Universalism and The Reality of Eternal Punishment: Contemporary Preaching

Desiring God 1990 Conference for Pastors

Universalism and the Reality of Eternal Punishment

I don’t know if I will have the opportunity to say so again during the course of the conference, but I do want to thank John Piper for both the original invitation to come and be with you. I’ve looked forward to the opportunity of meeting him.

I greatly enjoyed the privilege of being flown in on Saturday night and not having to preach on Sunday, and having the joy of listening and sharing in the worship. It did my soul much good, and I could happily have flown back to Philadelphia on Monday morning with great joy. But I’m glad that there has been this opportunity for us to share together in the ministry of the conference and for me, as I rather suspected, to get to know some people from circles in which I do not ordinarily move.

Uncertainty in Addressing Contemporary Preaching

Let me, also as we come to the theme for this evening’s study, say something on a slightly lighter vein and that is that I’m not at all sure that I am the best person who could have been asked to speak on the subject of contemporary preaching for two reasons.

When I was still a student, I was sent on a summer assistantship one year to the north coast of Scotland, and discovered only afterwards that the man whom I was supposed to be assisting had called someone else on the phone in the middle of my time there and asked him if he’d ever heard of a young man called Sinclair Ferguson. And this man, who was a relatively close friend of mine, said he thought he had heard of him. What are friends for? “Well,” said this man to him, “It’s like having something straight out of the 17th century in your parish.”

And, having hoped that I had grown in grace from the grace that was requisite for living the Christian life in the 17th century, I was horrified in the context of my association with the magazine (to which some of you may subscribe) when the editorial director of the magazine came back from a minister’s conference he had attended and said to me that in the course of some discussion that they had informally had, one minister in England who had recently started reading the magazine said to me: “It would be a very good thing if in your magazine you told us the dates of the people who write in the magazine. For example,” he said, “I’ve just been reading an article by someone called Sinclair Ferguson.” He said, “Now, how am I to know whether Sinclair Ferguson lived in the 16th century or the 17th century?”

So, I’ve almost despaired of growing in grace into the 20th century, and living and trying to preach in a manner that is contemporary.

However, the topic is assigned to me, and you will, I know, bear with my frailties in that respect as we want to try to listen afresh to some of the truths that we find again in the pages of Scripture. And I want us to settle our minds again this evening from a passage to which we will turn towards the close of our study from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 5:6).

There are a few sections, even of Paul’s letters, more germane to the work of the Christian ministry than these chapters in this part of 2 Corinthians. And here he comes to a great high point in his writings, having spoken in 2 Corinthians 4:1–16 of himself, apparently facing the temptation to lose heart in the work of the ministry.

You see, as he reflects upon the mercy of God that has placed him in this ministry, he begins to turn from simply saying that he does not lose heart to speaking with confidence and assurance of what the power of God is able to do through frail and fragile clay vessels. Therefore,

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says,

“In a favorable time I listened to you,
     and in a day of salvation I have helped you.”

Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 5:6–6:2)

The Right Matter and Manner of Preaching

I suspect that it is when we come to such a topic as contemporary preaching of any doctrine, and not least contemporary preaching of the doctrine of eternal punishment, that we are liable to fall into a certain error. We are recognized as those who believe in the authority of Scripture, that the content of our preaching must be dominated by, and informed on the basis of, the whole counsel of God.

But it’s not always so true, at least in my own observation and experience, that we recognize that, by the same token, the manner as well as the matter of our preaching needs to be dominated by the whole counsel of God. It’s possible for us, in this sense, to be Reformed in our theology and completely unreformed in what we do with our theology, to be biblical in our thinking about doctrine, but to imagine that God has left us to our own devices and our own resources when it comes to the manner in which we expound that doctrine.

And it’s very important for us as ministers of the new covenant in Christ to learn to study Scripture not only for the truth that it imparts but for the truth that it imparts about the way we should impart truth. Because not only the examples of ministries in the New Testament, but the example of the New Testament itself, and the way in which truth is put together and preached to us in its pages by the Holy Spirit, is as regulative of our ministry as the doctrinal content which we preach and seek to expound.

And it is in this vein that I want us to consider together this topic of contemporary preaching of eternal punishment. What sayeth the Scriptures? Not only about eternal punishment as we’ve sought to examine it, however cursorily, but what do the Scriptures also say about the way in which eternal punishment should be preached as an aspect of our exposition of God’s truth?

It seems to me that when Scripture speaks about our preaching in such an area as this, it focuses our attention on four essentials, that it’s vital for us, by God’s grace, to see wrought deeply into our lives and into our ministry. Because (1) Scripture speaks to us about our responsibility to preach it; (2) it speaks to us about the manner in which we should preach it; (3) it speaks to us about the effects we may expect from that preaching; (4) and it speaks to us also about the inner compulsion of the minister of the new covenant that drives him in the face of every kind of opposition and even discouragement, so to preach as a dying man to dying man.

And if something of these things can be wrought into our own ministry, then there will be little doubt that not only in our thinking about such a doctrine but in our ministry in relationship to such a doctrine, there will be marked progress and growth in grace. And we will have learned in some measure what it means to be faithful stewards of the mysteries of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

1. Our Responsibility to Preach the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment

What then, first of all, should we recognize about our responsibility to preach such a doctrine? It is essential that we do so, and essential that we do so largely because it is a primary duty of the Christian minister to share this gospel truth that we find especially emphasized in the lips of our Lord Jesus Christ. And there are three general reasons why we have such a duty.

