Help for hurting churches in dealing with apostasy

What would you say to a church where two of its most promising young “Christians” had not only left the faith but had turned against it with mockery and hostility? That’s the very real scenario I was asked to address recently at a small gathering of pastors and elders. It is undoubtedly one of the most agonizing and disturbing experiences in the Christian life when a dear friend or family member, abandons his/her profession of faith. I’ve known this very personally and painfully, both among my relations and in my pastoral ministry. 

I was asked to give some guidance to these pastors and elders on how to deal with such situations in their own congregations. I assumed that every attempt had been made to recover the lost “sheep,” and that the members had been excommunicated. So my advice was really limited to how to minister to the hurting and puzzled sheep who remain. Leaning heavily on John Owen’s epic work on apostasy, I suggested a series of sermons on the following themes (the same subjects should also be emphasized in pastoral visitation).

1. The perseverance of the saints
Some Christians will be shaken by the apostasy of another professing Christian. “If he can fall then what hope is there for me?” So, preach God’s great promises of eternal security to His true people (John 6:39, 40; 10:28, 29).

2. Apostasy is to be expected
This should really be preached before apostasy occurs, to prevent people being taken by surprise when it does happen. The whole Old Testament is a story of Israel’s apostasy. In the New Testament, we have individual apostates such as Judas and Demas. Some in Corinth denied the resurrection, and some in Galatia went back to the law as a way of salvation. No wonder the Apostles urged the churches to expect apostasy (Acts 20:29-30; 1 Cor. 11:19; 1 Tim. 4:1; 5:8; Jude; 1 John 2:19).

3. The danger areas of apostasy
John Owen highlighted three areas in which apostasy usually begins: doctrine, lifestyle, and worship.

Owen traced doctrinal apostasy to a lack of Christian experience. He said that when someone has no experience of personal need, no sense of God’s righteousness, no spiritual sight of Christ’s glory, no submission to the sovereignty of God, and no trembling at God’s Word, then doctrinal apostasy is just around the corner.

Owen actually regarded an unholy lifestyle as more likely to produce apostasy than abandoning some Christian doctrines. He saw both legalism and lawlessness as leading eventually to apostasy.

Owen also argued that if we neglect, refuse to observe, or add to God’s instructions for worship, apostasy will not be far behind.

Pastors should highlight these three danger areas of doctrine, lifestyle, and worship, and urge watchfulness upon the flock.

4. The causes of apostasy
Owen went on to list particular causes of apostasy, so that pastors and their congregations will “watch and pray.”

  • Deeply-rooted and unremoved enmity in the minds of many against spiritual things
  • Pride and vanity of the mind which refuses to bow before the authority of Scripture
  • Sloth and negligence
  • False assurance and groundless self-confidence
  • False sense of security due to neglect of the Spirit’s warnings about apostasy
  • Love of the world and its passing pleasures (Demas in 2 Tim. 4:10)
  • As the first “apostate” Satan draws many into apostasy and forces others to apostatize through persecution
  • Persons in high positions in the church leading evil lives (Jer. 23:15; 1 Sam. 2:12-17)
  • Unrepented national sins that influence the people
  • Divisions in the church
  • The uselessness of many Christians

5. The distinction between a stumble (Peter) and a fall (Judas)
Pastors need to skillfully distinguish between a Christian’s stumble and an apostate’s fall. Every Christian errs in doctrine, falls into sin, and offers faulty worship from time to time. That does not make them an apostate. Owen defined apostasy as “continued persistent rebellion and disobedience to God and his word,” or “total and final and public renunciation of all the chief principles and doctrines of Christianity.”

6. The abomination of apostasy
Hebrews 6 describes apostasy as “crucifying again the Son of God and putting him to an open shame.” By declaring they have tried Christ and His Gospel and found no truth or goodness in them, apostates do exactly what the Jews did. In fact, Owen says Christian apostasy is worse because the Jews did it in “ignorance.”

7. God’s judgment on apostasy
In addition to reminding the professing Christians in the congregation of how abominable apostasy is in God’s sight, they also need to be shown from Scripture the temporal, spiritual, and eternal judgments that fall on apostates. God uses His descriptions of how he abominates and judges apostasy as a means of grace to keep people from apostasy.

8. The need for perseverance
God’s great promises of the perseverance of the saints are given to those who persevere in the means of preservation that God has provided. Christians need to be reminded of the incalculable need and value of the Church, the Word, the sacraments, and fellowship.

9. How to avoid apostasy
John Owen wanted Christians to know that apostasy could be avoided by heart-cure and heart-care (Prov. 4:23). Keep the Gospel at the very center of our hearts; love its truth and experience its power there. Keep sin out of our hearts, especially the highly-dangerous sins of spiritual pride and a censorious, judgmental spirit.

