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When we talk about hellfire preaching, we mean the kind of preaching that makes you feel like you’re on your way to Hell because you’re failing to please God. This is a style of preaching that emphasizes the wrath of God to the point that the love and grace of God become lost concepts. A steady diet of hellfire preaching will cause you to think that God is a scary, brooding volcano who is angrily glaring down at you 24/7. You’ll end up afraid to pray and afraid to sin. Once you finally do some super big no-no sin that your pastor is always exalting as being in the unforgivable camp, you’ll end up so despaired of ever getting right with God again that you’ll toss up your hands and decide that you might as well wallow in the lusts of your flesh from then on. After all, if God is so impossible to please, why keep trying?
Now hellfire preaching and legalism go hand in hand. Just as prosperity theology is built on the deception that we can somehow manipulate God into giving us the perfect life on earth by impressing Him with our good behaviors, legalism is also a deceiving package of theology which focuses on behaviors instead of soul attitudes. While prosperity theology often includes the belief that sinless living is possible, legalism teaches that sinless living is required.
Many people mistakenly think that both prosperity theology and legalism are biblical doctrines which were alive and well during the Old Covenant. Well, no, this isn’t true. God has never demanded perfect behavior from anyone. While God certainly distinguishes between righteous and sinful behaviors, He judges us according to our soul’s response to Him. Simply getting an abortion doesn’t make you a rebel in God’s eyes. You have to first understand that God says abortion is wrong and be harboring a soul attitude of, “Stuff You, God, I don’t care what You think” before God is going to say you are guilty of spiritual rebellion. At the same time, simply doing a charitable deed doesn’t make you righteous in God’s eyes. When you help some little old lady across the street, were you doing it to honor God’s command to be kind to others, or were you just trying to gain points with your pastor who is stopped at the traffic light in front of you? In the Bible we find plenty of examples of both Yahweh and Jesus railing angrily at do-gooders. Our Gods always judge us by our soul motivations. If we are doing good deeds for rotten reasons, They will discipline us accordingly. If we are doing rotten deeds for good reasons, They will respond to us much differently. It’s all about soul attitude with God.
Now because most people on the planet are in a state of spiritual rebellion, we find many Christians slapping the “hellfire preaching” label onto any sermon that makes them feel convicted. This is ridiculous. Spiritual rebels are going to get plenty of conviction from God, and if they don’t straighten up, those convictions will come in increasingly harsher forms. So when we talk about hellfire preaching in this post, we’re not talking about any sermon that offends your ego. We are limiting our definition of hellfire preaching to preaching that overemphasizes the wrath of God.
God is a fascinating tornado of many extreme passions which directly oppose each other. For example, true justice cares only about the law being upheld. If the posted speed limit is 55 mph, and you’re caught going 56 mph, a truly just judge would nail you for speeding. He doesn’t care about why you sped, he only cares about the fact that you violated the law. Now God commands human judges not to be truly just. Instead, He orders them to be gracious judges, even though the term gracious judge is really an oxymoron. Grace and justice work against each other. Grace delights in being lenient. True justice despises leniency because leniency guarantees that the law will not be perfectly upheld. God commands us humans to emphasize mercy, grace, and compassion with each other. All of these things totally oppose the agendas of justice and revenge. Why does God tell us to emphasize certain traits over the others? Because He knows that when it comes to dealing with other people, our natural instinct is to emphasize justice, revenge, and wrath. We’re already camped in one extreme, so God tells us to consciously pursue the other extreme knowing that this will cause us to end up somewhere in the happy middle.
So here’s human nature in a nutshell: If someone does wrong towards us, we want to see them nailed by true justice. If we do wrong towards others, we want to receive only grace and mercy. We’re hypocrites to the bone, and teaching us how to become less hypocritical is one of God’s goals when He begins maturing us. But that’s us—what about God?
It’s important to understand the difference between God and us because when we preach, we are supposed to be expressing the Divine perspective, not a human perspective. Humans judge themselves by their motivations and others by their behavior. But God judges everyone by their motivations, and here is where both prosperity and legalism fall down. Both of these theological systems teach you that God judges you by your behavior. The prosperity boys teach that you can wow God by dropping a hefty check into the offering plate. If God judged you by your heart, then He would see that you were really just trying to bribe Him into raining down riches onto your head, and He would be disgusted with your carnal motivations. Because the prosperity boys are just itching to get their hands on your money, they teach you that God doesn’t look past externals, therefore you can easily fool Him into thinking you are far more righteous, generous, and reverent than you actually are. You’ll notice that praying out loud is a big deal with these people. No one “names it and claims it” silently. Again, this is because God is presented as judging you the same way as another human does. “Great faith” in the prosperity world is defined as confident declarations that you make with your vocal cords. It’s all about saying a bunch of things you don’t really mean, and acting far more confident than you actually are, for both God and demons can be easily duped by good acting.
