Evangelistic Preaching

by Eric J. Alexander

As we approach the subject of evangelistic preaching, I think it is important to clarify two related issues.

The first is closely tied to our basic belief in the authority and sufficiency of the whole Word of God; namely, that the whole Bible has saving and sanctifying power. Consequently, we should not be surprised when people are truly converted when we preach a part of the Bible that we would not readily classify as "evangelistic." We regularly need to relearn Paul's great statement in 2 Timothy 3:16: "All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable.…"

My friend and mentor, the Rev. William Still of Aberdeen, used to tell the story of a lady who came to his vestry before the evening service one Sunday to tell him that her niece was with her, and she wanted her to be converted. "That means you will have to preach the gospel tonight!" she added, and flounced out of the room. Rev. Still happened to be preaching through Romans 9–11 at the time, and was not inclined to be diverted. As the aunt seethed with anger in her pew at this "lecture on the Jews," as she described it, her niece was being converted beside her.

The lesson is not that the next time you are called upon to preach on an "evangelistic occasion" you should necessarily turn to Romans 9–11. The lesson is rather that you need to remind yourself that God is pleased to use His whole Word to accomplish the salvation of sinners.

The second issue that we must keep before us constantly in evangelistic preaching is closely related to the first. It is that salvation is the work of God the Holy Spirit. It is so easy for us to slip into a line of thinking that says, "If I just arrange an evangelistic service and emphasize certain basic truths from the Bible in my preaching, people will come to faith in Christ." It is of paramount importance here, and in every other sphere of our ministry, to recognize that salvation is the sovereign work of God.

Left to ourselves, there are many things of which we are capable: we can persuade people intellectually; we can arouse and inspire them emotionally; and we can win them to ourselves psychologically. But the one thing we cannot do is to regenerate them spiritually. That task is exclusively God's.

When one of my friends, who had been in the pastorate for many fruitful years, was asked by some seminary students, "What, in your experience, is the best and most effective evangelistic method?" he replied, after some thought, "Prayer—persistent, believing prayer."

Now, if you think about it, that reply does not come from some profound theological insight. Rather, it comes from a foundational truth. If only God can save, then to whom do we turn to see our friends brought to salvation? The logical answer is, "To God!" The awkward question that sometimes follows is: "Then why is it that in most ministries and churches, prayer is supplemental rather than fundamental?" This is the background against which we need to think about evangelistic preaching.

Motivations for Evangelistic Preaching

At this point, I want to turn to the apostle Paul's second epistle to the Corinthians, where we read:

Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (5:11–21)

Second Corinthians is often thought to be one of Paul's most personal letters. It reveals that he had been under great pastoral and personal stress. He had been the object of serious criticism regarding his integrity, his true motivation in preaching the gospel, and even the soundness of his mind. It should not surprise us, therefore, that in the first few verses of this passage, Paul defends his integrity and clarifies his motives as a preacher of the gospel.

In verse 9, Paul sets down the ultimate goal that directs both his life and his work: "We make it our goal to please him." Then, in verses 11 and 14, he explains the motivations of his preaching: in verse 11, it is the fear of God, and in verse 14, it is the love of Christ. Let's look at them in order:

• The Fear of God. The fear of the Lord is the proper reaction of creatures to God's infinite majesty and of sinners to God's infinite holiness. As we grow in the knowledge of God, we learn to tremble before His great glory and burning purity; this fear is the beginning of wisdom.

This fear has to do with an awareness of inevitable judgment. In 2 Corinthians 5:10, Paul refers to his own appearance before the judgment seat of Christ, as well as to the eventual appearance of the Corinthians at that same judgment seat. His great burden for unbelievers is that they might not come to this great and awesome day and find themselves unprepared and in utter confusion.

Now, notice what the fear of the Lord and impending judgment do for Paul's evangelism. He does not say, "Since we know what it is to fear the Lord, we frighten men." Rather he says, "Since … we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men." Luke uses the same language when he describes Paul's visit to Corinth: "Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks" (Acts 18:4).

There is a very important principle for gospel preaching in Paul's and Luke's vocabulary. The old order of sin makes its approach and appeal through the appetite (think of the fruit of the tree in the garden, which appealed to the eyes and the appetite), whereas the new order of grace makes its appeal through the mind (think of God appealing to the people in Isaiah 1:18: " 'Come, now, let us reason together,' says the LORD"). Confirmation of this principle comes in the language Luke uses to describe the apostolic preaching in Acts. He employs terms such as didaschein ("teach"), dialegesthai ("argue"), paratithemi ("prove"), and syzetein ("dispute"). Correspondingly, when people are converted, they are often said to have been "persuaded."

This does not mean that apostolic evangelism sought a mere intellectual conquest. The ultimate aim was that men and women might repent, believe, and surrender to the lordship of Jesus Christ over the whole of life. But the approach was through the mind. As John R. W. Stott puts it tersely, "There is no doubt that the early apostolic kerygma was full of solid didache."

• The Love of Christ. In 2 Corinthians 5:14, Paul comes to the second main motive of his evangelistic preaching: "Christ's love compels us." It is, I think, beyond dispute that Paul is referring not to the apostles' love for Christ, but to Christ's love for them. That love had brought them under "a compulsion" or "a constraint," which (according to one translation) "leaves us no option." The word does not so much have the idea of "driving out" as "hedging around" or "holding in."

