“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).
Here’s a tough truth to accept: what we ought to eat and what we want to eat can be polar opposites. From a nutritional standpoint, it’s not rocket science—we ought to eat more fruits and vegetables. But we want to eat foods filled with sodium, sugar, cholesterol, and fat. Even when we know all about the risks resulting from high blood pressure and clogged arteries, we still indulge whatever our palates prefer.
Don’t worry, though, this isn’t a column about healthy eating. What concerns me far more is the discrepancy between what ought to happen when a preacher enters the pulpit and what we so often want to happen when a preacher enters the pulpit. What we focus on more than anything else are the superficial dimensions: we note the preacher’s tone and mannerisms, we wait for interesting anecdotes, we chuckle at the humorous, we crave uplifting encouragement, and—maybe most crucial of all—we expect everything to wrap up by 12:00 sharp!
We want preaching to address our felt needs—things like hope, guidance, love, peace, community, etc. So much preaching, moreover, caters to this desire by offering felt need sermons. The train of thought goes something like this, “Are you feeling hopeless, lonely, and discouraged? Then come to Christ and let him help you and give you a positive outlook to face life’s challenges.” Of course such a therapeutic message appeals to our therapeutic culture. Here’s how one popular, felt need preacher of an earlier generation characterized his approach— “Preaching is personal counseling on a group basis” (Harry Emerson Fosdick).
One critical question can distinguish felt need preaching from gospel preaching: are we in sin or are we just sinners? Many would confess they’re a sinner. After all, no one is perfect. But confessing we are in sin means acknowledging we stand in opposition to God and are thereby justly deserving of God’s eternal punishment. If we’re in sin then our thoughts and feelings are inherently disordered. Our ways and our thoughts couldn’t be more divergent from God’s. Our needs must be completely reordered, not merely met. The good news, therefore, is Jesus died and rose again to save us from the penalty of our sin and to convert us from being children of wrath into children of God (Jn. 3:36). Don’t be deceived, Jesus didn’t
shed his precious blood so sinners could be more happy and self-fulfilled. He came to save us from hell.
What does such preaching look like? “I preached as never sure to preach again. And as a dying man to dying men” (Richard Baxter). Let’s not settle for anything less. Lives are hanging in the balance.