That the Gospel should be preached in every sermon is an assertion, I am sure, that will meet with universal agreement among Christian clergy. No pastor, I am positive, would argue that the Gospel may on occasion be omitted from a sermon.
We may debate among ourselves how we should preach the Gospel but never whether we should preach the Gospel. We may regard a particular sermon as a great work of art or as a profound human utterance, but minus the Gospel we consider it, for all its merits, as nothing more than “sounding brass” and “tinkling cymbal.”
It goes without saying that the Gospel is God’s power for salvation and for sanctification, and that when the Gospel is not preached in a sermon these particular blessings are simply not being transmitted at the time. On this matter there is unanimity in Christian circles.
It does not follow, of course, from such accord that the reminder to include the Gospel in every sermon is an assertion not worth making. It is worth making, decidedly so — but only to encourage one another to carry out our common calling, not to establish agreement on the issue. That part of our question we may beg — fortunately.
Perhaps, we can safely assume one more thing: it is seldom that a Christian pastor, despite better knowledge, deliberately, intentionally omits the Gospel from any given sermon that he preaches.
That we sometimes fail to include the Gospel in our preaching — if not altogether, at least to a greater degree than we think — is, of course, the problem with which this article concerns itself. But it is readily granted that such omissions are rarely conscious, overt omissions.
Rather, our problem may be this: omitting the Gospel in a sermon when we think we are including it; or, at the very least, including less Gospel in a sermon than we think we are. The Gospel-omissions that are the concern of this article are he results of ignorance, misunderstanding, carelessness, and bad habits.
And, although from a human viewpoint such omissions are more “pardonable” than the deliberate type mentioned above, we must realize that in their effect — or lack of effect — they are every bit as deadly.
Token Gospel
One way of omitting the Gospel even when we’re technically inserting it is to accord it perfunctory, minimal inclusion, probably at the very beginning or at the very end of the sermon. There may be a casual, passing reference to the death or resurrection of Christ in the introduction or a mere “God grant it for Jesus’ sake” in the conclusion.
The Gospel is there, yes, in so many words — or rather in so few words — but it’s barely there. It’s sandwiched in or dragged in rather than vigorously, enthusiastically, abundantly proclaimed.1
Various factors may motivate such minimal inclusion. It may arise from a sort of token courtesy, from a feeling that the presence of some Gospel in a sermon is “meet, right, and salutary.” The preacher, in effect, pays his respects to the Gospel, tips his hat to it.
Or such minimal Gospel may be included as a sop to audience expectation. (“They like it.” “They want it.” “They would be disappointed or uncomfortable or critical if it weren’t there.” “If it’s missing, they might not recognize it as a Christian sermon.” Etc.)
Or the Gospel may be added as a pious afterthought. Realizing at the end of his sermon that he has preached only Law, the whole Law, and nothing but the Law, the speaker may quickly add a word of Gospel as a sort of frosting to make the cake of the Law more palatable. The thought may cross his mind that possibly a little Gospel can cover a multitude of homiletical sins.
Whatever the motive, however, the Gospel is only minimally present, almost, as it were, by permission of the preacher. The problem, though, is not so much the limited number of Gospel words as it is the ineffective positioning of those words.
All of us, no doubt, have heard effective Gospel sermons in which the number of words devoted to the Gospel were actually few, few at least in comparison to the words of Law, but those few words were assigned an emphatic, climactic position, so much so, in fact, that they functioned as the focus or corner-stone of the sermon and left the hearer with the definite impression, despite the small number of actual Gospel words, that he had indeed heard, more than anything else, a proclamation of the Gospel. A smattering of Gospel words may not be problematic, but a smattering of Gospel words poorly chosen and poorly positioned — that is the problem.
Distorted Law-Gospel Relationships
Another way of preaching considerably less Gospel than we think we are preaching has to do with the relationship of that Gospel to the Law. To begin with, the preacher may fail to precede his Gospel preaching with Law preaching. Even as food is tasteless to a person unaware of his hunger and even as water is insipid to a person unaware of his thirst, so the Good News fails to be good news to the person unaware of his sin and its potential for his damnation.
A cure has little chance for success where there is no preliminary diagnosis. To offer the Gospel minus the prerequisite of the Law runs the risk of throwing pearls to swine and casting holy things to dogs.
