Cork Free Presbyterian Church, 10 Briarscourt (Annex) Shanakiel, Cork, Ireland Pastor: Colin Maxwell. Email: cfpc@esatclear.ie

A DEFENCE OF THE SUNDAY EVENING GOSPEL SERVICE

To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. (1 Corinthians 9:22)

Recently, while perusing another site, I came across the following unsigned article which basically attacks the idea of the Sunday Evening "Gospel" Service (The word "gospel" being put in speech marks by the writer) I respond to the article below. Original article in blue…my comments (as ever) in red.

The Sunday Evening "Gospel" Service

The putting of the word "gospel" in speech marks is often recognised as a grammatical challenge of the veracity of the claim which is being made. This at once sets the tone for the whole article. Obviously the writer does not consider the issue at hand to be a matter of taste or of a hair splitting nature. The implication is that although these meetings profess to be gospel meetings, the writer does not accept them as so. The writer does not attack just some professed gospel meetings - we all have reason to feel grieved ourselves at what passes for gospel meetings nowadays in some quarters - but he attacks the whole concept of having a regular church service dedicated to the evangelising of the lost. Even though these speech marks are used frequently in the article below, I need not draw attention to it again.

In many churches in the United Kingdom generally and in N. Ireland in particular, it is customary that the Lord’s Day evening service contains a "gospel" sermon. Moreover, sometimes even the morning speech is largely, or even especially, addressed to the unbeliever.

In over 25 years experience of gospel meetings (both within and without the FPC) I find that indeed the Lord's Day evening service is evangelistic in its nature. The morning meeting is usually given over to ministering to the people of God. However, more recently and in some quarters, this is sometimes reversed, due to the fact that there might be more unsaved attending in the morning and therefore common sense - not a redundant matter in church work - would indicate that this would be a good time to concentrate on those still out of Christ. There are no hard and fast rules. There would be very few churches (if any) where the messages would be evangelistic at both services. We recognise that the people of God need to be fed and exhorted etc., as well.

There are, however, many serious problems with this practice, especially in the areas of exegesis, the nature of the gospel, doctrinal preaching, worship, Arminianism, hawking Jesus and the nature of the church.

The writer expands upon these concerns, below. We will see how "many" and how "serious" these "problems" really are.

(1) The Scriptures are written 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. This results in the "gospel" 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 inspired the Word of God (and the child of God who understands what is going on), this practice fails to teach the congregation to interpret the Scriptures rightly.

A small point first, very few ministers, if indeed any, preach in their own pulpit every single week, "year in and year out" so we are being introduced here to an inflated figure to fatten out the seriousness of the charge. Again, many preachers have successfully sustained a solid ministry of weekly evangelistic preaching. Spurgeon comes immediately to mind, as well as many lesser known but faithful mortals. The riches of Christ, which obviously include the gospel, are "unsearchable" (Ephesians 3:8) and there is no reason, under God, why a preacher should not be able to dig deep and faithfully present the gospel to the unsaved every single week. Many texts and passages can be preached again and again.

When AW Pink, accepted a call to a church which had hyper Calvinistic leanings and were "altogether lacking in evangelistic zeal" he sought to be "wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove" By this, Pink means that he "proceeded slowly and gently" and "preached one sermon out of five to the unsaved" (Italics his) 1 Where such conditions do not call for such "slow and gentle procedure" surely we can look forward to a weekly evangelistic effort?

That some preachers present flawed exegesis in their sermons is undeniable, but they are found among all groups. William Huntington, at times, saw Calvinism in texts where it was simply not there. We simply cannot blame the principle of a weekly evangelistic meeting for the failure of a preacher to do his homework properly and produce a forced exegesis. The blame lies elsewhere.

(2) This forced exegesis results in the "potted gospel" which always contains what the minister considers the bare essentials of the gospel (and 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.

There are many weekly gospel preachers who manage quite well to avoid [i] forced exegesis [ii] giving little else but the bare essentials of the gospel and [iii] finishing with an appeal (by which, I assume, that the writer means a "bowed head and closed eyes" and "hand in the air" appeal) There are certain truths which need to be stated and restated to make the sinner aware both of his condition and God's remedy. God uses the method of restating truth again and again. The "unsearchable riches of Christ" furnish the preacher with enough material, found in both Testaments, and given in many varied ways i.e. precept, example, promises, warnings etc., to make his sermons effectual. To father the faults and failings of some preachers upon the principle of regular gospel preaching is unacceptable.

Many listeners confess to being bored with such sermons.