Reason 1: Called to Preach the Whole Counsel of God

The first is that as new covenant ministers, we have a responsibility to preach the whole counsel of God. That, of course, is a phrase that arises in Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. But the significant thing about it for our purposes here is this: Paul is describing his ministry in Ephesus, not just in the sense that he was Christ’s apostle in Ephesus.

What he describes about his ministry in Ephesus is the way in which every law officer in the Christian church was contained in and sometimes exercised by the apostolic ministers of the gospel. So that in Ephesus, Paul not only exercised the office of an apostle, but he peculiarly and over an extended period of time, longer perhaps than many pastors stay in churches in North America, amazingly. He exercised to these Ephesian Christians the ministry of a pastor of the flock of Jesus Christ.

And so when he speaks to them about the fact that he shared with them the whole counsel of God, he is not saying to them, “This is the peculiar office of the apostle to share this with God’s people.” He is saying that as a pastor of the people, this was the great responsibility of his life and ministry, that he should keep back nothing, he says, that was profitable to them (Acts 20:20).

And it’s very striking to notice how it’s in that very context that he is able to say what we surely long to say: “Oh, if we could only say it to our people with honest hearts and tongues, ‘I am free of the blunt of all men.’“ And in that respect, as he speaks to them as the pastor who is brought to bear upon their lives, everything that is profitable in all the council of God, he is really reflecting on the fact that in this respect, at least, there is continuity between the responsibility felt by the Old Testament prophet and the responsibility that is laid upon the shoulders of the new covenant minister.

You remember how Ezekiel speaks in hush tones of that awesome responsibility that is placed upon the watchmen of God’s people? And how he tells them that it is their responsibility to warn the people who are in their charge because God has set them as watchmen? “Son of man,” says the Lord,

I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. (Ezekiel 3:17–18)

And what Paul is saying as the pastor of the Ephesian congregation is that that responsibility given to the Old Testament prophet to stand upon the watchtower and to look over the souls of the people of God and to warn men and women of the responsibility they will bear for all eternity for their sinfulness and rejection of the message of his covenant word — “That man will die,” says the Lord. “But a responsibility for his death will be found upon your hands.”

That’s why at the end of the letter to the Hebrews, we are told that those who are leaders in the church of God are those who watch over the souls of the people (Hebrews 13:17). And so, you see, whatever the differences there may be in the development of God’s purposes from old to new, there is a perpetual responsibility placed upon those who are pastors and watchers, bishops and guardians of the flock of God.

And so solemn and serious as that responsibility that Paul recognizes the charge that was given to Ezekiel as the charge that has been given to him. And so he takes upon himself the woes of God’s covenant judgment and curse in 1 Corinthians 9 and says, “Woe! Covenant woes be unto me as a minister of the new covenant if I preach not the gospel!”

And in that sense, you are responsible as a pastor of the flock of God, to everyone set in your charge, to speak to them about the eternal destiny of the righteous as they shine in the stars like stars in the firmament. And also to hold back nothing that will be profitable to their salvation, even the truth that without Christ men are lost and perishing and damned.

So that you and I should know insofar as we are preachers of the gospel and pastors of the flock of God, something of that experience that the godly Murray M’Cheyne knew as he was within months of his own death, he tells his congregation:

As I was walking through the fields yesterday that thought came to me with almost overwhelming power, that everyone to whom I preach must shortly stand before the judgment seat of Christ and be sent either to heaven or to hell. (Andrew Bonar, Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, 148).

And you, beloved, are responsible before God as the watchmen set over his flock to speak this word of solemn warning to the people, in order that before his judgment seat, you too may be free from the blood of all men who have been set under your charge.

There is this enormous weight of responsibility placed upon your shoulders. In some ways, that’s the explanation for some of the mysterious pressures of the ministry in which God has set you. It’s one of the reasons why sometimes even sympathetic Christian people may not fully understand the solemn responsibility that is upon your shoulders in a very special way.

You remember that great story of John Welsh, that wonderful Scotsman in the days of the immediate post-Reformation when his wife saw in the middle of the night that he was down in the bedroom with a blanket curled around him and said, “John, John, come back to your bed, back to your bed.” And he looked up from the groanings of his praying and said to her, “Woman, I have five hundred souls in my charge, and I know not how it goes with some of them.” And if there isn’t some measure of that in our spirits, then in the last analysis, we are not really fit to be in the gospel ministry.

New covenant ministers have a solemn responsibility to preach the whole counsel of God, all of which this is one part.

Reason 2: Divine Judgment Is Coming

The second reason we bear this responsibility is because in the New Testament, the charge to post-apostolic ministry is set in the light of divine judgment.

You will have noticed, I’m sure, in 1 and 2 Timothy that the two letters come to a very similar conclusion but in rather different contexts. In 1 Timothy, Paul is charging Timothy towards the end about the sanctity of his own life. And he says to him in 1 Timothy 6:13,

I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time. (1 Timothy 6:13–15)

You see, the responsibility to live faithfully is set in the light of the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Paul charges Timothy to personal holiness in the light of Christ’s personal faithfulness.

