The Gospel Is Not Being Preached in America Today
by Stuart DiNenno
If you spend much time among Christians on social media it is likely that you will see many of them bemoaning the very low state of the church and the decadence of the larger society. You also will see Christian men suggesting various solutions to rectify the deplorable condition of both. They will say that we need to train Christians to have a biblical worldview, or we need educate them to have a more accurate view of history and a better understanding of the anti-Christian forces that have been working against us, or we need to teach them to not compartmentalize their religion and instead apply it to all of life, or we need to overturn the tendency toward effeminacy and raise our boys to be men, or we need to train local government officials to stand against the tyrannical federal government, or we need to build a Christian resistance movement, etc. These ideas have validity, some more than others, and I have suggested some of these things myself. However, none of them are going to bear much fruit until the foundational problem is addressed, which is simply this: the preaching of the gospel in our so-called churches is not being done today in such a way as to convict of sin and bring forth repentance, which is to say that the message being preached today is not actually a salvific message, which is to say that what is being preached is a false gospel, which is to say that true conversions are not happening in today’s churches, exceptions notwithstanding. We can harangue churchgoers with messages containing all sorts of moral concepts and ideas for advancing the kingdom, including biblical ones, and we can formulate plans and programs to try to train them to live out their Christian profession more consistently but if they have not actually been regenerated, then it is all in vain. Those who have not been born again by the Spirit of God are not able to think and act like true Christians and because they are of the world, they are always going to conform to the spirit of the age rather than stand against it. We must recover true evangelistic gospel preaching, by which life is brought to the dead, before we can make progress on any other front.
I believe many people are puzzled when I say that today’s churches, even the most conservative Reformed ones, do not preach the gospel. They think, “I know my church often talks about Jesus Christ — that He is the Son of God, that He died as a sacrifice for our sins, and that we are saved through faith in Him. Is this not the gospel?”
There is a sense in which you could say that what is described above is a description of the gospel. But there is a difference between the gospel and faithfully preaching the gospel. Let me explain by way of analogy:
Suppose you are a physician and you have a close friend who has a deadly disease. This disease is fatal and is going to put him through a tremendous amount of suffering. It is also both a self-inflicted and a congenital disease. That is, your friend is destroying himself through his own behavior but his behavior is a result of a hereditary condition that he cannot overcome. It sounds like a hopeless scenario for him. However, the good news is that you have a remedy, a medicine which, if your friend will persevere in consuming daily for the rest of his life, will cure him of his disease. But the problem is that your friend does not know that he has a fatal disease. You know it because you have understanding about such things and you can see all the signs. But he is completely blind to it. Now, you could give him the curative medicine that would save him from death and suffering, but he does not see any need for it, and so it is unlikely that he will take it even once, let alone for the rest of his life. Your job, as a physician who loves his friend, is to convict him of his need for the medicine. You must convince him that he has the disease, you must convince him that the disease is fatal and will cause him a tremendous amount of suffering, and you must convince him that he must turn from his harmful behavior in order for the medicine to be effective. Unless he has a strong conviction that these things are true, he is not going to embrace the remedy and he will not be cured.
And so it is with the gospel. We cannot declare the cure while failing to convince the hearers of their hopeless condition without it, and failing to make them understand the consequences of refusing it. We cannot preach about God’s love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness toward man, without first preaching about God’s demand for holiness and his hatred of evildoers, and His wrath and punishment against them. If sinners are going to truly embrace the remedy for their sin, which is through faith in the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ, then they must first be fully convicted that they are in a state of condemnation for their many transgressions and that they are wholly incapable of doing anything, in and of themselves, to please God or to earn any degree of favor with Him. As German Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) said: “Yearning for grace wells up when recognition of sin has arisen. A sick person seeks the physician when he recognizes the seriousness of his illness.” Men must be brought to a state of despair as to their own ability to rescue themselves from their condition, and they must be completely stripped of all self-righteousness. As French Protestant Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) said: “We shall never be clothed with the righteousness of Christ except we first know assuredly that we have no righteousness of our own.” They must also be made to fully understand the necessity of repentance from sin and the awful consequences that they will suffer if they fail to repent. Preaching can inform men of many holy truths but if it is not sufficiently convicting to bring forth repentance, it is only bringing more condemnation upon its hearers. As Presbyterian minister Thomas Watson (1620-1686) said: “Knowledge without repentance will be but a torch to light men to hell.”
This is where today’s evangelistic preaching falls down. There may be some mention of sin in general and indirect terms but in most cases a biblical definition of sin is not given, and rarely are specific sins enumerated — certainly not in any thorough way, such as might be done through an exposition of the Ten Commandments. Also, an explanation of what constitutes repentance is nearly always missing and the necessity of repentance for salvation is almost never declared, let alone is a direct “you must repent” statement made to the congregation. In fact, in most sermons that are said to be examples of gospel preaching, there is no mention of repentance at all. As for preaching the truths of the fallen human condition, which is also a necessity, what English Baptist minister Arthur Pink (1886-1952) said a hundred years ago, is still true today, the only difference is “for the most part” has become “almost without exception,” even among those who claim to adhere to orthodox Reformed theology:
“For the most part our preachers seem afraid to insist upon the utter ruin and total depravity of human nature. This is a fatal defect in any preaching: sinners will never be brought to see their need of a Savior until they realize their lost condition, and they will never discover their lost condition until they learn that they are dead in sin.”