When apostasy occurs in a congregation, it is often tempting to ignore it and put up the “business as usual” sign. However, this does not address the deep needs of Christians and non-Christians who are hurt and perplexed by such events. It also misses the opportunity to prepare the church for future disappointments. So, I would encourage pastors and elders to focus on these nine themes, both in public and in private.

PS. Thanks to Michael DeWalt for his ongoing work in this unpopular and much-neglected area of biblical teaching. I hope it eventually sees the light of day!

Biblical Spirituality

Here’s a new website on biblical spirituality being started by Brian Najapfour, a PRTS student from the Philippines. Brian graduated from PRTS with a ThM and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. degree in Biblical Spirituality under Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is what Brian says about the website:

We have launched a new website called especially devoted to the study of biblical spirituality (Puritan, reformed, and evangelical spirituality in particular).

One purpose of this website is to provide unpublished papers that deal with the subject of spirituality for researchers. Thus, if you have written any paper on the subject that has not yet been published, we encourage you to submit it to us, and we will have it posted here, so that others can also benefit from your work. The paper can be e-mailed to Brian G. Najapfour at


The ultimate goal of this site is to cultivate holiness in the lives of the believers, especially of pastors. We are convinced that the greatest need of many churches today is the holiness of their pastors. As Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843) says, “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness.”

Please join us in this endeavor. Your contribution will be greatly appreciated. Many thanks!

8 marks of an evangelistic sermon

In this last of five posts on evangelistic preaching, I want to describe in a bit more detail what it sounds like.

Evangelistic preaching majors in the present tense. Yes, it deals with biblical data, which is usually in the past tense. But it moves rapidly from the past to the present. These are not sermons that are taken up with large amounts of history, geography and chronology. They may begin there, but move swiftly to the here and the now. They are not 1st century sermons; neither are they 16th century sermons; they are 21st century sermons. They are in the present tense.

Hearers realize this sermon is about here, about now. This is something that is connected to the present, that is relevant, that they must listen to, that has impact on them, here and now, in this day and in this age. Martin Lloyd-Jones used to speak of such sermons being in the “urgent tense,” and that really is what should be communicated.  We must show that the ancient Word connects with today’s world, and is relevant both to the present and the future.  

These sermons should also be personal. Yes, again, we begin with explaining the Word as originally given to the Israelites, the disciples, etc. It starts with “they” and “them.” However, in evangelistic preaching, we move rapidly to “you.”

I’m sure we’ve all sat in congregations, heard sermons about the Philistines, the Israelites, the Corinthians and the Philippians, and wondered, “But what about me? Does this have anything to say to Americans, or Scots?” When teaching God’s people we may be able to spend longer explaining the teaching as it applied to the original hearers. But when we are going after lost souls, we have to move more swiftly, we have to engage more rapidly, we have to show relevance much earlier on.

And I would appeal to you, especially in evangelistic preaching, and especially when you are addressing the unconverted in front of you, that you really work hard at moving away from reading notes. When we are speaking to people – appealing, beseeching, arguing and reasoning in a very personal way – let it be eyeball to eyeball, “we beseech you.” Don’t let paper get in the way, distracting, and breaking the eye contact. Let’s really make it personal so that people really grasp “he is speaking to me.”

We can also make it personal by getting inside the minds of our hearers and saying things like this: “Well, you’re sitting there are you are thinking this…aren’t you? But this is what God’s word says. Or, you’re here today and you’re hearing this and you are feeling so and so.” And the person sitting there says, “He is thinking about me. He knows how I think, he knows how I tick; he is concerned to address what is going on in my mind.” Again, it just makes it a very personal intimate transaction. So we aim to be personal.

In evangelistic preaching we are trying to be persuasive. That’s our great aim. So, as we’ve already said, much of our sermons will be taken up, as Paul is in 2 Corinthians 5, with beseeching, pleading, arguing, reasoning. It’s not just, “Here’s some facts; take them or leave them,” as if we are just dispassionate conveyors of information. We are here to persuade. People must see our anxiety that they respond to the Gospel in faith and repentance.  

To be really persuasive, we must also be passionate. Let people see that we feel this deeply, that we fear for their eternal state, that we are anxious over them, and that we love them deeply. Let that be communicated in our words, but also in our facial expressions, our body language, and our tone.

