Preaching the Gospel to Sinners
'I offer you salvation this day; the door of mercy is not yet shut. O do not put a slight on infinite love. He only wants you to believe on him, that you might be saved. This, this is all the dear Saviour desires, to make you happy, that you may leave your sins. Let me beseech you to come to Jesus Christ; I invite you all to come to him, and receive him as your Lord and Saviour; he is ready to receive you. I invite you to come to him. He will rejoice and be glad. He calls you by his ministers; O come unto him. He is labouring to bring you back from sin and from Satan, unto himself. Open the door of your heart, and the King of glory shall enter in.'
These passionate entreaties are the words of George Whitefield. Have we ever preached to sinners like that man? If not, why not? That is the question which modern preachers must face.
A Personal Statement
I have lived during the time of the rediscovery of Calvinism and seen it flourish from small beginnings to become fashionable. At least, many are called 'Reformed' these days. In comparison with the late '50s, how many ministers have shelves heaving under the weight of Calvinistic books! We have more and better commentaries than ever, regular conferences, better-educated ministers. An increasing number of churches are now biblically Reformed in doctrine, practice and government. There are more correct expositions of Scripture delivered week by week from the pulpits of our land. But something is seriously wrong.
I have seen some conversions amongst the children of the saints. And I see some poorly-taught Christians turned into Calvinists. I do not undervalue any of that. Such things are in the blessing of God. But I have to confess that I see very, very few conversions amongst those who have no previous connection with the gospel. Indeed, I preach to very few sinners who are in that condition. Is this your experience? Something is wrong; I ought to be tormented by it. I know that some of you, perhaps many of you are deeply concerned. I agree with Spurgeon:
Our great object of glorifying God is ... to be mainly achieved by the winning of souls. We must see souls born unto God. If we do not, our cry should be that of Rachel: "Give me children, or I die". The ambassadors of peace should not cease to weep bitterly until sinners weep for their sins.
Speaking of our priorities in the ministry, Richard Baxter said: The work of conversion is the first and great thing we must drive at; after this we must labour with all our might. Alas! the misery of the unconverted is so great, that it calleth loudest to us for compassion. It is so sad ... to see men in a state of damnation ... methinks we should not be able to let them alone. Who is able to talk of controversies, or of nice unnecessary points, or ... of truths of a lower degree ... while he seeth ... miserable sinners before his eyes, who must be changed or damned? Methinks I even see them entering upon their final woe!
Should not such compassion be seen in pulpits today?
Could it be that the cause lies with us? Something is wrong with our preaching. If so, then we are responsible. We are at fault.
It is my contention that often we are not preaching the gospel to sinners properly. I fear that we are failing in this great matter with disastrous consequences. This is the place where the finger of accusation must come to rest. Are we really preaching the gospel to sinners? This question has taxed preachers in the past and they have not found it easy to answer.
John Leland, referring to his own instinctive experience in the nineteenth century, said:
At the close of the year 1806, I got amazingly distressed on account of my preaching, fearing that my barrenness in the ministry was owing to improper addresses ... so that the great query which has agitated my mind for more than thirty years, "How is a congregation of sinners to be addressed?" ... fell with such distress upon my mind, that I could hardly contain myself'. He said: 'I sunk into great distress of mind. It has always been a question with me of great importance, to know how to address a congregation of sinners ... in the gospel style. It attacked my mind with great force. My fears were, that I did not preach right, which was the cause why I was so ... useless.
That question ought to tax us. Are we preaching 'right'? Are we addressing sinners properly? Frequently, I think not.
The causes of ministerial failure are legion. I fear that not all who stand to preach the gospel are called to it. I am afraid there is too little preaching these days. Puerile ramblings, theological lectures, repeated anecdotes and such like just will not do.
One of the major causes of a style of preaching which fails to produce conversions arises out of a misapplication of our Calvinism to our preaching. It is the dilemma that many feel: How can I, as a Calvinist, preach the gospel to sinners? I see a practical, or incipient, hyper-Calvinism and a paralysis creeping upon us.