Again, technically, Gospel is present, but the absence of a proper climate for that Gospel (the result of failure to preach Law) may reduce the impact of such Gospel considerably. For the Law functions as a “John the Baptist,” preparing the way of the Lord into the human heart.
Equally serious is the failure to proportion Law and Gospel properly. The common and frequent phrase in Christian circles “Law and Gospel” may tempt the preacher in his sermon preparation to match every six parts of Gospel with half a dozen parts of Law or to write alternating paragraphs of Law and Gospel of equivalent length. But in the words of Walther, “… Law and Gospel are confounded and perverted for the hearers of the Word, not only when the Law predominates in the preaching, but also when Law and Gospel, as a rule, are equally balanced and the Gospel is not predominant in the preaching.”2
Where Law abounds in a sermon, the Gospel ought much more to abound. When preached together (as indeed they should be), Law exists for the sake of Gospel; Law is the means, Gospel the end or the goal.
The predominance of the Gospel in a sermon does not necessarily depend upon the quantity of Gospel in that sermon. It is not a matter of amount but of emphasis. What counts is the quality of the Gospel, not necessarily its quantity. As conceded above, a sermon may contain surprisingly few words of Gospel and yet come off as a Gospel sermon if it is evident that those few words are the goal or climax or thrust of the sermon.3
A particular disproportion of Law and Gospel unique to our times is the problem of “overcomplicating.”4 Too many sermons today are long on problem, short on solution; long on diagnosis, short on cure. An exaggerated fear of oversimplifying, an unhealthful desire to keep in step with the times, or a proclivity to hop onto some current cultural bandwagon keeps the preacher, if not from verbalizing the Gospel, at least from verbalizing it too clearly or too forcefully.
The words chosen, the tone of voice employed, the gestures used, particularly the facial expressions generated — all convey the impression that it is chic to revel in complexity.
Good preaching, to be sure, must recognize life’s problems and come to grips with them. It dare not overlook them, hide from them, or cavalierly dismiss them. But it is one thing to do battle with complexity; it is quite another thing to delight in it. It is one thing to admit that answers are difficult to come by; it is quite another thing not to want to come by answers. To use a crude analogy, we will forgive a dog for sniffing a carcass, but we will be of quite another mind if he decides to roll in it.
A final distorted Law-Gospel relationship that reduces and may even negate Gospel content in a sermon is Gospel-preaching that comes off as Law because of the Law tone, the fire-and-brimstone manner in which it is delivered. There is a “there take that,” “put that in your pipe and smoke it,” “you’d better believe it” quality to the Gospel presentation.
Or the Gospel proclamation becomes a variety of theological flag-waving, concerned not so much with announcing “Jesus is Savior” (even though that is the burden of the words being spoken) as it is with affirming, “Look at how orthodox and bold and staunch and fearless and loyal and uncompromising I am being in saying these particular Gospel-words.” The preacher is not so much preaching good news as he is popping firecrackers in commemoration of some theological “Fourth” of his own conjuration.
Given a Law motivation or a Law mindset, the preacher may end with a pulpit presentation in which there is Gospel content but not Gospel tone, Gospel matter but not Gospel manner.
It does not follow from this, of course, that the Good News is to be preached in a soothing, syrupy manner, with an affected smile thrown in for good measure. But it does follow that the Good News should always come off as good news: language, tone, gesture, facial expression all indicating the speaker’s personal involvement in the thrilling truth he is communicating.
Cliche’ Gospel-preaching
Undoubtedly, the most common way of omitting the Gospel in a sermon even while technically including it is the way of triteness, cliche’-preaching, what might (somewhat irreverently) be called “The Gospel according to Platitude.”
Early in his ministry the preacher may have developed one or two ways of saying the Gospel and has since then never ventured beyond the security and comfortableness they provide. At some predictable point in his sermon, he presses an imaginary button and — presto! — out pops what may sound like a pre-recorded Gospel formula.
The problem is not that the Gospel is absent from the formula; it may be abundantly present. Nor is the problem that the words of the formula are incorrect, unorthodox; they may even consist of words from the Bible, the Confessions, or the Catechism. Nor is the problem that the formula was never good to begin with; at one time it may have been a most effective way of preaching Gospel. But the formula has simply become too familiar to the listener — that is the problem.
