Wesleyans are doers. We always have been, starting with John Wesley himself. The whole of his life’s work staggers the mind. Wesleyans have followed his example through history. In the years since Wesley there have been revivals to preach, churches to plant, missions to open and always more work to be done. Yes, Wesleyans are doers, and that has been a good thing for the Kingdom as untold lives have been impacted for Christ’s sake. Wesleyan preaching has played a large role in this Kingdom work.
As great as it is to have the worker/doer gene built into our Wesleyan DNA, it has sometimes caused us Wesleyan preachers to place too much emphasis on human effort and too little on God’s grace. Instead of always making God the subject of our preaching, we sometimes have made it human responsibility. Instead of preaching about God’s amazing grace and the work of the Holy Spirit empowering heart transformation, we sometimes preached about effort and the will to overcome. In the past these ideas sometimes manifested as a focus in preaching that might be seen as legalistic. “If you want to be holy then don’t (insert your sin here)! If you want to be holy then make sure you start (insert religious action here)!” I’ve heard many sermons like this that equate being Godly with things I do or don’t do. With enough willpower I can be the holy person God wants me to be.
Sometimes placing too much emphasis on human effort and too little on God’s grace produces sermons that reduce the biblical narrative to moralistic tales with humanity as the subject. “If you want to be a good Christian, then be more like David.” “If you want to be a soul-winner then just love people like the Apostle Paul did.” In the story of David and Goliath, David is the hero because he stood up to a giant, instead of God being the hero who empowered him to act and who brought about the victory for Israel. In a sermon about soul winning like the Apostle Paul, we might reduce his ministry to action steps, that if simply duplicated will bring duplicate results.
Sermons that emphasize human responsibility over God’s grace might have titles like, “Five Ways to be a Soul Winner” or “How to Live a Successful Christian Life” or “Six Ways to be a Leader like Moses.” Don’t get me wrong, these might make excellent sermons and they might be greatly needed in a congregation. Yet if we are not careful, this kind of preaching can be unbalanced in its scope when it reduces holiness and discipleship to action steps and “how-to” guides. We must share the “how” as preachers, but even “how” cannot leave out “why” and “whom” if we want to avoid works-righteousness.
Preaching with imbalance between grace and responsibility instead of empowering people to live in the light of God’s love and leading them towards a Holy Spirit empowered holiness can foster a sense of failure. This failure can lead to a sense of hopelessness, a fear that holiness is not even possible. Consider this: If I preach that people can please God by conducting themselves a certain way, or shunning certain activities, and the people I preach to still struggle and fail after trying to keep those rules, they might be led to the conclusion that true holiness of heart and life is impossible on this side of heaven. I have reduced holiness to human willpower and I might as well tell people who are struggling in their faith to just try harder. Master preaching professor, Paul Scott Wilson, says that “many preachers persist in preaching messages that proclaim our condemnation as humans, for they sentence us to the limitations of our own accomplishments.”[i] If we preach messages that reduce holiness and Christian living to simply doing or not doing things, then we risk becoming what Wilson describes as preachers who “preach as though the resurrection of Christ makes no difference in the world.”[ii]
But the resurrection of Christ makes all the difference. Christ is the author and perfecter of our faith, not human will. I am encouraging us as Wesleyan preachers to focus our preaching more on grace and less on human responsibility — to always make the work of God the subject of our sermons.
You might be thinking, “Wait a minute! We are Wesleyan and that means we believe that somehow in the great mystery of salvation God has given humanity freewill. God has given us a part to play in the process.” You are absolutely right! God does give us a role to play, and doesn’t force his will on our lives. The grace of God doesn’t mean that, whether we want it or not, God pours holiness on us. Even though we know that salvation isn’t earned with works, what Christ has done for us and in us will result in action and life change. What’s more, there will often be things that Christians should do, and certain things they probably shouldn’t do. We should keep preaching that.
Hold on, you might be asking, “If we should focus our preaching on the grace of God, making God the subject of our preaching, and God somehow has also given us a level of responsibility in our faith, didn’t you just contradict yourself? Do you want us to preach grace or responsibility?” In a word, YES. We should preach both, but the difference is that we should never preach the latter without grounding it in the former. Do not preach responsibility without first preaching the grace of God that makes it possible. Even then, make sure responsibility itself is laced with grace. God is the one who starts our faith and God is the one who perfects it. He empowers it and makes it possible. If I preach about specific ways people can act on the sermon I should first preach about how God’s grace makes that response possible. If I preach on God’s call to holiness I must first preach of how holiness begins with God — we’re only holy because he is first holy and we can only hope to ever be like God through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s consider a few ways that we might become preachers who preach grace, making God the subject of the sermon:
- Begin looking for God’s grace and action in the biblical text you are preaching. Look deeper than the human actions of biblical characters in narratives: look for ways God empowered that action, asking what God is doing in and behind the text. In other Scriptural genres look deeper than moral lessons. For example, when the Apostle Paul calls for specific actions or life change he always bases that call in the work of God. He doesn’t tell us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling without telling us that it is Christ who is working in us to will and act to fulfill his good purpose. (Phil. 2:12)
- Begin asking deep questions of every sermon before you preach it. The main question is: Is this sermon based on God’s grace and the empowering work that only comes from God? This takes time and effort because, quite frankly, it’s easier to pick out a few moral lessons from a passage, a few dos or don’ts, or a list of how-tos. This may be why “Saturday night special” type sermons tend to focus more on human responsibility than God’s grace. Give your sermons time for a second look, for a God look.
- Add to your sermon toolbox specific preaching methods that naturally fosters grace focused preaching. There are several books that can help with this and Paul Scott Wilson’s Four Page of the Sermon is a good choice. Eugene Lowery’s the Homiletical Plot is another example of a method that places an emphasis on grace and the Gospel.[iii] Our own Lenny Luchetti speaks of the importance of making God the subject of the sermon in Preaching Essentials.[iv]
Whether you use one of these or other books like them, or simply take the time to reexamine your preaching and its focus, you’ll find that preaching that concentrates on grace and makes God the subject of the sermon will result in God’s empowerment and encouragement in those you preach to.
[i] Paul Scott Wilson, The Four Pages of the Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 21.
[ii] Wilson, 21.
[iii] Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001).
[iv] Lenny Luchetti, Preaching Essentials: A Practical Guide (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2012).
Mark Schnell has been an ordained minister in the Wesleyan Church since 1994 and has served in various roles in churches in Michigan, Indiana and the eastern shore of Maryland. He is currently finishing his doctorate in homiletics and regularly serves as an adjunct professor of homiletics and proclamation at Indiana Wesleyan University and Wesley Seminary. He’s been married to Sharie for over twenty-four years and is Dad to Kate (12) and CJ (6).