Are We Called to Preach the Gospel or Preach the Word?

At the heart of his great little book, William Still emphasizes that the work of the pastor is primarily preaching and teaching the whole Word of God

We, too, live in a time when certain churches and certain movements are strongly emphasizing being Gospel-centered and emphasizing that pastors need to clearly preach the Gospel every Sunday. Now, I am fully in favor of being Gospel-centered, and I hope and pray that I do preach the Gospel every Lord’s Day morning. But that’s not the same thing as having every sermon be a “Gospel sermon” or a completely evangelistic sermon or basically the same sermon in different packaging.

 

“Preach the word.” – 2 Tim 4:2

I’ve been re-reading William Still’s The Work of the Pastor, one of the best and most recommended short-yet-weighty books for pastors. William Still was Sinclair Ferguson’s pastor and impacted the lives of many future pastors, theologians and missionaries.

At the heart of his great little book, Still emphasizes that the work of the pastor is primarily preaching and teaching the whole Word of God. In Chapter 4, “Commissioned by God,” Still places strong emphasis on preaching the whole Word rather than just preaching the Gospel. He argues against an over-emphasis on justification and forgiveness of sins and an under-emphasis on Christian growth in holiness (sanctification). As he does so, he says some pretty strong things:

“The Scriptures have a perfect balance, not only between their various parts, but within these parts; there is balance at every level and in every dimension. By contrast, it is undeniable that the Reformation did more to bring forth from the Word of God the doctrine of justification than the doctrine of sanctification and thus fell short of that contrast.” – p. 78 (Did he just criticize the Reformation?)

” . . . although they generally hold the whole Bible to be the inspired Word of God, they far from draw upon the totality of its inspired writings. All their search is for the simple Gospel, and if they don’t find the simple Gospel in its pages (some try very hard to twist and turn the Old Testament stories into it) then it is politely, even reverently . . . set aside . . . Not that they do so without a twinge of conscience . . . But it is not easy in the prevailing evangelistic climate to adopt a policy of feeding the sheep on the whole Word of God, giving them a full, varied, balanced diet.” – pp. 81-82

We, too, live in a time when certain churches and certain movements are strongly emphasizing being Gospel-centered and emphasizing that pastors need to clearly preach the Gospel every Sunday. Now, I am fully in favor of being Gospel-centered, and I hope and pray that I do preach the Gospel every Lord’s Day morning. But that’s not the same thing as having every sermon be a “Gospel sermon” or a completely evangelistic sermon or basically the same sermon in different packaging.

Every passage of the Bible is not the same, and every passage does not lead to the same conclusions and the same applications. It is possible to start with any text of Scripture and legitimately come to Christ in the message. I agree with what Charles Spurgeon said:

“From every town, village, and little hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London… and so from every text in Scripture there is a road to the metropolis of the Scriptures, that is Christ. Your business is, when you get to a text, to say, ‘Now, what is the road to Christ?’ and then preach a sermon, running along the road towards the great metropolis—Christ.”

But that doesn’t mean that we as preachers should rush past the substance and teaching of the text itself, hurry up and get to Jesus, and stay there. Spurgeon himself preached thousands of sermons and they didn’t all have the same basic Gospel message, even though they were all Christ-centered.

Our charge and commission comes clearly from 2 Tim 4:1-5:

“I 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 his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (ESV)

So, what exactly is the commission and how can we faithfully carry it out?

The commission:

1. Preach the word. Not our own ideas, however clever and compelling we may think they are.

2. Be ready in season and out of season. Preach the word whether the response is positive and encouraging or not. God is in charge of the response.

3. Reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. This speaks to the variety and balanced nature of the commission. The Bible sometimes reproves (corrects), sometimes rebukes, sometimes exhorts (urgently advises) and we must be willing to do so, too. But we do so with complete patience and teaching, being long-suffering, as God is with us, and teaching in a complete and balanced manner.

4. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching. This is a warning that faithfulness to God’s commission will not always lead to rapid church growth and great popularity. Many people do not want the balanced diet of the whole counsel of God’s word. So, we must “be sober-minded, endure suffering.”

5. Do the work of an evangelist. We are to proclaim the Gospel clearly and prayerfully seek to see the lost won to Christ.

6. Fulfill your ministry. In all of these ways, we will fulfill the ministry God has given us. If we neglect any of them, we will not.

How do we fulfill the commission?

1. Be in the word. If we’re going to preach the word and be faithful to the word and not to any human ideas and agendas, then we need to be in the word, every day for long periods of time- reading, studying, meditating on the word, praying the word to God, seeking to be conformed to the word by the Spirit.

2. Let the text set the agenda for the message. Preach the text and not your own clever ideas. Make the text clear to the people, using the language and outline of the text and clarifying it. Expose the text.

3. Preach the Gospel as it is in the text. Preach Christ as He is in the text. Every text authentically contains the message of the kingdom of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and leads us to Christ in some way. This sometimes requires some digging and studying in prayer, but it never requires twisting or distorting the text.

4.  Apply the text to the lives of your flock. God’s word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. (Heb. 4:12) It is God-breathed and is useful to equip the people of God for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17) The Bible has applicability to the lives of your flock living in their context. This does mean that you need to know your people and you need to understand the times in which we live.

5. Pray. Pray. Pray. Pray. Pray. (5 times) The real work of grace is the application of the word to the hearts of God’s people by the Holy Spirit. So . . .

  • Pray before you begin your preparation.
  • Pray as you prepare.
  • Pray before you deliver the message.
  • Pray as you’re preaching.
  • Pray after you’ve finished preaching.

6. Persevere. So much of what Paul urges Timothy to do in 2 Timothy 4 involves perseverance in the duties of ministry and preaching word, trusting the results to God. Too often we’re tempted to “try something” and then if it’s “not working,” we switch to something else. We need to be committed to the call God has given us and persevere in it until the end, by His grace and for His glory.

Jason A. Van Bemmel is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. This article appeared on his blog Ponderings of a Pilgrim Pastor and is used with permission.