I’ve been a pastor for 10 years, and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my preaching. The question that keeps running through my head is this, “Would my sermon offend a Mormon?” Before I say anything else, I feel like I need to offer two clarifications about what follows.
First, I’m not trying to attack Mormons. In fact, this article really isn’t about Mormons or any other particular group. I’m simply using “Mormons” as an example of a group that holds different theological beliefs than those held by orthodox Christians.
Second, I don’t think the aim of Christian preaching ought to be offense. I realize there is inherent offense in the gospel message, and I don’t think preachers should minimize that offense. However, Christian preachers should not set out to be offensive.
That brings me back to the question, “Would my sermon offend a Mormon?” When I ask myself this question, I suppose it’s a way of asking this important question: “In my preaching, do I ever stop to define my theological terminology?”
These questions began running through my mind when a newly married couple started attending my church. The husband came from a Catholic background. The wife came from a Jehovah’s Witness background. I watched these two settle into a regular pattern of church attendance, and I started to wonder if I was offering enough clarity to challenge their beliefs.
Of course, we all believe in “the Bible” and “Jesus” and “salvation” and “the cross.” The question is, while we all use a common vocabulary, are we also using a common dictionary? Do we think about the same ideas and truth claims when we use the same theological terms? And in my preaching, am I giving gospel clarity to familiar terms?
In particular, I’ve been thinking about three crucial doctrines, asking myself if I ever slow down to define these ideas with gospel clarity.
- The Doctrine of Scripture. This may seem obvious given the fact that our pew Bibles are all standard, 66-book, Genesis-to-Revelation ESV’s from Crossway. But I wonder, how often do we stop to teach our people why we use a 66-book ESV instead of the Book of Mormon (or the Watchtower, or the Apocrypha)? When I talk about “God’s Word,” just about anyone with a religious background can be comfortable with that phrase. The question is, are we on the same theological page when we talk about “God’s Word?”
- The Person of Christ. This doctrine cuts to the heart of many differences between orthodox Christianity and other heretical groups. When we talk about Jesus’ humanity and Jesus’ divinity, are we clear enough to stake out a truly orthodox position? Or is most of our Jesus talk generic enough to sound OK to anyone who talks about “Jesus?” When I call my people to follow “Jesus,” which Jesus are they thinking about? I’m afraid many times I simply refer to “Jesus” without clarifying for my people which Jesus I’m talking about.
- Justification by Faith Alone. Like the person of Christ, this doctrine cuts to the heart of what divides many “Christian” faith systems. The Latter Day Saints are happy to talk about salvation, but their idea of salvation is radically different than Paul’s teaching about justification by faith alone. Likewise, Catholics are happy to talk about forgiveness and repentance and faith, but justification by faith alone is a dramatic dividing line between Protestants and Catholics. When we talk about salvation from the pulpit, do I do it with enough gospel clarity to challenge those who hold unbiblical positions?
I have to admit that too often in my preaching I use theological terms without stopping to give definitions with gospel clarity. This lack of gospel clarity not only fails to challenge those who hold to unorthodox beliefs, it also leaves my people susceptible to those who teach unorthodox doctrine.
We preach and teach with two thousand years of theological debate in our rear-view mirror. We preach and teach in a pluralistic age that embraces spirituality while rejecting specificity. Our task is not just talking about “the Bible” and “Jesus” and “salvation.” Our job is preaching with gospel clarity. Rest assured, doing this will offend.
…and atonement and even faith. An explanation on the ‘person’ of God including his state of being and his attributes that are attributed to ONLY him. Sometimes clarifying the purpose of God for believers and non-believers is very telling as to whether a person you are witnessing to even knows what faith is all about.
The reason for a perfect sacrifice, why it was required, is a great place to pause.
You are right. When we share, teach and live the Word of God, people should not only know what we believe but why we believe it. Clarification is extremely important.
James 2:14-20 ESV – was James – an original apostle -also against Paul or was Paul biblical & James not? Next question, does our theology and word definitions save us or does grace?
Like I said in the post, not an attack on Mormons, so I hope you didn’t take it that way. James and Paul? No contradiction whatsoever. Of course we are saved by grace, but it’s grace through faith and faith must have an object. It’s elementary to pretend that everyone means the same thing when they use words like “Jesus” or “grace” or “salvation” or “faith.” We are using different dictionaries, thus the object of our faith is not the same.
Faith Without Works Is Dead
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good[a] is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?
Please answer the question using your definition of grace ~ I fully understand it. Does our theology and word definitions save us or does grace?
I don’t think you and I will settle the very real debate about the differences between Mormon soteriology and Reformed soteriology on a message board. There are differences. I already answered your question about salvation via grace or definitions. Ephesians 2:8-10 is clear, we are saved by grace through faith. You can’t pretend faith isn’t connected to God’s grace. Further, faith must have an object. We’re not saved by faith in anything. Not all faith saves (see the verses you quoted about James). That’s where our “definitions” become more than language games. The object of our faith is different, even though we use the same terms, those terms are loaded with different meanings. To reduce my position to “you think people are saved by right definitions” totally misses the point of the argument.
What dictionary do you use?
No you really haven’t answered my simple question. Im not asking to discuss our differences or for any long, skirting response. Using your definition of grace, will non-mormon Christian people not be saved if they don’t understand your theology the same way you define it? If there are any differences of understanding, will they then be un-saved? Are they saved by grace or is it grace plus you have to think of words a certain way in your head and follow theology a certain way? Because there are plenty of differences between orthodox Christian sects without bringing Mormonism into it.
This will be my last response since I’m basically saying the same thing each time. I do not think you can separate grace from faith. A true experience of God’s grace involves faith, and that faith is not without object. Do I know how specific someone’s dictionary definition has to be in order for the object of their faith to be the biblical Christ? I don’t know the specificity required, and I agree with you that we aren’t saved by doctrinal precision. At the same time, I DO think the object of our faith matters. Muslims have faith in Allah. That’s faith, but it’s not saving faith. I believe the core differences between my beliefs and a LDS on matters of theology proper, Christology, and soteriology are too great to ignore. We can’t pretend the object of our faith is the same. We both use the words “God” and “Jesus” and “salvation.” But we mean drastically different things. Ignoring those differences is foolish. So can I draw the line you’re asking for. Probably not. But just because you can’t tell exactly when dawn turns to day doesn’t mean you can’t tell the difference between midnight and noon.