Principle Preaching from Topics
The great narratives of both Old and New Testament best lend themselves to principle preaching, but it is also possible to preach sermons with principles that will not be forgotten from topics, as well as from narrative. The reservoir of potential topics for principle preaching is inexhaustible.
Every topic under heaven is a ready subject for exciting biblical principle preaching. "Starting Over" offers a good example of principle preaching from a topic. The turn of a new century, decade, or even new year is a wonderful opportunity to encourage people to get rid of the past and begin anew. Anything that helps our hearers do this is of great value.
Virtually each of us carries emotional baggage. A neighbor abused me, a boss fired me, a teacher failed me, a friend lied about me, a spouse was unfaithful to me, or may have even divorced me. In addition, how often do these childhood tapes, or ones like them, replay in our minds: "Why can't you be like your sister?" or "You'll never amount to anything."
Many of us suffer from an unforgiving spirit rooted in bitterness toward another person who may even be deceased. Your refusal to forgive may not be hurting anyone else, but its physiological, psychological, and emotional harm will probably send you to an early grave and may cause physical and emotional illness.
There's no way to overstate the importance of "letting it go." At the conclusion of the Lord's Prayer, Jesus emphasized just one thing He had said: "But if you don't forgive people, your Father will not forgive your wrongdoing" (Matt. 6:15). Notice that Jesus uses the word "forgive" twice in the same sentence, underscoring its importance. Does this mean God's forgiveness is somehow based on a human work I must perform, rather than on the free gift of His grace? Certainly not. God grants His gracious favor on the basis of no human work, but upon His marvelous grace. It does mean that if I cannot forgive, I will never be in an attitude to humble myself before the Lord Jesus and ask His forgiveness. My unwillingness to forgive is an indication of a prideful spirit which must yet be nailed to the cross.
So important is letting it go that Jesus said, "If you come to worship and remember someone has something against you, leave your gift at the altar, go settle the issue, and then come and worship." Notice that He did not say, "If you have something against another," rather, "If they have something against you." So important are human relationships as an expression of our right relationship with God that even if we have done no wrong but another has wronged us, we are still to initiate the process of reconciliation. Bitterness, hatred, and unforgiveness must not be dragged into the future. A principle outline of a topical sermon on "letting it go" might look like this:
1. Letting It Go Is a Choice You Make, Not Because It Feels Right, but Because It Is Right
Often we hear others say, "I cannot forgive him because he hurt me so badly." What they mean is, "I cannot voluntarily commit to forgiveness because I cannot emotionally get over the hurt." But forgiving and forgetting can never be done emotionally until they are first done voluntarily.
We say, "If I felt it, I would act," but Scripture teaches, "If we act it, we will feel it." In the third chapter of Philippians, Paul acknowledges his struggle to become everything Christ intended when He reached out and touched Paul's life. The apostle reminds us that we must concentrate total focus and unrestrained energy on dealing with the past before progress can be made in the journey toward tomorrow. How powerful is his declaration, "But one thing I do." What is the one main thing he has committed to do? To forget those things that are behind, as verse 13 tells us.
In the second chapter of Revelation, Jesus the Bridegroom reprimands the Ephesian church, His bride, for falling out of love with Him. In the three-point prescription for her sickness, He tells her, "Remember, repent, and do." Not a word of emotion is in this passage. There is nothing the bride is told to feel, but there are three things she is told to do: Remember, repent, and do again her first works; in other words, she is to act as she once did. It is in the doing that emotion thrives.
David is a marvelous example of a conscious choice to let go of the past. After the birth of his son, David lay prostrate on the floor fasting and praying for eight days and nights, pleading with God for his son's life. God chose not to answer David's prayer. When the servants told him, "The baby is dead," David did not rise up in anger, curse God, and refuse to be consoled; but as a mature believer, he made the choice to go on with his life. Second Samuel 12:20 says, "Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate."
As human beings, we consist of three parts:
- The mind—the seat of knowledge, where we know
- The heart—the seat of emotion, where we feel
- The soul—the seat of the will, where we commit
Turning loose of the past is never possible in the realm of the emotion. If you wait until you feel like forgiving, you will never forgive and will suffer the consequences. Forgiving is a choice of the will that you make in your soul.
