“Scripture makes abundantly clear that we are to be members of a local church.” Kenneth Kantzer
“Why should I join the church?”
Despite my seminary training and pastoral experience, I was unprepared for this new
Christian’s question. He agreed from our study of the Scripture that he needed to identify himself as a disciple of Christ through baptism, but then he asked, “Can you show me from the New Testament that I’m supposed to officially join anything?”
Now he really had me.
“If I come and worship as often as the members,” he continued, “if I fellowship with these believers as much as anyone else, if I profit from the teaching and other ministries of the church, and if I actively demonstrate love for my brothers and sisters in Christ here, why should I formally join the church?”
His question struck me with an uncomfortable logic.
I began to realize that many of my conclusions about church membership were actually nothing more than previously unchallenged assumptions. These assumptions were now melting into questions of my own. Can I give reasons from Scripture why anyone should join a church? Did the Christians in New Testament times formally join churches or did they more of an informal relationship? Did the churches in the days of the Apostle Paul have a membership list? How do I respond to the rising tide of opinion that says church membership is merely an unchallenged, but unbiblical tradition and an unnecessary formality?
Here’s what I found.
BIBLICAL INDICATIONS OF CHURCH MEMBERSHIP IN NEW TESTAMENT TIMES
To start with, we encounter the word church throughout the New Testament. In the great majority of instances the term refers to a specific local church like that in Rome or Corinth. Sometimes when we read of the church the reference is to what’s often called the church universal, that is, all Christians everywhere. But when you read “church” in the Bible, it almost always means “local church.”
At the very least, the local church was the fellowship of the followers of Jesus Christ in a particular area. We know that they met together, worshiped together, prayed together etc., as the born-again family of God. But did people actually join this fellowship in some official way, or was it a mutually-assumed and less formal association?
The New Testament church practice of keeping a list of widows makes sense in the context of membership
We know that churches in the days of the Apostle Paul made and maintained at least one type of list. “No widow may be put on the list of widows,” Paul instructs Timothy, “unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband,” etc., (1 Timothy 5:9, NIV). As easily as the churches had lists of widows, they could have had lists of members. There would be no difference except for length for a church to keep a widows’ list and a membership list.
The instructions for church discipline make sense only in the context of membership
In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus gave us instructions on how the church should respond when someone within the church persists in living like an unbeliever. We read of a specific case of this in 1 Corinthians 5 and how the Apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, instructed the Christians in the church at Corinth to handle it. In verses 11-13 Paul says, “But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner-not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore ‘put away from yourselves the evil person.'”
There was a sexually immoral man in this church. Was Paul simply telling them not to let this man come to church with them because he was acting like an unbeliever instead of a Christian? No, he couldn’t have meant that, for we know from other places in this letter (cf. 14:24-25) that unbelievers were welcome to attend church meetings. Even when they obeyed Paul’s instructions to “put away from yourselves the evil person” and considered the man an unbeliever, they would have allowed (even welcomed) him to come and sit under the preaching of God’s Word like any other person in town. So in what sense would they have “put away” (“remove”-NASB, “expel”- NIV) this man?
The best way of explaining how they would have “put away” this man is to understand that they removed him from the membership of the church and generally stopped associating with him outside the church meetings.
Notice that Paul refers to those who are “inside” and to those who are “outside.” Outside of what? As we’ve noted, anyone could attend their meetings. This kind of language can only refer to a definite church membership of converted people. For what authority does a group have to remove someone who is already “outside” and not a member of the group? You can’t fire someone who doesn’t work for you. You can’t vote in your country to remove a government official elected by another country. You can’t appeal to a court to discipline someone who isn’t within its jurisdiction. In the same way, you can’t formally discipline someone who is in an informal relationship with you; you have no authority to do so. These people in Corinth had voluntarily committed themselves to a formal relationship and they knew who were official members of the church and who were “outside.”
Church discipline must be done by the “church” (Matthew 18:17) and occur “when you are gathered together” (1 Corinthians 5:4). Who is to gather together? How do you know who the “church” is? How do you determine who does and does not have the right to speak and vote on such matters? Does the person subject to discipline have the liberty to bring in his extended family or coworkers who have never been to the church, or even people off the street, and expect them to be given an equal say with those who have been faithful to the church for years? No? Why not? Do you exclude them from involvement because they’ve never been part of the church? Then what about the person who attended once five years ago? Or those who came at Easter and Christmas last year? Or those who regularly watch the church services on television or listen to them on the radio, and perhaps even send money, but never enter the building? Or those from distant cities who visit several times each year because of family members in the church? Obviously, Biblical church discipline must be limited to a specific group and that must mean the church members.
The meaning of the word “join” in Acts. 5:13 makes sense only in the context of membership
In Acts 5:13 we read of the reaction of the non-Christians in Jerusalem after a couple within the church, Ananias and Sapphira, had died on the spot when it was revealed that they had lied to the church. It says, “Yet none of the rest dared join them, but the people esteemed them highly.” The unbelievers had great respect for the Christians, but after this incident none of them who claimed to be converted but were outward-only believers wanted to join the church.
In the Greek language in which Paul wrote this letter, the word he used that’s translated here as “join” literally means “to glue or cement together, to unite, to join firmly.” It doesn’t refer to an informal, merely assumed sort of relationship, but one where you choose to “glue” or “join” yourself firmly to the others. Again, that kind of language only makes sense in the context of membership.
That same “glue word” is used in the New Testament to describe being joined together in a sexual relationship (1 Corinthians 6:16) and being joined to the Lord in one spirit in salvation (1 Corinthians 6:17). And it’s the very same word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 5:11 when he says “not to keep company with” any so-called brother who continues in immorality, but rather to “put away from yourselves the evil person.” Clearly this kind of language doesn’t refer to a casual, superficial, or informal relationship.
So when it says in Acts 5:13 that no insincere believer “dared join them,” the “glue word” used there speaks of such a cohesive, bonding relationship that it must be referring to a recognized church membership.
The meaning of “the whole church” in 1 Corinthians 14:23 makes sense only in the context of membership
The earthly founder of the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul, wrote to this new body of Christians about their many difficulties, including how to bring order to their public worship. He began 1 Corinthians 14:23 with, “Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, . . .” Who did he have in mind when he referred to “the whole church”? The only realistic answer is “the church members.” That’s why one commentator, working with the original language of this text, translates it “If then the whole church assembles together and all its members” [emphasis mine] and notes “(the last two words are not in the Greek but are naturally to be understood).”(1)
Imagine the leaders of the Corinthian Christians walking into the gathering of the church for worship one Sunday. Would they have known by looking, or would they have had some way of deciding, whether “the whole church” was there? Surely they would have known who was supposed to be present in a churchwide meeting and who was missing. But how else could they have known when “the whole church” was “together in one place” without knowing who was a member and who wasn’t? This implies a verifiable membership.
The instructions for pastoral oversight and spiritual leadership make sense only in the context of membership
“This is a faithful saying:,” said Paul to Timothy, “If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work” (1 Timothy 3:1). In other places the New Testament also refers to a bishop, or “overseer” as the NIV and NASB render it, as a pastor or elder (Acts 20:17, 28; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5-7). But what or whom does he oversee? How can he provide spiritual oversight if he doesn’t know exactly those for whom he is responsible? A distinguishable, mutually-understood membership is required for him to fulfill his charge.
