Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pulpit Review: Preaching in Protest to Designations of Law and Gospel

Hinlicky, Paul R. Preaching God's Word According to Luther's Doctrine in America Today. Dehli: American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 2010. 200 Pages. Paper. $19.00. (P)

Evaluating preaching is tough business.   

It is with “fear and trepidation” that I do so with regard to this book.   

The book offers examples of sermons to teach the truths about Christian doctrine to people in the parish as they sit in the pew.  I agree with Hinlicky’s observation that many Christians in our churches today have not been properly catechized, taught the faith clearly.  In addition, “the world, the devil, and our own sinful flesh” preach against sound doctrine at every turn.  In response to this, preaching must be doctrinal and take opportunity to teach the faith.

A pastor would like to think that instruction would be on-going with the Christian throughout their life and they would come to study the Word in a setting like Bible class. The reality is, however, for the majority of parishioners, the worship service is the only contact with the church.  Typically, about a third of Christians attend church each week and even fewer come for Bible study.   So it is through preaching that we have a valuable opportunity to teach.

Hinlicky does have a broad selection of topics in this book to cover the basics of the Christian faith.   Yet, preaching is the proclamation of the Word; and for what purpose? 2 Timothy 3:15-17 says that the Word is for “making us wise unto salvation”, teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”  To make sinners wise unto salvation, they must be shown their sin.  They must know that sin leads to death, temporal and eternal, and eternal condemnation.  Preaching must proclaim to the sinner that he is lost in his sin.   When that is accomplished, preaching must declare the Good News to the convicted sinner that in Christ is the answer to that person’s sin and the sentence of death that sin brings.   This, through the working of the Holy Spirit in the Word makes the sinner “wise unto salvation.”  The sinner hears of his/her sin, and hears of God’s grace through Jesus Christ for that sinner.

What does that have to do with this book?  As I read the sermons presented by Hinlicky, I found that he preached about God, Christ, the Trinity, and so on, but he did not preach those things to me.   I learned about those things, but not how those things apply specifically to me.  I was not convicted of MY sin. I heard about Christ, but I did not hear Christ for me. 

The difference may seem subtle, but it is profound.  I failed to hear Pastor Hinlicky say to me as Nathan said to David, “you are the man!”  There were exception to this in a few of the sermons, but generally, I was not made wise about MY sin.  Then, by progression, why is Christ Good News for me?  To preach Christ as the savior from MY sin, I need to see my sin.  In general, Hinlicky’s sermons spoke of sin in general, or in someone else, or in Man, but did not convict Kirk of his sin.  Sometimes my sin was identified as “dissatisfaction”, or some other indirect reference.   I was not called to repentance.  Christian preaching, let alone Lutheran preaching must call the sinner to repentance.   It must be heard, not by “sinners” in general, but THE sinner singular.  John came preaching repentance and forgiveness-Law and Gospel.

As I read the book it seemed like I was taught and led in the general direction of the Law and repentance, but seldom did the sermon call me to repent.  Likewise, I was often pointed to the Gospel but I did not hear the proclamation that MY sins were forgiven. 

So What?  Christian preaching is all about proclaiming connecting the sinner to Christ as Redeemer from sin.  Jesus says that all the scripture is about him.  Preaching about the doctrine of the Trinity must proclaim Christ as my Redeemer. 

Hinlicky states that he wanted to teach doctrine through Sunday preaching because there was not sufficient time to do it elsewhere.  The same is true with the preaching to repentance and absolving the sinner with the forgiveness of Christ.  The time is short.  We never know if the sermon we are preaching will be the last opportunity for someone to hear that their sins are forgiven.  We never know if the sermon we are preaching is the last that a person will be called from unbelief.   

My point is this:  Doctrine is important-vital, and doctrinal preaching must call us to repentance.  Repenting, we must hear the Good News that all our sins are forgiven.

The best way to realize this is through an understanding of Law and Gospel.  Christian preaching is Law and Gospel.  As I read the sermons in the sermons in this book, I often thought that Hinlicky’s preaching was so close to proclaiming Law and Gospel, but fell short.  Why?  In the postscript of the book is the answer.  He writes there of wanting to show that the Scriptures and therefore preaching is not restricted to Law and Gospel, or letter and promise.  But the Law is how we are made wise about our sin.  The Gospel is how we are made wise about absolution in and through Christ.   Law and Gospel properly preached is how we are made wise unto salvation.

Where we find God’s grace?  The Grace of God is found in Word and Sacrament.  The preaching presented is not sacramental in that it does not direct the hearer to regular use of the Lord's Supper and the gifts found there. It preaches about the sacraments, but does not commend us to them.

As a parish pastor, I did not find Hinlicky’s sermons helpful in conveying the grace of God in Jesus Christ to my people.  I also found inconsistencies in Christian doctrine present. He alludes to women’s ordination which in not taught in the scriptures, in fact it is forbidden.  Luther’s teaching was consistent with this.  

Also, in the postscript, Hinlicky writes about being subjected to a “litmus test” concerning a historical Jonah and whale (fish).   How can one preach about the  wonder and miracle of  the Trinity, or the incarnation, or the resurrection of Christ, or heaven an d not believe that God could provide a real fish to swallow Jonah?  It is inconsistent.  For the God of the resurrection, a fish and a Jonah are not difficult things to accomplish.

There are other departures from Christian doctrine in the sermons.   God does not overlook sin, or “overrule” the judgment against sin as Hinlicky preaches.  Rather, he visits his judgment on his Son who became Sin for us.   God’s justice requires death for sin, but in His Love and Mercy he visits that on Jesus.  Christ Jesus receives the punishment in our place.  By Grace, we are baptized into his death for us, and receive the verdict, not guilty.

I disagree with the endorsements on the back cover of the book.  I do not believe “Preaching God’s Word according to Luther’s Doctrine in America Today” is profitable reading.

The Rev. Kirk Peters is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Buffalo, Wyoming, Third Vice President of the Wyoming District of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, and Advising Editor of QBR.