Assurance is a tricky thing in the Christian life. There are numerous ways we can gain assurance. With regards to assurance, there are two things I try to prevent: a false believer from thinking he is a real one and a real believer from thinking he is a false one. This is not easy, as false believers are not easily convinced of their true state and true believers often have great doubts. However, preaching in such a way that Christ’s work and his commands are presented is the best way to guard against either error. Below I present two different types of preaching and what I think are the effects these types of preaching will have. It is simplistic and there are other things that could and should be added, but I think the main point will be clear. These thoughts were prompted as I preached through Ephesians 4:25-5:2 several years ago.
Here are the two preaching scenarios: In the first, there is a preacher who believes that he must preach Christ. His sermons focus around Jesus and his work on the cross. They focus on what he did to save us and redeem us. This preacher looks for Jesus in every text, including the Old Testament ones. The primary application to every one of his sermons is “Trust in Christ or keep trusting in Christ.” He does not normally exhort men to obedience in concrete ways. He thinks this will lead them to trust in themselves instead of Christ. He does not preach against gossip or lying. He does not say that the sexually immoral will burn in the lake of fire (Revelation 21:8). He sticks to what Jesus has done. He believes that if he does this men will turn from their sin as they trust in Christ.
The second man also wants to preach Christ. But he believes preaching Christ does not mean preaching only what Jesus has done upon the cross, but also how we should live because of what Jesus has done. He does not believe calling his flock to live obediently will necessarily lead to legalism. So he preaches the crucifixion and resurrection as the only hope of mankind. But also preaches against gossip, lying, sexual immorality, pride, wrath, laziness and a host of other sins. He reminds his people that Christ has conquered those sins and that because they trust in him they are to be a new kind of people who are killing sin in their lives by the power of the Spirit. Under which man’s preaching is Christian more likely to gain assurance? Under which man’s preaching is a man in the Church who does not have true faith, most likely to recognize his need for true faith? We would automatically assume the first. However, I want to argue that this is not the case.
A Christian, who wants to follow Christ, could be hounded by doubts under the first man’s preaching. Why? Because he will ask himself does he truly trust Christ? How do I know if I trust in Christ? Yes, there is the inward testimony of the Spirit. But what if I don’t really have the Spirit? Under the first man’s preaching one (not the only one) of the key ways we are assured of our salvation, good works, is lost.
This is also why a man who is a professing Christian, but not truly converted can sit under the first man’s ministry for years and never know he is not a Christian. Why? He believes he is a Christian. He believes he trusts in Christ. And there is no objective way to prove otherwise. He can sit there week after week and say, “Yes, I really do trust in Christ. I have the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, I know I am saved.” Nothing in the preaching of the first man will cause him to question whether his evaluation of himself is correct.
Under the second type of preaching both of these men go the opposite direction. The true believer, the one with evangelical faith, begins to put off sins like pride and lust and gossip because of what is being preached. He messes up and repents and then gets back in the fight. But he is not fighting in his own strength. He is fighting with the Spirit. He knows he is not perfect, but because objective ways of evaluating growth are put before him, he can see where he is at. He can look back and see the Spirit’s work in his life. This together with the Gospel given through the Word and sacraments, the witness of his fellow believers, and the internal testimony of the Spirit give him assurance that his salvation is real.
What about the false believer, the one who thinks he belongs but really does not have true faith? What happens to this man under the second type of preaching. Let’s say the man is a chronic liar. When the preacher begins to apply God’s word by saying, “If your life is one of chronic lying you do not have true faith. One who has the Spirit is putting away lying and putting on the truth. Is that what your life looks?” When the preacher says this the line will be clearly drawn in the sand. The unregenerate man has several options:
He may go out and try to improve his life by sheer will power. He will ultimately fail because he does not have the Spirit. Or may realize that he is not regenerate and cry to Christ for salvation. Or he may realize he is not regenerate and leave the church. Or he can pretend he is saved and continue to play the hypocrite. But the one thing he cannot do is believe that he can be a chronic liar and a Christian at the same time. The pastor has eliminated that option for him.
Every time the shalls and shall nots are preached correctly they bring proper motivation to the Christian’s obedience and give him a chance for greater assurance through the Spirit. They also pull out of hiding hypocrites and put them in front of a mirror so they can see who they really are. The first man’s preaching is not wrong. But it is Biblically inadequate and pastorally naive. The second man’s preaching is Biblically sound, preaching not just Christ’s work, but also the Spirit’s work and it is pastorally wise, understanding better the tendencies of the human heart.