FEBRUARY 29, 2020
Preach Like Hell Lasts Forever
Why We Must Warn — Through Tears
Article by Sinclair Ferguson
Professor, Reformed Theological Seminary
Sometimes sitting beside a wall in our congregation’s building in Dundee, Scotland, I ask, in my imagination, if the wall could replay for me what it heard preached in past days. For here, one Sunday, probably in early 1843, the young minister, still in his twenties (and with but months left of his brief life) entered the pulpit having written these words in his journal the week before:
As I was walking in the fields, the thought came over me with almost overwhelming power, that every one of my flock must soon be in heaven or hell. Oh, how I wished that I had a tongue like thunder, that I might make all hear; or that I had a frame like iron, that I might visit every one, and say, “Escape for thy life!” Ah, sinners! You little know how I fear that you will lay the blame of your damnation at my door. (Memoirs and Remains of R. M. M ‘Cheyne, 1892, 148)
The same Robert Murray M’ Cheyne (our “founding pastor”; he died at the age of 29) met up with Andrew Bonar one Monday, and learning that his close friend had preached on the subject of hell, asked if he had preached it with tears.
These two comments model for us the necessity that is laid on those who preach the gospel (and give us all a vital reason to pray for them).
Preaching Both Heaven and Hell
There can be no doubt that the overarching and undergirding theme of M’Cheyne’s ministry was the sheer wonder of the love of the Lord Jesus Christ for lost sinners. But in his teens, he realized that the gospel only produces a full sense of that wonder when we have learned why it is so necessary and are conscious of the terrible realities from which Christ came to save us. A sense of the awful nature of hell and the ineffable wonder of the love of Jesus go hand in hand in the gospel message — in the preaching of it, and in the preacher himself.
By nature, we resist the stretching of mind and emotions that this involves. Preachers tend to be emotionally “wired” to one or the other emphasis — strong and bold in preaching hell but weaker in exalting the love of Christ, or favoring the love of Christ but diluting it by minimizing the reality of the hell. And sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that true biblical balance is found “somewhere in the middle.” In Scripture, however, the true balance is found by the stretching of our understanding and affections in both directions.
On the one hand — like the slow-thinking medieval pupil Boso, a millennium later — we need to hear the echo of the words of his monk-master, Anselm: “You have not yet considered the greatness of the weight of sin.” But on the other hand, we should never make the mistake of under-contemplating Anselm’s main theme: Cur Deus Homo — who it was, how it was, and why it was, that the Son of God entered the darkness of the womb of the virgin Mary and died for us in the darkness of the cross of Calvary.
Preaching from the Judgment Seat
How are we to nurture this “balance” in the ministry of the word? First and foremost, we need to hear our Lord and his apostles addressing us in the Scriptures.
We must contemplate the fact that we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10), and in that light see the wonder of the reconciliation and new creation that are ours in him (2 Corinthians 5:17–21). This is what produces in us “the fear of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:11) that will open our mouths with gracious boldness to “persuade” our hearers (2 Corinthians 5:11), to appeal to them to “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20), and to show them why and how this wonder has been made possible by Christ becoming sin for us (22 Corinthians 5:21).
Contemplating the judgment seat of Christ sobers our hearts. Then we discover, with John Owen, that the sermons that go with most power from us will be those that have come with most power to us. There is no substitute for visiting the scene of the Last Assize and meditating on the judgment that will take place there. It will assess the reality of our lives (“according to truth,” Romans 2:2) in a way that is righteous (Romans 2:5), individual (Romans 2:6), altogether without favouritism (Romans 2:11), and permanent (Romans 2:12).
Death Without Death
Then, further meditation on the implications of our Lord’s teaching (and the apostles’ outworking of it according to Matthew 28:19–20) will engage us in yet deeper soul-diagnosis and consequent surgery. We will find ourselves mentally and emotionally undeceived. For the result of judgement for those who have not believed is set before us in stark, emotion-laden descriptions.
The unbeliever will experience separation from God — being sent “outside” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:29) and “away from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). It is a fire that burns eternally (Matt. 25:42; Jude 7) that is also an “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12), where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 22:13). It involves dissolution (“destruction,” Matthew 7:13; 10:28; Romans 9:22; Philippians 3:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:2). Dante caught the despair of this in The Divine Comedy in the words he has inscribed over the entrance to hell: “All hope abandon ye who enter here.” Perhaps most sobering of all, it is everlasting (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9).
No wonder the Puritan Thomas Brooks cried out,
Oh, but this word eternity, eternity, eternity; this word everlasting, everlasting, everlasting; this word for ever, for ever, for ever, will even break the hearts of the damned in ten thousand pieces! Oh, that word never, said a poor despairing creature on his death-bed, breaks my heart. . . . Impenitent sinners in hell shall have end without end, death without death, night without day, mourning without mirth, sorrow without solace, and bondage without liberty. The damned shall live as long in hell as God himself shall live in heaven. (Works of Thomas Brooks, 5:130)
Some readers will recall how, from around 1988 into the early 1990s, the late John R.W. Stott was “jumped on” when his long-held openness to annihilationism became more public knowledge. With respect to everlasting punishment, he wrote, “Emotionally, I find the concept intolerable” (Evangelical Essentials, 314).
