Rev. Ronald Hanko
Several people have asked for a Reformed
perspective on the important issue of evangelism.
First of all, let us be sure that the biblical and
Reformed faith is not uncomfortable with evangelism. The two are not
incompatible. Indeed, the Reformed faith and churches have the only real
ground for evangelism. It is the Reformed doctrines of sovereign
unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace that
give a reason to do evangelism and hope for fruit in this great work.
Think of it this way: how can there be any real hope
of lost sinners being saved through evangelism if salvation depends on
their free will? Sometimes, sinful men and women have difficulty
choosing which shoes to wear when dressing in the morning. How then
shall they choose to be saved, especially if they truly are lost? How
shall sinners, whose minds are darkened by sin (II Cor. 4:4) and at
enmity with God (Rom. 8:7), come to the knowledge of the truth, unless
it be by His sovereign, effectual grace enlightening their minds and
freely granting them all of their salvation?
It is here first of all, therefore, that Reformed
evangelism is unique. It sets out the true biblical basis for
evangelism. It does not believe that God loves and desires the salvation
of all, that He sent Christ to die for all without exception, and that
it now depends on man’s free choice whether he will or will not be
Rather, the Reformed faith teaches that God chooses
who shall be saved (John 1:12-13; 15:16; Rom. 8:30; 9:16; Eph. 1:4;
James 1:18) according to His eternal love for them in Christ; that He
provided salvation for them in the death of Christ on the cross (Gal.
6:14; Col. 1:21-22) and that He powerfully and infallibly gives them
that salvation by the irresistible work and grace of the Holy Spirit
(John 6:37, 44; Eph. 2:8-10). Thus, in biblical and Reformed evangelism
there is the sure hope that these will certainly and effectually be
saved. There is no such hope in the teaching that salvation depends on
man’s willing or running (Rom. 9:16).
But how does the preaching of the gospel fit into
this? Does this not, as some charge, make the preaching of the gospel
unnecessary? Evangelism, after all, has to do with the preaching of the
gospel. That is what the word "evangelism" means.
In answering these questions the Reformed faith
teaches two things about the preaching of the gospel. First, it insists,
as holy Scripture does, that the gospel is the means God uses to gather
His elect and to bring them to saving faith in Christ and so to
salvation (Acts 13:47-48). In the second place, the Reformed faith
teaches that the gospel is powerful. That power by which men repent and
believe does not lie in the sinner or in his will, but in the Holy
Spirit’s operation through the gospel. By it sinners are effectually
called (Rom. 10:17), given repentance and faith (Acts 11:18), have their
minds and wills changed, and are thus sovereignly, irresistibly and
sweetly drawn to Christ (Rom. 1:16; I Cor. 1:18, 24).
It is the doctrine of free will, therefore, that
destroys evangelism. The teaching that God loves all men simply
reassures sinners that all is well with them (cf. Eze. 13:22). The idea
that Christ died for them only confirms them in the mistaken notion that
their situation is not desperate. To say that they have the critical
choice in their own salvation—that God depends upon, and is waiting for,
them—just establishes them in their rebellion against God and teaches
them that they are as gods! It does nothing for the salvation of lost
2. Preaching the
As we continue to give a Reformed perspective on
evangelism, we emphasize the important truth that evangelism is nothing
more or less than preaching the gospel! If we are preaching the gospel,
we are faithfully doing evangelism. This is the great commission: "Go ye
therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the
Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe
all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you
alway, even unto the end of the world" (Matt. 28:19-20).
As obvious as this seems, many have forgotten it.
Thus they talk endlessly about evangelistic methods and spend a great
deal of time drawing up complicated and expensive evangelism schemes for
their church. It never seems to enter their mind that evangelism means
Believing that evangelism is preaching the gospel, we
reject the dreadful, though (for some a) long-established, practice of
setting aside every Lord’s Day evening for an evangelistic
message—teaching in the morning, evangelism in the evening. There is
nothing biblical about this practice.
Apart from the fact that such evangelistic services
tend to degenerate into services where the same message is heard week
after week, but "hung" on different text each time to the utter boredom
and frustration of those who desire to learn the truth, this practice
has forgotten the simple truth that all gospel preaching is evangelism.
