Sometimes we preachers fail in the pulpit simply because we forget what we are up against. We think if we are just pleasant enough or clever enough or loud enough, certainly we will be convincing to our hearers. Yet we must never forget that one of the impacts of the noetic effect of sin is that it causes the mind to be at war against the things of God. We can act as if we are training puppies when instead we are wrestling bears.
Fallen man at his fundamental level, at the core of his constituted being, sets his mind on the things of the flesh. In Romans 8:7-8, Paul states it this way: “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” That unconverted man sitting before you in the pew has a mind that dwells on how he can satisfy his own cravings for such things as pleasure, prestige, and power. So deeply do men suppress the truth, so fiercely do they hate God, that in the words of Dr. James Boice men become “morally insane.” Note that Boice does not say they become psychologically insane, but morally. Men and women can have possession of their faculties, but their moral choices are utter madness.
Now, we may comfort ourselves that most of the folks we preach to are Christians. As Paul told the Colossians, we “once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” until we believed in the gospel (Col. 1:21-23). We can have a measured sigh of relief as we think about and preach to our congregation, saying to them that “you, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Rom. 8:9). Yet we need to remember that old habits die hard.
For one of the worst places for hostile minds to show up is in the church. People in the pews set aside truth in order to practice their comfortable traditions and to satisfy their pleasures. “Man invents mechanical forms and modes in order to get away from the horrible necessity of thinking, but in so doing he destroys his soul…The mind must exercise itself towards God, and if it does not our worship is dead worship,” says Charles Spurgeon in a sermon called The Question of the Day.
So how can these minds be altered? Through preaching! Spirit-enabled preaching is the chief, God-ordained means of taking alienated minds and transforming them into willing receptacles that learn of God and obey him. One of the great statements regarding preaching, the 155th question and answer of the Westminster Larger Catechism, gives us means of addressing the mind and making the Word of God effectual to our hearers.
Q. 155. How is the Word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.
Here we see no less than ten ways preachers can address the mind and bring it into the captivity of obedience to Christ (II Cor. 10:5).
Enlighten them with Scripture. Every time we open the Word of God we should be shining God’s divine light on their minds.
Convince them of its truth. Hearers of God’s Word should be reasoned with thoroughly, so that they are persuaded they are hearing the bona fide reality of their spiritual condition before it.
Humble sinners with their condition. They should be left knowing that their true spiritual standing has been set before them and, in the court of the Lord, they are without excuse.
Drive them out of trust in their own ability. Those hearing God’s Word should come away knowing that their only hope is Christ, his righteousness, and his power, not their own strength.
Draw them to Christ. If you do the preceding properly, then they will be prepared for you to show them the loveliness of Christ.
Conform them to his image. Put before them consistently the need to possess the holiness that Christ does.
Subdue them to his will. A good sermon will lead God’s people to pray the Gethsemane prayer, “Not my will but your will be done.”
Strengthen them against temptation. Help them to see how Satan wars for their soul, then equip them to wage the battle.
Build them up in grace. Listeners to God’s Word should never seek its obedience through their own strength, but be encouraged to seek the help of Christ.
Establish their hearts in holiness. Good preaching aims for the mind, but it does not stop there. It always aims to impact the heart.
As Paul described his and the apostles’ preaching, he said, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). The word “warning” in the Greek means to address and convince the mind. May we preachers employ all these means and more to do so.