But when he speaks to Timothy, especially in the context of his ministry of God’s word in 2 Timothy 4, having spoken to him of the foundation of his ministry in the God-breathed Scripture, now speaking to him as a herald of God’s truth in 2 Timothy 4, he says,

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:1–2)

And so on, and so forth. And you see the point of the contrast between these two passages, in as much as the apostle underlines, that our responsibility as gospel preachers is a responsibility of which we are charged precisely in the light of divine judgment.

This, as it were, is written into the diploma of Christian ministry. It is enshrined in the charge that we received at the inauguration of our gospel preaching, as members of that long and sacred line of holy men from of old who have preached God’s truth. This charge is not peculiar to Timothy, as Paul’s close friend. It is Paul’s deliberate final charge to the one who, throughout all the ages, will model what it means to be a minister in a post-apostolic context.

And Paul is one who, as he says, is shortly to appear before that judgment throne himself, and as a sense of its great solemnity and joy upon his own heart, bids Timothy have written into his soul that the ministry of God’s word that he exercises is a ministry that must always be exercised with an eye to the judgment of God upon those to whom we preach, in order that we may minister with faithfulness.

And it’s important for us to be touched by that charge and to allow it to banish from our lives two excuses to which most, if not all of us, are prone. The first being that by nature, I am temperamentally unsuited to share this truth with my people. And the second being that the times in which I live, and the place in which I am set, is inhospitable to the receiving of such truth.

And you see this charge at a stroke banishes both of these excuses from our hearts for this reason: that it’s given to a man who of all men perhaps in the apostolic church was temperamentally unsuited to preaching this truth. Do you remember what Paul wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 4:16, is it? When he wrote to them, saying, “I’m sending Timothy to you”?

You imagine some great evangelist today saying, “I’m sending one of my dearest, closest associates to you. But listen to this. When he comes to you, you’re going to have to work hard to make him feel at his ease among you. You’re not going to find that he’s the flamboyant type, the gregarious type. You’re going to find that if you’re going to get the best out of his ministry, then you’re going to have to work alongside him until that time comes when some of the tensions disappear from his personality, when he begins to ease out among you. And then you will see that he’s doing the work of the Lord, as I am.”

There would be many churches in the world today that would write back and say, “We are delighted to have your letter but this is not the man for us. This is not the man. We want someone who is temperamentally suited.”

And you see part of Paul’s ministry in his letters to Timothy, and especially in 2 Timothy, expresses his burden for the man’s timidity (2 Timothy 2:7) and perhaps even for some of the natural bondage in which Timothy is. “Don’t drink only water, a little wine for your stomach’s sake,” he says (1 Timothy 5:3). I don’t know that you find another man in the New Testament so temperamentally unsuited to preach the judgment of God.

But when God tells a man to preach something, his temperament is irrelevant to his obedience, and thank God, may often be the vehicle God intends to use to make that truth sweet and gracious in the ears of the people.

And what about that other excuse that we use? The people would never listen. Well, the people are listening to all these other things. They’re constantly watching television. “Oh,” says Paul to Timothy, “Timothy, in the last days, there will come times of stress, men having itching ears, turning away from the truth. These are the days in which you will minister in Ephesus. What are you going to do?”

“Are you going to gather,” he says, “into your holy little huddle and say, ‘Well, we must protect whatever truth we can that remains’?” “No,” he says, “if you’ve God’s word in your hand and God’s power in your spirit and God’s fire in your belly, then preach this word. Preach it in season, out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort with great patience and careful instruction. And Timothy, take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. Don’t be ashamed of suffering for the gospel. And don’t be ashamed, either, of men like me who are prisoners because of the gospel.”

The truth, brethren, is that none of us, by temperament, are suited to preaching this truth, and none of our contexts are hospitable to receiving this truth. And that’s precisely the reason why God has chosen us to be ministers of the new covenant. He will persist in placing the treasure of the gospel in vessels of clay, in order that the excellency of the power may be seen to be of God and not of man.

Oh, how we glory in what God has done. And you see what he does. You remember how Isaiah sees it in Isaiah 9 as he looks forward to the coming of Christ. He says, “It will be like the victory there was in the day of Midian’s defeat.” And in gospel ministry, it’s always like the day of Midian’s defeat.

When God eschewed using the great and the mighty and the strong and took a little band of men with clay pots and a light inside and vanquished the Midianites by the smashing of the pots and the shining of the light and the sword of the Lord and of Gideon.

You see, that’s why he’s chosen men to preach his word who, temperamentally, are so often unsuited to that kind of work, who would rather die than preach, and sometimes die as they preach, because he will have all the glory to himself. And that’s why when you are preaching such solemn truths as this, you feel at times, don’t you, that somehow or another your whole life is being torn under the weight of what God seems to be saying. And you feel something of your own uncleanness. It’s because He wants to have the glory to himself.

Why is it that sometimes you wish there was a trap door rather than a front door to your sanctuary? It’s because you’ve begun to learn that God uses your preaching to speak to you as well. And what he’s saying is this, “Down, down, down, down.” And what he’s saying about the Christ that you preach is “Up, up, up, up.”

