Bonhoeffer captured this problem well:
The Christian life comes to mean nothing more tha living in the world and as the world, in being no different from the world, in fact, in being prohibited from being different from the world for the sake of grace. The upshot of it all is that my only duty as a Christian is to leave the world for an hour or so on a Sunday morning and go to church to be assured that my sins are all forgiven. I need no longer try to follow Christ, for cheap grace, the bitterest foe of discipleship, which true grace must loathe and detest, has freed me from that.
Bonhoeffer added in good summary, "It is terrifying to realize what use can be made of a genuine evangelical doctrine."
Terrifying indeed to consider that so many, under the banner of "grace," may be this moment perishing in their sins because we who claim to understand the vital distinctions of Christianity have not made them clear, have not pressed them into the hearts and minds of our hearers, have not in effect loved them enough to be unpopular but faithful.
Preaching is the method for making such distinctions, for drawing the mind upward to Christ in heaven and giving the people then an aerial view of themselves. Right preaching of the Word is a mark of a true church. And right preaching of the Word is God's method for calling dead, dry bones to life. It's how nominalism will be overcome in large measure.
Well, how then might we think of "right preaching"? Better minds than mine have written and spoken on this at length. Today, I just want to add a few quick thoughts for those who are laboring, perhaps frustrated, in nominally Christian contexts.
1. Make a clear sound. Resist the fear of man that drives you away from the sharp edge of the text. Let's pray that our preaching is penetrating, that the sword is wielded with skill, dividing thoughts and intents. Be sure that essentials are proclaimed with all the confidence of Scripture. In a nominal context, we must not make uncertain noises by cluttering the sermon with our opinions, qualifications or equivocations. We must declare the entire counsel of God as straight-forwardly, lovingly, and clearly as possible--especially on essential doctrines.
2. Preach more doctrinal sermons. By this I don't mean boring sermons or sermons that are never applied. But resist that hellish label "practical" sermon, by which most mean "convenient" and "light" application. Our people will sometimes want only milk, especially when that has been the sustained diet for years. They will want sermons that are easy to hear, easy to accept, and just as easily forgotten. Their flesh, like ours, war against the Spirit and His Word. So, we must every-so-patiently but steadily wean them from milk and preach the pure doctrine of Scripture. We must include high, exalted views of God, Christ and the Spirit in our sermons. We need to pay close attention to the doctrines of the Church and conversion as we open the Word. Our task is to lift them a rung on the ladder to heaven by raising them from the mire of self-concern. To do that, we need to ground our sermons on solid doctrine. We need fewer "how to" talks and more "behold your God!" preaching.
3. Address non-Christians clearly. This is something I learned from Mark Dever, who addresses non-Christians in his sermon as clearly as anyone I've seen or heard. Sometimes his sermons seem to be an on-going conversation with the non-Christians in the audience as he breaks to appeal to them, to probe their thinking, to ask a searching question. Most all of us may safely assume that non-Christians are included in our weekly services. We would serve them well to remove their supposed anonymity by pressing home the teaching of Scripture to their cases. Call them to listen. Say something like, "If you are here this morning and you are not a Christian..." then ask the appropriate question from the text. Admit at times that what you are preaching may seem foreign or strange to them, then expound upon the difference between a Christian (regenerate) view of the issue and a non-Christian view. Invite them into the thought life of Christians so that they might understand the distinctions, not just hear them pronounced. Ed Clowney encourages preachers to:
Use dialogue. What are your hearers saying to the Lord? Quote what they may be thinking. Think of how the Lord's Word is addressed to a person in the congregation or audience. Imagine what some of your hearers may be saying to the Lord, and declare His answer from His Word. You are mediating a conversation of a saint and a sinner with the Lord himself. Remember that His Word does not return empty, and that He is speaking it. Keep your language vivid, not by illustrations and figures of speech that steal attention from him, but by vivid references to what the Lord says and does.4. Get to Jesus. Whatever section or genre of Scripture you're preaching, point to Jesus. Let's teach and preach the Bible the way Jesus did. "Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27, see also 44-46). Too often, preaching falls into moralism and "life lessons," especially preaching from the Old Testament. We must point beyond such small ideas to the big idea--Jesus' fulfillment of all that is written and promised. This is when preaching is piercing. Most anyone can sit long enough to hear a good illustration reinforcing some moral principle or tip for better living. After all, that serves our own needs. But preaching that points everyone and everything to Christ, insisting upon His lordship and our submission, our repentance and faith, tends to separate wheat from chaff and to make the unconverted uncomfortable. We must never fail to get to Jesus in our sermons, to lift Him up so that He would draw men to Himself.
5. Address people with Jesus' words. Following my sermon this past weekend, two good brothers gave me some helpful feedback. I had preached Psalm 119, and I had meditated on the gospel, but I had not quite "put the psalm on Jesus' lips." They suggested that should I ever preach the psalm again (or any psalm) to be sure to do that. "Of course!' I thought. This is Jesus' Word, it's a Word about Him, and it's the Word that He fulfills. Of course my preaching should place this Word in His mouth. And related to this, especially when preaching the Gospels, we should address Jesus' Words directly to the people. Our words about His words may be okay. But nothing is more arresting than to have Jesus himself speak directly to you. To have the Master ask directly, "Who do you say I am?" Or, "What do you want me to do for you?" "What Did Moses command you?" "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptizd with the baptism I am baptised with?" We must call our people to hear the Word of the Lord and quote the incisive questions and commands to them so that they are clear that their reaction is either for or against the Lord (not the preacher).
6. Preach in God's Spirit. Because nominalism is spiritual blindness, the Spirit must open eyes and give sight. Our effectiveness as preachers is not in clever speech but in the power of the Holy Spirit. He must accompany our proclamations and seal them to the heart of our hearers; otherwise, it's so much spitting in the wind. Be filled with the Spirit. Pray. Meditate on the Word of God. Plead for God's unction in preaching. Without it, our discourses will fall flat.
Nominal Christianity is deadly, but it's not intractable. Preaching into such a culture the Word of God by the Spirit of God may work a revival of true religion. Preaching is God's appointed means for proclaiming His glory in Christ. And it's preaching that will expose pretenders to that glory and awaken the slumbering. Preach as a dying man to dying men!