One of the most insidious ideas we’re tempted to believe is that saving faith is a matter of the intellect alone. Obviously, it has to do with the intellect. You can’t trust something if you have no conception of it. But that reality shouldn’t obscure the fact that something of the will, the heart, is involved in receiving the grace of Christ by faith. Which is why it’s possible to sit in church your whole life, hear biblical sermon after biblical sermon on the nature of grace, Christ’s cross, the coming kingdom, the nature of a holy life–gospel presentations so clear Billy Graham couldn’t one-up them–and still never have faith, or come to a solid understanding of the good news.
Don’t believe me? This is precisely what renowned evangelist, theologian, and pioneer of Methodism, John Wesley famously reported about his own experience. He went years growing up in church, going to college, studying in seminary, getting ordained, preaching, teaching, going on mission, and yet, for the early part of his life, and yet, as Fred Sanders reports in his stimulating book Wesley on the Christian Life, Wesley confessed that until a few months before his famous conversation at Aldersgate, he was “utterly ignorant of the nature and condition of justification.” (54)
But how is that possible? How can someone a couple hundred years after Luther and Calvin, coming up in a Reformation church whose basic documents and sermons affirmed the gospel, and raised in a home with a Puritan background, have never heard or understood the gospel? Fred Sanders picks up the image of a magnet to explain:
The magnet image is apt: Wesley’s mind was magnetized by the Law of God, and it drew to itself all the legalistic elements in his environment. Even when he read a good gospel-centered book, he only drew from in the legal bits. We know that Wesley read plenty of properly Protestant teaching in his earlier life. The Anglican and Puritan sources he immersed himself in included plenty of sound teaching on justification by grace alone though faith alone. Indeed, after Aldersgate, Wesley would rifle through the Anglican church’s official Homilies, Articles, and prayer book to confirm his new understanding was in fact not new to the church., but only new to him. It was an easy task, since the classic Anglican sources are packed with the gospel of justification by faith. But first the magnetic polarity of Wesley’s own soul had to be reversed. Until the principle of grace was activated in his strangely cold heart, Wesley systematically read for the message of legal performance. Until then, all the books kept pitching grace, but Wesley kept catching law. (54)
Many readers might be skeptical of this, but others will have experienced it themselves. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with students where it was clear there was this legal block on their ears. I don’t know how many sermons on justification by grace as the gospel I preached in my first couple of years–I probably bordered on Lutheranism at that point–but still, some students were still catching Law and not Grace. The polarity of their hearts was set on Law and it functioned as a hermeneutical grid through which everything was filtered. “He who has ears, let him hear.” Not everybody has the ears.
Well, what do we do with this? Does this mean that preaching the gospel clearly is of no importance because people are just going to hear what they’re going to hear? Should we not bother about striving to drive it home through solid exegesis, illustrations, stories, images, and so forth? Should we just throw up our hands and say, “Welp, I tried Lord” after a week or two of effort? Obviously not.
What I do think this does is reminds us of a few key realities that we ignore at our own peril.
First, preaching the gospel is not just a matter of sound words–though it is that–but also of the Spirit’s power. It is only when the Spirit drives the message of the gospel home that the stop “catching” Law when the Gospel is being preached. Only the Spirit is able to reverse the polarity of the heart so that our hearers can hear the gospel when it’s being preached. He is the one who puts flesh on dead bones and turns hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. He is the one who testifies to Christ–yes, through the proclamation of the Word–with power.
There are at least two comforts in this first point. First, preacher, the cold hearts of your people may not and probably are not the fault of your preaching. A great many pastors suffer condemnation and anguish over their inability to bring about effects that are not entirely within their power. Second, this is a comfort because this means that the cold hearts of your people are not beyond hope. If you feel you’ve exhausted every preaching or teaching trick in your arsenal, that doesn’t mean the game’s up. The Holy Spirit specializes in stepping in when we’re at the end of our strength.
The second big point follows from this first: if the Holy Spirit is the power behind reversing the polarity of the heart, your preaching ministry will only be as good as your praying ministry. To quote J.C. Ryle:
Prayer is the main secret of success in spiritual business. It moves him who can move heaven and earth. It brings down the promised aid of the Holy Spirit, without whom the finest sermons, the clearest teaching and hardest work are all alike in vain. It is not always those who have the most eminent gifts who are most successful laborers for God. It is generally those who keep closest communion with Christ and are most constant in prayer. It is those who cry with the prophet Ezekiel, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live” (Ezekiel 37:9). It is those who follow most exactly the apostolic model, and give their “attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Happy is the church that has a praying as well as a preaching ministry! The question we should ask about new ministers is not merely “Can they preach well?” but “Do they pray much for their people?” –The Gospel of Mark, pg. 90
Now, of course, God is merciful beyond our prayers, but how arrogant do we have to be to think we can go stand before dead men and women expecting them to come to life under our preaching, if we have not been on our knees pleading with the author of life? Only he can work such miracles.
As you practice or prepare to preach, pray, then, that the Spirit would reverse the polarity of the hearts of your hearers. Pray that their hearts would be strangely warmed. Pray that your pitching Gospel might not be in vain. And then have faith that God will do it. He is faithful.
Soli Deo Gloria