One of the things that good teaching and preaching should do over time is offer an alternative storyline. Preaching is bigger than just giving 3 or 4 practical tips for the week ahead (though of course it shouldn’t neglect to do that!). It should change worldviews; it should re-orientate people’s lives towards Christ (away from self and idols). It should motivate us to worship. Indeed preaching is itself part of our worship.
So what will picking up the guilt-grace-forgiveness theme mean in practice? Well first of all, whether or not we pull out the theme and look at it as a stand-alone sermon topic , we can expect it to be a thread that runs through our teaching because it is a thread that runs through the Bible.
The aim is not to make people feel guilty. Indeed good preaching in this area should not leave people going home downcast and discouraged. It should start with a clear diagnostic of the problem. We should help people to distinguish between false guilt and true guilt. We will talk about sin. However, the correct response to this conviction of guilt is not to wallow in subjective guilt. Rather, in the Gospel we find true freedom from guilt. Forgiveness and grace are the cause of celebration. There should be a sense of enjoying the Gospel.
This should then lead to practical application. Areas we will be able to pick up on will include:
The true joy of Christian service
Being open and honest in relationships
Keeping short accounts
How grace leads to fruitful prayer life
Forgiveness and freedom from doubt
Grace as the anecdote to habits and addictions –work, drugs, self-harm etc.
How to help and support those who are heavy burden
Our preaching should be to the heart, these things cannot be solved through self-help. We are not just offering surface solutions –plasters over deep wounds but deep heart surgery. However, this will be supported by practical teaching about the specifics of these things .
So what is the alternative narrative that addresses these things? Well ut very simply and obviously, it’s the Biblical narrative.
The Bible tells us about people who are guilty of sin and feel shame. Adam and Eve hide in the garden and cover themselves with fig leaves, King David tries to hide his guilt when he commits adultery with Bathsheba and kills her husband. Their sin, guilt and shame mean that they feel exposed, ashamed and afraid. They hide from God.
God seeks guilty, shamed sinners out. He is not afraid to expose the truth of their sin, he challenges and convicts Adam and Eve, he sends Nathan the Prophet to speak to David. He sits with a woman at a well and tells her that he knows about her many husbands and current lover. But God does not leave shame exposed, he clothes Adam and Eve with animal fur, he moves Shem and Japheth to cover Noah’s nakedness. God does not leave our guilt unforgiven.
The beauty of the Gospel is this. On the Cross, Jesus hung naked, exposed to the mockery and ridicule of the World. Jesus bore our shame so we don’t have to. On the Cross, Jesus received the sentence of death that we deserve. Jesus took our guilt “he became sin for us.” That is one side of the Gospel. Jesus took our place, he became our substitute bearing our sin, shame and guilt. But there’s the other side to the exchange too. Jesus through his perfect obedience in life and death shows himself to be righteous. Jesus was justified. The Bible tells us that God gives us Jesus’ righteousness (see Romans 4 & Philippians 3). His righteousness is credited to us. This means we are justified, “just as if I’d kept God’s Law perfectly.” Justification means that our guilt is dealt with because we are forgiven, declared innocent, treated as in the right. But we also have that other fantastic Bible image of being clothed, of being covered played out in the doctrine of justification. I am clothed with Christ’s robes of righteousness; my nakedness and shame are covered too. This is the wonder of the Gospel doubled up and doubled up again.
The subjects of Guilt, Grace and Forgiveness are essential themes that underpin our telling and retelling of the Gospel story. They are relevant to people at all stages in the Christian journey. Whilst these should not be the only things we talk about they certainly are important and central.