Even the best of expressions, if said often enough, can become trite, “tired.” The listener’s response, if it materializes at all, is Pavlovian: “Oh, that again! I wonder why he bothers to tell me.”5 But, more likely, there is no response at all since the words, though spoken, are never really heard.
The listener’s brain is faster than the speaker’s lips. The moment the preacher initiates his platitude, the listener, light years ahead of him, mentally finishes the cliche’ and, while the speaker verbally completes it, lets his mind wander to more tangible things — like shapely blondes and shiny cars. As homiletics texts are fond of reminding us: Heresy has slain its thousands, but dullness its tens of thousands.
It is indeed imperative that the preacher in sermon after sermon preach “the same old thing” (life and salvation through Jesus Christ). But it need not — it dare not — be said in “the same old words.” To invert the Biblical analogy, it is incumbent upon the preacher always to put the “old wine” (the Gospel) into “new bottles” (new, fresh words).
Gospel That Isn’t Gospel
The presence of the mere vocable “Gospel” in a sermon does not insure that the Gospel has been preached. Talking about the Gospel is not the same as preaching the Gospel.6 Sooner or later — preferably sooner — the thrilling truth of God’s disposition to save and the relationship of that disposition to the stirring facts of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection and their meaning for life here and hereafter must be spelled out in so many words.
This does not mean telling the story of salvation from beginning to end in every sermon — different sermons will concentrate on different aspects of that story and its meaning — but it does mean saying, at least in part, what the Gospel actually is and not merely mouthing the word “Gospel” or some similar expression.
Furthermore, exhortations like “Believe the Gospel,” “Trust in the Gospel,” “Put your hope in the Gospel” are not Gospel; they are Law, they are commands. Even fuller statements like “All you have to do to be saved is believe in Jesus Christ” indeed contain Gospel but still have the weakness of focusing attention as much on human activity as on God’s activity.
To be sure, in his Gospel-preaching the speaker will indeed use commands, exhortations, challenges, appeals, conditions — after all, he is talking to people, not blocks of wood; and besides there is ample Biblical precedent for this kind of language in Gospel proclamation — but he must always be careful that such commands, exhortations, challenges, appeals, and conditions do not negate objective justification, the fact that God already has done all that needs to be done in Jesus Christ, that indeed “It is finished.”
Unavoidable, even desirable, as the language of command and challenge is in a sermon, it must never stress human response above God’s activity; it must never convey the impression that God loves us because we repent and believe. Rather it must make crystal clear that we repent and believe because God loves us in Jesus Christ. It must make unmistakably plain that God through Jesus Christ always enables what He commands.
While faith and good works are indeed human responses, they are always human responses that are one hundred percent the result of God’s power through Christ. Such responses indeed occur in human beings, but they are not of human origin.
For that reason, to clarify God’s “allness” and man’s “nothingness” in the formation and sustenance of Christian faith and Christian behavior, it is necessary that sermonic imperatives always be in company with Gospel declaratives, recitals of the mighty and sufficient acts of God in Jesus Christ.
A curious offshoot of the problem described in the preceding paragraph is the tendency in our preaching to substitute the motivation of gratitude for the power of the Gospel. After depicting — often eloquently — Christ’s suffering in our behalf, the preacher then says (in effect): “Now, out of gratitude, from a sense of decency, let us accept what Christ has done and let us lead lives of good works.”
Again, of course, there is the objectionable focus on human response rather than on divine activity. But the real mistake is the assumption that the listener has a feeling of gratitude that will respond to a recital of God’s gracious acts; the assumption that if you rub Gospel and gratitude together like two sticks of wood, some sort of spiritual fire will result.
We need to remind ourselves that the natural man no more possesses the virtue of gratitude than he possesses any other virtue. The natural man receives not the things of God but considers them foolishness (1 Cor. 2:14).
Gratitude, therefore, is not natural; it is unnatural, because by nature we are dead, dead in trespasses and sins. A corpse does not respond to caresses — it only responds to being made alive.
True, once made alive, the Christian can “co-operate” with God. But we must bear in mind that the life enabling such co-operation comes from Him. It is God who works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13).
The Christian may indeed experience a feeling of gratitude toward God, but if he does, that gratitude, like salvation itself, is a product of God’s grace. Hence the preacher may appeal to the feeling of gratitude present in his listener, but only so long as he is careful to ascribe the credit for that virtue to God Himself.
