On any given Sunday there are, sitting in the pews of church, myriad kinds of different people. There are, of course, the faithful who have battled well against unbelief throughout the previous week and are hungering and thirsting for the nourishment that comes from hearing God’s word preached among the fellowship of God’s people.
But there are also those saints who come to church much more bruised and beaten up; weary and entirely unsure of their standing before God. They are those “smoking flax” Christians where the flame of assurance has gone out. Though the smoke that rises evidences Christ’s gentle breath of love upon them, keeping that ever-so-small ember of faith alive, subjectively the Christian feels lost. Of course, there are also those people who come with too much assurance. Folks who assume they are entirely safe and stand secure before God but when their lives are brought before the light of God’s word, it becomes evident that they ought not to have any assurance at all.
It is here where the preacher of God’s word is to apply the living and active word of God to each case. To the man who stands tall in false assurance, God’s word is the “hammer that breaks the rock in pieces” (Jer. 23:29). And to the man who stoops low, not even lifting his eyes up to heaven, burdened under the weight of doubt, God’s word is perfect, reviving the soul and rejoicing the heart (Psalm 19:7,8). And yet, when it comes to assurance, the preacher must use the sharp, two edged blade of Scripture with surgical precision, applying God’s word with wisdom and tact.
It is there, underneath the pulpit of a godly ministry, where a man preeminently must examine himself to see whether he is in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5), giving diligence to make his calling and election sure (2 Peter 2:10). But how can a pastor rightly bring his preaching to bear upon each individual, working to either build up and bring assurance or, in contrast, ploughing up the hardness of heart found in so many? Here are three brief directives.
First, pastors must pray. The Apostle Paul speaks of his authority to either build up or tear down (2 Cor. 13:10), and will do so according to what he see’s in the Corinthian congregation. And this too is what a preacher is called to every time he steps behind the pulpit. But ever before he begins to preach he must be on his knees praying. After Paul calls the Corinthians to examine themselves he says that he is “praying to God that you do not do wrong” (2 Cor. 13:7). The preacher must be in constant, earnest prayer for the people he’s preaching to, knowing that it is God who will ultimately do the work of building up in assurance or of tearing down in gospel humility, which leads to the second point.
Pastors have to know their people. Or, as it’s often stated, the Shepherd has to smell like his sheep. When working and preaching through any given text, the wise pastor will be continually thinking through each member in his church and seeking to press the implications of the text to specific individuals and instances. I am, of course, not saying the pastor needs to be naming names and pointing fingers from the pulpit; by no means! But his sermon should fit his context. His preaching should make sense to the particulars of the individuals God has given to him as he shepherds their souls. One great way to do this is to have your church directory open and in front of you throughout your sermon prep. Prayerfully work through your membership directory as you meditate upon your sermon passage and see how the Lord brings His word to apply to each individual.
Thirdly, preach the pathos of the passage. Each text carries its own individual flavor and has an emotional pathos all its own, and it behooves the preacher of God’s word to not only preach the exegetical and theological point of each passage but to rightly portray the pathos of the passage. Preaching Psalm 42 should not have the same emotional weight and feeling as preaching through Psalm 149. Likewise, when preaching through Romans 8 for example, take note of Paul’s emphasis on encouraging believers in assurance. The pathos of that passage should be carried over into the pathos of your preaching. In a subtle way, a preacher can work against the passage he’s preaching by trying to tear down when the inspired author is building up. What questions of application are you asking? Do they align with what the text is ultimately doing? When preaching through Hebrews 4, are you wanting your congregation to leave, in general, more uplifted and feeling positive, or, in keeping with the pathos of the text, do you want your congregation to “fear lest any of you should seemed to have failed to reach” the promised rest (Heb. 4:1)?
As the prophet Moses prepares to bring his ministry to an end and pass the torch to the younger preacher Joshua, he instructs his congregation, Israel, to “take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life” (Deut. 32:46-47). He wants his people to find assurance in what God has promised and take careful heed of what God has warned.
The Scottish puritan pastor William Guthrie wrote in The Christian’s Great Interest, that attaining assurance “is a matter of the highest importance… and yet, very few have or seek after a saving interest in the covenant; and many foolishly think they have such a thing without any solid ground… This should alarm people to be serious about the matter, since it is of so great consequence to be in Christ, and since there be but few that may lay just claim to Him.” And so it must be with today’s pastor-preacher, bringing God’s word to bear rightly on each individual under his care, pressing them to take seriously this matter of highest importance. It is their very life.
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.