Here is a short definition of hyper-Calvinism by Dr D. Martyn Lloyd- Jones:
A hyper-Calvinist is one who says that the offer of salvation is only made to the redeemed, and that no preacher of the gospel should ... offer salvation to all and sundry. That is a hyper-Calvinist. A hyper-Calvinist regards a man who offers salvation ... to all as a dangerous person ... I ... offer salvation to all ... That is the difference between a hyper-Calvinist and a Calvinist.
There is always a tendency for Calvinists to become hyper-Calvinists. It happened in England in the eighteenth century and in the Southern States of America in the early nineteenth century. It can happen deliberately; in many cases it happens quite unintentionally. But it is just as fatal to become hyper-Calvinistic by accident as by design. My concern is with this tendency. O we deny that we are doing any such thing! We believe that we are preaching the gospel biblically, freely offering Christ to all sinners, but I say there is a kind of incipient hyper-Calvinism abroad. We hold to the free offer of the gospel, but the question is not, Do we hold to the doctrine of the free offer? It is this, Are we freely offering Christ to sinners? Are we doing so with pressing urgency and vigour? My contention is that often we are not!
Sometimes the motives are understandable. We live in a day of small things and, perhaps unconsciously, we retreat into hyper-Calvinism as a defence mechanism. Sometimes the motives are well-intentioned. Many have come from an Arminian background and dread falling back into the morass of free-willism. Commendably, we want to be true to our Calvinistic convictions. We have seen the appalling consequences of 'easy-believism', sentimental, non-doctrinal evangelism. We want to avoid that at all costs. But in avoiding the one error, we can go over to the other. This is the very thing which tends to produce Calvinists who do not preach the gospel to sinners as they should. Inevitably, this must tend to reduce conversions.
Professor John Murray wrote: In the circles in which most of us live and conduct our ministry, there is no controversy regarding the fact of the free offer of the gospel to all men. There may be, however, an assent to this tenet and even a vigorous defence of it in ... theological controversy, and at the same time an almost complete absence of this great truth in the actual presentation of the gospel. Sometimes the reason ... is ... they have become Calvinists and ... the Arminian way of presenting the free offer of the gospel they have been compelled to relinquish. But ... I fear, they have not been able to make the proper adjustment in their thinking so as to be able to present the full offer of the gospel with freedom and spontaneity. Somehow ... they ... fear that the, full, free and unfettered overture of Christ in the gospel to all men without distinction, and the pressing upon men lost and dead in sin the claims and demands of that free overture, would impinge upon other truths such as sovereign election, definite atonement, and efficacious grace. Consequently, while ... avowing the doctrine of the free offer, they have not been successful in bringing it to bear upon men with spontaneity and without any reserve. This is a grave failure ... (a) tragedy ... It is only ... with ... our reformed faith that Christ can be presented in all his fulness and freeness as a Saviour. It is a grave sin against Christ and the gospel not to realise that it is precisely the definiteness of the redemption which he accomplished that grounds and validates the fulness and freeness with which he is offered to all men...
If we have any reserve or lack of spontaneity in offering Christ ... then it is because we have a distorted conception of the relation which the sovereignty of God sustains to the free offer of Christ in the gospel.
Again, Murray affirms: This ... manifests itself in a conspicuous awkwardness and lack of spontaneity in ... preaching.
I contend that often we are failing to preach the gospel to sinners in a soul-saving way. We are falling short of the biblical standard, the standard more nearly reached by Calvinistic preachers in the past. And our failure lies both in the content of our sermons and in their style and delivery.
Are Christ and salvation to be offered freely to all sinners? Are they to be called, invited, begged and implored to trust Christ? Are they to be told that God most willingly expresses his readiness and pleasure to save sinners and that all men are invited and called to come to Christ? Are we to command and encourage all sinners to call upon the name of the Lord and give them the full assurance that if they do call, God will save them? Are we to plead with men and show them the universal warrant for faith; namely that just because they are sinners, they have every right to trust Christ and to rely upon him for salvation from all their sins? And is this to be done with earnest passion and the most pointed, warm and searching entreaties? Is this not only an aspect of gospel preaching? Is it not far more? Is it not an essential ingredient of such preaching? If Christ and salvation are not freely offered to sinners indiscriminately, is the gospel being preached at all?
