PRC (6): Discriminatory Preaching

There is not a sermon which is heard, but it sets us nearer heaven or hell – John Preston

Discriminatory Preaching

Should the preaching on occasion cause members of the congregation to doubt their salvation?

I am talking here about preaching with the specific intent of the pastor to cause members to doubt their salvation. This is preaching with the specific purpose of waking up slumbering members and causing them to see their need of salvation. This is not because the pastor likes a congregation full of doubters, but rather has an earnest desire to bring those who are unsaved and hypocrites inside the congregation to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

I bring up this question because I believe there is a great lack of this type of discriminatory preaching in the PRC. Indeed, I have had people in the PRC tell me that the minister should never preach with the intent of causing people to doubt their salvation.

The Puritans believed strongly in this kind of discriminatory preaching. I do believe they at times went too far with it, especially in how some of them articulated the doctrine of assurance (a topic I may deal with in a future post) and I have no trouble condemning them for that. Yet, I believe there is much usefulness in Puritan preaching and I strongly encourage people to read the Puritans.

What is discriminatory preaching?

Joel Beeke defines it well,

  • Discriminatory preaching defines the difference between the non-Christian and the Christian. Discriminatory preaching pronounces the wrath of God and eternal condemnation upon the unbelieving and impenitent. It likewise offers forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who embrace Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord by true faith (Matt. 7:22 – 27; I Cor. 1:30; 2:2).
  • The Puritans knew the deceitfulness of the human heart. Consequently, Puritan preachers took great pains to identify the marks of grace that distinguish the church from the world, true believers from merely professing believers, and saving faith from temporary faith. Thomas Shephard in The Ten Virgins, Matthew Mead in The Almost Christian Discovered, Jonathan Edwards in Religious Affections, and other Puritans wrote dozens of works to differentiate imposters from true believers.[1] [Emphasis Mine]

Discriminatory preaching is ultimately aimed at the conversion of the hearers. It is the harsh preaching of the Law. It is preaching that speaks of the close relationship between justification and sanctification. It is preaching that states that these two should never be mixed and yet preaching that confesses that the one can never exist without the other.

To be sure, this kind of preaching is not fun. It does not tickle the ears. It convicts. It causes sorrow. It is also not easy for the preacher to preach this way. But it works for the ultimate good of the believer.

Was the intent of the Puritans in all this to create a morbid people, continually self-examining themselves, always in despair, always in the “dark night of the soul”, never without hope or joy?

No. That was not the intent of the Puritans at all. I repeat myself here for emphasis: the Puritans were zealous for souls. They wanted to establish faith, not dead orthodoxy, in their congregations. They felt the burden of the gospel to preach to the lost, including the lost in their own congregations. They wanted true believers. They did not want to maintain the status quo among their congregations. They did not want average believers. They wanted gospel-impacted believers!

That was not the intent of the Puritans at all. I repeat myself here for emphasis: the Puritans were zealous for souls. They wanted to establish faith, not dead orthodoxy, in their congregations. They felt the burden of the gospel to preach to the lost, including the lost in their own congregations. They wanted true believers. They did not want to maintain the status quo among their congregations. They did not want average believers. They wanted gospel-impacted believers!

Thus, they were almost always preaching with this intent: the conversion of souls and the edification and growth of the saints.

Observe a few quotes from the Puritans below:

John Owen: “A sermon is not made with an eye upon the sermon, but with both eyes upon the people and all the heart upon God…. Ministers are seldom honoured with success unless they are continually aiming at the conversion of sinners.”[9]

Thomas Brooks: “Ministers must so speak to the people as if they lived in the very hearts of the people; as if they had been told all their wants, and all their ways, all their sins, and all their doubts.”[10]

Richard Baxter: “The whole course of our ministry must be carried on in a tender love to our people…. When the people see that you [sincerely] love them, they will hear anything, and bear anything, and follow you the more easily.”[11]

Is your pastor preaching with the intent of the conversion of souls? Pastor, are you doing this? Is this one of things that you are aiming at in your preaching?

