To be truly effective, preachers have to become bilingual—fluent in two languages. I say that even though I only speak English.
What are the two essential languages a preacher must speak? Not English and French (even in Canada). Not Greek and Hebrew (though learning to read both is a great help to any preacher). The two languages a preacher must speak fluently are grace and truth.
Jesus spoke both. The opening chapter in John’s Gospel introduces Jesus as the Word, the One who communicated the Father’s heart. John tells us Jesus was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). His words and actions were both gracious and truthful.
But while Jesus was equally fluent in the vocabulary of grace and truth, most of us are not. We typically have either grace or truth as our mother tongue.
Preachers whose native language is grace convey warm-hearted compassion through their words, tone and gestures. No matter what passage they are preaching, their words come accented with grace. In a pastoral way, they speak hope into broken hearts.
On the other hand, preachers whose first language is truth excel in emphasizing God’s revealed will. No matter what passage they are preaching, they explain God’s righteous standards and expose our failure to reach it. Like biblical prophets, they fearlessly call people to turn away from sin and turn back to God.
The problem is that most of us are not bilingual when it comes to communicating both grace and truth. We speak one without an accent; the other is somewhat foreign to us. As a result we fail to communicate the fullness of God’s Word.
Those who gravitate towards grace (I’m in this group) tend to unintentionally under-emphasize God’s holy demands. Over time, our listeners can become complacent and self-satisfied. On the other hand, those strong in trumpeting truth, can leave people feeling chastened and defeated. Without a regular reminder of God’s gracious provision, our hearers will try to muscle up in their own strength or will be tempted to give up when their strength fails.
How does a preacher who is strong in one of the two essential languages learn to preach well in the other? While I’m still learning to speak fluently and forcefully in both grace and truth, here are some things that I’ve found helpful.
First, commit yourself to taking your tone from the passage itself. Look for words that indicate the author’s emotional emphasis and then follow his lead. If the passage has a pastoral feel, let that come out in your sermon. If it shakes people up with prophetic fervour, let your sermon do the same. Being faithful expositors means we not only convey the message of the text, we also convey it’s mood.
Second, listen to preachers who excel in the language you are trying to learn. I have found several expositors who effectively convey a strong prophetic edge in their sermons without giving up on grace. While I can’t clone them, I’ve tried to learn from them.
Third, remember that learning a second language takes practice and causes discomfort. You will feel conspicuous and awkward at times. You will be tempted to revert to what comes most naturally to you. But push on to become homiletically bilingual. Prayerfully rely on Christ to help you be Christ-like in preaching with both grace and truth. Like all who learn a second language, you’ll be glad you did.