Even something as simple as Romans 10:9 could be called the gospel because it is “the good news” of salvation: “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” However, it is obvious that the preaching of the gospel must necessarily encompass much more, and an evangelistic message would be very incomplete if it only included an exposition of this verse along with similar passages about salvation through Christ. An evangelistic presentation of the gospel must contain several other elements or it will be defective, and, in my opinion, the elements that should be included (not necessarily in this order) are these:
— the fall of man
— human depravity (total and universal)
— sin defined through an exposition of the moral law and all shown to be condemned
— the punishment for sin (the eternal wrath of God)
— the remedy for sin (Christ), who He is, and how forgiveness is given through Him
— the necessity of faith in Christ and our justification by it
— the new birth
— perseverance unto eternal life
— call to repentance
— command to believe
I am not suggesting that other topics cannot be mentioned in an evangelistic sermon, or that every one of these elements must be included in order for a sermon to be called a presentation of the gospel. I am only setting forth what I believe to be the ideal. Without these elements I believe the message is incomplete and likely to be ineffective or at least not as effective as it otherwise could be. Of course, everything on this list is drawn from the Scriptures, but some might ask how I came to the conclusion that these particular doctrines, and not other biblical doctrines, must be included in an evangelistic presentation of the gospel. The answer is that I believe the inclusion of everything on this list can be drawn as a necessary implication from Christ’s words, “Repent ye and believe the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
This simple statement tells us that repentance is required by God. From this starting point, we can work backwards and deduce that several things must first be given in a sermon before we can call men to repentance. If repentance is going to occur, then it is obvious that a man must be made to understand not only what it means to repent but also what it is that he has done wrong for which he needs to repent and this requires that he be given a definition of sin. We know that the definition of sin is the transgression of God’s law (1 John 3:4), so some degree of exposition of the law, including the ways that it is broken, is necessary. Sinners also need to comprehend why they sin, how it is that they came to be sinners, and understand that they are not able in themselves to cease from sinning, so that they do not begin to think that they can, merely of their own volition and power guided by a bare intellectual grasp of moral concepts, embrace righteousness and thereby reform themselves, which requires that they be informed of the fall of man and how that has brought upon them their innate total depravity and inability, which in turn necessitates that they understand their need for regeneration by the Spirit of God so as to free them from the bondage of sin and enable them to obey God. Finally, they need to see what is the ultimate consequence for their sin — that if they do not repent, then they will suffer the righteous wrath of God in their eternal punishment.
I believe that all the things mentioned in the paragraph above must be done first if men are going to be made to understand that their condition is hopeless if left to themselves, and if they are to see that they are completely bereft of righteousness or anything that could commend them to God. Only then will they give up all trust in themselves and cry out to God for mercy in true repentance, and only then will they see the need for a savior. English Reformer William Tyndale (1494-1536) in the quote below instructs preachers to proceed to speak to the congregants about the love of God in Jesus Christ only after “you have made them meek, and frightened them with the law.” Where is there preaching today that frightens anyone with the law or with anything else regarding God and His judgment?
“Teach them to know that natural venom and birth-poison, which moves the very hearts of us to rebel against the ordinances and the will of God. Prove that no man is righteous in the sight of God, but that we are all damned by the law. And then, when you have made them meek, and frightened them with the law, teach them the testament and promises which God has made to us in Christ, and how much he loves us in Christ.”
Just as in the case of repentance, the same simple statement “Repent ye and believe the gospel” tells us that belief (i.e., faith) is required by God. From this starting point, we can work backwards and deduce that several things must first be given in a sermon before we command men to believe. If we have done the job described in the last paragraph, and the Holy Ghost is working in their hearts to receive the truth, then the hearers now understand that they can do nothing to save themselves. It becomes necessary then to provide a remedy by which they can be saved or, more accurately stated, it is necessary to show them what is the remedy that God has provided. That is, they need to understand “the good message,” which is what the word gospel means. The remedy given in the gospel, of course, is Jesus Christ. He is the object of our faith and it is obvious that in order to make Him known to the people, we have to define who He is, why He came into the world, what His ministry on earth was all about, what the meaning of His death and resurrection was, and what it accomplished for His people, as it is certain that no man can believe in someone he knows nothing about, nor can he embrace a plan of salvation without having an understanding of it. It is equally plain that we need to make known how repentant sinners can apprehend those benefits — which is by faith — as it is evident that benefits are of no value until it is understood how to lay hold on them. Moreover, there are things about faith itself that need to be recognized, lest people erroneously attribute it to anything naturally within themselves rather than glorifying God for the gift of it. Men must understand how they come to possess their faith and that they do not naturally carry it in their souls, or somehow generate it within themselves, and they also need to be made to understand that this faith is what justifies them with God and not any of their own works. Lastly, we need to set forth what is the end of our faith, that is, eternal life by perseverance in faith unto salvation, and how this also is accomplished by the power of God and not of our own strength. Every aspect of our salvation is entirely a work of God and unless this truth is set forth clearly by the preacher in all its particulars, then there is likely to be an element of self-sufficiency, and hence self-righteousness, in the beliefs of his hearers, and this will be a stumbling block to true salvation.
