Sunday approached. I decided I would do something I never had done before (or since). I stayed at church all Saturday night, praying as long as I could.

The hard part of praying that night wasn’t praying for the church. It was what lay buried in me. When I left my previous congregation, unknown to most, I carried some deep resentment. That Saturday night as I prayed, I was afraid I might be the Achan. I was ready to do whatever I needed to do to set things right.

I assumed God would require me to talk to people—especially one person—who had frustrated me deeply. The problem was this person had no idea how difficult he had been for me. To confess my sin to him actually would burden him with a kind of condemnation he didn’t need. (“I’m sorry I have resented you so much for what you did to me.”)

That night, God impressed on me what He wanted me to do, something I never had thought of before. First, I honestly repented to God for this festering frustration. Then the Spirit told me, “You do not need to call him, but every time you think of him”—and I thought of him a lot!—”I want you to bless him. Pray for him. Ask God to delight him.” So that is what I began to do that very night. Within a couple of weeks, I was released from the headlock of my resentment and my unsuspecting brother was blessed many, many times.

I am not sure just what happened in hearts that morning, but I know I never again have wondered if sin still lay hidden beneath our feet. I also know this: That morning, thanks be to God, I preached with grace.

Preach as a Servant
The Pharisees and teachers of the law loved how people would step aside and bow a little when they passed. They loved that their word was the last word. They loved hearing their own prayer voices intoning in the temple courts. They loved their titles—rabbi, father, teacher. They had worked hard and sacrificed greatly to get there, but now they were at the top of their game and reaping the rewards.

Yet they were preaching pretenders. Their titles were bogus. They didn’t know up from down when it came to Scripture. “You have one Teacher,” Jesus said, taking aim at the whole tasseled faculty of Israel. “You have one Father, and He is in heaven. You have one Instructor, the Messiah.”

What’s more, they thought teaching God’s Word put them at the top of the professional ladder when, in fact, it puts a person on his or her knees with a basin and a towel. Jesus continued, “The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:10-12). There is a greatness in preaching God’s Word because it is such a high privilege, but that doesn’t make us great. It fits us to be great servants of God’s blessed people.

Ephesians 4 explains how we got where we are. We were part of great parade of the pardoned, marching to Zion, when the Lord pulled us from the line, equipped us with His Word, and gave us back to His church as gifts. “When He ascended on high, He took many captives and gave gifts to His people…So Christ Himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip His people for works of service, so the body of Christ may be built up…” (Eph. 4:8, 10-12).

There is no earthly reason why the Lord pulled these particular captives out of the company of the heaven-bound and set the Word burning on our tongues. All our saintly siblings are gifted by Christ to serve one another in His body as surely as we are, but we are among the Word-workers. That is what I call the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. God divinely equips these particular believers to speak to the world and the church on His behalf.
So far as I can tell, God did not single out any of us for this work because He liked our resumes or found us in a talent search. I suspect He chose us because since creation, God finds special creative delight in making something from nothing, ex nihilo.

All these captives know, if they have their wits about them, as turtles on fenceposts, they didn’t get where they are by themselves. So there is no room for posturing and pride.

It was a dry and weary Sunday afternoon when we pulled into the little town in Iowa where my brother-in-law Jerry is a pastor. He invited us to their evening service. “You still have an evening service?” I asked. “Why?”

Jerry smiled and answered, “I decided that we had asked our older people to give up so much as church life has changed over the years that I didn’t want to take this away from them, too.”

So at 6:30, we joined about 10 others in a few of the pews on one side of the auditorium. As was their custom, they sang three hymns; then Jerry opened the Bible to their ongoing study on the life of Abraham. Jerry is a true scholar and a master teacher, and this was no slap-dash devotional. His teaching was clear, arrow-straight and intriguing, carrying us straight to Jesus. I could tell it had been a lot of work—for 10 people…because he loved them.

Servants such as him preach with grace.

You’d Better Believe It
To preach with grace, a preacher must believe God uses the declaration of His Word in a unique way to accomplish His holy purposes. I have to re-believe that each time I come to preach. It is an incredible prospect; so each time, I have to reactivate my trust in God that this sermon will carry His life and authority.

It is hard to explain what happens during sermons, especially when so many of our sermons seem so ordinary. However, sermons carry the breath of God; they sow seed, deliver banquet invitations, reveal mysteries, open the gates of the kingdom and give glimpses of the throne room of God. Sermons are paths, pastures and protection for God’s beloved sheep. Believing that is how we preach with grace.

An African-American pastor friend invited me once to an ordination service for a couple of young men in his church. My wife and I had slipped into the back row of the crowded church when my friend tapped me on the shoulder. “Come with me,” he said. “You’ll be in the processional.”

“The processional?” I asked. I had no idea what he was talking about. A moment later, pastors were marching down the aisle two by two. “What have I gotten myself into?” I wondered. I ended up in VIP seating to the side of the platform. I settled into the back row, caught my wife’s grin, and figured I could lie low from then on.

Just then my host, who was sitting right in front of me, turned around in his chair and whispered over his shoulder, “You’ll be reading the Scripture text. Isaiah 61:1-2.”

“Ah, OK,” I said, and thumbed my way to the passage that begins, “The Spirit of the sovereign Lord is on me.”

“Oh, yes, that one,” I thought. “Just two verses. I can do that. It’ll be over in a second.” Then I waited about an hour for my turn.

Finally, I climbed the platform steps to the old pulpit. I opened my Bible and intoned, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me.”

The congregation stopped me dead in my tracks: “Amen! That’s right! Amen!”

After I found my place again I forged on, “…because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” I was feeling the love, so I punched the word preach a bit and there it came again:

“Preach the good news! Amen! Preach!”

I girded up my loins and marched boldly onward. “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted.”

It rolled back at me like an echo from heaven. “Bind UP!” “Praise God!” “Thank You, Jesus!”

“To proclaim FREEDOM for the captives.”

Some laughed for the joy of it. Some clapped their hands.

“And release from DARKNESS for the prisoners.”

Again, they ran out to meet the Word with palm branches and hosannas.

Two verses could take a long time to read. “To PROCLAIM the year of the Lord’s FAVOR and the day of vengeance of our GOD.”

“Yes!! Hallelujah!” Feet stomped on the wooden floor. Applause—applause!—for the greatness of the commission.

I closed my Bible and stood there amazed…and I wished more than anything they’d given me more than two verses to read.

Jesus used those very words to inaugurate His ministry, and it is fitting that they shape all who minister in His name. We bless our people when, before we preach or do any other shepherding work, we lay hold of this anointing by faith. We believe that through our sermon Jesus will search out another woman by a well, sitting in our pews, that children (young and old) may climb again into Jesus’ lap to be blessed, that leprous lives might be made clean, and that footsore souls might be washed by Jesus’ gentle hands. We grace God’s people when we believe Jesus will be working the aisles while we preach. We put ourselves again and again under the ordaining hand of Isaiah’s text: “The Lord has anointed me [also] to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me [also] to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”—Jesus first, and then His pastors.

Trust God that it is so, and you will preach with grace.

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