You’ve probably heard the cliché, “’Close’ only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” I’ve always loved that little quip. It brings back fond memories of pitching horseshoes with my granddaddy in his back yard. It also gives us a vivid sense that sometimes just being “close” doesn’t cut it. “Close” to the mark can even be explosively destructive—like hand grenades that don’t have to hit the target in order to kill people in the vicinity.
But the main point of the quip is a rebuke any tendency to settle for less than success. It’s a reminder that there are times, situations and activities that actually require us to get a thing right or reach a certain mark before we settle. I like to think of the cliché as teaching what Yoda once taught a young Luke Skywalker, “Don’t try; do.”
Preaching the gospel is one of those things we want to get right. We don’t want to be “close” to preaching the gospel. We actually wish to hit the mark. And that’s because the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes. I’m not sure the same could be said for “almost” preaching the gospel. What can we safely leave out of gospel preaching and still reasonably hope it to accomplish? That’s a scary question and involves a risk no preacher has to take.
But I’ve listened to some of my own sermons and I’ve listened to a lot of preaching from others, and I’m sad to say that sometimes we come “close” to preaching the gospel but the horseshoe doesn’t ring the stake.
Here are six things I sometimes hear in sermons that, if I had to guess, leads the preacher to think he preached the gospel when, in fact, he was only close:
- Using the Phrase “the gospel.”
Sometimes preachers use this phrase. They make “the gospel” the subject of a lot of sentences. “The gospel frees us from sin.” “The gospel brings new life.” “The gospel provides righteousness.” All of those statements are true and none of those states are “the gospel.” Shorthand can take the place of explanation. When that happens, we may be close to preaching the gospel, we may very much have it in mind, but we’re not actually teaching and preaching it.
- Allusions to Elements of the Gospel
Another near miss in gospel preaching is alluding to certain elements of the gospel but not explaining the whole. We can talk at length about forgiveness, for example, but not actually explain how Christ accomplishes our forgiveness in His sinless perfection, death on the cross, resurrection from the grave or the person’s responsibility to repent of sin and believe on Christ. The allusion or the meditation on one benefit of the gospel—in this example, forgiveness—stands in as the whole of the message. Again, I don’t know any Christian pastor who would intentionally do that. But it seems to me we can unintentionally leave off a lot of gospel facts and demands by making these allusions.
- Moral Exhortations
Moralism is a different religion from Christianity. The Christian message is not “Be good” or “Do good,” it’s “Christ is your righteousness” (1 Cor. 1:30-31). Of course, Christian are commanded to do good works, but those works are a result of new life in Christ not the cause of it. It’s not uncommon to hear preachers exhorting their congregations to a better moral life. Such exhortations should never be allowed to stand in for the gospel. In fact, wherever moralism or legalism is taught, we’re not even playing horseshoes and hand grenades. That’s not close. That’s far off and damning.
- Closing Runs That Presume Bible Knowledge
Many of us grew up under preachers who would often close their sermons with a “run.” The “run” was a kind of biblical theology. Often a theme from the text or the sermon would be traced through the scripture. The “run” is akin to ringing a biblical bell from passage to passage, book to book, etc. It often leads to the sermon’s celebration and climax.
Dr. S.M. Lockridge pastored Calvary Baptist Church in San Diego, CA for forty years (1953-1993). You may know Dr. Lockridge from his famous sermon, “That’s My King”. Chances are that even if you’ve not heard the entire sermon, you’ve heard the run Lockridge famously delivered. It’s one of my favorites, ringing the bell of Christ’s Kingship and the corresponding chime, “Do you know him?” Take a listen:
That’s got to be one of my favorite riffs. You can listen to the entire sermon here. But here’s what I’ve noticed about runs over the years: To be effective in the best way, the typical “run” requires a listener with some familiarity with the Bible and it’s themes. Without at least some basics, a run may be stirring but it won’t always be a coherent declaration of the gospel. If a person is unchurched and unfamiliar with the Bible, most of what’s said may feel alien and disjointed, like a connect-the-dots puzzle with no numbers to guide.
Yet sometimes people think of the “run” as “getting to the cross” or an example of “Christ-centered preaching.” But try to listen to a few examples with this question in mind: If a person were unfamiliar with the Bible would they be able to understand the gospel well enough to respond biblically? If not, then that “run” was actually pitching horseshoes rather than good gospel preaching.
- Unclear Calls for Response
Sometimes we can explain the birth, righteousness, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus correctly then issue a vague appeal for a response. Or, worse, a preacher can just make the vague appeal while not explaining the facts of the gospel. “You need to get right with God” and “It’s time to make your peace with the Lord” is not the same as preaching the gospel. Not even “It’s time to make a decision for Christ” provides as precise an appeal as the Bible’s command to “repent and believe” or “repent and be baptized.” If we do the work of explaining the gospel well, we shouldn’t play horseshoes with our emphasis on the required response.
- Tacked on Altar Calls
This is not a screed against “altar calls” or calling for some demonstrable response. While I don’t practice “altar calls” with any regularity, the Lord converted through the gospel under Pastor John Cherry, who regularly used them. But Cherry made the gospel clear in his presentation at the end of sermons and at the time he had a team of people who took you aside and walked slowly through a gospel tract to be sure you understood each major aspect of the gospel. So this is no condemnation of that. But a preacher can comment on a text for an hour, never get to Christ in a way that’s natural to the text, and then tack on an appeal as everyone is closing their Bibles and gathering their coats. That appeal can be an example of issues 1-3 above and that preacher will think he’s “preached the gospel.” I don’t doubt that he intended to. But, in fact, sometimes these appeals miss the mark. An altar call is not automatically “a presentation of the gospel.” It may be a time of concentrated error.
Preaching the gospel and intending to preach the gospel are two different things. Our task is to be sure our intent turns into content during the sermon. It won’t do for any of our hearers to meet the Lord and say, “I almost heard the gospel one day when I heard that pastor preaching.” It just may be rougher on the preacher that day than on the sinner (James 3:1).