Some time back, I attended church with a relative. His church is part of the denomination in which I was raised, and there are still many pockets of Evangelicalism in it; I had come to believe here was one of those pockets.
The senior pastor was on vacation, and his associate was to preach. Before the service I met the preacher, garbing up with collar, robe and stole back in the fellowship hall. (I have no objection to these things -- I'd preach in a polka dot bathrobe, if that's what it took for people to worship without distraction -- but the people of Grace don't like me in a collar and robe, so I wear a suit and tie.) When it was discovered that I lived in Louisiana, I was told that the morning preacher was an alumna of a particular seminary that is not too far away and is connected to a clearly Evangelical denomination. As I sat and read through the bulletin, I looked for the title of the sermon and the text. The title was "No Greater Love;" the text was John 15:12-17.
I looked forward to the message: "Thank you, Lord," I silently prayed, "we will hear the gospel today." As the preacher began and read the Scripture, I waited in anticipation.
The sermon began with words about how kind the people of the congregation were, how they practiced hospitality, and I waited, assuming that the remarks were to establish rapport. Then there was information about going to a conference to learn how to coordinate activities in the church so they could help each other better, and I waited some more. "Churches are often known for certain things -- We are friends -- it should be known in town that the X Church takes care of its own." As I waited, considering the title of the message, "No Greater Love," I thought, "Fifteen to twenty minutes is a pretty long warm up to get to a passage." But there was that magnificent passage that had been read earlier:
"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit -- fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other." (John 15:12-17)
And I waited a minute or two more.
Then it happened: the minister closed in prayer.
I was sick in my soul. How could the title of that sermon be "No Greater Love?" How could John 15:12-17 be reduced to a moralistic pep-talk on friendship? Then I thought about the flattery, about how committed this congregation was to "taking care of its own." Here was a church with attendance of roughly half the one I attend and twice the budget, lots of wealthy, retired people who moved south to play golf year round. My uncle told me that one retired man recently dropped about a hundred thousand on them -- they have more than a few millionaires. As I surveyed the congregation, they all looked as if they had just attended the weekly meeting of the Rotary Club, dressed to the nines. "Takes care of its own?" Well, that's biblical: "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers." (Galatians 6:10) But what about Galatians 2:10? "We should continue to remember the poor." Rich folk tithing is not sacrificial, faith-enabled giving -- the New Testament standard.
As I reflected, I applied my Rotary Club test to the sermon. (Having been a Rotarian for roughly a decade, I have about five hundred after dinner talks bouncing around somewhere in my head.)
If it passes as a good Rotary Club message, it flunks as a sermon.
Rotary Club talks inform and motivate people; they never make you feel guilty or uncomfortable; they never make you despair of any hope but the Lord Jesus.
What a missed opportunity with the text including John 15:13, from which the sermon title had been grabbed! "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."
I like politics, history and the arts; I like friendship and know that we can all be better friends, but I love the gospel. I certainly believe that the people must help their own (1 Timothy 5:8, "If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever."). I am a strong believer that the Church must be involved in society. The "Social Gospel," whether in its original, liberal form from Walter Rauschenbusch, or in its conservative form from McIntire, Rushdoony, North and Bahnsen, can be a reflection and application of the biblical gospel and does not necessarily undermine the salvation of souls. But I want -- I need -- to hear the old, old story. That's always basic, the foundation of everything else.
I crave to hear how the eternal Son of God became a real human being, just like me except that he never sinned.
I yearn to listen as the preacher describes how the Lord Jesus died on the cross for my sins, passively submitting to the Father's will, actually taking away the guilt and the consequences of every sin that I ever have or ever will commit, thereby securing my salvation, forever sealing shut the gates of hell for me and for all who put their trust in him.
I long to be told about his sinless life and how he actively obeyed the will of God, having perfectly kept the Law in my place, that his righteousness is credited to my account, as if I myself had actually done every good and righteous thing that Jesus did.
I hunger for the promise of victory over sin that is granted me solely by grace through the Lord Jesus, who purchased the gift of the Holy Spirit, who has sanctified me, who is sanctifying me, and who one day will finally and fully sanctify me, who in his gracious work begets within me the pursuit of holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.
I pine for those sweet words of hope that the Lord Jesus Christ has conquered death by his resurrection from the dead, that because he lives, I have new life in the here and now, that when I die, my soul will instantly go to be with him, and that when he returns, I, too, will rise from the dead.
I pant after the words of comfort that Jesus loves me, not abstractly the way that people love humankind, but personally -- he knows me by name and is seated at the Father's right hand praying for me, that because of his session and sovereignty, all things must work together for my good.
I ache to have the preacher tell me that God graciously grants me all this by his mere grace, and that faith is the sole instrument through which I receive God's great salvation, a salvation that is guaranteed by God who unconditionally chose me before the foundation of the world, not because of anything in me, good or otherwise -- because I know that without the Lord Jesus, I am still a hell-deserving wretch, no better than any other human who has every lived.
That's why I love the gospel; it's why I'm obsessed with it. I go away empty when I don't hear those precious words of invitation, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28) And I wonder how anyone who has ever experienced God's grace in Jesus Christ can ever stand before others, read a text like John 15:13 and give a moralistic lecture on being friends.