It is very common in my sermons for me to make an evangelistic application to the text. Those who hear my sermons often will recall that it isn’t unusual for me to make a statement applying the text by imploring the listeners to believe in Jesus, to stop finding security in their good works, and to trust in Christ alone. I wouldn’t be surprised if parishioners can even predict that I will make this application.
Every now and then, I have an internal dialogue with myself while preparing a sermon, arguing that I ought to stop this practice. The argument goes something like this:
“These people have been in this church for a long time; many of them for decades. They’ve heard Gospel preaching for years. They know their Bibles well. Many of them regularly come to morning, evening, and Wednesday night services. You don’t need to make this application; they’ve heard it all before. Not only that, but they’ve testified publicly that they believe it. When they become communing members they testify to the elders and the whole church that they’re sinners who need a Savior. What more do you expect from your listeners? You’re just making this application because it’s low-hanging fruit and because you’re a guitar with only one string.”
I have an answer for my imaginary dialogue partner, and I want to share it with you, the reader, so that you will understand a) that churches need to keep repeatedly hearing the Gospel invitation, and b) my reasons for why I keep repeating it.
- Church is the Primary Place Evangelism Happens
All Christians have a duty to tell others in their daily life about Christ when they have opportunities (2 Peter 3:16). We must be ready, and we must live in heartfelt dependence on God as we do so. However, the primary place where God has designed for people to hear the Gospel message is in church, from God’s messenger, the pastor, who brings God’s word.
True worship holds forth God as he truly is to people who need to know him more than anything else in their lives. As Ligon Duncan puts it, “Evangelism is an important by-product of true worship.” What this means is that Christians should be prepared to give an answer and speak of the Gospel to their neighbors, but my expectation for us as a congregation is that we are inviting people who are not in the church to come hear the Gospel and become a partof the church.
Because this is my expectation, I preach each week hoping that there will be people in the congregation who do not know the Gospel, or who have still not taken hold of Christ for themselves. The minute the preacher assumes everyone in the room already believes, he will change what he says to a speech to insiders. And yet nearly all of the preaching that we see in the book of Acts is evangelistic in its focus. The Apostles seem to assume that there are people in the group who don’t know Christ. Paul expected unbelievers to be mixed into the corporate gathering of the church in 1 Cor. 14:25, for example.
I not only assume that there will be unbelievers in the church as I prepare my sermons, but I also want the listener to learn for themselves that it makes sense to invite unbelievers to our services. “If I invite my friend, family member, or neighbor, they are probably going to hear the Gospel and an evangelistic invitation. I know they won’t just hear something that’s only for people who are already ‘in’.”
Matthew Pinson says this well:
“we are always mindful that not all those who attend our worship services are believers. We show them tangible neighbor-love in our relationships, welcome them to our services, speak in language they can understand, preach the gospel clearly and boldly. We pray, as did Paul, that they will experience the presence of the living God and find the way of salvation in our public worship. Yet we do not confuse outreach with ‘in-drag,’ and as a consequence erroneously turn services that are meant by God to be meetings between Him and His people into what are primarily weekly evangelistic outreaches.”
So there is a balance. We don’t tailor our services or our preaching to unbelievers, but we also remember in our preparation that they very well may, and hopefully will, be among us. This is the first reason why I continue to preach evangelistically even though the majority of our church, I suspect and hope, already know Christ and strive to walk with him daily.
- There are Secret Strugglers Among Us
The second reason I preach evangelistically is very closely connected to my first point: Just because people are in our church and have heard these messages doesn’t mean that they believe it, or that they don’t need the reminder. For years I sat in church with my parents. While I had professed faith as an 11 year old and was even baptized I spent ages 12 to 16 as an atheistic unbeliever who needed to hear the Gospel every chance I got.
There are others among us who aren’t outright unbelievers necessarily, but they find life to be a struggle, and there is that old temptation to keep trusting in our own goodness and works. Luther was often asked why he constantly was preaching the Gospel – why not move on and preach other things. Luther’s response was, “I will stop preaching it when you start remembering it.” This temptation to forget the Gospel and replace it with self-security and self-assurance is like gravity and very natural for church members to slip into. Preaching evangelistically is a way to put the first things first and remind all of us of what we need most.
The Gospel is not well understood in our own day. When I talk with unbelievers and ask them what they think the Gospel is, they usually give me a version of moralism (“God wants us to be good people.”). This tells me that the Gospel is still misunderstood, and it reminds us that the Devil wants even Christians to think the Gospel is a message about being a good person.
My own ongoing conversations with Christians tells me that many people struggle in the Christian life because they feel like a disappointment to God, or they don’t really feel like God loves or likes them. In spite of the repeated assertions of Scripture that God in Christ loves his people (Jn 3:16; Rom. 1:7; 5:8; 8:39; 15:30; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:2; Col. 2:2; 2 John 1:3; Jude 1:21), many Christians simply do not know this in their experience. Part of the reason I preach evangelistically is that I want Christians to know with almost rote repetition that the Gospel is not about being a good person, it is about Christ being the good person, and that by being united to him, we get treated like we lived the life of a good person.
Preaching evangelistically means telling them how they can have that experience. And what do any of us need to know week in and week out more than that?
Adam Parker is the Pastor of Pearl Presbyterian Church (PCA) and an adjunct Professor at Belhaven University. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS, and most importantly the husband of Arryn and father of four children. This article was originally titled PREACHING THE GOOD NEWS.