Reason 3: Called to Be Stewards of the Gospel

We have this responsibility because we are new covenant ministers because we have a post-apostolic charge to ministry, and thirdly because we are called to be stewards of the gospel. Says Paul, of course, speaking about himself and other gospel ministers, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1–2).

What does it mean to be faithful? It means to be like Jesus, who said, “These are not my words; they are the words of my Father.” That’s the spirit, brethren, in which we prepare such messages that we may preach in God’s leading others on the doctrine of eternal punishment and on any doctrine, for that matter. “Father, help me to hear your words and give me a heart that is so attuned to your words that the words that people hear will not be my words, but your words, your truth.”

And isn’t it one of the glorious elements in the sheer mystery of preaching that so often people lose sight of your face, lose consciousness of your accent and they find themselves confronted by the face and by the accent of Jesus Christ? Because in some measure, God has enabled us to be faithful to his word. But you see, that faithfulness must not be interpreted out of our own understanding of what it means to be faithful, but out of the biblical teaching on the character and manner and style of those who are faithful.

There are times, is it not true, when it’s possible for men under a cloak and pretense of being faithful to be nothing less than personally offensive? That’s why we have so much in the Pastoral Epistles about the necessity for gentleness and meekness in the character of the pastor. Because faithfulness here means not simply faithfulness to some ideology that excites us, but walking in covenant marital faithfulness to Jesus Christ in such a way that we become like the one to whom we have been wed by grace and faith.

Preaching this truth is no excuse for letting hang out all the angularities of our personality. But preaching this truth is a solemn responsibility that we may not only be faithful to the words of Scripture but to the very spirit in which those words are given to us in Scripture.

There’s a wonderful illustration of that in what we were thinking about earlier on this morning in 1 Thessalonians. You remember what it was that within a course of two, perhaps three weekends, the apostle Paul had shared with the Thessalonians? People were saying, people were speaking about the fruit of that ministry. In 1 Thessalonians 1:9:

They themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10)

That’s the Savior they had trusted, Jesus, who rescued them from the coming wrath. Now, what kind of man, what kind of minister, what kind of pastor had Paul been to the Thessalonians in that brief spell there that he had brought to them this awesome, awful truth of fleeing from the coming wrath of God to the salvation of Jesus’s arms?

Well, he says,

You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:10–12)

“Oh,” he says, “we loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well because you had become dear to us.” Now, that’s what faithfulness looks like in preaching about the coming wrath of God. It presents before the world’s eyes what it sees nowhere else in the universe: the most solemn truths presented with the most tender spirit.

And I say that’s what gospel faithfulness means as we fulfill our responsibility to proclaim the whole counsel of God and to speak to men and women about the prospect of eternal punishment. You know what that means. I think I alluded to it the other evening. It means that we must learn not simply to love preaching. We must learn to love sinners. And sometimes, sometimes that can be all the difference in the world.

The Focus of Our Responsibility Is to Undeceive

And what is the focus of such responsibility? It seems to me that one way we might express it is like this. The focus of our responsibility in proclaiming the prospect of eternal punishment is that by our ministries, men and women may be undeceived.

That’s one of the functions of this solemn truth, that by it, men and women who slumber in the sleep of death may be awakened. And that, having been deceived, as Paul says, those who are perishing are those whose minds have been blinded by the god of this age (2 Corinthians 4:4), who have been deceived as Eve was deceived in the beginning in the Garden of Eden by the words of Satan: “You shall not die but live” (Genesis 3:4).

And we live in a world tonight, in which men and women constantly behave on the basis of that principle: “I shall not die, but live.” And it’s our task so to proclaim this truth, which is part of the whole counsel of God, that men and women may be undeceived about the reality of their sinfulness and learn that God is not mocked, but that whatever a man sows, he shall also reap, that they may be undeceived about the righteousness of God and learn that the righteousness of God means that he justly punishes sinners in everlasting torment, that they may be undeceived about the judgment of God upon their lives.

Which means that in fulfilling this grand responsibility, there will always be that insistent note of warning to the people, “Danger, danger!” Even in an ordinary life where there is danger, we have a responsibility to be watchmen and warn.

I used to live in the most northerly island in the United Kingdom, literally in the back of beyond, if not even further, on a little island. And on one side of that island, there were these beautiful bays, sandy bays if only we’d had the weather to go with it. It’d have been like Florida, I suppose. On the other side, all the way along the island were steep and deadly cliffs with no signs.

And the unsuspecting visitor, and there were almost every year some of them, would see the sandy bays and think that the whole of the reality was exactly like this. You could see everything from miles around and know where you were going. And if you were up there on the cliffs near the edge, taking some air and some exercise, and saw some unsuspecting visit on the island, moving towards the edge of the cliffs, ignorant of their danger, then even on a natural level, it was your solemn responsibility to call, “Danger! Danger! Look out! Look out!”

And the apostle is saying to us that God has set us similarly upon a watchtower in the midst of the island of the sea of humanity. And he has given us this solemn responsibility to call with a note of urgency in our preaching in all the areas in which we preach, “Look out! There is danger!” so that men and women, in one sense, who have not responded to the gospel, in one sense, never can really be completely comfortable in our presence because they hear something about our lives, as well as about our preaching, that sounds stridently in their ears for all the gentleness and tenderness of our spirits.

