Targeting the 45-Yarder: The Indifferent Unbeliever and Those without Hope
Some people are totally indifferent to what we have to say as preachers. They are like Gallio (Acts 18:12-16): they have no care or concern for matters of faith or things spiritual. They are hardened unbelievers whose consciences are nearly seared shut to the truths of God. Other people feel salvation is absolutely hopeless for them, either because they have sinned too much or because they are so worthless that God would never bother saving them.
The Indifferent Unbeliever
There are many ways to approach these two kinds of souls, and no doubt most ministers have tried nearly all of them. In ministering to the indifferent, I have learned that the following three approaches are generally more effective than others:
Sermons with strong warning to flee from the wrath to come
Included here are preaching about such truths as death, Judgment Day, hell, and eternity; preaching on tragic biblical stories, such as Lot’s wife, Esau, Judas Iscariot, and Orpah; preaching warning parables, such as that of the fig tree and of the rich man and Lazarus; and preaching on warning texts, such as Jonathan Edwards used in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
We must not be afraid to proclaim the eternal consequences of despising the blood of Jesus Christ. We must not flinch from describing damnation and hell. As one Puritan says, “We must go with the stick of divine truth and beat every bush behind which a sinner hides, until like Adam who hid, he stands before God in his nakedness.” We must confront sinners with the law and gospel, with death in Adam and life in Christ. Let us use every weapon we can to turn sinners from the road of destruction so they, through grace, experience a living, experiential relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
Let the world call them hell-and-damnation sermons, but I have found that these warning sermons, preached with great love and passion to indifferent hearers, tend to be blessed more than any other kind of sermon. In most situations, it is not wise to preach such sermons every week, as they will probably soon lose their impact (though I do believe that a preacher should have some strong awakening, convicting, and evangelistic content in his weekly ministry). Especially today, we are in great danger of not preaching sermons of a very serious, warning nature frequently enough.
Sermons that strongly emphasize the emptiness of life without Christ
We can also target indifferent people by showing them the emptiness of their life. This, too, is an important theme for awakening, convicting, and evangelistic sermons. For example, Isaiah 55 lends itself to this kind of preaching, particularly verse 2: “Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? And your labour for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.” Certain parables, such as that of the prodigal son, who saw his emptiness and came to himself in a pigsty, or biblical conversions, such as that of Manasseh, who saw his emptiness, awakened to the enormity of his sin, and came to himself while in prison, are particularly helpful here.
Sermons that strongly proclaim the immense and free love of God
Sermons based on the sufferings of Christ (such as Matthew 27:46, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) or that declare the gospel of divine love to hell-worthy sinners (think of John 3:16) — which then contrast this love to the world’s shallow concepts of love — can be powerful tools by which the Spirit touches the heart of the indifferent. They can awaken the indifferent from spiritual sleep, so that they say, “My life is so shallow, and the world is so bankrupt, compared to the riches contained in this love. Could this love possibly be mine as well?” The message of God’s love superseding the love of the most caring mother, found in Isaiah 49:15, is also ideal to preach to the indifferent.
The key in all three types of preaching is to be strong, since the indifferent do not usually bother to listen to the typical doctrinal, comforting sermon. Only the Spirit can bring God’s Word to the heart, but He often uses a strong sermon — strong in warning, strong in passion, strong in love — to reach the ear of the indifferent. Strive to bring to the indifferent strong sermons with pointed applications, delivered with fatherly warmth and passion. Preach to them, as Richard Baxter used to say, “as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”
Those Who View Salvation as Hopeless
As for those who think that it is impossible for God to save them because they have sinned too much or are so worthless that God would never bother to notice them, much less save them, they are best targeted by sermons that stress the incredible comprehensiveness of the gospel and the amazing mercy of God. The preacher needs to say to them in no uncertain terms that God often chooses to save the most unlikely people, such as second-born Abel instead of firstborn Cain, conniving Jacob instead of masculine Esau, and tiny Israel instead of mighty Babylon. They need to hear sermons on such amazing texts as “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes” (Matt. 11:25), or “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15), or “For thy name’s sake, O LORD, pardon mine iniquity; for it is great” (Ps. 25:11).
Jonathan Edwards preached a great sermon on Psalm 25:11. Much of the sermon applies this text to specific people groups in his audience, declaring that they are all welcome to come to Christ with their great sins, having every reason to expect that He will forgive them. Edwards speaks at length to those who fear they have sinned too long to find mercy, to those who fear they “committed sins that are peculiar to reprobates,” and to those who think they must improve themselves before coming to Christ.*
The point you desire and pray to get across to those who feel helpless about their own salvation is that there are no helpless cases with God. Say to them: “If God can save Adam, who plunged the whole human race into sin, why can’t He save you? If God can save Manasseh, who filled the streets of Jerusalem from one end to another with blood, why can’t He save you? If God can save Paul, who persecuted the church of Jesus Christ and declared himself to be the ‘chief of sinners,’ why can’t He save you? Are you worse than the chief of sinners?”
You might go on to dispute their reasoning that they are such an unlikely choice that God would not be interested in them at all by saying, “You’re misunderstanding God and the gospel. Why wouldn’t He be interested in you since He delights to make trophies of free grace from the most unlikely choices? Wouldn’t your salvation only bring Him greater glory, and isn’t He interested in His own glory? My friend, your soul is infinitely valuable, and the infinite God invites you to surrender it today, together with your bad record, into His hands. Come in repentance and faith to Him. He is the willing giver of each (Acts 5:31). He will not turn you away. He has never turned anyone away who has ever come to Him as a poor sinner. Do not say He would not pardon your iniquity because it is great. Rather, pray, “For thy name’s sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity; for it is great.”