Preaching the Gospel vs Preaching to Felt Needs – J.I. Packer

How much is involved in declaring the gospel?This question is rarely raised in evangelical circles; we assume — too readily — that we all know the answer. But it needs raising; two factors in our situation compel us to face it.

The first is a minimising approach to the task of teaching Christian truth. This has infected Protestent clergy very widely. The modern minister usually does not ask, how much ought I to teach but rather, how little need I teach? What is the minimum of doctrine that will do? One reason for this, no doubt, is the reluctance of those in the pews to learn. But this is no new thing. [Richard] Baxter met it three centuries ago in his working-class congregation . . . and gave it short shrift:

Were you but as willing to get the knowledge of God and heavenly things as you are to know how to work in your trade, you would have set yourself to it before this day, and you would have spared no cost or pains till you had got it. But you account seven years little enough to learn your trade, and will not bestow one day in seven in diligent learning the matters of your salvation.Baxter did not humour this ungodly unwillingness; but the modern minister often does, and when he finds some aspect of biblical truth arouses no immediate interest or approval in his congregation his instinct is to jettison it. And the tendency today is to encourage him to do so. Thus, for instance, some will assure us that it is a waste of time preaching to modern hearers about the law and sin, for (it is said) such things mean nothing to them. Instead (it is suggested) we should just appeal to the needs which they feel already, and present Christ to them simply as One who gives peace, power and purpose to the neurotic and frustrated — a super-psychiatrist, in fact.

Now, this suggestion excellently illustrates the danger of the minimising approach. If we do not preach about sin and God’s judgement on it, we cannot present Christ as Saviour from sin and the wrath of God. And if we are silent about these things, and preach a Christ who saves only from self and the sorrows of this world, we are not preaching the Christ of the Bible. We are, in effect, bearing a false witness and preaching a false Christ. Our message is ‘another gospel, which is not another.’ Such preaching may soothe some, but it will help nobody; for a Christ who is not seen and sought as a Saviour from sin will not be found to save from self or from anything else. An imaginary Christ will not bring a real salvation; and a half-truth presented as the whole truth is a complete untruth. Thus the minimising approach threatens to falsify the gospel by emptying it of doctrinal elements that are essential to it. In face of this prevalent habit of mind, it is vital that we raise the question: how much does preaching the gospel involve?

J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway Books, 1990); from Chapter 10, “The Puritan View of Preaching the Gospel,” p. 164-65.

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