The longer I live the more things about the mindset of our culture just makes me scratch my head. When I was younger, we used to talk about “Things that make you go, Hmmm…” Today, I wonder if the phrase should be, “Things that make you go, huh?!?” And one of those things that I find a head-scratcher today is the way the Gospel has been redefined into something that it was never meant to be…at least if we have any sense of propriety to the Bible. And while it is true that this is not a new trend, it amazes me just how prevalent the idea is today.
Don’t misunderstand me, I do understand the context in which we live. The world is getting small, churches of pretty much every flavor exist on nearly every corner of America, yet overall, American church attendance is dropping. Buildings, also, are expensive. Old ones cost money to maintain and new ones cost money to build. There are also salaries to pay, activities to finance, and other costs that go along with doing business.
And so, churches behave like businesses, yes, and this is the first step down a path that leads away from fidelity to the Bible. How so? The purpose of a business is to make money and they do so by promoting their brand over the brand of others. So churches often enter into a kind of feeding frenzy, trying to grow by pulling members from one church into their own…typically by the programs and services that they have to offer. In addition, there is a phrase in business that goes: “The customer is always right.” That of course, is not true and few real businesses truly believe that sentiment, but it is still said. And, if you view church members as customers, your goal is to fill their needs and make them feel good about themselves, ready to go about the next week.
To do that, Law must be deemphasized. Why? Law makes us feel bad. It makes us feel guilty for the things we have done over the week. We’ve thought bad thoughts, we’ve coveted things that are not our own, we’ve even taken the Lord’s name in vain and have gone our own way on the Sabbath. People don’t want to be told they are sinners and deserving of the wrath of God. People want to be told that God forgives them anyway and that they should just keep doing their best and he will overlook the other stuff.
What’s wrong with a message like that? Well, apart from being entirely unbiblical, it belittles the Gospel. It’s a form of watered-down universalism. Why? Here’s the thing, if the bad news is that God is not happy with our sin, but that he will tolerate it anyway, do we really need him? No. The Gospel then is only about us feeling better about ourselves. And worship becomes a kind of “spiritual recharge” that kind of earns us the right to receive blessings from God (you never thought of the “prosperity gospel” as a works-righteousness movement, but it is — the more you do, the more you earn from God — that’s essentially their lie).
The problem is that God is not unhappy with us for our sin. God is enraged at our sin. It is outright rebellion and it always has been — going all of the way back to Adam and Eve (remember, they basically accused God of being a liar). The problem is that we stand in rebellion against God and deserve his wrath in the fires of Hell. Yep, that is far more serious than him just being unhappy with us…and no, he tolerates no sin in his presence (Isaiah 65:16; Habakkuk 1:13); he is light and in him is no darkness (1 John 1:5). And, as I have said repeatedly across the twenty-some years that I have been in the pulpit, and as many who have gone before me have said: “Until you come to terms with the greatness of your sin, you will never appreciate grace.”
So how do we come to terms with the greatness of our sin? That is essentially the question that is asked in the third question of the Heidelberg Catechism: “How do you know your misery?” We must indeed recognize that sin, whether small or great on human terms, brings misery to our souls. The answer is short and succinct: “The Law of God tells me.” In other words, until you let the Law weigh down your soul and nurture a sense of godly sorrow for your wicked state, grace will be nothing but a feel-good promise that eludes your life.
What then is the Law of God? Probably the best summary of it is found in the Ten Commandments — one law with ten interwoven parts. Heidelberg reminds us too of Jesus’ summary of the Ten Commandments, found in the command to Love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40). Yet, these are summaries (convicting summaries, indeed!), but the outworking and application of this moral law is found throughout the Scripture. Thus, no matter how well we know the summaries, every passage of scripture has the power to approach you and to convict your soul.
So, the message of the Gospel is not, God is displeased but he will forgive you anyway, just come and worship him. That would portray God as a kind of senile grandfather doting on his children. No, the Gospel is much more powerful than that. You are a rebel. You are guilty of breaking the Law of God both knowingly and unknowingly and thus deserve wrath and the eternal torment of the fires of Hell. That is rightfully yours. Yet, in spite of that, God has elected to save some — a remnant from humanity for himself — not because of who we are or because of something we have done, but because he has graciously chosen to do so. And that does not mean that our sins are excused if we are part of that remnant. No, nothing of the sort. Our sins are not excused, but the punishment for our sins was borne by another — God’s own sinless Son. He did for us what we could never have done for ourselves.
This, folks, is grace, but it only makes sense under the conviction of the Law. That means that the message of Sunday morning is not to make you feel better about yourselves. It is not to give you a spiritual recharge during the week. The message of Sunday morning is to convict you of your sins, to show you the mighty nature of our God in contrast to our lowliness, and to reveal the work of Christ that gives us hope, lowly worms that we are. We do not come to invoke God’s blessings on our lives, we come to submit to the Word — to be crushed under its weight even — and to be exhorted to live a life of gratitude on the basis of that knowledge. Anything short of that is another Gospel, and in the words of the Apostle Paul:
“But, even if we or an angel from heaven were to proclaim a gospel incompatible with the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have already told you, now I say again, if someone preaches something incompatible to what you have received, let him be accursed!”