All biblical preaching should be gospel preaching. But some gospel preaching is specifically evangelistic. That is to say, some preaching particularly aims at presenting the gospel to unbelievers as clearly, accurately and winsomely as possible, so that they might be saved.
To do that well, we need to think clearly about how to present the gospel to unbelievers and how to call them to faith in Christ. Too often Reformed preachers shy away from this, perhaps having been burnt by observing the misuse of altar calls, or holding to hyper-Calvinist views, or simply having failed to developed skill in this because they really only think about how to preach to believers.
Yet historically evangelistic preaching has been a towering strength of Calvinists. One only has to think of Edwards, Whitfield, Spurgeon or Lloyd-Jones to find fine examples of powerful Reformed evangelistic preaching.
So what are some of the convictions we must have if we are to engage in powerful Reformed evangelistic preaching? Let me suggest six for starters…
1. The gospel freely offers good news to all
The invitations of the gospel are free, open invitations. Jesus said, ‘Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-burdened…’ (Matt 11:28). He said, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry…’ (John 6:35). We are to proclaim that ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (Rom 10:13). And we know that the Lord says in Ezekiel 18:31-32, ‘Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.’
Our preaching of the gospel must therefore throw the doors of the kingdom of heaven wide open to all. Our gospel invitations ought to be large and generous, especially to broken, needy, struggling, suffering people. We must freely invite people – all kinds of people in all kinds of messy situations – to come to Christ for life.
2. The gospel we offer is God-centred, not people-centred
We are not merely offering people a better version of their current life. The invitation is not to being happier, or to have better marriage, or less worry, or a greater sense of self-worth. Such things are often by-products of the gospel; but then so is persecution and self-sacrifice. If our main appeal to accept the gospel invitation is on the grounds of how good Jesus can make your life then we are not asking people to repent of their selfishness – we are simply reinforcing it!
What is so good about the gospel is it takes us out of ourselves and redirects our hearts to the majesty of God. It focuses us on his goodness, not ours, and his plans not ours. It turns our attention to his holiness and righteousness and to his love and grace. And because he made us to know and love him, we find we are truly satisfied when he is our central focus. John Piper, who majors on such themes, summed it up nicely in the title of one of his books, God is the Gospel!
The gospel, then invites people into the richness of relationship with God.
3. The gospel promises great good, it doesn’t promise good to all
We offer the gospel invitation knowing that those who come to Christ will receive life, but those who don’t will receive eternal death.
We offer the gospel freely but we must also offer it accurately. It’s essential to think about how you state the offer. We cannot say to everyone, ‘God has a wonderful plan for your life.’ He does have a wonderful plan for those who turn to Christ but he has a very different plan for those who don’t, and the fact is we don’t know who will turn and who will not.
So we have to couch the promise conditionally: God has a wonderful plan for all who come to Christ. Similarly, we cannot accurately say to everyone, ‘Jesus died for your sins.’ If he did, then their sins are paid for and they have eternal life. But that is not the case for everyone; we know that not all will be saved. So we are have to say that Christ died sinners like you and me, and we must turn to him as our only hope of being saved.
As we offer the gospel of God freely but accurately, we are calling for gospel response.
4. The gospel always calls for repentance and faith
• First, it calls us to repentance, that is, to turn from wrong, to confess sin, to acknowledge our spiritual plight, and to seek heart level change.
• Then it calls us to faith in Jesus. It calls us to look for forgiveness and heart change in Christ alone and to believe in him as the one who lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died, in our place. It calls us to turn to him as our only hope of eternal life.
This gospel response, when genuine, is always ongoing. We are called to continually turn from sin and daily run to Christ. The surest way to know if someone has been converted is not whether they have said a certain prayer, gone forward at a meeting, talked to a counsellor after the service or had some emotional experience, but whether they go on to daily repentance and growing faith. In presenting the gospel, therefore, we don’t want to be reductionist.
We need to make crystal clear that what we are calling for is ongoing, heart response. We will avoid any form of emotional manipulation and we outline the cost of discipleship. Rather than our greatest fear being no conversions, it should, perhaps, be the fear of false conversions. Jesus, you’ll remember, was quite prepared to let people walk away. He was looking for heart not quick response.
5. Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit
Who will respond in this way? Those in whom the Holy Spirit works! He will soften hearts, open hearts, change hearts as he wills. If the Spirit works in people’s hearts, they will respond, and if he doesn’t, then no matter how wonderful our message or persuasive our appeal, it will fall on deaf ears and dead hearts.
It is not up to us to convert people, which is a great relief. It is up to us to preach as clearly, urgently, truly and persuasively as we can, but we are totally dependent on the power of the Spirit for any effect. Reformed preachers should therefore be the most prayerful evangelists in the world! We know that without the Spirit nothing will happen, but with the Spirit’s power, all things are possible.
We preach expectantly of the Spirit’s work in people’s lives.
6. Gospel preaching requires follow-up
Preaching is not meant to be a hit and run event. The book of Acts repeatedly chronicles that the sequel to preaching was further debate and conversation.
Once people have heard the gospel we want to give them every chance to respond to it: to learn more, to consider its implications, to confess sin, to take first steps toward faith, to pray with someone, to ask tough questions, to meet others who have chosen this road, and so on.
We need to think very intentionally about how to follow-up evangelistic preaching, lest people leave not knowing how to respond, or with unanswered questions, or without the support and encouragement they need to take this massive step. So what will you do? Preachers – will you …
• Provide opportunity for them to pray and respond to the gospel immediately if the Spirit has stirred their heart?
• Be available afterwards to talk to people?
• Have other people available whom they can talk to straight away?
• Have a group they can join if they want to know more?
• Have resources they can take away (books, tracts, DVDs)?
• Have a way for them to leave their contact details?
• Have a range of options to suit people in different situations and with different personalities?
We should cover all these bases, and we should also expect that sometimes people will be quietly converted without us ever knowing about it.
(TRITE /trīt/ (Adjective) Overused and consequently of little import, lacking originality or freshness)
The gospel is powerful and attractive and if we proclaim it freely and accurately, prayerfully and persuasively, with expectancy and intentionality, we may have the privilege of witnessing many wonderful stories of people coming to faith in Jesus.
Dr Murray Capill is principal, Reformed Theological College, Geelong and author of the excellent Preaching with Spiritual Vigour and The Heart is the Target. Links: firstname.lastname@example.org / Int+ 613 5244 2955 / www.rtc.edu.au. See also this month’s Leadership Gleanings article, Winsome Preaching by Dr Capill