Holy and heavenly discourse is the most delectable. I mean in its own aptitude, and to a mind that is not diseased by corruption. That which is most great, and good, and necessary, is most delectable. What should best please us, but that which is best for us? and best for others? and best in itself? The excellency of the subject maketh it delightful! And so doth the exercise of our graces upon it: and serious conference doth help down the truth into our hearts, where it is most sweet. Besides that nature and charity make it pleasant to do good to others. It can be nothing better than a subversion of the appetite by carnality and wickedness, that maketh any one think idle jests, or tales, or plays, to be more pleasant than spiritual, heavenly conference; and the talking of riches, or sports, or lusts, to be sweeter than to talk of God, and Christ, and grace, and glory. A holy mind hath a continual feast in itself in meditating on these things, and the communicating of such thoughts to others, is a more common, and so a more pleasant feast.
—Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory, “Christian Politics” ch. 16, “Special Directions for Christian Conference, Exhortation, and Reproof” (loc. 46756)
I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.
Death is a reality. It’s the one certainty of life. Everybody dies. It’s inevitable. And the certainty of death should affect our life. Having the end in view puts things in perspective, allowing us to evaluate our priorities. Looking toward certain death puts all vocations in perspective. Parents, workers, rulers.
The certainty of death should especially affect the vocation of pastor. Death should put the task of preaching in proper perspective.
Yet, how easily pastors forget this. The cemetery is no longer just outside the church building. You can’t look out the church window and see the resting place of congregants before you, and where you will one day go to join them. Death is not visible on the Lord’s Day. As the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.” The congregation would certainly think more seriously about preaching if death was on their mind.
The inevitable event of dying should affect pastoral ministry, especially the primary work of preaching, from two angles. First, the congregation will die. The pastor preaches to dying men. Second, the pastor will die. The preacher is a fellow dying man. Death should shape pastoral ministry from both sides. Particularly, that should affect each time he preaches; every sermon. The pastor must preach as never sure to preach again.
To Dying Men
First, the congregation will die. The flock that has been entrusted to the under-shepherd is headed for eternity. So?
What is the pastor’s job? Management? Social work? Civil service? CEO? Community service? The reality of death can simplify that question. The pastor’s work is to prepare his people to die.
Is your flock of “dying men” and women ready for death? What do they need, in order to prepare? How can you prepare them?
So much of preaching today is concerned with daily life. How to be successful. Family issues. Money issues. Cultural values. Education. Whatever Roman Catholic holiday is next on the calendar. Temporary things. Much of it amounts to the pastor’s personal advice. With all this concern, and desire for “practical” things, one certainty is forgotten. All of that will end, one day.
I fear that with the preoccupation with our daily, practical concerns, nobody is thinking about the end of life. None are asking how to be prepared to meet our Maker. Consequently, the preaching in such an environment is not preaching to dying men.
Imagine your congregation, all of them, on death’s doorstep. Have you prepared them? I know several pastor’s, at least those who love their people, crying out on that day because they still have things to tell their people. But when death comes, it’s too late.
Ask yourself: can you honestly say that you’ve preached God’s Word in such a way, that if your flock died, you can confidently say they are ready? Have you done your part to prepare them for death?
The Gospel, of course, is what you would have been proclaiming. The people must know what God requires that they may escape his wrath and curse, due to them for sin. Does the Gospel characterize your preaching?
The pastor’s job is to prepare people to die well, to die in the Lord. To sleep in Jesus, resting in their graves, as in their beds.
Has your preaching accomplished that? Not if it’s so focused on this world. On the passing things of this life. Like wealth, health, prosperity, education, finances. What of eternal realities? As God said to the rich man in the parable, “You fool! Tonight, your soul will be required of you.”
How terrible if pastors were guilty of developing more fools.
A Dying Man
Here’s the proper perspective:
Preach the gospel. Die. Be forgotten.
—Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf
You, preacher, will not always be here. Does that change your priorities? Just a little?
It should certainly make us think of what the focus of ministry needs to be. More study, more studying your people. Less time on other things, even good things, but aren’t actually part of the pastor’s God-given job description.
But, let’s see how it affects the primary work of the pastor: preaching the Word. In your short amount of time, what needs to be accomplished in the pulpit?
Preach the Gospel. The Gospel will outlive you. It will continue in the minds of the congregants that outlive you.
So many pastors today are concerned with legacy. I cringe just hearing that word. Because usually it means leaving your name. From the perspective of the Kingdom of God, however, your name continuing, your personal legacy, is irrelevant. That’s an earthly perspective, in my mind. Rather, we are to have an eternal perspective. What’s the thing you should leave behind? The faith, given once and for all, passed down from generation to generation of saints.
You being remembered pales in comparison to the Gospel being remembered. Indeed, pastoring is not about you. Preaching is certainly not about you (though we can’t tell, half the time).
