The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have to Preach (Book Review)

Murder, Abortion, Suicide, National or Local Tragedy.  What do you say to hurting people touched by these and other deadly tragedies?  If you are called upon to bring biblical counsel to bear on such difficult circumstances, what will you say?

Bryan Chapell, chancellor of Covenant Theological Seminary, has written and compiled sermons from some of the most trusted preachers who had to wrestle with these questions from the trenches of pastoral ministry.  His book, The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have to Preach, is more than a collection of sermons on tough topics.  It is a devotionally sensitive handbook for how to think “Christianly” about tragedy.  It offers help with sensitivity, clarity, honesty, courage, and humility.  It recommends many biblical texts that are appropriate for various situations.  It includes a step-by-step plan for how to minister the comfort and peace of Jesus to hurting and grieving people, beginning at the moment you hear about what happened.  It provides preliminary remarks on the situation, concerns, and approach of the sermon that each pastor delivered to family, friends, and parishioners struggling with the pain of losing a loved one.

Chapell’s book is divided into five parts (sections) containing 2 or more sermons:

Part 1. Preaching in Response to Tragedy
Part 2. Preaching After the Loss of a Child
Part 3. Preaching Funerals with Especially Difficult Causes or Circumstances
Part 4. Preaching Funerals for Public Figures
Part 5. Preaching After Suicide

Some of the sermons are brief, some are longer.  Most are preached by ministers who were close friends to the deceased.  Ten of the 25 sermons are by Chapell.  Some of the other well known pastors/authors are Tim Keller, John Piper, Michael Horton, Dan Doriani, and Robert Rayburn.  Most are Presbyterian ministers; John Piper is an exception as a Calvinistic Baptist.

Probably the most unusual sermon of the lot is Chapell’s message on Abortion in chapter 1.  Instead of addressing a particular abortion and the family of the aborted child, he speaks to a pro-life gathering on the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.  Although different because of its audience, this sermon on abortion is arresting because it jolts Americans out of the complacency that has developed over the decades since abortion was legalized in the U.S.  Chapell emphasizes what the Church must do in response to abortion and the culture of death that pervades America.  He does a masterful job at comforting the afflicted battle-weary pro-life activist and afflicting the comfortable pro-life person who has settled for the status quo.  He proves from the Bible that the Church must say the unborn child is a work of God and a wonder of God.  He calls on the Church to teach the truth (about each child–especially unborn children), preach grace, demonstrate love, and exercise spiritual power through the most powerful tool Christians have–prayer.  This sermon on abortion sets the bar for the rest of the sermons in the book.  Most of them don’t disappoint.

Since most of the sermons are by evangelical Presbyterian ministers and therefore covenantal in perspective, it was interesting to hear John Piper’s (a Baptist) explanation of his confidence that the newborn child of Christians in his congregation is in heaven following a very brief life on earth.  Some are familiar with the notion that the Bible teaches there is an “age of accountability” that governs whether a person who dies without professing faith in Christ will go to heaven.  Presbyterian and Reformed Christians may cringe at the mere mention of the “age of accountability” doctrine, but Piper gives an excellent summary of its best points.  Piper says on page 123,

The Bible is very plain that we are saved from our sin and from God’s punishment by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, who died in our place and rose again from the dead.  But what about tiny children who do not yet have  the physical ability to even know the basic facts of the gospel or even of any of God’s revelation in nature?  Does the Bible teach that God will judge them in the same way that he will judge an adult who consciously rejects the truth of God that he knows?  No, there are clues that God does not condemn those who are physically unable to know the truth that God has revealed in nature or in the gospel.

Piper continues by mentioning two of these clues: the first from Deuteronomy 1 (especially verses 35-39) and the second from Romans 1:19-21.  He concludes on page 123-124:

The point is this: to be held accountable at the judgment you need two things: (1) available knowledge of the glory of the God whom you should have adored and thanked; and (2) the physical ability to know that glory, to perceive it.  If this knowledge were really not available, then, Paul implies, there really would be an “excuse” at the judgment.  No adult, except perhaps profoundly retarded or mentally ill ones, have this excuse.  That’s Paul’s point.  We adults are without excuse.  But children are in another category.  They do have this excuse.  They don’t have the physical ability to know what God has revealed.  Therefore we believe that God will apply to them the blood and righteousness of Christ in a way that we do not know.  We adults can have  this pardon and righteousness only through faith.  That is the clear teaching of Scripture (Romans 2:28; Ephesians 2:8).  How are infants united to Christ?  We don’t know.  And speculation would not help us here.

There is a case to make for the “age of accountability” doctrine, but it is safer to say what covenant theologians teach: that the Bible gives Christian parents full assurance that their little ones who die before they are able to profess faith are certainly in heaven because God is faithful to his covenant promise to be a God to us AND to our children.  Perhaps God will take all little ones to heaven, regardless of the faith of their parents.  God is certainly able to apply the blood of Christ to their deaths by regenerating babies and little children before they die.  But the Scripture is basically silent on this matter.  So it seems to be speculative to give assurance that the children of unbelievers will certainly go to heaven.  Such a declaration is presumptive, and could perhaps be insulting to a family of a different religion or no religion at all.  After all, would a family who doesn’t believe in heaven want to hear that their child is in a place that they don’t plan to see?  On the other hand, it could be a strong call to believe the gospel for an unbelieving family to hear that the only way they will ever see their little one again is to repent and turn to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  Either way, Piper’s comforting words to the bereaved family should cause us all to consider the wisdom of his reasons for comfort.

If you read The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have to Preach, you won’t find it a “page-turner.”  But I’m sure you’ll find it enriching.  If you keep it on your shelf, you may find yourself turning to it in the midst of tragedy, perhaps to find the comfort of Christ for your own soul.

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