Preaching that Pressures for a Decision

Scanning Facebook last week I saw a post from Monergism Books featuring an essay by local theologian, J.I. Packer. I sent the link to my Instapaper account to read later on my Kindle. (Yes, I’m a nerd.) I read the essay this morning. It’s one of the best things I’ve read this year so far.

Packer writes in his intro,

In 1955, I gave a paper entitled “Puritan Evangelism.” It was meant as a contribution to the current debate on evangelistic methods. In it, I showed how the Puritan approach to the task of winning souls was controlled by the knowledge that fallen men cannot turn to God by their own strength, nor is it in the power of evangelists to make them do so. The Puritan position was that only God, by His Spirit, through His word, can bring sinners to faith, and that He does this, not to our order, but according to His own free purpose. Our evangelistic practice, the Puritans would say, must be in accord with this truth. Modes of action which imply another doctrine cannot be approved.

The Puritan position seems indubitably biblical, and, as I partly showed in the paper, its implications are of great importance for the reforming of inherited evangelistic traditions today. It implies, to start with, that all devices for exerting psychological pressure in order to precipitate “decisions” must be eschewed, as being in truth presumptuous attempts to intrude into the province of the Holy Ghost. It means, further, that to abjure such devices is no loss, since their use can contribute nothing whatever to the effectiveness of evangelistic preaching. Indeed, it will in the long run detract from it; for while psychological pressures, skilfully handled, may produce the outward form of “decision,” they cannot bring about regeneration and a change of heart, and when the “decisions” wear off those who registered them will be found “gospel-hardened” and antagonistic. Such forcing tactics can only do damage, perhaps incalculable damage, to men’s souls. It follows, therefore, that high-speed evangelism is not a valid option. Evangelism must rather be conceived as a long-term enterprise of patient teaching and instruction, in which God’s servants seek simply to be faithful in delivering the gospel message and applying it to human lives, and leave it to God’s Spirit to draw men to faith through this message in His own way and at His own speed.

I’m a young preacher at 42—only about a dozen years in pastoral ministry so far. But I’ve had some chance to observe the impact of my preaching in various places over these formative years. I think I can safely say that those sermons in which my own soul was most captivated by the glory and love of Jesus are the most fruitful sermons. Those sermons in which I attempted to pressure my hearers to some change or application I had in mind are probably my least effective sermons. As the Spirit taught through Paul, transformation comes by hearing with faith. Transformation comes by seeing the glory of God in the face of Christ through the message of the Gospel. May that be what our hearers hear when we pastors preach Sunday in and Sunday out—“in season and out of season”.

Read the rest of Dr. Packer’s essay here.