A few months ago, I had the opportunity to attend a Korean church for three Sundays. The pastor is fairly well known, and has been published multiple times. The church has five services every Sunday, with attendance totaling in the thousands. My mom, with whom I went, has said to me that he preaches verse by verse, and I can attest to this fact. Yet I cannot say that his preaching is expository; it was more “exemplatory” than expository. (The more I attend different Korean churches, the more I find that the favored style of preaching is to view biblical characters as examples we should follow. While there is nothing wrong with this, per se, it presents an incomplete view of Scripture and often overlooks the overarching themes of grace and redemption, which lead to and stream from Christ.) Since it is unfair to characterize the entirety of the Korean church from only one of their member, I am treating this as a case study rather than a survey. Still, keep in mind that this is a well-attended church with a published pastor, and is generally viewed as solid.
The first Sunday I attended, I went to a Korean service, and I had a little difficulty understanding what he was saying. He taught from Acts 16:11-15 about the conversion of Lydia. I didn’t quite catch the point of his sermon—there was something about comparing ourselves to Lydia and Paul and learning from their example—so I asked my mom for a quick summary: “He said the lives of Lydia and Paul were so fruitful because they understood that they owed God.” I think that this is just barely acceptable. In one sense, yes, Paul traveled thousands of miles and Lydia provided room and board for him and his friends because of a new understanding of their lives. They were awakened to His love and His glory and they wanted to spread those to others.
But to say that they owed God for their salvation—to say that anyone owes God for his salvation—is true, but it comes dangerously close to producing legalism. We do not do good deeds because we want to pay back God for saving us. There is no amount of good we can do to repay God for the work of salvation. In fact, Isaiah writes that “[w]e have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (64:6). And we all know Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” There is a fine line between looking back to the cross and living our lives for God because we love Him, and living our lives for God because we owe Him. I want to give the pastor the benefit of the doubt so I will assume that this is an issue with diction and rhetoric rather than theology.
The following Sunday he continued on the same passage, this time highlighting the selflessness of Lydia. (I attended the service with an English translation in a side room, so I was able to understand everything.) He spent what seemed to be to be an inordinate amount of time talking about the rent situation in Korea: landlords in Korea want as much profit as possible, so they raise the price of leases by incredible amounts. Lydia, on the other hand, acting out of Christian virtue, selflessly allowed Paul and his friends to stay at her house for as long as they needed. They could eat and sleep under her roof at no cost to them.
The final Sunday was quite similar. The pastor taught from Acts 16:16-25 about the expulsion of a fortune-telling demon from a slave girl and the subsequent jailing of Paul and Silas. He opened with a summary of the Rwandan genocide, where the majority Hutus massacred the minority Tutsis. In one case, 5,000 Tutsis sought refuge in a Catholic church run by Hutu priests, where the church coldly aided in their massacre. All this to say that if we all understand that each of us is a person, we will not commit such heinous crimes against each other. The owners of the possessed slave girl used her for money, showing that they viewed her as equal to an amusing animal, like an organ grinder monkey, with worth only so long as she made profit.
The major problem with the latter two sermons is this: they are nothing more than dressed-up moralism. The main point of the messages were “Christians should not be selfish” and “Christians should give others dignity and respect.” And while these are true, to preach this is like putting a band-aid on cancer. Christianity is not merely about doing good and moral things. This is neither the message nor the distinctive of Christianity. Indeed, I found that both messages could have been successful speeches with all the Scriptural portions excised. When the message is moralism, there is no need for Scripture, because the message of Scripture is not moralism. As Paul Tripp’s “Instruments in the Hands of the Redeemer” reminds me, we have a deeper problem that moralism cannot solve. Our problem is sin, it is a sinful nature, it is total depravity. These things prevent us from doing the good we want to do, even as Christians. Telling a congregation “Don’t be selfish” and “Remember that others are people, too” is not going to work in the long run because our natures will rear their ugly heads.
Instead, the wonderful, glorious message of Christianity is that Christ died to redeem us! He redeemed us from the punishment we deserve for our sins. He redeemed us also from the clutches of sin, giving us a new nature and new desires: “[T]hose who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit”; “if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:5b, 10). He is working in us day by day to resist the desires of the flesh! John 15:5 says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” The good we do is a result of our transformative relationship with Christ and the workings of His grace! I fear that this is a message the Korean church neglects to preach. Jesus is not just a good teacher, He is a Savior. We are not simply meant to be good and moral, but to have a deep relationship with our Father who loved us enough to crucify His Son, that we might be rescued from sin and wrath. This is the gospel: the center of our messages–and our lives.