Should pastors preach evangelistic sermons to their churches?

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(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


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...


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


-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.