Is being vague about sin an act of love? Often people avoid condemning sin out of a desire to love. Insinuating sin instead of naming sin; Generalizing instead of being specific; Apologizing for how embarrassing the very mention of sin can be; Fearing that being too specific might turn someone away from Jesus. This all too often stems from a sincere desire to love. That desire is noble. After all, “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and we should speak “the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). But being soft on sin is not love. Scripturally, the best preachers were pointed and specific when they addressed sin. Throughout history, God has blessed bold preaching that condemns specific sins. Theologically, true biblical preaching uses the specificity of the law to wound the conscience to show the need for the balm of the Gospel. True love is not vague about sin. True love preaches against sin boldly and specifically. Condemning sin is an act of love and grace.
The Bible’s Example
The Bible is full of examples of men who loved people by preaching against sin specifically. Enoch preached against the wickedness of his day “to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way” (Jude 1:15). Elijah told Ahab that because of his sin he will die and dogs will lick up his blood (1 Kings 21:19). Immediately before his martyrdom, Stephen called his persecutors “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ear” (Acts 7:51), and not surprisingly, “when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him” (Acts 7:54). Some today might accuse Stephen of being harsh and too provocative. Yet, he was “full of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:55). The Bible’s preachers preached against sin. They were bold in their condemnation of sin. And they were empowered by the Holy Spirit of God.
Bold and specific preaching should be grounded in a proper understanding of the relationship between law and Gospel. True Christian preaching wounds with the law to heal with the Gospel. The law of God displays God’s righteousness and exposes the sinner’s need of salvation. “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin,” wrote Paul (Romans 7:7). Preaching against specific sins works with the human conscience to prove the sinfulness of sinners to sinners. Only when sinners become convinced of the sinfulness of their sins do they realize they need a Saviour. The best preachers strategically and intentionally use law and Gospel in their preaching. The evangelist John Wesley wrote,
I think the right method of preaching is this. At our first beginning in any place, after a general declaration of the love of God to sinners and His willingness that they should be saved, to preach the law in the strongest manner possible; only intermixing the gospel here and there, and showing it, as it were, afar off. After more and more persons are convicted of sin, we may mix more and more of the gospel, in order to beget faith, to raise into spiritual life those whom the law hath slain.
Preaching against specific sins in the plainest terms possible is how we point people to their need of Jesus. “We must especially reprove those evils into which our hearers have fallen, or are likely to fall,” said Spurgeon to his students. He continued, “Spare not the sterner themes, for men must be wounded before they can be healed.” Speaking boldly and specifically against sin is the biblical model, and it’s the model God has chosen to bless.
True Biblical Love
Some might contend that preaching the law with boldness is not loving. After all, it makes people uncomfortable. Won’t it turn people away? St. Augustine observed that an avoidance of confrontation with sin is “due to weakness – because they delight in flattery and popularity and because they dread the judgement of the mob.” “They are constrained by self-interest, not by the obligations of charity.” People act cowardly by not condemning sin, and they can do it under the false pretenses of love or charity. True love is willing to go against the scorn of society and the sneering of the wicked for the good of society and the salvation of the wicked. Commenting on Ezekiel 33:6, Augustine rightly noted that preachers “have been appointed in the churches for this purpose, that they should be unsparing in their condemnation of sin.” True biblical love does not hold back in its diagnosis of the cancer of sin. Like Jesus did, Bible preachers must call people to repent (Matthew 4:17). That’s especially true when the ones who carry the cancer of sin in their own bodies refuse to believe that they have it and that the malignancy will lead them to hell.
Billy Graham’s Conversion
In his autobiography, famed evangelist Billy Graham recalls the story of his own conversion. In 1934, a pastor named Dr. Mordecai Fowler Ham visited Charlotte, North Carolina, to preach a series of evangelistic meetings that lasted eleven weeks. Graham remembers the preacher as a “strong, rugged evangelist” who “did not mince words about sin, either in the abstract or in its specific expressions in the local community.” So candid were Ham’s denunciations of evil that the local newspapers spoke less than favourably about his meetings. The brouhaha, at the start, kept Graham away because it made him “feel antagonistic toward the whole affair.”
Eventually, Graham did bring himself to listen to one of Dr. Ham’s sermons. “He had an almost embarrassing way of describing sins and shortcoming, and of demanding, on pain of divine judgment, that we mend our ways.” The preaching moved Graham deeply. “I was so sure he had singled me out one night that I actually ducked behind the wide-brimmed hat of the lady sitting in front of me. Yet, as uncomfortable as I was getting to be, I simply could not stay way.” He remarks, “What was slowly dawning on me during those weeks was the miserable realization that I did not know Jesus Christ for myself.” “And then it happened, sometime around my sixteenth birthday. On that night, Dr. Ham finished preaching and gave the Invitation to accept Christ.” Under the “strong,” “rugged,” and “embarrassing” denunciations of sin, Dr. Billy Graham came to Jesus.
God uses courageous preaching to bring about the conviction of sin and point people to Jesus. Yet so often that type of preaching is dismissed as unloving. In reality, boldly denouncing sin is an act of love. It’s the example God has provided in Scripture, and it has been His chosen means throughout history to convert rebels. Theologically, it stems from a conviction that God uses the law to teach people that they need Jesus. To me myself it’s very personal. It’s how I was saved. When I was 15 years old someone told me that I was sinner who deserved to go to hell. Shocked, I laughed off the claim in a vain attempt to disguise my own concern. But over time, God softened my heart to convince me that I was guilty before His righteousness. My own conscience testified to me that I was a sinner. And I asked Jesus to save me. Over twenty years ago someone spoke boldly and pointedly about my sin. Thank God. It was one of the most loving things someone ever did for me.