Many listeners are bored with whatever sermons they hear. Indeed, (strange in the light of this charge) there is a quote elsewhere on the writer's web site attacking boredom when hearing the word. Boredom may be traced to many different sources. It may be a symptom of the hearer's own mental or spiritual condition. It may be traced to the drone of a preacher's voice, of his lack of ability to communicate truth or even lack of conviction in what he is saying. Why it should be fathered on the faithful, Spirit filled, weekly preaching of the greatest news the world has ever heard is beyond me. I have sat in meetings when time simply flew by as God's servants have preached the gospel. The late Pastor Willie Mullan of Lurgan was particularly gifted this way. It is a fact that stifled yawns turn up in all sorts of conditions.

Christians are tempted to a certain smugness: "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 by way of doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness (cf. II Tim. 3:16)."

If a Christian attends the three basic meetings of his church - the two Sabbath meetings and the midweek Bible study/prayer meeting- then the ratio generally becomes 2-1 for the messages which are addressed directly to him as a believer (66.6%) If we include the Bible Class (adult or otherwise) this generally increases to 3 out of 4 services (75%) catering directly for the believer's need. This "at least half" ratio (50%) is a deflated figure, given to crank up the charge that the believer is being neglected. It must be born in mind also that the believer is well capable of reading the Bible for himself and is apt to do so. The unbeliever, generally speaking, is less likely to do so and may never open his Bible except on a Sabbath evening when so asked by a gospel preacher. Again, even in the evangelistic preaching meetings, there is always room, where the text demands it, for doctrine and reproof etc., A preacher preaching (say) on the subject of the New Birth from John 3 may find cause in his sermon to give the evidences of the New Birth from 1 John. Furthermore, the reviewer has often been the most encouraged to live for Christ after such gospel meetings. If I may use a somewhat colloquial term…I often returned home on a Sabbath evening after hearing the "old, old story" with fire in my belly, determined to do all that I could to bring glory to God.

(3) It is evident from all this that the congregation is not properly fed through such a system. With at least half of the church’s 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). 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). This requires doctrinal preaching, but where over 50% of the church’s worship services are given over to "gospel" services, the congregation will never grasp the riches of the Reformed faith. Especially the doctrine of God—His Being, Persons, attributes and decrees—and the doctrine of the church—its nature, attributes, marks, sacraments, worship and discipline—are corrupted or rarely treated in circles where the evening "gospel" service reigns. This results in serious ignorance of God’s truth and weakness in the church’s members, which leaves them susceptible to further errors. In the Brethren assemblies, this problem is particularly acute because they not only have an evening gospel service, but they also have no ordained and few able speakers. Thus they need special weekday "ministry" services through which some of their more capable men provide a supplementary diet.

Again these charges are being brought on the basis of "at least half" of the meetings of a church being evangelistic in nature and that gospel preaching cannot be doctrinal in its nature or Reformed. If I preach what is commonly referred to as the "3 R's of the gospel" i.e. "Ruined by the fall" - "Redeemed by the blood" and "Regenerated by the Spirit of God" then there is nothing here, as I state them, which is contrary to Reformed doctrine truth. Such truth can be preached evangelistically. Indeed true evangelistic preaching states the great doctrines of the word and applies them in a simple manner directly to the unsaved gathered in. It is true that some preachers, perhaps starting out in their preaching or perhaps not particularly deep in their knowledge of the Bible, may over emphasise the application end of things. This is not denied, but to suppose that this is practically the norm of a weekly gospel meeting goes beyond what is fact. While I am all for faithful, doctrinal, well researched sermons etc., I am not unmindful of Spurgeon's conversion when a poor unlettered Arminian -- sharp intake of breath :-) - preacher simply urged him to look to Christ. And he did.

(4) This all-absorbing focus on evangelism—what John Kennedy of Dingwall would call "hyper-evangelism"—shapes the whole evening service. Uninspired poems (called "hymns" in popular parlance) are sung instead of the God-breathed Psalms, in part because the Psalms simply do not serve the purpose of the "gospel" service for they do not create the right "atmosphere." Besides they are filled with imprecations on the wicked! 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." Thus the ethos of the "gospel" service moulds the church’s worship and hence the members’ ideas of the church.

The writer introduces here the Psalms only debate which is really outside the scope of the present matter. While there are "hymns" for which I wouldn't give you tuppence, yet there are evangelical hymns which are rich in doctrine and gospel application e.g. "There is a fountain filled with blood" or "Grace tis a charming sound" etc., Far from prophesying smooth things, several of these hymns are of a warning nature e.g. "Out of Christ without a Saviour" and must cause the greatest discomfort to those in that condition, if only they had to spiritual wit to see it. To baldly dismiss singers in the church as entertainers insults many of Christ's servants who would shrink from such a thought. That some people go to church services to be entertained cannot be denied. There is such a phenomenon as "sermon tasting." Members of the British Cabinet used to go hear Spurgeon, but it was feared only for the oratory. Whitefield suffered the same fate. But just as we do not dismiss the ministry of preaching because of abuse, neither should we dismiss other forms of Christian services for the same reason. And again, none of these things encroach upon the principle of having a weekly evangelistic service.

