Preaching to Unsaved Church Members -- Part One
More than 200 years ago Welsh pastor Howell Harris described the spiritual state of the churches in Wales. His penetrating observations were poignant at time but unbeknown to him; his comments have also proven to be descriptive of the condition of American Protestant churches today. In essence, Harris provides a definition of easy believism:
Churches are filled with folks who have a détente with sin; they are at ease under its dominion. They won’t study the fruits of faith or make their election and calling sure; but turn the grace of God into licentiousness (Edward Morgan, The Life and Times of Howell Harris, Need of the Times Publishers, 1998 rp, p. 71).
In his works on the unconverted religious, Howell Harris dissects the heart of the false professor with surgical precision. Harris peals back the layers of formal religion to reveal a soul that is yet a stranger to the blood of Christ.
As 21st century pastors, we have much to gain by immersing ourselves in the practical theology of our predecessors. These were men who never saw a light bulb or an automobile, yet they knew the hearts of men intimately; perhaps better than we do.
Out of desire to be faithful preachers of the Word at times in our preaching we are going to target unsaved churchgoers who attend services regularly. We might choose a text that addresses the cost of discipleship; or the lordship of Christ; or the meaning of true repentance.
Certainly the Spirit of God is infinitely capable of using these biblical subjects (or any Scripture passage for that matter) to bring saving light into the soul of the unregenerate. But it is noteworthy that the preachers of the Great Awakening era camped frequently upon one great theme; the perfect suitability of the Savior for the sinner’s ruin.
It is only the destitute sinner who falls at the feet of Christ. Only those who been smitten with the death wound of damnation flee to the Savior, only those stripped of all self righteousness cry to Christ for mercy. Only those whose enmity has been cast out by the blood of Christ enjoy experimental union with Christ.
Men of God of two centuries past saw the ‘religious’ unsaved as those who hadconverted to Christianity but not to Christ. Though outwardly moral and verbally orthodox, the false professor is without personal knowledge of Christ. This subject of being a stranger to Christ was the touchstone that permeated the messages of our predecessors when they addressed nominal Christianity.
Therefore it behooves us to know the defenses and machinations of soul that keep the door barred from faith and repentance. How can we preach over, under, and around the door if we do not know the reasons the false professor has so securely bolted the door against the Lamb of God?
To begin with, we must know that the unsaved ‘religious’ man has yet to receive a death blow from the law of God. The law has never been manifested to him in its spirituality. In other words, he has never been thoroughly slain by the law. If he had been he would be dead to the law as a source of life and would understand that he must find spiritual life in Another (Gal 2:19).
As a consequence of being yet alive to the law, the idol of self is set up in the heart against Christ in His offices. The false professor feels that he is a good Christian BEFORE he is thoroughly condemned by the law. Only when the law slays him will he be made to feel his utter need of faith in order to lay hold of Christ’s imputed righteousness (ibid., p. 74).
The work of Christ opposes the false professor at every turn; for guilt can only be removed by law at work in Christ’s propitiation. The sinner’s guilt, which issues forth in legal death and condemnation, must be removed by law. Christ accomplished this removal of guilt through His atoning sacrifice. Propitiation is in keeping with God’s law; for under the government of God Christ willingly became officially guilty of the sins of the elect (2 Cor 5:21).
It was by the giving of Christ’s life that condemnation is removed from the believing sinner. By contrast, the unbelieving ‘religious’ man is still in a state of spiritual death (enmity). His efforts to offset his condemnation fall short of resting in Christ alone (Thomas Wilcox and Horatius Bonar, Christ is All, Chapel Library, p. 3).
Believing upon Christ savingly is above the power of the natural man. The whole religious bent of man is to bring duties, humblings, and self-reformation to God in order to gain divine acceptance. But the Gospel proclaims that the sinner must receive all from God’s hand.
Everything in the sinner’s pride is allied against sovereign grace. It’s not an exaggeration to say that nature abominates the merits of Christ. The sinner would rather do anything than be saved by Christ alone; be obligated to Him and owe all to Him (ibid., p. 21-22).
God’s grace is free, but its bestowal has conditions which are set by the Holy Spirit; the Spirit prepares the sinner for grace by means of conviction (Jn 16:13). The burden of sin and wrath on the conscience is a function of divine grace BECAUSE Christ’s merit is only known to the poor soul in deep distress. Small conviction of sin will yield only slight views of Christ’s blood and merits.