Because through our ministry, God is issuing a warning to them that there is danger so long as they remain separated from Christ. So, there is this great responsibility.

2. Manner of Preaching the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment

Second, the Scriptures speak to us not only about the responsibility for such preaching but they give us some indications, I think, of the manner of our preaching. I mentioned that there were three areas in which men and women need to be under: seed, sin, righteousness, judgment.

And, of course, these are the very areas in which our Lord Jesus says that the ministry of the Spirit is effectual to the conversion of men and women. When he comes, he will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. A prophecy gloriously fulfilled on the day of Pentecost when the very things about which those people who listened to Peter’s preaching of the gospel were convicted, with sin, righteousness, and judgment, all in relationship to his proclamation of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead as the Lord, overall as the Christ of God, as the judge of men. And they cried out, awakened from their slumbering, “Men and brethren, what must we do?”

And you see, if that is the ministry of the Spirit, then the manner of our preaching must, at the very least, seek to do this: to put into the Spirit’s hands, through our lives, the tools the Spirit delights to use in order to produce such an effect on the consciences of others.

In that sense, as preachers of the gospel, our single task is always to keep in step with the Spirit, to walk by the Spirit, and to use the instrument he has given us to preach and the instrument he has given us, that our own lives might be transformed and offer ourselves and our preaching to him and say to him, “Holy Spirit, I offer you these instruments that your word tells me you are pleased to use.”

You see, we are theater nurses in relationship to the Spirit, simply handing him the scalpels that he seeks to use in his divine surgery. And this is something that applies both to the manner of our preaching, and the manner of our living. What does it mean?

Preach Biblically Oriented

It means, first of all, that our preaching must be biblically oriented. And by that, I mean essentially two things.

Biblical Content and Balance

First of all, that it should have biblical content and biblical balance. Biblical content in the sense that this note that we find in the New Testament of eternal punishment will be set in the midst of our own preaching, in the balance in which we find it in the pages of the New Testament.

To me, it’s one of the most extraordinary things about New Testament scholarship in our own day: this extraordinary new, fresh appreciation of the eschatological character of New Testament preaching, and all of our students speak about it. These words that in a former generation were relatively little used because people thought that what this book contained was something about the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.

And now there’s probably not a seminary student in the world who isn’t able to use the word eschatological. And yet for all that, eschatological remains a term in an ideology of redemptive history, and all too little a warning note in the preaching and the teaching of God’s word.

Beloved, eschatology is not simply a framework for understanding the ideology of the gospel. Eschatology is the deep-seated reality that carries with it the warning note of the gospel. And to me, it has been one of the most blessed things of preparing for this conference over these days: to be thinking again about the New Testament teaching and to see again, and again, that the New Testament is simply full of this.

I suppose there could be few more practical benefits of our study time together in these days than that we went home and got out an old Bible and began to mark up every reference we could find in the New Testament to this kind of perspective, to begin to feel afresh in our own souls that the New Testament’s gospel is suffused with teaching about the judgment of God and the punishment of the wicked.

And to learn something of what it means to preach that truth in biblical balance. It isn’t the whole counsel of God, but if we’re not preaching this, we’re not preaching the whole counsel of God.

Biblical Spirit

But the thing that perhaps we really need to emphasize for ourselves when we speak about preaching this truth biblically is that we learn, by God’s grace, to preach it with a biblical spirit. And it just seems more and more to me that if this is absent, no words of ours will ever convey it.

If there isn’t wrought in our souls a sense of the holy seriousness of the truth with which God has called us to deal, brethren, and I don’t know if it’s possible for us to take in the fact that in our preaching, our very spirits are somehow mysteriously conveyed to the people. And if the truth is to be winged home by the Spirit, this is why the Spirit was able to use the apostle Paul so much. And if I may speak reverently, this is why the Spirit used the Lord Jesus so much because there was perfect harmony in Jesus’s case between the words that he spoke and the spirit in which he spoke them. He was mastered by God’s word. It was written in his heart; it was suffused in his personality, he was living word.

And that means not only the manner of our speaking but the manner of our living must exude this spirit of holy seriousness because we speak to men and women of holy things. We have got to learn something of what the apostle Paul spoke of in Romans 9. Can I put it this way? We are not Calvinists until we’ve learned that. Calvinism doesn’t end at Romans 8. Its glory ought to be that it carries into Romans 9. And there is a spirit among us of weeping and sighing and crying and groaning because of our brethren, according to the flesh, who know not the Savior that God has sent.

And it’s incumbent upon me to say to myself, as well as to you, that it’s not only our pulpit demeanor with which we preach; it’s our daily demeanor. Is it simply something ethnic in me that makes me say that the minister who, in church life, has a spirit of the entrepreneurial master of ceremonies is an abomination? Oh, Sir Murray M’Cheyne, who I think more than almost any man in recent centuries knew what it was to live this way. Oh, he said it’s a holy minister who is an awful weapon in the hands of God.