Down in verse 5 it says of an overseer, “for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?” The local church is compared to a family. Is anyone a casual member of a family? No, membership in a family is a very definite thing.
“Take heed to yourselves,” Paul instructed the elders of the church of Ephesus, “and to all the flock” (Acts 20:28). How could they fulfill their responsibility as undershepherds to “all” the flock unless they knew who was part of “the flock” and who was not? These leaders of a growing church in a large city needed some means of identification of those for whom they were to “take heed.” A simple membership list is the logical solution.
In Hebrews 13:17 is a word addressed to those under such overseers: “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” For whom will the leaders of a church give an account-everyone who comes in and out of their church services? No, it has to be a limited group of people-the members of the church-for whom they will be answerable. Otherwise, how can church leaders be responsible for someone until they know he or she is committed to their care? The Bible’s instructions for pastoral oversight and spiritual leadership can best be obeyed when there is a well-defined church membership.
The metaphors used to describe local churches (flock, temple, body, household) make sense only in the context of membership
The New Testament uses several metaphors to describe churches. Some of these metaphors describe the church of Christ collectively throughout the world. While all of them could potentially apply to the local church also, at least four of these metaphors- flock, temple, body, and household-are definitely used to refer to individual churches (in Acts 20:28; Ephesians 2:21; 1 Corinthians 12:27, and 1 Timothy 3:15). And each metaphor is best understood in a setting of specific church membership.
A flock of sheep isn’t a random collection of ewes, rams, and lambs. Shepherds know their flocks. They know which sheep are theirs to care for and which are not.
Sheep belong to specific flocks. This is also the way it should be for God’s spiritual sheep. A temple building, just like a church building, shouldn’t have any loose bricks or blocks. If it does, something’s wrong. Each one of them has a definite place. “There is no place,” said an English preacher long ago, “for any loose stone in God’s edifice.” (2) The same analogy is true for a human body. Your body isn’t a casual collection of loosely related parts. You don’t keep your fingers in your pocket until you need them. They are joined. They are members of the body. The local body of Christ should be like this also-those joined to Christ, who are members of His body-should express that relationship through a visible membership. And in a household, a family, you’re either a member or you’re not. So if you are part of the family of God, show it by joining a local expression of God’s family.
British pastor Eric Lane sees additional significance in this quartet of metaphors:
God has given us four pictures of the church, not one. This is not just to emphasize and prove the point by repetition, but also to say four different things about what it means to be a member of a church. To be a stone in his temple means to belong to a worshipping community. To be part of a body means to belong to a living, functioning, serving, witnessing community. To be a sheep in the flock means belonging to a community dependent on him for food, protection, and direction. To be a member of a family is to belong to a community bound by a common fatherhood. Put together you have the main functions of an individual Christian. Evidently we are meant to fulfill these not on our own but together in the church. Now can you see the answer to the question why you should join a church? (3)
We’ve just seen five Biblical indications that New Testament churches had membership lists of some sort. They knew who was a member and who was not. When people became followers of Jesus, or when followers of Jesus moved to another town, they formally identified themselves with a local church-they joined it. “In the New Testament there is no such person as a Christian who is not a church member,” writes Douglas G. Millar. Conversion was described as ‘the Lord adding to the church’ (Acts 2:47). There was no spiritual drifting.” (4)
Perhaps you are persuaded that the churches in the days of the New Testament had membership lists and that people joined the churches instead of “drifting.” Are there other Biblical reasons why Christians should be members of a church today? Here are some . . .
BIBLICAL REASONS FOR JOINING A CHURCH
You prove that you’re not ashamed to identify with Christ or His people
Jesus said (in Mark 8:38) that if anyone is ashamed to identify himself with Him on earth then He will not identify Himself with that person when he or she stands before God in the Judgment. Joining a church is one of the plainest ways of saying you’re not ashamed to identify yourself with Jesus and with His people. Jesus certainly made a formal commitment to identify Himself with His people when He left Heaven to come to earth and die as a man. Can, then, one for whom Christ died be reluctant to identify himself formally with the others for whom Christ died? California pastor John MacArthur explains and asks further, “You have been joined together with Christ. . . . You bear His name. Are you ashamed to belong? Are you ashamed to bear that identification with other believers of like precious faith? . . . Shouldn’t you be willing outwardly to identify with the visible, gathered members of that group to which you eternally belong?” (5)
When you join a church you make it clear whose side you’re on. You’re telling the family of God that you’re part of the family too, and that you don’t want to be considered on the “outside” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13) any longer.
You stop being an independent Christian and place yourself under the discipline and protection of other Christians
In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus set up an accountability system. When a professing believer starts living like an unbeliever, those in the church who know about it are to confront him about his sin. First, one is to go to this person, and then, if he will not listen, the one is to bring one or two others along for a second conversation. The goal is to restore him back to full fellowship with the Lord and his fellow believers. If he persistently and unrepentantly refuses to return to the Lord, the final step is to report the matter to the church. Then everyone in the church has the chance to win the person back. And if he continues in his sin, the church is to withdraw fellowship from him as the final means of showing him his need to repent.
If you aren’t part of the church, they have no authority over you and cannot do what Jesus said to do. Unless you join the church, your independence places you outside the way Jesus wants things to happen. Incidentally, when Jesus says in verse 17 to bring this matter “to the church,” how do you know who should be notified (and who should not be) unless there is a formally recognized membership?
Related to this idea of spiritual authority, recall Hebrews 13:17, the passage we examined which tells us to obey the leaders of the church and submit to them because they keep watch over our souls. The leaders of the church are to “watch over” you by providing spiritual protection for you and caring about your growth in Christ. You place yourself outside that spiritual watchcare unless you join a local church.
You participate in a stronger, more unified effort of God’s people to obey Christ’s command to reach others
The last thing Jesus said before returning to Heaven is known to Christians today as the Great Commission. It’s found in Matthew 28:19-20 where Jesus told His disciples (and us), “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.”
I’ve met a few people who weren’t interested in church membership but who were zealously witnessing to others about Christ and trying to make disciples for Him. Since they do so well what relatively few Christians do at all (i.e., share their faith), why emphasize church membership to them? They need to see that joining a church is like putting one candle with many others. They will give off more light collectively than the one lone candle ever could, and together they will have a greater penetration into the world’s darkness.
And as your local church reaches across the country and around the world in direct and indirect support of missionary work, you can participate in ways of reaching the world for Christ that you could have never dreamed otherwise.
In contrast, consider the potential negative impact on your efforts to talk about Jesus if you don’t join His earthly body. John MacArthur says we should ask ourselves, “How wonderful can Christ be if we’re not even committed to being associated with His church?” (6) How believable is our testimony of the goodness and greatness of Christ if we don’t want to identify openly with Christ’s family?
