“Pray for me, Pastor. I know I need God, but I just don’t see how God could ever love me anymore, not after what I’ve done.” I hear these words more than I’d like to admit, Sunday after Sunday, as people come for prayer after responding to the sermon. Others whisper this same thing to me through tear-stained faces as I counsel with them in my office. And I can’t even imagine how many others feel this way and have never mustered up the courage to divulge to another human being their internal struggle with this issue. This feeling has a name. It is called condemnation.
Countless people step into church buildings each and every Sunday hoping for one simple thing, a reprieve from the crushing weight of condemnation they carry on their shoulders. They believe in the deepest part of their souls that God looks down on them with His head shaking and His finger wagging at their failure. In their minds, He just doesn’t approve of what they’ve become, and the reality of that feeling is more than they can bear. In fact, it is crippling. What those broken parishioners need is one thing. They need hope. And hope only comes from one place. It comes from the gospel of Jesus.
The reason people in your congregation feel condemnation is because they have not really grasped the central message of the gospel. They have settled for a tainted form of Christianity that falls into the ungodly category of religion. Religion’s message is fundamentally at odds with the message of the gospel.
Religion teaches people that if they will obey God, then they will be accepted by God. As long as they play by the rules, God will approve of them. If you don’t smoke or chew or go with girls that do, then God will love you. If you come to church, give some money, join a small group, serve in the nursery, and lead a committee, then what more could God want from you? Surely He’ll be pleased with you, right?
The downfall of religion is that it teaches people their status before God hinges on their behavior. That might serve us as long as we can control our behavior, but here is the gaping hole in the whole plan. We just cannot keep it up. We will fail. And as long as my position before God rests on my actions, I will be disapproved and condemned. No short-lived behavioral modification will change that.
But, let’s be honest here. What are most sermons about? Pastors scream from pulpits about how sinful society has become and how much we need to change our ways. They thunder intense challenges to step up our efforts to be different, to act different, and to try harder next time. I even read a preschool card sent home to my children that said, “Obey your mommy and daddy, and God will be happy with you.” From infancy we teach our children the slavery of religion. This is not the gospel.
The gospel’s message booms in a completely contrarian way. The gospel teaches that God has already accepted you in Christ, therefore you obey Him. Our status before Almighty God hinges on the behavior of Jesus, not our own, and Jesus doesn’t make mistakes. Jesus was righteous when we couldn’t be, and when we place our faith in him, we give him our sin, and he gives us his righteousness. The transaction is over. We are accepted, and nothing can change it.
When I know I’m accepted by God, then my heart leaps to obey God, but now I’m not obeying God with an ulterior motive. I’m making no attempt to cajole God into loving me, or blessing me, or meeting my needs by my obedience to Him. To do that would transform God into a cosmic genie. I serve God out of response to what He has already done in me through Christ. That is the gospel.
So now, when I fail, I don’t have to worry about my standing before God, because my position before God was never determined by my perfection but by his, and that hasn’t changed. Now I know I can run to Him and find acceptance. Now my sin simply becomes another opportunity to experience the unrelenting grace of Jesus that beckons me back to obedience. All because I’ve believed the gospel in place of religion.
When we preach the word of God, we must not settle for a religious impulse. If our challenge to our congregation ever rests on anything other than believing more in God’s infinite love for us, proven through Christ’s death, then we have called them to the shallow waters of religion. That, dear pastor, will only lead to condemnation. We must trumpet every action as a mere response to the perfect love we already experience in Christ. That’s when our churches will radiate hope instead of despair.
And we must be bold enough to look someone we love in the eyes and help them see the cause of their despair. It is not just their sin. It is their false belief that their righteousness was ever contingent on their good behavior. Their high opinion of their obedience opened the door for the low experience of condemnation. We must be willing to tell people they have settled for a perverted form of the Christian faith, and we must lead them back to the gospel.
There is too much at stake to miss the gospel and settle for religion in our preaching. There are too many people drowning in the anguish of their own self-condemnation for us to miss this. God has given us the pulpit to be messengers of Christ’s freedom for the captives. Your people are ready to be set free. Give them the only thing that will unfetter their feet and let them fly. Give them the gospel. It is their only hope.
About: Jason Parades is the Lead Pastor of Fielder Church in Arlington, TX.