No matter what passage of Scripture a person is preaching upon, if he is
preaching properly he is preaching the gospel. There is no such thing as
a special "evangelistic" message.
Perhaps, however, Christians and Christian ministers
have forgotten or do not understand that all Scripture reveals Christ
and is therefore the gospel in the fullest sense of the Word (John
5:38-39). If the Scriptures are properly preached, Christ is preached.
If Christ is being preached, the gospel is being preached. And if the
gospel is being preached, then sinners will be saved by it. It is God’s
appointed means for their salvation.
We are afraid that the practice of having Sunday
evening "gospel services" betrays a lack of trust in the gospel as the
means God has chosen to use for the salvation of His own. Thus, such
services tend to become attempts to arouse emotions, to frighten people
or to produce some kind of "decision." Certainly there is very little of
the Word of God expounded in such services and even less dependence upon
the Holy Spirit for fruit.
But there are other reasons why devoting a service
each Sabbath to preaching to unbelievers is wrong. It betrays a wrong
view of the church, as if the church is ordinarily a place for
unbelievers, and it overlooks the teaching of I Corinthians 14:23. There
the Word suggests that it is not a normal but an exceptional thing that
an unbeliever comes into the worship services. The church is for
believers and their children.
There is another problem here as well. That is the
idea that the work of evangelism ceases as soon as someone "gets saved."
If evangelism is preaching the gospel, and if preaching the gospel is
preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), then the
work of evangelism has only begun when a person repents and believes. At
that point he still needs by gospel preaching—evangelism—to have the way
of God expounded more perfectly (Acts 18:26) and to be rooted and
grounded in the truth (Col. 2:6-7). This aspect of evangelism is almost
entirely neglected today.
This does not mean, however, that there is not a
difference between preaching the gospel in the church and to those who
are outside the church, or that Reformed people believe only in
preaching the gospel within the church. The gospel must be preached
everywhere that God in His good pleasure sends it!
3. The Promise
of the Gospel
We have established the fact that evangelism is
nothing more nor less than the preaching of the gospel. That is what the
word "evangelism" means. From this it follows that all preaching of the
gospel is evangelism, including preaching to those who are already
saved, the members of the church. This aspect of evangelism is almost
entirely neglected today so that God’s people are destroyed for lack of
knowledge (Hos. 4:6).
We have also established the fact that gospel
preaching is preaching the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), that is,
all of Scripture. There is, therefore, no such thing as, nor any need
for a special "gospel" message or "evangelistic" service, especially
when that is nothing more than haranguing sinners or pressing them for
We would add that the call to repentance and faith is
not just for unbelievers either. Those who are already saved need to
hear that call in order that they too may turn from their sins (and they
do commit sin as long as they are in this body of flesh) and that their
faith may be stirred up and strengthened. This is also part of true
With this in mind there is no need for the preacher
to divide the congregation up into groups in his own mind or in his
preaching, directing some of his preaching to one group and some to
another. ALL the hearers need to hear whatever God the Lord says in a
particular passage of His Word. There is not one message for the church,
another for the world, one for the "unconverted," another for those who
are "saved and safe" (as a certain preacher once put it).
Even the promises of the gospel, though they are only
for the advantage of those who repent and believe, must be preached to,
and heard by, all, if for no other reason than that they may be without
excuse and their condemnation may be the greater when they do not
believe (John 15:22; II Cor. 2:16). True gospel preaching is the
exposition of the Word of God, including its solemn call to repentance
and faith, to ALL who hear (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30).
In that connection, we wish to emphasize here that
the Reformed faith believes in the preaching of the gospel to those who
are outside the church as well as to those who are saved and are members
of the church, to the heathen as well as to Christians. Here also the
Reformed faith is not the enemy of evangelism.
Even here, however, evangelism may not be limited to
those who have never heard the gospel. Those also who have heard and
departed, those who make a profession of Christianity but do not know
the truth of God’s Word and those who are members of churches where the
gospel is not preached or not preached purely are also the objects of
evangelism. When Jesus spoke of fields white for harvest, He was
thinking especially of the multitudes who were fainting and scattered
abroad in Israel as sheep that have no shepherd (Matt. 9:36-38).