What exactly then must be the nature of true gospel preaching? True gospel preaching must be confrontational and accusative. This is not optional, and it is not only important — it is absolutely essential. Preachers have to confront the people with clear definitions of sin, and preaching must accuse the hearers and demand repentance. As Martin Luther stated: “The preacher’s first message is to teach penitence, removing offenses, proclaim the Law, humiliate and terrify the sinners.” Where is there preaching today that would ever “humiliate and terrify the sinners?”
No one truly embraces the gospel until he has cried out to God for mercy because he is utterly despairing of himself — understanding that there is nothing good in him, and that he is entirely evil and worthy of severe punishment. No one sincerely desires forgiveness, or can even see the need for it, until he is brought to this state. Men naturally cling on to a belief that there is some good in themselves but any self-righteousness is a hindrance to salvation because we cannot come to God expecting forgiveness as long as we are hanging on to the belief that there is something worthy of commendation in us. It is the preacher’s job to destroy self-righteousness and make men see how desperately wicked they really are, and this cannot be accomplished with unassertive preaching where sin is only defined in vague or general terms and spoken of in an indirect manner rather than in an “I am talking about you” confrontational way. “Truth always carries with it confrontation. Truth demands confrontation.” (Francis Schaeffer, 1912-1984) When statements about sin and repentance are used in today’s evangelistic presentations, the subjects of those statements are almost always described in broad terms such as “we,” or “us,” or “people,” or “humans,” or “mankind.” They are rarely presented with a direct and accusative “you” that shines the spotlight directly on those present. There is much import in that one little “ye” within the succinct command to “Repent ye, and believe the gospel.”
A paradox in Christian preaching is that love is often best manifested by proclaiming the things that are the most distasteful to the hearers, while hatred is often best manifested by proclaiming the things that are the most pleasant to the hearers. If we love our fellow man, then we will confront him with the unpleasant realities of his condition so that he may turn from his evil and live; if we hate our fellow man, then we will tickle his ears with sweet words of solace so that he may continue in his evil and die. This being the case, then today’s insipid gospel preaching is a manifestation of hatred toward its hearers, not love. It is necessary that some be offended by a man’s preaching in order that he bring others to the knowledge of their sin that is necessary for their salvation. As Martin Luther put it: “Always preach in such a way that if the people listening do not come to hate their sin, they will instead hate you.” Those Christian ministers who shrink back from preaching in such a manner are unfaithful to their calling.
The great defect in today’s evangelistic messages is a lack of emphasis on the “bad news.” That is, the guilt of sin, the need for repentance, and the punishment for continuing in a life of rebellion. On the other hand, there is an overemphasis on the “good news” of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness in Christ. This is not to say that sin is not mentioned at all in today’s gospel preaching, but it is to say that today’s preachers shrink back from doing what is necessary to create a strong conviction of the guilt of sin in their hearers, and those hearers are not made to understand the utter hopelessness of their condition apart from repentance and God’s forgiveness, before they are given the remedy in Christ. Typically, there is little, if any, exposition of God’s law with examples of how it is violated, nor is there much said about the Bible’s teaching on human depravity, and the truth of God’s righteous wrath against the natural, fallen man along with a declaration of how that will be manifested in his eternal punishment, is either de-emphasized or not mentioned at all. It seems evident to me, as I said above, that without these things men are not likely to truly cry out to God for mercy and so are unlikely to be given that mercy. Arthur Pink, in surveying the apostasy of his time, noted that these elements were missing from the preaching back in the first half of the 20th century:
“What is needed today is a scriptural setting forth of the condition of the natural man — his total depravity, his spiritual insensibility, his inveterate hostility to God, the fact that he is “condemned already” (John 3:18) and that the wrath of a sin-hating God is even now abiding upon him (John 3:36). What is needed today is a scriptural setting forth of the alarming danger in which sinners are — the indescribably awful doom which awaits them. What is needed today is a scriptural setting forth of the nature of that punishment which awaits the lost — the awfulness of it, the hopelessness of it, the unendurableness of it, the endlessness of it.
Remember that the ground must be plowed before it is ready to be sowed; and the truths mentioned above are needed to prepare the way for the gospel.”
The essentials elements delineated above by Pink are still missing from evangelistic gospel preaching today.
