Almost eleven years ago, when I became the pastor at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, a well-meaning church member came to me with a request, “When you are going to preach an evangelistic sermon, will you let me know? I would like to bring lost friends on those Sundays.” I responded, “Sure, I can take care of that right now, I’m going to preach an evangelistic sermon every Sunday.” He said, “You know what I mean; I’m talking about a really evangelistic sermon.” I hope that eleven years later he would say I have kept my promise and that I preach a really evangelistic sermon every week.
The separation of sermons as edifying or evangelistic is rooted in a misunderstanding of both sanctification and the Great Commission. Both are aspects of spiritual war in the Kingdom of Christ. Faithful preaching provides a never-ending gospel assault on idolatrous pseudo-saviors and religious forms of self-righteousness. Paul summed up his preaching ministry that had resulted in both evangelism of the lost and the sanctification of believers by asserting, “Him we proclaim” (Col 1:28).
Neither sanctification nor the Great Commission should ever be abstracted from the gospel storyline of the Bible. The significance of all biblical truth must be contextualized by the gospel. Dennis Johnson writes, “But does not this separation between evangelistic and edificatory preaching convey the impression that the gospel of grace and the gratitude it evokes can be left in the background as Christians go on to deal with the nitty-gritty issues of sanctification?” (Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures, 41-42).
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the fuel for sanctification and evangelism. The only true obedience is the “obedience of faith,” which is the fruit of the gospel (Rom 1:5, 16:26). Russell D. Moore observes that, although evangelical Protestants discuss the Great Commission as practical, personal exhortation, “rarely do we grasp what it means in the cosmic purposes of God in forming a kingdom for his Messiah.” He continues,
When Jesus announced the Commission to his disciples (Matt 28:16- 20), he was not launching a global public relations campaign. He was declaring war. When Jesus grants the Great Commission, he is signaling the onset of the last days—the expansion of the gospel to the ends of the earth means that God has indeed granted him the nations as his inheritance. Thus, the Great Commission is a decisive stage in the warfare of God against the serpent of Eden, and the expansion of global missions represents the plundering of the kingdom of Satan (Mark 3:27; John 12:31-32; 2 Tim 2:25-26). The Great Commission is a theology of cosmic warfare—a theology centering on the unveiling of the long-hidden mystery of Christ and his church (“A Theology of the Great Commission,” in The Challenge of the Great Commission: Essays on God’ s Mandate for the Local Church, 49-50).
When expository preaching is Christ-centered and every text and application is contextualized by the gospel of the Kingdom, then evangelistic preaching is not an occasional series or special emphasis but the essential core of every sermon preached. Tim Keller explains, “Only by preaching Christ and thus the gospel from every text will we be able to both edify believers and evangelize nonbelievers at the same time” (“Preaching the Gospel in a Post-Modern World,” classroom lecture notes, Doctor of Ministry Program, Reformed Theological Seminary, January 2002, photocopy), 21). Hughes Oliphant Old avers, “When Christian preaching is done the way it should be done, then it is evangelistic” (The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, 283).
Each sermon reminds the congregation of its position in the Kingdom of God and issues orders for the King’s conquest of the world. Expository preaching that isolates texts from their holistic Christ-centered canonical context is forced to make a sharp and unhealthy distinction between edifying sermons for believers and evangelistic preaching geared toward unbelievers. Christ-centered expository preaching preserves the unity of ethics and evangelism and equips the congregation for spiritual warfare in the cosmic theater. What every sermon listener, believer and unbeliever, needs is the gospel of the Kingdom.