Especially the Preaching

Evangelistic preaching has fallen on hard times. There is a good deal of apologetic preaching, that defends and provides reasons for faith. There is a lot of excellent pastoral preaching that feeds the flock of God with the riches of the faith. But I suspect that the note of evident urgency, pleading with sinners to come to Christ without delay, is increasingly scarce in our pulpits. Perhaps a widespread skepticism towards authority makes us wary of pushing people too hard, lest we push them away altogether. We adopt instead a conversational tone, offering up measured and well-reasoned suggestions for the consideration of the unconverted, modestly hoping to give our audience pause before dismissing Jesus’ claims out of hand. Perhaps we are convinced that there are no non-Christians within the sound of our voice, “so why preach in an evangelistic mode?” Whatever the reasons, preaching with the primary aim of calling unbelievers to repent and believe the gospel is a rare and exotic species in today’s pulpits. I think that’s a tragedy. Here are two arguments why every Reformed pulpit ought regularly to ring with clear calls to the unconverted to come to Christ. There are many more, but these two are foundational.

The Bible Demands Evangelistic Preaching

A simple survey of the book of Acts quickly demonstrates that the majority of recorded apostolic sermons or reports of sermons describe evangelistic work. For example, in Acts 9:20 the newly converted Saul of Tarsus takes up the mantle of Stephen, to whose martyrdom he gave his support (8:1). Like Stephen, he “proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues”. As he did so, despite opposition, he “increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.” David Petersen points out that the word translated “proving”, means to “‘bring together, unite’ (Eph. 4:16; Col. 2:2,19), ‘conclude, infer’ (Acts 16:10), and ‘instruct, teach, advise’ (1 Cor. 2:16; Acts 19:33). The idea of teaching by bringing together arguments to ‘demonstrate, prove’ is indicated by the context of Acts 9:22”.[1] In other words, Paul is bringing scripture together with scripture, and building argument upon argument in order to make a persuasive and compelling case. There is no suggestion that Paul is merely playing on emotions or shouting down his opponents with ad hominem arguments. Paul’s preaching is a reasoned, scriptural defense and articulation of the truth about Jesus and the urgency of faith in him. Similarly, in Acts 17:1-3 Paul “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving  that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ’.”[2] The two Greek participles used to describe his preaching ministry (“explaining and proving”) make clear that Paul expounded the text of scripture to demonstrate the gospel message with a clear view to persuasion.

Many other examples could be cited. We might note the ministry of Peter and John to the crowds in the Temple in Acts 4:1, or the ministry of Paul in Acts 19:9, where, having been ejected from the synagogue, Paul reasoned daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. There “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (v. 10). Turning to the epistle, we might usefully highlight Paul’s example in 2 Corinthians 5:11-21. Describing his ministry, the apostle says he “seeks to persuade others” (5:11). And so, after outlining the spiritual renewal Christ brings (5:17), and his message that by the Cross God was reconciling the world to himself (5:18-19), Paul immediately presses the implications on the Corinthian congregations: “Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal though us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (5:20-21) Here is evangelistic preaching at its clearest and most impassioned. And it is directed, significantly, not to the philosophers of the Areopagus, or to the devout Jews and God-fearers in the synagogues of Jerusalem, Corinth, or Thessalonica, but to the church.

Whether in the synagogue, the marketplace, the public lecture hall, or even in the Lord’s Day assemblies of the local church, expository evangelistic preaching- that is, preaching that expounds the biblical text with a view to calling sinners to saving faith in Christ- abounds in the New Testament record.  Does it abound in the pulpits of our reformed churches?

The Reformed Confession Expects It

The Westminster Larger Catechism, question and answer 155, provides a clear statement of the theological necessity of evangelistic preaching. It declares that: “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.”

We note that it is “the reading and especially the preaching of the Word” that are the instruments of effectual calling. The divines even itemize for us what God ordinarily does through such reading and preaching. Here the emphasis on the effect of the preached word upon the unconverted is especially striking. In many reformed pulpits the focus is largely, if not exclusively, on the latter half of the divines’ list, which outlines the benefits of preaching for the converted hearer. But I believe the first half of the list deserves a great deal more attention than it currently receives. Reformed preaching ought ordinarily to “enlighten, convince, and humble sinners, drive them out of themselves, draw them to Christ, conform them to his image and subdue them to his will.”  For the Westminster divines, preaching is the primary way by which the unconverted will be drawn to Christ, and thus preaching ought regularly to aim at calling the lost to repentance and faith.

There are various texts to which we might turn for exegetical support for this confessional theology of pulpit evangelism. For the sake of brevity, we will focus on Romans 10:14-17. Having declared that “all who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v.13, quoting Joel 2:32), Paul immediately explores the question of how this may be accomplished: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have not heard? (or better, “How are they to believe in him whom they have not heard?”).” Calling on Jesus presupposes faith in him, but this faith presupposes hearing- not merely hearing the message about Jesus, but hearing Jesus himself. The next two questions make clear the means by which this hearing will occur: “How shall they hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” The conclusion is inescapable: preaching by those sent by Christ to the world is the means by which Christ himself is heard, and through which saving faith is given. The summary statement of verse 17 confirms it: “So faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ.”

The preaching task, as it is presented in the New Testament and confessed in the Reformed Standards is targetted and purposeful. It self-consciously aims to bring unbeleivers to faith, and sinners to repentance. It is unabashed in its forthright endeavor to change minds and overcome objections and convince the skeptic. The ministry of the Word aims to redirect every part of the life of the hearer from self and sin to Jesus Christ and the holiness to which he calls us. New Testament evangelistic preaching is never the dispassionate statement of historical and theological facts. It is always oriented towards the transformation of the unbelieving hearer. It aims at nothing less than a radical reordering of the disposition of his will and affections, once set so resolutely against God, but now, as the preached gospel takes hold, joyfully embracing the truth as it is in Jesus.

Preach to Seek and Save the Lost

The question is, does the preaching that occupies the majority of Reformed pulpits today reflect the theology we confess, or correspond to the pattern set in the New Testament scriptures? I suspect that it does not, but the theological resources we need to help restore evangelistic preaching remain. The historic examples to show us the way remain. And our lost neighbors’ desperate need of Christ remains. Surely the time has come for a recovery of evangelistic preaching. If Christ the Good Shepherd came to seek and save the lost, what kind of under-shepherds are we, if, as we preach Christ, our pulpit priorities do not mirror his?

[1] David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009) 314

[2] For further examples of expository preaching in Acts see 3:11-26; 4:4-12; 7:1-54; 8:35; 13:13-49 etc.