Nothing about Christianity makes any sense until one comprehends the reality that he is evil. Christianity is, in fact, a remedial program for the evil of man. There would have been no need for Jesus Christ to have come into the world, there would have been no need for His sacrificial death, there would have been no need for His resurrection to life, and there would be no need for the redemption, justification, sanctification, and glorification of man, or any article of the Christian religion, if it were not for the evil of man. It is essential that the depraved nature of mankind be made known to everyone seeking the truth about God, and our religion cannot be understood apart from knowing it, as American Presbyterian minister Aaron W. Leland (1787-1871) explains:
“Another important part of the preaching of the cross consists in a full disclosure of the entire depravity and helplessness of our fallen nature. This doctrine lies at the foundation of Christianity. It is from the corruption of our race, the dominion of spiritual death, and the actual sentence of condemnation, that the necessity arises for “so great salvation.” If hope could have been afforded from any other source, if there had been any possibility of the sinner’s expiating his own guilt, and restoring himself to the divine favour, the great Sacrifice would never have been offered. But until men are convinced of their apostacy and corruption, they will never be persuaded of the truth and necessity of the great atonement. And until they feel themselves justly condemned, and utterly helpless, they will never come as humble suppliants to a Saviour’s feet.”
It is not just the nature of man in general that needs to be known but every man needs to grasp the reality of his own evil before he can truly embrace Christianity. In my opinion, it is not enough to only make general statements about the matter such as “mankind is a fallen creature” or “we are all sinners” or “our sins have separated us from God.” While these things are true, and even biblical, they are not personal and confrontational enough in an evangelistic message. Men are ever diligent to avoid the condemnation that they deserve. In the human mind there is safety in numbers, and men will find a measure of solace in the fact that they are in the same boat as everyone else and that the guilt of sin is diffused over all of humanity. When evil is the topic, individuals find a relieving consolation in learning that they are no worse than anyone else in the world. It is even possible to preach a message that includes all of the elements listed earlier in this article and yet it be ineffective because it is presented in an indirect, detached, and clinical way, as if the preacher is not speaking about those present in the congregation and is only giving a lecture on abstract concepts that do not actually apply to anyone in attendance at the time. It is obvious that this oblique sort of preaching is unlikely to create much of a conviction in its hearers.
On the other hand, men are very much more convicted of their sin when the focus is put upon them with second person terms (you, your) and when clear examples of transgressions of God’s law are given — and convicted of their sin is what they must be. You cannot make any headway in converting a man until he is confronted with the fact that he himself is evil, because nothing about Christianity can be seen as needful to him until he understands this truth about himself. This is the first order of business in gospel preaching as explained by John Flavel (1627-1691), an English Presbyterian minister:
“The order of the Spirit’s work in bringing men to Christ, shows us to whom the invitation and offers of grace in Christ are to be made; for none are convinced of righteousness, that is, of the complete and perfect righteousness in Christ for their justification, until first they are convinced of sin; and consequently, no man comes to Christ by faith till his convictions of sin have awakened and distressed him (John 16:8,10). This being the order of the Spirit’s operation, the same order must be observed in gospel offers and invitations.”
A gospel message must be preached in a way that confronts and convicts of sin, while also manifesting the mercy and love of God in Christ. Evangelistic preaching needs to be balanced so that there is a strong dose of God’s condemnation and punishment for sin, and an equal dose of God’s loving forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ, but most, if not all, sermons today are far too heavy on the love of God and far too light on the wrath of God. We must always remember that the gospel is not an invitation, it is an ultimatum: Repent or perish.
The preacher’s duty in warning the wicked from his way is most clearly stated in the following Bible passage and it contains a fearful judgment from God on those ministers who fail to perform their duty:
“Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul. (Ezekiel 3:17-19)
It is also an error to believe that in spite of defective preaching God will save the elect and therefore we need not be overly concerned about its deficiency. This is falling into a hyper-Calvinistic view similar to those who believe that God will save His elect regardless of any failure on man’s part to reach them and so we need not be much concerned about evangelizing. Election includes not only the determination by God on the objects of salvation but also a determination of the means by which those objects will be saved, and that means is by persuasive and powerful — not incomplete or otherwise defective — gospel preaching. Where there is no convicting, confrontational preaching, we have no reason to believe that God is working through the preacher nor that He has placed anyone in the preacher’s hearing whom He desires to be brought to repentance, though the congregation may contain some true Christians who were formerly brought to repentance by other means. We must be zealous to maintain purity. To have a view that we can expect God to use a message to save sinners despite its flaws and so adopt a lax attitude toward what is being preached, is not trusting in God but presuming upon God to bless preaching that we do not care enough about to correct, and such presumption is unlikely to be fulfilled by bearing any fruit in the church.
Am I claiming that no one can be saved unless preachers are careful to include every item contained in my list of necessary elements in every evangelistic presentation or am I asserting that no one is ever saved through today’s preaching? No, in fact I believe that some men are saved outside of preaching altogether by reading the Bible and studying doctrine for themselves, and I cannot say that God does not sometimes use even a very weak gospel message to at least spark an interest in some to whom he eventually reveals the missing pieces of the puzzle so that they are saved. However, the ordinary means of salvation is through the preaching of the gospel and it is obvious that the more incomplete the message, the more unlikely it is to bear any fruit in those who hear it. Furthermore, we cannot expect God to bless the ministry of cowardly preachers who shrink back from declaring the hard truths in a presentation of the gospel because they are fearful of offending unregenerate men, and it is doubtful that we will find much life in churches that are subjected to nothing beyond such flawed preaching, and whose officers and members do not recognize the deficiencies in it and take measures to correct them.
