As pastors, we never want to hurt people. We’re pursuing this calling because we want to help people. And we want to help people in the deepest and most profound of ways by helping them find new life in Christ.
One of my greatest fears in pastoral ministry is that I would inadvertently hurt the people I’m called to serve. Life is hard and painful enough, and people don’t need any extra pain brought their way by a well-meaning pastor.
Words are especially powerful. They can carry the life-changing message of the gospel, they can lift someone’s spirits and fill them with hope, or they can cause searing pain. Preaching, with its use of so many words, presents a phenomenal opportunity–our sermons can dispense hope, but they can also dispense pain if we’re not careful.
The Pendulum of Grace and Truth
Language similar to that of Goldilocks probably fills your mind after listening to a sermon. You think, “That sermon was too such-and-such” or “That sermon was too so-and-so” or “Wow! That sermon was just right!”
The list of possible “too’s” we can nitpick is seemingly endless. Confession time: I have found myself critiquing preachers for things like being “too smiley” or “not smiley enough” and “too hyper” or “too low-key.” Frankly, I can be far “too picky” when it comes to critiquing sermons, which makes it seem like there are a thousand different pendulums for preaching that can never rest at the middle and be “just right.”
While the best move for most of these pendulums is simply to stop being so picky, one of them deserves some picky attention. That is the pendulum of grace and truth.
Have you ever left a sermon feeling like you’ve been beaten up for the past thirty-to-forty-five minutes? Hearers leave thinking, “That sermon was too harsh.” While the pastor may have said many true things, his words were devoid of grace. In that case, the pendulum swung to the side of truth and neglected grace.
On the other hand, have you ever left a sermon feeling encouraged and comforted, but with the sneaking suspicion that the preacher held back on the whole truth? In an attempt to be gracious, the preacher avoided the painful truths of the text. In that case, the pendulum swung to the side of grace and neglected truth.
Week-by-week, we wrestle with how forceful or gentle we ought to be. We wonder, “Do I preach with the force of divine truth? Or with the gentleness of divine grace?” Even in the course of a single sermon, it’s easy to feel like a bowling ball hurled against one bumper, sent slamming back and forth across the lane until it crashes at the end.
The Right Demeanor for a Representative of Christ
Grace and truth as theological concepts are crucial to the gospel and to understanding Jesus’ nature. And, certainly, we need to be balanced in our treatment of these concepts from the pulpit. We should never be guilty of preaching only about God’s grace or only about God’s truth. A faithful presentation of the gospel demands preaching a Christ “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
For this article, however, we’re talking less about grace and truth as theological concepts and more about how these theological concepts affect your demeanor in the pulpit.
When we stand to preach, we represent Christ. What, then, is the right demeanor for a representative of Christ?
Jesus was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Accordingly, a faithful presentation of the gospel demands a demeanor that faithfully reflects a Christ “full of grace and truth.”
“Full of grace and truth” means that Jesus was not performing a balancing act between the two, straining to keep his grace and truth meters at precisely fifty percent each. No, he was fully gracious and fully truthful. In all his dealings he was 100% gracious and 100% truthful. Just consider, for instance, his encounters with the woman at the well (John 4:1–32), the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17–27), and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11). Neither the harsh truth of their sinfulness nor the gentle grace of forgiveness was compromised in the least in any of these situations.
When we preach the gospel of the One full of grace and truth, we must do so with a gracious and truthful demeanor.
Overly harsh preaching that somehow disfigures the gospel into a heavy stick for the sake of being “truthful” dishonors the Savior who described himself as “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt 11:29). Likewise, overly timid preaching that stifles the truth of Scripture for the sake of being “gracious” dishonors the Savior who declared himself to be “the truth” (John 14:6).
Who Are These People?
The first step to escaping the pendulum of overly harsh or timid preaching is asking the question “Who are these people?” Personal knowledge of your flock is crucial for pastoral preaching because you have to know your people to shepherd them well. But, we need a different, deeper kind of knowledge if we want to stop bouncing between grace and truth. We need to answer the question, “Who are these people?” on purely biblical terms. We need a biblical anthropology of our hearers.
While a comprehensive analysis of how the Bible describes people is far beyond the purview of this article, I can offer a short statement that serves as a “miniature biblical anthropology” of sorts. Throughout my sermonic process, I remind myself:
“I am preaching to hurting people.”
This statement is loaded with an intentional double meaning. Each of the two meanings addresses the need for grace and truth, respectively.
First, it reminds me that all people are experiencing the pain of a sin-broken world. They are receivers of pain. They are “hurting people” in the sense that they are dealing with hurts of various kinds and in various degrees.
Second, it reminds me that all people are contributing to the pain of a sin-broken world. As sinners, all people are contributors to pain. They are “hurting people” in the sense that they do the hurting.
When our preaching hangs up at either end of the pendulum, it fails the people listening because it only addresses half of their nature.
When we preach overly harsh sermons, we only address people as contributors of pain–we only address the sinner. People need to have their sins confronted. “Reproof” and “correction” are two of the main purposes for which God inspired the Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16). But harshness toward sinners is unbefitting for a preacher who represents the “friend of sinners” and the God who “so loved the world” (John 3:16).
On the other hand, when we preach overly timid sermons, we only address people as receivers of pain; we only address people as victims. In so doing, we create a stumbling block between them and the gospel of grace because they must acknowledge their own sinfulness and guilt before they can receive God’s forgiveness. When you fail to preach the full truth of their sinfulness, you block their way to grace.
People are both receivers and contributors to the pain of this sin-broken world. They don’t need overly harsh or overly timid sermons. They need an uncensored, unfiltered declaration of the gospel from the text delivered through a gracious and truthful herald.
You Don’t Have What It Takes
If you leave this article saying, “I’m going to start being fully gracious and fully truthful in all my sermons,” you will have missed the point.
When you truly understand the implications of seeing your hearers as “hurting people,” it will drive you to your knees. In your own strength, you do not have what it takes to address people with full graciousness and truthfulness. There is only one Man “full of grace and truth,” and you’re not Him.
No, you’re not the One full of grace and truth, but you do have His Spirit dwelling in you (Rom. 8:9–11). Let your prayer be that Christ would empower you to address your hearers with perfect fullness of grace and truth. When the Holy Spirit anoints your preaching, a demeanor of grace and truth will be one of His effects. May your hearers never say, “That was too harsh” or “That was too timid,” but “That was just right––full of grace and truth.”