I was once in a preaching seminar with 15 other young guns. We were being taught by someone you might call a living legend. One session I remember was on how to preach Romans 3:21-30. The point came when the living legend asked us what we thought the application should be. Now aside from my various misgivings about application I reasoned to myself that if an application was there in the passage it was probably worth flagging that up. I looked down and sure enough I saw what I thought was a pretty clear ""application"" of Paul's teaching:
Where then is boasting? It is excluded. (v27)
So I stuck up my hand and suggested that the application might be humility. More particularly it seemed that, since Christ had taken the work of salvation entirely into His own hands (and out of ours), we ought gladly to shut up about ourselves, our morality, etc etc.
"Wrong!" said the preacher. "The application should be 'Repent!'"
"Oh", I said. "Why?"
I immediately regretted asking 'why.' Dagnammit we're evangelicals, we're supposed to preach repentance, it's union rules. Besides, I don't want to appear soft in front of the 15 other young guns and this living legend! The living legend was more than a little irked by my question and replied: "Because, dear boy, verse 23 says all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Sin is the problem, therefore I would have thought that repentance would be a very good idea!!"
Those who know me may be surprised to learn that I didn't answer back to this one. Oh I wanted to. How I did want to! But judging by the alarm in the preacher's voice and the mood of the room it felt wise not to imperil my standing any further among such sound folk.
But sometimes I fantasize about what would have happened if I'd said what I really thought. The fantasy goes something like this:
I stand slowly, deliberately, with all the solemnity of the lone, faithful prophet. All eyes are upon me as I bellow with righteous ardour:
"Sin is not the problem! S i n i s n o t t h e p r o b l e m !!!"
All hell breaks loose. Outrage. Pained howls. Torn garments. Hurled stones. I am immovable in the midst of the storm.
"... Sin is not the problem... God's wrath at sin is the problem! No... better... God's wrath at us in our sin - that's the problem!"
At once they are felled by Truth as by lightning. Cut to the heart, the stones drop to the floor first, then the men. One by one they slump to the ground, the hand of the LORD heavy upon them. In breathless awe they ask: "Brave herald, what is this teaching you bring us? It resounds from the very heights of Zion against our presumption and folly."
Sporting a fresh cut across my chiselled jawline, I am otherwise unruffled. Ever magnanimous I continue:
"Dear friends" (the dust in the air has now leant a husky tone to my rich, commanding voice). "Dear friends, let us not define our predicament so anthropocentrically."
I leave this dread word hanging in the air. The mere mention of 'anthropocentric' elicits groans from the already contrite gathering. Here was their shibboleth used against them. It stung. Yet they could not deny that they were indeed guilty of this greatest of liberalisms.
"I commend you friends..." They look up nervously - could there yet be grace for them? "...While many have merely scratched the itch of the modern age, you have refused to pander to felt needs. You have proclaimed the problem of sin and for this I commend you." I pause. "And yet... and yet... you have defined the problem so poorly, so slightly. You have defined the problem from below. If we define the problem as something lying in our hands then aren't we at least suggesting that the solution is in our hands? But in fact the problem is above us - just as the solution is. The problem is not fundamentally our sin, the problem is the Lord's wrath upon us."
"What's the difference?!" cries out one of the younger preachers, "Our sin, God's wrath, it's all the same..." He is hushed by the living legend who slowly shakes his head. It is clear now how wrong he has been.
He stands, still shaking his head, unable to look at me or the others. Eventually he speaks, "Glen's right. He's always been right!" The living legend looks like he's been hung from the ceiling on meat hooks. As though in great pain he exclaims, "You must understand... We faced such terrible dangers in preaching. We still face such dangers. I wanted, we all wanted, to resist the me-centred pulpit. I was so sick of hearing about 'filling the Jesus-shaped hole in your life'. I couldn't stand the invitations to 'let Jesus into the passenger seat of your life'. I wanted people to turn. I still want people to turn."
I put a re-assuring hand on his shoulder. He meets my eye for the first time and continues. "I just thought, if we can show them that 'fulfilment' isn't the issue - that sin is the issue, well then maybe they'd come to their senses. Maybe they'd see their errors and turn from them." I give a look to the living legend, he nods, "I know, I know, that's the problem."
"What's the problem?" asks one of the young guns.
