The notoriously hard to grasp offside rule in football states that if you’re on the attack and you’ve run ahead of the ball and there’s only one member of the opposing team between you and the goal (normally the goalkeeper) then you’re offside and no-one can pass to you. But if two or more members of the opposing team are ahead of you then you are onside.
The rule works all too often in my Christian life. If I can think of two or more examples of people ‘ahead of me’ in sin then it plays me onside. I think of Christians who (I judge) are more compromised, more self-indulgent than me and that makes me feel ‘onside’. ‘They’ are on the opposing team – the really bad guys. And they have played me onside.
And the rule works all too often in preaching as well. If I can think of two or more examples of terrible false teaching (preachers selling miracle oil, cures for AIDS, blessings with an MPESA number attached, churches refusing to bury members who die before 70 years) then it plays my ministry onside. If I can think of some hideously extreme examples of the prosperity gospel (and maybe drop their names into my sermon together with a fierce or mocking denunciation) then I must be on the right team. ‘They’ are the bad guys and my preaching (even though it has little of Christ, little of the Cross, little of grace, little of eternity) must be faithful Bible teaching.
In fact, none of us are onside. There is no ‘faithful team’, no ‘super sound squad’. All our preaching, together with all our living, is deeply fallen. As Tim Keller has said, “He who by preaching is righteous shall die every Sunday.” That’s why we need Jesus to come on the pitch as our substitute and live and preach in our place.
To change the sporting metaphor, we need to raise the bar. If we set the bar of Christian living at outward faithfulness we may well reach it and we will be Pharisees. If we set the bar of preaching at good rhetoric peppered with a bit of Bible then we can reach it and we will be Pharisees. If we allow the Kanyaris of this world to define the new low then it won’t need a very long pole to vault over that bar.
But if the bar is Christ and the Word of Christ then… we despise ourselves. And then… we rejoice that we are in Christ – righteous not by our living or preaching but in Him. And then our preaching (to ourselves as to others) becomes an act of pointing to the ‘bar’ – pointing to Christ and His Word, pointing to the God lifted up on a bar, and saying, “Look – there he is – your saviour, your righteousness, your life.”
Preachers of East Africa, join us 3-6 February at Raising the Bar Nairobi 2015!