Rev. Kortering is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Obviously, when we speak of “mission preaching” in the established church, we are focusing on the fact that the true gospel includes a call to conversion. This call is the object of our attention in these articles; we simply designate this as “mission preaching.” We are not saying that the gospel must be divided up into different kinds; we are simply establishing that the gospel preached in the local church includes such a call to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus. When this is done regularly, as it ought, then any non-Christian, unconverted person whom God may place under such preaching and wills to save will hear what is necessary to respond properly and be saved. At the same time, if such a one refuses to respond properly, the same preaching must declare to him that he stands outside the kingdom of God.
In our former articles, we developed the reason why this is necessary to do in the established congregation. We can summarize it this way. Even though God gathers His church in the line of continued generations, we cannot assume that all the members of the congregation who come under the preaching of the gospel are right with God. There are those who are not the true Israel of God and who reject the message of the covenant. The preaching has to say something to such people. At the same time, there may be members of the congregation who are not walking in true faith and repentance before God and are walking in unrepentant sins, who need to be converted. The preaching has to say something to such members. Also, every member has to contend with his own sinful flesh and must be instructed and exhorted to turn from evil and embrace the Lord Jesus on a daily basis. The preaching has to address such needs in the congregation. In addition to all of this, it ought to be the expectancy of every pastor and congregation who take seriously their calling to reach out to others outside the congregation, that non-Christians from time to time are sitting in the pews as the congregation worships, and something has to be said to them.
The point that we have been making is that mission preaching meets the needs of all such people, whether members of the congregation or guests who join them for worship. If the pastor truly has this perspective in mind when he prepares and delivers his messages, God will work through such a call of the gospel to accomplish His purpose unto the gathering of the church.
Scripture makes abundantlyclear that the message of the gospel is more than instruction. There is no doubt that a major part of preaching is conveying knowledge. We do this by expository preaching, by opening up the Word of God and explaining it to the congregation. We must carefully define the terms or words used in the passage. This must be done in light of its usage in the immediate context and as it is used in the entire Word of God. Truth is conveyed through gospel preaching, and it forms the foundation of every message. As the inspired writers of the Bible do so often, it must be taught in the context of error and controversy. This sharpens the thinking of God’s people. The preacher is called by God to set forth such truth in as clear and faithful a manner as he is able to do.
There is more to preaching than teaching. The task of the preacher is to take the truth of the Word of God and call the congregation to do something with it. Even the didactic element of gospel preaching calls for the response of faith. Truth is to be believed. The preaching must lead the listener to the conviction of faith. It must be embraced personally by the hearer and appropriated by faith.
The preaching of the gospel requires more action than belief. It also requires obedience. James makes this point in chapter 1:22: “But be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” We must hear the word to be sure, but we must respond by believing and obeying it. The preacher must be sure that he emphasizes this in his preaching. Obviously, passages of the Bible differ as to how this is worked out, but the goal of all preaching is action, and the preacher must include that in his message and application of the text. If the burden of the text is a call to repent from sin and seek forgiveness at the foot of the cross, the preacher must preach it in such a way that the congregation is confronted by a serious call of God to respond and obey. The same is true for specific instruction in working out our salvation as children of God. The saved ones are called to live a life of thankfulness and obedience. The preaching must come across as such a call to holy living.
To sum this up, when the preacher preaches the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), Christ uses him to meet the spiritual needs of everyone sitting in his audience. Every time I mount the pulpit and look over the congregation, the burden of the pulpit hits my soul. Look over there, that aged saint, who probably put forth more effort to come to church than others did, turns his partially deaf ear towards the pulpit to grasp something of forgiveness for past sins, strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow. Yes, there are the children who have come with parents to hear what God has to say to them. They are the babes who need to learn about the true God, Creator and Maker of heaven and earth. Their conscience has to be sensitized to know right from wrong, and they must be exhorted to love the right and hate the wrong. They must be led by the preaching of the gospel to the cross of Calvary and learn to kneel by faith and cry to God for mercy. Teenagers and youth must be taken by the shepherd’s hand, guided through the pitfalls of temptation, exhorted, and warned concerning the consequences of sin and the great liberty that we have in Jesus Christ. The unmarried as well as the married need to know the sanctity of marriage and sexual purity in a permissive society, and the pastor must serve as Christ’s mouthpiece to warn them of the consequences of sin and the urgency to be pure for God’s sake. The parents need help in the rearing of their children, and the preaching of the gospel must give them that help. All need to be stirred in their hearts that faith in God is of paramount importance to a meaningful life and that God is a holy God who does not tolerate or condone sin.
The point is that if there is a person sitting in church who is not right with God because he is walking in sin and making excuses for it, he will not feel comfortable while sitting under the preaching of the gospel. So also those who are not willing to embrace the true faith because they do not want to take the responsibility that it requires will know that they are not right with God. The preaching will expose to themselves their sinful response. Those who struggle with doubts will be guided towards assurance for their faith. Those who have committed sin and carry the burden of guilt will hear the word of forgiveness. Those who are ignorant will be instructed. Those who are hardened will be condemned. Whether such persons are within the congregation itself or come from without the congregation as guests, it makes no difference, they need to hear and will hear the Word that God wants them to hear.