Let us take a look at one example of what passes for the gospel message today from the denominational website of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. While it might be possible to find a somewhat better statement of the gospel on the websites of other so-called conservative Reformed denominations, theirs is fairly typical of what is found today. You can find this presentation for yourself, if you go to the ARP’s website and simply enter the word gospel into the search tool. It begins with the following:
#1 Confess that you are a sinner and that you cannot save yourself.
““For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23). This means that even though you try to do your best, you still fall short because you are a sinner. Romans 6:23 says that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Salvation is the gift of God to you. That’s the way He planned it.”
Quoted above is the totality of what is given in the presentation to create a conviction of sin and guilt in the reader before moving on to point #2 and speaking of salvation in Christ. In fact, it is already speaking of salvation in Christ by the time the reader reaches the end of this first section. Now I ask you: Is it not absurd to think that anyone is going to cry out to God for mercy after reading this? There is no definition of sin, even in the most general sense, and no mention of human depravity, God’s wrath against sin, His punishment for it, or repentance. What is sin? What is a sinner? Why am I a sinner? Why cannot I just stop sinning? What is salvation? What is it saving us from? None of these questions are answered. Not only is it entirely worthless in creating any conviction of guilt for sin in the reader but it even makes him sound like a pretty good guy when it says “…even though you try to do your best…” When does an unregenerate man try to do his best according to any biblical definition of righteousness? Never! He only does his best if it is defined as doing his best to fulfill his own lusts, doing his best to justify himself, doing his best to avoid submitting to God, etc.
John Calvin said: “If we do not perceive our wretchedness and poverty, we will never know how desirable is that remedy that Christ has brought us.” It is certain that what is presented above will do nothing to help us gain this necessary perception.
Because the statement I quoted above is from a written website presentation and not taken from a verbal sermon, some might claim that it is not fair of me to judge the evangelistic preaching of the ministers in the denomination based solely on it. I answer: It is quite obvious that this is being represented as a solid presentation of the gospel, and it is a representation made on the website for the entire denomination, not just one of the churches in it. There is no reason why a complete gospel message could not have been presented here in writing, just as fully as it is in a verbally presented sermon, and I must assume that the ministers in the denomination see this as a valid evangelistic presentation of the gospel. Otherwise, why would it be where it is? And if this is claimed to be only a summary of some important truths and not meant to be complete in itself, then why does it not at least contain a general definition of sin, and some mention of human depravity, God’s wrath against sin, His punishment for it, and the necessity of repentance? Are these truths not important enough to be even briefly mentioned? And if it is not meant to be complete in itself, why is there no link or reference on the page to something that is more complete? No, these excuses cannot hold water. It is obvious that this very incomplete presentation is not seen as such by the overseers of this denomination and that it has their blessing as a faithful presentation of the gospel message.
Of course, none of what I have presented above in the entirety of this article is categorical proof that the gospel is not being preached anywhere today, but the fact that the horribly defective message given on the ARP’s website can be passed off as an accurate evangelistic communication of the gospel by a fairly large so-called conservative denomination is indicative of how low the standards have fallen, and I can testify that I have not yet heard, either in person or in a recording, a gospel message that contains all the elements I listed earlier in this article and which is preached in the confrontational and convicting way that I have described herein, despite diligently searching for the same via numerous requests to a multitude of churches across several denominations.
Moreover, those who assert a position opposite to what is maintained in this article need to have some explanation for the wretched state of what is being represented as Christianity and the Church, and for why the nations in the past that were collectively identified as Christendom have fallen into a debased moral condition. Either we must believe that true Christianity, which begins with the biblical gospel, is not being preached and taught in the churches, and that is why they are becoming weaker and more worldly with every passing year, and are having no virtuous influence on the societies in which they reside, or we must believe that it is being faithfully preached in the churches but God, inexplicably and without precedent, has chosen to bless that faithful preaching with little or no fruit.
I believe it can be said that the gospel is being preached in America’s churches today only if the definition of the preaching of the gospel is reduced down to the delivery of a tepid and incomplete message that does not convict of sin nor bring forth repentance. Of course, there are those who claim that I am painting with too broad of a brush and that the gospel still is being preached in its fullness in some American churches but I have yet to see any proof to support this assertion.
This is not just an important matter, it is one that towers above every other matter. The absence of evangelistic preaching that confronts the people with their sins and truly convicts them of their hopeless condition apart from Christ, is the reason, and the only reason, why our churches are dead and why our nations are dying with them. A church can proclaim multitudes of biblical doctrines accurately and be pure in its form of corporate worship (and there are churches which do both but do not preach the message I am defining) but it will all be for nothing unless the preaching is such that it has brought forth repentance in the people to whom it is addressed. We have a desperate need today for revival and reformation in the formerly Christian nations of North America, Europe, and other parts of the world, but unless the sort of preaching defined in this article blossoms again, everything else that is done in the name of Christianity will continue to be lifeless and fruitless, and we can expect nothing but further advances in degeneracy.
“Is it not clear, as you take a bird’s-eye view of Church history, that the decadent periods and eras in the history of the Church have always been those periods when preaching has declined? What is it that always heralds the dawn of a reformation or of a revival? It is renewed preaching. A revival of true preaching has always heralded these great movements in the history of the Church.”
— Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981), Welsh Evangelical minister
Questions and Objections Answered
If the type of evangelistic sermon you are suggesting is according to the biblical model, then why do we not see it in the examples of the apostles’ preaching?
We have not been given anything even remotely close to complete sermons in the New Testament Scriptures, nor have we been given sermon outlines, and if we were to preach only according to the example of the brief quotes given of the apostles’ preaching, and only include what is expressed in them, then we could only preach 1-5 minute sermons on a very limited range of topics that would be incomplete even on those subjects of which they do speak.
Christian ministers have to use the entirety of the Holy Scriptures and do things best expressed in terms such as “compile,” “compare,” “exegete,” “infer,” “deduce,” and “extrapolate” whenever composing a sermon or writing an article expressing Christian doctrine and, as I explained in the body of this article, what I consider to be the necessary elements of an evangelistic presentation of the gospel can be extrapolated, and must be deduced “by good and necessary consequence,” from Christ’s words “repent ye, and believe the gospel.”
Is it necessary to preach explicitly evangelistic sermons of the type you describe? Are not accurate expositions of the Bible sufficient to bring forth repentance and faith?
Prominent Reformed minister and author Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) declared that the lack of convicting evangelistic preaching, and the tendency to preach only what he called “instructional messages,” “is a very great and grievous fallacy” and “has been one of the cardinal errors of the Church especially in this present [20th] century” As proof of his assertion, he cited his own case of attending churches for years and being assumed by ministers to be a Christian because he “could give the right answers to various set questions,” and yet he was not converted until eventually he was exposed to some convicting evangelistic preaching. This type of preaching appears to have been a rarity when Lloyd-Jones was young and today it seems to have died out altogether.
While we cannot say that expositional preaching of the Bible never brings conversion, and it is true that the majority of sermons in a church need to be instructional for the edification of the saints, such preaching is not a substitute for explicitly evangelistic sermons directed at the unconverted that include what Martin Luther called the “first message” that will “humiliate and terrify the sinners,” by “proclaiming the law” and, as William Tyndale similarly stated, “teaches the people to know their natural venom and birth-poison” and “makes them meek and frightened with the law,” that contain, as Arthur Pink said, “a scriptural setting forth of the nature of that punishment which awaits the lost — the awfulness of it, the hopelessness of it, the unendurableness of it, the endlessness of it” and which also speak of the necessity of repentance, for as Thomas Watson put it, “there is no rowing to paradise except upon the stream of repenting tears.” All of these elements must be preached before proceeding to speak about the forgiveness of sins, the mercy of God, and the gracious reconciliation offered by Him through faith in Christ, otherwise it is not likely to be understood why forgiveness, mercy, and grace are needed. “The recognition of sin is the beginning of salvation” (Luther) and today’s evangelistic messages, if they are preached at all, do little to create the necessary conviction of the guilt of sin.
Why do today’s ministers not preach the gospel in the confrontational and convicting way you describe, if it is necessary to do so in order to bring conversions?
I believe the primary reason that the gospel is not preached as defined herein, and has not been preached for many years, is because it is very offensive to the unconverted. If a church were to preach the gospel in the manner I have described in this article, and they were to preach it often, you would see evidence of true conversions in the assembly but you also likely would see a large number of defectors from that congregation resulting in a greatly reduced overall level of attendance. Today’s preachers know all too well that what Arthur Pink said over 80 years ago is even more true today: “Faithful preaching will render the minister unpopular, and will empty churches — not fill them!” This is the last thing most professional ministers, whose living depends upon maintaining a certain numerical level of financial contributors to their churches, want to see.
If the reader believes that I am needlessly accusing today’s churchmen of thinking in mercenary terms, understand that I am not saying this is necessarily a matter of greed. I believe that, in the eyes of most ministers, it is more often a matter of choosing between continuing to preach in a certain way that will allow them to survive in their chosen profession or preaching in a more assertive way that will cause them to be put out of their jobs. It is likely that in most cases a fear of loss is the motivating factor more than a desire for gain.
Today’s Christian ministers do not preach messages containing the hard truths necessary for converting sinners because they know that the people in their congregations do not want to hear them. It is a two-way street. The people do not want to hear unpleasant realities, especially about themselves, and so “they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3). The people get innocuous preaching because it is what most of them desire.
For more on the infidelity of today’s Christian ministry, please read the following article: The Unfaithful Shepherds of Today’s Christian Churches or watch the video with the same content.
Are the conservative Reformed churches preaching the gospel?
The so-called Reformed, though they affect a zeal for accurate doctrine, are especially negligent in preaching evangelistic sermons and many of their ministers will falsely claim that almost all of the messages they preach are expressions of the gospel, though the sermons to which they refer, or the entire series of sermons to which they refer, lack even basic expressions of foundational truths that are necessary to bring the yet unconverted to repentance. Claims that “any of my sermons will give a good presentation of the gospel” or “the gospel is presented every time I speak of Jesus” or “accurate expositions of the Bible are sufficient to bring forth repentance” or “our Confession of Faith is adequate in setting forth the way of salvation” are merely excuses they use to pardon themselves from the responsibility to preach the sort of confrontational evangelistic messages that contain the several elements that are necessary to bring men to repentance and true faith, but which the ministers know will offend many and so they are careful to avoid.
