There are any number of things that make preaching hard. It’s hard to preach immediately following a tragedy. It’s hard to preach to people who don’t care about the condition of their soul, heaven and hell, salvation and judgment. It’s hard to preach before difficult people who don’t know the difference between spiritual discernment and being critical. It’s hard to preach confusing passages of Scripture in a plain and understandable way. It’s hard to preach when you’re tired and worn, anxious and uncertain, preoccupied and distressed. Add all of this together in any one given week and you begin to realize it’s no easy thing to preach a sermon.
This last Lord’s Day I preached the hardest sermon yet in my still budding experience. What made it so difficult was not anything mentioned above. There was no tragedy, the congregation seemed alert and concerned, the passage wasn’t exegetically difficult, and I wasn’t feeling particularly out of sorts. What made the sermon difficult was the content of the text, which was highly alarming and discomforting.
Jesus closes the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:13-27 with four pictures which warn hearers how to and how not to receive his word. Those pictures are known to us: the narrow and broad way, the good and bad tree, the wise and foolish builder, and then there is the warning Jesus gives in verses 21-23. It’s dramatic, it’s potent, it’s searching, and it’s disturbing to all disciples of Christ. Why?
- Because he isn’t addressing the atheists and agnostics but those who are his disciples.
- Because, more particularly, he’s addressing hypocrites who are woefully self-deceived, even dying and entering judgment in that deception.
- Because his words show us how far a person may go in profession, “Lord, Lord,” and in “good” works, “Did we not?” and still be no nearer to heaven for it.
- Because the text shows us what a difficult thing it is to be a sincere Christian. It’s not enough to set our own standard of what a Christian is but we must discern the will of the Father. A will which consists in repenting and believing, and living according to the law of God which is a part of the fabric of our humanity, engraved upon the stone tablets, written by the Spirit upon the new heart, announced in the Sermon on the Mount, and fulfilled in the law of love.
- Because we hate legalism (i.e. the idea that one can be made right before God by their own works), and texts like this can sometimes sound legalistic. Though, it’s necessary to point out that Jesus isn’t here talking about grace and merit, but about profession and fruit. It’s a test of genuineness, not a standard of earning favor and salvation. Thank Jesus for that!
- Because it encourages us to let go of pretenses and false assurances and work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, to see to it that we not only know Jesus, but that he knows us.
- Because it emphasizes a part of the often neglected work of Christ—his coming in judgment.
- Because it must be taken seriously. We are serious about the doctrine of justification by faith alone, serious that the gospel call ought to be as free and full as we’re permitted to make it, serious that “there is no one righteous,” and “by the works of the flesh no one will be justified in his sight.” But do we take Matthew 7:21-23 seriously?
- Because Jesus warns that it will be “many” from among professing disciples who will receive the eternal sentence, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” I think there’s a part of us that wants to lessen or dull that reality, but we simply cannot blunt the edge.
For these reasons, and many more, it was the hardest sermon I’ve ever preached. But there is comfort to be had. First, it’s not “that day” but it’s “this day.” Jesus speaks here of the day of judgment, but we cannot fail to know that today is a day of grace, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion” (Hebrews 3:15). Secondly, if one trembles at this word, there’s an assurance that saving faith is present. Because saving faith not only “embraces the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come,” but “trembles at the threatenings.” Thirdly, the true Christian doesn’t need to have an unhealthy fear of this passage but make his or her prayer, in the confidence of Christ and reliance upon the Spirit, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24). Fourthly, bless the Father and the Son for they have given us the Spirit by whom we are transformed in the renewing of our minds that we may “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).