Tuesday, January 25, 2011

We Do Not Preach Ourselves

If, as we have seen in the previous post, that the world’s problem is that they do not see the glory of Christ, the Church’s mission is to preach a message which, by the power of God, overcomes that blindness. And so that is the third principle for faithfulness in Gospel ministry: to know the proclamation. Paul says in 2Cor 4:5, “For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake.

What does it mean to “not preach ourselves?” It means that we don’t put ourselves forward as the appeal to unbelievers. We don’t make our methodology or our style the draw, or that which attracts and compels others’ participation. Instead, we get ourselves out of the way so as to be merely incidental—merely the finger that points to what counts: namely, the content of the message: that Jesus Christ is Lord.

1 Corinthians 2:1-5 really sheds light on what it means for Paul that he not be preaching himself. He says, “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.

What's amazing about that is superiority of speech, human wisdom, and persuasive words were exactly what you needed if you were going to get your message heard in first-century Corinth! Remember, eloquence and oratory were the prerequisites of cultural engagement and credibility in that society. And Paul says, “I determined—I resolved—to be just the opposite. They were seeking wisdom, and all I knew was Christ and Him crucified. They were looking for rhetorical skills and eloquence and I was with you in weakness and fear and much trembling. They wanted someone skilled in the art of persuasion, and my message and preaching had no persuasive words.

Why, Paul?!

“Because if I did that, I’d be preaching myself! And then your faith would rest on the wisdom of men, and not on the power of God!”

So we don’t preach ourselves. In fact, he says in 1 Corinthians 3:5, “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Slaves through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” And back in 2 Corinthians 4:7, Paul says, “Listen, we’re just earthen vessels, just clay pots. We don’t do anything to make much of ourselves because we want 'the surpassing greatness of the power [to] be of God and not from ourselves.'”

And so Paul says: We don’t preach ourselves, because we’re not trying to simply gain converts, fill seats, and get rich. The problem we’re trying to solve by our preaching is the world’s blindness to the glory of Christ. And so we don’t preach ourselves, because no matter how slick or clever our presentation is, that’s not what saves people. That’s not what opens their eyes to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.

An Epidemic

And dear friends, if there is anything that plagues the contemporary Church today it is an epidemic of preaching ourselves. The Church today seems like it’s trying to solve every problem in the world except the one it
s been commissioned to solve. And it preaches itself to do it. One of the greatest marks of the unhealthiness of today’s Church is that rather than manifesting the glory of Jesus and the offensiveness and foolishness of His cross, the culture-exegetes of today attempt to show the world how much alike we are. In so doing, the Church presents themselves to the world and asks the world to accept them, and go from there.

Unbelievers don’t like hour-long sermons and big Bible words, so church growth strategy says we ought to shorten sermons to 20-minute pep-talks on fixing your emotional problems and personal relationships. On the other hand, the Emerging church reminds us that we’re living in a post-Christian era, and before the 18 to 30 year-olds of this generation darken the door of a church, we’ve got to "contextualize the gospel" and be "missional." If your "target audience" likes exotic coffees, put a coffee shop in your church. If they’re into punk rock music and body piercing, buy a couple of albums and think about a tongue ring. If they’re into Ultimate Fighting, go with them to the bar after work and watch a match on the big screen over some imported beer. You see, once we can show them that Christians are like them—that we’re human just like them and can like the same things that they like—well then they’ll be interested in “trying Jesus.”

As I write that, the passage that screams out in my mind is James 4:4: “Adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

Here’s an actual example from a church’s “About Us” page on their website: “If you’re looking for a place to have some real fun, make some real friends, and explore and experience a relationship with the real God, FCF is the place for you! We believe that church ought to be the most exciting and meaningful experience of a person’s week! That’s why we—”

Now, I agree that church ought to be the most exciting and meaningful experience of a person's week. But how you finish that last sentence speaks volumes about what you believe about Jesus Christ and His Gospel. Right there I want to insert: “That’s why we faithfully exposit the Scriptures week by week, in order to present an exalted view of God, so that our members see and savor His glory that is revealed in Christ, and as a result be so satisfied with the sweetness of Christ that they willingly lay down their lives during the week to love their neighbor as themselves.”

But no, they believe church ought to be the most exciting and meaningful experience of a person’s week. “That’s why we use theatrical lighting, sound, and video. That’s why we have cutting-edge music along with creative and relevant messages that speak to real-life challenges. That’s why we designed and built a kid’s theater and village complete with a real fire truck in the wall, and more!” And it goes on.

Do you see how this is preaching themselves? They offer their church, and its various programs and multimedia presentations as the selling point, rather than the gospel of Christ crucified, risen, and reigning as Lord, which can alone open blind minds to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. Paul calls this kind of thing peddling the word of God in 2Cor 2:17. And in 2Cor4:2 he calls it adulterating the word of God. And so Paul declares that we as Christians do not preach ourselves, because that will never solve the world’s problem. Rather we preach—that’s our method—Christ Jesus as Lord—that’s our message.

Will Metzger in his classic book on evangelism entitled Tell the Truth, writes, “The model for our witness is not to be a smooth-talking public relations agent”—and I’d add, nor an uber-cool, cultural hipster—“but an ambassador with a proclamation from a King” (36), which is exactly what Paul says a chapter later (2Cor 5:20).

Update: See Paul Washer offer his commentary on what it means for pastors and churches to preach themselves.

Series Outline

  1. Principles for Faithfulness in Gospel Ministry: Introduction
  2. We Are Not to Amuse the Goats but to Call the Sheep
  3. The World's Problem is that They Are Blind to Glory
  4. We Do Not Preach Ourselves
  5. God's Remedy: The Shining of the Light of Life
  6. The Gospel of the Glory: What Makes the Good News Good News
  7. Postscript

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