Carving a Middle Road: Two Types of Preaching

One of the best things about Herman Bavinck’s book Saved by Grace is how he unfolds the impact various theologies have on preaching.  In the latter section of the book he notes that there are two main types of preaching, evangelistic and ethical preaching. We could rephrase this as preaching which assumes the listener is not a Christian and preaching which assumes they are. He then goes on to give the dangers when one type of preaching dominates congregational preaching.

Evangelistic preaching-Preaching Only to the Unsaved

When this method under the blessing of the Lord has brought someone to conversion, it separates that person from the environment wherein God has place him, and it has no eye for the apostolic exhortation that each one after his conversion should remain in the calling entrusted to him. This approach appreciates the first part of Jesus’ word: preach the gospel to every creature; but it neglects the second part: teach the nations that are made my disciples to keep all that I have commanded. This method does lay the foundation but does not continue to build on that foundation, and therefore runs the danger that the entire foundation, constructed with little effort out of unstable materials, will later be washed away by the storms of unbelief and superstition. 

Preaching that always assumes unbelief never builds on the basics. A church like this eventually atrophies. I have seen Baptist and Presbyterian churches where the sum of every sermon is, “Believe in Jesus.” The most pressing matters of the day are rarely dealt with from the pulpit. The Biblical text is often twisted to fit an agenda.  Many texts are avoided all together. The saints do not become strong. Assurance of salvation is hard to find as all members walk around with a “?” on their foreheads.

Ethical Preaching-Preaching Only to the Saved

This approach to preaching leads people gradually to confuse believing the confession with confessing belief, yielding a situation of dead orthodoxy that is satisfied with intellectual assent to doctrine and that bothers itself very little with disposition of the heart and purity of life. Such an approach teaches church members to think and talk this way: Are we not members of the church? Did we not receive baptism when we were young? Did we not make a profession of faith, and have we not participated in the covenant meal? Just as Israel exalted itself because of its descent from Abraham and because of the temple of the Lord in its midst, so too many New Testament church members often build their hope for eternity on outward ecclesiastical privileges in which they share, and they surrender themselves to a false security. But the Word of the Lord testifies against all of this; it is not the one who says, “Lord, Lord,” but the one who does the will of the Father who will enter the kingdom of heaven. 

As the revivalistic, seeker sensitive model described above weakened, so the ethical model of preaching began to ascend. People are assumed to be regenerate. Instead of a “?” they all have a big “E” on their heads for elect. This leads to presumption and often a stagnate Christian life.

Bavinck goes on to write that it is hard to carve a middle road between the two but it must be done.

The difficulty of including both of these components in preaching and keeping them in balance is recognized by every minister of the Word according to his capacity. 

In a healthy church there will be sermons or portions of sermons that exhort the members to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith and sermons or portions of sermons that build on the foundation of Jesus Christ. There will be the Gospel proper, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” and what I call the broad Gospel, “Walk worthy of your calling.” Finally, he notes that understanding the covenant allows a pastor to do both:

Congregational preaching ought never to omit the serious summons to faith and repentance. Proceeding on the basis of the covenant does not exempt the preacher from that, but rather it is precisely this that obligates him to issue such a summons…for no matter how inestimably great the blessings already are that God bestows upon us when from our birth we are included in the covenant, born in a Christian church to Christian parents, baptized with holy baptism and nurtured in a Christian family-all these blessings are still not enough. Each person is confronted with the obligation of personal, saving faith; only one who believes in the Son has eternal life… The preacher’s sermons should connect God’s work that has preceded, to the gifts and blessings He has bestowed in His covenant, in His Word, and in His baptism. His sermons should continue building upon the foundation God Himself has laid, but then should also continue warning of the need for self-examination, so that people do not deceive themselves for eternity. Biblical sermons seriously summon church members to faith and conversion both initially and continually, for only those who believe will be saved. 

How one applies Bavinck’s insight will vary from church to church and even from phase to phase of church life. In a large church with dozens of visitors each Sunday exhortations to examination may be more frequent.  A smaller body of believers where each member is known by the minister will mainly need discipleship.  The type of preaching will also vary from text to text. Some texts are more evangelistic and others less so. I would argue that most regular Sunday morning preaching should be discipleship based, Bavinck’s second type of preaching. But even in those situations the call to faith and trust in Christ should be regularly given. And sometimes when it is, a baptized Christian believes for the first time.