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

by | Apr 10, 2024 | Church Ministry

In a previous article, I briefly explained why we need discernment when it comes to “Are You Really Saved?” preaching. Problems can arise if a pastor makes it the main emphasis of his weekly pulpit ministry, particularly in a church where there is reason to believe that most of the membership is saved. I am now going to bounce on the other side of the seesaw in order to have you consider why a pastor should still emphasize “Are you Really Saved?” in his preaching. This in no way contradicts what I previously said. It is a matter of balance. Not making it a main staple of a pastor’s weekly pulpit ministry does not mean it should rarely or never happen.

The Outward Administration of the New Covenant

The outward administration of the New Covenant is baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The reception of these two sacraments is the outward and visible expression that a person is one of God’s New Covenant people (1 Corinthians 11:25). Since all of God’s New Covenant people are truly saved, they alone should receive these sacraments. However, pastors cannot infallibly discern if a person is genuinely saved and a member of the New Covenant. Nor can anyone else. All we can do is require a credible profession of faith, making sure there are no glaring contradictions between a person’s testimony and his life (Luke 3:7-14; 19:8-10). Exercising the utmost caution in this regard does not guarantee that only the truly converted will make it into church membership (Acts 8:9-24). Our Lord speaks of those who have an outward connection to Him but do not actually possess life-giving union with Him (John 15:2a). If Judas Iscariot, a devilish man, belonged to the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples (John 6:70-71), then a pastor of a healthy and vibrant church can almost be guaranteed to have some lost church members in the pews each time he preaches. So there must then be some regularity of “Are You Really Saved?” preaching in the local church.

The Reality of Deception

Though all of God’s New Covenant people will be saved, the New Covenant Scriptures contain warnings which straightforwardly command professing Christians not to be deceived (1 Corinthians 6:9, Ephesians 5:5-6, Galatians 6:7-8). Those warnings were not written to churches founded on a false gospel of easy grace. They were written to churches founded on the pure gospel of Christ preached by His apostles. Even in the healthiest of churches, while under the faithful ministry of the Word, members can be deceived as to their true state before God. A faithful pastor will make no bones about it — only those whose lives have been transformed by grace have a right to assurance and will inherit the kingdom (Matthew 7:21-23; Hebrews 12:14). God’s glorious promise in the New Covenant of a new heart does not negate the Bible’s emphasis on how the heart of man is prone to self-deception (Proverbs 28:26).

The Necessity of Perseverance

Once a person is genuinely saved, he cannot lose his salvation. He will never again be lost and unregenerate. Believers are “protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5 NASB). The flip side of that coin is: “For we have become partakers of Christ if we keep the beginning of our commitment firm until the end” (Hebrews 3:14 NASB). Take note of the “if.” A person is eternally saved “if” he or she clings to Christ in faith until the end. This is why “once saved, always saved” is a truncated and misleading statement. It is more biblical to say, “Once saved, trusting Christ and following Him until the end.”

There is a type of faith in Christ that does not save. One form of this faith is temporary (John 6:63-66; John 8:31-32). It is temporary, not because the person “lost his salvation,” but because his faith did not come from a heart renewed by grace (Luke 8:13-15). When such a person leaves the community of God’s New Covenant people, it is because he was never truly a part of that community (1 John 2:19). Another form of this kind of faith is formalism. It boasts of orthodoxy and “justification by faith alone,” but it does not have good works to validate the profession (James 2:18-26).

As I pointed out previously, a minister of the New Covenant should not preach to God’s New Covenant people like they are Old Covenant Israelites — those “who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears and hearts” (Acts 7:51 NASB). However, the unbelief and rebellion of Old Covenant Israelites is used in the New Testament as a warning to motivate perseverance in the way of faith and holiness (1 Corinthians 10:1-14; Hebrews 3:6-11, 15-19, 4:1-3). In other words, what happened to the Old Covenant Israelites can happen to people in the church who profess to be God’s New Covenant people. They can turn away from the Lord totally and finally and be condemned because they were never converted.

Preaching these warnings is not at all inconsistent with being a minister of the New Covenant. For the Lord promises in the New Covenant: “I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts, so that they will not turn away from Me” (Jeremiah 32:40b NASB). The fear that the Lord puts in the hearts of His New Covenant people includes believing His warnings. They take these warnings seriously, and His warnings help them stay on the narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14). Let’s say you are driving down a backroad at night, and you come upon a sign with bright reflectors and bold letters that reads, “Bridge Out Half a Mile Ahead.” Do you call up a county official and complain? “I really don’t appreciate these warnings! It is so harsh and unloving!” Of course you don’t. You understand that the clear warning is an expression of concern and comes from a desire for your safety. Furthermore, you do not want the warning out-of-sight on an index card three trees deep in the woods. Clarity about the danger is appreciated. Likewise, these warnings in Scripture are revelations of God’s love and kindness to us, and they are designed to direct us to blessing (Psalm 19:11). A pastor who issues them should not be charged as harsh and unloving. He should be judged as being faithful to the souls under his care.

Just as a man should not preach to a congregation characterized by faithfulness as though they are Old Covenant Israelites, he must also avoid a pulpit ministry that creates a climate of presumption. Perhaps a man’s ministry was heavy on “Are you Really Saved?” preaching, but he has since come to see the error of his way. Or, perhaps he was exposed to such a ministry for a time and determined he would not follow that bad example in his ministry. So he is committed to protecting Christ’s sheep from this destructive imbalance. Such a man can overreact and overcorrect.