What the Reformed faith does oppose is the preaching
of lies—that God loves everyone and wants to save everyone (contrast Ps.
5:4-6; Matt. 11:25-26; Rom. 9:13), leaving the impression with the
unbelieving that all is well.1 It is the enemy of the idea
that the promises of gospel are for the advantage of all (though they
must be preached to all). The wonderful things promised are only for
such as repent and believe under the preaching of the gospel, not for
everyone conditionally. To preach otherwise is to give false hope to
those who do not believe and to suggest that God is helpless in the face
of continued unbelief. This Reformed evangelism may not and will not do!
Calvinism" for free pamphlets, articles, audio, etc., on God’s
sovereign, particular grace in Jesus Christ for His elect alone.
We have been emphasizing the truth that evangelism is
nothing more nor less than the preaching of the gospel. Since this is
true, ALL gospel preaching is, strictly speaking, evangelism, whether it
be to the heathen, to the scattered sheep of apostatising churches or to
the congregation of God’s people.
Evangelism can be described, however, as preaching
the gospel to those who are outside the true church with a view to their
salvation. There is a difference between preaching the gospel in the
church and to those outside, to Christians and to the heathen, whether
to the heathen living in foreign countries who have not heard the gospel
or the to the heathen who are so numerous in our own Western countries
where the gospel has been preached for many years. These differences
while important are not essential.
The differences, we believe, are three.
First, in preaching to those who have not heard the
gospel before, the message must be simplified and preached in such a way
that those who hear understand clearly what the evangelist is saying.
This is especially difficult when preaching to heathen who have never
heard of sin, grace, redemption and of so many other great gospel
Let us remember here that Jesus, when He preached to
the people, preached to them in parables, so that even those who
continued unbelieving would hear and see what Jesus was saying. Thus, in
His parables, he used illustrations taken from their everyday life to
make the truths of the gospel as plain to them as possible.
Second, this kind of gospel preaching will address
the audience as unsaved in showing them the need for repentance and
faith in Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation. The preacher will
beseech and exhort those who hear, pressing upon them the demands of the
gospel and the urgency of their own need (II Cor. 5:18-21; cf. Matt.
There is, however, no essential difference in the
message that is preached to professed unbelievers and to the church. The
difference is in the audience and their need, and in the aim of the
preaching (saving the unsaved). This will to some extent affect the
presentation and emphasis of the message, but it is the gospel which
must be preached.
Indeed, we must see that even in preaching to the
heathen and unbelieving, the whole counsel of God must be preached,
including predestination, limited atonement, the Trinity, creation,
providence and all the other truths of Scripture. Jesus and the apostles
preached these truths even to those who were not saved (John 10:11; Acts
2:23; 13:17; 14:15-17). We must continue to preach them today.
These truths are very often neglected in mission
preaching and even rejected as unsuitable for preaching to the unsaved.
This is not only contrary to the example of Jesus and the apostles (John
6; Acts 17:22ff.), but cuts out the heart of the gospel message, i.e.,
that GOD was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself (II Cor.
Third, mission preaching involves going out to preach
to the unsaved (Matt. 28:19). We have already pointed out that the
church is seen in Scripture as the gathering of believers and their
children and that the presence of unbelievers is thought of as an
unusual and exceptional thing (I Cor. 14:23). It will not do, therefore,
for the church to attempt to carry out its calling to engage in missions
by holding an "evangelistic service" every Lord’s Day evening.
Sovereignty Controls Evangelism
We have emphasized that evangelism is preaching the
gospel and that, whether in the church or in missions, it is the whole
gospel—the whole counsel of God—that must be preached (Acts 20:26-27).
It is wrong to neglect certain revealed truths or to suggest that they
are a hindrance to evangelism.
Biblical and Reformed evangelism, however, not only
preaches the sovereignty of God and the doctrines of grace, but it is
controlled by them as well. We have already seen how the doctrines of
grace control the evangelistic message in that they require a message
that does not declare a Christ for all, a desire of God to save
everybody or a universal love of God.
The sovereignty of God also controls the goals and
methods of evangelism. For one thing, God’s sovereign command limits the
means of evangelism to the preaching. As important as such things may
be, medical work, education, building and agriculture are not evangelism
and are not the calling of the church as it engages in evangelism. In
Scripture there are no such things as medical and agricultural
missionaries. These things may and even ought to be done alongside the
work of evangelism, but they are not the church’s work, nor does one
need to be ordained and sent by the church to do them.