You have a greater opportunity to use your spiritual gift “for the profit of all”
At the moment of salvation when the Holy Spirit comes to live within a believer in Christ, He brings a gift with Him. “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:4. He continues in verse 11, “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.” For what purpose does God gift each Christian? The answer is in verse 7: “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.” God gifts you individually so that you will use your gift “for the profit” of others. You have a greater opportunity to do that when you use your gift in and through local church membership.
Yes, you can use your spiritual gift for the good of God’s people without joining a church. But in a lot of churches, many of the ministry opportunities are available for church members only. That’s because the church wants to know that you stand with her doctrinally and support her ministry goals before you’re asked to minister in certain positions. Besides, remaining outside the membership of the church may say more about your desire to serve than you intend. “Not joining the church,” according to MacArthur, ‘is saying, ‘I don’t want to serve the only institution Christ ever built.” (7) So the best way to maximize the effectiveness of your spiritual gift is to use it “for the profit of all” in a local church as a member.
You openly demonstrate the reality of the body of Christ
“Now you are the body of Christ,” Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27, NIV). But how can we see the body of Christ? When you join a church, you make it visible. You give a living demonstration of the spiritual reality of the body of Christ. You show that even though you are an individual, you are a part of the body, you are joined together with others. You take the body of Christ out of the realm of the theoretical and give it a meaning that people can see.
As pastor and author Ben Patterson puts it, “To join a particular part of the body of Christ is not to bring something into existence that was not there before. It is simply to make actual what is spiritual, to prove that the spiritual is real.” (8)
You participate in a more balanced ministry than you can otherwise experience
In Ephesians 4:11-16 we read of the Lord giving gifted men such as evangelists and pastor-teachers to the church. We’re taught that each part-every member-of the church body has a job to do for the body to function properly and grow. It’s a picture of wholeness and balance. We need this God-ordained mutual ministry to be what God intends.
Further, God has designed us so that we can’t get this well-rounded ministry on our own. No one develops the proper spiritual symmetry just by listening to Christian radio, watching Christian television, or reading Christian books. You can’t get this kind of maturity merely by participating in a group Bible study. Unless you’re an active part of a local church, your Christian life and ministry will be imbalanced.
You demonstrate your commitment, not to “spiritual hitchhiking,” but to “the proper working of each individual part” in the visible body of Christ
Some time ago in the magazine of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, a writer made an interesting observation about the hitchhiker. He wants a free ride. He assumes no responsibility for the money needed to buy the car, the gas to run it, or the cost of maintenance. He expects a comfortable ride and adequate safety. He assumes the driver has insurance covering him in case of an accident. He thinks little of asking the driver to take him to a certain place even though it may involve extra miles or inconvenience.
Think about the “spiritual hitchhiker” who has settled all his major questions about the matters and has definitely decided where he wants to attend church, but now wants all the benefits and privileges of that church’s ministry without taking any responsibility for it. His attitude is all take and no give. He wants no accountability, just a free ride.
This is not meant to discourage those who are attending a church to find answers about Jesus Christ and are still uncertain about their eternal destiny. If that describes you, your first priority is to come to Christ rather than to come for church membership.
Neither is this intended to deter those who are sincerely and actively seeking God’s will in a decision about a church home. Sometimes that decision cannot be made quickly. A wise person evaluates a church carefully before joining its membership.
A “spiritual hitchhiker,” however, has no real intention of joining the church, at least not soon. He only wants to enjoy its advantages without any obligation on his part. He wants convenience without commitment, to be served rather than to serve. But every true Christian is to be committed to “the proper working of each individual part” (Ephesians 4:16, NASB) in a local church. When you join a church, you’re saying you believe in taking your “individual part” and that you don’t want to be a “spiritual hitchhiker.”
You “exhort” new believers to the same “good works” of commitment to the local body of Christ
In the familiar passage on church commitment, Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” Notice the command to “consider one another” that is associated here with church involvement. Bear in mind the message you give to other believers, especially new believers, if you do not join a church. What are you modeling to new believers when you remain uncommitted to the local church? Do they see your example and learn that the church isn’t important enough to join? Do they get the message that the Kingdom of God is not worth such an investment of yourself? Do they interpret your actions as saying that the work of God does not deserve a full commitment?
On the other hand, joining a church is one way of “exhorting one another” as this passage puts it, “to love and good works.” When you do join the local church you provide a positive example that says, “This is worth being a part of and I recommend it to you.”
You encourage a ministry when you consider it faithful and join it
Suppose John loves Mary and sees no one else but her for ten years. Every time they are together he tells her that he loves her, but never proposes to her. Finally, after a decade she has enough nerve to ask him, “John, why haven’t you wanted to marry me?”
If he says, “I’m just trying to make sure,” how do you think she would feel? Of course, she’s glad he says he loves her, and she’s thankful for all he does for her, and she’s pleased that he doesn’t see anyone else, but in spite of all that, she’s going to be somewhat discouraged because he doesn’t love her enough to decisively commit himself to her.
The people and pastor of a church are glad whenever you attend. But if you keep coming and never join, they may begin to wonder what Mary wondered about John, despite how happy you seem to be with the church and how many wonderful things you say about it. So there is a sense in which your attendance and involvement can actually discourage the church and its leaders if, after a reasonable time, you do not join it.
Conversely, the church is encouraged (the NASB and NIV render “exhort” in Hebrews 10:25 as “encourage”), and its leadership is encouraged, when you indicate by joining the church that you love it and think it is a Biblically faithful ministry worthy of your commitment.
BIBLICAL RESPONSES TO THIS MESSAGE
Now that you’ve read these things about church membership, what should you do?
Turn from living for yourself and follow Christ, the Head of the church
Membership in a local church does not mean that you are part of the body of Christ. Without Christ, church membership means nothing. Hell is filled with people who were church members. Before you respond to the challenge of church membership, you must make sure you know Jesus Christ, who is “head over all things to the church” (Ephesians 1:22). Your greatest need in life is not to be on the membership roll of a church; it is to be made right with God by the One who died for the church, who created the church, who loves the church, and who is returning someday for His true church.
What should you do? The Bible says you should repent and believe in the Gospel (Mark 1:15), i.e., the message about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To repent and believe in this way involves turning from living for yourself and turning in faith to Jesus Christ. Recognize that your sin has separated you from God (Isaiah 59:2; Romans 3:23). You’ve repeatedly broken God’s laws and this excludes you from His family and from eternity with Him. Come to Christ, however, and He can make you right with God. Believe that His death can cleanse you from all guilt before God and provide you with all the righteousness God requires. This is infinitely more important than church membership.
Present yourself to the church for baptism as a symbol of identification with Christ and His church
Ten days after Jesus had ascended back to Heaven, the Holy Spirit of God descended upon the believers who were gathered in Jerusalem. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter preached that morning to the crowd that had gathered because of the Jewish Feast of Pentecost. About three thousand people turned from their sin and believed that the crucified and risen Jesus was their Messiah and God. Then, according to Acts 2:41, “those who had gladly received his word were baptized.” If you have received (i.e., believed) the word about Jesus Christ, you should be baptized.
Baptism is a church ordinance commanded by Christ (Matthew 28:19). If you have trusted Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, you should present yourself to a local church as a candidate for baptism. By this means you will openly identify yourself as a follower of Christ and a member of His body.
