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A few years ago I began a preaching series through the book of James. To be honest, I decided to preach through James because I felt it addressed some issues I wanted to address, from Scripture in our congregation. James is a book that doesn’t mess around. It addresses weak and shallow faith, joy in suffering, and pride and elitism in the body of Christ.
What surprised me, however, was how much James spoke to me, as a pastor. I was especially convicted by the way James 3 challenges the way pastors approach the text when they stand in the pulpit on Sundays.
Most of us are aware of James 3:1’s shot across the bow. “Not many of you,” James writes, “should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who are teachers will be judged with greater strictness.” I’d always read this verse as a warning to pastors to make sure they understand the weight of their calling. But there is more here, I think, in James’ warning.
The rest of James 3 addresses the tongue, how this “untamed…world of righteousness” can cause much destruction. As a child, growing up, I’d heard many sermons on the tongue and how gossip in the church can hurt church unity. But I’d never connected these warnings about the tongue to James 3:1. That was, until the weight of the entire passage hit me like a ton of bricks.
What James is saying here is this: the words you say in the pulpit matter. They can either be words of gospel life or words of death. When a pastor ascends the stage and stands in the pulpit, he is essentially speaking for God to God’s people. And when people sit and listen, they are assuming that what you are preaching and saying is what God has already declared in His Word.
This is why we have to get the text right. God uses good, sound, gospel preaching to communicate life to His people and to the lost. But bad, unsound, false doctrine leads to spiritual death.
And nothing is more important than the way we preach Jesus. Now, no evangelical pastor would say that he’s not preaching Jesus. Jesus is why we get into the ministry. It’s why we go through seminary, deal with the difficulties of church life, and represent God to God’s people.
But how are we preaching Jesus? I think there are three ways we are tempted to get Jesus wrong:
1. We preach a legalistic Jesus.
When I assumed my first pastorate, I was confronted by a member who asked me: “Are you going to preach the list?” I wasn’t sure what she was asking, but soon learned that she was used to preaching that specifically preached for or against certain forms of media. She was used to the sanctioned list of what music or movies were acceptable. At times, I wanted to preach this way, not just regarding pop culture, but a variety of other behaviors that I didn’t prefer or agree with. But I couldn’t do it with integrity. I cannot preach, we cannot preach, what is not in the Scriptures.
There is a danger for pastors to preach more than what the Bible is saying. To put our preferences and likes and dislikes on the same level as orthodoxy. This not only confuses people, it is spiritual hubris to tell Christ that we should add to His written revelation. When we do this, we are doing as the Pharisees did and “teaching for doctrine the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9). It’s better to simply preach faithfully the Word of God and let the Holy Spirit do His work in the hearts of the people we serve.
2. We preach a culturally acceptable Jesus.
There is an opposite reaction to the legalistic Jesus. It’s the Jesus who easily conforms to everyone’s cultural expectations, the Jesus who is just not as angry as that hard-to-understand Old Testament God and much nicer than the cranky and doctrinaire Apostle Paul. I think this Jesus has been the mascot for pop evangelicalism, a Jesus who offers a kind of cheap and easy grace. It is true that Jesus is love and that his grace offers forgiveness for the worst of sinners. It’s true that Jesus is better than the religious trappings and traditionalism that is often lifeless and dead. It’s true that Jesus spoke against the Pharisees.
However, we do our people a disservice by not preaching the whole gospel of the Kingdom, by not presenting the real Jesus. Jesus was about grace, but he was also about truth. Jesus dined with sinners, but he also called them to repentance and self-denial. As pastors, we must not preach the Jesus we want or the Jesus who will get us a thousand amens, but the real Christ who is infinitely better than the Jesus we create in our own image.
3. A Jesus who looks a lot like us.
I’m grateful to live and work in America. When the national anthem plays at a ballgame, I get a tear in my eye. But as American pastors, we have to be careful of baptizing our patriotism as Christian doctrine. We have to be wise not to import our cultural biases into Scripture and miss out on the Christ who is calling out a people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. A few years ago, over the fourth of July holiday, our family attended a church while on vacation. I was aghast at the pastor’s message, which sounded more like a speech at the Republican Convention than a gospel message. Sadly, this pastor quoted more Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin than Scripture. The only gospel I heard was during the singing of the hymns. What our people need is not traditional values or political talking points.
They need to hear of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. They don’t need to long for the halcyon days of the 1950’s but instead should be looking for that “city whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10). The gospel calls us to be good citizens of America, but ultimately we are citizens of another Kingdom that will not end. Pastors need to resist the easy amens of appealing to political preferences and instead must present a Jesus whose body is full of people from all over the world, not just the fifty states of America.