Graceless Preaching

bibthumpNot long ago, I read a book written by a brother who set out to describe the preaching that took place 60 to 70 years ago.  Here is what he said:

“The sermons just seemed so harsh and graceless…If you were going to preach in the 1940’s and 50’s in the Churches of Christ, you had better be able to quote at least seventy-five verses per sermon or you were out on your ear in no time.  Never mind that they  didn’t fit the context of your message, that was irrelevant, you just had to be able to string them together and spit them out fast enough to let folks know that you were the right source for all of their Bible-thumping needs.  Likewise, the message had to be ‘hot.’  If you finished your sermon without mentioning hell at least ten times and associating other denominations with the same, then you were liberal.”

Never mind the fact that the brother who wrote this wasn’t even alive during the time this “harsh,” “graceless,” “Bible-thumping” preaching was supposed to have taken place.  Personally, I am weary of hearing such charges against preachers of the past.  To me, such caricatures and accusations betray that the people making these accusations don’t really understand what grace is.

If one is traveling the broad road that leads to Hell, and I warn him, and attempt to turn him to the gospel of Christ, is that not grace?  What if I describe the horrors of Hell, as presented in Scripture, in an effort to help this person make a more responsible decision regarding the direction of his life, have I then become “harsh and graceless?”  When one is lost in sin and another person attempts to show him the doctrinal or moral errors which are jeopardizing his salvation, is that not grace?  Indeed, it is a strange view of grace that allows one to remain unchallenged in sin, while a “gospel preacher” strokes him with pleasant words and amusing stories.

Are you aware that the Bible only records one instance of Jesus ever using the word “grace?” (2 Corinthians 12:9)  I recall hearing brother Leroy Brownlow, nearly 20 years ago say the following:

“It is noteworthy that Jesus never mentioned the word [grace]: not in the Sermon on the Mount, not in his cutting sermon in Matthew 23, not in his parables, not in his prayers, not in his miracles, not in his temptations with Satan, not in sending out the 70, not in giving the great commission, and not in giving the promise of the resurrection and heaven.”

Interesting, isn’t it?  Jesus never mentioned the word “grace,” but he warned of Hell 11 times.  Would anyone therefore dare suggest that Jesus was a “harsh and graceless” preacher?  Friends, warning people of Hell and pointing them to Jesus is not harsh or graceless.  What greater gift could one be given?  Friends, preaching the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and seasoning our speech with salt (Colossians 4:6) is neither harsh nor graceless, but is exactly what this world needs.

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Comments 14

  • Steve,
    Excellent article. I am one who heard some of that graceless preaching, and saw some of its fruit. The one thing I recall is that the church was also known as one of the fastest growing religious groups in the country under that graceless preaching.
    I also note that most folks who “grew up in the church” and have enjoyed whatever spiritual blessing might go along with having Christian parents were raised by parents converted by that gracelss preaching.
    I am glad a preacher who preached during that time took the time to help me know the Lord and appreciate what the grace of God provided for me.

  • Steve,

    I wasn’t alive in the 40s or 50s but I know what I grew up on in my own congregation. I do not know the work to which you refer to judge the quality of his research but it is possible to get an idea on the nature of preaching in a given era through sermon books and recorded sermons. Recognizing a weakness in our predecessors is part of growth but we need not become arrogant in thinking we have none.

    One can be graceless in “critiqer” too. Word counting is not a very good way of doing research. Either in a sermon or in the life of Jesus. Both the language and the social context of Jesus is different from Paul … yet if “grace” is not a mere word but an actual reality then Jesus talked about the reality all over the place.

  • Bobby,
    The quotation was nothing more than the author’s personal view of preaching during this period. The book did not offer any research to support his conclusion. This was simply anecdotal.

    The point of my article was simply to remind people that this generation did not “invent” grace. It existed before us, and will exist after us and will be consistently exhibited in the lives of those who follow Jesus.

  • I believed I read this book. What was the tile of it?

  • Steve,
    Haven’t you heard? This pagan generation invented: sex, drugs, & rock & roll. This Christian generation invented: love, grace, mercy, real worship, and true hermeneutics. 😉

  • Steve:
    Jesus never mentioned grace but he lived it. The gentle way in which he dealt with the woman at the well, the tax collector, or the woman caught in the act of adultery showed grace louder than any word. The rest of Bible is filled with the word grace. The people Jesus mainly warned of Hell were religious people who thought they had it figured out and were determined to bind up there religious laws on everyone else. It seems that we don’t want to call a spade a spade. The difference between Jesus and some of the preachers of recent past and still present is this. Jesus came to save the world not to condemn it as John records. I can recall many sermons where the theme was not salvation but condemnation. There was no hope, only fear and guilt. There were many times sins were preached as unforgiveable such as an “unscriptural” divorce or an abortion. So developed a theology of hopelessness. A fear of hell no longer turns people to God especially in manner that produces personal transformation. Romans 2 says “Do you not now that it is by his patience and mercy that you are lead to repentance?” So what is that lead to repentance? Mercy and patience not condemnation and Hell. Now I will say this I believe that the preachers of past and present that preach Hell Fire and Condemnation are doing what they think God wants them to do. I will say it is not an unfair charge. I have been in churches of Christ all of the nation, My Grand father was on the board o OCU and the other taught at Sunset for 20 years. I have a book my Grand father wrote a book called “Denominational Doctrine exposed”. IT is a line by line comparison of all the other Christian denominations in the USA and how they are wrong and the churches of Christ are right.

