“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” (Heb 10:23)
In a world full of bad news, the one place that we should be able to retreat and finally be washed over with a good word, is the church. There are some scattered pastors who are faithful to God’s two words, Law and Gospel, every Sunday. They don’t attempt to remove shame by removing the Law completely nor do they add shame to the hearer by preaching cheap law (i.e. moral reform via “application”). Instead, these pastors leave the Law right where it belongs, allowing it to have its intended full effect on the hearer (you can’t keep this), and then they faithfully bring gospel relief (Jesus kept it for you). These faithful preachers of God’s word know that the good news isn’t profound or beautiful to “those with ears to hear”, until the bad news of the Law has been presented. Their congregants are used to these word distinctions and know that their sin, “is called sin and in its nature truly is sin but now it is sin without wrath.” (Luther) These hearers are fully aware that the second word (Gospel) is going to catch them and therefore, with confidence they face the first word (Law).” This group of believers leave church every week both exposed and loved — their faith in the gospel has been strengthened — which should always be the goal of the preacher.
Sadly, every week many people shuffle into a building, slump down exhausted, into a chair ready for relief — only to hear more bad news. The threats and demands of moral reform are hurled at some congregations for an hour or so and afterwards these people walk out with more shame and weariness than they entered with. These believers in Christ have been convinced that God is as angry and disappointed with them as the guy thundering away up front wearing a tie and furrowed brow. They know they aren’t as good as the pastor presented himself to be and so they go home discouraged and defeated, with the “kingdom of heaven shut in their faces.” (Matt 23:13) Or much worse, they go home puffed up and filled with prideful self-congratulations about their beautiful kept exterior, while neglecting to see that their hearts are filled with all kinds of uncleanliness. Jesus made it clear that heaven rejoices over the broken sinner who knows that he has a great need and turns to faith in Christ alone, not moral reform. “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance” (Luke 15:7)
I wish that the first scenario I presented were more common, but unfortunately many pastors proclaiming to believe the gospel instead “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” (Matt 23:4) If you are one of the people in this kind of church, my heart is for you.To these weary, starved sheep who feel as though they’ve wandered so long with a shepherd who’s unwilling to offer a drink but instead shouts at them for being tired and thirsty, I know and I’m so sorry. May I speak a good word to you?
God’s not angry nor is he disappointed with you, blood bought sinner. I know you hear many threats made in the name of Jesus directed at you, but rest assured — Jesus has made no such threats. If by faith you trust in Christ’s atoning work on your behalf, those verses about God’s wrath no longer apply to you. There is therefore NO condemnation. You can rest. (Rom 8:1)
“And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ having been offered once to bear the sins of many will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who eagerly await him. (Heb 9:27-28)
Dear one, Jesus is not out to get you. He knows every temptation and hardship that you face in an intimate, real way (see Heb 4:14-15). He’s not looking at you saying, “I was able to face temptation without sin, so why aren’t you?!” On the contrary, He’s looking at you saying, “Your problem was that you couldn’t do it, and because I love you, I did instead. Now, just abide in my love, rest in faith.”
The point of the Christian life is not pietism, it’s not about making yourself better. I know that you struggle deeply with doing all the things that you don’t want to do, so do I. There are not enough “application” driven sermons in the world to change that or make you better. If change by personal sweat and grit is possible, then Christ’s death was for nothing. Yet these hurlers of cheap law will cause you, in every sermon, to question your salvation if you’re not following their guidelines. To encourage you, the mere fact that you desire to be who you’ve been declared by the gospel to be, is a clear indication that justification has taken place, otherwise the Law wouldn’t cause you such anguish. Hold fast to your confession of faith. Hold fast to your confession that Jesus’ death and resurrection was enough to cover your worst deeds. Why? “Because he who promised is faithful.” (Heb 10:23)
So what about getting better? The second that you stop worrying about getting better and instead, confess your inability to get better and fall on Christ in faith? That’s the very second that you’ll actually start to get better because you’re moving away from the fleshy desire to defend, save, and fix yourself.
“Rather the process of removal (of the old man) has begun and as a person increases in spiritual health these evils are removed. This spiritual health is nothing more than faith in or love in Christ.” – Luther
The gospel means that God has promised to love you no matter what. You’re free to put all of those threats you heard yesterday, out of your head. You’re free to rest in the love that will never let you go, even if you skipped church this week altogether because you couldn’t listen to one more threatening sermon that weakens your faith. 😉