If You Aren’t Cheating, You Aren’t Trying

By Bob Hiller


One of big struggles many of us pastors face is how to measure the results of our ministry. Most careers have some tool of measurement or standard by which one is able to tell whether or not one is successful. LeBron James, for example, is entering into his fifth straight NBA Finals appearance. This is a rather rare accomplishment. His current team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, didn’t make the playoffs last year. The team he was on last year, the Miami Heat, didn’t even make the playoffs this year. These stats, along with everything else this athletic freak does on the floor, are used to gauge LeBron’s success. Despite his impact on any given team, LeBron did not receive the MVP award this year; Stephan Curry of the Golden State Warriors did. Sports-talk shows and sports bars begin to fill up with questions over who truly deserves the award. Both sides of the debate will have tangible, measurable statistics to buttress their case. Whether or not one comes to a satisfying answer, the statistics demonstrate a measurable proof of success.

But for pastors, it is not so simple. Pastors have been called by God to preach His Word of Law and Gospel to His congregations. They are to pray for His church. They are to care for His flock and feed His sheep with His tools. Pastors do this trusting that they are the instruments God uses to give His Word. They believe that God will accomplish His purposes through and sometimes even in spite of them. Such work will always accomplish God’s purposes. God’s Word never returns to Him void (Isaiah 55:11). So, He uses His Law to “produce” death in sinners. He uses His Gospel to create faith and life. Forgiveness is given to sinners as they hear the absolution, eat the body and drink the blood, or are baptized. You could say forgiveness produces forgiven people. And, these people then begin to bear fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). After all, Jesus promised He would accomplish this in us (John 15:5).

But here’s the kicker, the fruits of the Spirit are not measurable like statistics. These are not results that can be compared between one pastor and another. “Well, Pastor Koch’s preaching produced a higher level of joy last year, where as Pastor Glover’s preaching results in kinder, gentler people. And, have you ever noticed how patient and self-controlled people are after reading Pastor Hess’ blog?” The fruits of the Spirit are not easily weighed. They are hidden.


It is the hiddenness of the Spirit’s work that makes me as a pastor very uncomfortable. After all, we pastors do a lot of work to make sure God’s Word is being faithfully delivered to His flock. We want some proof that it takes! Of course, sometimes, you clearly see people get it. Other times, you hit your head against a wall trying to figure out how other people are missing it. Most Sundays you wonder if anyone even stayed awake during the sermon. The harsh reality for pastors is that they are not in control of the results of their preaching. It is the Spirit’s fruit to produce, after all. The Spirit works through the preaching of the Word as He wills. It is my job to preach. It is His to kill and make alive on His terms, not mine.

I want to see results. I want to know that I am doing a good job. If I am fully honest (this is a confession of sin now) I don’t really trust that preaching the full Law and Gospel will satisfy my need for self-fulfillment in the ministry. Unfortunately, I know a simple way to fix this: by cheating. That is, I overemphasize the Law in order to produce the results I want to see. I preach less Gospel, through which God will work on His terms. Preach more Christian life and less crucified Christ. This, I think, is cheating to get results.


Dan Patrick had a fascinating interview with Lance Armstrong this past week in which Armstrong not only owned his cheating, but said that it was prevalent in the sport. He learned early on that if you want to find success in cycling, if you didn’t “gear up” (use PEDs), you were going home.

We also learned early on that cheating works. That is, by over-preaching the Law we can produce quicker, more self-satisfying results than preaching Christ. So, preaching goes down this path: What tangible proof of growth have you seen? How is your quiet time? Have your affections towards the things of this world changed? How much are you involved at your church? How many people have you talked to about Jesus this week? How many (insert your favorite ecclesiastical opponent here) have you upset on Facebook this week? Do you still face the same struggles? Well, good news! We’ve got five tips and three points for you this week that will produce the results you want in your spiritual growth process.


But, do you see how there is no fruit of the Spirit here? Only laws, demands, and expectations that turn you in on yourself and make you question God’s work for you. It’s cheating to get results. This is bondage. Measureable results differ from the Spirit’s fruit. Law-based tactics may make your church look good. They may even work. But, they don’t produce faith. The Word of Christ does that! And, as Luther says, faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing that works incessantly. It is already doing good works before it asks what must be done (without seeing them, you might say). Thus, the Christian life is produced by the preaching of Christ crucified and risen for sinners, whether we see it fully or not.

Jesus doesn’t call His pastors, or His sheep for that matter, to be fruit inspectors. He calls them to attack any form of self-righteousness that might slip in, and preach it dead with His Law. He calls them to the deliver the blood bought forgiveness of sins and to raise the dead with Christ’s promises. He promises to produce fruit. But, He doesn’t promise you or I will see it. It is just another gift He promises to give you for free.