In the preaching we like to hear about God’s promises to us. And within reason we would expect some exhortations. But threats? Where’s God’s love and grace in that, someone might say? And yet, in the Canons of Dort we confess that it is an element of God’s work of grace in us when the preaching also uses threats. That’s the point of a recent Clarion article by Rev J Witteveen, missionary in Brazil, and published below with his permission.
“EXHORTATIONS, THREATS, AND PROMISES”
In Article 14 of the Canons of Dort’s fifth head of doctrine, we confess that the Lord uses means to preserve his people in the true faith: “Just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the preaching of the gospel, so he maintains, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of this Word, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and by the use of the sacraments.”
The means of grace, the tools that God uses to work faith, strengthen faith, and enable his people to persevere in the faith, are the preaching of the gospel and the use of the sacraments. This definition of the means of grace is pretty basic stuff, but in this article we will focus our attention on the Canons’ description of the content of God’s Word. Three specific aspects of God’s Word are mentioned as means by which God maintains, continues, and perfects his work of grace in us: its exhortations, its threats, and its promises. These are essential elements of God’s Word, and they must also be essential elements of the preaching of the gospel.
When we consider two of those aspects, the exhortations and promises of God’s Word, there may not be much controversy, if any. As Reformed churches in which the theology of the covenant plays a central role in teaching and preaching, we rightly emphasize the promises that the Lord makes, his faithfulness to his promises, and the necessity of responding in faith to those promises. The exhortations of God’s Word flow from those promises; we are exhorted to fulfil our obligations in response to God’s gracious work in our lives.
WHAT ABOUT THOSE “THREATS”?
But what about the second word in the group of three: “threats”? What place should threats have in our preaching, both to those who have already professed faith in Christ, and to those who have not yet responded to the call of the gospel? Should the threats of God’s Word in fact have a place in preaching and teaching that is directed toward God’s covenant people? And as we consider our evangelistic calling, to reach our unbelieving neighbours with the good news of Jesus Christ, what role should these threats play?
In the ministry of the Old Testament prophets, threats played an important role in the prophetic message. There are many examples that we could choose from, but one vivid picture that we see in the commissioning of Ezekiel clearly reveals the nature that his ministry would take. The LORD commanded Ezekiel to eat a scroll, filled with words on both front and back. This scroll represented the message that Ezekiel was being called to proclaim to a people that the LORD characterized as being “stubborn and rebellious”.
What was the content of that scroll? “Words of lamentation and mourning and woe” (Ezek. 2:10). As Ezekiel’s ministry progressed, he did proclaim many glorious and beautiful promises; but the message of comfort that he preached was preceded by some of the strongest and most disturbing threats in all of Scripture.
Moving on to the New Testament, we encounter a brief summary of John the Baptist’s ministry of preparation for the coming of the Messiah in Matthew 3 and Luke 3. He warned his hearers, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9). He also spoke of the One who was to come, whose “winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (vs. 17).
Luke summarizes John’s preaching ministry in the following verse: “So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.” The Greek word translated as “preached good news” is the root of our English word “evangelize”. John the Baptist’s evangelistic ministry, as summarized by the evangelists Matthew and Luke, clearly included many of what the Canons of Dort describe as “threats”.
A number of examples from the book of Acts show us what the preaching of the apostles was like in the earliest days of the New Testament church. In this new phase of redemptive history, following the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we find exhortation and promise, but also threats, both implicit and explicit. In his Pentecost sermon, the apostle Peter warned the gathered crowds in no uncertain terms to save themselves from “this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40). In subsequent sermons we see that the apostles, even in their evangelistic preaching, did not shrink back from proclaiming the judgement that is to come. Paul’s preaching in Athens exemplifies this approach: “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).
FROM HEBREWS TO REVELATION
We encounter several more of these “threats” in the New Testament epistles, two of which are well-known passages in the letter to the Hebrews. In Hebrews 6, the writer describes the two possible responses to the gospel. “Land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God,” he writes. “But,” he continues, “if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned” (vs. 8). It is clear that there is at the very least an implicit threat in these words.
An even more powerful threat is found in Hebrews 10:26-31, where we’re told that “if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgement, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (v. 26, 27). The Lord is an awesome and just judge, and “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (v.31).
Finally, the letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 are replete with their own threats. To the church of Sardis, the Lord Jesus says this: “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent.” And that call to repentance provides a stark warning for anyone who would not heed that call: “If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you” (Rev 3:3).
It is clear, then, that the threats of God’s Word remain an integral part of the whole message of the gospel. They certainly are “threats” and are therefore by their very nature unpleasant, and not something that we take great delight in contemplating. But even the presence of these threats in God’s Word is evidence of his grace. He had these threats proclaimed, and inspired his servants to include them in Scripture, in his love for us. They are meant to motivate us to bow the knee to King Jesus, to submit ourselves to his gracious kingship, to entrust ourselves to him and depend on him alone. They warn us, in no uncertain terms, about the alternative – the only alternative – to heeding the gracious call of the gospel.
LEAVING OUR COMFORT ZONE
And while that alternative is almost too horrific to contemplate, it must not be ignored, whether we are speaking to committed Christians or evangelizing. Unbelievers need to know that salvation is necessary before they can be led to seek their salvation in Christ. They need to understand that there are only two options: to follow Christ and inherit eternal life, or to go their own way and face the certain reality of eternal punishment.
This is not an easy message to proclaim. It takes us out of our comfort zone, especially in our cultural context. We live in a culture that proclaims that tolerance is the highest of virtues, along with a version of “love” that doesn’t challenge, doesn’t confront, and most certainly doesn’t “threaten”. Sadly, when our goal is to be winsome in order to attract those who are on the outside to the church, there exists a very real temptation to ignore the threats that we confess are a necessary aspect of the gospel message, or at the very least to push them off to the side and minimize them.
A COUNTER–CULTURAL MESSAGE
But as we seek to bring the ministry of the church, its form and its message, into conformity with God’s Word, we dare not neglect one of the essential aspects of gospel proclamation because it is so very counter–cultural. For two thousand years the church of Jesus Christ has proclaimed this message. Her messengers have been sinful men, often swayed by the ever-shifting currents of the cultures in which they proclaimed the message entrusted to them. Therefore, every generation, ours included, needs to be encouraged to go back to the source, to the Word, in order to receive correction and re-orientation.
We may imagine that visitors to our worship services will be turned off by hearing about the necessity of repentance, about God’s hatred of sin (especially the sins that our society has declared to be virtues), and about the reality of God’s wrath and judgement, and that they may never return should they be confronted with such a message on their first visit to church. But when we truly understand that every response to the proclamation of the full message of the gospel is in God’s hands, and that he has entrusted a message to us that we must proclaim “in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2), and that he will bless that faithful proclamation, we can be greatly encouraged. And in the end, we’ll be able to say, with the apostle Paul, “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).