Church History, Columns, Features, Pastorate, Preaching, Theology

Preaching as Dying Men to Dying People

I recently found myself at Cleveland Clinic’s cardiac catheterization waiting room as I prepared to go through my final test before having major heart surgery to repair both my mitral and aortic valves. Unfortunately both valves had leaks that were only getting worse as the years passed. My cardiologist, two months prior, convinced me that it was time for an “intervention.” In addition to multiple other tests in the lead up to the surgery including echocardiograms, chest X-rays, blood tests, and a CT scan, my surgeon wanted to be sure I had no blockages in my arteries. I was waiting for the unenviable procedure of another surgeon fishing a scope up an artery in my wrist that made its way to my heart. And for this I would be only partially sedated. Just the thing you want to be awake for.

As I waited my turn, I surveyed the room. What I saw were people young and old; male and female; black and white; large and small and in-between. I observed people who looked otherwise healthy and strong, as well as, those who looked like their bodies had taken a beating over years of hard living. There were people who had the markings of money and those who looked relatively poor. In multiple ways, the room was diverse.

Even as I noted the differences, however, one thing seemed consistent among all gathered namely, a level of anxiety for what awaited us. I remember thinking to myself: everyone is equal at the foot of the cross and in the heart Cath waiting room.

There are few things quite like heart surgery to remind us of our mortality. And for the preacher, this reminder is invaluable.

Mortality is a great motivator. That is, unless the Lord comes first, every human being will die. Knowing this, the preacher has an eternal perspective every time he prepares for and enters the pulpit. The sermon is given to people who will enter one of two places in eternity, either heaven or hell. This reality informs not only the manner with which the preacher preaches, but also the content he proclaims.

HELL IS FOR REAL

The preacher is deeply concerned about his listeners because of all people he knows that hell is for real. For example, Jesus warns us who we ought to fear and why: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). And as incentive to strive for holiness in life, Jesus holds before us heaven and hell:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’ (Mark 9:42-48).

Of course, warnings like this are not unique to Jesus in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul ministers with the same vivid picture of hell in his mind. Consider his sobering words in Romans 2:5-7:

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.

There is a deeply serious tone throughout Paul’s thirteen epistles. And we know why. He understood what awaits those who die in unbelief: an eternity under the wrath and fury of a holy God. Therefore, it seems like an understatement to say, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

It’s biblical passages like these that motivate the preacher to labor from the pulpit for conversions and practical holiness. Our delivery should accord with the seriousness of the Bible. Hell is no joke and, therefore, preachers should have an air of seriousness about them.

HEAVEN IS GLORIOUS

But our seriousness is not only informed by the reality of hell, but by the surety of heaven. Far too often, it seems, evangelical preachers sound as if heaven is on earth. In the main (thankfully there are powerful exceptions), the American pulpit is enamored with the here and now—what the Bible can do to help us get along better in this life. The Bible, however, is not a self-help manual sprinkled with a little grace. And it is overwhelmingly preoccupied with “a kingdom not of this world” (John 18:36).

Preachers earnestly herald the glories of heaven because there is nothing greater than an eternity basking in the glory of the triune God. Our pulpits should be sounding forth the notes of heaven as we plead with people not only to avoid hell, but to embrace by faith the riches of eternal life—the hope that will not disappoint. Nothing other than heaven can boast “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). And heaven is the only place where “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). How relevant is heaven to a world ravaged by a global pandemic, racial unrest, political upheaval, economic distress, and countless other expressions of mankind’s fall into sin? Heaven is the only ultimate hope for the “groaning” we feel on a daily basis. This is the gospel logic of the apostle:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Romans 8:18-25).

Heaven is the great comfort for suffering saints. And who are these suffering saints? Every child of God since the fall.

PREACHING IN THE IN-BETWEEN

The preacher must live between heaven and hell, pleading with people to flee the wrath that is to come and to enjoy God’s heaven. After all, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). The Puritan pastor Richard Baxter, mindful of his and his people’s mortality, once wrote, “I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” Baxter knew that eternity hangs in the balance every time a preacher takes up the Word of God. It is this eternal weight of glory that must animate preachers today.

Perhaps what’s needed is for every pastor and pastor-in-training to spend an hour or more in the cardiac catheterization waiting room, watching and listening. This exercise, combined with our diligent study of the Scriptures, might do much to transform the pulpit in our day.

Filed under: Church History, Columns, Features, Pastorate, Preaching, Theology
Michael Pohlman

Michael Pohlman (PhD, Southern Seminary) is professor of Preaching and Pastoral Ministry and chair of the Department of Ministry and Proclamation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is founder and executive director of Some Pastors and Teachers.