Being the Truth We Preach (Dr. David Sapp)

Being the Truth We Preach

By Dr. David Sapp

Christianity is an incarnational faith. Its most basic tenet is that God has come in human flesh to redeem the world. Sending stone tablets was not enough; nor was parting the waters, nor sending the prophets, nor delivering the Israelites from Exile. The only thing that was enough was for God Himself to come in human flesh. When He did, John announced it: “The word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). 

Most Christians, most ministers, have no trouble believing this. What they have greater difficulty with is this idea Paul expressed in 2 Corinthians: “…you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3). The incarnation did not end with Jesus.  He was certainly the Incarnate One, the only perfect manifestation of God in human flesh, but Paul also taught us that God had also promised to indwell all those who believe. God was still communicating His Word to a lost world, Paul said, by means of a letter written on the “fleshly table of the heart” (KJV).

Most of us know this is true even if we have never thought about it, because we first encountered God through another person. It may have been a pastor or a dear Christian friend. It may have been a parent; but few have ever come into the faith through any other means than a firsthand involvement with a person who is a follower of Christ.This is no small claim. That God Himself could dwell in us is nothing short of head spinning. Among other things, it means that Christian ministry a holy responsibility. We may be the presence of Christ for someone else. Walking into a hospital room, or standing in a pulpit, or counseling in an office, we bear the Word of God in our flesh. It behooves us, then, to guard carefully the life that bears the gospel. To fail to do so undermines the power of our message. This article has been written simply to share a few thoughts about how we can more fully embody the truth we preach. Before sharing those thoughts,  however, let me make one important digression.

We live in an age that offers unique temptations to attempt ministry without “en-fleshing” the gospel. This is due in large measure to advances in technology which seem to multiply our opportunities for ministry, but which may if we are not careful, rob ministry of its power.

Aren’t we supposed to be preaching the truth?  Isn’t it truth, as it is revealed in Christ, that is our hope of salvation? If a minister’s ideas of truth are wrong, if the people in the pews have ideas of truth that are wrong, shouldn’t they be re-shaped? Is our “success” really more important than people learning the truth? If not, then perhaps we really do love darkness rather than light.

The Christ-like path runs in the opposite direction. The minister who wishes to embody the truth must constantly listen for a new word from God, and must remain open to new and deeper understandings of old words from God. Too much certainty is the enemy, not the friend, of truth. Too much certainty blinded the Pharisees; too much certainty condemned Galileo; too much certainty cripples the fundamentalism which lurks in all our hearts. Ironically, the only path to real certainty runs right through the heart of uncertainty. Certainty that comes too soon and claims too much will keep God from molding us, will prevent us from being the truth we preach. We may become popular, we may publish books, we may get called to great big churches, but we will be useless to the Kingdom.

Late in his life, Thomas Aquinas stopped writing. He said that he had stopped because, “All that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.” So what had he seen? What had been revealed to him? We may well never know, but this we do know: God showed him something new, something too deep for words. Whatever it was, it remade Aquinas. He became something new.

Live the Truth 

In the sermon preached at my ordination, the preacher told a now familiar story about a young friar who asked to accompany Francis of Assisi on a preaching mission. As they talked, they walked about the town together. When their walk was ended, Francis bade the young man farewell. Disappointed, the young friar protested, “I thought we were going on a preaching mission!”

“We did preach,” said Francis. “They marked us as we walked.” My pastor’s rendering of this quote is slightly different from others I have read, but I hope Francis said it just the way he quoted it.

People do mark us as we walk. All real ministry grows out of this awareness. Elmer Gantry may have his fifteen minutes of fame, but they marked him as he walked, and his life belied the gospel that he preached. This sad story has repeated itself too many times in the history of the faith. 

If our task were to recruit people to an ideology, perhaps things would be simpler. Our private lives could be private, and we could depend on our persuasive rhetoric alone to do the work. Of course, we are not recruiting people to an ideology; we are inviting them to a relationship with the risen Christ. This can only be done by giving people a glimpse of the presence of God in a human life. 

Without integrity, there simply can be no real and lasting ministry. Preachers must be doers of the word. They must care for God’s children. They must tell the truth. They must refrain from harm. They must stand for righteousness. They must oppose hatred. They must challenge divisiveness. They must live the truth they preach.

Deal With Failure

The only problem with this prescription, of course, is that it sets us up for failure. Ultimately,  we cannot be goodness, we cannot be righteousness, we cannot be holiness, and we cannot even be anything that looks much like them. Foy Valentine, long-time Executive Director of the major Baptist social ethics agency, often said that he wanted written on his tombstone, “He stumbled toward righteousness.” That is about all any of us can do. We cannot begin to live up to the standards required to authenticate our ministries. So can we have the audacity to minister? How can we at least not undermine our ministries with unrighteousness as so many have?

The answer to this question is beyond the ken of mere human beings. All we know is this: As long as we are called, we can never get free from our responsibility to minister; and as long as we have the responsibility to minister, we can never get free from the moral demand of that ministry. We must live in ways that at least point toward Christ. We must, as Foy Valentine realized, at least stumble toward righteousness. When we cease the struggle to do and to be good, our hearts begin to decay, and our ministries can only produce rot.

