What message does a Reformed preacher bring to the unconverted? Can he call his audience to repentance and faith? Can he call all of them to believe? If he can issue such a call, what is the nature of the call? These are questions that lie at the very heart of the controversy between the Reformed faith and hyper-Calvinism, on the one hand, and the controversy between the Reformed faith and the doctrine of the well-meant offer, on the other hand.
We intend to answer these questions in this and a following article. Our viewpoint will be the same as that in the last two articles of this series: we want to show that our denial of the well-meant offer does not, in any way, rule out or hinder lively preaching to the unconverted, as is charged by some advocates of the offer and as is feared by others. In the previous two articles, we have shown that all preaching is grounded in God’s predestination, not in any “common grace” of God, inasmuch as it is God’s purpose with the gospel to save the elect through faith in, Jesus Christ. Now, we must demonstrate the Biblical, Reformed manner of preaching to unconverted persons.
The message that is preached is the gospel, the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, the “most joyful tidings,” as the Canons of Dordt refer to it (I, 3). The content of the preaching is Christ and Him crucified. This is true, not only because the preacher preaches on the subject of Christ, but also because Christ is really present in the preaching. Christ is “evidently set forth” in the preaching, as the crucified One, before the eyes of every one to whom the gospel comes (Gal. 3:1). A Reformed man not only believes a “real presence” in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, but also a real presence in the preaching.
This message, though centrally the message of Christ, His death, and resurrection, is as broad as the whole of Scripture. A Reformed preacher does not go to the unconverted with the poverty-stricken message (to say nothing of its falsity) of four spiritual laws that he has memorized and now recites, or with a little “gospel on a thumbnail” that he was drilled in for six weeks in a Bible school. He goes out with Scripture, all of Scripture, and he uses all of Scripture also. At one time, he explains all of Old Testament history and prophecy, declaring and proving that the Messiah of the Old Testament is Jesus (Acts 17:1-3). At another time, the approach and burden of his message is the power and glory of the one, true God, His transcendence, self-sufficiency, spirituality, creation of the world, and providence—leading, of course, to the death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 17:18, 22-31). On still another occasion, he may emphasize “righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come,” as part of “the faith in Christ” (Acts 24:24, 25).
Nevertheless, we may specify certain basic elements of the message preached to the unconverted. First, the Reformed preacher preaches the greatness of the sin and misery of those to whom he is speaking. This is the judgment of the gospel upon man. The gospel declares every man to be totally depraved in his very nature, corrupt in all his ways, and liable to damnation (Rom. 3:9-19). It does this by proclaiming the holy and righteous God Whose law they have transgressed and Whose wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Rom. 1, 2). A Reformed preacher does not proclaim that the need of the audience is their unhappiness, lack of success in life, and earthly problems. Neither does he preach that there is in them any good or any ability for good.
Secondly, the Reformed preacher proclaims Jesus Christ as the only Savior from sin. He explains Who Jesus is, the eternal Son of God in our flesh, and what His work is, redemption from sin by the blood of atonement. He makes plain that salvation is in the risen Jesus alone (Acts 4:12) and that the only way to have that salvation, beginning with the forgiveness of sins, is the way of faith in Him (Acts 10:42, 43; Acts 13:38, 39). As He proclaims Jesus Christ, he declares Him to be the Gift of God and the amazing revelation of God’s love and grace (John 3:16). A Reformed preacher does not proclaim that sinners can save themselves, should co-operate in their salvation, or must do something as a condition that Christ’s salvation depends upon.
Thirdly, the Reformed preacher declares the promise that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life (Canons, II, 5). At the same time, he calls every one in his audience to repent of his sins and to believe in Jesus Christ, i.e., he tells them: “Repent and believe, every one of you!” He also gives a warning that those who despise Christ, by unbelief, will be punished (Acts 13:40, 41). Those who receive the gospel and embrace Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith are thus comforted by the truth of God’s love for them, of Christ’s death for them, and of their everlasting salvation, i.e., they are “delivered from the wrath of God, and from destruction, and have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them” (Canons, I, 4). They are baptized and exhorted to walk worthy of their calling in the holiness of gratitude for God’s gracious salvation.
This is a sketch, admittedly and necessarily very brief, of mission-preaching, preaching to unconverted heathens, which is neither based on nor proceeds by a well-meant offer of the gospel. In fact, it is a sketch of missions from which the doctrine and practice of a free offer are rigorously excluded. There is no universal love and grace of God in it or behind it; there is no desire of God to save all hearers, either stated or implied; there is no offer of salvation dependent upon the sinner’s free will. But what is lacking for energetic, lively, unfettered gospel preaching to anyone and everyone? If we Reformed Churches can preach this message in this way, and if we are driven by the love of God for His sheep scattered abroad, what in our message or our approach hinders missions or evangelism? What are we unable to preach that should be preached? What can we not do that should be done? Where can we not go that the gospel should go? The sketch of Reformed preaching to the unbelieving given above ought to be familiar to every Christian, and certainly to every Reformed man, for it is nothing other than the outline of the message and approach of the apostles in the book of Acts, made with an eye on the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dordt.
It is especially the call to repent and believe that is crucial, both as regards our controversy with the Baptist hyper-Calvinists and as regards our controversy with the well-meant offer. The former deny that there is, or may be, a call to all hearers; the latter subtly changes a summons into an offer. We must, therefore, look closely at the call of the gospel.
The entire message of the gospel is God’s call of His elect in the audience. Through the preached Word, God efficaciously draws to Jesus all those whom He eternally gave to Jesus in the decree of election (John 6:37, 44); by the sermon, the Holy Spirit works faith in the hearts of those who were ordained to eternal life (Acts 13:48). Not just one aspect of the Word, e.g., the command, “Believe,” but the whole message is God’s great “Come to Jesus Christ” to His people. When the preacher is proclaiming the most high majesty and righteousness of God, the Holy Spirit is working humility and awe in the elect sinner’s heart; when the preacher is proclaiming the depravity and guilt of men, the Spirit is working heart-felt conviction of sin, pricking their hearts with sorrow and- shame; when the preacher is setting forth Christ crucified as God’s way out of the misery of sin, the Spirit is working knowledge of and trust in that Savior; and when the preacher cries out, “Believe on Him,” the Spirit irresistibly draws them, so that they come to-the Savior. This is what the New Testament means when it states that the saints have been called (I Cor. 1:24); that they have been called by God through the gospel unto the obtaining of glory (II Thess. 2:14); that they have been called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light (I Pet. 2:9); and that they are those who have been called by God Who quickeneth the dead and calleth those things which be not as though they were (Rom. 4:17).
Nevertheless, Biblical, Reformed preaching includes the command to every hearer to repent and believe. This call is addressed not only to the elect, regenerated members of the audience, but also to the reprobate wicked. The preacher can say and must say to everyone, “Believe on Christ.” Nor is it merely the case that it is the human preacher who gives the call to all his hearers, because, of course, he does not know who are elect and who are reprobate among his audience. When the preacher says, “Repent and believe,” it is not merely the preacher and the sending Church which call the sinners, but it is God Himself Who calls them. On the Day of Judgment, God will say to all those who rejected His preachers’ call to believe on Christ: “Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; but ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof”—therefore now “your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind” (Proverbs 1:24ff).
(to be continued)