One of the great tangles created by revivalism, and by the reaction to it, is a misunderstanding of what it is to preach for true conversion. In the tradition of revivalism, evangelistic preaching is a basic recruiting tool used to get people saved, then later a different set of classes is offered for those who enlisted, if they ever should decide that they want to learn something. In reaction to this, many sacramental churches have downplayed the need for conversion preaching at all. “Of course I am a Christian,” the thinking goes. “Why else would I have been sitting in this pew, watching that guy in a robe, at least I’m pretty sure it’s a guy, for thirty years?”
But in truth, an effective preacher always preaches for conversion, regardless to whom he is preaching. This is because an effective preacher always preaches Christ, and in a fallen world, there is not a hearer of sermons out there who does not need to turn to Christ in some respect, in some way, every day of his life. Converto is the Latin verb meaning I turn. When a man first becomes a Christian, there is a fundamental turning, of course. He turns “from idols, to serve the living God.” This is initial conversion; this is regeneration. But is the need to turn to Christ abolished after that? Is the need to call men and women to come to Christ gone?
It is a mistake to preach conversion to everybody in a Christian congregation as though they had not turned to Christ in this fundamental way. And it is just as big of a mistake to preach sermons that pat the backs of the hands of lackluster Christians, sermons that neglect the need to be converted to Christ, constantly. In his famous 95 Theses, Martin Luther pointed out that when the Word says to repent, it meant a lifelong repentance that was in view. We never get to check the box next to “turned to Christ” and say, “I did that. What’s next?” We always must turn to Christ, and the people of God must always be summoned to do so.
The preacher must understand that humanity is divided into two great classes, the converted and the unconverted, the sheep and the goats, the wheat and the tares. True enough, one of these groups has not come to Christ at all, and the other has. But suppose a man is preaching to a congregation where they all have turned to Christ in this fundamental way. How does he preach for conversion now?
Jesus is not an X on the floor where you can come and stand, and, if you have come to stand there, there is nothing further to do. No—we used to know Christ after the flesh, but we do so no longer. Further up and further in.
To preach Christ is to preach the One to whom we have come. If Christ is preached in power, then a congregation of saints who have loved Him for thirty years will delight in the message, and respond. They will grow and flourish under this kind of conversion preaching. But if you just assume that nobody there has ever really been converted, and you explain to them how to “become Christians,” then the sermons are just so much vain jangling. It makes no sense to gather a bunch of Christians together and explain to them that they aren’t, after all, Christians. There is a type of Reformed “preaching” which specializes in kicking God’s elect all over the sanctuary, smiting them hip and thigh. If you want proof of the election of these suffering saints, and of their persevering grace, here it is. No one but the elect would persevere through such bad preaching and press into the Kingdom. The apostle did say that we would enter the Kingdom through much tribulation, but I don’t believe that he was referring to the sermons.
There is a way of discovering Christ that is utterly distinct from what it was to discover Him for the first time. There is a way of growing in Him that is conversion to Him. “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you…” (Gal. 4:19). The Bible describes our justification as Christ, and it describes our sanctification as Christ. It further describes our glorification as Christ as well. “But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not. For I am in a straight betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” (Phil. 1:21-23).
To live is Christ, to depart is more Christ. To be justified is Christ, to be sanctified is Christ. Growing in wisdom is growing in Christ. Flourishing in our redemption is Christ. So then, the preacher must always preach Christ.
As he does so, he will be issuing a clarion call for conversion. This conversion will be a glory and a joy to those already converted, and it will be the power of God unto salvation for those who are not yet converted