And our problem is not that we lack education or gifts or practicality. Our great problem is that we lack a holy seriousness. And I confess to you as I share with you in your flesh, as you share in mine, we live in a world that has formulated almost every moment of its existence in order to avoid seriousness of any kind and holy seriousness in particular. And the church of God is not immune from that spirit. I don’t mean lugubriousness, which is a pharisaical and hypocritical substitute for seriousness. I mean seriousness — seriousness that can laugh and seriousness that can cry, but seriousness that is holy. And not only seriousness, but as we’ve already indicated alongside that seriousness, and this is the beauty of what the gospel produces in men and women: tenderness, gentleness, meekness.

It’s simply been one of the privileges of the sphere in which I labor and other spheres in which I’ve labored, that I’ve had the opportunity to meet with men and women of God whom I’ve admired and from whom I’ve learned from afar in younger days. And you know the thing that has constantly struck me for all the diversity of personality?

It is that you can see they come from the same spiritual genes — whatever personality they may have been given, introvert, extrovert, A, B — there is this driving holy seriousness, and there is this almost melting tenderness, gentleness, meekness. And it arises from this, perhaps most of all, what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:5. It arises from the fact that in our preaching and in our ministry, not least in this area, we are not men’s judges. We are men’s servants.

We preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, your only Savior from an everlasting damnation, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’s sake. Wrapping around ourselves the servant’s towel, getting down on our hands and knees, and saying to them as their debtors, “Jesus has given something to me to save you from the everlasting bondings, and I will do anything, anything if I may bring it into your heart.” That’s the kind of man God delights to use for the simple reason that his dear Son was like that. So when we say that we are responsible to preach this truth biblically, we mean not only in the balance of its content, but in the very spirit in which we communicate it.

Sir Andrew Bonner to Robert Murray M’Cheyne one Monday as they met together, “What were you preaching on yesterday?” And M’Cheyne said, “I was preaching on hell.” And Bonner said, “Were there tears? Did you preach it with tears of love?”

Preach Christocentrically

We need to preach this truth also. If I may put it this way, Christocentrically, remembering on the one hand that Jesus is the great witness to this truth, in order that men’s minds may be clarified as to its source and convinced as to its reality. And remembering too that the Jesus who preached it was the one who set himself forward before men as the Savior.

And you will notice that so often when the New Testament speaks about this, the doctrine of eternal punishment is not let loose from the great central message of the New Testament that God saves sinners. And we must never preach this message simply to drive man to despair. We must preach this message in the context of our Lord Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, reigning, sending his Holy Spirit, welcoming men and women into the tenderness of his bosom because he did not come into the world to condemn the world, but the world through him might be saved.

And we preach this truth, and you see this is what suffuses it with a different spirit altogether than the natural spirit in which we might preach it. We preach this truth not to condemn men and women, but that by some means, through our preaching of it, they might be saved.

Preach Eschatologically

We need to preach this truth as to its manner in the third place, eschatologically if I now may use the word. For this reason, we need to give many of our people encouragement. And there is something in Scripture, in its exposition of the doctrine of eternal punishment that is there purely and simply for the encouragement of God’s people.

That they may learn in the economy of God, he has patience with the vessels of wrath that are fit for destruction because he is using the context of their judgment in order that he may display his own righteous glory and sovereign just rule over the universe. And our people often need this as the people of God frequently have.

You remember how that was true in Psalm 11 that we mentioned this morning? It’s perhaps supremely true in Psalm 73 when you remember Asaph, that man who was constantly wrestling with the issue of the justice of God and the unrighteousness of the world tells us that he had almost lost the place in his spiritual pilgrimage because he had begun to envy the arrogant when he saw the prosperity of the wicked. And then he begins to describe all this and the accusations they have against the Lord’s people and the way in which they scarf and speak with malice, how they prosper, how they are carefree and increase in wealth. And he says, “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure” (Psalm 73:13).

Have you never thought that, brethren? As you’ve gone to your class reunion and you’ve seen perhaps some of the men the same age, you are driving up in their Cadillacs and their wives with possessions that your wife will never see. And you are conscious that in terms of this world’s goods, you have so very little and they have position and influence and power and they do things that people can see and you do things that nobody ultimately can see.

And the way they sometimes in their very sophisticated way will you. So you’re still in that little church, still in that little church, and you see them eyeing the clothes you wear. Ask you what car, where are your children going to school? And you feel yourself to be reduced in their presence and you go home and you don’t say to your wife, but you think, just as Asaph here says, “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence” (Psalm 73:13).

And then you remember what he says,

When I thought how to understand this,
     it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
     then I discerned their end.

Truly you set them in slippery places;
     you make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment,
     swept away utterly by terrors!
Like a dream when one awakes,
     O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.
When my soul was embittered,
     when I was pricked in heart,
I was brutish and ignorant;
     I was like a beast toward you.

Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
     you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
     and afterward you will receive me to glory. (Psalm 73:16–24)

And isn’t that part of the significance of the book of Revelation that has brought such blessed relief to the people of God in their discomfort and in their death spike through the years that our Lord Jesus Christ one day will arise and judge the wicked?

And as Thessalonians so beautifully says when it comes to the man of sin who has raised himself in exaltation against God, he will simply blow him away with the word of his mouth and he will be gone. Oh, what an anchor for the soul. It will be to our people to know that the judge of all the earth will do right. Fourthly, we must preach this truth, imaginatively.

