Stephen A. Hoogerhyde
I recently heard a sermon in which the preacher spent much more time detailing the wickedness of man’s heart than displaying the grace of the God who saves. Given the text of the sermon, I could understand his emphasis, if not his balance.
Some who heard it thought the proportions wrong; others thought it was a good corrective against always talking about grace and never about holiness.
The experience got me thinking: what is the correct balance between grace and holiness? What is the correct balance for an individual sermon, and for the preacher’s body of work overall? How much should the preacher talk about the bad news of sin, and how much about the good news of grace? How best can the preacher portray the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Francis Schaeffer, that well-known Reformed apologist of the previous century, states in Art and the Bible that the Christian worldview can be divided into a major and a minor theme. The minor theme is the “abnormality of the revolting world” (83), which includes both unregenerate sinners revolting against God and redeemed sinners struggling against sin in their lives. The major theme is the “meaningfulness and purposefulness of life” (84). This theme expresses itself both in a metaphysical sense—that is, God exists and man as made in his image has significance—and in a moral sense—that is, God’s character exposes man’s sinfulness but also provides the solution through Christ’s redeeming work.
The gospel tells us the bad news of sin before it gives us the good news of salvation. See, for example, 1 Corinthians 15:3, where Paul states what is of first importance in the gospel he has preached, that Christ died for our sins. The good news of the Savior—the necessity for a Savior—is set against the backdrop of the bad news of our sin. The Bible certainly displays the sinfulness and lost estate of man. Read Genesis 6:5, Exodus 32 ( the account of Israel worshiping a golden calf), the book of Judges (especially chapters 19–21), 2 Kings 17:7–23 (which lists the reasons why Israel was exiled), Romans 1:18–32 (cataloging the downward spiral of sin), 2 Timothy 3:1–7 (the godlessness of the last days), and verses 4–13 of Jude.
Certainly the minor theme is news to sinners, who do not naturally notice their sin. As Donald Grey Barnhouse states,
The fundamental difference between man’s natural opinion of himself and God’s declarations concerning humanity is that man starts off with the premise that there is something good in himself that can be polished and perfected, while the Word of God starts off with the premise that everything in man must be condemned and that God must begin with a new creation within the human heart. (God’s Wrath, 232)
And that leads us directly to the major theme: God loves and redeems sinners. All is not lost! Life is not meaningless! God will remove hearts of stone and implant hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:26). The Redeemer will come! It will no longer be always winter and never Christmas. The winter of discontent and death will yield to the spring of joy and resurrection. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).
As the Bible shows us the depth of man’s depravity, even more it shows us the height of God’s love for his fallen creation, and particularly for man. God will crush Satan (Gen. 3:15). He will preserve human life (9:8–17). Through the line of Abraham (Gen. 17) and David (2 Sam. 7), God will bring his Messiah to save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). Because Jesus takes upon himself the penalty for the sins of all his people (Isa. 53), because the debt we could never pay is now paid (John 19:30), because Jesus bore on our behalf the just wrath of God against sin (Rom. 3:24–25), we who have been given the grace of faith (Eph. 2:8–9) and who have been redeemed, have peace with God (Rom. 5:1). God will engrave the names of his people on his hands (Isa. 49:15–16), he will rejoice over us with songs of love (Zeph. 3:17), he will never leave us nor forsake us (Heb. 13:5), and he will one day bring us to glory (Ps. 73:25; Rom. 8:30).
Hallelujah, what a Savior!
Why then must the minor theme of rebellion be present in the presentation of the gospel at all? Why must faithful preachers use words like “sin” and “hell” and “wrath”? Why must the sinfulness of sin be displayed so vividly? Why can’t we just focus on the grace and love of God?
First and foremost, the faithful preacher must talk about sin because God’s Word talks about it, as previously shown. He must proclaim the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).
Second, talking about sin is necessary to give the hearers a true knowledge of themselves. John Calvin begins the second book of his Institutes of the Christian Religion with the thought that the knowledge of ourselves is necessary so that we are rid of pride, humbled by our lost condition, and made ready to embrace the mercy of God in Christ: “When viewing our miserable condition since Adam’s fall, all confidence and boasting are overthrown, we blush for shame, and feel truly humble” (2.1.1).
Finally, to avoid talking about sin and man’s natural state diminishes the value, necessity, and glory of the redemption. Schaeffer notes that if Christian art emphasizes only the major theme, it is not fully Christian and becomes “simply romantic art” (56). In the same way, if the preacher emphasizes only the major theme, he risks turning the Redeemer into simply a paragon of virtue in the ears of his hearers. He has to show that the heart is “deceitful above all things and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9), or his hearers will not fully appreciate why they need a completely new heart. He needs to show how even the greatest of the prophets sinned and had imperfect knowledge, how even the most faithful of the priests still needed to offer sacrifices for his own sin, how even the king who was a man after God’s own heart failed so miserably.
The benefit to the hearers is that the gospel of grace shines so much brighter and clearer against the background of man’s sinful state, as diamonds shine more brightly against a black velvet background and as stars glow brighter on the darkest night. As we are given a greater appreciation of the depth of our sin and misery, and our inability to save ourselves, we are then enabled to grow in our understanding of the immensity of God’s marvelous grace and are thus encouraged and equipped to love him more (Luke 7:47).
Against the backdrop of the failures of Moses, Aaron, and David, the glory of Jesus Christ as our perfect prophet, priest, and king shines so brightly. Recognizing man’s depravity helps us to see the grace of God more clearly! As Barnhouse noted, “It is not pessimism to say that man’s problem is absolutely insoluble by man. It opens the way for the most glorious optimism: for God has announced that He Himself will solve the problems” (God’s Wrath, 251).
A question could be asked, should the preacher be concerned to explain God’s Word, to educate the saints in attendance, or to evangelize the unbelievers who are there? The answer, of course, is yes! If the preacher is correctly expositing the Word of God, the Word will be both edifying to the believer and enlightening to the unbeliever. Both believers and unbelievers need to hear the gospel, and both believers and unbelievers benefit from hearing the gospel repeatedly. As Dennis E. Johnson states, “the same gospel of grace that reconciles alienated rebels continues to direct and drive their growth as reconciled children of God” (Him We Proclaim, 43).
And so the believer as well as the unbeliever needs continually to hear the minor theme as well as the major theme.
The Heidelberg Catechism memorably opens with the assertion that, as believers, our only comfort in life and death is that we belong to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. The second question asks, “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” The answer:
Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.
Do you see it? Or rather, do you hear it? First we hear the minor theme, then the major theme swells, then the crescendo of joyful applause. Guilt, grace, gratitude.
Preachers, as you open God’s Word to us week by week, show us the beauty of the gospel. Show us the brightness of grace against the darkness of sin. Show us the heart of stone that only by the work of the Holy Spirit becomes a heart of flesh. Show us the fallen, sin-cursed creation that groans until the day the Creator makes all things new, and show us his work of recreation already begun. Show us how great our sin is, but even more, show us how much greater our Redeemer is. Yes, show us our beautiful Savior.
The author is an elder in the PCA. New Horizons, April 2020.