It may be impossible for an unconverted man coming into a “Reformed” congregation today, having little or no prior knowledge of Christianity, to hear a simple, but convicting, presentation of the foundational gospel message — something that contains clear definitions of sin, serves to convict the hearer of his guilt and depravity, speaks of eternal judgment, calls the sinner to repentance, and shows him the way of forgiveness through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In other words, it may be impossible for a man to hear the type of message that will present the basic truths of the Bible which he needs to hear to be brought to repentance and true faith. In fact, many Reformed ministers will claim that such presentations are not necessary. Instead, the truths listed above will be scattered among a multitude of sermons which will be presented over a considerable length of time in a piecemeal and indirect way. This method of presentation is not an accident. It is done because the simple but convicting message described is offensive to its hearers, and therefore to be avoided by the ministers at all costs, and by scattering its elements throughout multiple instructional sermons, they can avoid offending their congregants and still appear to be faithfully declaring gospel truths.
Quite a few of the Reformed churches have preachers who do exposition of the Bible verse-by-verse, and they have sermons that teach about man’s depravity, sermons that teach about repentance, and sermons that teach about sin and God’s law. In addition, they have the Reformed confessions and catechisms that teach about all the things you mentioned. How is it possible that they can be failing to communicate the truths you mentioned that are necessary to bring the hearers to repentance and true faith?
Truth can be communicated in a way that is educational but not personally convicting. For example, one can find sermons that speak of all the attributes of true repentance that a Christian will possess but which do nothing toward bringing forth repentance from their hearers because they never define sin even in general terms, let alone confront the people with the guilt of their own sins through an exposition of the law and then demand repentance for them. There is nothing wrong with such sermons for instructing those already converted but they are almost certain to be ineffective for bringing the unconverted to repentance, and the messages which would be suited to do so are not preached in the Reformed churches today.
In addition, it is very important to understand that true Christian preaching is not just the bare communication of truth, as in a science lecture at a university. Many biblical truths can be communicated through many means, even directly from the Bible, and yet the preaching may bear no fruit. This is because true Christian preaching is spiritually empowered and prophetic. Preaching can only truly be called Christian when it is performed by men anointed by God and infused with the Holy Spirit, and thereby made bold and effectual in their preaching. It bears much fruit because it has the blessing of God upon it and His power working through it. Men who are too cowardly to confront their congregations with unpleasant truths in a direct and convicting way are not men of God at all and it should not be expected that the Lord will bless the preaching of pusillanimous hypocrites with an increase, nor should we expect God to bring forth fruit in congregations where the ministers purposely avoid preaching in a confrontational way because they fear offending men, and instead try to compensate for their infidelity by communicating truths in an oblique, fragmentary, or diluted manner, or through second-hand sources like catechisms which were made for instructing those already brought to repentance. Moreover, although God may choose to use such faithless men and their lesser means to occasionally bring a few to faith here and there, church elders and congregants who tolerate such weak and defective preaching, rather than working to correct it, must share in the blame for its unfaithfulness and cannot expect the blessing of God necessary to make it broadly efficacious, and thus there may be little or no harvest of souls and no fruit of the Spirit manifested in a congregation, despite the fact that much truth is being disseminated by various means.
We must never forget that Christian truth is a spiritual thing wholly dependent on the action of God for its potency, and efforts to bring others to a knowledge of it by spiritually dead men who are faithless, cowardly, and hypocritical are likely to be in vain, because the power of God is not likely to be working through them.
Are you saying that today’s ministers do not know the true gospel? Are you the only one, or one of only a very few, who knows it?
It is unlikely that there is anything in this article which would be a revelation to most “Reformed” Christian ministers. No doubt many of them have been exposed to at least some of the same quotes I have cited and have read other similar writings delineating the elements that evangelistic preaching must contain. However, it needs to be understood that many of today’s preachers are themselves the product of the same assemblies that do not preach such messages and never have done so, and therefore it is likely that many of them remain unconverted themselves. Moreover, they are trained in the seminaries to preach a certain way and it is obvious that today’s seminaries are not teaching ministerial candidates to preach the sort of message defined in this article.
The rot is multi-generational and multi-faceted. It is a case of apostasy begetting apostasy which begets even more apostasy. The ministers do not see a need to preach in this way because they themselves have never been exposed to such preaching, and they have never been exposed to such preaching because the previous generation of preachers did not preach in this way, the seminaries have not taught them to preach in this way, their fellow ministers and their congregants do not expect them to preach in this way, and most churchgoers do not want them to preach in this way. Not only do they not see a need for such preaching but they will actively fight against anyone who tries to impress upon them the need for it. I know this from my own experience.