Christ is not like us – He is so willing to forgive. Our methods of measuring mercy and grace are faulty; not a speck of self-improvement is acceptable to heaven. God does not grant His grace on the basis of legal repenting (legal repenting seeks to gain divine acceptance by means of personal reformation). Saving grace is not mixed with works (ibid., pp. 23-24).
Nature can’t stand being stripped of all righteousness. Nature would rather despair; would rather choose Judas’ noose than go to Christ on His terms. “Be merciful to me the sinner” is the hardest prayer in the world. To confess Christ from the heart is above the power of flesh and blood. So much profession of salvation today is merely an accommodation, a lowering of the market to what the flesh is capable of; namely a form of religion in which men have never parted with self-righteousness. As a result carnal professors are strangers to the blood of Christ (ibid., pp. 24-25).
There is a form of religion which only feeds Pharisaical spirituality. Nothing can kill self-righteousness but a real acquaintance with the Savior’s poverty, humiliation, and death. False professors have settled into self-righteousness, self-sufficiency, and whole-hearted ‘confidence’ in their profession; but they will not come to the manger and adore their God and be saved by His humiliation alone (Morgan, pp. 204-205).
A radical change of heart is needed – regeneration. There is a great danger in resting upon any superficial idea or impression of religion. Salvation cannot be obtained until we become one spirit with Christ; experience His resurrection and enjoy the benefits of His death by union with Him.
False professors are more naked, wretched, and poor than they can possibly imagine. They have never seen their own moral bankruptcy and spiritual ruin. They are responsible for hating the light (Jn 3:19-21). They seem ignorant of the fact that God only pities, forgives, and receives those who are poor in spirit, self-condemned, broken-hearted, and sincere (no man apart from the Spirit’s work canprepare himself in this way; it is the Spirit’s convicting work to harrow the heart until it is ‘mortally wounded’).
No one ever came to liberty without feeling himself in bondage. No man ever believed without discovering through an evil heart of unbelief that believing is the hardest thing in the world. No one ever took up the cross in self-denial without perceiving hell, darkness, and wrath pursuing him until fleeing to Christ as his only refuge (ibid., pp. 257-258).
God’s way is radically different from the “auto-soterism” inherent in modern evangelistic methods. God comes down and confounds the language of Babel; He scatters every stick and stone and pile of mortar. He does not leave one stone upon another. He is a jealous God, and will have no partner in the way of salvation (J. C. Philpot, What is it that saves a soul?, Chapel Library, p. 13).
Joshua’s filthy garments must be taken away from him before he is clothed in clean raiment (Zech 3:4). Thus killing goes before making alive; beggary and thedunghill before the inheritance of the throne of glory; the grave of buried hopes and the dust of self-abhorrence before the exaltation to a seat among princes (1 Sam 2:6-8) (ibid.).
When the quickening power of God’s Spirit has passed upon a man’s conscience, he is invariably brought to see himself to be morally and spiritually bankrupt. This inward sight of self cuts him off sooner or later from legal hopes. In many cases the work may begin in a way scarcely perceptible – but be sure of this, that the Lord will “bring down the hearts” of all His people “with labor;” will convince them of their lost state before Him and cast them as ruined wretches into the dust of death – without hope, strength, wisdom, help, or righteousness, except that which is given to them, as a free gift of distinguishing grace.
And this work of grace in the conscience, pulling down of all man’s false refuges, stripping him of every lying hope, and thrusting him down into self-abasement and self-abhorrence, is indispensable to a true reception of Christ. No matter how informed his judgment is he will never receive Christ spiritually into his heart and affections, until he has been broken down by the hand of God in his soul to be a ruined wretch (J. C. Philpot, The Heavenly Birth and its Earthly Counterfeit,Chapel Library, p. 4).
So many today in churches rest in their convictions but do not give evidence of the Spirit of God working in the will and the affections. No man marvels in God’s distinguishing love unless he has received a deadly wound; by that wound the Spirit enables him to see that he must be damned unless covered by Christ’s righteousness and unless Christ’s nature is wrought in him.
There is inestimable danger in resting in convictions without life, love, fellowship with God and Christ and growth in the knowledge of Christ and self (Morgan, p. 76).
There is a natural love, faith, and humility in souls deceived into thinking that they are born again. Their natures are only outwardly changed and outwardly enlightened. Self love still reigns. They are not convinced of the evil of secret sin. They have never perceived the deceitfulness of their natures; natures capable of putting on the appearance of grace, and complying with the outward form of religion.