The Apostle Paul declared himself free of the blood of any man. How? He preached the whole counsel of God. He warned them daily. Aha! That must be the preacher’s aim. His time is short. So the intention, the goal, and priority is to preach all of God’s Word. That’s your responsibility. You have the whole counsel of God in your possession and it’s your job to preach it before the time is up. Here’s an exercise: imagine the end of your life, and being asked whether you did your duty. You had the whole counsel of God, but did you preach it while you had the time?
You won’t always be around. What do your fellow “dying men” and women need to possess, before you die? The Word of God.
This of course means the preacher himself is ready to die, at any time.
Never Sure to Preach Again
Here we get more particular. We stop looking at the whole of life, and narrow it down to one particular day. Yes, death should even have implications for a single day. More particularly, how does death affect a single sermon? Simply put: this sermon could be your last.
I think a lot of pastors approach preaching thinking, “Oh, another time to talk about stuff.” And I’m left sitting there thinking, “Why did you spend 45 minutes talking about that?”
Rather, they should walk up to the pulpit thinking, “This is it: final words.” Parting words, they may be. I think there would be a whole lot less nonsense, triviality, and (frankly) childishness in our pulpits if pastors realized that this sermon could very well be their last.
That’s assuming, of course, that they care about preaching the Word and being faithful to the text. Most, it seems, are content to merely preach themselves.
This might be a good exercise for preachers: after you preach on Sunday morning, ask yourself, “Was that a satisfying final sermon?”
I ask you, “What if you died before next Sunday?”
That might get your priorities straight. God forbid you failed to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Who wants to finish their race on a note of life-advice or 5 tips for a successful blah-blah-blah? A hireling, maybe. Surely not a true under-shepherd of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Your people are going to die, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. You are going to die, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. So preach in light of that fact. If that was your last sermon, would you be proud of it? As you go to answer directly to your Master, for that stricter judgment James says teacher receive, can you say you did your duty?
As you reflect on your last sermon, perhaps you realize it was shallow. As in, light on Bible. Superficial.
Ask yourself, do you really want to leave your people with your personal stories, anecdotes, and quotes? That’s what you thought needed to be said, before you departed this earth? I don’t think so.
By God’s grace, and if the Lord tarries, you’ll live to see another Sunday. So, go about preparing your next sermon. But, after your sermon preparation is complete, I want you to hear me ask you:
“You want that to be your last sermon?”
I know quite a few preachers that, judging by their sermons, need to think about death a lot.
Think about it.
It may change your preaching.
But if grace find a man ignorant, unlearned, and of mean abilities, he must not expect to be suddenly lifted up to great understanding and high degrees of knowledge by grace. For this knowledge is not given, now, by sudden infusion, as gifts were, extraordinarily, in the primitive church. You need no other proof of this but experience, to stop the mouth of any gainsayer. Look about you, and observe whether those that are men of knowledge, did obtain it by infusion, in a moment? or whether they did not obtain it by diligent study, by slow degrees? though I know God blesseth some men’s studies more than others. Name one man that ever was brought to great understanding, but by means and labour, and slow degrees; or that knoweth any truth, in nature, or divinity, but what he read, or heard, or studied for, as the result of what he read or heard. The person that is proudest of his knowledge, must confess that he came to it in this way himself.
—Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory vol. 1, loc. 3052
In my reading this morning, Richard Baxter hit upon one of the most common temptations that I still hear, today.
Tempt. V. But, saith the tempter, they are but sins of omission, and such are not reigning sins.
Direct. V. Sins of omission are always accompanied with some positive, sensual affection to the creature, which diverteth the soul, and causeth the omission. And so omission is no small part of the reigning sin. The not using of reason and the will for God, and for the mastering of sensuality, is much of the state of ungodliness in man. Denying God the heart and life, is no small sin. God made you to do good, and not only to do no harm: else a stone or corpse were as good a christian as you; for they do less harm than you. If sin have a negative voice in your religion, whether God shall be worshipped and obeyed or not, it is your king: it may show its power as well by commanding you not to pray, and not to consider, and not to read, as in commanding you to be drunk or swear. The wicked are described by omissions: such as “will not seek after God: God is not in all his thoughts,” Psal. x. 4. Such as “know not God, and call not on his name,” Jer. x. 25. That have “no truth, or mercy, or knowledge of God,” Hos. iv. 1. That “feed not, clothe not, visit not” Christ in his members, Matt. xxv.; that hide their talents, Matt. xxv. Indeed, if God have not your heart, the creature hath it; and so it is omission and commission that go together in your reigning sin.
—Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory loc. 2710
What is that common temptation? Thinking you’re good enough simply because you’re not harming anyone. How often have I heard that? “I’m not harming anyone.” I’m a good person. I do no harm.
Baxter rightly recognizes this as, what is commonly called, “sin of omission.” This comes from the fact that God has not merely given prohibitions. God has not merely given a list of “don’ts.” God has also told us what to do.
We are not merely sinners on account that we do what we are not supposed to do (sins of commission), we transgress or break God’s law. “Doing harm.” But we are also sinners on account that we do not do what we are supposed to do. We omit. We fail to do our duty.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism helpfully defines sin for us:
Q. 14. What is sin?
A. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.
