This article Previously Appeared At the Gospel Coalition Website
BEFORE HE DIED, a friend asked a local pastor to preach his funeral. Many unbelievers would be present, so he asked him to preach an evangelistic sermon. The pastor read John 3:16, “God so loved the world,” and described God’s love for the lost. Eventually, he asked the non-Christians to ask Jesus into their hearts.
But long before he asked for a decision, the crowd was yawning and looking around. The problem was not the preacher’s ability. He was an excellent speaker. The problem was not the length of the sermon, or the text used. The problem was the preacher’s goal. He did not aim for his listener’s conscience. Here is how Paul describes the goal of his communication.
But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.2 Corinthians 4:2
Preaching to the conscience means something concrete. It means explaining the listener’s obligation to God, their failure to meet those obligations, their impotence to make up for that failure, the eternal consequences of that failure, and God’s astounding grace offered to all who will humble themselves, believe the Good News, and repent. In other words, preaching to the conscience is provocative. It seeks to disturb the comfortable, and it seeks to comfort the disturbed.
Every preacher that pursues this goal will do so because they assume two crucial truths. First, that God has written his law on every heart (Romans 2:14-16), and that, therefore, they have a conscience.
They [unbelievers] show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (Romans 2:15).
Therefore, the preacher assumes that he can revive his listener’s conscience by Spirit-empowered, conscience-focused preaching.
Second, he assumes that he should not provoke his listener’s conscience without bathing it in hope. This is the problem with hell-fire and damnation preaching. It lacks the appropriate hope that comes through the knowledge of God’s grace and the gospel solution. Hope turns the possibility of condemnation into the life-giving conviction., that evidence a sensitized conscience.
The apostle, Paul, took his own advice when he preached to the Areopagus at Athens. He did not start with God’s love. He aimed his argument at his listener’s conscience.
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.Acts 17:30–31
First, he explained their duty. “God commands all men to repent.” Then he aimed for their conscience. There will be an accounting. God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness.”
A few weeks later Paul targeted the conscience of his listeners in Corinth.
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified .(1 Corinthians 2:1–2)
By “Jesus Christ and him crucified” Paul meant the message contained in the first three chapters of Romans. I say that because shortly after making this statement about preaching to the Corinthians, Paul wrote to the church at Rome. The first three chapters model preaching “Jesus Christ and him crucified” to the conscience. After announcing the Good News in Romans 1:16-17 from 1:18-3:20 Paul targets his reader’s conscience. Take a moment and read it. The concept are convicting.
Only after thoroughly exposing his readers obligation to God’s law, and their inability (stimulating their conscience) does he return to the hope of the gospel in Romans 3:21-26. Through faith in Jesus Christ one can be justified and receive the gift of divine righteousness.
Remarkably, three chapters record just under 1300 words aimed at the reader’s conscience, and about 80 describing the gospel solution.
A few years later Paul also courageously preached to the conscience of governor Felix (Acts 24:24).
John the Baptist (Matthew 3), Peter (Acts 2), and Jesus (Matthew 5-7)followed this same model.
The Fear of Man
The great obstacle to this kind of preaching is the fear of man. Notice how our text contrasts “disgraceful, underhand ways,” and “tampering with God’s Word” with “commending ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”
When the conscience is awakened, people react. The humble repent, rejoice, and enter God’s kingdom. The proud become angry. “Who are you to tell me I am a sinner?” Or “this is not the God I learned about in Sunday School.”
Men dominated by the fear of man will not preach to the conscience. Instead, they will “tamper with God’s word, or engage in “disgraceful, and underhanded ways.” Tragically, few will be converted when the fear of man controls the preacher. (This was part of the reason for the impotence of the funeral sermon that opened this essay). Here is how Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones addressed the fear of man and preaching—
If I am concerned as I preach this gospel as to what people think of my preaching, well that is all that I will get out of it, and nothing from God. It is an absolute. If you are seeking a reward from men you will get it, but that is all you will get.The Beatitudes MLJ, pg. 296
The church needs men who fear God, love sinners, and understand the need to preach to the conscience. The fruitfulness of the church and the glory of God depend upon it. However, it will only happen to the degree that God’s Spirit liberates God’s leaders from the fear of man even as he humbles them with a personal sense of their own sin and need.
May God give us this kind of amazing humility coupled with a bold passion to preach to our listener’s conscience for the glory of God.
“We commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”