One form which this overcorrection takes is avoiding God’s warnings altogether in his preaching. He never gives serious warnings as to the possibility of being a lost church member. This overcorrection can also take another more moderate form, where he over qualifies Scripture’s warnings about self-deception. As he preaches these warnings, he immediately puts the car in reverse by saying things like, “I am not up here saying you’re lost. I am not saying that you can lose your salvation. There is a difference between reigning sin and remaining sin. Don’t mix up these two things causing unnecessary doubt.” His immediate and profuse qualifications remove the arrows of conviction as soon as they hit the mark. People go away thinking, “Whewww!! There for a moment I thought the pastor actually meant there is a possibility I could be deceived. Thankfully, he took it all back before the sermon was over.” This kind of preaching can create a dome of deception under which people are subtly encouraged to believe they are saved apart from serious and honest self-examination. Along with this, a man might even go so far as to say, “I know this does not apply to you. I know you’re saved.” It is not the pastor’s job to provide the witness of the Spirit (Romans 8:15).

Additionally, preaching the gospel to believers is not equivalent to preaching to them as though they are lost. Christians need the gospel! They persevere to the end by clinging to it (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). 

Of course, this raises a question. How does a pastor strike a good balance? On the one hand, “Are you Really Saved?” preaching should not be the main staple of his pulpit ministry. On the other hand, he needs to incorporate “Are You Really Saved?” into his preaching. The following is some counsel I believe can help a man arrive at a happy medium according to Scripture.

1. A pastor should not be intimidated by illegitimate complaints and opposition

Those in the congregation who are deceived will generally not appreciate the question, “Are You Really Saved?” Neither will those in the congregation who are influenced by antinomianism. Neither will those who are living weak Christian lives or have unconfessed sin. Such people are likely to have a problem no matter how frequently or infrequently the pastor sounds this note in his preaching (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

2. A pastor should know his tendency

I once heard it said that some preachers are “Sons of Thunder” (Luke 9:51-55) and others are “Sons of Consolation” (Acts 4:36). Due to their personalities, experiences, influences, and upbringing, some men lean more heavily toward preaching conviction and judgment. Others, due to their personalities, experiences, influences, and upbringing lean more heavily toward preaching comfort and encouragement. Each can lean toward imbalance. It is good for a man to know his tendency and review his preaching in order to make necessary adjustments.

3. A pastor should know his people

If most church members are currently doing well, as far as he knows, that should govern how much “Are You Really Saved?” preaching the pastor does at that time in his ministry. That’s not to say that he should do none. But it is factor to consider. If a number of serious sin issues are present in the church, he might need to focus more on the danger of deception. But he also needs to understand how the people in his congregation receive these truths when they are preached. Some precious saints, no matter how holy and faithfully they are living, are convinced that they are not true believers whenever self-deception is addressed in a pointed way. This should inform the preacher on how to shape his “Are You Really Saved?” preaching in order to help such people. Yet, there can be people in the same congregation who are not easily disturbed (when they should be more so). They require much more straightforward preaching with forceful statements to motivate them to self-reflection. There is not a precise formula to use. It takes Spirit-given wisdom to do this type of preaching in a manner sensitive to these differences within a congregation.

4. A pastor should make consecutive expository preaching the foundation of his pulpit ministry

Consecutive expository preaching is preaching through books of the Bible or large sections of the Bible. I would never say that a man must only preach consecutive expositional sermons. I do, however, believe it should be the foundation of a man’s weekly pulpit ministry. One benefit is that it helps with this very thing. No sooner does a man preach a text that is searching and convicting when he then comes to another text that balances it out with comfort and encouragement. Following the track that the Spirit has laid out in Scripture keeps the pulpit ministry balanced.

5. A pastor should preach the spirit of the text

To borrow and modify an illustration from Kevin DeYoung – when a man is preaching Psalm 23, he should not title his message “False Sheep.” When he is preaching John the Baptist’s scathing message to the Pharisees and Sadducees, he should not title his sermon, “Five Reasons I Do not Believe this Church is a Brood of Vipers.” The pastor should emphasize what the text is designed to address. Whether it is designed to comfort or confront, he should preach the text as it is and let the Spirit sort out how it applies to those in the congregation.

6. A pastor should issue biblical warnings without qualification while also expressing confidence

The author to the Hebrews warns against apostasy with vivid imagery to illustrate God’s judgment upon those who fall away from Christ (Hebrews 6:1-6). Yet immediately after this warning, he says, “But, beloved, we are convinced of better things regarding you, and things that accompany salvation, even though we are speaking in this way” (Hebrews 6:9 NASB). This is not the same thing as over qualifying. Nor is it removing the arrows of conviction. It is the pastor, when he can honestly do so, expressing what he believes to be the evidences of salvation in the congregation. This expression of confidence when joined to a warning is a powerful tonic for the souls of God’s New Covenant people. Together it propels them to keep on keeping on (Hebrews 10:32-29). It is not either/or. Some of the sweetest comforts can be experienced by God’s New Covenant people in the midst of searching preaching (Hebrews 13:20-21).

The responsibility to stand in a pulpit week after week is an awesome and weighty responsibility. May the Spirit grant wisdom the pastors of our day need to be skilled surgeons of souls when they preach “Are You Really Saved?”

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