What if someone said your preaching was missing one ingredient that could undermine the effectiveness of your entire ministry? Sadly, this is the state of much preaching today that aims to be biblical but misses something essential to a full-orbed biblical Christianity: the judgment of God.
Some who seek to be faithful to Scripture unconsciously avoid preaching hell because of an underlying framework; others consciously avoid it because they perceive their listeners don’t want to hear about it.
Here are five reasons why preachers, whether consciously or not, may avoid preaching judgment:
1. They have subtly bought into a version of the prosperity gospel.
2. They have idolized God’s love to the neglect, or denial, of his other attributes.
While Scripture is clear that “God is love” (1 John 4:16), it’s equally clear that he is holy, righteous, jealous, and just—the judge of the universe to whom all will give account. Our feel-good culture of positive thinking may not like to talk about negative things like death or hell, but God’s Word has much to say about it.
A couple of years ago there was a controversy surrounding the lyrics of the song “In Christ Alone.” Those compiling a PC(USA) hymnal wanted to remove the line “the wrath of God was satisfied” in favor of “the love of God was magnified.” Exalting God’s love to the exclusion of God’s wrath does the opposite of what it seeks to accomplish: it avoids the bad news and makes the good news optional. This is one reason why starting gospel presentations with “God loves you” can be unhelpful. Well, of course God loves me, many in our culture might think. I’m pretty special. Then they might close themselves off to hearing and embracing the gospel that rescues us from God’s wrath.
3. They have a tragically diminished view of God’s holiness.
The holiness of God is one of the most neglected doctrines in evangelicalism today. Both the prophet Isaiah and the apostle John received glimpses into the heavenly throne room and heard the content of heavenly worship: “Holy, holy, holy.”
Only when we see God in light of his blinding holiness can we understand how flawed rebels like us deserve his righteous wrath. When we lose a sense of God’s holiness, his judgment begins to seem arbitrary.
4. They have a pragmatic approach to ministry.
Many churches today run like businesses, basing their definition of success on metrics. Instead of prioritizing faithfulness to Scripture and making disciples, they focus on weekly attendance, bigger and better programs, and the amount of money in the plate. When the goal is padding numbers for a human definition of success, though, it’s not surprising some of the more “unsavory” doctrines—like hell—get left by the wayside.
5. They fear man more than God.
Once we begin fearing our neighbor more than our Maker, a desire to please people will shape the content of our sermons. As preachers we must pursue the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10), and let him define ministry success. In ministry as well as in all areas of life, these words ring true: “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe” (Prov. 29:25).
May our attitudes echo that of Paul: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10).
False Savior, False Salvation
In A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, J. I. Packer observes what happens if we neglect to preach God’s judgment on sin:
We cannot present Christ as a Savior from sin and the wrath of God. And if we are silent about these things and preach a Christ who saves only from self and the sorrows of this world, we are not preaching the Christ of the Bible. We are, in effect, bearing false witness and preaching a false Christ. Our message is “another gospel.”
A false Christ cannot save from God’s justice. Preaching a false Christ will lead, among other things, to false assurance. Indeed, proclaiming the good news while neglecting the bad undercuts the glory of the good.
Don’t Shrink the Story
It’s often easier to see where others ignore the obvious than to see where we do. Do we preach God’s judgment according to Scripture? Do we, like Paul, preach God’s kindness and severity (Rom. 11:22), Christ as Savior and the one appointed to judge the living and the dead (Acts 10:42)? If we are failing to present a biblically balanced message of God’s judgment, then we must confess this sin to him.
Cultural pressures and itching ears can make us forget the great privilege of preaching all the gospel—not only the hell we deserve but the beauty of him who took hell on himself, securing endless life for us. Let us faithfully proclaim this glad news in all its parts so our hearers might repent, believe, and escape the wrath to come.