05 Aug 2011 by Tim Keller
First, Dr Lloyd-Jones insisted that we use the gospel as we edify Christians. In Preaching and Preachers, Lloyd-Jones warns preachers not to “assume that all…who are members of the church, are…Christians. This, to me, is the most fatal blunder of all.” (p.146) He goes on to say that many people have accepted Christianity intellectually but have never come under the power of the Word and the gospel and therefore have “not truly repented.” (p.150)
This is very significant. It is at the heart of the difference between the Old Side/New Side, Old Lights/New Lights controversy during the revivals in 18th century America. The Old Side and Lights insisted that what made you a Christian was, essentially, that you were in the church as a baptized, confessing member. They thought it inappropriate to make baptized, professing Christians consider that perhaps they were not regenerate. But here Lloyd-Jones comes down firmly on the side of the revivalists. He says that under real gospel preaching there will always be a steady stream of church members who, every year, come forward and confess that they had never understood the gospel and had, over the past months, finally repented and believed truly. “One of the most exhilarating experiences in the life of a preacher is what happens when people whom everybody had assumed to be Christians are suddenly converted and truly become Christians. Nothing has a more powerful effect upon the life of a church than when that happens to a number of people.” (p.152) Lloyd-Jones relates several intriguing cases. In one case, he tells of guest preaching at a church in Toronto in which an older lady, one of the biggest financial supporters and “pillars” of the congregation was led to see by his preaching that she was not a Christian. The preaching at that church had never revealed it to her, because the preaching was what the Doctor called “general expositions for believers”, helping them live a good Christian life, but mainly appealing only to the will, never going down after the heart and conscience.
Therefore, the Doctor warns about only exposing Christians to what he calls “general expositions” meant to teach, or “preaching morality and ethics without the Gospel as a basis.” (p.35) Not only have many professing Christians never truly repented and rested in grace, but regenerate Christians need to constantly feel the power of the Gospel, and “almost” go through the experience of conversion again and again. (p.151) He adds, “If our preaching is always expository and for edification and teaching it will produce church members who are hard and cold, and often harsh and self-satisfied. I do not know of anything that is more likely to produce a congregation of Pharisees than that.” (p.153)
As I’ve said in previous posts, Lloyd-Jones’ advice is largely being ignored today. The emphasis even within the Reformed world tends to bifurcate in two directions, neither of which follow the Doctor. On the one hand, many Reformed evangelicals are (rightly) enamored with expository preaching, but it tends to be highly doctrinal and exegetical—it is not very life-related and, while there is some general concern to preach Christ from Old Testament texts, does not regularly recapitulate the gospel the way the Doctor calls us to do. On the other hand, there are the more liturgically oriented, who follow (whether they know it or not) the high church Calvinism of John W. Nevin rather than his contemporaries Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge of Princeton. Nevin was completely against assuming that baptized believers might not be regenerate. He stressed the long processes of liturgical worship and catechizing for shaping heart and mind, not preaching that called for self-examination and conversion. Lloyd-Jones is far more in line with the Princeton theologians.
In his Thoughts on Religious Experience, Archibald Alexander writes that Christians must be exposed to the gospel of grace versus works again and again, not only to bring people to justification, but to enhance sanctification.
When persons are truly converted they always are sincerely desirous to make rapid progress in piety….Why then is so little advancement made? First, there is a defect in our belief in the freeness of divine grace. To exercise unshaken confidence in the doctrine of gratuitous pardon is one of the most difficult things in the world, and to preach this doctrine fully without verging towards antinomianism is no easy task and is therefore seldom done. But Christians cannot but be lean and feeble when deprived of their proper nutriment.
It is by faith that the spiritual life is made to grow, and the doctrine of free grace, without any mixture of human merit, is the only true object of faith. Christians are too much inclined to depend on themselves and not to derive their life entirely from Christ. There is a spurious legal religion, which may flourish without the practical belief in the absolute freeness of divine grace, but it possesses none of the characteristics of the Christian’s life. It is found to exist in the rankest growth, in systems of religion which are utterly false. But even when the true doctrine is acknowledged in theory, often it is not practically felt and acted on. “The new convert lives upon his frames rather than on Christ, while the older Christian is still found struggling in his own strength and, failing in his expectations of success, he becomes discouraged first, and then he sinks into a gloomy despondency, or becomes in a measure careless….[U]ntil religious teachers inculcate clearly, fully, and practically, the grace of God as manifested in the Gospel, we shall have no vigorous growth of piety among professing Christians….The covenant of grace must be more clearly and repeatedly expounded in all its rich plenitude of mercy, and in all its absolute freeness.
Do we preach the gospel so clearly even when we are seeking to edify that there are always at least a trickle of people within our church who come to see that they never really believed? The purpose of every sermon, according to Dr Lloyd-Jones, is not to give information and general instruction but to preach the gospel and make it real to the heart. There’s a flip side to this, and we will look at it in the next post.