What does discriminatory preaching look like?

The Puritans always understood that they were preaching to a mixed group. They understood that the church was composed of the saved, the unsaved elect, and the reprobate. Thus, “each sermon included directions to both believers and unbelievers. The unbeliever was usually called to examine how he was living and what behavior needed changing, then he was admonished to flee to Christ, who alone could fulfill his needs.”[3]

This view of the church and great zeal for the conversion of souls caused the Puritans to preach to the conscience of their hearers. This meant often asking pointed questions. Beeke writes,

  • Plain preaching named specific sins, then asked questions to press home the guilt of those sins upon the consciences of men, women, and children. As one Puritan wrote, ‘We must go with the stick of divine truth and beat every busy behind which a sinner hides, until like Adam who hid, he stands before God in his nakedness.’[4] [Emphasis Mine]

Calvin too believed that this type of preaching was important. He preached harshly, with the intent that people would be edified unto salvation. He writes,

  • When I expound Holy Scripture, I must always make this my rule: That those who hear me may receive profit from the teaching I put forward and be edified unto salvation. If I have not that affection, if I do not procure the edification of those who hear me, I am a sacrilege, profaning God’s Word…. Teaching on its own is not sufficient, for we are cold and indifferent to God’s truth. We need to be pierced. The preacher has to use vehemence, so that we may know that this is not a game.
  • And the people must not say, “Ho! that is too hard to be borne. You ought not to go on like that.” Those who cannot bear to be reproved had better look for another school-master than God. There are many who will not stand it: “What! is this the way to teach? Ho! we want to be won by sweetness.” “You do? Then go and teach God his lessons!” These are our sensitive folk who cannot bear a single reproof to be offered to them. And why? “Ho! we want to be taught in another style.” “Well then, go to the devil’s school! he will flatter you enough — and destroy you.” But believers humble themselves and are willing to be treated severely so that they may profit in God’s school.[5] [Emphasis Mine]

Calvin also understood the deceitfulness of the heart and saw the need for preaching that aroused the hearers from their spiritual slumber. He writes in his commentary on Matthew 7:21,

  • Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord. Christ extends his discourse farther: for he speaks not only of false prophets, who rush upon the flock to tear and devour, but of hirelings, who insinuate themselves, under fair appearances, as pastors, though they have no feeling of piety. This doctrine embraces all hypocrites, whatever may be their rank or station, but at present he refers particularly to pretended teachers,2 who seem to excel others. He not only directs his discourse to them, to rouse them from the indifference, in which they lie asleep like drunk people, but also warns believers, not to estimate such masks beyond their proper value. In a word, he declares that, so soon as the doctrine of the Gospel shall have begun to bear fruit by obtaining many disciples, there will not only be very many of the common people who falsely and hypocritically submit to it, but even in the rank of pastors there will be the same treachery, so that they will deny by their actions and life what they profess with the mouth. “Whoever then desires to be reckoned among the disciples, must labour to devote himself, sincerely and honestly, to the exercises of a new life.[6] [Emphasis Mine]

Is discriminatory preaching Biblical?

Yes, it is.

The Scriptures often call us to examine ourselves, to see if we are in the Lord, if we have fellowship with the Father and the Son. The issue of assurance and true faith is one of the fundamental purposes of 1 John: “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.” (I John 5:13)

We are then to read 1 John with the purpose of seeing if we have eternal life. 1 John is about establishing assurance in the heart of the believer! One of the chief ways that John does this is in causing individuals to examine their lives and their obedience to the laws of God. He reminds his readers that only those who walk in the light and who keep God’s commandments are in fellowship with God. And yet, John never divorces the issue of sanctification from justification. He is constantly pointing his readers to Jesus Christ. We not only must keep the law of God, but we must also look to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of all our sins. Indeed, we must see our sins, for anybody who says he has no sin is a liar and the truth is not in him! It is only in the atonement of Jesus Christ that there is any basis for assurance. Good works are the evidence of our justification, not the act of our justification. Thus, John is arguing that justification will never ever exist without sanctification. And part of our sanctification is a growing dependence upon our justification.

