Today, even in most churches that seem to teach the truth, there is an intense spiritual deadness. In the postmodern age we live in one can no longer simply read a church’s statement of faith in order to know if it is a good church. A church can have a completely orthodox statement of faith and yet, be spiritually dead in apostasy. Apostasy is a defection from the truth, not necessarily a formal renunciation of the faith (cf. Jeremiah 29:8-9, 31-32, LXX).
Christians for the most part still think in terms of modernism – that something is either right or wrong, black or white – while not understanding that the world has shifted so much in this era that discernment of truth from falsehood must be made in an even more narrow sense than was required in past generations. Past generations of both believers and unbelievers understood the strict dichotomy of truth and falsehood, but today, such lines are blurred, even to a degree in true churches.
The Purpose of Preaching
Most churches today, even churches that the majority of true Christians would regard as doctrinally correct, merely teach didactically rather than actually preaching. Now, you may be asking, what is the difference? Well, there is a big difference. For example, teaching didactically would be a pastor who delivers great information and teaches good theology, but that is not the purpose of preaching. On Sunday morning there should be teaching combined with exhortation, calling the people to examine how they are failing to live their Christian lives and to repent (i.e., turn to the Lord), their minds renewed in the daily decision to abandon self (Romans 12:1-2).
Very often we only think in terms of the extreme examples. We readily reject the liberalism of the Episcopal Church, or the Word of Faith teachings of Kenneth Copeland and Andrew Wommack, or the motivational messages of Joel Osteen, yet we fail to see the apostasy from the word of God in, quote, “conservative churches.” It is not enough merely to share good information and teach solid doctrine; if a preacher is not exhorting the people whom the Lord has placed under his care, and if they do not leave the meetinghouse every Sunday with a certain feeling of despair at their failures mixed with hope in God’s strength, then the meeting is nothing more than an academic exercise. Christians need the constant reminder of their totally depraved human nature, that every part of their character is corrupted to varying degrees by sin. Although there are many ways in which one can critique a sermon, my main critique of any message or lesson is whether or not I feel the weight of my sin and understand with greater clarity my miserable and wretched state, knowing better how I must change to become more like Christ. If I leave a church’s meetinghouse with even a benign feeling about myself then the message fell short of the biblical command for preachers no matter how many interesting facts I was presented.
The Law – Negative and Positive
Every human being desires Heaven, to know that this life is not the end. We see this even in the words of wicked Balaam: “Let me die the death of the righteous, and may my final end be like theirs!” (Numbers 23:10). Yet, despite such a universal desire, very few obtain that glory; furthermore, even many true believers fall short of that desired phrase upon entering heaven, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Many Christians regard Christianity in terms of all the negative commands, the things not to do. They read in Exodus 20:13, “You shall not commit murder,” and the Lord’s words in Matthew 5:21-22 that to be angry with another is equivalent to murder, and so they set out to rein in their hatred, making sure they do not do such things. Yet, they fail to comprehend the positive aspect of such a command; the Christian is not merely called to not murder or hate others. Even a classic “do what thou wilt” Satanist would agree with such a moral principle. We see the positive aspect of this moral command in the ancient civil law for the nation of Israel in Deuteronomy 22:8 which says:
When you build a new house, make a parapet around the roof, so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.
Now as Christians today, we are not ancient Israelites; we are not bound to the letter of this command, that is, that we must have a fence around our roofs. Yet, this civil command is based upon the moral command, “You shall not murder.” If someone in ancient Israel died from falling off someone else’s roof, if there was no fence to prevent such from happening, then that person was still guilty of murder; they had broken the Sixth Commandment even if the fall was accidental because they had not done all they could do to preserve life. That is the key to the Sixth Commandment; the Christian is not merely to focus on reining in his or her hatred of another, nor merely to love them instead, but actively do everything he or she can to preserve life.
A while back I remember seeing on the morning news a story about an elderly woman who was attacked and killed in her own yard by a dog who neighbors said had been a menace for a long time. Now, as it turned out, even under our laws today, in accordance with the particular situation the owner of the dog was arrested on charges of manslaughter. That may seem harsh since the owner did not actively do the killing but it is both morally biblical and is in accordance with our laws today; by taking a passive stance in the matter, not bringing the dog under his control, he was responsible for the death. For one to not do everything he or she can to preserve life is the equivalent of murder. Another example that perhaps ploughs closer to the corn is the issue of texting and driving, or even to be distracted with something else while driving, either case showing total selfishness, unconcerned for the lives of the people in the other cars. We do not always think in these terms, but even to text-and-drive is to violate the Sixth Commandment because we are selfishly unconcerned about the lives of those around us.
The apostle Paul exhorted the Corinthian congregation, saying, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24). In this verse the apostle lays down two important exhortations; first, Christians are not to be idle, merely wishing for Heaven, but to run for it; and second, to not be content with any kind of running but to run specifically “in such a way as to get the prize.”
The duty of the preacher is not merely to teach good theology (as important as that is), but to reveal to the sheep, whom the Lord has charged him, how they are failing in their Christian lives and what they must do to change. Today, far too many preachers want to console their congregations with “you can do it” mantras rather than biblically browbeating the people to repent and be transformed by Scripture to look more like Christ. Consequently, the majority of churches in Western Christianity have drifted into a spiritual malaise, nothing more than social clubs that happen to have orthodox statements of faith but no vitality or life.
When I think of the typical evangelical church today I am reminded of Eli from the Old Testament who “fell backward off his chair by the side of the gate. His neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and he was heavy” (1 Samuel 4:18). Most churches have been gorged to death with interesting facts and doctrine without the proper exercise of application that would have kept them fit. If we are going to see another Great Awakening then pastors must get back to regularly exhorting their people to continual, daily repentance, not feeding them with fact after fact; sound doctrine is important but it should be the foundation of a lesson or a sermon, not the point. Every great revival in history has begun with God’s people receiving a new understanding of their wretched state.