“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 (Luke 24).
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 Romans 15:13 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!