Present yourself for membership in a local, New Testament church if you’ve been Scripturally baptized and your membership is elsewhere
Have you come to Christ and been baptized? Then you should formally identify yourself with the people of Christ where you live. If you have moved, or for some other reason have membership in a church you no longer attend, you should unite with the believers of a Biblically-based, Christ-centered church where you can participate faithfully. (See Acts 18:27 and Romans 16:1-2 for a New Testament example of Christians who identified with and served with a local congregation even when they were in a place which might not have been their permanent residence.)
When I was in college I faithfully attended a local church. After about a year I realized that my membership needed to be in that church, not the one back home that I grew up in but now rarely visited. So I presented myself for membership in the church where I was worshiping regularly. Today I encourage students to become members of a church in their college town, because that’s where they are most of the time. If they are home for the summer, I suggest that, if practical, they move their membership back to their hometown church for those three months. There are two good reasons for doing this. One, there’s no guarantee that their plans won’t change and that they won’t be back either at their school or at that particular church in the fall. Two, this develops a healthy pattern of thinking “Join a church here” whenever they relocate. This habit will serve them well when they graduate and move away from college to who-knows-where, not to mention each of the several times they are likely to move in the coming decades.
Reaffirm the commitment implied in your present church membership
If you are presently a member of the local church you attend, you should exercise your spiritual gifts in and through that church (see Romans 12:5-6a). Membership implies commitment and activity. All the living parts of the body of Christ should be working and fulfilling their God-intended function.
Think about this: a member of a human body, such as a heart or kidney, cannot exist apart from the body, except by some temporary and artificial sustenance. But this isn’t what it’s designed for. In this sheer existence the organ doesn’t fulfill its function in the body. It isn’t nourished in the way God intended through the body, but subsists only through some synthetic way that provides mere maintenance but doesn’t stimulate growth or development.
In the same way, a true member of Christ’s body is not designed to operate independently or outside the body. An authentic part of Christ’s spiritual body cannot be content while separated from the rest of His earthly body. That’s because he or she is made for interdependence, not independence.
As wonderful and sophisticated as the heart is, it was never made to be just a heart, but a part of a body. It has no value to the body outside the body. And the heart itself can’t thrive outside the body. As incredible and wonderful as you are, Christian, you were never made just to be an individual Christian, but a part of body. As every organ and every cell is God-created to be an active member of the human body, so every true Christian is God-created to be a active member of a localbody of Christ.
Are you a true Christian? Are you an actively and Biblically involved member of a local body of Christ? “Belonging to the church,” says John MacArthur, “is at the very heart of Christianity.” (9)
Church membership involves many responsibilities, but we must never lose sight of the great privilege that it really is. “We must grasp once again,” said Martyn Lloyd-Jones of London in the mid-twentieth century, “the idea of church membership as being the membership of the body of Christ and as the biggest honour which can come a man’s way in this world.” (10)
(1) C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 324.
(2) Joseph Hall, as quoted in John Blanchard, More Gathered Gold (Welwyn, England: Evangelical Press, 1986), p. 43.
(3) G. Eric Lane, I Want to Be A Church Member (Bryntirion, Wales: Evangelical Press of Wales, 1992), p. 21.
(4) Douglas G. Millar, “Should I Join A Church?”, The Banner of Truth, Issue 62, Nov. 1968, p. 21.
(5) John F. MacArthur, Jr., “Commitment to the Church,” Tape GC 80-130 (Panorama City, CA: Grace to You, 1994.
(6) MacArthur tape GC 80-130.
(7) MacArthur tape GC 80-130.
(8) Ben Patterson, “Why Join A Church?”, Leadership, Fall Quarter, 1984, p. 80.
(9) MacArthur tape GC 80-130.
(10) D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Knowing the Times (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), p. 30.
*Adapted from Spiritual Disciplines Within The Church by Donald S. Whitney, Moody Press, copyright 1996. Used with permission.
George Barna, the guru of statistics among evangelicals, seems to be influencing today’s pulpit more than the apostles Peter and Paul. Barna, whose popularity began with his book Marketing the Church, has assumed the position of telling preachers how they are to preach in order to “reach” certain segments of society. His basic thesis of “marketing the church” continues in his profusion of books. While no one can doubt the importance of Barna’s statistical data to the strategies of evangelicals, it seems that he continues to cross the line of offering data to pontificating changes that ignore God’s Word.
In a recent article in Preaching titled “The Pulpit-meis-ter: Preaching to the New Majority,” Barna departs from his role as a sociologist and assumes the role of professor of preaching. He does state that “the core of our message must never be compromised,” but the paradigm he proposes can lead only to compromise. He suggests that “the new majority,” the group of so-called Boomers and Busters (those born from 1946 to 1964 and 1965 to 1983, respectively), have certain characteristics which prevent them from being attentive to typical, traditional preaching (George Barna, “The Pulpit-meister: Preaching to the New Majority,” Preaching [January/February], 11).
I recognize that preachers must develop their individ- ual styles and that preaching in certain parts of the world may vary due to particular cultural influences. But when the preacher must change his use of language to purge it of any hint of the theological or judgmental, he finds himself positioned to be more of an inspirational speaker than a preacher of God’s Word. When he must keep his sermons under twenty minutes, filling them with stories, avoiding “moral absolutes,” and going light on scriptural references, he has no hope to teach and explain the doctrines of the Word. Barna goes so far as to state, “Increasingly we find that the entire approach of ‘talking at the audience’ is an ill fated form of communication.” He suggests that preaching in any kind of series will not work since the audience may change from week to week (The Pulpit-meister, 11-13).
The question Barna’s article raises for me is this, What are we trying to do in preaching? Are we trying to placate the self-centeredness of man? Or proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord”? Preachers must reckon with the biblical basis of preaching rather than the sociological observations of barn. Barna is fallible. God’s Word is not.
In His classic work Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “The most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and most urgent need in the Church, it is obviously the greatest need in the world also.” (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1971], 9). Assuredly, Lloyd-Jones did not have drama, entertainment, or pulpit chats in mind when he pressed the need for “true preaching.” In his mind, true preaching was nothing less than the exposition of God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit. “What is preaching?” Lloyd-Jones queried:
Logic on fire! Eloquent reason! Are these contradictions? Of course not. Reason concerning this Truth ought to be mightily eloquent, as you see in the case of the Apostle Paul and others. It is theology on fire. And a theology which does not take fire, I maintain, is a defective theology; or at least the man’s understanding of it is defective. Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire (Preaching and Preachers, 97).
The issue in preaching is proclaiming faithfully, accurately, and clearly the Word of God, so that the truth of the Word penetrates the mind to affect the heart, rather than the cleverness of the preacher impressing the hearers. At the core of all a preacher does is to dig deeply into a given text of Scripture, seeking to understand it grammatically, historically, and doctrinally. He must then apply himself, in the power of the Spirit, to let the text speak through him. J.I. Packer explained what true preaching is when he wrote:
The true idea of preaching is that the preacher should become a mouthpiece for his text, opening it up and applying as a word from God to his hearers, talking only in order that the text may speak itself and be heard, making each point from his text in such a manner “that the hearers may discern how God teacheth if from thence (J.I. Packer, God Has Spoken [Grand Rapids, Michagan: Baker, 1979], 28; Packer quote from Westminster Directory, 1645).
