A preacher’s task is to declare the cross of Christ in such as way as that it deals with sin. The death of Jesus was the place where God brought the issue of sin to closure. The death of Jesus in a sermon is intended to be the place where that same closure is brought to sin — as grace, as a gift, as offered life — in the life of particular individuals. The reason it is not always well received, even in the church, is that this word closure . . . seems so final.
Now there is a way of attacking sin that causes a bad reaction because the preacher is just chasing sins with a club. But a club can never do what the cross of Christ can do — when that cross is being understood as a vicarious, plenary, substitutionary and complete. A preacher chasing sins with a club is scattering sinners. A preacher in the grip of the Spirit gathers them. The preacher who is anointed with the Spirit says what the Spirit says — the Spirit and the bride say, come.
But even when men are being gathered, and not scattered, there are some who still do not want to come. They want to slanderously represent the gathering that is going on as a scattering. This gatherer is harsh and legalistic, they say. They want to seek out a place where sin will not be dealt with quite as thoroughly as it is dealt with in the cross. This problem afflicts genuine Christians as well as those professing Christians who are not yet converted. The sinful heart, whether we are talking about remaining sin or reigning sin, always wants some kind of maneuvering room.
When a surrendered heart hears the full declaration made by a preacher who is pulling, not pushing, who is gathering, not scattering, the message is heart as unmitigated good news. When an unsurrendered heart hears it, the result is churn and turmoil. People never like feeling that way, and so they start looking for a scapegoat — the genesis of many church splits.
But the problem with this scapegoat approach is that the preacher is declaring a message that is all about the ultimate scapegoat. Jesus bore our sins in a way that finally and completely dealt with them. Other scapegoats don’t deal with the sin with that kind of finality, which leaves us the maneuvering room we crave. But that maneuvering room, while leaving sins alone, is also leaving relationships alone, suffering under the consequences of that sin. Now every preacher worth his salt knows when such an “electrical charge” is building up in the congregation. He knows when the congregation is starting to look a little ominous, a little bit like a thunderhead.
When this happens, the temptation is to think uh oh, and back off. But if he is backing off a declaration of Jesus Christ, the last and final substitute for the sins of all the elect, then it is a bad move. Christ crucified took that lightning bolt. That’s the whole point. That is what propitiation means. The spirit of accusation spent its force in the cross. In Christ there is therefore no condemnation. Outside of Christ, there is nothing but condemnation — and accusation, and recriminations, and blaming, and finger-pointing, and . . . your average church split.
This is why there will always be men available (who appear as if by magic) who offer the desired maneuvering room. The apostle Paul knew this, and could declare beforehand what was going to happen to the church at Ephesus. The overseers there had been given the charge of a congregation that had been purchased by the blood of Christ (Acts 20:28). That purchase was substitutionary, redemptive, and final. It was a congregation that had been built by the good news. And so what is going to happen? Certain men, from their own midst, were going to start to squirm under that finality, and they were going to rise up, seeking to draw disciples away (Acts 20:30). Away from what? Well, away from that blood purchase. Away from laughter. Away from no condemnation.
Into what? Into guilt. Into not good enough. Into a little more striving. Into condemnation. Into fussing. Into no fun at all. Into religion.