While many ministers have been exposed to the truths expressed in this article, having read things similar to what I have quoted from prominent churchmen of the past, those truths have not actually permeated their thinking and been incorporated into their preaching because they are foreign to everything today’s preachers see and hear in their own personal experience over the course of their entire lives. It is difficult to know what goes through their minds when they read the writings of the past where the necessity of this sort of preaching is impressed upon the ministerial reader but I suppose such writings are to them sort of like historical curiosity pieces. They can give mental assent to the truth expressed in them but they see no need of actually putting into practice the principles set forth by men of the past, because every minister that they know — and have ever known — preaches the same non-confrontational and non-convicting false gospel, and yet they all seem to have successful careers in the ministry and appear to be building or leading thriving churches, although I maintain that the thriving is only in a numeric sense and that today’s so-called Christian churches, even the most conservative “Reformed” denominations, are largely spiritually dead.
Do you believe that today’s ministers are deliberately leading the people astray?
I do not believe that, for the most part, today’s ministers deliberately intend to deceive. I think it is more often a case of blindness — not being able to see the forest for the trees. What we have in the so-called Evangelical Christian ministry today is a circular, self-confirming ecclesiastical system of entrenched apostasy. When everyone around you who holds a similar position in a church is doing the same thing, and has always done the same thing as far back as anyone can remember, and it all appears to be working (because you cannot see that it is spiritually dead), then you have no reason to change what you do and those few who might confront you about your infidelity seem to you like fringe lunatics not worthy of anything but your scorn, if you even bother to acknowledge them at all.
Regarding those few preachers who do recognize the pervasive infidelity described herein but do not change their ways in spite of that recognition, we should not discount the power of the fear of loss as a motivating factor against change. As I mentioned above, preaching the difficult truths in a confrontational way will offend many people and likely lead to a mass exodus from many congregations and this is something few ministers today are willing to risk, though if they truly feared God, then they would understand that they have no choice but to risk it, they would not allow themselves to be influenced by fear of loss and they would trust in Him to provide for them regardless of their circumstances. God never abandons His faithful servants.
Is it not true that there are churches which preach almost nothing but evangelistic messages?
There are churches in America that regularly preach what are represented as evangelistic messages but these are almost always only exhortations to believe, with very little emphasis on sin and often no mention of repentance. They do not preach a message that first thoroughly convicts of sin, which must be done through the law of God; they do not preach a message that uses the Scriptures to convince the hearers of their own native depravity and utter inability to do anything, in and of themselves, to please God or be accepted by Him; and they do not preach a message that presses upon sinners the fact that they are already under the wrath of God and what will be the awful consequences for them if they do not repent. In other words, they do not preach a message that brings people to a state of complete despair in themselves so that they, if the Holy Spirit is working in their hearts, will truly cry out in their hearts to God for mercy. In a word, what they do preach is mostly milquetoast. The result is that people are being exhorted to embrace a salvation when they have not even been made to see their desperate need for it. Many may respond to this false gospel by embracing a form of religion, and that religion may even be quite orthodox in profession and outward form, but unless they are emptied of their self-righteousness and brought to a state of true repentance by preaching that confronts them with their own evildoing in direct and certain terms, there will be no authentic repentance and no genuine embracing of Christ, despite the accuracy of their profession or how much theological knowledge they subsequently may gain.
Are you saying that all the elements you listed need to be crammed into one single sermon, and if they are not, then the gospel is not preached?
There is no reason that all the elements I listed cannot be included in one sermon without it sounding “crammed” or hurried. In fact, although I am not a preacher, I have written a script for a sermon containing all of the elements I have delineated in this article (and more), and recited it in this one hour long recording.
Of course, the same could be done over a few sermons instead of just one, and thus a complete evangelistic message would be presented, but there is no good reason to divide it and it will be more effective if presented in one message, especially considering the fact that we cannot assume unconverted visitors are going to return to listen to an entire series.
How often, in your opinion, should the type of message you are describing be preached?
The frequency of preaching such evangelistic messages must be left to the discretion of the elders of each church. In small churches where visitors are infrequent, perhaps only twice per year is sufficient, where in larger churches that receive more visitors, it would be appropriate to preach it more often. I do not believe it can be said that a church is truly preaching the gospel if it never, or only very rarely, preaches such evangelistic messages. We also must understand that even converted Christians can profit from them. It can be nothing but beneficial to occasionally be confronted with the foundational Christian truths in a convicting way, and we can never be sure of who needs to hear such messages even among long-time church attenders. There have been many testimonies from men who have said that they sat in churches for years before being truly converted, similar to the one above from Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
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I agree. These distinctions are integral to many of the books distributed by International Outreach. These things were well understood and preached 300-400 years ago.
[The temporary] only takes Christ; he gives not himself to Christ. He offers the sin offering without the burnt offering. Therefore, applying Christ to himself, and not himself to Christ, he misapplieth. In truth, he reserves himself to himself. He nourishes some special sin or other in himself, and so gives himself to Satan, to sin, – not to Christ: As Herod gave himself, not to Christ, but to Herodias – to his lust. p. 60. [True] faith can see one contrary in another: in the very depth of hell, heaven, in the very extremity of misery, happiness, in the very midst of anger, mercy. The woman of Canaan can pick comfort out of the reproachful name of dog. p. 61.
Daniel Dyke, ‘The Mystery of Self-Deceiving’