Then we get into legalism. Legalism once again places God outside of you and has Him scrutinizing your every move. Did you just gossip? The Divine hammer is coming down. The Just Judge condemns you as a sinner and you’re only hope of escaping those fires of Hell is if you grovel in the dirt.
Now once we present God as judging you by your behavior, repentance becomes a very complicated affair. Because God can’t see into your heart, you have to convince Him of how sorry you are by going through a bunch of emotional theatrics. Here is where we get into the drama of gut-wrenching confession sessions. Here is when we start crawling over bits of broken glass, sleeping on beds of nails, and whipping our bodies all as a way of proving to God how sorry we are for sinning and of how earnest we are in our hatred of carnal things. If God wasn’t such a numskull, He could see past our physical shells and see how earnestly our souls long to please Him despite the way we are behaving. What a relief that would be, for then we could stop torturing and exhausting ourselves in these efforts to convince God of how our souls really feel about Him. But legalism does not allow this kind of peace to enter into the equation. Legalism insists that God can’t tell rebellious brats from the sincerely obedient unless the obedient distinguish themselves by keeping up consistent and extreme behavioral differences. And because the behavioral demands on the obedient are so overwhelming, extra motivation is needed. Here is where hellfire preaching comes into play. The goal is to keep you on the righteous road by keeping you in a constant state of terror about what God will do to you if you give Him any reason to doubt the sincerity of your devotion to Him.
As you can see, legalism puts all of the pressure on you to keep a very limited yet very volatile God pacified. You can’t do anything to fix God’s apparent inability to see your true motivations, and since God is such a silent Guy, and you’re constantly hearing about how hard He is to please, it’s impossible to ever feel like you’re in a secure place with Him. There’s always the fear that you’re not doing enough to convince God that you really care about pleasing Him. After all, in the Bible God puts out a very long to do list of righteous behaviors that He’d like to see you performing. Are you helping the poor? Are you defending the widows and the orphans? Are you sharing the Gospel message everywhere you go so that other people can end up in the same worn out frazzle that you’re in? Are you reading the Bible every day and praying continuously? Are your choices in media pure? Are your clothes modest? Is your language free of foul words? Are you staying away from drugs? Are you attending church on a regular basis? Because legalism says that God judges you the same way that other people do—by your behaviors—everyone is invited to get in on the fun of scrutinizing your actions and advertising it to the whole world every time you mess up. After all, it’s only a matter of time until you blow it, because it is humanly impossible to live a sinless life.
According to God’s definition of sin, we’re all sinning constantly, but no one wants to admit that, not even the legalists. Hypocrisy thrives in legalistic circles just as it does everywhere else, and in order to keep up the illusion that it is possible to obtain salvation through righteous behaviors, we must redefine sin to exclude all of the things that we personally enjoy doing and then create a Pharisaical system of lesser and greater sins so that we can really feel justified in sticking it to certain groups that we despise. Since gossiping is obviously an essential part of life, we won’t call it a sin when the ladies get together to exchange slander at the weekly ladies luncheon. We want to save our good ammo for the really juicy sins that most of us feel like we can succeed at dodging. Abortion, for example. The men can easily dissociate themselves from that one since they’re not the ones carrying babies in their bodies. All of the older ladies in our congregation who are past child bearing and all of our married ladies feel pretty secure that abortion will never be a temptation for them, so clearly this is a good sin for us to go ballistic on. Let’s break out the “baby killer” signs and go picket the local abortion clinic. Grace be damned, this is all about upholding God’s righteous standards. We don’t care if some of those young ladies have never been taught better, and we aren’t going to listen to their sob stories. We’re just going to blast them with condemnation, spew hate all over them, and hopefully be impressing God with our bold stand for Him.
Let’s see, who else can we pick on? How about gays? Most of us feel safe from that temptation, so here’s another good place to be merciless. Get out the “God hates fags” signs and let’s spend Saturday afternoon letting those vermin know that they’re going to fry in Hell. This is an easy way to get points with God by publicly siding with Him against His enemies. After all, God hates sinners, and it says right there in the Bible that “No one will have a place in the kingdom of Christ and of God who sins sexually” (Eph. 5:5). Of course looking at porn, fantasizing about doing it with dream lovers, and taking long, lustful glances at the deacon’s hot wife are also sexual sins, but we don’t want to talk about that. God judges us by our behaviors, not our thoughts, so we can do whatever we want inside our hearts and He’ll be none the wiser. Of course if we were to finish reading our favorite verses about sexual perverts, we’d discover that they also say anyone who lies or is greedy will also burn in Hell, but we don’t want to talk about that, either, so let’s just leave things the way they are. God hates fags and baby killers, but He thinks we’re great for publicly spitting on these people.