Real ministry, however, requires more than simply struggling to attain righteousness. Certainly, this is part of our task, and certainly it requires us to embody the righteousness we espouse, but ministry is also about summoning people to repentance and redemption. In the final analysis, true repentance may be the surest mark of the authentic preacher. 

This may be the hardest part of authentic ministry. Like Adam and Eve, we are tempted to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and to become as gods. For the proud preacher to commit a reckless act of humility is almost unheard of in many quarters, but is it coincidence that the one who was perhaps the greatest preacher of the early church described himself as the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15)? 

Moral perfection, by the grace of God, is not required; moral seriousness is. Moral failure is redeemable when it is found in a repentant heart. As a matter of fact, when we fail to be righteousness, we may discover that we have our finest opportunity to embody the gospel. In the moment of our failure, we can be repentance, we can be humility, we can be the only then did I find the courage to speak with any courage at all about race. Only then did I begin to embody the truth I proclaimed. 

Many of the truths God calls us to proclaim are hard truths.  God often speaks in thunderbolts, and it is a frightening thing to His servants to be called to deliver lightning.  Only those who have had their lives shaped by the truths of God can bear the pain of speaking them to others.  Only those who have learned to be the truth can tell the truth.

Know the Truth

Of course, we can never be the truth or tell the truth until we know the truth; but most of us know all too little of it. There is a very good reason that totalitarian societies are afraid of their people learning the truth. Once they learn the truth, the truth will change them. It will, as Jesus said, set them free.

When I was a teenager aspiring to the ministry, one of the more noted pastors in our state came to preach at my home church. One night after the service I told him of my dream of becoming a minister. He was full of advice. “Whatever you do,” he said, “don’t get a Ph.D. It will cut you off from your people.”

As an aspiring young minister, this is how I translated his words like this: Don’t learn too much. Nurse  your prejudices, your preconceptions, your worldview, and keep them just as they are. Don’t give truth a chance to change who you are. It will damage your success in ministry! Close the canon as soon as you leave this church tonight. Do not listen to anything new God might say. Only in this way can you succeed in ministry.

I couldn’t understand it. I still can’t. How could the search for truth be something a minister should avoid? To a degree never before possible, we can now “minister” by remote control. We can proclaim the gospel without ever allowing people to meet us or know us. In the past, we accomplished this through writing or through itinerant preaching, but today the opportunities are multiplied. We can broadcast and telecast, podcast and webcast. We can project images of ourselves onto very large screens and stages. We can preach and teach, preen and prowl, and never touch another human being, never put an arm around a broken person, never risk a relationship with a single one of God’s children. Ministry, of course, rarely happens this way. Proclamation without human contact lacks lasting power. It too easily degenerates into entertainment, and too often lowers the minister into nothing more than a small time celebrity. There simply is no strategy superior to the one used by our Lord. We are still called to be what we preach for others, and to do it up close and personal, just like Jesus did.So how can we be the truth we preach? How can we embody the gospel for the world in which we live? Here are a few brief thoughts on the matter, offered with a prayer that they might prime the pump for others to think creatively about this critically important subject.

Tell the Truth

No one can be the truth and not tell the truth; but telling the truth turns out to be much more difficult than most of us think. I knew at the beginning of my ministry that I was called to tell the truth, but I did not know how hard it was going to be. It did not take long to find out. I served a small rural church as a student pastor at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.  I remember like it was yesterday sitting in the living room of a family in our church and listening to a spirited discussion about race. All of a sudden, the lady of the house looked at me and said, “I don’t know how you feel about the race issue. I know a lot of ministers don’t feel like people do about it.”

She waited for me to respond. I choked. My skin went clammy, and my palms began to sweat. All I could think about was that if I told the truth, I would be fired from my church and put to scorn in the very county where my grandparents were well-known and well-liked citizens. To my great shame, I simply nodded. I escaped the wrath of my members, but not the wrath of my conscience. Going to bed that night, I felt like the Apostle Peter, sure that I would hear the cock crow before morning. I had thought my convictions on race were strong, but they were not strong enough. In the face of vested opposition, I withered into a dried up shrub. Asked to tell the truth, I did not.

Telling the truth was hard because it demanded that I “be” something I was not. I was on a journey, but I was not there. Only when I was able to sit down for a meal with an African-American; only when I was able to see issues from the eyes of my black friends; only when I could become enraged by the injustice thrust upon my black brothers and sisters; humble objects of God’s grace and forgiveness. We can be the redeemed of the Lord, and we can say so with an authenticity unavailable to us before.

In so embodying the gospel, we at last find that we can be what we preach. We can at last put on the breastplate of righteousness (Isa. 59:17; Eph. 6:14), and preach with integrity to a dying world.

David Sapp is pastor of Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia.  His PhD is from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  He has served as pastor in Virginia, as well.  He is involved in the BWA, a trustee for Mercer University, and president of the Lord’s Day Alliance of the United States and Canada. 

The Window Library

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The Window - Fall 2011
T.B. Maston - His Life and Thought
Manuscripts from the 2011 T.B. Maston Lectures in Christian Ethics
with Dr. William M. Pinson, Jr.

The Window - Spring 2011
Narrative and Character Formation
Manuscripts from the 2010 T.B. Maston Lectures in Christian Ethics
with Dr. Joel Gregory

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