With much grief, I listened recently to a man who filled the pulpit with jokes, clever stories, and talk-show one-liners. But he never proclaimed God’s Word. He read a text and even referred to it, albeit eisegetically. Yet the truths of the Word were never expounded for the congregation to be confronted with the living God and his truth. That is entertainment. it is not preaching in a biblical sense. I fear that such pulpit-abuse (or perhaps I should say, congregation abuse) is all too common.
We must consider what we are attempting to do in the pulpit. It seems that some preachers have a goal to be enjoyed by the hearers rather than to help the hearers understand God’s Word, and, consequently, come to know God in truth. Surely the shallowness in the pew is primarily due to the neglect in the pulpit. I agree with James Montgomery Boice: “The church has to rediscover who God is, come to know him, and fellowship with him. The avenue for that has always been Bible exposition and teaching. There’s no shortcut.”(Quoted by Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church [Chicago: Moody, 1996], 59). Yet the popular methods of the day fall short of “Bible exposition and teaching.”
What does the Bible have to say about all this? There’s no more forceful nor clear passage addressing the subject of preaching than that which Paul wrote to Timothy in his last epistle:
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and kingdom; preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-5 [Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible]).
Whatever the preacher is to be doing in the pulpit, at the very minimum he ought to be dictated by the teaching of God’s Word. Anything less than this is a compromise of his ministry and calling. The example and exhortation of the Bible points back to the priority of preaching. Don Whitney expresses it well:
Regardless of how inefficient some may think preaching is in our technological, mass media society, regardless of how much more exciting or entertaining or even successful other methods may appear, the most effective way of communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ is still through the means God was pleased to choose—preaching (Spiritual Disciplines, 64).
With these things in mind, I offer some of the chief issues raised by the apostle Paul in his exhortation to Timothy.
BIBLICAL PREACHING IS A SOLEMN RESPONSIBILITY
The apostle Paul was nearing the end of his life as he penned these words to Timothy. We can call them “Final Instructions,” for the apostle knew the pressures of the ministry which his young disciple faced. He understood that nothing short of biblical preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit will have the needed effect upon his congregation. So we see him reminding Timothy of the gravity facing him in the discharge of his responsibilities. For Paul, being a preacher was not a matter of fun or popularity. It was a divine calling that must be fulfilled in a God-ordained fashion.
We see that biblical preaching is a solemn responsibility…
Because of the Audience.“I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus,”he begins. Paul wanted Timothy to understand that while he had a congregation who listened to his preaching, they were not his chief audience. Instead, God and Christ Jesus were.
This is a shocking thought to consider: The God of heaven listens in on the preaching of the pastor! There is no more important thing for me to remember when standing at the pulpit than the fact that the ears of heaven are attuned to every word I speak. The Greek of the prepositional phrase, “in the presence of,” literally means “in the face of” (Gk. enopion). The solemn charge to preach and the discharging of the duty is given “in the face of” God and the Redeemer.
When I first spoke this truth to my own congregation there were a few people who were repulsed at the thought. They argued against such a proposition that God himself is the primary audience in preaching, while the congregation is secondary. Yet this is exactly what Paul spoke to the church at Corinth: “Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves before you? We are speaking in Christ before God. Everything we do beloved, is for the sake of building you up (2 Corinthians 12:19). The solemnity of preaching demands that the preacher realize that he is speaking “in the sight of God,” yet for the “upbuilding” of the congregation.
Because of the Accountability. The reminder that the Lord Jesus Christ is “to judge the living and the dead” should stem the endless jokes and cute stories that pollute the pulpit as a substitute for preaching. Those seated before the preacher will one day face a Judge who executes his judgement in righteousness. In light of this, can the preacher be trivial in the pulpit? If he truly loves those under his charge, can he neglect to expound the Word of God which addresses the “real need” of sinners rather than offering up sermonic ditties for the “felt needs” of his hearers?
Because of the Appearing. The imminence and gravity of Christ’s return is held before Timothy as he is charged with preaching the Word of God. The preacher of the Word must keep in mind that we do not await clever timetables for Christ to return. He can end this life in a moment. The preacher must so live and so preach as if today is the day of Christ’s appearing. The urgency of the messenger delivering the right message to his hearers is pressed upon us by this charge.
Because of the Authority. The mention of Christ’s kingdom reminds Timothy of the sovereign rule of Jesus Christ over him and the affairs of his King. His duty is to his King. His energies are to be expended for his King. When he stands before a people to deliver the Word of God, he must keep in mind that he stands as a representative of his King. And he is confronting his hearers with the lordship of Christ over their lives as well. His message must not be muddled by a blend of self-help and psychobable. As Paul expressed it: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).
BIBLICAL PREACHING IS A SPECIFIC RESPONSIBILITY
The three key words of our text, “Preach the word,” drive home to us the specific nature of the preaching task. The preacher must expound the Word of God or else he has failed in his calling. He may be a wonderful administrator, a winsome personal worker, an effective leader. But if he fails to expound the Word of God, he is a failure to his calling to “preach the Word.”
Before considering the specific elements involved in biblical preaching, I offer some observations on the trends that seem to be affecting the hearing of the Word in our congregations. These trends have an impact upon preaching and hearing.
First, there has been a popularizing and Americanizing of the Word to make it more palatable and acceptable to the masses. Rather than seeking to understand a text as God gave it, the preacher seems to be more intent on appealing to people. Often the goal is to increase church membership. But if that membership is gained at the expense of a genuine work of God through biblical preaching, can it really be worthwhile?
Neither Jesus nor the apostles sought to make the truth of God more palatable to their hearers. They laid the truth out with force and clarity. Paul assessed that his preaching of the cross was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). They preached the truth and depended upon the power of God to drive it home to the hearers’ minds and hearts.
Perhaps one of the problems that has necessitated a watering down of truth in the pulpit is a shallow theology of the Holy Spirit. Rather than believing the Spirit of God can penetrate calloused minds with the Word of God, preachers have sought to use clever devices and techniques to persuade hearers. A failure to understand the biblical doctrine of regeneration has led to untold harm in the name of evangelism, all because preachers do not trust the Holy Spirit to do his work.
When we try to use the latest methods of communication we may have a ready audience, but they pay more attention to our cleverness than to the cross. They are impressed with the speaker, not the Savior (1 Corinthians 1:17). While a seminary student, I had two different professors for preaching. One taught biblical exposition. The other encouraged preachers to offer fifteen-to-twenty-minute dramatic presentations to their congregations. One method communicates divine truth. The other draws attention to the preacher.
Second, the attention given to the “electronic preacher” has shortened the attention spans and changed the appetites of congregations. I am thankful for the many wonderful media broadcasts that faithfully proclaim the Word of God. But I am appalled at the equally large number which claim everything but biblical truth. Some media preachers water down truth in order to be popular and secure good ratings. They know what sells. Marketing has driven them to change their content to appeal to the masses in order to gain a larger following.
