Let’s begin with a brief thought experiment:
- What do you think God thinks of America’s moral condition?
- Assuming he wishes to call our nation to repentance, how would he do so?
- How is the answer to the second question relevant to you?
These questions came to mind for me today as I was reading Jeremiah 23 and found this:
Thus says the Lᴏʀᴅ of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lᴏʀᴅ. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lᴏʀᴅ, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you’” (vv. 16–17).
Then the Lord asked: “Who among them has stood in the council of the Lᴏʀᴅ to see and to hear his word, or who has paid attention to his word and listened?” (v. 18).
Because none of his prophets had done so, here is what would happen to the nation they were responsible for serving: “Behold, the storm of the Lᴏʀᴅ! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked. The anger of the Lᴏʀᴅ will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his heart” (vv. 19–20).
By contrast, the Lord lamented: “If [his prophets] had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds” (v. 22).
Now, I invite you to review the three questions with which I began this article.
What does your heart say to you?
“How are they to hear without someone preaching?”
I am old enough to remember when preaching was typically intended to help Christians grow in their faith and serve God. Evangelistic sermons were common as well. Pastors routinely warned their listeners of the dangers of hell and spoke against the evils of the culture. Churches often took unpopular stands on the moral issues of their day.
For example, George Truett and First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, were at the forefront of the Prohibition movement, warning the nation of the evils of alcohol and working to prevent its destruction in society. Many pastors and churches helped inspire and lead the civil rights movement in the US.
Then came the “seeker sensitive” movement with its laudatory goal of attracting non-Christians to worship services and engaging them when they came. Part of this strategy understandably involved making sermons more accessible and attractive to lost people. Speaking out against societal sins was not an obvious way to accomplish this goal. Rather, sermons became more “need-centered,” addressing personal, psychological, and relational issues.
The strengths and weaknesses of this shift are a subject for another day. My point today is that evangelical sermons over recent decades have focused much more on personal problems and needs than on cultural and moral issues.
To be clear, such preaching is not guilty of saying “continually to those who despise the word of the Lᴏʀᴅ, ‘It shall be well with you’” (Jeremiah 23:17). But if we do not address the sins of our society and our members, are we not leaving our people with a similar impression? If we do not address the temptations and cultural challenges they face, how can they know how to think biblically and live redemptively? Why should we expect them to take biblical positions on moral issues if we do not?
“How are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14).
Declare, exhort, and rebuke
Paul’s instruction to Titus is God’s word for preachers in our day as well: “In your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us” (Titus 2:7–8). This is because God intends his people “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (v. 12).
To accomplish this purpose, Paul commanded Titus to “declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority” (v. 15). These are to be our three priorities:
- Declare biblical truth.
- Exhort people to live biblically.
- Rebuke those who do not.
We are to do this “with all authority” as we declare God’s word to our day.
Will such prophetic preaching make us popular in our post-Christian culture?
To the contrary, “friendship with the world is enmity with God” so that “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). We can measure the degree to which we are following Jesus by the opposition we face from those who oppose our Lord.
However, the resistance of our post-Christian culture should not discourage but encourage us to faithfulness in declaring biblical truth. The sicker the patient, the more necessary the physician. The worse the fire, the more urgent the firefighters.
“I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s word”
One last word: prophetic preaching must always be offered with genuine compassion.
Jeremiah was known as the “weeping prophet” not only because his messages to Judah were often somber but because he so often wept for the people he was called to serve (cf. Jeremiah 13:17). Jesus similarly wept over Jerusalem as he warned of its coming destruction (Luke 19:41–44).
I once heard a pastor say, “Beware of those who preach on hell as if they liked it.” Martin Luther was right: “We are all mere beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.” We are to speak biblical truth to the moral issues of our day as fellow travelers on the road before us. “Speaking the truth in love” must ever be our mantra (Ephesians 4:15).
When we do so, we can claim God’s assurance that his word “shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). As Luther said in explaining his catalytic role in the Reformation, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s word; otherwise I did nothing.”
Let’s close with the question that sparked this article: “For who among them has stood in the council of the Lᴏʀᴅ to see and to hear his word, or who has paid attention to his word and listened?” (Jeremiah 23:18).
May the answer include you and me, to the glory of God.