In my opinion, though, such appeals, unless very carefully worded, run the risk at worst of heresy and at best of “overcomplication.”
The simple fact is that whatever we do, believe in Jesus or perform a specific good work, we do it solely by the power of God operating through His Son. Paul is careful to say in Romans 1:8, “I thank God through Jesus Christ” (not “out of gratitude”).
At any rate, if we are grateful to God, it is not because we’re just bound to be so in view of all He’s done for us in Jesus Christ, but rather because God Himself makes us grateful through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are grateful for the Good News only through the Good News. Jesus is the Vine, we are the branches (John 15:5). Unless we abide in Him we cannot bear fruit — including the fruit of gratitude.
Incomplete Gospel
There are any number of ways in which we can preach less than a full Gospel. For example, we may say much about the crucifixion of Christ but little about His resurrection — except during the Easter cycle.
We may “over-objectify” the Gospel; that is, present only the creedal facts, Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, etc., but neglect to explain their significance, their meaning. Or we may “sentimentalize” the Gospel, dwelling on such details in Jesus’ passion-suffering as His sweat, His flogging, the crown of thorns, the cruel nails, His bloodshed, etc., but failing to demonstrate the power of that suffering for life here and hereafter.
Most of us, however, catch ourselves at these omissions in the course of our respective ministries and hasten to correct the oversight and to restore balance to our Gospel-preaching. One practice we may not detect, however, unless it is brought to our attention, is that of restricting our preaching of the Gospel to the area of justification.
We readily say the Gospel when we preach about conversion, salvation, heaven, etc., but we tend to omit it when we discuss sanctification, good works, everyday Christian living. Indeed, it is difficult not to say the Gospel when we preach about being saved. But when a specific virtue like tolerance, stewardship, or prayer is our goal, then it is so easy to forget the Gospel.
In this area too, the area of good works, the power of the Gospel must be applied — else there will be no good works. Not only are we saved by God’s grace through Jesus but also we do good works by God’s grace through Jesus. The power of the Gospel must be brought to bear in both areas: justification and sanctification.
The Solution
Mere awareness of the many ways we may unconsciously omit or reduce the Gospel in our sermons will go a long way toward solving the problem. Yet, admittedly, awareness is not enough. Ultimately, the solution lies in our own regular and enthusiastic exposure to the power of the Gospel.
The more we use the Gospel ourselves, the more we will preach it and the better we will preach it. It may sound simplistic (but I for one don’t think it is simplistic): both the quantity and the quality of our Gospel-preaching are in direct proportion to our use of the Gospel both in our professional study and in our devotional life.
The more we subject ourselves to the thrilling account of God’s love for us as demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, and the more we grow in the stirring significance of that love — that it forgives our sins and makes us right with God, that it is the power for eternal life and the power for this life — the more frequently those same Gospel truths will show up in our preaching and the more rich and varied and interesting will be our presentation of them. In this area, too, to him that hath shall be given even more than he hath, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath (Mark 4:25).
To argue that such exposure to the Gospel renders the study of homiletics unnecessary would, of course, be a tragic oversimplification. But to teach the art of preaching the Gospel — and then to bypass the Gospel itself in the process — would be a ghastly oversight. We need the Gospel ourselves to preach
1. To be sure, we may rejoice even over the presence of minimal Gospel in a sermon. Obviously, some Gospel — any Gospel — is better than nothing. But it is equally obvious that a lot of Gospel is better than a little Gospel. The Word of God should not “be bound” but rather have “free course”!
2. C. F. W. Walther, The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel: Thirty Nine Evening Lectures, trans. W. H. T. Dau (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1929), p. 403.
3. A good example of this is the story of the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-27. The first ten verses of this pericope are mainly Law. Then comes a verse of Gospel at the end, v. 27. But what a Gospel! So tremendous is the impact of that one verse that it “outweighs” all the Law that precedes it.
4. The practice referred to was particularly prevalent in the late 60’s and the early 70’s. Currently, however, the problem seems to be diminishing.
5. To call this response “Pavlovian” is not entirely accurate since I am sure that the listener does not salivate over the story of salvation thus presented.
6. For example, for all its discussion of the Gospel, this article so far contains precious little Gospel.

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