This is what I mean by the free offer. I realise that the use of the word 'offer' is difficult, even offensive, for some. I do not wish to quarrel over the word. The principle rather than the word is important. Indeed it is vital. Are we commanded to invite, encourage, beg all men to trust Christ? Can we be fully assured that this invitation is sincere and genuine? And are we justified in trying to persuade sinners that it is freely, fully and sincerely made to them without distinction? That is the question. Is it scriptural? I refer you to such passages as: Isaiah 45:22: 'Look to me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other'. (See also Isaiah 55:1-3; Matthew 11:28; Matthew 22:9-10; Luke 14:21-23; Acts 17:30; 2 Corinthians 5:18-20; Revelation 3:20 and Revelation 21:17).
Edwards and Others
Listen to Jonathan Edwards:
Christ ... is ... seeking your salvation ... he seeks it by (his ministers) ... they beseech you in Christ's stead ... be reconciled to God. He seeks it ... Christ is ... wooing ... sinners. He uses means to persuade them to choose and accept ... salvation. He often invites them to come to him that they may have life, that they may find rest to their souls; to come and take of the water of life freely. He stands at the door and knocks; and ceases not, though sinners for a long time refuse him. He bears repeated repulses from them, and yet mercifully continues knocking, saying, 'Open to me, that I may come in and sup with you, and you with me'. At the doors of many sinners he stands ... knocking for many years ... Christ is ... a most importunate suitor to sinners, that he may become their sovereign. He is often setting before them the need they have of him, the miserable condition in which they are, and the great provision that is made for the good of their souls; and he invites them to accept of this provision, and promises that it shall be theirs upon their mere acceptance. Thus how earnestly did Christ seek the salvation of Jerusalem, and he wept over it when they refused; Luke 19:32 and Matthew 23:37. Thus Christ is now seeking your salvation ... How many means Christ is using with you, to bring you to salvation ... All the persons of the Trinity are now seeking your salvation. God the Father hath sent his Son, who hath made way for your salvation, and removed all difficulties, except those which are with your own heart. And he is waiting to be gracious to you; the door of his mercy stands open to you; he hath set a fountain open for you to wash in from sin and uncleanness. Christ is calling, inviting and wooing you; and the Holy Ghost is striving with you by his internal motions and influences.
David Brainerd explained how he had been helped amongst the Indians:
in preaching Christ crucified, and making him the centre and mark to which all my discourses among them were directed ... to show ... his all-sufficiency and willingness to save the chief of sinners — the freeness and riches of divine grace, proposed 'without money, and without price' to all that will accept the offer. And thereupon to press them without delay, to betake themselves to him, under a sense of the misery and undone state, for relief and everlasting salvation. And to show them the abundant encouragement the gospel proposes to needy, perishing and helpless sinners, in order to engage them so to do. These things I repeatedly, and largely insisted upon ... which has opened the way for a continual strain of gospel-invitation to perishing souls, to come empty and naked, weary and heavy laden, and cast themselves upon Christ … to open the infinite riches of his grace, and the wonderful encouragement proposed in the gospel to unworthy, helpless sinners: — to call, invite and beseech them to come and give up themselves to him, and be reconciled to God through him: — to expostulate with them respecting their neglect of one so infinitely lovely, and freely offered: — and this in such a manner, with such freedom ... pathos and application to their consciences ... And this was the preaching God made use of for the awakening of sinners. And it was remarkable ... that when I was favoured with any special freedom, in discoursing of the 'ability and willingness of Christ to save sinners' ... there was then the greatest appearance of divine power in awakening numbers of secure souls, promoting convictions begun, and comforting the distressed.
This is getting close to our weak spot. We want the 'appearance of the divine power', do we not? We want the 'awakening' and 'convictions' of 'numbers of secure souls'. Do we preach with Brainerd's pressing urgency to sinners and emphasise the 'ability and willingness of Christ to save'? I confess that I have not yet begun to preach the gospel to sinners biblically. The simple stark fact is, I have not appreciated just what this free offer involves. And because of that I have failed to preach the gospel properly. I have thought too much in negative terms, lesser terms. I have tried to defend the gospel from the ravages of Arminianism and 'easy-believism'. I have not understood the freeness of the gospel. Do you feel the same? This is a large part of our problem, I am sure.
But now I come to the heart of it.
