A DISCRIMINATING MINISTRY
By W. T. Atkinson*
If there is one thing that is so greatly needed and yet so seldom found in the Christian church today, it is a discriminating ministry. It must surely be admitted that the last thing that can be said of modern-day preaching is that it is searching or discriminating. Few are the ministers who make any serious attempt in their preaching to “take forth the precious from the vile” (Jer. 15.19) by drawing clearly the line of demarcation that separates the church from the world. The great majority, it would seem, are quite content to go on preaching in a way that neither disturbs worldly-minded church members nor satisfies the deeply-exercised children of God. It is their belief that if they have faithfully proclaimed “all the counsel of God,” then they have done their duty. The tragedy is that they have not realized that this involves something more than a bare declaration of the facts of the gospel. For preaching is not merely the explication but also the application of the Word of God to the consciences of men, and application necessarily demands discrimination. “Of some have compassion, making a difference, and others save with fear pulling them out of the fire” (Jude 22,23). What need there is for ministers of the gospel to take to heart the exhortation of the Apostle Paul to Timothy, “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2.15).
It is the duty, then, of ministers of the gospel, if they would be ”approved unto God,” to exercise a discriminating ministry. They must learn both how to expound the Word of God and how to apply it to their hearers so as to give to every one his proper portion. They must not only “preach the Word . . . reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4.2), but also make unmistakably clear in their preaching who are those for whom the words of reproof and comfort are intended. Thus when addressing believers and applying .those truths of Holy Scripture that are revealed for their comfort, ministers must make clear that unbelievers have “no lot nor part in the matter.” On the other hand, when declaring “the terror of the Lord” and warning unbelievers of their fearful danger they must labour to show in .their preaching who are those to whom the divine threatenings are addressed. Now, to do this successfully it is necessary for ministers to differentiate between certain distinct and separate classes. The line of demarcation must be clearly drawn between (a) the church and the world, (h) the true church and the professing church, (c) the different characters to be found amongst those who are members of the true church.
1) The church and the world
We must recognize as ministers of the gospel that fallen humanity is divided up into two distinct classes, those who are “of God” and those who are “of the world.” Now, it is essential in the preaching of the Word that the line of demarcation between them be clearly drawn. Every one of our hearers must be brought to see on which side of the line he stands. We must labour, therefore, to delineate the chief characteristics of both unbelievers and believers so that everyone is compelled to look into the Scripture’s faithful mirror and behold “what manner of man he is.” It is only as we do this that the children of God will be made to feel the greatness of their privilege in being chosen “out of the world” and the children of the devil made to feel the desperateness of their condition. An indiscriminate application of the gospel that takes no account of the distinction between these two classes can only minister to the delusion of the unconverted and the perplexity of sincere but weak Christians. How we need to exercise the most prayerful caution lest the awful charge be brought against us, “with lies ye have made the heart of the righteous sad, whom I have not made sad; and strengthened the hands of the wicked, that he should not return from his wicked way, by promising him life” (Ezek. 13.22).
2) The true church and the professing church
Faithful ministers of the gospel must distinguish not only between those who are “of God” and those who belong to the world, but also between those who are true believers and those who merely profess to be. For the Word of God reveals the fact that amongst the hearers of the gospel there may be those who have a credible profession of faith but have never experienced a spiritual conversion to God. It is to this solemn truth that our Lord bears testimony when he says at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 7.21). We must not fail in our preaching to take account of the fact that amongst our hearers there may be those who (a) profess to be the children of God when in reality they are the children of the devil. The Pharisees were expressing their most heart-felt conviction when they said to our Lord, ‘We have one Father, even God,” and yet our Lord must say to them, ‘Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do” ;John 8.41,44). And those who (b) not only profess to be the children of God, but who have had certain experiences that cause them to think that they are. It is of these that our Lord was speaking in the parable of the sower when He said that there are those “who when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness,” but who later manifest that they were never truly converted to God. Their faith was but temporary and not “the faith of God’s elect,” their joy was but
evanescent feeling and not “joy in the Holy Ghost.” We must not forget that every part of the Christian character has its counterfeit.1 Hence the great necessity for discriminating preaching. “Labour,” wrote David Brainerd to a young minister, “to distinguish clearly upon experiences and affections in religion, that you may make a difference between the gold and the shining dross. I say, labour here, if ever you would be a useful minister of Christ.”
