The attempt to be practical in a sermon is based on a misunderstanding about the kind of word the gospel is. If the gospel of Christ were a theory, then it wouldn’t be worth much until you put it into practice. “Practical application” would be the only way to make it real in your life. But the gospel is not a theory to apply; it’s a story to believe. It is good news that gladdens the heart, and it changes our hearts precisely by giving us something to be glad about—something we embrace by faith alone, not by doing something about it. To be precise, it gives us someone to be glad about. For the gospel, being the story of our Lord Jesus Christ, does not give us practical advice or a theory about how to live our lives. It gives us God in the flesh.
Think of it this way: we who believe in Christ belong to him like a bride waiting for her Bridegroom. He is on his way to us and our whole life is a preparation for his arrival. And we want to be a good bride, pleasing him in everything we do. So what can we hear that will help prepare us for his coming? You could give us sermons about how to be a good bride, but that gets tedious very quickly. This is not because we don’t want to be a good bride, but because we don’t want to hear about ourselves all the time—we’d rather hear about our Beloved!
And here’s the secret most pastors don’t get: the best way to help this bride get prepared for her Beloved is precisely to tell her about the Beloved, not herself. If you take up her time telling her how to live like a good bride, she’ll get bored and fidgety, or maybe anxious, wondering: “Am I really good enough for him?” But if you tell her about her Beloved, his beauty and glory, his love for her and his mighty deeds to save the whole world, the result is quite different. You raise her hopes and inflame her desires, and her love for him is renewed.
Love feeds on news of the Beloved. That’s how to reach people’s hearts. What really helps us live the Christian life is to learn about Jesus Christ, hear what he has done, and be reminded of his coming again. Above all, what we want is to know him, to understand who he is, to learn how he has come from the Father and sends us his Spirit. This is love, after all: it’s about our Beloved, not about us. And that’s the first and most important thing our Bridegroom wants from us: that we love God with our whole heart and mind and soul and strength. That’s why it’s the preaching of the gospel, telling the story of Christ the beloved Son of God, that really changes us in the depths of our hearts.
Phillip Cary, Good News for Anxious Christians, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010), p.161