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By Chuck Collins
February 19, 2024

I marvel when someone says, "I have no regrets." That's not me; I have plenty. One of my biggest regrets, outside of not spending more time with my kids when they were growing up, is that for much of my ordained ministry I did not preach "the gospel." I was, as Steve Brown aptly describes most preachers today, a nice man standing in front of nice people, telling them that God wants them to be nicer. It was always biblical, but almost none of it was life-changing.

I have come to see that there are only two sermons: one is the gospel, the other is "please try harder!" messages. The first is God's mercy, comfort, and freedom that is given to us in Christ. The second is moralistic advice in which a preacher mounts a pulpit in order to gently fuss at people for not getting better and doing more.

For more years than I care to think I preached get-better messages. I cringe thinking about my old sermons. I regret the lost opportunities of those messages that pounded home the idea that we just need to try harder, pray and give more, read the Bible every day, attend church every week, and be nicer. It was Pharisaism under the guise of Christianity - "an easy-listening version of salvation by self-help" (Michael Horton).

Those who came were vaguely entertained I think because I am a fairly entertaining person (so they tell me on their way out of church), but, if they were completely honest, they left feeling like they don't measure up. Instead of relieving guilt, get-better sermons reinforce guilt and inadequacies. They pile burdens upon the backs of those who are already burdened. They leave us with new marching orders for things we already know we should be doing. "Whenever you feel comforted or elated or absolved as 'fresh as a foal in new mowed hay,' then you know you are hearing the gospel" (Paul Zahl).

My conversion to gospel preaching was gradual. I don't remember what the initial catalyst was, except that people weren't getting better with sermons on spiritual discipline and how to improve their marriages. Those moralistic sermons doled out plenty of advice about what to do, but it totally missed what God has done for us in his Son. Christ came, not to help religious people get better, but to live the perfect life of obedience and to die in our place, so that being joined with him we can have the hope of forgiveness, reconciliation with God, and the assurance of the salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord.

St. Paul, in Romans, explains the gospel as God's power and God's righteousness (1:16, 17). It is about God, not us! This is exactly opposite of repairing our nature by a determined will. It is what God has done for us when we couldn't do it ourselves. He fulfilled the law. He took upon himself our sins. He burst the bonds of death to give us new life.

When this message of one-way love - God's imputed love for sinners, reaches our hearts, it causes our spirits to come alive and soar, and it fills us with meaning and purpose. This message preached breaths life into the spiritual disciplines and gradually shapes us to look more like our Lord.

When you get to church to find out that the preacher is in the third of a 10-sermon series on "10 steps to cure depression" get up and run out of there as fast as your depressed legs can take you. It's self-help, not gospel. Chalk it up to a well-meaning preacher who hasn't yet realized that our real hope is in God, in the sufficiency of his work on the cross, and in the salvation that is not found in get-better sermons.

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