Even if we do not share his exegesis and the theology to which it gave rise, should we not share his emotions? For the biblical doctrine of hell strips us emotionally bare. Is it perhaps true that the reason for the metallic nature of some preaching on hell has lain precisely here: we have not felt its sheer unbearableness. Can the sense of edge, or coldness, or the compassionless, even angry-voiced way we preach on it be an indication not of our sense of its reality, but rather that its truth has never broken our hearts? Has listening to such preaching been accompanied in your case, as in mine, by the painful thought that we ourselves may also sound like that?
“Emotionally . . . intolerable”? This is not necessarily unbelief. Indeed, if we have not ourselves felt this, would we not too have been asleep on the outskirts of the Garden of Gethsemane? For the New Testament gives us some indication that the one of whom Luther wrote, “No man feared death like this man,” found the hell he faced there “emotionally intolerable.”
‘My God, My God’
The Evangelists’ descriptions suggest what Luther says about Christ. Luke tells us that it was after and not before the angel strengthened him that “being in an agony he prayed more earnestly and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling on the ground” (Luke 22:43–44).
Perhaps even more telling is the raw language used by Mark: Jesus “began to be greatly distressed and troubled” and “very sorrowful” (Mark 14:33–34). The verb translated “to be . . . troubled” (adēmonein) is used in the New Testament only here (and the parallel passage in Matthew 26:37) and in Philippians 2:26. As J.B. Lightfoot (a scholar not given to flights of exegetical fancy) notes, it “describes the confused, restless, half-distracted state, which is produced by physical derangement, or by mental distress, as grief, shame, disappointment” (Philippians, 123).
Jesus prayed that the cup his Father was giving him might be removed. His prayer was heard — his prayers were always heard (John 11:42) — but it was refused. For there was no other way (a truth that needs to be pressed firmly on the minds, consciences, and wills of all those who believe they can find another way of salvation, when God the Father could “find” only one).
Jesus prayed “with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). It is not an exaggeration, surely, to say that Jesus found his being made sin, tasting death, undergoing divine wrath and experiencing hell in his own separation from God to be “emotionally intolerable.” It undid him in the presence of his Father and the holy angels, and eventually wrung from his soul — by that time tasting “the darkness outside” — these impenetrable words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Backdrop and Framework
“But,” you may say, “this is just the gospel.” Exactly! At the heart of the gospel lie heaven and hell. It is the gospel of the One who tasted hell to bring us to heaven. Any lesser emphases make for a lesser gospel. But this gospel is the gospel of “God’s kindness” which is “meant to lead to repentance” (Romans 2:4 — how striking this statement is precisely because it is embedded in an entire chapter on divine judgment and its consequences!).
But this is also the gospel of the preacher (like Paul) whose mind and emotions are stretched. On the one hand, he sheds tears of grief over the consequences of the greatness of the weight of sin in his hearers’ hearts and the destiny to which that will condemn them; and on the other hand, he feels tears of joy at the greatness of the salvation which he offers to sinners in Jesus Christ.
In the nature of the case, hell and heaven are not the explicit themes of every sermon. But if they are not in the foreground, they should always be the backcloth to our preparation, and the framework within which we view our hearers whenever we are preaching.
So, I need to go to my Bible in the presence of God and meditate until this dawns on my mind, my affections, my will, and then emerges on my lips and my preaching. Only then, even if the words “heaven” and “hell” are not mentioned when I preach, it will become clear to my hearers that the ministry of God’s word is of eternal significance for them — and also for me.
The Most Important Task on Earth
By way of conclusion, two comments made to me about preaching come to mind.
The first, some words of William Still of Aberdeen in Scotland. I cannot forget what I felt when he told me, still a young student, “I never preach now without believing that something will happen that will last for all eternity.” That is the faith of the psalmist and of the apostle: “‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe and so we also speak . . . all for your sake” (2 Corinthians 4:13–15). Who would not want to exercise such a ministry?
Second, some words of a friend, a scientist through whose devoted research people certain otherwise to die within a few weeks were enabled to enjoy prolonged life. Having watched a moving documentary on the result of her work, I said to her how gratifying it must be to see her life’s work making such an amazing impact. She responded very simply, “Sinclair, what I do isn’t really all that important.” And then, with a slight movement of her professorial finger, added, “But what you do. That is really important.”
Words worth weighing. For we are charged with the most important task on earth: pointing men, women, young people, boys and girls to the only Way, to the One who alone can enable them to escape from the City of Destruction and arrive at the Celestial City.
Sinclair Ferguson is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.