A group of pastors was talking about preaching, evangelistic preaching in particular. The question was raised about the appropriate way to urge people to profess faith in Christ. How do we appeal to our listeners so that they know a response is necessary for them to realize the benefits of the gospel?
The group was theologically savvy enough to know that they could not cajole anyone into the Kingdom. They fully believed the apostle when he says: “My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4–5).
They recognized that they were not to be spiritual salesmen but spiritual midwives, working in tandem with what God would bring about.
The question then remains. How do we preach to the will? Knowing that many in our congregations are without the Spirit of God and thus do not have ears to hear (1 Cor. 2:11, 14), how do we speak to them with an eye to their confessing Christ?
Let’s examine our personal experience. How did you come to Christ? For me, I had heard the gospel in full or in part many times. But there came a point when what was at one time absurd to me began to make sense, what was repugnant began to be savory, when that which I resisted became irresistible.
How did that happen? It wasn’t because of new information. We find our answer in the words of Paul already mentioned. My profession was a demonstration of the Spirit’s presence and power. The same power that enabled Lazarus to respond to the call of Christ (John 11:43-44), was at work in me. That power is resurrection power, the power of a new creation (2 Cor. 4:6). With new life comes the ability to hear and to respond (Eph. 2:1-6).
So how do we preach evangelistically?
Several of the pastors suggested that we present the truth of God’s Word clearly and compassionately, and bring it home by urging unbelievers to cry out for God’s mercy. That sounds appropriate since the power is not within themselves but in God. But why would anyone cry out for mercy of their own accord? After all, no one seeks God (Rom. 3:11). The dead might need mercy, but can they ask for it? It’s reminiscent of a cartoon depicting a group of ESL students patiently sitting at their desks while written on the board was the message “Class cancelled.”
What communication approach do we find in Scripture? In his Gospel account, John simply lays out testimony, the facts of the faith about Jesus, acknowledging that “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). In his writing John does present carrots and sticks. For example, in John 3:16 we find the stick of perishing bundled with the carrot of eternal life. But when it comes to persuasion, John simply puts it out there. He presents the person and work of Christ.
Our Lord Jesus preached at the tomb of Lazarus, declaring Himself to be the resurrection and the life and urging belief in Him (John 11:25-26). What was the congregational response? Some heeded His call to believe while other betrayed Him to the Pharisees (John 11:45-46). The same was true when Paul preached Christ to the philosophers at Athens. Some believed. Some belittled. Some were bemused (Acts 17:32).
How do we preach evangelistically? We preach “whosoever will.” We preach that whoever comes to Christ will not be turned away (John 6:36-37). We preach knowing that the blessings of belief belong to those born from above (John 1:12-13).
We don’t find altar calls in Scripture. We find preaching Christ. It is the Spirit who opens eyes to His beauty and opens ears to His call. Whether at the tomb of Lazarus or before the Athenian philosophers or to the hearers assembled before us, the response of the congregation is not elicited by the preacher but by the One preached.