I don’t like angry preachers. If a person mixes a sermon with hateful language, he’s in the wrong profession. Yet today we’ve jumped to the opposite extreme. Now we are so afraid of sounding angry that we stopped confronting sin altogether.
We can’t preach about materialism because we might offend rich people in the audience—as well as the poor people who buy Lotto tickets every week. We can’t preach about fornication because there are people in the church who are living together. We can’t preach about adultery or homosexuality because our culture says it’s hateful to label those behaviors sins.
We can’t preach about domestic violence because there are deacons who sometimes hit their wives. We can’t preach about abortion because there might be pro-choice Democrats in the pews (or hypocritical Republicans who say they are pro-life but who secretly pay for abortions for their own daughters). And in the Trump era, we can’t challenge racist attitudes toward immigrants because evangelical Christians are expected to blindly support a wall to keep Mexicans out of our country.
And the list goes on. In fact, some preachers are avoiding the word “sin” altogether because it’s too “negative.” Church growth experts tell us that people want a “positive” message.
This temptation to dilute the gospel has produced a new recipe for a trendy sermon. We start with some great motivational speaking (“Your past does not define your future!”), add a few quarts of cheap grace (“Don’t focus on your sin!”), pour in some prosperity gospel (“Run to this altar and grab your financial breakthrough!”), flavor it with some trendy pop psychology (“It’s all about you!”) and you end up with a goopy mess of pabulum that not even a baby Christian could survive on.
I’ve often wondered how the apostle Paul would view our weak-kneed American gospel. Just before he was martyred, Paul gave his spiritual son Timothy clear instructions on how to keep his message on track. He said, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2, NASB).
We’ve rewritten Paul’s words today. Our rule is, “Preach what the people want to hear! Avoid controversy! Stroke, soothe and pacify the people so they will come back next week!” Is it any wonder this low-protein spiritual diet has produced an anemic church?
Paul’s preaching in the first century was unquestionably confrontational. He didn’t hold back from addressing sin, nor was he afraid to call sin what it is. Paul knew a spineless Christianity would produce spineless Christians. He told Timothy that biblical preaching would require three brave verbs:
- Reprove. The Greek word here, elegcho, means “to convict, admonish or expose” or “to show one his fault.” The word can also mean “to scold” or “to reprimand.” Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of a mother’s discipline knows that reproof can be the purest form of love.
- Rebuke. The word epitimao means “to admonish strongly” or “to charge strictly.” The English definition means “to express sharp, stern disapproval.” And the origin of the word means “to beat or strike.” I’m not talking here about a preacher who beats people with the Bible. Screaming at people is not biblical rebuke. But when was the last time you felt the Holy Spirit strike you in your conscience during a sermon because the preacher was truthful?
- Exhort. This is the gentlest of the three words. Parakaleo can be used to mean “to comfort” or “to call alongside.” It’s the same root word used to describe the Holy Spirit, who is our Comforter. True biblical preaching not only exposes sin and warns us of its consequences, but it calls us to reach out to God for help to overcome our weakness. When we challenge sin, we must point people to deliverance and healing. Biblical preaching is never condemning—it provides hope!
Paul was also not afraid to name sins. I recently did a survey of all of Paul’s epistles to see how he addressed sexual immorality. I discovered that he confronted sexual sin head-on in 10 of his 13 epistles. He boldly called out adultery, fornication, sensuality and homosexuality in a culture that was saturated in hedonism.
After exhorting the Thessalonians to practice abstinence, he rebuked them sternly by saying that anyone who opposes God’s laws about sex “is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thess. 4:8b). Those are forceful words. They need to be repeated in our pulpits today.
Paul wasn’t trying to win any popularity contests, and his comments about sex would get him blacklisted if he tried to buy airtime today. Yet when he penned those tough words, he was speaking from God’s heart—with love—under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to all of us.
It’s time for us to grow a backbone. Let’s get rid of weak Christianity, spineless preachers and jellyfish morals. Let’s preach the message of the Bible instead of a neutered version. Let’s not only point out sin but also point people to the only hope they have of overcoming it—our strong Savior, whose death on the cross was the ultimate confrontation of sin.
J. Lee Grady is an author, award-winning journalist and ordained minister. He served as a news writer and magazine editor for many years before launching into full-time ministry.
Lee is the author of six books, including 10 Lies the Church Tells Women, 10 Lies Men Believe and Fearless Daughters of the Bible. His years at Charisma magazine also gave him a unique perspective of the Spirit-filled church and led him to write The Holy Spirit Is Not for Sale and Set My Heart on Fire, which is a Bible study on the work of the Holy Spirit.