2. Remember That God Is Not Accountable to Us, but We Are Accountable to Him
Beneath the fruit of an unforgiving spirit is often a root of bitterness and anger against God. Truth be told, many of us have never come to terms with the fact that we are really angry at God, whom we feel could have prevented the catastrophe but did not. Casting blame on God for human acts has its beginnings early in human nature. Adam essentially blamed God for his fall when he said, "The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it" (Gen. 3:12). The inference is clear: "God, it's really your fault. Had you not given me this woman, she could not have given me this apple and I would not be in this fix."
Let me tell you one of the saddest stories I know. A man in East Texas lost a very successful business due to the oil bust of the mid-1980s. Forced to move to Houston and start again, both he and his wife took new jobs—he as a gas station attendant and she as a secretary. In the office, she met a man, had an affair, and divorced a loving husband. Today he is still angry at God. How often have I heard him say, "Had God prevented the price of oil from going down, this economic tragedy never would have occurred; we never would have moved to Houston, and I would never have lost my wife. God, it's your fault."
Perhaps you never have identified it, let alone articulated it, but just beneath your bitterness toward another person may be a layer of bitterness toward God, whom you blame for allowing it to happen in the first place.
After Job's great loss, his wife said, "Curse God and die." Job's answer was, "Shall I take good at the hand of God and not ill as well?"
It is often said the purpose of the book of Job is to answer the question, "Why do the righteous suffer?" But the book ends without answering that question. The purpose of Job may well be to say that you don't have to know why you suffer. Job affirmed, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him." His was the mature response to the suffering of a believer.
Scripture does not promise we will ever know why we suffer here. Surely in heaven we will understand, for we shall know as we are known. But until then, the issue is not God's explanation to us, but our response to Him. Never does our light shine as brightly to the glory of God as against the backdrop of our darkest hour of suffering.
3. Nothing Anyone Has Done to You Can Compare with What You Have Done to God
When it seems impossible to forgive another, remember how much greater wrong has been forgiven you. For one sinner to sin against another is a relatively minor thing, but to sin against a holy God is an unfathomable thing. If God has forgiven you so much, then whatever you forgive against a fellow sinner is relatively small.
In the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus tells the story of an unjust steward. A servant was forgiven a debt of ten thousand talents by his king, whose compassion spared him and his family the humiliation of imprisonment and slavery. The forgiven man found a fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii, but the forgiven one refused to forgive his brother and cast him into prison with his family. The king was so angry that he cast the man who would not forgive into outer darkness. Could it be that a man who will not forgive goes to hell? Could it be that one who does not understand forgiveness has never been to the cross and knows not our Lord at all? When you have trouble letting it go, just remember that you, too, are a sinner, and that nothing your fellow sinner has done to you can compare with your sin against a righteous and holy God.
4. Focus Not on What You Have Lost but on What You Have Left
When the elder brother complained that the father had killed one calf from his herd to feed the penitent prodigal, the father replied, "Son, everything I have is yours." All the cattle, herds, and flocks belonged to that elder brother. How could he have been so bitter over the loss of one head of cattle when hundreds or even thousands remained? The elder son's anger seemed to center on the father's welcoming home the prodigal. But the father's loving response indicates a deeper problem he knew all too well.
It is indeed possible to act our way into new thinking when we voluntarily choose to let it go. And we reinforce that commitment when we also choose to think our way into new actions. The father's plea to the elder brother was, "Son, forget about one lost calf and rejoice in a thousand unlost cattle." The apostle Paul reminds us, "Whatsoever things are lovely, virtuous, pure and of good report, if there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think on these things."
Learn to focus on what you have left, rather than on what you lost. Perhaps it was a job, a possession, or even a precious child, but you may well be letting your unresolved bitterness so negatively affect you that you are damaging the spiritual and emotional health of those close to you. Focus on the great people they are. If you have the Lord, your family, and your health, little else matters. Rejoice!
Principle Preaching: How to Create and Deliver Sermons for Life Applications.