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.