Another effect of media preachers is that even those who faithfully preach the Word have their messages edited to fit a twenty-five-minute broadcast format. certainly this is understandable with the cost of airtime. But when you add to this the lack of hunger for the purity of the Word and the typical church member’s shortened attention span, you find complaints about Sunday sermons that last longer than thirty minutes.
I have been preaching since 1970. Since I started preaching exposition ally, about 1974, I have found that I will normally spend forty to forty-five minutes for each sermon. I’ve tried to shorten my outlines and change my notes, but nothing seems to have a real effect on my sermon length. And rightly so! The goal should never be just to get through. It should be to expound the text of God’s Word.
A few years ago I found myself facing some disgruntled people who wanted shorter sermons. They really did not care what I preached as long as it was shorter! But I took time to explain, that in my understanding, I could not adequately deal with a text of Scripture in less than forty to forty-five minutes. I found a kindred mind in this with John MacArthur. He wrote:
If you are going to be a Bible expositor, forget the twenty and thirty-minute sermons. You are looking at forty or fifty minutes. In any less than that, you can’t exposit the Scripture. The purpose is not to get it over, but rather to explain the Word of God. My goal is not accomplished because I am brief. My goal is accomplished when I am clear and I have exposited the Word of God (John MacArthur, Jr., Rediscovering Expository Preaching [Dallas, Texas: Word, 1992], 339-40).
Third, proclamation has been replaced by a “talk-show-host” mentality. Because of a fear of offending or due to an audience’s appetite, the “herald” no longer is concerned with speaking “thus saith the Lord,” but “Whatever you want, I’ve got” and “Listen to me and feel good.”
Don Whitney offers a personal vignette that illustrates this problem:
Your soul will only be fed from the Word of God. Without it, you will be undernourished and suffer spiritual marasmus. That’s what happened to a man I’ll call whom I spoke with not long ago. When I talked with Chris he had been in seminary for a few months and was working for a para-church ministry that specializes in teaching the Bible and theology. Prior to enrolling in seminary, he had for several years been associate pastor in charge of drama and music at a church a couple of miles from me where the pulpit ministry was based on topical preaching aimed at people’s felt needs. The church had grown from very few to hundreds in a short time.
Chris had plenty of budget money and many talented actors, singers, musicians, and other workers as resources for his ministry. Afterward, however, he said to me, “I didn’t know it when I resigned, but the following Sunday I realized that my soul was as dry and withered and empty as it could be. I had been running on the spiritual fumes of the pressure of preparation for each Sunday’s drama and music. I was so busy that I hadn’t realized I had dried up spiritually. It was because I was not hearing faithful, biblical exposition, but topical sermons aimed at felt needs. Everything was based upon marketing strategy. Only when I got away from all that did I realize that I was all be dead spiritually.” (Spiritual Disciplines, 66-67).
I visited a church in Atlanta during a vacation and listened to a sermon that was really more of a “talk.” It could easily have been given at a Kiwanis Club. My children quickly recognized that we had not heard the Word preached, but only a preacher trying to impress his hearers.
My family and I took a relative with us to another church in a southern metropolitan area. The church has a great reputation and has recently constructed a large facility to accommodate its rapid growth. When the service was over I asked the relative, who rarely attends church, what she thought. Without any kind of prompting from me, she said, “I got the feeling that they were trying to entertain me.” I thought that such a comment spoke volumes, especially coming from one is unfamiliar with “felt-needs” or mega-church thinking. The evangelical pulpit has shrunk into the mire of entertainment, thinking that it has to compete on the same level as the world, while hungry hearts are waiting to hear a word from God.
Fourth, we’ve lost our appetite fro truth, and instead would rather appeal to people’s interests or felt needs in our preaching. Rather than longing for truth to set us free or truth to reprove, rebuke, and exhort, or truth to expose the thoughts and intents of the heart, we want something to make us feel better about ourselves. We want something that does not make radical demands or us, something that does not disturb the way we’re living our lives, something that won’t challenge what we want to think or believe the truth to be. This is precisely what the apostle warned:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
On one occasion a man came up to me after a service and stated, “I’ve had everything figured out in a neat box, and your preaching challenges it. I don’t like it, but I need it.” The unfortunate thing is that his box kept getting challenged and he ran away from what he admitted that he needed. Biblical preaching will apply the truth of God’s Word so that it judges “the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). Unless the Spirit of God is working in a person he will have difficulty sitting under a steady diet of biblical exposition (Cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 for the biblical basis of this statement).
Too many fail to have interest in the content of sermons. They want only an appealing delivery so they can feel good about themselves. In contrast to this, Don Whitney has written, “And no matter how enthusiastic or passionate the presentation, it is still the content, not the physical force of delivery that determines faithfulness to the message” (Spiritual Disciplines, 65).
John Piper, who is known for books with superb content, wrote in the introduction of his book, Future Grace, one of the best statements on the need for content rather than mere appeal to itching ears. His statement concerns reading, but it is equally true of preaching:
Every book worth reading beckons with the words, “Think over what I say.” I do not believe that what I have written is hard to understand—if a person is willing to think it over. When my sons complain that a good book is hard to read, I say, “Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.”
I have tried to write as I preach [and I believe he has succeeded] with a view to instructing the mind and moving the heart… [After giving the example of John Owen’s writings being difficult to grasp, yet for 300 years his twenty-three volumes are still in print and still feeding hungry souls] The lesson is that biblical substance feeds the church, not simplicity (John Piper, Future Grace [Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 1995], 16-17).
Fifth, we want the truth to be popular with everyone, enjoyed by sinner and saint alike. Yet this is foreign to both Old and New Testament teaching regarding the truth. Just look at the prophets, apostles, and teachers captured in God’s Word. Was Jeremiah’s preaching popular? Did Paul seek to “win friends and influence people” through his preaching? Did the multitudes persevere with our Lord in His declaration of truth? Paul expressed it well, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Perhaps a bit of amplification on precisely what is involved in biblical exposition will be helpful. It begins with understanding the text which the preacher desires to expound. I believe that the best approach on selecting a text begins with preaching consecutively through books of the Bible. That way a preacher is forced to deal with the “whole counsel of God,” and his congregation will be exposed to the breadth of biblical truth. The preacher may also deal with topics or themes, but he should always be expository in his approach; that is, he should be a mouthpiece for the text (Rediscovering Expository Preaching, 255ff.)
The preacher must diligently study the text he selects in its contextual setting. This involves a thorough study of the language and grammar used, the historical purpose of the text, the cultural factors that bear weight upon its meaning, and its connection to the balance of Scripture. Reading and meditating upon the text allows the preacher to consider its implications and truths, as well as feeding his own mind and soul with its life-giving truth. Depending upon the illuminating power of the Spirit in the study is essential. He will find that prayer must accompany his study or else he will be engaging in mere academics. He must seek to rightly explain “the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15), so that he arrives at a proper interpretation. The use of research tools such as word studies, commentaries, theologies, and sermons can be helpful aids to the preacher in grasping the message of the text.