Are you seeing how things work in the world of legalism? Throw in some absurd lie about all dark-skinned people being the evil seed of Satan or that white skin makes you morally superior and suddenly you’re winding back the clock thousands of years to when the Jews in Jesus’ day were refusing to even be seen in public with those icky Gentile scumbags. As much as the American media likes to act shocked over the recent displays of bigotry in this country, there’s nothing new about people trying to turn ethnicity into a moral issue. People will use any excuse to justify being nasty to others while at the same time claiming their own moral superiority. Whites aren’t the only racists on the planet and blacks aren’t the eternal victims. Troop on over to certain countries in Africa and you’ll find blacks mowing down other blacks with gusto. Anytime we start talking about skin color, we’re really trying to distract everyone from the real issue which is that we’re all just a bunch of carnal bullies who love to brutalize each other.
Every day around the globe, people are digging up all kinds of lame excuses to pick on each other. Skin color, religion, place of birth, political views, style of clothing, economic status, family relations. What’s the difference between ostracizing a kid because of the color of his skin or ostracizing him because he was born out of wedlock? We like to pretend there’s a huge difference, but as far as God is concerned, there is no difference at all. Sin is sin, and as long as we are focusing on the current lame excuse and intentionally avoiding dealing with the real issue of our carnal natures, we aren’t really trying to solve anything. “He picks on me because I’m black.” Right. And while you wax on and on about what a victim you are, you conveniently ignore what a little bigot you are in your own right. “I get to hate him because he hated me first,” is the popular mindset we quickly fall into once we refuse to address the real issue. Pretty soon bullets are flying, buildings are burning, and everyone’s gasping in phony shock saying, “Our country has a problem with racism.” No, our country has a problem with moral depravity because our country is filled with human beings and all humans are depraved. If we really want answers, there is only one: reverential submission to our glorious Creators. It’s only when each man takes responsibility for his own wretched state that these issues will be resolved. And since we’ll never see the day that the whole world decides to repent and submit to Christ, bullying and bigotry will always exist.
Humans are perverse creatures, and perverse creatures will use any excuse to be cruel to each other. How long have we heard about Catholics and Protestants warring in Ireland or about different factions of Islam duking it out in the Middle East? Is it really about religion? Of course not, religion is just the cover story that’s meant to distract us from the real issue. When everyone has the same color of skin, you need to find some other way to draw up the battle lines, but the only reason we feel driven to battle in the first place is because we’re all a bunch of depraved perverts who just can’t stand being gracious with each other. While we’re constantly being reminded of how many Jews were exterminated during the Holocaust and encouraged to view Israel as some suffering victim, Israeli soldiers mow down innocent civilians of other nations and justify their hate driven brutality as a form of “holy war.” In the Bible, we find the Jews spewing hatred towards every ethnicity but their own and exalting themselves as superior in God’s sight simply because of who their ancestors were. It’s all just a bunch of carnal rot. We’ll find any reason to justify our own sins while we condemn others for theirs. This is why any doctrinal system that promotes a false view of how God judges us leads to so much trouble.
If you want to blur the lines between sin and righteousness, then start preaching that God judges us by our behaviors instead of our soul attitudes. If you want to encourage Christians to stagnate in cesspools of rebellion, teach them that their internal attitudes are safe from Divine scrutiny. Both prosperity theology and legalism encourage blatant hypocrisy and leave lots of room for foul attitudes to go unchecked because all that matters is that we put on a holy act now and then. I can hate my brother as much as I want to in my heart as long as I produce a polite smile in his presence and shake his hand at greeting time. I can tell myself that I’m better than the drunk guy next door because at least I’m not staggering around shouting a bunch of obscenities.
Prosperity theology and legalism both encourage us to believe that we are totally unaccountable for our internal attitudes, and we quickly expand the bounds of that freedom to include the activities we do behind closed doors. Soon I tell myself that my sins don’t really count against me unless I’m caught in the act. Then I buddy up with others who want to sin in the same ways that I do, and we all silently agree not to turn each other in. While legalism beats the hope out of any soul who sincerely wants to please God, both legalism and prosperity theology encourage everyone to stagnate in spiritual rebellion by labeling rebellious attitudes as righteous. No one is taught to practice soul submission to God. Instead, we’re all taught to focus on bluffing Him with our righteous acts, and each system calls for a different style of acting.
