Too often the pastor, in writing his sermon for the Lord’s Day, falls into the thinking that the goal of his preparation is just getting the message done. That’s not the true end of gospel preaching. Thinking that way will lead to boredom and even death in the pulpit, not life. He needs to think of what the ultimate goal is to be.
Neither is the goal – and here I tread on far more delicate ground – simply that of conversion.
I know I could be misunderstood in this. Yet hear me out. By its very definition, gospel preaching should be evangelistic. Indeed, the earnest preacher should long for a baptism by fire to be poured out on sinners’ hearts while listening to his message and to see many won to Christ through it. On this side of heaven, can there be any greater joy than hearing the Lord has taken the word you have preached and used it to cause a sinner to repent? If angels rejoice over this, then helping them to do so should be the pursuit of the minister.
Indeed, Eric Alexander, the great Scottish preacher, in a chapter entitled “Evangelistic Preaching” in the book Feed My Sheep: A Passionate Plea for Preaching, says that God “implores us and earnestly appeals to us to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ…Unless I am much mistaken, it is this pleading, imploring note which is lacking among those of us who are called to be preachers of the gospel in the 21st century.” I do not want to say anything here to diminish that concern. Rather, I want to add to the sense of pleading by saying that preaching has a goal more all-encompassing, with its deepest aim something more than only seeing sinners converted as glorious as that is.
What is it? Simply stated, the goal of gospel preaching is to prepare people to meet and to be eternally with the holy God. The Apostle Paul stated it this way:
Although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach— if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister (Colossians 1:21-23).
Because the goal of Christ’s cross work is to present us to God “holy and blameless and beyond reproach,” Paul says that is what his preaching was ordained to accomplish. Thus, thinking of preaching as readying sinners to meet God adds the needed urgency to its evangelistic thrust. The praying preacher, seeing before him lost men, women and children that will stand before God one day, will not use fleshly means to seek conversion but will issue heartfelt, urgent cries for them to get ready. Yet this perspective also adds unction as you preach to believers, for you are calling them to preparedness as well through the sanctifying work of gospel preaching. Paul goes on to express it this way, “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me” (Colossians 1:28-29).
In the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus spoke of pastoral ministry and particularly experiential preaching in this manner:
“The scope of our art is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, and to watch over that which is in His image, if it abides, to take it by the hand, if it is in danger, or to restore it, if ruined, to make Christ dwell in the heart by the Spirit: and in short, to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon, one who belongs to the heavenly host.”
While we disagree with significant aspects of what became the Eastern doctrine of deification, Gregory has a right focus on the need for preaching that encourages growth in sanctification in Christ—making the hearers more like Christ as they prepare to spend eternity with God. Preaching for anything less than that falls short of that gospel goal.