I need not belabor the point that the Word of God sets forth preaching in such a manner. The very first narrative in the Bible, the fall of man into sin, is given as more than a historical fact, which it is to be sure. It is recorded to teach us the source of our misery and the need we have for Jesus Christ. The lives of the Old Testament saints are recorded for us not simply as moral examples or role models. They are that to be sure, but they are much more. They are the testimony of the wonder of salvation through Jesus Christ. Their lives are a testimony of human unworthiness overcome by the sovereignly free grace of God. That promise of God was not for all of them. God worked a mighty division among them, so much that Paul correctly said, “They are not all Israel which are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6). The Word of God came to them and made such a division among them. It was true during Israel’s history, from their deliverance from Egypt, the wilderness sojourn, the period of the judges, the history of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, all the way to the preaching of the prophets. In summary form, it was, “Turn ye, turn ye, Ohouse of Israel, why will ye die?” Those who turned received all the promises of the covenant, and those who continued in their evil ways heard in the preaching of the gospel the message of divine condemnation and judgment.
Jesus preached that way. He spoke the sweet consolation of the familiar words, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” He also gave the stirring rebuke, “Ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep.” We read inLuke 13:2, 3 that when some told Jesus that Pilate had mingled the blood of some of the Galileans with their sacrifices, Jesus responded, “Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
The apostles preached that way. From the Acts of the Apostles and continuing throughout all the letters, the emphasis is the same. To the repentant jailor in Philippi, who cries in his distress, “What must I do to be saved?” the gospel call went forth, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” To the ignorant, Priscilla and Aquila expounded more perfectly the way of God. To the hardened and those who rejected the gospel, Paul controverted with vigilance, exposed their errors, and held them accountable for their false teaching. “For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6).
This explains why the preaching has a double edge to it, in order to accomplish this twofold purpose. This is described in II Corinthians 2:15ff.: “For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: to the one we are the savour of death unto death, and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient unto these things?” God’s very purpose in the preaching of the gospel is not to save all men, but to confront all men with the good news of salvation and to assure those who embrace it that they have the blessings of it, and those who despise it, that they stand under the divine curse.
Our Reformed confessions summarize for us the teaching of the Bible concerning what must be said in the preaching. The Heidelberg Catechism, A. 84, describes the preaching of the gospel as the primary key of the kingdom of heaven. How does the preaching function as a key? In a twofold way. It opens the door of heaven to all believers. “…when according to the command of Christ it is declared and publicly testified to all and every believer, that, whenever they receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith, all their sins are really forgiven them of God, for the sake of Christ’s merits.” The preacher in his preaching has to address clearly the believers with the message of the gospel. On the other hand, he must also address the unbelievers. By doing this, the preaching also shuts the door of heaven. “…on the contrary, when it is declared and testified to all unbelievers, and such as do not sincerely repent, that they stand exposed to the wrath of God and eternal condemnation, so long as they are unconverted; according to which testimony of the gospel God will judge them, both in this and in the life to come.”
Herman Hoeksema explains these words in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, The Triple Knowledge.
To be sure, the particular gospel must be proclaimed to all that hear the gospel externally. This is true, partly because we do not know who the elect are, and therefore it is impossible to preach to them only. And secondly, it must be preached to all also, because it is the will of God that even the reprobate shall hear the gospel of salvation by way of faith and repentance, in order that sin may appear to be sin indeed, and that they may be without excuse. The gospel does not mention the elect and reprobate by their natural names. Therefore, its preaching must needs be general. Nevertheless, in this general preaching of the gospel the heirs of the promise must be called by their spiritual name, in order that they may know that the sure mercies of David are for them. Under and through the preaching of the gospel God gives them a new name, a spiritual name, by which they may know that He intends the promise for them. Objectively, they are the elect. But according to their spiritual name, wrought by the Holy Spirit of promise in their hearts, they are believers. And believers are those that sincerely repent of their sins. They are the weary and heavy laden, those that hunger and thirst after righteousness, the poor in spirit, they that mourn, the contrite and brokenhearted, they that have learned to place all their hope and expectation only in the blood of Jesus Christ their Lord, who loved them and died for them and was raised for their justification. They are those that principally are crucified unto the world and the world to them. They have an earnest desire to walk in all good works, and they manifest this in their lives. They fulfill their part of the covenant of God, and walk in new obedience, cleaving to the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, trusting in Him, and loving Him with all their hearts, with all their souls, with all their mind, and with all their strength; forsaking the world, crucifying their old nature, and walking in a new and holy life. To those the kingdom of heaven is opened by the preaching of the gospel. To them the promise of God is Yea and Amen. They shall never be ashamed. They shall be kept in the power of God unto salvation, ready to be revealed in the last time. But on the other hand, that same preaching of the gospel shuts the kingdom of heaven to all unbelievers. They too have a name of their own. They are not filled with sorrow after God, and never repent of their sin. They love the darkness rather than the light, and refuse to be converted to God. To those the preaching of the gospel proclaims that they stand exposed to the wrath of God and to eternal condemnation. They are outside the kingdom of God.
Such opening and closing of the door of heaven by the key of preaching takes place wherever the gospel is properly preached. It is not the preacher who does this, but rather Christ through the human agency of the preacher. Christ Himself does not make some sort of artificial distinction between the mission field and the established church. All true preaching will include both aspects of the key power. This is necessary in the mission setting, and it is necessary in the established church. If we err on the part of calling all men to repentance and faith, we fall short of functioning as God’s shepherds to draw men into the kingdom. If we wink at sin and do not warn the sinner of the error of his way, we give him false assurance and compromise the holiness of God.
Awareness of this by the preacher is crucial. Not only will he preach with the authority of Christ, but he will preach with passion, as he seeks to be faithful to his Master. The Word will live in his soul and come across with urgency to the hearer. In our next article, we will explore what the preacher can do to make this true for him.