The best illustration for this that I have ever heard came from the Rev. Alan Stibbs, a one-time lecturer in New Testament at Oakhill College. He had been a missionary with the China Inland Mission and described to us the course of the Yangtze River at one point in its eastward trek. On either bank there were high, solid rocks that "constrained" the river in three ways. First, these rocks gave the river unusual depth, since the flow of the water was held in and dug deeply into the riverbed. Second, because the river was constrained by the rocks and was so deep, it had significant drive. Today, this drive is harnessed for the production of hydro-electric power. Third, the embankment created by the rocks guided the river, giving it direction. As Stibbs pointed out to us, few eras in the church's life have so badly needed depth, drive, and direction as our own. The love of Christ should motivate us in these ways as it did the apostle Paul.

It is important to notice, however, that there is nothing vague or general in Paul's reference to the love of Christ. Verse 14 makes it clear that Paul is talking about His love as uniquely manifested in His death, and indeed in a particular understanding of that death: "Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all." The apostolic understanding of the death of Christ includes at least four elements. First, it is substitutionary in its nature (one died for all, that is, in the place of all). Second, it is penal in its character (see v. 21, which is a reference to the punishment of the sin of one being transferred to another in the world of Old Testament sacrifices). Third, it is effectual in its achievement (read verse 14: "For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died." That is, all those for whom He died, died in Him). In short, Jesus was an effective substitute; His death in our place actually achieved our salvation. Fourth, Christ's death is revolutionary in its outcome (read v. 15). By our union with Jesus Christ, we die in His death to all that belongs to our past life, and we are raised with Him into a new life. So we cease living for ourselves and start living instead for Him who died for us and was raised again. That is why Paul is able to say in verse 17 that "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation."

The Ministry of Reconciliation

Paul's evangelistic preaching illustrates the use of a number of metaphors that are familiar to readers of the Epistles. They are all "picture words" drawn from various spheres of life, and they help us to understand the meaning of Christ's death.

Sometimes he uses language drawn from the law court, such as the word justification. There the problem is the guilt and condemnation man discovers when He is brought before God as his Judge. What Christ achieves for him by His death is a reversal of the verdict of "guilty," and the assurance that "there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1).

Sometimes Paul borrows from the commercial world, using terms such as redemption, which carries the idea of a slave in the slave market, bound in chains and waiting for someone to pay the price of liberation. Christ is then the One who pays our ransom price and redeems us by His blood, that is, by His death.

Here in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul uses a much more familiar metaphor. It is the metaphor of reconciliation, behind which there lies the idea of man being separated and alienated from God. We use this word widely today in reference to alienation in the domestic and personal world, the national and international world, and the world of racial relations. In all these spheres, we recognize the great need for reconciliation. But Paul is persuading us that the ultimate alienation is not between man and woman, between one societal group and another, or between one race and another, but between man and God. This is the ultimate human tragedy: we are, by our sinful nature, alienated from God.

The miracle of the gospel is that God reconciles us to Himself through Jesus Christ by making our sin Christ's and by making His righteousness ours. That is what Paul is referring to in verse 21: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." This is the glorious work of reconciliation that God has achieved through Christ. It is His work and His alone (v. 18). Archbishop Temple once said that the only thing we contribute to our salvation is the sin that makes it necessary.

But in verse 18, Paul speaks not only of the gift of salvation that God gives us in Christ, but of the gift of the ministry of reconciliation, which involves us carrying the message of reconciliation to the world (v. 19). It is on account of this task that Paul gives us the lofty title of "Christ's ambassadors." The privilege of this ministry is multiplied when we realize that whereas God achieved the reconciliation through Christ (v. 18), He appeals to men and women through us (v. 20). Just as Christ is the Agent for procuring the reconciliation, we are the agents for proclaiming it: "We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God." God's entrusting of this role to human beings is one of the great mysteries of the universe. What an amazing calling! What an incredible privilege!

Principles for Evangelistic Preaching

Finally, let me set out five timeless principles that should guide our evangelistic preaching:

1. The Word of God, Holy Scripture, is our only infallible authority for the substance of the gospel message.

2. The gospel's theme is Jesus Christ as the only Savior of sinners (cf. Peter's preaching in Acts 2).

3. The Christ who saves is the Christ who is revealed to us in the whole of Scripture. Therefore, we should find the Holy Spirit convicting and saving sinners through the message of the whole Bible. This is precisely the example Jesus Himself gives us in Luke 24:27, on the road to Emmaus: "Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself."

4. The Bible does not save us. Christ saves us. But the only Christ who saves is the Christ who is revealed in the Bible.

5. The preaching of the gospel has two elements in it, as is apparent from the passage we have been studying. One is proclamation ("God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ"). The other is appeal ("as though God were making his appeal through us"). As Stott points out, there must be no proclamation without appeal and no appeal without proclamation.

My suspicion is that while most of us would be confident that we know what the proclamation involves, we may be less clear about the nature of the appeal. This is partly because the word appeal has become associated with a procedure seen in crusades and missions in many parts of the world. Whatever we may think of that kind of public "going forward," it is certainly not what Paul is referring to. What he is speaking about is an appeal to the heart and conscience of his hearers to receive by repentance and faith the riches of God's saving grace in Jesus Christ. We need to press upon our hearers the necessity of heeding that appeal.

The Scriptures affirm that both repentance and faith are gifts of God. But we should be quick to add that God does not repent or believe for us. He implores us and earnestly appeals to us to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. But it is we sinners who exercise saving faith, having been enabled to believe by God.

Unless I am mistaken, it is this pleading and imploring that are sometimes lacking among those of us who are called to be preachers of the gospel in the twenty-first century. May God raise up in our generation a great company of men who are constrained by the love of Christ, men who will be biblical, Christ-centered, Spirit-anointed ambassadors for Christ, combining a single-minded zeal for the glory of God with an earnest longing for the salvation of the lost.

Source: Alexander, Eric. J. (2008). In D. Kistler (Ed.), Feed My Sheep: A Passionate Plea for Preaching (pp. 123–129). Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing.


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