Pastoral Malpractice

The extent of the problem is entirely missed by “grace only” preaching. Hypocrites, “false professors”, as the Puritans called them, and the self-deceived, all professing believers, all members of the visible church, have to be taken into account as the church’s preaching even as they are in the Apostles’ epistles.

“Cheap grace” is the term that Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined to describe false grace, which he perceived in the persistent promise of grace wrongly extended by the church to those who had forfeited a claim to it. Like who? Like those professing believers who by false doctrines or bad behavior could no longer make a credible claim to genuine faith.

When I first came to Reformed convictions this concept was a lifeline for me, adrift in Arminian evangelism, surrounded by countless professing Christians who’d walk the aisle, signed a card, and prayed a prayer, and now they were sure they were saved, though they lived like the devil’s own. The Reformed insistence on linking sanctification with justification answered the problem of cheap grace and “easy believism.” The justified will be sanctified. Those not being sanctified have not been justified.

It is so clear. How is it that Reformed people have gotten confused on so basic an issue? Or perhaps more accurately, why is it that in some circles there is desperate concern to correct the legalism of fundamentalism yet little concern to correct its even more pervasive anti-nomianism? For the church continually to preach grace and more grace in the face of heretical doctrines or runaway immorality among its members is to turn grace into a license for sin and proclaim a false gospel. (Gal.5:13; Jude 4; 1 Pt. 2:16)

We have discussed the tension in the New Testament between the need on the one hand to assure genuine believers of their safety in Christ and on the other hand to warn professing but counterfeit believers of their danger. The tension is complicated by the fact that it is often difficult to distinguish between true and false believers and further complicated because the latter may even think they are genuine when in fact they are self-deceived.

It may help to elaborate further on these categories of church members. What is meant to be the effect of biblical preaching upon professing believers? A proverbial answer is “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. The details might look like this:

1. Assure the faithful
2. Strengthen the weak
3. Caution the complacent
4. Warn the disobedient
5. Threaten the defiant

These five categories of professing believers (particularly our current concern, categories 3-5) are given an abundance of space in the New Testament. The Apostles, as we have seen, give them considerable attention.

Take Sarah Bloggs, Joe’s wife. Sarah was saved as a teenager. Yet she is the town’s biggest gossip. Her tongue is the world of inequity and set on fire by hell (see James 3:3 ff). She is cruel, even vicious, though also witty with her tongue. Should she be unsettled by biblical preaching? Shouldn’t it provoke some self-evaluation? Might it prove salutary for her to hear words of caution, warnings, and even threats?
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