So too, we would emphasize the biblical truth that
evangelism is the work of the church, not of mission boards and
societies. The command to preach the gospel is a command that Christ
gave to His church and to no one else (Matt. 28:19-20).
And, since Scripture teaches that evangelism, the
preaching of the gospel, is the work of ordained men, there is no place
for women missionaries (I Tim. 2:12). We find it very curious that
churches who would never allow women to preach and hold office at home,
see nothing wrong with sending them out as missionaries to preach the
gospel to the heathen.
Nevertheless, the sovereignty of God does not only
control evangelism in requiring preaching as the God-ordained means of
evangelism. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty controls even the aims of
For example, a church that believes in election ought
not think that the goal and purpose of evangelism are to "give everyone
a chance." In that case, her goals in evangelism contradict the truths
of predestination and limited atonement she confesses.
Nor is the goal of evangelism to save everyone. In
preaching the gospel both in the church and on the mission field the
evangelist (i.e., preacher) must understand that preaching has a twofold
purpose. That purpose is the salvation of God’s elect and the hardening
and condemnation of the rest (Rom. 9:18; 11:7; II Cor. 2:14-17).
Those who are not willing to preach the gospel on
those terms ought not be engaged in the work. Indeed, Paul suggests that
ignorance of this twofold purpose of the preaching is the reason many
corrupt the Word of God as they do today by hiding, neglecting or
rejecting certain truths of Scripture in their evangelism (II Cor.
The goal of evangelism is not even preaching to
everyone. Both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament the gospel
is sent by God when and where He wills (Acts 16:6-8). There are those
who lay a huge burden of guilt upon the church by suggesting that the
church is not fulfilling her calling as long as the gospel is not
preached to every living person, when the Lord has given neither the
opportunity nor means to do it. This is wrong. Our sovereign God
determines also when and where the gospel will be preached.
In this last instalment on Reformed evangelism there
are several more things we wish to emphasize.
First, and in connection with our last section, we
wish to point out that evangelism is the calling of the church and must
be pursued vigorously, both within and outside the church. The fact that
God does not desire the salvation of all men without exception and that
the gospel throughout history is only preached when and where God wills,
should not limit the church or cause her to neglect her work.
In the work of evangelism, the church of Jesus
Christ, in obedience to His command, for the glory of God and for the
salvation of God’s elect, must seek and pray for the opportunity to
preach the gospel (Col. 4:3-4; II Thess. 3:1), for men to preach it
(Matt. 9:37-38) and for fruit on the work of preaching (Rom. 10:1). And,
when God graciously gives the means, men and opportunity, then she must
use that opportunity to the utmost.
Indeed, the opportunity to preach the gospel,
referred to in Scripture as an "open door" (Rev. 3:8), is seen as one of
the blessings God in Christ gives to the church when she is faithful.
What a disgrace if the church despises that blessing of God!
Second, since it is the calling of the church to do
evangelism and to engage in missions, then it is also her calling to
support those who are sent to do that work. Missionaries and evangelists
are preachers of the gospel and it is to the preachers of the gospel,
wherever they labour, that Scripture refers in such passages as I
Corinthians 9:7-14. We abhor the practice, common in so many places, of
sending the mission preachers out to raise their own support. So too if
mission work is the work of the church, it the calling of the church to
provide this support, not mission societies and mission boards.
Third, we need to emphasize the fact that because
evangelism is the work of the church all believers have an important
part in that work, though they themselves do not preach. They have the
important calling to pray for the work, to support it in that way and
with their gifts, and to be themselves witnesses of the truth in all
their life. Without faithfulness on the part of God’s people, no
evangelism work can prosper.
May this important and necessary work be done
faithfully, therefore, and may God add His indispensable blessing to it.
The Sunday Evening
Rev. Angus Stewart
In some churches in the British Isles and in N.
Ireland in particular, it is the custom that the Lord’s Day evening
service contains a "gospel sermon." Occasionally, the morning speech is
also largely, or even especially, addressed to the unbeliever. Sometimes
churches which do not hold Sunday night "gospel services" are criticised
for this, as if they were not truly biblical, evangelical and Reformed.
