Recently I’ve been preaching through the Sermon on the Mount with the people of Forest Hills Baptist Church. So far it has been a wonderful series working through some of Jesus’ most well known teachings. However I knew when the Lord led me to this series that there would be some difficult passages to come up. The two I was least looking forward to was on lust and divorce. As a pastor some times you must teach on some difficult passages of Scripture.
The Bible doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear, nevertheless they are all profitable and useful for the building up of the body. Much like the prophet Ezekiel, as a pastor we eat the sweet scroll of God’s word even though it is often a bitter word of judgement (Ez 3:3). All of God’s word is honey to our lips. Yet, the Scriptures function as a mirror. As we hold up the mirror of God’s word to our own hearts and to the hearts of our own people, sometimes we do not like what it shows us about ourselves. The word of God pierces our hearts and exposes our sin (Heb 4:12). It can be an uncomfortable endeavor but yet it is the task of the pastor to teach the whole counsel of God.
Although I am still a young preacher and have much to learn, having recently taught through both lust and divorce from the sermon on the mount, I offer these five helpful principles for preaching through tough passages of scripture.
1. Practice Expository Preaching
In order to preach difficult passages you must get to difficult passages. With the absence of expository preaching it is tempting for pastors to pick hobby horse passages or passages that will merely tickle the ears of the congregation. As a result, consciously or not, many pastors skip over difficult or controversial passages.
Walking through sections of scripture verse by verse is so helpful because it forces us to encounter and deal with difficult passages. My people know we are walking through the Sermon on the Mount and they would notice if we skipped Jesus’ teaching on divorce. No matter how difficult it may be or though I may not desire to preach it, the accountability of my people force me to deal with difficult texts.
Yet, expository preaching can be a safe guard. When you deal with difficult passages in a expository series, it keeps the difficult sermon from sounding like a personal attack from the pastor. No one in the congregation is saying “I wonder why he picked a passage on lust this Sunday? I wonder who was in the counseling room this week?” The church knows this passage is next, so it removes any perceived hostility people may read into the pastors sermon. Thus the sermon becomes less of the words of a perceived vindictive pastor and more the prophetic, authoritative voice of God.
2. Preach in Humility, as a Man Under the Authority of the Scripture.
When I was preaching the sermon on lust, I tried to set the tone for the sermon at the beginning. I knew I was going to be having to deal with some difficult truths and that it was vital for me to be filled with conviction over sexual sin. I knew that many would perceive as strong word as judgmental self-righteousness, which would be the furthest from the truth. So before I got into the meat of the sermon I said,
This morning I plan to proclaim to you harsh truths that you may perceive are announced in judgement and self-righteousness. Hear me carefully before we begin. I speak as a man who is not above this text but stands condemned underneath it. I am a man who is a condemned sinner redeemed and restored by Jesus Christ. As I read Jesus’ words here what shame and dread come upon me. For which of us can here can read these words and not be condemned?
These words helped remind me and my people, that as a pastor I am a sinner who is saved by grace. The only power that enables me to stand in that pulpit without cowering in holy fear is that I’m clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
3. Speak Clearly and with Conviction
Set God’s word loose on your people. Do not be timid or fearful on difficult truths you know your people might not want to hear. So often our fear of men causes us to be timid lambs in the pulpit when we must be roaring lions. When it comes to the sexual immorality of our culture or the no-fault divorces that happen every day, it is necessary to bring a strong word of judgement against sin. However as you do, highlight the Scripture as your authority and not your own opinions.
4. Share Briefly Multiple Interpretations
The teaching on divorce was exceptionally difficult for me, not just because it is a hot-button issue, but because the text is a hermeneutical gordian knot. Many Christians wrestle on what the Scriptures teach on divorce and many books have been written on the subject. The greatest struggle for me was:
- How much should I share about the debate?
- Do I want to only share my position and act like the others do not exist?
Those were the sort of questions that plagued me as I was preparing for that sermon.
If you are preaching on such a text it is wise to briefly mention the debate around this text and briefly highlight some of the other views. But spend the bulk of your time proving your position from the text. The pulpit is not the place for an academic lecture on the precise definition of porneia. In fact most of the congregation doesn’t even care, they just want to know what the Scripture says. They don’t want a seminary dissertation on the subject.
5. Give Grace and Preach the Gospel
My great fear in preaching a sermon on lust or divorce is that I sound like some self-righteous right wing bigot. Although there are sections of those sermons where I must come down hard on what God calls sin, I must always point people to the Gospel. Pastor, if you hold up the mirror of condemnation to your peoples hearts you better point them to calvary before you close in prayer. Sins like lust are so pervasive and are hidden deep within our hearts. When you bring those things up to the surface and expose them to the light, it can get uncomfortable and often guilt begins to take over. Yet, I do not want my people to leave my sermon feeling badly over their sin, but gloriously in awe of a God who would save them despite their sin.
I want to leave them with Jesus. I want to point them to the savior who fulfilled the righteous requirements of the Law in their place. I want to point them to the suffering servant who was nailed to that tree for the forgiveness of our sins. I want to point them to the liberator who frees sexual captives and the God who never divorces his adulterous wife. He is the always faithful God who is ready to forgive and restore. When you preach these difficult sermons give your people what they need the most, Jesus.
Pastors, how have you dealt with difficult passages? How do you handle texts that you know will elicit controversy? Share your wisdom in the comments!