I’m not arguing for acting here. This should come naturally from us. Sometimes, before preaching an evangelistic sermon, I spend some time trying to think of lost unbelieving souls in my congregation, and even of particular individuals. I may try to see their faces (often lovely characters, by nature – helpful, kind, loving people – but lost). I try to see them dying, going to judgment, and then their faces as they hear the verdict. Then I envision them sinking into the bottomless pit, being burned in eternal fire, going to the company of the devil and his angels. I try to see them there, try to hear them there. Sometimes I might even think of one of my own unsaved family members, just to try and bring home the reality and the enormity of the unsaved’s predicament. I think if we can really feel it ourselves, we will be passionate in our pleading, in our loving, and in our reasoning.

Evangelistic preaching will be plain. If we love sinners and we are anxious for them to be saved, we will be clear and plain in our structure, content, and choice of words. If we can use a smaller word, we use it. If we can shorten our sentences, we do so. If we can find an illustration, we tell it. Everything is aimed at simplicity and clarity, so that, as it was said of Martin Luther, it may be said of us, “It’s impossible to misunderstand him.”

And this is exhausting work. People may think at times that doctrinal sermons are harder to prepare and preach than evangelistic sermons. Not if you are really going to edit and trim and modify until your message communicates the profoundest truth in the simplest way possible. That involves real labor, sweat, toil and tears. In Preaching and Preachers Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote:

If I am asked which sermons I wrote, I have already said that I used to divide my ministry, as I still do, into edification of the saints in the morning and a more evangelistic sermon in the evening. Well, my practice was to write my evangelistic sermon. I did so because I felt that in speaking to the saints, to the believers, one could feel more relaxed. There, one was speaking in the realm of the family. In other words, I believe that one should be unusually careful in evangelistic sermons. That is why the idea that a fellow who is merely gifted with a certain amount of glibness of speech and self-confidence, not to say cheek, can make an evangelist is all wrong. The greatest men should always be the evangelists, and generally have been; and the idea that Tom, Dick and Harry can be put up to speak on a street corner, but you must have a great preacher in a pulpit in a church is, to me, the reversing of the right order. It is when addressing the unbelieving world that we need to be most careful; and therefore I used to write my evangelistic sermon and not the other (pp. 215-16).

When we go into the pulpit with an evangelistic sermon, let’s not go in defensively, and apologetically. Yes, it may be an “apologetic” sermon, but we are not apologizing for the truth. When we go in front of sinners with the gospel, let’s not come across as if we have something to hide or be afraid of. Let’s not hedge and qualify. Let’s not “discuss” or “share.” Let’s preach with powerful, bold, divine authority. People need to hear, “Thus says the Lord.” This isn’t an option, this isn’t just another idea. This is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

And let our evangelistic sermons also be characterized by perseverance. We preach. No one’s converted. We do it again. We preach. No one’s converted. We do it again, and again, and again.

How often should you preach an evangelistic sermon? As I mentioned before, I was expected to preach an evangelistic sermon every Sunday evening. My friend Danny Hyde commented that he does it on Sunday mornings. Maybe once a week is too much to introduce all at once. But why not once a month? And tell your congregation that on such a morning/evening this is going to be a sermon for the unconverted, so that Christians will think, “I can take my friends to this. This is something I know my boss could listen to with some understanding.” So make it regular, and make it known that this is what you are going to be doing.

Above all, of course, evangelistic preaching is to be prayerful – before, during, and after. Pray to be delivered from the fear of man, pray that God would give you passion for souls. Pray that you would be able to communicate naturally and easily and freely. Pray that you’d get a hearing for the gospel and you’d be able to present Christ so that you “disappear.” And pray afterward that the seed sown would bring forth a harvest of saved souls, and that the church will be revived and built up.

“And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever (Dan. 12:3).

Four kinds of evangelistic sermon

Every sermon text can be preached with an evangelistic application. But this isn’t what we are calling evangelistic preaching. Remember our previous definition: Evangelistic preaching is preaching that expounds God’s Word (it is expository) with the primary aim of the conversion of lost souls (rather than the instruction of God’s people). So, though every text can be preached with an evangelistic application, there are certain texts and topics that are especially suitable for such evangelistic preaching. Let me propose four categories of evangelistic sermon:

“Warm-up” sermons
These are sermons we preach to clear and prepare the ground for the gospel. They address some of the common objections to Christianity; the caricatures of and prejudices against Christianity.  Such “apologetic” sermons will set out to prove the truth and  relevance of Christianity and demonstrate its doctrinal and practical superiority.

Examples: (i) proofs of the resurrection, (ii) evidence for creation v evolution, (iii) one way or many ways to God, (iv) do only good people go to heaven? (v) Bible’s analysis of current economic, social, moral problems, etc.

