The problem in our day is twofold: On the one hand, we are seeing a waning confidence within Evangelicalism in the message of the gospel. In the United States—I can speak more authoritatively about the condition of the church there than I can about the condition of the church in Britain—the evangelical church shows signs of losing confidence in the convincing and converting power of the gospel message. Why else would preachers trade the bold and accurate proclamation of the Gospel in exchange for pragmatic managerial techniques to build the church unless they had lost confidence in the Gospel’s power to change lives and to transform society? That is why increasing numbers of churches hear and prefer sermons on family life and psychological health. We are being overtaken by what Os Guinness has called the managerial and therapeutic revolutions. The winning message, it seems, is the one which helps people solve their temporal problems and improve their self-image, and makes them feel good about themselves. In such a cultural climate, preaching on the law, sin and repentance, and the cross has all but disappeared, even in evangelical churches. The old gospel is not popular. So the church has become ‘user friendly’, ‘consumer oriented’, and the gospel is watered down to appeal to the consumers. As a result the church is being inundated with the plague of ‘cheap grace’, to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s expression. Today’s ‘gospel’ is all too often a ‘gospel’ without cost, without repentance, without commitment, without discipleship, and thus ‘another gospel’ and accordingly no gospel at all, producing at best ‘spectator Christians’, Christians in name only, all traceable to the fact that this is how too many people today have come to believe that the church must be grown.
On the other hand, we are seeing a waning confidence within Evangelicalism in preaching as the means by which the gospel is to be spread. Spirit-animated preaching is increasingly being viewed as outdated and ineffective ‘Bible thumping’. As a result, preaching is giving way, at least in the United States, to multi-media presentations, drama and dance, ‘sharing times’, innocuous sermonettes on self-esteem, and pathetic ‘how to … in three easy steps’ devotionals. So churches have borrowed techniques from the advertising industry to grow themselves. Telemarketing, in particular, has taken the place of personal one-on-one evangelism, and cell groups are now the darling of the church growth movement. And the infusion of the popular culture into many churches in the forms of applause for the church’s ‘performers’ and sappy contemporary music gives evidence of the diminution of those churches’ vision of God and suggests that in their eagerness to be relevant they have become only more and more desperate! Churches so infected, look to the multiplication of programs to bring about their growth; they sponsor conferences and seminars on every conceivable topic under the sun; they subdivide their congregations down into marrieds, singles, single-parent, divorced, thirty-something, twenty-something, teens, unemployed, child-abused, drug-addicted, and so on, attempting to arrange programs for them all. This preoccupation with the needs of individual ‘selves’ is so pronounced that the salient purpose of the church—to know and to worship God and to make him known in all his holiness and love to a lost world—is obscured by the ‘what can God do for me’ mentality of this ‘me’ generation. And while there is nothing necessarily unseemly in these attempts to meet the needs of these groups as long as these efforts do not diminish the primacy of biblical preaching in the life of the church, one might still justifiably wonder if the perception that this is what one must do in order to minister effectively in the twenty-first century is not in itself a manifestation of waning confidence in the universal appeal and power of the gospel. And once a person joins such a church, conventional wisdom has it, the church and the minister must meet his every felt need. Accordingly, the pastor/teacher in the United States has become more and more a manager, a facilitator, a motivator, even a ‘rush chairman’, promising the newcomer that all his needs will be met—everything but a herald of the whole counsel of God who marches to the beat of the transcendent Drummer, and this all because we are losing confidence in preaching God’s Word as the primary means for the growth of the church and the individual Christian.
What is the cure to this malady? A restored confidence in the Reformed doctrine of the sovereignty of God in salvation! When polished, self-confident, show-boat-type preachers, for example, draw attention to themselves by using music that appeals to the emotions, story-telling, hysteria and hype and appeal to their viewers’ ‘sense of self-worth’ in order to produce ‘decisions’, it is evident that they don’t understand the depravity of man, either their own or their audience’s, or they would not act this way. Why do we say this? Because a biblical understanding of the depravity of man and the necessity of God’s sovereign initiative in salvation produces abject humility in a preacher and the very antithesis of human self-confidence, namely, confidence in God alone.
Read 1 Corinthians 1:26–31 and let Paul instruct you anew that the truth of God’s election destroys human pride and removes all boast before God. Learn anew that only God can convert a sinner, that only God can grow a saint, that no one can boast in this matter of salvation because God does it all (see 1 Cor 3:5–7). Neither the preacher nor the convert can take any credit. Salvation is all God’s doing. ‘It is because of him that we are in Christ Jesus’ (1 Cor 1:30); ‘salvation belongs to the Lord’ (Jon 2:9). Accordingly, the church needs to be reassured that it can preach the simple, unadorned, unglamorized, unglittery gospel message of the cross, knowing that God will use it to save souls and build his church.
Then read 1 Corinthians 2:1–5 and let Paul instruct you anew that preaching does not need to be spruced up by the use of the finest Greek oratorical skills or modern communication methodologies. Neither does the gospel message need appended to it the philosophical cogitations of an Aristotle or an Aquinas or Freud’s analyses of human nature. And here we are bold to say that it is the Reformed theology alone which supplies the necessary theological underpinning which makes true dependence upon God in gospel proclamation possible. When will true reformation come to the church? I say with confidence that it will only come when through all our failures we ministers stop resorting to and relying upon our natural and oratorical skills and clever organizational techniques in order to force church growth and start preaching again with Spirit-animated power God’s simple pristine Word from another world to ours and relying upon God’s Spirit to do his work.
Martin Luther once said: ‘While I drink my little glass of Wittenberg beer the gospel runs its course and overthrows empires.’ Now that is truly the finest and most comforting thing I have ever heard said about beer. What Luther meant, of course, is that he understood that a man’s conversion is not something that can be humanly ‘induced’. He understood that he could not change the world. And he knew that once the seed of the Word is sown and watered, the new life comes into being only by stepping aside and letting God’s Spirit do his work. Therefore, after preaching Luther could cheerfully and trustfully step down from the pulpit; he didn’t need to go on incessantly bellowing and roaring across the countryside. He could joyously drink his little glass of Wittenberg beer and trust in God to work. In all too many cases today we do not sin by doing too little work. On the contrary, many of us ought to ask ourselves whether we are still capable in God’s name of simply trusting him to work. Take my word for it, dear brothers, you can actually serve and worship God by occasionally lying flat on your back after proclaiming the gospel and the unsearchable riches of Christ, getting rid of your everlasting need to produce, and simply trusting God to do his work.
None of this that I have just said here, of course, is intended to suggest even for a moment that Reformed preachers may use bad grammar or should be anti-intellectual or idle. If one were to draw such a conclusion from what I have said, it would indicate that he knows little or nothing about the content and substance of the Reformed faith, for anyone who knows anything at all about the Reformed faith will know that it is anything but anti-intellectual and a motivator to sloth. It demands the very best from us in every area of life. But what I do intend to say is that the Reformed understanding of the gospel with its biblical implicates of human depravity, unconditional election, particular atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance in holiness must not be watered down or ignored in the interest of church growth, and that it will only be when we unceasingly and uncompromisingly proclaim the message of ‘Christ and him crucified’ and the whole counsel of God that true reformation and true church growth will come to the church.*
*Reymond, R. L. (2003). The God-Centered Preacher: Developing a Pulpit Ministry Approved by God (180–185). Fearn, UK: Christian Focus Publications.