(5) The whole approach proceeds from—and thus reinforces—Arminianism, revivalism, baptistic individualism and fundamentalism. In his Paisley: The Man and his Message, Ian Paisley, N. Ireland’s greatest exponent of the Sunday evening "gospel" service, includes amongst those who "primed [his] pulpit pump" noted Arminians, John Wesley and R. A. Torrey. The evening "gospel" approach and the Arminian hymnbooks mean that even where outright Arminianism is not preached, it must certainly be tolerated so that Arminians in pulpit and pew will not be disciplined. Thus confessional Christianity and sound doctrinal preaching enforced by church discipline are ruled out. Revivalism hereby excludes biblical reformation. Hyper-evangelism readily leads to lay preaching—a great scourge in the United Kingdom which is condemned by the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q & A 158). Those who forthrightly oppose Arminianism, and the Sabbath 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!

Mr Calvin primed his pulpit pump from many quarters, not all of whom (including Augustine) were sound in every doctrine. What Calvin did - as do others - is take what is good and leave what is bad or unacceptable. We reserve the odium of hyper Calvinist for those who deny the free offer of the gospel and who seek to restrict the preaching of the gospel promises to those who give evidences of being elect. Basically, if a preacher cannot look any sinner straight in the eye and say to him, "There is salvation for you if you will have it" then (at least in my book) that preacher is a hyper Calvinist.

(6) Arminian terminology such as "accepting Christ," "commitments" and "letting Jesus into your heart" find ready acceptance in Sunday night "gospel" services. In his "Jesus Saviour and the Evil of Hawking Him," Herman Hoeksema speaks of "hawking Jesus" as "one of the most sinister" of "the evil tendencies of our age" (p. 1). 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 (p. 17). 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.

Many Sabbath evening gospel services are totally void of such Arminian terminology, preferring instead the scriptural exhortations to "repent and believe the gospel" (Mark 1:15) or similar words. But here is a good place to point out the obvious: There is no heresy or discrepancy involved to use an "if" in gospel preaching. The very first "if" in the Bible was used by God to a reprobate sinner (Cain) in Genesis 4:7 If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. If a preacher's use of the "if" in gospel presentation means anything untoward, then the Lord Himself must be found guilty of this Arminian crime.

(7) The Sunday evening "gospel" service proceeds from a total misunderstanding of the nature of the church which 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 Confession 28). The true gospel minister must address the Lord’s congregation: "Beloved in our Lord Jesus Christ, called to be saints." This, of course, does not rule out direct addresses in a sermon to those outside of Christ, especially where the text itself leads this way.

There is no reason why the Sabbath evening gospel service, conducted under the auspices of the local Church, should compromise the nature of the church. Why should it? Even the paragraph above admits the presence of those in the service outside of Christ and allows that they may be addressed in the sermon if the text so allows. Wherein do the two services differ? How does a Reformed preacher, faithfully and regularly, every Sabbath evening preaching directly to the unsaved compromise anything? The church to him is still all 1 Timothy 3:15 says it is. Even with limited understanding, the unsaved will still be aware that this is no ordinary meeting of people. The preaching will soon dispel any misunderstandings. The preacher will open up to his view the difference which God makes i.e. between those who receive Christ and those who will not come that they may have life. The songs will be different. There will be the offering up of reverent prayer etc., We have here a difficulty which is no difficulty at all.

But true Reformed churches do not want to go the way of the Sunday evening "gospel" service. Few Reformed churches have become apostate overnight. Normally, the way of apostasy runs like this: a Reformed church becomes an evangelical church which, through further departure, slides into a fundamentalist church, and eventually its Arminianism takes it into full blown modernism.

To say that setting one preaching service out of three or four (or more) for direct preaching to the unconverted is the first step to modernism (even the full blown variety) is simply amazing. To imply that abandoning such activity with no indiscriminate offer of salvation to the unsaved is an antidote to full blown modernism undermines the seriousness of the danger. Modernism is fought with the constant faithful preaching of the word of God. The saints need to be made aware of its dangers and the Bible's answer to it. Every preaching meeting of the people of God may be used to this end.

Conclusion:

The "many serious problems" which the original writer is determined to foster upon the simple practice of preaching one weekly meeting specifically to the unconverted are more imaginary than real. He does raise some real dangers which may creep in to the church of Christ. That the weekly preaching of the gospel to the unconverted is a six lane highway for the same is demonising something which rather should be praised. Although I contend for earnest, well studied out doctrinal preaching of Reformed truth, I would rather have the scenario of a poor unlettered man, even if basically Arminian in his faith, indiscriminately urge all sinners to "look and live" than have a cold, Reformed (?) meeting which seems more designed to keep the none elect out than the bring the true elect in.

1 Letter to Mr Brooks, December 1927, quoted in "Life of Arthur Pink" by Ian Murray (p.55)

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