  • Joe,
    You are correct in saying that while Jesus never mentioned grace, he lived it. That was precisely the point of my article. One cannot evaluate preaching as “graceless” or “harsh” simply by the lack of a particular verbiage. Such a criteria for evaluation is shallow and short-sighted.

    I guess I will just simply have to disagree with you on your evaluation of past preaching that you said had condemnation as the theme rather than salvation. I have heard a few “hellfire and brimstone” sermons in my time, in fact, I have preached them myself. But never once was my aim anything less than to bring about the salvation of souls.

    I also must say that I disagree with your evaluation that we have preached certain sins such as unscriptural divorce and abortion as being unforgivable. Could you direct me to one preacher, one sermon, one book, one article that affirms such a position. I think this is an inaccurate caricature. I think you’re confusing the sometimes difficult demands of repentance with unforgivable and hopelessness. To say that one cannot continue in sin that grace may abound is not preaching a message of hopelessness, nor is it suggesting that sins are unforgivable.

    As far “hell” no longer turning people to God, I will simply say that I have never believed that it is the prime motive for transformation. Of course that would be love for God because of his goodness as you pointed out in Romans 2. But that does not nullify the apostle Paul’s words when he said, “Knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:11).

    The identification of sin and its consequences, intended to bring about the salvation of one’s soul is not “harsh” or “graceless,” but rather is an act of grace in that it points one to Jesus and his truth.

  • Steve,

    Great article. I was born in the late 70’s and I wasn’t baptized into the church until 2001 so I surely don’t remember the “graceless preaching” but I agree with you 100%. While preaching the reality of hell is not the only motivation, it is a form of motivation nontheless and we must preach that reality (Jude 23) but surely in love (Ephes 4:15).

  • Steve, I’m not a believer in conspiracy theories. But there is a concerted effort to disparage the truth. The progressives, as they prefer to style themselves, are well connected among themselves, they are great networkers, and they have strategies thought out. One is to twist history by reinterpretation (sound familiar, happening in the schools, too).

    Can we tweak our message? Sure, we can always grow and improve. Can we grow in grace and knowledge? Yup, we’d better, says Peter. But that doesn’t mean we throw out the baby with the dirty bathwater, as the progressives are doing.

    It’s here, it’s now, and it’s serious.


  • Hi, Steve,

    I enjoyed reading your article “Graceless Preaching” and the comments following!

    Having “grown up in the church” [born 1959], I personally consider myself to be GREATLY BLESSED by what some might mistakenly [in my judgment] term “Graceless Preaching.”

    I, and most of the ‘preaching brothers’ that I know, try to be balanced in preaching.

    It seems to me that Titus 2:11-12 presents a balanced view of God’s grace and what my response to it should be.

    God’s continued GRACE to all His children!

    * 2 Timothy 2:19 *

    Steve 🙂

  • The concept of grace runs thick throughout the whole Bible, Old and New Testament. If we define grace as God’s unmerited acts to bring us back into relationship with Him, then shouldn’t we present this view of grace underlying ALL of our preaching? If we’re preaching on Hell, isn’t the final climax of the message that “God made a way for you to NOT spend eternity there!” If we’re preaching on missions work, isn’t it “go and emulate the grace God has shown you to others”. If we’re teaching on sexual purity, isn’t it “don’t squander the grace God has given you.” Doesn’t grace define us as a people of God? I don’t understand how we could begin to preach grace or not grace. You’re either preaching the gospel, or your not. Matt Clifton, I’m terribly sorry, but the counsel of God is entirely grace and all that comes from our pulpits should be filtered and respected to that end.

  • Steve – great article!

    If I were drowning in the ocean, and someone threw me a rope, would he not have demonstrated his grace to me? Similarly, mankind is drowning in the ocean of sin, and God has offered His grace to us by throwing us the rope of salvation (Romans 5:1-9).

    If a sermon on the horrors of hell keeps one soul out of hell, haven’t you preached a grace[full] sermon – not a grace[less] sermon?

    Keep preaching those grace[full] sermons brother!

    El Paso, Tx

  • Steve–I have made this point many times in preaching and I am glad to see you doing the same. We need more people callng us to such things. The progressive movement tries to make others seem like extremists, and if they succeed then they will win even more to their “cause”. But balanced preaching, as you are doing, will rule the day (hopefully).

    Mike–If someone threw a rome to some of the “progressives” they would take it and then complain to everyone after they were saved that it was too scratchy–or they would reject it in principle.

  • well,if a patient is seriously sick,a sickness that will end in death,what do you expect the doctor to do,to pacify the dangers of the sickness to the patient,or to tell the patient his real danger so he can take his drugs seriously,whatever,and however one preaches,let people know the truth,every body with the kind of grace on them,some come in the order of john the baptists,who is harsh and openly rebukes,while some in the order of paul,but both spoke the truth,paul in all his grace message warned us in gal5;19 that those who live in the flesh willnt inherit the kingdom of God,also in corinthians 6,however one preaches,let truth be known even in all the grace….

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