It is possible to know Christ outwardly according to the flesh wherein there is a kind of love to Him, a kind of confidence in Him that is from natural and historical views of the Gospel (such as Balaam had). These persons looked on something they had done or felt and drew the conclusion they were saved.
This is the religion of most professors. They formed a faith in themselves without going to Christ as a perishing sinner! They have never looked to Christ as to thebrazen serpent; they never ran fleeing to Christ from the Avenger. Therefore they settled into a false confidence. But notice what is foreign to them. They do not experience daily combat, victory of faith, feeding on the flesh and blood of the Savior, the mysteries of the God-man, His obedience of humiliation, His infinite riches, the wonders of His sufferings – these things are not delight for them but speculation; not the soul’s food, but subjects of religious controversy (ibid., pp. 179-180).
J. C. Philpot’s riveting comments highlight the fact that salvation in Christ is an internal reality; where there is no experience of that reality, there is no salvation: As far as inward religion is concerned, a man must have salvation as an internal reality, as a known, enjoyed, tasted, felt and handled possession, or he will never enter the kingdom of heaven. He may be a Churchman or a Dissenter, Calvinist or Arminian, Baptist or Independent, anything or everything, and yet all his profession is no more towards this salvation than the cut of his clothes, the height of his stature, or the color of his complexion.
What is the everlasting love of a Triune God, unless that eternal love is shed abroad in my heart by the Holy Spirit? What is the final perseverance of the saints, unless there is blessed enjoyment of it in the conscience as a personal reality? To see these things revealed in the Bible is nothing. To hear them preached by one of God’s ministers is nothing. To receive the truth of these things into our judgment and to yield to them in unwavering assent is nothing. Thousands have done all this who are blaspheming God in hell. But to have eternal election, personal redemption, imputed righteousness, unfailing love, and all the other blessed links of the golden chain let down into the soul from the throne of God; to have the beauty, glory and blessedness of salvation in all of its branches – past, present, and to come – revealed to the heart and sealed upon the conscience, this is all in all (J. C. Philpot, What is it that saves a soul?, p. 18).
Many speak of Christ who never came to Him as a lost sinner; their natural enmity has not been cast out. They are still “outer court” worshippers engaged in old covenant spirituality. Therefore we’re going to be preaching to many who aretares; folks who have yet to have their hearts melted by the sight of Christ in a manger in our nature. They have never beheld Him crowned with thorns, opening not His mouth because He bore our sin and shame. The false professor has a secret enmity against the preaching of God’s humiliation in the death of the Son of God (the theology of the “crucified God” does not ravish their souls).
They are false professors content with false peace. They have overlooked their own sins; they have not been brought to the cross and the blood by a sense of their sin in order to see them done away with by Christ’s punishment and blood. They have but a superficial knowledge that cannot see our sins laid upon the Savior. Therefore they cannot feed upon Christ and His cross and receive comfort there.
But where the new man is formed, the individual is not satisfied to hear of Him ; he must have Him as the Pearl of Great Price; he must have the Redeemer upon whom he rests all of his hopes (Morgan, p. 181-182).
Though professing faith in Christ; the unregenerate lies in a deep spiritual slumber of apathy. But spiritual complacency is foreign to the child of God. The child of God’s grace is hungry for experimental righteousness and until his Lord returns he will watch against the uprising of lusts and thoughts which war against God and the soul (Gary Hendrix, Professing Christians Warned, Chapel Library).
The flesh can never rise above hypocrisy. Even when dressed in the highest Calvinistic orthodoxy it can never rise above itself. There is no brokenness of heart, no contrition of spirit, no spiritual hope, no godly sorrow, no genuine humility, no living faith, and no heavenly love, “shed abroad in the heart by the Holy Spirit.” No abasing views of self, no tender feelings of reverence towards God, no filial fear of His great name, no melting of the heart, no softening of spirit, no deadness to the world, no sweet communion with the Lord of life and glory, ever dwelt in their breasts (J. C. Philpot, The Heavenly Birth . . ., p. 8).
It was Bishop Ryle who said, I look at the world and see the greater part of it lying in wickedness. I look at professing Christians and see the vast majority having nothing of Christianity but the name. I turn and I hear the Spirit saying ‘Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.’ Surely this text ought to make us consider our ways and search our hearts. Surely it should raise within us solemn thoughts, and send us to prayer.
