The primary and defining characteristic of the growing Christian is love. Jesus Himself says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35, NKJV). As preachers, we want to express our love to those around us in ways that are biblical and true to our calling. How do we express our love through the Ministry of the Word? Is it possible to comfort and encourage the congregation while confronting sin and calling our listeners to be accountable to the Word of God? It is not only possible, but my argument is that comforting and confronting are requirements for effective biblical ministry!
In the preaching world, there are two caricatures of modern preachers that are often maligned. The first caricature we will call the “Permissive Preacher.” This preacher is all grace with no law. After listening to his sermons, one would surmise that justification is a final state, an end in itself, where nothing is required in the individual life in relation to holiness. Just get saved and do whatever you want without any consideration of the multitude of New Testament encouragements toward sanctification. The second caricature we will call the “Prohibitive Preacher.” He is all law and no grace. After listening to his sermons, one would think that salvation is obtained by works alone, in rules alone, and by yourself alone apart from the grace of God in Christ. Neither of these caricatures represents an appropriate aspiration for biblical preachers. What is the appropriate balance?
The idea of a gracious and loving community of believers that holds each other mutually accountable to God’s standards of holiness is a foreign concept in our individualistic culture. It is, however, critical to our ongoing sanctification. As preachers, when do we comfort and when do we confront?
We should comfort always. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2Cor 1:3-4, NKJV). We live in a world where comfort is often in short supply. While this may be the case in broader culture, it should not be so in the community of faith. People deal with all kinds of struggles and desperately need a word of encouragement from the Word of God. Our suffering has purpose. God uses suffering to conform us to the image of His Son. Suffering is a temporary condition of the present that will not have an eternal impact on their future. They need to hear these things.
Peter makes a distinction between suffering that occurs when we follow Christ and suffering that occurs from our bad choices. “For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God” (1Pet 2:19-20, NKJV).
We should confront when appropriate. In certain cases, people may be suffering because they refuse to live according to God’s standards. They could be experiencing chastisement for present sin or repercussion for past sins. In these situations, we should lovingly confront them. This requires us to be constantly working on our eye planks so we can see clearly to help with their eye specks. It is not loving to avoid accountability. “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20, NKJV). None of us is perfect but we are all in the process of being perfected. We will not make the finish line if we run the race alone.
How does this change our preaching? It doesn’t, if we are allowing the text to dictate the substance and structure of our sermons. Every text is an encouragement to believers and every text confronts some shortfall in our fallen nature. Preach the text. Focus upon what the text focuses on. Love the people. Encourage them and confront them with the truth of Scripture. From the pulpit, in our counseling sessions, and in everyday conversations, sanctification should be the primary goal of the Ministry of the Word. Keep loving and keep preaching!
Jeff Campbell is Assistant Professor of Preaching, W.A. Criswell Chair of Expository Preaching, and Dean of Students at Criswell College in Dallas, Texas.