There are, however, problems with this practice of Lord’s Day evening
"gospel services," especially with regard to forced exegesis or Bible
interpretation, the "potted gospel," shallow preaching, will worship, Arminianism, hawking Jesus and a misunderstanding of the church.
(1) Forced Exegesis
Of the two testaments, obviously, the New Testament
is more interested in evangelism and the growth of the universal church
of Christ. Of the 27 books in the New Testament canon, 13 are epistles
written by the apostle Paul, either to believers corporately (the
churches of Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, etc.) or to
individual believers (I and II Timothy, Titus and Philemon). Thus Paul,
by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, writes, for example, "to the saints
and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse" (Col. 1:2).
Hebrews was addressed to Jewish believers, referred to as "holy
brethren" (Heb. 3:1). James wrote to his "brethren" who hold "the faith
of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory" (James 2:1). I and II Peter
are addressed to those who are "elect," sanctified and redeemed (I Peter
1:2), who have obtained "like precious faith with us" (II Peter 1:1). I,
II and III John were written to John’s spiritual "little children" (I
John 2:1), "the elect lady and her children" (II John 1) and "the
wellbeloved Gaius" (III John 1), respectively. Jude was addressed to
"them that are sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus
Christ, and called" (Jude 1). Revelation was originally penned for the
"servants" of God in seven churches in Asia Minor (Rev. 1:1, 4). Of the
five remaining New Testament books, two of them (Luke and Acts) were
written to a particular Christian, Theophilus (Greek for "friend of
God;’’ Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1), in order that he might "know the certainty
of those things, wherein [he had] been instructed" (Luke 1:4). We are
not told to whom Matthew or Mark were originally addressed, but amongst
the purposes for which the Gospel According to John was inspired, the
evangelistic is certainly included (cf. John 20:31).
In short, the Scriptures are written primarily for
the church and simply do not contain enough texts to preach exegetical
sermons for unbelievers 52 times or more a year, year in and year out,
in the public worship on the Lord’s Day. This results in the preacher
engaging in forced, and thus flawed, exegesis. As a former lay preacher
entrenched in this system and as one who has heard many such sermons, I
know whereof I speak. Since often the text does not lead where the
preacher wants it to go, it must be compelled to yield the desired
evangelistic sermon. As well as grieving the Holy Spirit who breathed
forth the Holy Scriptures (and the child of God who understands what is
going on), this practice fails to teach the congregation to interpret
the Bible rightly.
(2) "Potted Gospel"
This forced exegesis results in the "potted gospel,"
which always contains what the minister considers the bare essentials of
the gospel (and often not much else) and frequently finishes with an
appeal of various length tacked on at the end. After a little exegesis
at the start of the sermon, the message often consists of something
little more than an expansion of the "five spiritual laws" with a
concluding exhortation very like that of the week or month or year
before. Yet the vast majority of those present are professing
Christians: "We’re forever hearing that people need to be saved, but
we’re already converted. In at least half of the sermons we hear, the
holy God of heaven and earth has little or nothing to say to us, His
people, by way of doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in
righteousness (cf. II Tim. 3:16)."
Hebrews 6:1 declares, "Therefore leaving the [first
or elementary] principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto
perfection." Commenting on this verse, John Owen states that Christian
ministers should preach so that the congregation makes "progress in the
knowledge of the truth." The human penman of Hebrews (and thus the Holy
Spirit) "would not have them always stand at the porch, but enter into
the sanctuary, and behold the hidden glories of the house of God."
Hebrews 6:1, explains Calvin, refers to the "first
principles" or "first rudiments, taught to the ignorant when received
into the Church." The Reformer continues,
Now, he bids them to leave these rudiments, not
that the faithful are ever to forget them, but that they are not to
remain in them; and this idea appears more clear from what follows,
the comparison of a foundation; for in building a house we must
never leave the foundation; and yet to be always engaged in laying
it, would be ridiculous. For as the foundation is laid for the sake
of what is built on it, he who is occupied in laying it and proceeds
not to the superstruction [i.e., superstructure], wearies himself
with foolish and useless labour. In short, as the builder must begin
with the foundation, so must he go on with his work that the house
may be built. Similar is the case as to Christianity; we have the
first principles as the foundation, but the higher doctrine ought
immediately to follow which is to complete the building. They then
act most unreasonably who remain in the first elements, for they
propose to themselves no end, as though a builder spent all his
labour on the foundation, and neglected to build up the house. So
then he would have our faith to be at first so founded as afterwards
to rise upwards, until by daily progress it be at length completed.