The truth of the gospel, the truth of eternal punishment as all truth must be directed to the mind, but it must appeal to the whole sense experience of man. We are not addressing brains in a pew. We are addressing men and women in all the complexity of their sense experience. And one of the things that you notice about the preaching of this truth that has proved effectual in the hearts of men and women is that it has been imaginative in character.

Now, what do I mean by that? I don’t mean that we begin to spin stories out of our own imagination. I mean that our preaching is the fruit. In our own intellect and sense experience of such a descent into our own hearts by the penetration of the word of God, that in our own hearts, God’s word and his holy judgment have pursued us to the very roots of our being. So that we have seen in our own hearts where it is that we still allow ourselves to be deceived about the nature of divine reality. And so that we see the twistedness,

The reality. And so that we see the twistedness, so that we see the places in which we ourselves hide from the solemn truths of God, and seek to cover ourselves from his all-seeing eye and his holy judgment. We need to allow God’s mind, that is to say, to open up our thinking about our own standing in the presence of God. We need to see ourselves in the presence of God, and see him, by means of his word, gazing upon us.

We need to stay in his presence. We are not just waiting for the Lord, we are waiting on the Lord. And as we wait upon him, his gaze penetrates like some divine laser into the depths of our being. And by his Holy Spirit’s ministry with his word, he begins to show us things about ourselves, our twistedness, our frailty, the perversions of our personality, even our own secret hatred of some of the things that we preach. he brings them all to the surface as his word burns within us.

And you see, it’s when that has begun to happen that we are enabled to have the words, the ideas, the approaches that will, in the hands of the Holy Spirit alone, pursue men and women to the place where they are stubbornly resisting the overtures of God’s grace. That there, by the instrument that God has placed in our hands, by the way in which he has framed our own experience, the Holy Spirit may touch them, may seize them, may break them and melt them and bring them to Christ. And that means, however painful it is, that we must stay down under the doctrine of eternal punishment until it has done its cathartic work in our spirits, and our ministry is able to do a similar cathartic saving work in the lives of men and women.

I remember reading somewhere about Jonathan Edwards, and no doubt this was partly because of his great intellect, but not solely, that you would’ve felt that he could lift up an idea, and hold it in his mind, and turn around slowly from every perspective as he gazed at it. And that’s not altogether a matter of intellectual concentration of a great mind.

That’s the concentration of a mind that has been sanctified by the presence of God and by the word of God. And we so much need, beloved, to learn something of that. That we may meditate in God’s word, apply it to ourselves, and then, by the open manifestation of the truth, seek to persuade men to flee from the wrath to come and to trust in Jesus Christ.

Preach Prayerfully

And all of those things, in the last analysis, mean nothing if the manner of our preaching is not also done prayerfully. Isn’t it interesting that when Paul speaks about our wrestling, not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, in order that in our lives we may bind the strong man armed, he ends that section in Ephesians 6, you remember, by an appeal to the Ephesians to pray for him and to pray for his preaching.

Because this, you see, is the instrument, the weapon of all prayer, as Bunyan put it, that God has given into the hands of his church that by prayer, as well as preaching, we may bind the strong man armed.

That was Ezekiel’s experience, you remember, in the valley of dry bones. He could preach to these dry bones till he was blue in the face, and nothing happened until he learned that he had also to preach to the spirit. He had to learn to pray that the Lord would send down the unction of his spirit to make real in the presence of the people the very truths that were being expounded from his word.

It’s a very striking thing to me that, you remember, when in the Acts of the apostles, the apostles themselves wanted to hand over part of their ministry to others who would wait upon tables, that they might give themselves to the ministry of the word, they speak in Acts 6:3 of their desire to devote themselves to the word in preaching it. But in Acts 6:4, they speak about prayer, and the ministry of the word, and the ardor is extraordinary. Prayer and the ministry of the word. Because in his economy, it is by prayer that God brings unction upon our hearts and upon our ministries.

I sometimes wonder what would happen to many of the great churches in the United States if the corporate meeting for prayer were abandoned. And I sometimes guess the truth is that everything would remain the same because the corporate meeting for prayer and crying down the unction of God upon the ministry of his word has already been abandoned. Prayer, prayer, prayer. In order that there may be unction from the throne of God.

3. The Effects of Preaching the doctrine of eternal punishment

Thirdly, let me say a word about the effects of such preaching. In many ways, as the parable of the soar indicates to us, it seems that there are multifarious effects from the preaching of all truth, and ultimately the effects, as you know, are only twofold: such preaching hardens men’s hearts or softens them, and can do ultimately only one or the other. The hardening may be manifest in furious antagonism. It may be manifest in sophisticated derision.

It may be manifest in slanderous statements that are made about you personally or your ministry. It may be manifested in subtle rejection. And we need to learn to take our share of the oblique of our Lord Jesus Christ and go to him without the camp. To take our share in suffering for the sake of the gospel. To fill up what is lacking of the sufferings of Christ in us for the sake of the elect.

But gloriously this preaching may also soften. Spirit uses it as the sacred counselor for the prosecution. Bringing conviction of man’s sins. And thank God he may also soften the hearts of God’s people through it and through it show them more of the riches of Jesus Christ. I shall treasure for all my days the experience of an elder in our church in Glasgow, coming to me quietly after a communion service and saying to me, I never knew that Jesus had suffered so much for me.

