Extreme # 1: Preaching as if everyone in the congregation is saved.
Years ago I received an email from a member of a certain congregation. This person, whom I did not know personally at the time I received the email, was wondering why their pastor preached as if everyone in their church was saved. And because their pastor viewed everyone in the pews as regenerate, he did not see the need to call his congregation to self-examination. In other words, since in this preacher’s mind everyone in his local church was saved, he only delivered messages that address the believers. In his sermons, there was no direct call for the unbelievers to repent of their sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation.
I have some problems with this kind of preaching. First of all, a preacher who preaches as if everyone in the congregation is saved has an idealistic view of a local church. The truth is there is no perfectly pure local church composed of only true believers. A visible church will always have both goats and sheep—a sad and painful reality for the ministers. And both the goats and the sheep need the gospel: the goats for their salvation; the sheep for their sanctification. Until Christ returns the congregations that we serve will remain impure (Matt. 25:31–46). Therefore, a pastor should keep in mind that as he proclaims God’s Word, there might be at least one unbeliever present during the preaching. Furthermore, a pastor, who does not see the need to call his congregation to self-examination on the basis of his assumption that everyone is saved, might create a false sense of assurance of salvation among the unbelievers.
We need to realize, too, that self-examination is not only for the unbelievers but for the believers as well. Writing to the Corinthian church, Paul says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Cor. 13:5). Here Paul is particularly addressing his fellow believers. That self-examination is also for the believers is seen in our “Liturgical Form for the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper,” in which we are exhorted to examine ourselves before partaking of the Lord’s Supper.
That we may now celebrate the supper of the Lord to our comfort, it is necessary, before all things, rightly to examine ourselves….Let every one examine his heart whether he also believes this sure promise of God that all his sins are forgiven him only for the sake of the passion and death of Jesus Christ, and that the complete righteousness of Christ is imputed and freely given him as his own – yea, so completely as if he himself, in his own person, had satisfied for all his sins and fulfilled all righteousness.
Here’s my point: Believers in Christ also need to examine themselves whether they truly believe in Jesus or not. And the purpose of this examination is not to make them doubt but to drive them even closer to Christ.
Extreme # 2: Preaching as if no one in the congregation is saved.
Some pastors preach as if no one in their congregations is saved (they do the exact opposite of what the previous pastors do). Or more accurately, these pastors assume that most of their hearers are unsaved and that there are only a minority among their audience who are truly saved. As a result, many members of their congregations—who are genuine believers—suffer severely from a lack of assurance of salvation. Imagine sitting under such preaching. Eventually, you (as a believer) will begin to question the genuineness of your salvation in an unhealthy way, and then fall into despair.
I remember several years ago, I met an old man who sat under this kind of preaching. This man was in his 90’s and had been a member of their congregation for over 50 years. And yet, sadly he did not know whether he was saved or not. This man went to church twice every Sunday for many years and served as an elder several times, but he had no assurance of salvation. Ironically, for this man the more you doubt the more pious you become. Thus, in his mind, doubt is a form of virtue.
Well, such thinking contradicts what Peter says, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Pet. 1:10). Here, Peter is commanding his fellow believers to make sure of their calling and election. And yes, it is possible for Christians to experience and enjoy assurance of salvation. As Canons of Dort says, “Of this preservation of the elect to salvation and of their perseverance in the faith, true believers themselves may and do obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith…” Charles Spurgeon once observed, “Many a believer lives in the cottage of doubt when he might live in the mansion of faith.”
Pastors who commit the extreme # 2 in preaching should realize the damage they do to their members, namely, they foster a spirit of doubt and despair among those who are sincerely saved.
How can we then avoid these two extremes in preaching? There are many ways but for the sake of time, let me just give you one, that is, be faithful to your text. Don’t just read your text and leave it. Use it. Expound it. Preach from it. And don’t force your text to say something that it does not say. As a preacher, you are to tell your congregation what your text says. Suppose your text is Romans 8:28–29: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…”
Obviously this text is for the believers, so use this text to address the believers in your sermon. However, in that same sermon, (even just in a few words) you can also warn the unbelievers by saying that all things are not working together for their eternal good, because the glorious promise found in this passage is only for those who love God.
Now, if your text is Revelation 21:8, then address the unbelievers in your sermon: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” With this passage, don’t hesitate to challenge the unbelievers to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. And as you do so, in passing you can comfort and assure your fellow believers that their portion will not be in the lake of fire but in the new heaven and new earth.
Now, of course you can also preach from a passage that naturally addresses both the believers and the unbelievers. Some of the parables of Jesus do this (e.g., Wise & Foolish Builders [Matt. 7:24–27]; Wise & Foolish Virgins [Matt. 25:1–13]; and Sheep & Goats [Matt. 25:31–46]). These passages allow the pastor to address both the righteous and the wicked in his sermon in a natural and balanced way.
Nevertheless, let me issue a word of caution here for those who listen to a sermon: you cannot expect your pastor to deliver a well balanced sermon that 50% deals with the godly and 50% deals with the ungodly. Depending on the text, sometimes the message can be geared more towards the believers and sometimes more towards the unbelievers. Therefore, if you want to evaluate your pastor, do so based on his faithfulness to his text. The question should not be whether he addressed the unbelievers or not in his message, or whether he addressed the believers or not. No! Instead, did he faithfully preach and apply his text to his congregation?