(Tim) Under "What is Gospel-centered ministry, really...," there's been a lengthy series of exchanges in the comments concerning whether it's proper to preach evangelistic sermons to established churches. This is an exceedingly important discussion and I want to encourage readers to go down and read those comments in their proper context. But knowing some won't go there, here is my most recent response which can, to some degree, stand on its own. Whatever else you don't read, make sure not to pass over the critically important quote from Luther here recorded.
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Augustine said, "Many sheep without, many wolves within." From the founding of the Church, this has been the universal experience of pastors as we care for our flocks. Yes, the Epistles demonstrate a presumption that letters to believers are letters to believers. It's hard to imagine how they could have been written otherwise. "To those purporting to belong to Christ who are a part of that organization purporting to be a true church in Galatia?" It doesn't work.
But do the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles provide evidence that our Lord and His Apostles called the faith of those marked by the signs of the Covenant into question? The answer to that question is an emphatic, "Yes!" How long shall my list be? Think of those Christ contradicts, telling them their father is not God, but the Devil (John 8:38 & ff.). And if we want to let ourselves off the hook by dismissing Christ as our paradigm for pastoral care today under the rubric of His omniscience, let's move to the Apostolic warning given to Simon Magus in Acts 8. Or on to the many exhortations to baptized believers recorded in the Epistles carefully calculated to warn against and expose presumption--including the Letters to the Seven Churches (eg. Revelation 3:1-6).
So yes, we are to preach to our people normally addressing them as true believers. But we also must test ourselves to see if we are in the faith and call our flock to follow us in this discipline...
"Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you--unless indeed you fail the test" 2 Corinthians 13:5)? That one simple command is all we need to understand this aspect of our work.
And this isn't to mention the situation of most of us, that we regularly have men and women under our Lord's Day church preaching who make no claim to Christian faith. They matter, too, don't they?
How we handle this pastoral obligation is something each of us has to face before the Lord, week by week. And yes, it's not easy to fulfill this duty without furthering the error of overly-tender consciences who fail to stand in our Holy Faith, confident in the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. Such weakness and fear are constants in ministry and must, also, receive our careful pastoral ministry. It's a serious error not to know this disease and guard against it within our flocks.
But I'm convinced a larger error among Reformed pastors today is that we never preach the fear of God, the Law of God, the Last Judgment, and the necessity of fleeing spiritual presumption by testing the sincerity of our faith. That's the error most of us need to repent of, and flee.
Here's an excerpt from Luther's "Instructions for Parish Visitors" I've found extremely helpful:
In regard to doctrine we observe especially this defect that, while some preach about the faith by which we are to be justified, It is still not clearly enough explained how one shall attain to this faith, and almost all omit one aspect of the Christian faith without which no one can understand what faith is or means. For Christ says in the last chapter of Luke [24:47] that we are to preach in his name repentance and forgiveness of sins.
Many now talk only about the forgiveness of sins and say little or nothing about repentance. There neither is forgiveness of sins without repentance nor can forgiveness of sins be understood with out repentance. It follows that If we preach the forgiveness of sins without repentance that the people Imagine that they have already obtained the forgiveness of sins, becoming thereby secure and without compunction of conscience. This would be a greater error and sin than all the errors hitherto prevailing. Surely we need to be concerned lest, as Christ says In Matt. 12 [:45] the last state becomes worse than the first.
Therefore we have instructed and admonished pastors that it is their duty to preach the whole gospel and not one portion without the other. For God says in Deut. 4 [:2]: “You shall not add to the word. . . nor take from it? There are preachers who now attack the pope because of what he has added to the Scriptures, which unfortunately is all too true. But when these do not preach repentance, they tear out a great part of Scripture. They have very little good to say about the eating of meat and the like, though they should not keep silent when they have an opportunity to defend Christian liberty against tyranny. What else is this than what Christ says in Matt. 23 [:24]: “Straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel?"
So we have admonished them to exhort the people diligently and frequently to repent and grieve over their sins and to fear the judgment of God. Nor are they to neglect the greatest and most important element of repentance, for both John and Christ condemned the Pharisees more severely for their hypocritical holiness than for ordinary sins. The preachers are to condemn the gross sins of the common man, but more rigorously demand repentance where there is false holiness....
The preachers are to proclaim and explain the Ten Commandments often and earnestly, yet not only the commandments but also how God will punish those who do not keep them and how he often has inflicted temporal punishment. For such examples are written In order to forewarn people, for instance, how the angels spoke to Abraham in Gen. 19 [:12f.], and told how God would punish Sodom and destroy it with the fire of hell. For they knew that he would tell it to his descendants so that they would learn to fear God.
So too they are to point out and condemn various specific vices. as adultery, drunkenness, envy, and hate, and how God has punished these, indicating that without doubt after this life he will punish still more severely if there is not improvement here.
The people are thus to be urged and exhorted to fear God, to repent and show contrition, lest their ease and life of false security be punished. Therefore Paul says In Rom. 3 [:20]: “Through the law comes (only) knowledge of sin.” True repentance is nothing but an acknowledgment of sin.
Then it is important that faith be preached. Whoever experiences grief and contrition over his sins should believe that his sins are forgiven, not on account of his merits, but on account of Christ.
When the contrite and fearful conscience experiences peace, comfort, and joy on hearing that his sins are forgiven because of Christ, then faith Is present—the faith that makes him righteous before God. We are to teach the people diligently that this faith cannot exist without earnest and true contrition and fear of God, as It is written in Psalm 110 Prov. 1 [:7], “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” And Isaiah says in the last chapter: "On whom does God look except on the trembling and contrite heart?"
This shall be proclaimed repeatedly, so that the people do not entertain false notions and think they have faith when they are far from having it. It shall be made clear that only If they have faith can they truly repent and grieve over their sins. Without repentance theirs is an imagined faith. True faith brings comfort and joy in God, and we do not feel such comfort and joy where there is no repentance or fearfulness, as Christ says in Matt. 11 [:5]: “The poor have good news preached to them.”
These two are the first elements of Christian life: Repentance or contrition and grief, and faith through which we receive the forgiveness of sins and are righteous before God. Both should grow and increase in us.on
-from Luther's Works; Volume 40; Church and Ministry II; Edited by Conrad Bergendoff; Muhlenberg Press; Philadelphia; 1958; "Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors"; pp. 274 ff.
So Luther commands the preaching of the Law as a method of awakening those without compunction of conscience. Where and when would Reformed pastors today do the same? I grieve to think how many would call it spiritual abuse.
There are few things more dangerous to a pastor's tenure than faithfulness in warning our congregation, those who have been marked by Baptism and the Lord's Supper, of their need to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith. Churches today are filled with church members rendered "without compunction of conscience" by unfaithful shepherds who coddled them through the neglect of God's Law and warnings, never leading them through true fear of God and repentance, to saving faith in the work of the Cross of Christ. I'm convinced that many, if not most, evangelicals (including, and maybe especially, those in Reformed churches) are in the precise situation Luther here describes: they have been given over to an error "worse than all those hitherto prevailing," an error worse than the Roman Catholic Church prior to the Reformation.
This is the true state of the Protestant church today. We have removed the fear of God and are left with congregations of souls enslaved to greed, adultery, imaged idolatry, rebellion, and gossip who yet remain entirely without compunction of conscience, eating at the Lord's Table with impunity, never obstructed and guarded from presumption by loving and faithful shepherds.
Yes, there's always a danger of too-tender consciences, and we must work to assure such godly souls of the certainty of God's call and work through Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit. But such souls are exceptional in our wicked day when to be American and to be Christian are one and the same.