THE RICH SOUND OF GRACE AND HOLINESS
Kenton C. Anderson
I grew up listening to news radio on my mother’s push button am receiver in her ’64 Dodge. When I got my own car, the sound was worse – a single speaker mounted in the back seat delivered my tunes. When I finally installed a new stereo tape deck with dual box speakers in the back window, the sound was incredible. Well, not incredible really, but relative to what I was accustomed to, the sound was outstanding. I remember deliberately taking the long way home just so I could keep on listening to the full, rich sound. Moving from mono to stereo is to the ear like moving from two dimensions to three dimensions is to the eye.
Pierre Babin has employed the stereo metaphor to describe the necessary integration of cognitive (left brain) and emotive (right brain) elements in preaching (Babin 31,32). It strikes me that the metaphor could serve to describe other integrative aspects of the homiletic task, such as the relationship between preaching grace and preaching holiness. Twisting the ‘Balance’ dial on the car stereo to one side or the other produces a diminished monotone. Preaching that resonates requires the full play of both polarities. Such preaching will bear the mark of Jesus’ own preaching which was known to be ‘full of grace and truth (John 1:14, 17).’
There are at least three reasons why our preaching ought to integrate grace and truth. . .
The Preacher Depends On It
I am never sure if I should enjoy the pulpit or run in fear from it. A biblical answer would probably encourage both. Some Sundays I can’t wait to climb the platform and let loose with the message God has given. The sheer joy of feeding truth to starving seekers is a passion. The privilege of preaching is exhilarating on those days I am not overwhelmed by the impropriety of such a thing.
While I am familiar with the joy, I am also acquainted with the misery. I have some appreciation of the sense Moses must have had when he took his shoes off because he was standing on holy ground. I am cognizant of the fact that I serve the same God as Aaron who was under strict instruction even to the extent of his underwear before leading people into the presence of God (Lev.16:4). ‘Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may enter his holy place?’ I’m not sure my hands are clean enough or my tongue pure enough to speak for God before the people. It is preposterous to think that I would be fit to represent the almighty. Some suggest that failure (read ‘sin’) enhances a preacher’s ability to relate to the congregation’s need. Such people need to reread the Pentateuch.
Or maybe I need to reread Romans 8. I appreciate that I come to the pulpit from this side of the cross. God’s grace invigorates me even as it justifies me. Yet, though I preach in the light of New Testament truth, I am challenged by my reading of the Old Testament. The God I serve was awfully finicky in Leviticus. I am theologically astute enough to know that he hasn’t changed or grown. It is simply that I am privileged to stand at a different vantage point.
Holiness matters. It is not that God decided that he had been too hard on us and that if he didn’t lighten up there wouldn’t be anyone qualified to speak on his behalf. Grace was not a ‘lightening up.’ Grace was not cheap. God’s standard was not softened, it was satisfied. I am thrilled that God has given me the opportunity to offer his Word as his servant. My awareness of the price tag on that privilege only enhances my appreciation and my passion.
The Message Depends On It
I love to preach grace. Given the choice, I would rather bear good news than bad. My personal dependence upon grace predisposes me to a grace-full preaching diet. I would just as soon leave holiness to the pulpit pounders on TV. It seems so twentieth century to hammer on holiness. After all, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. That’s in the Bible somewhere, I’m sure.
I would like to think so, at least, because I am committed to a biblical ministry. The more I study the Scripture, however, the more I am aware that my affection for grace does not allow a corresponding aversion for holiness. Grace does not do battle with holiness. As Graeme Goldsworthy put it, ‘The gospel event is not a repudiation of the law; it is its most perfect expression (Goldsworthy 159).’ Paul’s apparent light treatment of the law should not be understood as ambivalence. It is, rather, a function of his location in salvation history.
Paul Scott Wilson has described the nature of the gospel as hopeful. For Wilson, ‘hope’ describes the integration of law and grace. We can preach God as one to be feared or God as one to befriend. A true gospel sermon will offer both. Hope is present only as we are rescued from peril. Hope is not equal to judgment, nor is it equal to grace. Hope is equal to judgment and grace (Wilson 107).
Wilson is particularly critical of expository preachers on this point. Such sermons ‘move once from exegesis to application and frequently express explicit hope only in the closing minute (105).’ If our concern to listen for God’s voice in a specific text leads us to disrespect the broad message of the Bible, Wilson’s point is well taken. Goldsworthy describes moralistic sermons that masquerade as biblical when in fact they are only legalistic. Even texts that offer ethical instruction need to be read in the context of the gospel. Preaching that emphasizes obedience is not gospel preaching.
To say what we should be or do and not link it with a clear exposition of what God has done about our failure to be or do perfectly as he wills is to reject the grace of God and to lead people to lust after self-help and self-improvement in a way that, to call a spade a spade, is godless (Goldsworthy 119).
The Listener Depends On It
Listeners have an ear for stereo. I can hear a stinging sermon but only for a little while. The harangue as homiletic has a short shelf life. Similarly, a sweet sermon can make my heart soar, but only in moderation. What is sweet soon becomes sticky and beyond my ability to enjoy.
There are some stilted souls, who come to be beaten. These are the ones who view the sermon as penance, who have not understood the gospel as grace. There are others as well, who prefer Pastor Thumper, who knows that if you can’t say something nice, then you had better not preach anything at all. These listeners are elderly children who lack the maturity to value the full sound of stereo.
Most listeners have grown to know that sin has its consequences. Helping them appreciate this as part of the fabric of life under God will prepare them to hear that love has its privileges, that grace is the tonic for our inability to obey. Preachers who fulfill the message of holiness with the life-giving message of grace have found the
I broke my headphones recently. This seriously impaired my ability to enjoy my Walkman. I like to listen to baseball while I’m cutting the lawn or catch the news while I go for a run. Now I had to listen out of only one ear. I know that is the way that people listened to their transistors in the ‘50s, but I’ve grown to value more than that. I like to hear the music resonate in my cranium.
God gave us two ears for a reason. I don’t take that fact for granted. I only have partial hearing in my left ear, the result of a series of surgeries that have left me with a hearing impairment. I’ve found that I can manage all right, but there are times I’ve found myself struggling to know what is going on.
As preachers we cannot afford such disadvantage. Our message can not accommodate such impairment. Our listeners cannot afford to be impoverished. We must preach in full stereo. We must preach holiness and we must preach grace.
Babin, Pierre and Mercedes Iannone. The New Era in Religious Communication. Translated by David Smith. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.
Goldsworthy, Graeme. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.
Wilson, Paul Scott. The Practice of Preaching. Grand Rapids, MI: Abingdon, 1995.