John then writes with the intent of separating true believers from false believers, hypocrites from the pious, true Christians from false Christians. He also writes with the intent of establishing true faith in the hearts of those who may just have outward faith. He writes these things that “ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.”

Preachers, then, may certainly preach in such a way that it may cause doubt in some. He may also preach with the intent of causing doubt in some so that they may the more clearly see if they are truly in the faith. John does this: anybody who reads 1 John should question whether he is in the faith. The way the importance of sanctification is preached in this epistle should leave everybody convicted, it should leave any serious reader with the question: am I truly in Christ? After all, who can say that he has walked perfectly in the light?

The Apostle Paul also calls us to examine ourselves. We read in I Corinthians 11:31: “For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.” To this Calvin remarks in his commentary,

  • For if we would judge ourselves. Here we have another remarkable statement—that God does not all of a sudden become enraged against us, so as to inflict punishment immediately upon our sinning, but that, for the most part, it is owing to our carelessness, that he is in a manner constrained to punish us, when he sees that we are in a careless and drowsy state, and are flattering ourselves in our sins. Hence we either avert, or mitigate impending punishment, if we first call ourselves to account, and, actuated by a spirit of repentance, deprecate the anger of God by inflicting punishment voluntarily upon ourselves.2 In short, believers anticipate, by repentance, the judgment of God, and there is no other remedy, by which they may obtain absolution in the sight of God, but by voluntarily condemning themselves.[7] [Emphasis mine]

Further, Peter in 2 Peter 1:10 states, “Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall.” To this Calvin writes,

  • He draws this conclusion, that it is one proof that we have been really elected, and not in vain called by the Lord, if a good conscience and integrity of life correspond with our profession of faith. And he infers, that there ought to be more labour and diligence, because he had said before, that faith ought not to be barren.[8] [Emphasis mine]

Does your life match with your confession? Or are you merely professing faith in Jesus Christ, with no effect on your life? To answer those questions requires self-examination. It requires preaching that causes us to examine ourselves. It requires preaching that wakes us up from our lazy consciences: preaching that convicts. It is vitally important to answer these questions: justification can never exist without sanctification. Thus, Peter urges you to make sure that you are living a sanctified life, a life impacted by the gospel, a life impacted by your justification.

Paul, in 2 Corinthians 13:5 further calls us to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith. He states, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” Paul calls his audience to do this, not to create a spirit of continual doubting in the Corinthian church, but to affirm his own ministry. If they do find that they are in the faith, that they believe in Jesus Christ, then he is being a faithful minister of the gospel. Thus, Paul is calling the Corinthians to examine their hearts in accordance with what they knew about the Scriptures. He is wanting them to see if he is stablishing their faith in Jesus Christ by his preaching. Does their faith and, especially, Paul’s preaching match up with the gospel?

Is your pastor calling you to examine yourself to see if you are in the faith? Is he calling you to examine your walk, life, and profession to see if it is in accordance with the Scripture?

If, upon examination, you find that your faith is founded upon Scripture, rests alone in Jesus Christ, and has impacted your life, rejoice and have assurance! Rejoice also in knowing that your pastor is a faithful man of God, preaching Jesus Christ to you!


I wish to conclude with an apt quote from Joel Beeke which nicely summarizes a lot of what I attempted to convey in this post:

Today, many preachers are reticent to confront the conscience. We need to learn from the Puritans that the friend who loves you most will tell you the most truth about yourself. Like Paul and the Puritans, we must testify earnestly and with tears of the need for “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.[12]

[1] Joel Beeke, A Puritan Theology, 701

[2] Ibid, 701

[3] Ibid, 701

[4] Ibid, 688

[5] Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, 11 – 12

[6] John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 367.

[7] John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 392.

[8] John Calvin and John Owen, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 376.

[9] Beeke, A Puritan Theology, 708

[10] Beeke, 709

[11] Beeke, 709

[12] Beeke,688

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