Preaching in an Age of Controversy

As part of the 2021 Westminster Theological Seminary Conference on Preaching & Preachers, GRN Executive Council member Dr. Richard D. Phillips preached a sermon from 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, “The Pulpit and the Gospel in an Age of Controversy.”

In the first part of this message, Dr. Phillips unpacks the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the message of the pulpit (2:48 – 31:44). He says early on in his exposition, “I think that anyone who has ever ministered in a church has learned to his distress that he is not able to meet the legitimate needs of his congregation… I think how much more that situation is exacerbated in times of controversy. The sheer number of topics on which you might be thought to be an expert, that you need to be an expert, is likely to exceed you… On so many issues, it might be thought that we should have well-informed answers, and yet we are not able to meet the need. And yet, even the most self-effacing minister can have the solace – and here’s what we need – the solace that Paul expresses in verse 1: “You yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain.” That is what you and I may possess. The knowledge that, for all our limitations, for all of the things we cannot do, yet we in the pulpit of the church labor not in vain. How is Paul able to say that? Verse 2: “We had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel, the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.”

Included in Paul’s understanding of pulpit ministry “in the midst of much conflict” is Paul’s motives and manner of pulpit ministry. He had a sincere and tender love for the flock of God under his care. As Dr. Phillips poignantly observes, “Paul did not preach out of a motive for power, for pleasure, for money, for pride. What was it about? What was he aiming for in his ministry? The answer is the reconciliation of sinners through the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Concluding this first part of the sermon, Dr. Phillips declares, “If Paul’s example and his message are any measure, the greatest need in an age of controversy is for men of God to preach the gospel out of lives that have been radically shaped by it. That’s the need of our time. For men of God to preach the gospel of Christ – Him we proclaim! – out of lives that have been radically shaped and changed by it.”

In the second part of this message, Dr. Phillips makes two observations and poses a pointed question (31:44 – 55:00). The first observation is simply that there are things that we know: there are insights that we have about what is going on in our times that impel us to preach the gospel. Dr. Phillips says, “The biblically minded preacher knows that behind every argument, every struggle, is a man or woman who is made in the image of God, and who is fallen in sin with now a corrupt nature, a crushing guilt; and that their greatest need is to be reconciled to God by the grace of Jesus Christ. We look at this blizzard of issues and we say ‘underneath it all are individual men and women, and they are fallen, and they are experiencing the misery of sin, and they have corrupt natures, and – for all the denial of guilt – they are crushed by guilt. There is a Savior, and their need is that they might know Him.”

The second observation is that none of the controversies of our time compare with the great crisis that awaits each of our hearers in the age to come. Dr. Phillips pronounces succinctly, “To preach the gospel is to define the problem biblically: in terms of God in His holiness, man in his sin, the wrath of God to be poured out in the age to come.”

Finally, Dr. Phillips closes his address with a question for preachers and all those who think deeply about preaching. Does preaching the gospel therefore mean that the church’s pulpit never addresses great matters of morality or items of controversy when the Bible clearly speaks to those issues? The answer is No! We address all that the Scriptures address. He declares, “We proclaim through the exposition of the Word of God.” Such proclamation of the whole counsel of God will certainly address every area of life, for the Word of God is entirely sufficient for faith and practice.

To watch the full address from Dr. Phillips, click the play button in the thumbnail below, or navigate to Westminster Theological Seminary’s YouTube channel here. The GRN has excerpted and curated this content from the below-embedded address by Dr. Phillips, given at the 2021 Westminster Theological Seminary Conference on Preachers & Preaching.