And that’s one of the things that the preaching of eternal judgment and condemnation and punishment can do for the people of God. Gloriously the Spirit is able to use it to show them the depths of the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ. And out of such a solemn, agonizing truthlessness, they go out from the meeting from the ministry of the word, and they are so thankful for Lord Jesus and what he has done to save them from such an eternal condemnation. And they go out thinking to themselves, died He for me who caused his pain, for me who him to death pursued. And their lives are henceforth more seriously pursuing the service of Christ, and their worship full of gratitude.

4. The Inner Compulsion of New Covenant Ministry

But fourthly and finally, let me say a word about the inner compulsion which characterizes new covenant ministry, and it’s this, of course, of which the apostle speaks in Second Corinthians 5. He says, it seems there are those who say about his preaching, and doubtless this is one of its central elements, those who say the man is out of his mind. Just as they’d said at Athens when he’d begun to speak about the judgment that would be exercised by God through the man Christ Jesus, they began to deride him crazy.

Oh, he says, it is, of course, the love of Christ that constrains us, and it constrains us because we’ve at last begun to understand and interpret the significance of his suffering are right. The love of Christ constrains us, he says, because of the interpretation we’ve learned to put upon the cross that he died there, that our sins were imputed to him there, that God made him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in him. And that means that in order to understand the depth and constraint of Christ’s love, we need to understand the depth to which Christ sunk on the cross of Calvary and in his agony and dereliction drinking the cup of God’s wrath for sinners. And we are thus compelled by Christ’s love.

And it’s interesting that the idea that Paul is expressing is not the kind of idea that sometimes is taken out of that passage, that we are as aware sent hither and thither in a great flurry of activity to the four corners of the earth. It seems to be more a sense of being crowded in and held in and unable to move from the place where God has set us down because of Christ’s love.

Like Paul, interestingly in Corinth when it seemed he was ready to throw in the towel, and one night the Lord stood by him and said to him, “Paul, stay here and preach on because I have much people in this city,” constrained by Christ’s love. Paul also adds in that passage that part of our inner compulsion is the recognition that we will appear with others before the judgment seat of Christ. We must all appear there. He says in 2 Corinthians 5:10, “Before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” And therefore, since we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.

And he is, of course, conscious of the pressure that’s brought to bear upon him because of the prospect of the lost eternity of those to whom he preaches. I wonder if you remember how Jesus explained what that means in his great parable in Luke 19. The distribution of the wealth, ten to one, five to another, one to another. You remember what happens when these servants come back, one who has done nothing. There is this man who has taken the five talents of wealth that the master has given to him and he’s made five more. And the master says to him, “I’m going to put you in charge of five cities.” That’s a picture of the Lord’s judgment on his faithful servants. You imagine it.

You’ve pastored some little church somewhere in one of these states in the back of beyond, in the middle of the cold winter, and wondered why God has placed you there, and you can count it seems on the finger of one hand the obvious fruitfulness of your ministry. There is something within you, especially as you compare yourself with others who seem to have been fruitful, that trembles within you as you contemplate what will become of you on the judgment day of Christ.

My brother, you are in for the surprise of your life, or the surprise of your death if you want to think it that way, because he will say to you, don’t I remember that she was converted under your ministry? Don’t I remember how you poured your love into him in his need? Don’t I remember the encouragement you gave to my servant at that time? Aren’t there at least these five things? And he will say, you know what I’m going to give you in the new earth?

I’m going to give you Washington DC, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and since you’d like to travel, I’ll give you London and Edinburgh. And if it’s possible to have tears in your eyes at that first sight of your Lord Jesus Christ, as you look back upon what seems to you to have been the frailty of your ministry, you’d say to him, Lord Jesus, I see the connection between these five and these five, but what did I ever do in my ministry to deserve this? And he will embrace you and say to you, my child, has it never really dawned on you that even my judgment is of grace?

And if it is possible to have a moment of regret, I think your regret and mine will be that we did not do more for such a gracious Savior, but we were not more prepared to suffer obliquely for the preaching of His name. We were too timid to warn sinners tenderly in Zion. And then he shall wipe away the tear from our eyes and say, well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord. Beloved, I can think of no greater motivation for preaching the truth as it is in Jesus.

Whatever the cost, when the prospect of that great day when we shall see him as he is, and he shall place upon our heads the crown in which those who have been plucked as brands from the burning will shine forever as jewels of glory. Oh, may God make us faithful ministers of the New Testament as we seek to live for his glory. And may we learn from our studies together in these hours that our great duty now is not to go back to our people on this coming Lord’s day and begin a new series of messages on eternal punishment.

Our great responsibility is to go back to our homes and our studies, our streets and our pews, and our fields and our bedrooms and say to the Lord, “Lord, I could give my people Jonathan Edwards. I could give my people Robert Murray M’Cheyne, but you’ve not sent Jonathan Edwards to my people or Robert Murray M’Cheyne. You’ve sent me. So put this truth first of all in me, and then let me put this truth into the hearts of my people, that they may be saved.” I charge you, as I charge myself, in the presence of God and of Jesus Christ who shall judge the living and the dead, preach this word in season and out of season.

is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.