“Papa, can the pastor ever give us some hope?” The question came from a pre-teen girl who was returning home from a church service. My brother passed the question on to me because it was his daughter who had asked the question. We discussed the issue. Should a minister give a message that leaves people with a sense of angst and not of hope?
There is an interesting set of instructions for anyone who is involved in giving the word of God to others: “admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak” (1 Thes. 5:14 NAS). In most gatherings there will be those who are unruly and need a word of warning. At the same time there will be the fainthearted and weak who need to be helped and encouraged. Apparently, my conscientious and sensitive niece felt the sting of warning and did not get help or encouragement.
S.D. Herron told the story of a preacher who saw an old goat in the congregation and decided to give the needed warning. He aimed at the goat and fired. But the goat ducked, and the shot hit a lamb. He reloaded and aimed again with the same result. By the time of invitation, the preacher had succeeded in gaining an altar full of lambs, and the goat was roaming around telling them all to pray through!
It is not necessarily easy to keep the proper balance in presenting God’s truth. When the Apostle Paul considered the great responsibility of proclaiming all the counsel of God whether to the unruly, the fainthearted, or the weak, he admitted his need of help. “To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:16, 17). The balance necessary to preach in the sight of God is to speak in Christ.
There is proclamation that is harmful. Paul warned of those who were fixated on the law. “Desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm” (1 Tim. 1:7). Not that there is anything wrong with the law, for Paul went on to say, “But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully” (v.8). However, a misuse of the law will leave people without hope. When the law is used to try to whip God’s people into shape, there is a problem.
Who is the law for? Paul answers it clearly. ”Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners…” (v.9).
The law is the schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. After that it has nothing it can do. We are then dependent on the grace of God. This is what Paul focused on in his preaching: “the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24b). The gospel of grace has power in it. While the law was weak in the flesh such that no one could keep it, God gave us life in the Spirit with power to live in Christ. We begin in the Spirit and we walk in the Spirit. No longer the law, but now the grace of God is our great teacher. “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world’ (Tit. 2:11, 12).
Which brings us back to the question of whether or not a message should leave people with a sense of angst or should it always give hope? Consider several of the descriptive phrases about our God in the apostolic writings to churches: “The God of patience and consolation,” “the God of hope,” “the God of peace,” “the God of all comfort,” “the God of love and peace,” “the God of all grace.”
How then are we to use the law and the prophets so that we leave people in hope? We are to preach the word. Paul said he did not shrink back from declaring the whole counsel of God. Yet there is to be grace and hope in the gospel. Paul was adamant about it. “For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16).
Paul preached the law and the prophets but he used them to proclaim not the law, but Christ. He was careful that his proclamation ended with hope in Christ. “Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come: That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22, 23).
Paul used the law and the prophets to preach the gospel. We would do well to follow his example. When we do a character study of one of the great heroes of the faith, we fall short if we stop with the lessons we gain from his character. It is not good enough to use Joseph’s steadfastness as our example. It is not good enough to use Gideon’s courage as an example for us. It is falling short to try to emulate the character of Ruth. Why? Because the Bible tells us that “ these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:39, 40). These are a cloud of witnesses, the writer goes on, but are not our examples. What are we to do? The answer is clearly given. “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2a).
Reading about how Joseph faced great temptation is encouraging but when I face temptation I will get no help by looking unto Joseph. My help comes in looking unto Jesus. There is a necessary truth to remember when reading all of the great Old Testament history. Do what Spurgeon did, who said he took a text and made a bee-line for the cross. The power we have and the hope we have is in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Anything less can leave us with no hope, no matter how well we present it.
(For more discussion on this subject, see Rediscovering the Gospel, newly published by David Gordeuk and available from Hobe Sound Bible Church.)