Christ has commanded us to ‘go into all the world and preach the gospel’. This is an absolute priority and more urgent than any other responsibility. The commission is repeated in slightly different forms in three Gospels, and Acts 1:8 calls every believer to be a witness.
We need to pause in our Christian work to ask if we really are ‘preaching the gospel’. We can be so busy inviting people to church, caring for the social needs of others, supporting worthy Christian causes, or fighting for social righteousness, that specific gospel witness is marginalised. These other matters need attention but not at the expense of the gospel preaching to which we have been specially called.
What is gospel preaching?
It is gloriously true that the gospel is the whole counsel of God. The diligent expositor can argue that, in time, he will deal with every truth that Scripture teaches and that the gospel message will be included throughout.
However, there is a sense in which gospel preaching can be defined in a more particular sense as ‘the presentation of the Christian message to sinners calling them to repentance towards God, faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, conversion and subsequent holiness of life’. Gospel preaching is evangelistic preaching that demands urgent response.
There has been a revival of doctrinal and serious ministry. This is wonderful, but this blessing can ‘breed worms’. Churches become intellectually top-heavy. The minister is so involved in working through profound passages of Scripture that an unsaved person is utterly bewildered.
It is not always that he rejects the message, but that the message is often too intellectual. The gospel may be implicit in evangelical preaching without the challenge being explicit enough to produce a response.
Of course, the Holy Spirit is sovereign, but this does not excuse us from preaching the gospel clearly, directly and with passion. We should sometimes enter a church service with the question in our minds: ‘If I were a stranger with a real need, but unfamiliar with Christian traditions, would I hear a message I could understand and be challenged to follow Christ?’
Fear of shallowness
There is understandable fear that preaching can be trivialised. The chatty approach, full of jokes and presented without reverence, is repulsive and unworthy. But so is a dour unfriendly atmosphere that makes the listener long for the service to end.
We are rightly aware of the danger of spurious conversions. Many professing Christians have a false assurance based on ‘easy believism’. We also reject the ‘invitation system’ because it has no scriptural warrant and can create false decisions. But some churches are so content with few conversions that when one does occur it is treated with suspicion rather than rejoicing!
During the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century there was great opposition to the ‘enthusiasts’. Whitefield and Wesley were persecuted for their zeal, but their preaching resulted in heartfelt and tearful repentance.
Biblical gospel preaching is not ice-cold but red-hot. The intellectually tailored discourses that sometimes pass for preaching may contain great truth. But without a passion for souls they are barren.
Of course an appeal to the understanding must come first, but the truth should be so presented that it moves the heart and will. It is not endorsement that we seek but repentance, faith and submission to Christ. This can hardly be secured without emotion.
We may build a well-fuelled fire with the best tinder, but until the flame is applied there is no warmth. The Holy Spirit himself is the only one who can truly enliven the sermon but the preacher’s attitude and approach should help and not hinder.
I am afraid that our concept of the ministry of the Word can compromise the preaching of the gospel. Of course, the believer must be taught so that his understanding will develop. But the lost sheep must also be called upon, in terms that they can understand, to hear and follow the Good Shepherd.
The barrier with the unbeliever is ethical not intellectual. Many around us are able to understand a forthright evangelistic address. The problem is that Mr Average will not admit that he is a sinner in need of a Saviour. It is vital that all hearers should be taught the basic truths of the gospel, so that they may see the road to life. But they must also be made to realise that without Christ they are on the road to destruction.
Only the Holy Spirit can break down the resistance, but we need to make the message fervent and compelling, so that our hearers are in no doubt that they are being called urgently to repent and believe in Christ.
Conscious of his debt to his Saviour, Paul describes his greatest privilege: ‘to preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ’ (Ephesians 3:8). Could there be a more glorious message to meet the urgent need?