It is clear that God delights in the salvation of sinners. It is proper to say that God takes pleasure in their salvation. But to say that does not go far enough; it falls short of the scriptural teaching on the free offer. The point is: Does God actually desire the salvation of sinners? Does he want sinners to be saved? And further, Does God desire the salvation even of those who are reprobate?
This is the fundamental point at issue in the free offer. John Murray put it this way:
It would appear that the real point in dispute in connection with the free offer of the gospel is whether it can properly be said that God desires the salvation of all men.
I assert that this is the heart of the matter. Does God desire the salvation of all men? The answer is, Yes! Therefore we must, in our preaching, declare indiscriminately to all our hearers that God desires to see them saved. Further, we are preaching the gospel to sinners properly, only when we are convinced of the truth of such a desire in God and say so very clearly. We can only persuade sinners to be reconciled to God when we are persuaded that God not only delights in their salvation, but he actually desires it.
The Will of God and Our Preaching
There are two aspects to the will of God. First, there is his absolute purpose and eternal decree. This is always fulfilled (Psalm 115:3; Psalm 135:6; Isaiah 46:10, etc.). Secondly, there is God's revealed will, his commands, invitations, the expressions of his benevolence. Jesus said that he often desired that which God, clearly, had not decreed. God is perfectly consistent in this even though it is incomprehensible to us.
R. B. Kuiper said:
The Reformed Christian does not shun biblical paradoxes ... if he finds taught unmistakably in Scripture two truths which he cannot possibly reconcile with each other at the bar of human reason, he gladly submits his logic to the divine word. A most striking biblical paradox is that God, who sovereignly chose out of the human race of men a fixed number to everlasting life, yet offers to all men without distinction eternal life and, when doing so, assures them that nothing would please Him more than their acceptance of His offer. God assures sinners everywhere that He 'will have all men to be saved' (1 Timothy 2:4). That, too, is an expression of the sovereignty of God, and its proclamation is a recognition of that sovereignty. The Calvinist declares it passionately.
Is that true of us? We 'declare it passionately'? We must give the full force and weight to every biblical doctrine. We must not, we dare not, try to force Scripture into the mould of human reason and logic. We cannot answer all the questions! It is not our business to. How could Christ weep over the reprobate? We cannot explain that. But he did! He shed his tears over their refusals of him. We must not cheapen such an adorable mystery by our wrangles and inadequate 'explanations'.
Referring to biblical paradoxes, Dr Withington wrote, 'I must mingle these truths just as they are mingled in the Bible, and I have no right to make the one weaker than the other. I must leave the compound, with all its perplexities and divine contradictions'.
Francis Wayland expressed his agreement: 'I stand to whatever God has said; what men infer from it is merely human, and weighs with me just nothing'.
We know that God is good to all men; he has compassion on them all. And we are commanded to show a like spirit, since we are the children of our heavenly Father (Matthew 5:44-48). In Scripture, we have striking examples of saints who demonstrated this compassion to all men.
Paul declares in Romans 9:1-3: I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh. Romans 10:1: My heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.
And when you recall the teaching of Romans 9, which comes between these statements, how challenging are these expressions of desire! Now, will men have more desire than God himself for the good of sinners? Of course not. 'When (Jesus) saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd' (Matthew 9:36). 'Jesus, looking at (the rich man), loved him...' (Mark 10:22). 'Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do' (Luke 23:34).
I assert that God has a particular, invincible love for his elect and yet he also has a universal benevolence and compassion towards all men.
A friend recently asked me, 'Is there much persuading or pleading to be heard among us? Has our problem to do with holding both particularity of divine grace and the universality of the divine compassion? Somebody thanked me recently for saying in the pulpit, "Christ wants you to come to him". I was not aware of having said that and, indeed, it is the sort of statement that I and others are perhaps too nervous in making. I think that is where something is wrong. We are all convinced that Christ has a people who will be saved, but are we sufficiently convinced of his willingness to save sinners?'
The answer to my friend is, No! There is not enough persuading and pleading heard among us. And, Yes! We are far too nervous at telling sinners of God's desire to see them saved. And the two go together. And that is the heart of our problem. We seem to give the impression that we are more interested in reconciling the mysteries of God's will than we are in reconciling God and sinners.