We get too comfortable because so often the focus is on transgressions. Avoid transgressing, and we’ll be alright. Such is the temptation.
Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever (WSC 1). To not do that, to deny God heart and life, is a great sin. “God made you to do good, and not only to do no harm: else a stone or corpse were as good a christian as you; for they do less harm than you.”
To think sin doesn’t rule you simply because it’s not “positive” sin is to deceive oneself. Yet, how often in the church do we reinforce that erroneous thinking? What are the stereotypical sins that are targeted from the evangelical pulpit? Sins of commission, most certainly. Drunkenness. Fornication. Doing this or that which God forbids.
And so, it would be easy to believe that as long as I am not doing these things, not committing these things, that I am okay, and need not repent of anything. As long as I don’t commit, I’m fine. All the while what I omit is never addressed.
But as Baxter points out, omission is sin. That’s bad enough, as it is.
But, Baxter further points out the double-edged nature of sin: “Sins of omission are always accompanied with some positive, sensual affection to the creature.” And, “omission and commission that go together in your reigning sin.”
Omission occurs because we are pursuing something other than God. To simply not pursue God is to be ungodly, as we are pursuing something else.
Since we so often focus on the outside appearance, we mistake being “conservative” for being godly. “Ah, that one is a Christian, because he is not living a scandalous lifestyle. Sin does not rule them.” Perhaps, perhaps not. Baxter astutely says, “If sin have a negative voice in your religion, whether God shall be worshipped and obeyed or not, it is your king: it may show its power as well by commanding you not to pray, and not to consider, and not to read, as in commanding you to be drunk or swear.”
We must be careful. Especially in a religious context such as ours, where being religious comes with the culture. We confuse conservative living, not drinking or swearing, with godliness. Yet, is that the only way sin is active? What about omission? As well as not living scandalously, do you also pray, consider, and read? Sin may not command you to get blasted every night, or swear. But do you worship God and obey him, positively? Then it is in fact your king, and you it’s slave.
Quite frankly, much preaching today fails to confront this. What exactly is the call to repentance, anyway? Can we preach repentance to everyone, even those who are conservative? Many imagine themselves to live a “clean life.” How are they to be cut to be the heart, if we characterize the dominion of sin as merely transgressions of God’s law? “Ah, that’s not me,” they could easily respond. And they would be right. If the law was truly preached, then it would cut with both edges. In fact, they would be exposed as not living cleanly enough. Christ, in the fullest preaching of the law, revealed that it’s at the heart level. Sure, you may not have killed someone. But have you hated anyone, recently? Then you have already transgressed.
In our context many succumb to this temptation: because I am conservative, I am right with God. I am a good person. Sin doesn’t control me. I need not repent. I’m not like the cursing, drunken fornicators down the street. And all God’s people said, “Amen.”
Yet, those transgressions are not the only way to describe the wicked. Are you characterized by omissions? Such as, “will not seek after God: God is not in all his thoughts.” What exactly do you pursue, with all your heart? What do you meditate on, day and night? You’re seeking after something. Something is in all your thoughts. If it’s not God, it’s an idol.
Are you as ignorant of God and his Word as those “sinners” down the street? Do you also posses “no truth, or mercy, or knowledge of God.”
It is not satisfactory that you drink not, swear not, fornicate not, because you also “feed not, clothe not, visit not” Christ in his members.
Not doing harm cannot save anyone. You remain under the reign of sin and guilty before God, as the servant who hid his talents instead of serve his Master. “Wicked” was the word used to describe him. Wicked and lazy. Cast out into the darkness, because of omission.
Do not yield to the temptation that you are not in sin, simply because you do no harm. Omission is no small part of reigning sin. Do not be deceived.
“Indeed, if God have not your heart, the creature hath it.”
The law cuts both ways. Such is the genius of the exposition of the Law of God in the Shorter and especially the Larger Catechisms. For every negative prohibition, there is a positive command. To not do what God says not to do is only half of it. We must also do what God requires.
To those who do not think they need to repent: realize that you do. Your only hope is in Jesus Christ. He not only never transgressed God’s law, but fully obeyed it. No commission or omission. Both are required to be accepted by God. You may have felt comfortable in avoiding transgression, felt comfortable in your conservative lifestyle. But you are just as guilty for denying God your heart and life, which is no small sin. You need that debt remedied. Christ is the only One with a perfect record. You can’t, it’s already too late. Repent and trust in the Lord Jesus, for his account to be made yours.
To the professing Christian: the transgressions may not describe you, but do the omission? Don’t get comfortable because you are physically in a church building on most Sundays. Examine yourself in light of God’s Word, shown above. May not you be declared a “wicked, lazy servant”?
To the believer: thank God for his grace in the Gospel. We so often fall short in both ways. Transgressions are easier to see. They’re easier to preach at. Let us not be deluded. Let us examine ourselves: what have we omitted? Repent. And remember that God works in us to will and to do his good pleasure. Be confident, knowing that we don’t have to satisfy God’s requirement. Christ satisfied it already. In light of that wonderful news, strive not only to avoid transgression, but to obey.