The living legend sighs deeply and turns to the others. "It puts the focus on us. If we just preach sin and repentance the whole focus is on us."
"It's anthropocentric" mutters a young gun, latching onto his favourite word. He looks around to see if anyone else has noticed his firm grasp of the issues.
"I don't get it" pipes up another, "I thought sin and repentance was God-centred preaching? Isn't that what you taught us??"
The living legend is speechless. I break the silence. Crouching down to their level, I ask, "If we simply preach sin and repentance how exactly is God at the centre? He may well be over and above our conceptions of sin and repentance - but how is He in the middle? In such a sermon isn't God actually on the periphery? He's hardly the principal Actor!" At this stage the one who muttered 'anthropocentric' is nodding in the way failed quiz show contestants nod when they're told the right answer.
I go on, "It's like our passage from Romans 3. Sin is certainly there! Sin is certainly a problem. I mean we've been told from verse 9 that all are under sin. And we've been told in verse 20 that observing the law will never get us out from under this condition. But given that this is the case, wouldn't it be strange if Paul then told us that 'repentance' was this new work that was better than the old Mosaic works? Actually Paul doesn't mention any of our works in this passage, not our obedience, not our repentance. No, what does Paul point us to? Verse 25, the blood of Jesus - a propitiation for our sins. Now we all know what propitiation means right?"
Young noddy blurts out "A sacrifice that turns away God's wrath!!" I gesture with my hands, trying to calm his wild-eyed enthusiasm.
"Ok, yes. Well done. It turns away God's wrath. Because that's the real problem. The problem is, chapter 1 verse 18, the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against us. It will culminate in, chapter 2 verse 5, a day of wrath. And Paul is at pains to say we all deserve it, we are all unrighteous and there's nothing moral and nothing religious we can do to turn aside this wrath. We are helpless. BUT, a righteousness beyond us has come. And He is the sacrifice who turns away God's wrath. Through His redemption we are justified freely. That's the gospel. That's what we preach. And who is at the centre of this story? Not us. Him."
"So we shouldn't preach sin and repentance?" asks another.
"Of course we should. But those are comprehended within a much more profound perspective. Wrath and redemption are the deeper truths. You know I'll bet that all the sermons you hear are about committed sin and sanctification? You know the kind. 'God says: Don't do X, we all do it, let's ask His help to stop.' Where are the sermons that major on original sin and justification? Why don't we plunge them to the depths and then take them to the heights? Why all this middle of the road stuff that puts us at the centre?"
A couple of young guns knowingly mouthe 'anthropocentric' to one another.
I continue "Take Islam. It's a classic religion of repentance. God remains far above, it's down to us to clean up our act. In fact all human religion is man justifying man before a watching god. But the Gospel is God justifying God before a watching humanity. He takes centre-stage and we need to move off into the audience to watch Him work salvation for us. Christianity is not a religion of repentance, it's a religion of redemption. And that's quite a difference don't you see?"
As I speak, the young guns have been picking themselves off the floor one by one. The room has been won to the side of Truth. I look upon them with fatherly benevolence.
"So now friends - now that you know these things: What would be a good application of Romans 3?"
In unison they reply "Humility!" And for a moment all is right with the world.
Until, that is, the harmony is shattered. One of the young guns, no doubt provoked by my impossible smugness, speaks up:
"Hey, if humility is so important, how come you're so proud?"
The mood of the room takes a decisive turn. Another piles in "And how come you've been dreaming us up for the last 10 minutes to feed your ego." Here's where the fantasy turns pretty nasty.
"What kind of egotist spends his time winning theological debates in his head??"
"Yeah, debates he never actually won in the real world!"
Another pipes up: "I think I know 'Where then is boasting?' - he's rstanding in the middle of the room!!"
At this point the fantasy is basically unsalvagable. So then, I hate to do it, but sometimes you just have to pull rank.
"Quiet all of you! This is my fantasy. Either you submit adoringly to my theological genius or you can get out now."
Faced with those options they instantly choose non-existence. One by one they vanish, though somehow their looks of betrayal and disgust seem to linger on.
"You'll be back" I say to the departed phantasms. "Pretty soon I'll need to feel right about something else and you'll be right back in my imagination, bowing to my unquestioned brilliance.
"Ha!" I say. The laughter echoes around my empty head.