So once we find ourselves caught in these webs of deception, how do we break free? By returning to the truth about how God judges us. It is our soul’s response to God which we are judged by, and only our soul’s response. It is never behavior that God emphasizes, or even our carnal reasons for those behaviors. There’s nothing mysterious about why blacks and whites war with each other: humans love picking on each other. But when God is working with the black man who is chucking the homemade bomb through the white man’s window, how God assesses that black man depends on what is happening in the man’s soul. God understands that when we are taught from the crib that bigotry is beautiful to God, we end up honestly not realizing how wrong our behavior is to Him. So how much illumination has the black bomber received from God regarding His view of racist attitudes? God doesn’t accuse a man of willfully defying him until He knows that that is what is really going on. The apostle Peter was a dedicated bigot because that’s what he was raised to be. Peter honestly didn’t understand that God found Peter’s hatred of Gentiles displeasing until God specifically educated Peter on this point in Acts 10-11.
Spiritual illumination is a gift, not a given. You might know that if you tried to do what your neighbor just did, you’d be guilty of defying God because He has taught you better. But has He taught your neighbor better? Only He knows. In today’s sexually promiscuous world, many children are being raised to believe that fornication is morally acceptable. With the Church spending so much time affirming her desire to be accepted by the world and mangling the truth about God’s definition of sin, we’ve got scores of souls who honestly don’t understand that they’re engaging in attitudes and actions which God finds offensive. How can any Catholic priest read through the Old Testament prophetic books and not understand that praying to saints and Mary is blatant idolatry? How can the Pentecostal boys not see that this slaying in the Spirit garbage is utterly demonic? It doesn’t matter why people have blind spots, the fact is that they do. There are well-meaning preachers in the Church today who are putting out all kinds of wrong theology, yet in their hearts they are sincerely trying to honor God. Because their soul attitudes are right, God is pleased with them.
Once we understand that we are judged solely by our soul’s response to God, it changes everything. Suddenly succeeding with God becomes very possible no matter how ignorant or immature we are. In every stage of our growth, we can be raging successes in His eyes by sincerely desiring to honor Him in our hearts.
God’s truth takes the burden of striving for perfection off of us and puts the burden of educating and empowering us onto His shoulders alone. Once we understand how He judges us, we realize that it is impossible for us to accurately judge anyone else because we cannot see into their hearts. Instead of making a career out of comparing ourselves with our brothers and deciding who is superior, we learn to keep our eyes on our own walks with God and focus on following His convictions in life. Once we tunnel focus on Him, everything becomes simpler. We realize that honoring God as preachers means sharing the message that God has laid upon our hearts without changing His tone and emphasis. Sometimes God will emphasize wrath and the reality of Hell, other times He’ll emphasize love and grace. When we are focused on pleasing Him, we don’t get bogged down in stupid issues like relevancy or pleasing the church board or aligning with current fads in the Church. We just want to know that at the end of our sermon, God will know that we said what we said out of a sincere desire to please Him.
The real truth always drives us towards God and encourages us to see that pleasing Him is all that matters in life. The real truth inspires us with hope and leads us out of the prison of fear, despair, and endless striving. Once we understand that God judges us by our soul’s response to Him, repentance becomes an extremely simple affair, and we realize that there is no need for going through a bunch of emotional theatrics or religious rituals. We don’t need to prove our earnestness by fasting because God sees our souls and knows how earnest we are. We don’t have to prove the sincerity of our repentance with tears and self-injury because God sees our souls and knows we are not being flippant when we say that we once again want Him to be honored in our lives. Because God truly is all-knowing, and not the blind Half-wit that legalism and prosperity theology make Him out to be, we are released from the fear of God misunderstanding us. Instead we find our souls at rest in the arms of a truly gracious Judge and loving Shepherd who is ever gentle, patient, and kind towards the souls who sincerely care about pleasing Him. When we stray, we can count on Him to give us the discipline we need. If we anger Him, there is the comfort of knowing that His anger will evaporate the moment we repent and get back into alignment with Him. For the Christian, God’s truth is a very positive thing. Certainly God’s wrath is real, but a correct understanding of that wrath does not drive us to cower in some dark corner. Instead it increases our appreciation of God’s grace and love and intensifies our desire to bless God’s heart.
The real truth always drives us towards God. The real truth isn’t something you can only get from a preacher on Sunday morning. As a Christian, you have the Holy Spirit dwelling right inside of you. If you want to know His truth, ask Him to educate you. Ask Him to make you all that He wants you to be and to draw you closer in. God delights in souls who are sincerely seeking Him. He has always been easy to succeed with.