Unmasking decisional regeneration
The teaching of “Decisional Regeneration” departs from Scripture because it attributes to man the ability to regenerate himself. The practice of “Decisional Regeneration” in the Church must be exposed in order to save men from the damning delusion that because they have “decided,” they are going to heaven and are no longer under the wrath of God (James Adams, Decisional Regeneration, Chapel Library, p. 3).
“You must be born again” (Jn 3:7) is the great doctrine of man’s need for regeneration in order to enter the kingdom of God (i.e., miraculous new birth). But the modern born again movement denies the very point that John 3 intends to teach. Simply stated, the error is this – that men are born again as a result of something they do.
Whatever requirement is put on the sinner the impression is given that sinful man himself is the one who brings about regeneration. We can and must tell men to turn from their sins and believe the Gospel, but in doing so we should realize that when a man does repent and believe, it is the result of God’s prior regenerative working within him. If this were not the case, if man were actually capable of initiating his own salvation, then it would be impossible to escape the conclusion that men do not need regeneration at all, but possess in themselves an innate goodness which causes them to seek after God – but Scripture puts this to the lie (Rom 3:10-12) (Richard Ochs, Born-againism, Chapel Library).
The purity of the Gospel is of extreme importance because it alone is the power of God unto salvation, and the true basis of Christian unity. Charles Hodge points out the danger of teaching decisional regeneration: No more soul-destroying doctrine could well be devised than the doctrine that sinners can regenerate themselves, and repent and believe just when they please. . . As it is a truth both of Scripture and of experience that the un-renewed man can do nothing of himself to secure his salvation, it is essential that he should be brought to a practical conviction of that truth. When thus convicted, and not before, he seeks help from the only source whence it can be obtained”(Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids 1970, Vol. 2, p. 277).
Evangelistic methods employed in Evangelical Christianity have given rise to a policy of equating salvation with a profession of faith in Christ. The result is church roles filled with carnal professors whose daily lives are a contradiction of true piety (Gary Hendrix, Professing Christians Warned).
Among the multitudes of “decisions” that are made there are some genuine conversions. But with the passing of every week thousands are being counseled into false hope. When folks are counseled to pray a certain prayer and then pronounced “saved,” it commonly results in the deluding impression that the individual has been “regenerated” through a decision. Regeneration is reduced to a procedure which man performs. How differently did Jesus Christ deal with sinners. He did not speak with people with a stereotyped presentation; He dealt with every individual on a personal basis (James Adams, pp. 4-5).
False professors place their confidence in a “birth” that is of “the will of man” (Jn 1:13). Observes Philpot, man then it appears has a will to become religious; and taken up by ourselves, so the birth after the “will of man” shadows forth a religion put upon us by others. And to what does that great mass of the religion of the present day amount to? If we gauge it by the scriptural standard, if we look at it with a spiritual eye, if we examine it in its bearings God-ward, what must we say of the vast bulk of religion current in this professing day? Must we not say that it is according to “the will of man?” (Philpot, The Heavenly Birth, p. 8).
Looking unto Jesus is the vivified soul’s response to a crucified and risen Savior. Let us not forget that repentance is a consequent of faith in God’s free love to sinners; we are not saved FOR believing; faith is not a work. Do not make a savior out of your faith. We might well ask, “Is your hope of glory laid by the hand of Christ or by your own hand? Who began religion in you? (Wilcox, Christ is All,pp. 13-17).
Christ is only put on when our own covering is totally unraveled. No one really believes until he is an undone sinner – the hardest thing in the world is to take Christ alone for righteousness. To believe, one must have a clear view of conviction of sin, of the merits of Christ’s blood, and Christ’s willingness to save one merely as a sinner. All this is more difficult than to make a world; nature cannot attain to it.
The temptations of Satan center upon self-righteousness which keeps guilt and hardness of heart in place. A defiled conscience is only allayed by the blood of Christ. No one is truly heroic about facing his own depravity’s vileness UNLESS he totally trusts the merits of Christ’s blood (ibid., pp. 19-20).
It is Christ’s work to make you believe. Saving faith is a gift. Yet you are to mourn your unbelief; for unbelief sets up guilt of conscience above Christ and His merits. Unbelief fixates upon complaints against the self – whereas faith looks away from self to Christ (ibid.).
The Gospel doesn’t calculate how guilty you are compared to other sinners. All are shut up under sin (Gal 3:22). The assured foundation laid up for the believer in the Gospel is commonly misunderstood by professors of faith. The Gospel is NOT a scheme to make up for deficiencies; the Gospel is addressed to those who are far from righteousness. It is addressed to the poor, blind and naked. Christ came to call sinners to repentance.
