Convictionless churches are empty churches. Sure, it may be cool these days to be noncommittal. Sure, backing off and saying that you “could be wrong” is transparent and will gain you some respect among a skeptical audience. Of course, giving all the possible interpretations of a passage of Scripture or a theological position is educational and disarming. But there is something different about preaching that requires the preacher to present a more anchoring hope. Standing behind the pulpit meant something to the Reformers. It mean much more than, “I am going to stand behind this block of wood and give you some options about what to believe.” Simply put, that lacks conviction. And even if you are a diehard pragmatist who is only about getting the numbers in your pews to go up, this is not the way to go about it. Because, frankly, if you have little or no definite convictions, then you are neither a preacher nor a pastor.
“Give them something to believe.” I am told that every time Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, ended his theology classes, he would say, “Men, give them something to believe.” People are looking for something to believe. They want to rest the weight of their anxiety upon something stable. They have enough instability in their lives. They don’t want to go to church to hear the preacher teach. They want him to preach. What do I mean by that? Well, teaching and preaching are not the same thing. They share quite a bit in the semantic domain of discipleship, but they also are very distinct and need to be used very intentionally. How are they distinct? Let me give you a few ways:
Preaching is exhortation; teaching is education.
Preaching is the discharge of the Gospel of hope; teaching is discipleship of the Gospel of hope.
Preaching puts wind in the sails; teaching put an anchor in the ground.
Preaching raises our eyes to the things we know with great conviction; teaching helps us to understand what things we can have legitimate conviction about.
Preaching tells you which option is correct; teaching gives you all the options.
Of course, there is overlap, but it is important to see the distinction so that you can follow what I am about to say.
If this is true and preaching is about giving people something to believe, rather than giving them the options of what they can believe, what do you do when you come to a passage of Scripture and you are unsure about what it means? And, let’s be honest here – this happens quite often. You are preaching through a book of the Bible and you come to a place where the commentaries are not in agreement, there seem to be multiple legitimate options concerning its interpretation, and you are left scratching your head. You don’t know how to preach this passage. You don’t want to be dishonest and just choose an option. And you don’t want to turn this into a drawn-out sermon on, “This is what the Calvinists believe, and why”…”This is what the Methodists believe, and why”… “This is what Lutherans believe, and why.” “In the end folks, you are going to have to make up your own minds. Now let us pray. Dear God thanks for this lesson, whatever it was . . .” This does not really make for a good sermon and it does not give your hearers anything to believe.
But again, we don’t want to be dishonest and just choose one option for the sake of staying faithful to the preaching venue. So what do we do? First, my advice (then I will illustrate the issue).
1. Briefly let people know that there are multiple options, but don’t go through all the options in detail.
2. Briefly tell people which one you are most convinced about and why.
3. Preach with unashamed confidence the principles of the chosen option, giving them something to believe. So long as the principles are true, your integrity before the Lord will be covered.
“But how can I preach with ‘unashamed confidence’ something that I am not that confident about?” Because it is the principles which put confidence in your voice, even if you remain unsure about the exact understanding of this particular passage.
For example (this may not be the best example, but it is the first one which comes to mind), in John 3, there is a very confusing passage about Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. Jesus is waxing poetic about the new birth and how one must be twice-born to make it to the kingdom of God. Nicodemus is confused about this teaching and says, “How can these things be?” Jesus responds with a stern rebuke, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things? (John 3:9-10).
Jesus comes down hard on ol’ Nicodemus here, stating emphatically that he, someone who was responsible for the education of Israel (Nicodemus was a Pharisee), should have already known about the new birth. This should not be something new to Nicodemus. The problem for the interpreter/preacher is that we are not really sure why Jesus comes down so hard on Nicodemus. After all, when we look back into the Old Testament, even with our fancy Bibleworks and Logos electronic study tools, it is hard for us to find the new birth in the Old Testament. Now of course, there are a lot of options. Some people find the new birth in the New Covenant, but that seems problematic since it was yet future. Some people see it in Psalm 87 in reference to the gates of Jerusalem, but this seems entirely too obscure for Jesus to give Nicodemus such a strong rebuke.
In the end, I don’t know with certainty the answer to this, but I think Jesus is talking about the death that came after the fall. You see, being “born again” has to do with our spiritual life being revitalized through the Gospel. God told Adam that the day he ate of the fruit of the Garden, he and Eve would die (Gen. 2:17). Of course, we all know how that went. He ate. He died. However, we know he did not physically die that day. Physical death became a part of his physiology as he and Eve were restricted from the tree of life (Gen. 3:22). That day, he died spiritually. His relationship with God was cut off. This is death of the soul. It is spiritual separation from God. And in order to enter into God’s kingdom, that spiritual death has to be remedied. The only way for this to occur is for the spiritually dead person to be reborn with regard to his relationship with God. So there you have it. Rebirth as a prominent theological theme in the Old Testament, even if we don’t have it explicitly mentioned as such anywhere in the Old Testament!
Now, that is the interpretation I lean toward. Am I right? I am not sure, but, like I said, I feel that it is the best of the possible options. Therefore, that is the one I preach. Now, my integrity is held fast even when I am not as sure as I would like to be. Why? Because even if I am wrong about this particular passage teaching the restoration of the failures of the Garden, I am sure that the principles of the reality of spiritual death before God and the restoration of spiritual life are true. Therefore, I am still preaching truth, even if this particular passage is not meant to preach that particular truth. As Robert Chisholm, an old seminary prof of mine, used to say, “Good sermon; wrong text.”
Sometimes we are going to have to settle for good sermons with wrong texts. Sometimes we are going to be unsure of the exact interpretation of a passage of Scripture, but we don’t have to sacrifice “giving them something to believe” due to the obscurity of our text. We can still “preach the word” with full integrity by focusing on the principles that are universally true even if we end up being wrong about our interpretation. It is important that you let people know that there is some legitimate debate and what you are about to preach could be wrong. But assure them that the principles that you preach are not wrong as they are found in other places in Scripture. That is how you preach a sermon when you are not sure what the passage means.
Give them something to believe.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]