In this connection, Calvin speaks of the use of
"catechism" instruction, a blessing rediscovered in the Reformed
churches after its lapse (in large measure) in the Dark Ages.
(3) Shallow Preaching
It is evident from all this that the congregation is
not properly fed by such a system of Sunday evening "gospel services."
With at least half of the church’s public worship services devoted to
preaching the "potted gospel," there is simply no way in which the
minister can proclaim "all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:27), something
necessary for the great work of "edifying ... the body of Christ" (Eph.
4:12). The "wise" preacher, as Solomon states, teaches the people
"knowledge" (Ecc. 12:9). Those who engage in the Sunday evening "gospel
service" have lost the lively sense of the gospel as a sacred deposit of
truth (II Tim. 1:13-14) that must be passed on to the succeeding
generations (II Tim. 2:2). The Holy Spirit has led the church into the
truth over the last 2,000 years, and the church’s calling is to declare
that knowledge of God in Jesus Christ. By this means, the elect grow in
grace (II Peter 3:18) and the body of Christ is edified (Eph. 4:11-16)
and built up into an holy temple in the Lord (Eph. 2:20-22). This
requires expository, doctrinal preaching (Neh. 8:8; I Tim. 4:13-16), by
a divinely called and equipped teacher (Matt. 28:19; Acts 13:1; 14:25;
Eph. 4:11; I Tim. 2:7; II Tim 1:11; 2:2).
But where 50% or more of the church’s Lord’s Day
services are given over to "gospel services’’ the congregation will
never grasp the riches of the biblical and Reformed faith. The whole
Bible and all its doctrines must be preached for God’s glory and the
edification of His church! Various subjects are insufficiently covered
in circles where the evening "gospel service’’ reigns, including the
doctrines of God (His Being, Persons, attributes, revelation, names,
decree and works), sovereign grace (unconditional election and
reprobation; particular, effectual atonement; total depravity, excluding
"free will;" irresistible grace; and the preservation and, therefore,
perseverance of the saints) and the church (its nature, election,
gathering, attributes, marks, sacraments, worship, authority, government
This results in serious ignorance of God’s truth and
weakness in the church’s members, which leaves them susceptible to
further errors. Moreover, sometimes those who are not properly fed
(because of shallow sermons) accuse the preaching of faithful Reformed
churches of being "too deep" and so (unwittingly) condemn their own
churches (Heb. 5:12-14). In various Brethren assemblies, this problem is
particularly acute because they not only have a Sunday evening "gospel
service" but they also have no ordained and few properly trained and
able speakers. Thus they need special weekday "ministry" services
through which some of their more capable men provide a supplementary
(4) Will Worship
This all-absorbing focus on evangelism—what John
Kennedy of Ding-wall would call "hyper-evangelism"—is not only to the
detriment of the church’s edification but also of her worship, for it
shapes the whole evening service. Uninspired poems (called "hymns" in
popular parlance) are sung instead of the God-breathed Psalms (II Sam.
23:2; Ps. 95:2; James 5:13), in part because the Psalms simply do not
serve the purpose of the "gospel service’’ for they do not create the
Besides, the Psalms include imprecations upon the wicked which are
deemed unsuitable for public worship by some who pretend to be wiser
than God! Enter too the "ministry in song," whereby one or more singers,
male or female, entertain the audience while seeking to sing the sinner
into the kingdom of heaven. Personal testimonies in the worship service
thrive in this environment, as does topical preaching filled with "wee
stories." There is no basis in the Word of God for such practices and so
they constitute "will worship" (Col. 2:23).2 Thus the ethos
of the "gospel service’’ moulds the church’s worship and hence the
members’ ideas of the church. Instead of these man-made worship
practices, the Reformed faith, on the basis of the second commandment,
has always maintained the regulative principle:
What doth God require in the second commandment?
