Before he died, a friend asked a local pastor to preach at his funeral. Many unbelievers would be present, so he asked him to preach an evangelistic sermon. The pastor read John 3:16, “God so loved the world,” and described God’s love for the lost. Eventually, he encouraged the non-Christians to ask Jesus into their hearts.
Long before he asked for a decision, though, the crowd was yawning and looking around. The problem wasn’t the preacher’s ability; he was an excellent speaker. The problem wasn’t the length of the sermon, or the text used. The problem was the preacher’s goal. He didn’t aim for his listeners’ consciences. Here’s how Paul describes the goal of his communication: “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).
Preaching to the conscience means something concrete. It means explaining the listeners’ obligations to God, their failure to meet those obligations, their impotence to make up for that failure, the eternal consequences of that failure, and God’s astounding grace offered to all who will humble themselves, repent, and believe the good news.
In other words, preaching to the conscience is provocative. It seeks to disturb the comfortable and to comfort the disturbed.
Every preacher who pursues this goal will assume two crucial truths.
First, God has inscribed his law on every heart. As Paul observes, unbelievers “show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Rom. 2:15). The preacher assumes he can revive his listeners’ consciences by Spirit-empowered, conscience-focused preaching.
Hope can turn the possibility of condemnation into the life-giving conviction—evidence of a sensitized conscience.
Second, he assumes he shouldn’t provoke his listeners’ consciences without bathing them in hope. This is the problem with some forms of hellfire-and-damnation preaching. It can lack the appropriate hope that comes through awareness of God’s gospel solution. Hope can turn the possibility of condemnation into life-giving conviction—evidence of a sensitized conscience.
The apostle took his own advice when he preached at the Areopagus in Athens. Instead of starting with God’s love, he aimed his argument at his listeners’ consciences: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31).
Notice that he first explains their duty—God’s command to repent—and then aims for their consciences. There will be an accounting, for God has “fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness.”
Or consider Paul’s approach in his letter to the Romans. After briefly announcing the good news (1:16–17), he spends considerable time targeting the conscience (1:18–3:20). Only after thoroughly exposing his readers’ obligations to God’s law and their inability to keep it—thereby stimulating their consciences—does he return to the theme of gospel hope (3:21–26). Remarkably, three chapters record nearly 1,300 words aimed at the hearers’ consciences, and about 80 describing the gospel solution.
A few years later, Paul courageously preaches to the conscience of Governor Felix (Acts 24:24). John the Baptist (Matt. 3), Peter (Acts 2), and Jesus (Matt. 5–7) did the same.
Fear of Man
The great obstacle to this kind of preaching is the fear of man. When the conscience is awakened, people react. The humble repent, rejoice, and enter God’s kingdom. The proud become angry: “Who are you to tell me I am a sinner?” or “This is not the God I learned about in Sunday school.”
Men dominated by the fear of man will not preach to the conscience. If you’re seeking a reward from men as you preach the gospel, you may get it, but that’s all—you won’t get anything from God.
Leaders We Need
The world needs pastors who fear God, love sinners, and understand the need to preach to consciences. This will only happen to the degree that God’s Spirit liberates God’s leaders from the fear of man as he humbles them with a deep sense of their own need.
May God give us this kind of striking humility, coupled with bold passion, to preach to consciences for the glory of God.