Once he understands the essential message of his text, the preacher will need to organize the message of the text into salient parts for proclamation. The starting point will be development of a theme, which has been called “the essence of the sermon in a sentence,” or “the proposition,” or “the dominating theme.”At this point I have found it helpful to develop an outline, complete with points and subpoints, all of which help to amplify the dominating theme of the text. This gives structure to the sermon so that the preacher is not guilty of offering an incoherent collection of random thoughts on a text. Some preachers have the mistaken notion that if they can have a nice outline, perhaps fully alliterated, then they have done an exposition until the doctrines and principles of the text are expounded (I have been greatly helped in biblical exposition by numerous books and preachers. My thoughts in this section will reflect their influence, though it would be difficult to footnote every detail. I mention a few: Drs. Stephen and David Olford maintain ongoing, short-term preaching institutes through Encounter Ministries Biblical Preaching Institute in Memphis, Tennessee, (800) 843-2241; they have coauthored a book on expository preaching, Anointed Expository Preaching [Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998]. John MacArthur’s book, Rediscovering Expository Preaching, is a superb course in sermon-building and the exercise of preaching. Bryan Chappell’s book, Christ-Centered Preaching [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1994], offers a thorough self-study approach in preaching).
The preacher’s goal should never be to impress a congregation with his great outlines! He should seek to explain and apply the text to his congregation. He will need to develop supporting thoughts that assist him in the exposition. He should use Scripture that show the relation of the theme and integrating thoughts to the whole of God’s Word. He will need to illustrate certain truths to help with the understanding process, being careful not to allow the illustration to become the sermon (I disagree strongly with my former preaching professor who taught me biblical exposition. He has changed his thinking, even to the point of implying that “illustrations are no longer just the ‘window’ to the sermon, they are becoming the ‘truth’ of the sermon…’They are being used to tell the story…Sermon points are being related to the illustration’” [Facts & Trends, vol. 39, no. 8,4]. While illustrations can be used effectively, preachers will do well to spend more time studying the text instead of trying to find the latest, clever illustration). By all means he will give attention to explaining the doctrines found in the text (Martyn Lloyd-Jones stated in many sermons that unless a preacher deals with doctrines in a text he has not dealt with the text! It is interesting that many Puritans and writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries typically highlighted the doctrines found in their expositions. The unfortunate lack of doctrinal preaching in our day has given rise to the weakened state of the Christian church throughout the world. We do well to heed the need to deal thoroughly with doctrine. I commend Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers and John Piper’s The Supremacy of God in Preaching [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1990], as two volumes to stimulate your thinking on doctrinal preaching).
The task of proclaiming the truths of the text will demand all of the spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical energies the preacher can give to this work. He must approach the proclamation of the Word prayerfully, pleading for the fulness of the Spirit to endue him with power, recognizing that apart from divine power he will flounder in the waters of his own weakness. Tony Sargent has rightly stated, “The most humbling and wonderful experience for any preacher as he enters the pulpit is to know that God is with him. The most frightening for him is to be in the pulpit and feel he is on his own” (Tony Sargent, The Sacred Anointing: The Preaching of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones [Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1994] 79.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones exhorts the preacher to seek the power of the Spirit for preaching God’s Word. “Seek this power, expect this power, yearn for this power; and when this power comes, yield to him. Do not resist. Forget all about your sermon if necessary. Let him loose you, let him manifest his power in you and through you” (The Sacred Anointing, 57).
The Greek word for “to preach” (kerussein) referred to the responsibility given to a herald. He may have been in the service of an ancient king, serving as a herald to deliver the king’s word to the people. His chief responsibility was to faithfully proclaim the words of the one who sent him. He heralded the king’s message with authority. To deny the herald’s message was to deny the king who sent him. It is with this background that we see Paul exhorting the preacher to “herald the word” faithfully and authoritatively as one sent by the King. He must do so with clarity and passion for the message he is delivering. He must not take liberties with the King’s message, but deliver it as the King intends. This is the preacher’s job in the act of proclamation(I again commend Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers to address this subject. This book will help remind the preacher of the God-given privilege he has and how he is to carry out his role with holy passion).
BIBLICAL PREACHING IS A SERIOUS RESPONSIBILITY
The apostle gives imperative counsel for the one who preaches the Word. He is to be constant in duty, “be ready in season and out of season.” A preacher cannot let his guard down or neglect his spiritual life. He must live with a constant sense of readiness to deliver the message of God to waiting ears. Many preachers have negated their pulpit ministries by their personal lives. Their love of the world, materialism, flirtatious looks, neglected family life, and laziness have discredited the message they seek to preach. He must exercise discipline of mind and spirit to be constant in his work. Be ready in the pulpit and out of the pulpit!
The preacher must not fear being confrontational in his ministry. He will need to “reprove, rebuke, exhort” as he proclaims God’s Word and as he deals with individuals. An unbelieving woman who had come from a cult background visited our church. She approached me after a sermon on “The Bread of Life” from John 6, with some striking comments. She told me she did not understand why she kept coming back, but she felt compelled. Then she commented, “You don’t give any options.” By that she meant that the preaching has a solitary impact of demand, not a take-it-or-leave-it approach. It confronted her and gave only one option: God’s.
Confrontation is especially needed in a day when people are craving for pre-digested “applications” on the sermon that will make it “relevant” to every day life. What most people mean by “applications” is, “Give me some options so that I can pick and choose what I want to do and not feel bad about what I don’t want to do.” We need not worry about going to extremes on applications. The Holy Spirit is adequate to apply the Word to the hearts of sinners and saints alike!
The preacher has the task of delivering God’s Word “with great patience.” He is to be consistent with his exposition, faithfully delivering God’s Word week-by-week to his people. All will not appreciate the Word, nor will all respond immediately to the challenges applied by the Word proclaimed. Some may even get angry and leave. Yet the preacher is to be patient with his flock, realizing that their spiritual ears must be opened by the Holy Spirit. Some will be dealing with deep-seated sins. Others will feel mired in traditions. Still others will have a poor appetite for spiritual truth, the appetite that must be slowly cultivated. Short pastorates normally do not allow a preacher the time to develop a patient pulpit ministry.
A sermon worth listening to must have content. Content does not mean that the preacher has plenty of stories and interesting quotes. Rather, it means that the sermon deals with doctrine. The word for “instruction” in the NASB translation of 2 Timothy 4:2 is that common New Testament term didache. It is elsewhere translated as “teaching” or “doctrine.” Doctrine must never be confused with impossible-to-understand discussions by intellectuals. Good doctrine is the life of the church; it is the heart of the sermon. It is simply the “teachings” of God’s Word understood in relation to the balance of Scripture. John MacArthur wrote:
A true expository message sets forth the principles or doctrines supported in the passage. True expository preaching is doctrinal preaching (Rediscovering Expository Preaching, 288).
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great nineteenth-century Baptist preacher in London, wrote in his Lectures to My Students:
Sermons should have real teaching in them, and their doctrine should be solid, substantial, and abundant. We do not enter the pulpit to talk for talk’s sake; we have instructions to convey important to the last degree, and we cannot afford to utter pretty nothings. Our range of subjects is all but boundless, and we cannot, therefore, be excused if our discourses are threadbare and devoid of substance…[T]he true minister of Christ knows that the true value of a sermon must lie, not in its fashion and manner, but in the truth which it contains. Nothing can compensate for the absence of teaching; all rhetoric in the world is but as chaff to the wheat in contrast to the gospel of our salvation. However beautiful the sower’s basket it is a miserable mockery if it be without seed (Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students [Pasadena, Texas: Pilgrim Publications, 1990, reprint of the 1881 Passmore and Alabastor edition), 72.