That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship him in
any other way than he has commanded in his word (Heidelberg
Catechism, Q. & A. 96).
... the acceptable way of worshipping the true
God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed
will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations
and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible
representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy
Scripture (Westminster Confession 21:1; cf.
Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. & A. 109).
The Sunday evening "gospel service" scene is rife
with Arminianism, with many preaching, "God loves everybody; God wants
to save everybody; Christ died for everybody!" Yet Arminianism was
condemned as heresy by all the Reformed churches in the Canons of
Dordt (1618-1619).3 Even in congregations and
denominations claiming to be Calvinistic, such teaching is tolerated,
despite the fact that Arminianism proclaims a false Christ!4
Despite his denomination’s claim to hold the
Calvinistic and Reformed doctrines of the Westminster Standards,
in his Paisley: The Man and his Message, Rev. Ian Paisley, N.
Ireland’s greatest exponent of the Sunday evening "gospel service,’’
includes amongst those who "primed [his] pulpit pump" notorious
Arminians, such as John Wesley and R. A. Torrey! The evening "gospel
service" approach and the Arminian hymns in his church’s hymnal mean
that Arminianism is tolerated so that Arminians in pulpit and pew will
not be disciplined.5 Thus confessional, Reformed Christianity
and sound, doctrinal preaching enforced by church discipline are ruled
out. Fundamentalist revivalism thereby excludes biblical reformation.
Moreover, hyper-evangelism readily leads to lay
preaching—a great scourge in the British Isles (and elsewhere) which is
condemned by the Westminster Larger Catechism:
By whom is the word of God to be preached? The
word of God is to be preached only by such as are
sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that
(Q. & A. 158).6
Those who forthrightly oppose Arminianism, and do not
practise the Sunday evening "gospel meeting’’ which it foments, are then
dismissed as hyper-Calvinists! Never mind that Calvin and all the
Reformed fathers taught antithetically sovereign and particular grace
and would have had no time for the modern innovation of the Sunday night
"gospel service’’ with all its trappings!
(6) Hawking Jesus
Arminian terminology, such as "accepting Jesus,"
"deciding for Christ," "deciding grace," "commitments" and "letting
Jesus into your heart," finds ready acceptance in many Sunday night
‘’gospel services.’’ Herman Hoeksema, in his "Jesus Saviour and the Evil
of Hawking Him"—a pamphlet well worth reading in this connection—speaks
of "hawking Jesus" as "one of the most sinister" of "the evil tendencies
of our age" (p. 1).7 He explains,
By hawking Jesus I mean all such preaching as
leaves the impression, directly or by implication, that He is
impotent to save unless the sinner first wills and gives his
consent. This is done directly by the denial of predestination, by
the preaching of a Jesus for all, and by the teaching of the
freewill of man by which the latter is able to accept or to reject
the proffered salvation. But it is also done indirectly, when
preachers change the grace of God into an offer of God to all and
present Jesus as a poor beggar, standing outside the door of man’s
heart, begging him to let Him in and give Him a chance to save the
sinner. It is done in various forms and degrees. But all such
preaching as finally leaves the impression that it is at all up to
man, to the sinner, whether Jesus will save him or not, is hawking
Jesus, or rather, it is an attempt to hawk Him (pp. 19-20).
As John Calvin put it, ‘’It is evident that the
doctrine of salvation, which is said to be set apart for the sons of the
church only, is abused when it is represented as effectually available
to all" (Institutes 3.22.10). Another man referred to this as
"making a begging bowl out of the Son of God." This is rife in N.
Ireland, especially where the Sunday evening "gospel service" has
gotten a hold.
(7) Misunderstanding of the Church
The Sunday evening "gospel service," with its forced
exegesis, "potted gospel," shallow preaching, will worship, Arminianism
and hawking of Jesus, proceeds from, and thus reinforces, a
misunderstanding of the nature of the church.
The glorious body of Christ is "the house of God" and
"the pillar and ground of the truth" (I Tim. 3:15) and "an assembly of
those who are saved" (Belgic
The Westminster Confession presents the Bible’s teaching on the
The catholic or universal church, which is
invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect that have been,
are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof;
and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of him that filleth all in
The visible church, which is also catholic or
universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before
under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that
profess the true religion, together with their children; and is the
kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out
of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.
Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath
given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the
gathering and perfecting of the saints in this life, to the end of
the world; and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to
his promise, make them effectual thereunto (25:1-3).
Next, the Westminster Confession sets forth
the three marks of the church as the test by which the degree of
faithfulness of a church may be discerned:
... particular churches ... are more or less
pure, according as  the doctrine of the gospel is taught and
embraced,  ordinances administered, and  public worship
performed more or less purely in them (25:4; cf.
Belgic Confession 29).
The Sunday night "gospel service," however, has its
roots in an Arminian, revivalist, fundamentalist, baptistic and
individualistic conception of the church. It does not proceed from,
teach and reinforce the biblical and Reformed doctrine of the church of
Jesus Christ, consisting of believers and their elect seed (Westminster
Confession 25:2), labouring "for the gathering and perfecting of the
saints" (25:3) and showing the three marks of the church (25:4).
Return to the Old Paths!
Instead of the Sunday evening "gospel service," which
was not the practice of the Reformers or their successors, the church
should return to the better way, the preaching and worship of the
faithful church through the ages.
Hughes Oliphant Old, in his magisterial, seven-volume
work on the history of preaching, has some insightful remarks on what is
commonly called II Clement (c. AD 125), which "is frequently
claimed as the first Christian sermon [outside the New Testament] to
have come down to us."8 A lengthy quotation is warranted:
This sermon is also interesting because of what
it tells us about how the second-century Church approached
evangelism. It is preached to a Christian congregation and yet it is
also a witness to non-Christians. That the sermon is to be
understood as having an evangelistic purpose is clear from the
auxiliary text chosen from the Gospels, "I have come not to call the
righteous, but sinners" (Matt. 9:17 and par.). We see here that the
Church of the second century did its evangelistic preaching in the
midst of the worshiping congregation, and it was the worshiping
congregation which did the evangelism. This is not an evangelism
based on some sort of theology of decisional regeneration, nor one
based on a theology of baptismal regeneration. It is rather an
evangelism based solidly on justification by faith, on the
confidence that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of
God. But this evangelism also puts a strong emphasis on
sanctification. The Christian life is lived out of gratitude to God
for the gracious gift of salvation. Non-Christians are present in
the service of worship, both Jews and Gentiles, and non-Christians
as well as Christians need repentance. Our sermon ends by calling
all who are present to repentance. The preacher begs his listeners
to repent from the bottom of their hearts that they might be saved.
Evangelism did not require a special message preached for the
unconverted, different from the one for the converted, nor did it
mandate that the faithful hear and enthusiastically support again
and again evangelistic sermons that were not really directed to
them. Rather, when Christ is proclaimed as Lord and Savior, when
God’s promises are proclaimed and a witness is given that God is
faithful and that in Christ those promises have been fulfilled, and
will yet be fulfilled, then evangelism is done. Whenever the way of
life which Christ taught his disciples is shown to be the
fulfillment of the Law and the prophets, then evangelism is done.
Whenever the beauty and the power and the sheer joy of holiness are
proclaimed and God’s people see that this is something for them,
evangelism is done. When Christian preaching is done the way it
should be done, then it is evangelistic.9
This sermon is typical of preaching in the early
church, including that of Augustine, and of the preaching of the
Reformers, such as Luther, Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Calvin, Knox, Beza,
etc., and their successors.10 It is not the way, however, of
the modern Sunday night "gospel service," which has its roots in
Arminian, baptistic and revivalistic fundamentalism.
the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths,
where is the good way, and walk therein ..." (Jer. 6:16).
1 Cf. "Resources
on Psalm-Singing" on the CPRC website, including a video of a debate
between Rev. Stewart and Rev. Ivan Foster on Psalm-singing which can be
watched free on-line.
2 Cf. an audio sermon on "Will
3 Cf. "Resources
on Calvinism," including a video of a debate involving Rev. Stewart
on sovereign grace, which can be watched free on-line.
6 Cf. quotes "Against
Lay Preaching" by John Calvin, John Owen, Thomas Manton, etc.
8 Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the
Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 1 (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 278.
9 Ibid., p. 283.