It will no doubt be objected by some, however, that to preach in a way that might suggest that not all who profess to be Christians are Christians indeed, is most uncharitable. We will no doubt be reminded that we must “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt. 7.1), and that charity “believeth all things, hopeth all things” (1 Cor. 13.7). But which is true charity? Is it to search the hearts of false professors in order to bring them to a true conversion, or to leave them undisturbed in their delusions until they are awakened at death to their everlasting confusion? When our Lord reasoned with the Pharisees, seeking to convince them of the speciousness of their profession, was it anything less than the most perfect love that moved Him? “These things I say, that ye might be saved” (John 5.34). Again, was it not His most tender solicitude for His disciples that caused Him to say, “If ye continue in my Word, then are ye my disciples indeed” (John 8.31). It would seem that it is not so much the fear of being uncharitable that accounts for the great neglect of discriminatory preaching, but rather “the fear of man” which “bringeth a snare” (Prov. 29.25).
Another objection that is brought against discriminatory preaching is that it is dangerous. If we preach in this way, it is said, our people will become unduly introspective and many of them will lose their assurance. But might it not be a most salutary thing for some professors to lose their assurance? May not this be the beginning of a true work of conviction bringing them to a realization of their awful condition before God? No doubt great caution must be exercised and great wisdom is needed to discover the gospel-hypocrite on the one hand without needlessly distressing the tender consciences of weak but sincere Christians on the other. “Nor is it easy to say,” to quote Bishop Hall, “which we should guard against most, the infusion of a false peace or the inflaming of wounds which we ought to heal.” But surely it cannot be right to preach in such a way that our people are never caused to search their hearts. We must not forget that part of a Christian’s duty is self-examination; and this, as all other duties, is one that ministers must recommend to their people. “Examine yourselves … prove your own selves, know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (2 Cor. 13.5). Nor can we go
wrong in inculcating this duty, or in preaching in a searching and discriminating manner, if we seek also to exalt Christ in His all-.sufficiency and all-suitability to meet the needs of saint and sinner alike. No doubt the right balance is found in the exhortation of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” Such preaching, so far from disturbing the assurance of sincere but weak Christians, will rather be the most suitable for building them up in comfort.
3) The different characters to be found amongst those who belong to
the true church
It is the duty of pastors “to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20.28), and to feed every member of that church with “food convenient” for him. We must take account of the fact that not all believers have attained to the same degree of .spiritual experience. There are those who are described as “fathers” in face, and others who are but “young men” and “babes” (1 John 2.13), and these must be dealt with according to their several needs and opacities. To preach in a general way and to make an indiscriminate application of the truth to believers as if all were in exactly the same condition is surely the mark of one who is a “hireling and careth not for the sheep” (John 10.13). We must take to heart the solemn charge of our Lord to Peter, “Feed my lambs, Feed my sheep” (John 21.15,16). We
must, of course, preach “all the counsel of God,” but at the same time
remember that those of weaker capacity are not able to digest as much as those who are “of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb. 5.14). We
must not expect “babes in Christ” to be able to digest at first the more sublime truths that relate to the person of Christ. For “without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3.16). And it was to the mature in the faith that John was writing when he said, “I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning” (1 John 2.13). Rather, we must instruct the babes in the simpler truths of the Father’s electing love and gracious purposes; we must say to them, “Fear not, little flock; for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12.32). It is to the babes that John was writing when he says, “I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father” (1 John 2.13).
This is the kind of ministry that is needed today – a ministry that is searching and discriminating, that gives to every one his proper portion. God has set us as watchmen upon the walls of Zion and we “watch for souls as they that must give account” (Heb. 13.17). Oh, what need there is for us to “discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not. For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that
do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings” (Malachi 3.18; 4.1,2).
*Reprinted from the Banner of Truth No.23 p.10.
1. Cf. Jonathan Edward’s Religious Affections, in the Select Works of Edwards, vol. III. this is one of the closest and most searching delineations of true and false experience.