We Need More Gospel in Our Gospel Preaching

“Semper reformanda.” Always reforming. That rallying cry hung like a banner over the Protestant Reformation. It reminds us that the work of reforming the church of God according to the Word of God is an ongoing work. There is no reformation that “gets it right” and leaves things forever perfect. Well, there’s that reformation that happens when the Son of God appears and ushers in His everlasting kingdom of perfection. But until then, hopefully, we are always being reformed by God’s Word.

We rightly rejoice in the recovery of the gospel during the Reformation. The removal of traditions and superstitions made it possible to once again hear the voice of God in the Good News of His Son. With the advent of the printing press and the sending of missionaries the gospel went forth in fresh power.

But the recovery of the precepts of the gospel is not the same thing as the recovery of the preaching of the gospel. I’m no scholar of Reformation era preachers, but what I have read seems heavy with polemics and doctrine—all of which was necessary. But even when I read sermons from the era, it feels as if the gospel is largely assumed in the preaching.

It’s not until the revivals of the mid-1700s in the preaching of the Whitefields and Wesleys that it seems gospel precepts meet gospel preaching in a way that directly addresses the lost. Perhaps that’s why we call such preaching “revivalistic.”

As we mark the celebration of the Protestant Reformation and cast an eye at the need for all God’s churches to always be reformed by the Word of God, it seems we need a reformation in gospel preaching. I’m not trying to be controversial or overly critical. So let me tell you why I’ve come to that conclusion.

Up until a year or so ago, I listened to very little preaching outside my fellow preachers at FBC Grand Cayman or hearing guys at conferences. I just didn’t have a lot of time in my daily routine of counseling, meetings, preparing to teach and so on. But hearing Tony Carter talk of how much he listens to others really challenged me. So I set a goal to begin by listening to ten sermons from ten known expositors. I developed a little grid that included things like which testament of scripture the sermon came from, which text, whether topical or expositional, several questions about how they applied the text and several questions about how they preached the gospel.

Again, these were all men known to be expositors of the Scriptures. By the time I’d listened to ten sermons from five men on my list, one thing was really clear: These men all believed the gospel and frequently alluded to the gospel, but they rarely specifically addressed unbelievers in their churches and explained the gospel from their context. In fact, of the 50 sermons I listened to, only three times did I hear a clear declaration of the gospel and a call to repentance and faith from the text being expounded. I could count many other allusions to the gospel, but only three instances of proclamation. I’m certain all these men intend to preach the gospel. But it’s sad to suggest that a person not yet a Christian and unfamiliar with the gospel might not have enough clear gospel proclamation to understand and respond to the gospel.

I don’t know how you feel reading that, but that rocked me. Even if the next five preachers preach the gospel from every text every time, we’d still only be at 50 percent!

Now let me share a conviction that not everyone shares; I put it on the table so you know what cards I’m holding and so you can debate whether or not this is a good conviction to hold. But I believe that every time a preacher steps into the pulpit he should preach the gospel and call sinners to repentance and faith, and he hasn’t done his job until he has. That’s my conviction: The gospel every time from every text in a way that’s natural to the text. It seems to be the way Jesus read the Bible ().

So far, I can’t say we’re doing that. The point of this post on Reformation Day is to ask: Should we be preaching the gospel every time from every text in a way that’s natural to the text?

For my part, I don’t think the recovery of the doctrines of the gospel is enough. We must also have the recovery of declaring the gospel if we would see sinners saved.

Perhaps it would be helpful to conclude with an example of what I’m talking about. Here’s an excerpt from a sermon preached by William Douglass at St. Thomas African Protestant Episcopal Church in Philadelphia sometime before 1853. The church was founded by Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, and others in 1792. William Douglass succeeded Absalom Jones as Rector and served from 1834-1862. His published volume of sermons provides a rich example of doctrinal, pastoral and evangelistic exposition in the founding decades of the independent African-American church.

After expounding on false hopes and the meaning of the text, here is Douglass’ address the unregenerate in a sermon on entitled “The God of Hope”

A word of admonition and entreaty to that class of our hearers, whose hopes are all centered in this lower world. It is true my deluded friends, that this earth has its peculiar attractions. The innumerable multitude, that in every land, throng the “broad way that leadeth to destruction,” is proof positive, that some strong enchantments are beguiling their devious pathway to the unknown future. But bear in mind, do not forget, in your silly chase after a phantom, that this planet, with all its fine furniture, is to be dissolved. “The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in the which, the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Nevertheless, we according to his promise look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” Very precious, indeed, to the Christian, is this promise.

But it can afford no ground of hope to characters which you now sustain. In these new heavens and new earth spoken of, you can have no portion. “There shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” As your hopes were placed onto idols of earth, with the idols of a burning earth, you will then be left to perish. The lot of all who shall then sustain the characters that you now do, must be with the hypocrites, unbelievers, and all the abominable in the region of hopeless misery and despair.

We turn aside from this awful picture to urge you to seek, for, you may yet obtain the Christian’s hope. You are yet within the reach of mercy. The gospel with its inviting voice, still calls —conscience, in clamorous tones, still warns —The Holy Spirit, though as still in his influences as the dew of the morning, yet powerfully strives with you. The great High Priest who has passed into the heavens, still pleads in your behalf. Your condition, therefore, wretched though it be, is not desperate.

However, there is something to be done on your part, before you can attain this inestimable prize. You must be up and doing, co-operating with God. While he worketh in you to will and to do of his good pleasure, you are to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” This hope is not attained by a few lazy wishes and half-hearted endeavors. It is attained only by and earnest, diligent and persevering use of all the appointed means of grace.

There are difficulties to be surmounted: hence, you are called upon in the strength of divine grace, to renounce the hidden works of darkness; to “strive to enter in at the straight gate;” to “labor to enter into rest.” It is treasured up in Christ; therefore, your longing eye must be constantly fixed upon him. In his all-prevailing name alone, you must approach the throne of heavenly grace, and ask, if you would receive, seek, if you would find, and knock, knock, and knock again, if you would have the door opened unto you. You have the divine assurance that every one that thus “asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.”

Oh, let me entreat you to begin this struggle in good earnest. It is a noble and magnanimous struggle—a battle against self, against “flesh and blood; against principalities and powers; against spiritual wickedness in high places.” It is therefore, a formidable struggle.

Apparently, the odds are against you. Not so. Greater is He that is for you, than all that can be against you in this greatest of all battles. Angels look on with the most intense interest, to see the issue. And whenever they recognize the cry of a soul newly born of the Spirit, they immediately raise the loud shout in heaven:—“the dead is alive, the lost is found.” God the Father, who gave his only begotten Son to atone for your sins—God the Son, who redeemed you by his blood—God the Holy Ghost, who sanctifieth the people of God, are all on your side in this noble warfare. Then desert the camp of Satan. You know that he has often deceived you, and but for the Lord’s mercy would have long since led you onward to the pit of endless woe. Escape then for your life: flee for refuge to lay hold upon that hope which comes from God, and will lead you to those ineffable joys which He has laud up for those who love him (pages 23-27; italics in the original. Paragraphs added for ease of reading).

Oh that our day’s reformation would include such bold, direct, challenging and earnest pleas with sinners to hope in Christ and live! Brothers, let us not preach about the gospel only. Let us preach the gospel with all that is in us!

24:1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, 11 but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.

13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” 25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29 but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” 33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, 34 saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

36 As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. 38 And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate before them.

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God. (ESV)

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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