The true Gospel offends the pride of the hearer by putting all on the level of society’s outcasts. The Gospel is not a bargain or transaction which God proposes on certain conditions of acceptance. The gift of eternal life is not proffered to those who are able to meet certain conditions. No, the Gospel is a message of reconciliation offered indiscriminately to mankind (James Haldane, The Revelation of God’s Righteousness, Chapel Library, pp. 23-24).
Because of satanic blindness to the Gospel of grace (2 Cor 4:3, 4), unregenerate man cannot comprehend the true basis of salvation, and is therefore ever prone to do the best he knows how. This is to attempt to work out his own standing before God by his own efforts. It is the natural tendency to do something of merit; whether standing in an evangelistic meeting, or raising a hand, or walking an aisle. He may be persuaded to do all of the above when he has no conception of standing by faith on the Rock of Jesus Christ. He may come forward in a church and abandon his natural timidity when he knows nothing of abandoning his satanic tendency to self-help, and resting by faith on that which Christ has done for him (Iain Murray, The Invitation System, Banner of Truth, pp. 22-23).
Only the Spirit’s convicting power can slay self-help. The leprous doctrine of free will is destroyed in the heart of one who has had any spiritual dealing with Christ; for Christ is the One who in the exercise of His sovereignty applies His merits to the sinner (He reveals the Father, Matt 11:27 -- He is ‘the Mediatior of a better covenant’ – Heb 8:6).
Christ is so infinitely holy that man’s fallen nature dare not look upon Him in absolute reliance and believing surrender. The divine nature must be put into the soul in order to look upon Christ so as to lay hold of Him. No man apprehends Christ savingly but the one whom the Father draws (Jn 6:44) (Wilcox, p. 26).
Christ shows us in John 6 that the doctrine of human inability and sovereign election are not void of practicality. The truth of God’s sovereign electing love is to be set before the born again so that God may have all the honor in our salvation. And God’s electing love must be set before the Pharisee so that he might be humbled; for the un-humbled sinner erroneously believes that he can move the Great God to save him because he does so and so (Morgan, p. 86).
Evangelical pastors freely acknowledge that to be saved is to be delivered from the terrible consequence of the Fall. But that a man must deeply know and feel it; that he must have his soul weighed down and burdened by it; that the conviction of guilt, wrath, and alarm must be wrought by a supernatural power into his experience; and that he must be ground down by the upper millstone of the law, and the lower millstone of a guilty conscience – these great and solemn truths are shunned, shirked and muffled by nearly all who profess to show the sinner the way to Zion.
But, “Exercise your Christian duties, attend to your family, follow obedience, trust the atonement, honor God in your giving, cultivate holiness” – these and similar exhortations are lavished in boundless profusion upon seeking sinners from thousands of modern pulpits. But the nature, the depths, the power, the feelings, the cutting convictions, the groaning cries, the tearful anguish, the gloomy prospects, the sinking despondency, the utter helplessness, the thick darkness, the wretched unbelief; in a word, all those inward transactions which are carried on in a seeking sinner are passed over by the letter-ministers of the day. These things are taken for granted, and are either totally omitted or slightly alluded to (Philpot, What is it that saves a soul?, p. 14).
Scotsman John Kennedy was a great evangelist. Spurgeon mourned his passing when he died in 1884 saying that his loss to the Highlands was greater than the loss of one hundred other men. Kennedy, by his shrewd insight, saw that the whole tendency of the new ‘invitation system’ of evangelism would alter the work of the evangelist. He writes regarding the new evangelism:
Faith is represented as something to be done, in order to salvation; and pains are taken to show that it is an easy thing. Better far than this would it be to see it, that those with whom they deal are truly convinced of sin, and labor to set forth Christ before them, in His glorious completeness as Savior. To explain faith to them, that they may do it, is to set them still to work. . . I know well the tendency there is, at an anxious inquiry, to ask, “What is faith, that I may do it?” It is a legalist’s work to satisfy that craving; but this is what is done in the inquiry room. . . Explanations of what faith is are but trifling with souls. How different is the Scripture way! The great aim there is to set forth the object, not to explain the act, faith. Let there be conviction, illumination, and renewal, and faith becomes the instinctive response of the quickened soul to the presentation by God of His Christ (Iain Murray, The Invitation System, pp. 29-30).