These sermons are aiming at conversion, especially the early stages of conversion. They are clearing away all the rubbish that has accumulated in a sinner’s mind, to gain a hearing for the gospel. They deal with issues that will open the pathway for Christ and His grace. That’s why I call them “warm-up” sermons. We are taking sinners who are cold, prejudiced, and opposed to Christianity, and using God’s Word to break up the soil, warm the heart, and provide an opening for the core message of Christ and His grace.

Warning Sermons
Some warning sermons are characterized by a focus on the more threatening aspects of God’s character, especially His attributes of holiness, justice, sovereignty, and power. Other warning sermons may focus on human sinfulness, inability, frailty, and mortality. We may expound and apply the law, showing what God defines as sin and wickedness. We might deal with the speed of time, the uncertainty of life, the imminence of death, the certainty of judgment, the length of eternity, the reality of hell, etc. These are all warning sermons. They are designed to alarm the complacent, the comfortable, and the thoughtless; to make them anxious, and fearful, and even terrified.

Examples: (i) Remember Lot’s wife – and Saul, and Judas, (ii) God’s law, (iii) the end-of-time parables, (iv) Revelation’s great white throne, bottomless pit, etc., (v) Ecclesiastes’ view of the best this world can offer, etc., (vi) The Psalmist’s view of our frailty and mortality, etc.

The great aim of these sermons is to convict, to bring our hearers to an awareness of their perilous state before God, and their need of repentance.

Wooing Sermons
Having prepared the way for the Gospel with “warm-up” sermons, and having shown the need for the Gospel with warning sermons, we then come with a wooing word. We explain the wonders of the Father’s willingness to send his Son to sinners, and to save them by His sufferings, death, and resurrection. We also focus on the Lord Jesus; His willingness to come, suffer and die for sinners; His tender, wise and winning ways with sinners. We explain the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in regenerating and renewing the hardest of hearts. We explain that God saves by grace through faith, not by merit through works. We are trying to address people who are trembling, who are fearful, who are scared, and are seeking to draw them in to the love and the mercy and the grace of God. No pastor can pluck the chord of grace enough.

Examples: (i) The prodigal son, (ii) Christ’s tender dealings with sinners during his ministry, (iii) the sufferings of Christ on the cross, (iv) the atonement, (v) the Gospel invitations and commands, (vi) the sufficiency and suitability of Christ, etc.

If the aim of the warm-up sermon is to demonstrate relevance, and if the aim of the warming sermon is to bring people to repentance, the aim of the wooing sermon is to bring people to rest in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Will Sermons
Every sermon is ultimately addressed to the will. Yes, we address the head; and through the head, we address the heart.  But we don’t just want to give people facts and feelings. We want changed lives, changed behavior. That’s surely the aim of our preaching. Ultimately, then, every sermon is addressed to the will. But evangelistic sermons, and especially this fourth kind of evangelistic sermon, are addressed especially and repeatedly to the will.

These are sermons that bring people to the signpost at the junction, with two choices. These are sermons that bring people to the ballot box, where they must cast their vote. They bring people to that point where they are faced with the two great and ultimate options: faith or unbelief, life or death, heaven or hell. These are sermons that are full of persuasion, pleading, and arguing and beseeching.

Examples: (i) Paul and Agrippa, (ii) Jesus and the woman of Samaria, (iii) Parable of the wedding invitation, (iv) Paul on Mars Hill, (v) Peter at Pentecost, (vi) Choose you this day whom you will serve, (vii) Narrow/broad way (viii) Revelation 22:17, (ix) Elijah on Mt Carmel, etc. (x) “Stretch out your hand” (Matt. 12:13), (xi) “Lazarus, come forth” (John 11:43). 

But, is man not totally depraved? Are we not “dead in trespasses and sins?” Are we not spiritually “disabled?” Is the will not in bondage? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. There is no question the Bible teaches this. However, as the examples above show, the Bible also describes the depraved, dead, disabled and enslaved will being addressed. It may seem illogical to us, but God has chosen to free the will, enable the “disabled,” and give life to the “dead” by the persuasive preaching of the Gospel.

These sermons have content for head and heart, but are especially focused on pressurizing, yes pressurizing, the will. The truth is pressed home so closely that every hearer is “forced” to make a choice. The Puritans used to speak of the Gospel vice that squeezes hearers so tightly that they cannot but say “yes” or “no.”

I hope you can see that this isn’t the kind of preaching that is going to sound repetitive. There is a great range and variety of evangelistic sermons. There is no need for us to sound the same every time we do this. The Word of God has provided us with so many models and so much material that we can preach evangelistically and freshly each time.

Tomorrow we will finish this series by looking at the results of evangelistic preaching – what it looks and sounds like in reality.