Oh! my brothers, I assure you that I do not want to hurt any of you. No doubt many of you grieve over lack of success. I have been moved and stirred. I have been shown some of the reasons why I have been failing. I had not realised just what I am supposed to do in the pulpit. The wonder of preaching the gospel to sinners, of pleading with them, arguing with them, wrestling with them and all on the basis, not only of God's electing decree but on the basis of his expressed desire to see sinners saved ... I confess, that I had not let this dawn on me.
My brothers, we are ambassadors for Christ. We stand in Christ's name and in Christ's place to beg sinners to be reconciled to God. In the days of his flesh he showed a melting desire to see sinners saved. He is still the same 'today' (Hebrews 13:8). And he sends you out to sinners, to stand before them in his name and on his behalf. You are his ambassadors. You stand before men as Christ would stand before them.
And what does that mean?
You must preach with authority. You can have, you must have the fullest confidence. You stand before men in the name of the Lord Christ and all his authority and power is with you: 'All authority has been given to me ... Go therefore...' (Matthew 28:18-20).
You must preach with compassion. Do not ask if the sinners before you are elect. That is nothing to do with you. Do not ask if they are conscious of being sinners. They are sinners, desperately needy sinners, hell-bent sinners. That is enough. Love them! Do not be afraid of the word. Love the sinners that are before you. 'For God so loved the world that he gave...' Copy your master. Be moved with compassion. Weep over sinners if you can. Christ wept over Jerusalem. Paul wept over the Ephesians. Whitefield wept almost every time he preached. Let your heart show. Do not be afraid.
You must preach with freedom. Has this not been a difficulty for some of us? Have we not felt restricted by our Calvinism? Do the doctrines of election and particular redemption make us over-cautious? If so, we have been labouring under a terrible and costly misunderstanding. We do not have to worry about trying to reconcile the infinite mysteries of God. Our duty is not to combine paradoxes. We are out to convert sinners.
Sedgewick, a member of the Westminster Assembly, challenged sinners in these terms:
What could Christ do more? He calls, and cries, and knocks, and entreats, and waits, and weeps; and yet you will not accept of him, nor of salvation by him. Thou must thank thyself for all thy miseries. Thou wilt confess one day, I might have had mercy. I was offered Christ and grace. I felt him knocking by his Spirit; but I slighted him, grieved him, and rejected him, and now it is just with God to shut the door of mercy against me.
Oh! my brothers, what have I accomplished? Have you found anything to stir you to become better preachers? Oh! may it be so. And may all our hearers realise it! May we go on boldly in our Saviour's name and cause. We do not exalt men nor demean Christ when we wrestle with sinners. Indeed it is a part of his glory, it magnifies his love and displays his grace. I appeal to you all. Be bold! Be free! Do not lecture. Preach! We must not be defensive. We have the gospel to preach and we can preach it freely.
The Particular Baptists in England two hundred years ago were afflicted by hyper-Calvinism. In 1779 Robert Hall preached a sermon to break its grip. It was published in 1781 as Help to Zion's Travellers. William Carey said of it, 'I do not remember to have read any book with such raptures'. Andrew Fuller, greatly biased by Hall's ministry, published his Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation in 1784. It dealt a mighty blow against the error of hyper-Calvinism. On May 30, 1792 Carey himself preached an epoch-making sermon from Isaiah 54:2 'Enlarge the place ... lengthen thy cords...' On 2 October 1792, the Particular Baptist Missionary Society was set up and on 13 June 1793, Carey and others set sail for India.
Things are not so bad as they were in the 1790s but I do feel we are drifting into hyper-Calvinism again. If only we could catch the spirit of the Calvinists whom I have quoted. We have the same Redeemer; the same Holy Spirit; the same glorious gospel to declare as they. Sinners are perishing all around us. How few there are being saved!
My brothers, let us go on with increased vigour, with greater confidence and with more soul-melting compassion. We are not responsible for the results. But we are responsible for our preaching. If we discharge our calling properly, God will be angry with those who refuse us, not with us (Ezekiel 2:5; 33:1-9). But for our own sakes we must discharge our responsibility. For sinners' sakes we must. And for God's sake we must! He wants his gospel-feast to be full of guests. 'Still there is room', he says.
Go out ... and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.