Ministers of a New Covenant and the Danger of “Are You Really Saved?” Preaching

by | Mar 7, 2024 | Church Ministry

The Lord rescued me from self-deception in my senior year of high school. I had previously made a profession of faith when I was 9 years old, but I had remained a lost church member until my conversion. Consequently, in my early years of preaching, I preached many evangelistic sermons specifically aimed at people like me. I would challenge professing Christians to examine themselves, lest they be self-deceived as to their true spiritual state. This was understandable. I wanted them to be delivered from that terrible bondage as I had been saved. Plus, I was convinced that many indeed had been deceived into believing that they were ready to meet God simply because they had prayed a prayer.

Due to a major shift in my theological convictions, I joined a Reformed Baptist Church a few years after I was saved (almost 30 years ago now!). A shift also took place in my preaching. I began preaching to church members like they were saved. My preaching was no longer almost exclusively focused on challenging the genuineness of their professions. I did not cease preaching evangelistically, nor did I cease challenging church members to examine themselves. My preaching was also aimed at convicting the consciences of church members of sin, calling them to repent and to seek cleansing in the blood of Christ. But I began to increasingly preach to church members with the underlying assumption that they were truly saved. My preaching was aimed more at exposing the remaining sin of true saints than exposing the reigning sin of self-deceived hypocrites.

This shift in my preaching didn’t happen because someone instructed me to make the change. To be honest with you, I am not sure that I even knew the shift was taking place. Looking back, however, I am fairly certain there were two reasons for the change. One reason was the example of pastoral preaching that was modeled before me each week. The other reason is what I witnessed in the people of the congregation. I saw real holiness. I observed spiritual hunger. I sensed a real love for Christ and for His people. It is not that I had never witnessed it before in a church. I had, but not to that degree. So I believe it was these reasons which caused the shift in my emphasis. I developed a love for feeding Christ’s sheep in the public ministry of the Word.

At that time, I could not have given you a theological justification for the shift of emphasis in my preaching. But I can now. The theological justification for this change is God’s promise concerning the New Covenant. The Lord said through the prophet Jeremiah:

“For this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord: “I will put My law within them and write it on their heart; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their wrongdoing, and their sin I will no longer remember.” (31:33-34 NASB)

Take note of a couple of related aspects of this promise. They provide the theological rationale for the shift.

The Evangelizing of Covenant Sinners has Stopped

Note in particular when the Lord says, “They will not teach again, each one his neighbor and each on his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord.’ Under the Old Covenant, you could evangelize your covenant brother. That is to say, you could share the gospel with him, exhorting him to come to the saving knowledge of the Lord. You could plead with the person, “Know the Lord,” because not every member of the Old Covenant was a believer. In fact, most Old Covenant Israelites were unconverted. This is precisely why earlier in this same text the Lord says they broke the covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-32). Characteristically, they neither loved the Lord nor His law. It was needed under the Old Covenant to say to your covenant brother, “Know the Lord.” However, the Lord’s promises in the New Covenant mean that there will be no need to make such an appeal to your covenant brother. Why?

The Experience of Covenant Salvation has Spread

You do not need to evangelize your brother in the New Covenant because he already knows the Lord. So does every member of the New Covenant – “‘for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,’ declares the Lord.” There were true believers under the Old Covenant who knew the Lord (Psalm 36:10). They also had the law written on their hearts and enjoyed the forgiveness of sin (Psalm 32:1-2, 36:10, 119:32, 34-35, 48, 97, 113, 163). However, they made up a small remnant. In contrast, all members of the New Covenant are believers. All know the Lord. All have the law written on their hearts. All have been forgiven. Therefore, there is no longer any need to exhort your covenant brother to be converted. He is already.

This is the theological justification for the shift in my preaching. It is simple and basic. I am a “minister of a new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6 NASB). Therefore, I should not preach as a minister of the Old Covenant. To state it plainly: I am not to preach to God’s New Covenant people as though I am Old Covenant prophet proclaiming God’s Word to unregenerate hypocrites who do not love God and who are not committed to the way of righteousness. As a minister of the New Covenant, I am to preach to Christ’s church as those who have had stony hearts removed and have been given hearts pliable to God’s will (Ezekiel 36:25-27). Don’t misunderstand me. I am not at all suggesting that the pastor is to avoid preaching faithfully and vehemently against sin or to stop preaching evangelistically to the lost. But this is different from a weekly pulpit ministry which assumes that many of those sitting before the pastor are not genuinely saved. It is the kind of preaching that comes across heavy on conviction, as though the preacher is the only one in the congregation who is truly following Christ. I realize a man may take a pastoral call to a church and discover that a large portion of the membership is not genuinely saved. Or, he himself gets converted while pastoring in a nominal church context. When this happens, it very well may be that his preaching ministry will take on more of an Old Testament feel – “John the Baptist comes to town.” But when a man is ministering in a local church where, in the judgment of charity, most of the people have credible professions of faith, he should not preach to them as a “brood of vipers.” To do so is a failure to preach as a minister of the new covenant. It is to preach to people as though they are God’s Old Covenant people.

Why does this matter? Consider a couple of reasons:

1. Unbiblical and unrealistic expectations for weekly pastoral preaching

I am grateful God has raised up gifted and powerful gospel preachers in this generation who proclaim soul-searching messages to challenge professing yet unconverted Christians. Such Spirit-anointed preaching shakes people from their false assurance that will not hold on the Day of Judgment. I am also thankful that such preaching can be found all over the internet. There continues to be a great need in our land for such an emphasis in preaching when many are self-deceived as to their standing with God. May such preachers and preaching multiply! We need more of it, not less. However, we must exercise discernment at two points.

