In 1997, Robert Duvall “graced” the screen in a film called The Apostle in which he played a fiery Southern Baptist preacher. Even then the story of this man seemed like an anachronism. Did anyone actually preach like that any more? Who would think to speak in such a harsh way toward people and think that they will want to come back and listen to you again the next week?
There certainly continues to be those who use scare-tactics to “bring people to Christ,” but fortunately most have wised up. Or have they?
“Fire and Brimstone” preaching is best known for its scary and sinister manipulation into agreeing to a complete life makeover. The preacher’s face would get just as red as he described the fires of hell and he would shout, dance around and cry as if he were demonstrating what it would be like. Although this is why these hell-bound messages are remembered, this is really not what was so deceitful about this kind of preaching.
The Hellish Words of the Fiery Preacher
Apart from the almost nightmarish rhetoric, these men also had an even deeper message that brought the reality of hell to the present. He would warn you, much like we threaten children with Santa Claus and his omniscience, that if you are not good enough, you are going to go to hell. In some ways he was exactly right: if we are sinful hell just may be where our last stop will be. What he forgot is the ticket to a better place, and it was not on the train of good works.
In Romans 3, Paul gives and explicit description of the consequences of sin. He admonishes anyone who thinks that they are good enough with the truth that “not one is good” and that our “mouths are open graves.” Quite dramatic language to throw at people, but he makes a solid point that no one can be good enough for God and no one can earn her way to heaven. When the fire-and-brimstone pastor says that you have to stop smoking so that you won’t smoke for eternity, he is not preaching the Gospel or the Bible for that matter, since the Bible does not even mention tobacco. What he does is try to get people to do all the right things and implies that if we are perfect then Jesus will give the gift of eternal life and we can go to heaven.
Instead, what is biblical is the Gospel, which is all about our inability to be good and our utter dependence on God. The Good News is the atoning work of Christ has covered our sin and paid the ransom for our souls. It is Christ who “while we were yet sinners” died in our place. The Gospel is about something we receive that can never be earned except by the only one who was able to live perfectly according to the Law and then die in our place.
The New Face of Fire
Rather than the blazing torrent of the fires of hell, today’s fire-and-brimstone pastors are quite under the radar. They do not spend time dreaming up more frightening ways to scream at people who, for whatever reason, voluntarily attend their meetings. No, today’s preachers are too smart for that. Instead what these modern, creative pastors do is present the fires of love instead.
What is wrong with love, you may ask? Does not Jesus himself talk about love and how important it is to love God and other people? Is there not an entire chapter devoted to the topic in 1 Corinthians that people use in marriage ceremonies?
Indeed, love is a beautiful thing. The Gospel is indeed all about love and we are more than fortunate to have been recipients of this love that only God can give. But when we talk about love as a guide for living, we talk about the Law of love. Jesus said it very clearly in Matthew 22:34-40 where he says that loving God and neighbor is the summary of the Law. When preachers tell people to love one another, it may sound warm and comforting, but what they are doing is sitting their listeners down in a pot of water and slowly cranking up the heat. People are getting stewed in the Law and eventually being boiled alive.
Love is an easy thing to do. That may be, except when the qualifiers are added it becomes a story right out of Dante’s Inferno where the sweet fruit awaits just out of reach for all eternity. Jesus did not say to love God and love other people; that is arguably possible. Instead, Christ commanded to love God with our whole being (mind, body, soul) and to love those around us as much as we love ourselves. No one can do this and any one who testifies otherwise is committing perjury. If love is the way that we earn favor with God, then how much love is enough? Do I need to start solicit favors from people who are so loving that they have more than enough and can spare some to help my pile of good works to be sufficient?
The Hellfire Extinguisher
As the Law of love presses us to build a spiral staircase to heaven, the effort becomes more and more impossible when we begin to realize the futility of the task. Ironically, it is the futility of this new fire and brimstone message that has the potential to set us back on the path of the Gospel. Christ, himself, as the embodiment of the Gospel, stands with the cosmic fire extinguisher and welcomes us not into a new way of living, but to a new life. The Law of love, just as the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament, convicts us of the sin of trying to build our own way and abandon the way of God. The Law of love implies that we are responsible for reestablishing our relationship with God, which is clearly impossible.
Ephesians 2:1-10 teaches that we are dead in our trespasses and sins. The Apostle, Paul in this case, not only says that it is impossible to make our relationship right with God, rather he calls us dead without God’s forgiveness. Because we are dead in sin, we require that someone else completely alien to the human race should come and set things right. It was the love of Christ, the one man who was born and was able to live according to both the Law of Moses and the Law of love who did so in our place. It was Christ himself who was able to carry out the work that extinguishes the hellfire from our lives and gives us the freedom that only he can give.
And what does Christ require in return? Nothing! In fact there is nothing that we are able to do that is of any consequence apart from him. Ephesians 2:10 says that we are created for good works, but it is Christ that has created us by his saving grace and it is his spirit within us that gives us breathe to carry them out. The scandal of grace is that we have been made alive by no power of our own and we live by no strength that Christ did not put there. Thanks be to God for his undying love to those who hear his voice and follow after him.