After giving such clear instruction on preaching Paul warns Timothy that everyone will not want such biblical exposition:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
When this happens, does the preacher simply give people what they want? This is precisely the error of the current trend of “felt-need” preaching. The unfortunate thing is that many evangelical preachers of good standing have fallen into the trap of delivering cute sermons, warm fuzzes, feel-good messages rather than proclaiming truth. We must be conscientious of the calling of God to herald the truth, so that we do not get pulled into the vortex of congregations wanting to have their “felt-needs” met.
The preacher is not to take an opinion poll on what he should preach. While there are some exceptions, most congregations do not have enough spiritual understanding and discernment to know what they need. They will point to the direction of “felt-needs” every time, simply because they can be comfortable with that kind of preaching instead of having to deal with their own sin and the God-centeredness in true, doctrinal preaching. The problem of which Paul warns is that of falling prey to the “desire” (epithumia) of those who have no desire for enduring sound doctrine.
What is a preacher to do if the congregation cries for “felt-need” preaching? Stand firm. Remember your calling. Remember your Audience. Herald the truth. And seek to patiently instruct people in sound doctrine.
Biblical preaching is demanding work. The preacher will find himself expended int he study as he labors over the biblical texts and all the works which address them. He must recognize the adversary’s subtle temptations to neglect the study, water down the message, and appeal to the desires of unregenerate people. he faces a constant warfare, both in the pulpit and out of the pulpit. He will be stretched, challenged, criticized and attacked, while at the same time loved and appreciated by those who hunger for the truth. He must live in dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit to enable him to “preach the word” and “to be ready in season and out of season.”
Ron Owens has written a song particularly for preachers. I believe its message and refrain are a fitting conclusion:
We’ve a gospel to preach, we’ve a message to share—
The eternal Truth is what we declare.
It’s the power to save, it’s the Spirit sword,
It’s the heart of God, it’s the Living Word.
We must study to learn and not be ashamed
To proclaim God’s truth in the Savior’s name.
With no compromise, but consistently
We must PREACH THE WORD with integrity.
What is made by man will one day be gone,
But God’s Holy Word marches on and on.
Though the flower will fade and grass will die,
The Eternal Word ever will abide.
We must pay the price, we must take our stand
With a heart on fire and God’s Word in hand.
On the brightest day, in the darkest hour
We must PREACH THE TRUTH in the Spirit’s power.
PREACH THE WORD! PREACH THE WORD!
Won’t you purpose in your hearts to preach the Word?
PREACH THE WORD! PREACH THE WORD!
Won’t you purpose in your heart to PREACH THE WORD?
It’s our call as His disciples to pass on what we’ve received.
Make up your mind and take the time to PREACH THE WORD!
Author: Dr. Phil A. Newton is the Senior Pastor, South Woods Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of Elders in the Life of the Church: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership; Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Lunch; The Way of Faith; and Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals: Applying the Gospel at the Unique Challenges of Death.
Source: Adapted from Reformation & Revival: A Quarterly Journal for Church Leadership, Volume 9, Number 1, Winter 2000.
AN OUTLINE TO HAVE IN MIND WHEN SHARING THE GOSPEL
MANY CHRISTIANS THINK THEY CANNOT ADEQUATELY SHARE THE gospel unless they’ve had formal training in evangelism. I’m for evangelism training, but training is not necessary before you can tell someone about Jesus and give your own testimony about how you came to know Him. In John 9 we read of a man born blind who, within an hour after his conversion, is witnessing to Ph.D.s in religion (the Pharisees). Obviously, he’d had no evangelism training, but he was able to talk about Jesus and his own conversion. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to say, after being saved and after hearing countless presentations of the gospel in sermons, if Christians still believe they cannot evangelize without massive amounts of training, then either they’ve heard very poor preaching or they’ve been very poor listeners. However, it does boost one’s confidence in sharing the gospel to know a general outline of what to say and to have some appropriate verses of Scripture committed to memory. Several years ago I developed an outline to hang my thoughts on, along with at least two key verses for each section. I don’t follow it woodenly in every situation, for each evangelistic encounter is unique. And sometimes I condense it a bit. But having a full presentation of the gospel ready on my lips does give me a sense of direction and a feeling of preparedness. You’re welcome to adapt the outline for use in your own personal evangelism.
1. There is one God, He is the Creator, He is holy, and He is worth knowing. See Deuteronomy 4:39; Isaiah 46:9; Genesis 1: 1; 1 Peter 1: 16. Such a God is worthy of our pursuit!
2. Everyone is a sinner separated from God. See Romans 3:23; Isaiah 59:2. We have no idea how unholy we are in comparison to God.
3. There is a penalty for sin. See Romans 6:23; Hebrews 9:27; Romans 14:10; Matthew 25:46. The penalty is judgment and Hell.
4. Jesus paid that penalty for all who believe. See Romans 5:8; I Peter 3:18. Jesus took God’s judgment so believers could have mercy.
5. No one can earn God’s forgiveness and favor. See Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5. We’re not saved by our works, but by faith in Jesus’ work.
6. We should respond with repentance and faith. See Mark 1:15; John 3:16. We should turn from sin and turn to Jesus for forgiveness.
7. We can have assurance of eternal life with God. See 1 John 5:13. Jesus’ resurrection and God’s Word assure believers of forgiveness.
Responding to this great message from the Bible
A. It is not only right for you to live for the God who created you and owns you, but you will find your greatest fulfillment only when you fulfill the purpose for which you were made, and that is to know God and live for Him.
B. Do you believe this great message of the Bible? Genuine belief in its truth is demonstrated by turning from living for yourself and believing that because of His death and resurrection Jesus Christ can make you right with God.
C. Are you willing to express repentance and faith in prayer to God right now?
*SOURCE: Donald S. Whitney. Simplify Your Spiritual Life: Disciplines for the Overwhelmed. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2003.
ABOUT DONALD S. WHITNEY
Since 2005, Don Whitney has been Associate Professor of Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he also serves as Senior Associate Dean. Before that, he held a similar position (the first such position in the six Southern Baptist seminaries) at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, for ten years. He is the founder and president of The Center for Biblical Spirituality.
Don grew up in Osceola, Arkansas, where he came to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. He was active in sports throughout high school and college, and worked in the radio station his dad managed.
After graduating from Arkansas State University, Don planned to finish law school and pursue a career in sportscasting. While at the University of Arkansas School of Law, he sensed God’s call to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He then enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, graduating with a Master of Divinity degree in 1979. In 1987, Don completed a Doctor of Ministry degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. Currently, he is completing his Doctor of Theology with Specialization in Christian Spirituality at the University of South Africa.
Prior to his ministry as a seminary professor, Don was pastor of Glenfield Baptist Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago), for almost fifteen years. Altogether, he has served local churches in pastoral ministry for twenty-four years. His books include: Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life; Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health; How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian?; and Spiritual Disciplines within the Church.