First, though this type of preaching (let’s call it “Are You Really Saved?” preaching) is legitimate and very needed, a problem arises when believers make it a main staple of their spiritual diet, whether it is listening to it on the internet, on CDs, or by attending conferences. It can result in discontentment with the weekly ministry of a pastor who is preaching to Christ’s sheep as though they are indeed Christ’s sheep. When their pastor is on the eighth message of an expositional sermon series focused on encouraging believers, they may conclude that the man in the pulpit is woefully missing the mark and falling short of the standard of good preaching. The mindset is that good and faithful preaching is to challenge and convict people as to where they truly stand with God. Their pastor’s preaching should be like those whose sermons they are downloading or watching online. The pastor may be criticized for wasting good pulpit time when he is addressing those practical matters of Christian living.

A faithful pastor will upon occasion preach a message or even a series of messages aimed at serious self-examination. A faithful pastor, who is to watch for the souls of his people, will sound the alarm of sure and swift judgment which is soon to come on those who will not repent (Ezekiel 33:1-9). Preaching the whole counsel of God demands nothing less (Acts 20:26-27). The reality of false shepherds and false sheep in the congregation necessitates it (Acts 20:28-31). But a pastor is called pastor for a reason. Pastor means shepherd. His duty assumes he is shepherding Christ’s sheep (1 Peter 5:2) The pastor’s primary role is a teacher whose main focus is to feed Christ’s sheep with the knowledge of His will (Eph. 4:11). Thus, if the main and continual focus of the pastor’s preaching is “Are You Really Saved?”, then not much feeding of Christ’s sheep will take place. An indispensable component of the Great Commission is “teaching them to follow all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:20 NAS). The pastor is to have this goal as his main focus in his weekly pulpit ministry. He is to instruct people whom he believes are Christ’s disciples desiring to do just that – follow His commands. As legitimate and needful as “Are You Really Saved?” preaching is, Christ’s true sheep need to be fed or their spiritual growth will be stunted.

Second, though “Are You Really Saved?” preaching is legitimate and very needed, young ministerial aspirants can be attracted to it in the wrong way. It is understandable why this type of preaching is so attractive, especially to young men who have a desire for the ministry. Such preaching is passionate and gripping. Rightfully so. Its intensity makes it exciting. There’s nothing wrong with intense and passionate preaching. It is better than dead, dry, and dusty preaching that lulls people to sleep. The Lord uses such powerful preaching not only to raise dead sinners to life, but also to stir up His people to stay on alert. However, a young man who has aspirations for the ministry can mistakenly think that Spirit-anointed preaching is always at this high level of intensity and excitement. Let’s be honest, a five-part series on practical Christian living in the workplace is nowhere near as exciting, and it is not likely to move a crowd as deeply. It will probably not get as many downloads either. Related to this danger, the young ministerial aspirant can develop the mindset that each time he preaches, people should be nailed to the wall with penetrating conviction, having their consciences dripping with blood, and shaking in their boots wondering where they stand with God. Young ministerial aspirants need to be taught that pursuing pastoral ministry means learning how to lovingly tend Christ’s sheep (John 21:15-17). Tending Christ’s sheep includes much more than preaching sermons designed to expose the wolves whom have slipped into the fold.

2. Unintended consequences for a healthy local church

There are times when a genuine Christian should struggle with assurance, either when walking in serious sin or due to spiritual laziness (1 Cor. 6:9-11; 2 Peter 1:5-11). But the New Testament reveals that it should be the norm for a believer who is walking before the Lord with a good conscience to have a full and robust assurance (I John 5:13; Romans 8:31-39). I am asserting that an imbalanced measure of “Are You Really Saved?” preaching in a healthy local church can have the unintended consequence of causing genuine Christians to struggle unnecessarily with their assurance of salvation. Someone might object, “The only thing a person has to lose under such preaching is a false assurance.” I agree with this at a certain level. A solid assurance of salvation should be able to endure soul-searching preaching.

Yet I still think that too much of this emphasis in weekly pastoral preaching can cause a genuine believer, who has every right to a full assurance of salvation, to begin wrestling unnecessarily with doubts. Imagine a woman who asks her husband if he likes the dress she chose for their date the following night. He assures her that he does. However, throughout the day he keeps asking her if she’s sure she wants to wear that dress. What do you think she will most likely conclude? She wonders if he does not really like her choice and wants her to wear something else. If she goes on the date with her original selection, she is afraid the whole evening that her husband is not pleased. When a genuine believer, someone who is faithfully walking with the Lord, is being constantly challenged week after week, “Are You Really Saved?” he or she can also begin to wonder about their salvation. Doubts may creep into their minds with questions such as: “Does the pastor think I am not converted? Maybe I am not truly saved then? I have examined myself thoroughly (I think), but am I missing something? What if I am self-deceived? How do I know that I am being honest with myself?” Now, of course, it is not wrong for a believer to ask questions like these from time to time no matter how one thinks he is doing. But too much of it can result in morbid introspection.

The very nature of self-examination is to evaluate yourself to find evidence of a transformed life, seeing the fruits of the new birth. But too much of that can lead to a very dark place of doubt and despair because there is a tendency to overly focus on ourselves with little to no focus on Christ, who is the foundation of our assurance. If a pastor thinks that people constantly questioning their spiritual state will produce holiness, he’s dead wrong. The present confidence of salvation and the hope of future glory are what give the believer strength to endure trials, and they also are what compel the continual pursuit of Christlikeness (Romans 5:1-5; I John 3:1-3). God’s people need much more than self-examination. They need lots of gospel hope which flows from the confidence that they are His people and He is their God (Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 10:32-35).

Though faithful pastors should warn their congregations of the danger of self-deception, we must give serious consideration about how the New Covenant should influence and shape how we do it. May we do it couched in the confidence that all of God’s New Covenant people are converted!

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