There is a trend I have been observing over the last ten years or so in our Reformed circles, and now I have been hearing various voices from “the pew” expressing concern in this particular area. That is of a call for members of Christ’s church to be more active or to become busier for the work of the church/gospel. The people who have spoken to me regarding this have been people who already are very busy serving Christ in the home and in the church. Sometimes they have been among the busiest church members, faithful for years in witnessing, serving, showing hospitality, personal devotions in the Word and prayer, etc. These exhortations to be “up and doing” have felt like the leadership is putting more pressure on those who are already faithful, while, as I have found to be “normal” in church life, the ones who almost never volunteer continue on as if these exhortations were “water off the duck’s back.” My concern is that this renewed emphasis on Christian activism is another avenue by which legalism, particularly legalism in one’s approach to sanctification and service, creeps back in, even in our circles where we preach sovereign grace. I would like to make a case for this being the wrong approach in our preaching. I would also like to recommend a better way to stir up God’s people to good works and love and hospitality and service.

I do not believe this approach, that of continually emphasizing the need for more hospitality ministry or more time spent in serving in the church, is effective in the long run. There are several problems with this approach. I would like to mention five.

First, it is the preaching of God’s grace in Jesus Christ that not only is used by the Holy Spirit to bring the elect to faith and so to justification in Christ alone, but it is also the motivating tool and source of power by which the Holy Spirit convicts believers to serve Christ and to serve one another. Preaching “do, do, do” does not work long term. Eventually those most sensitive to heeding pastoral exhortations will become worn out or will neglect their other duties at home or at work or, being driven by a sense of guilt, they will collapse under such a burden. Burn out, discouragement, dropping out, even bitterness, these are normal fruits of a legalistic approach to sanctification and service. Having come from a non-Reformed, middle-of-the-road evangelical background, I grew up seeing this. One of the original attractions for me to the historic Reformed faith was the holiness and loving service which I saw in churches that emphasized grace. Grace truly motivates and empowers. Any return to a legalistic “do more, do more” will eventually de-motivate and weaken. Every time. In Ephesians 2:8–10, “by grace . . . through faith” is what produces good works.

My second argument is that the quality of service, hospitality, growth in piety, etc., when grace alone is the motivation is one hundred percent different than the quality of the same when done out of a legalistic spirit. Grace, properly understood in the biblical gospel, will produce in me a greater love for God and for His people and even for the lost. I will want to witness to the lost, grow in my devotion to Jesus Christ, and show love to and serve my fellow believers. Though it will not always be easy or fun, yet it will be, increasingly, the desire of my heart to be pleasing to Him in these ways. When I do serve, it will flow from the heart and not just be a matter of checking off the items on the list or forcing myself to be “a good Christian” or “a good church member” by doing all this “stuff” the preacher tells me I ought to be doing. The source of my motivation and my power will make all the difference in how I go about growing in holiness, serving in the church, and witnessing to the unsaved around me.

My third argument flows from the second. Service to other Christians, witnessing to unbelievers, and growth in personal piety will see more positive fruit, as the normal rule, when it flows from a spirit of grace than it can from a spirit that smacks of legalism. My service to my fellow believers and my witness to unbelievers will be more “believable.” It will be seen as coming from a sincere love for the God of grace and for his people in Jesus Christ. When the Mormons and the Jehovah Witnesses came around to our door when I was a child, fulfilling their “duty” to earn their salvation (and both of these religions, when studied carefully, include such an attitude), it was totally unimpressive and even a “turn off.” However, I have been “witnessed to” by sincere believers who did not know that I was already a believer, and if (as it seemed) this flowed from their sense of wonder at the grace of Jesus Christ towards them, it was truly beautiful to see. I love it when this happens. I believe my response is not abnormal in this regard.

Fourth, the Bible speaks in both Old Testament and New regarding Christians finding “rest” in the New Covenant (e.g. Jer. 6:16 and Matt. 11:28–30). God’s people should not find their lives a heavier burden than they were before they found salvation in Jesus Christ. A “do, do, do” kind of preaching will produce a spirit of burden in the hearts of some of our most spiritually sensitive listeners. Along this line, I believe a close examination of our historic Reformed confessions and catechisms would tend in the direction of emphasizing grace, with our response to the gospel always flowing out of a reciprocal love on our part to God’s free love and acceptance of us in his Son, not from us preachers trying to put more and more pressure on our flocks to do more, do more, do more.

Fifth, are we trying to do the Holy Spirit’s work at this point? Yes, we should make applications that truly flow from the text we are expositing, but is it our job to actually coerce action? Are we even capable of convicting, transforming, and empowering? Are we not conveyers of the truth, as earnestly as we know how, but especially as we believe in the sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ? Do we not leave it to the God of grace to actually bring about necessary changes? Can we even see who is “doing all they can and should,” and who is being lazy? Perhaps there is one who does not seem to do much more than attend worship regularly and try to be a faithful spouse or parent or worker. If they have been given only “two talents” by the Master, they might be fulfilling all that He expects. Others may be poor stewards of their “ten talents,” but they do enough so that we are unable to read the heart and to know that they are not being fully faithful. “The last will be first, and the first last” (Matt. 20:16) might have many applications on judgment day.

What do I suggest? Preach every text faithfully. That is, when there is a command for Christians, make sure God’s people understand the command. When there is a promise, preach the promise. When there is a warning, preach the warning. But do not keep coming back to certain commands (be more hospitable, read your Bible more, serve in more ways in the church) time and time again, unless that command is truly in the text. Of course, every text, command or warning or promise or doctrine, is ultimately about Jesus Christ and his work for us. It is our wonder in his work that will motivate and empower us to work.

What about those who seem to just come and sit? Get to know them better as their pastor. Some you might find are doing more than even you as their pastor knows. I found this to be the case many times. It turned out they were busy in the kingdom but were very quiet and unobtrusive in how they served. Others can be appealed to on a person to person basis. In this way the faithful will not feel so overloaded from an overemphasis on “do, do, do” from the pulpit, and the unfaithful will be particularly and personally challenged in that area in which there is a lack.

We have such an incredible message in this gospel of grace. Let us not weaken our message and wear out ourselves and our faithful people by “do, do, do” kind of preaching. Let us be a joy and a cause of rest and refreshing to ourselves and our hearers. The result will be more lasting fruit, not less.

Appendix: Here is one more important reason to not preach a legalistic message of “do more, do more!” The above arguments I sought to base entirely on the nature of the gospel and how that plays out pastorally, as far as I could see during my forty-four years as a pastor. I would add this argument as an afterword: the need for Christians to take time for their other responsibilities, God-commanded responsibilities. If we keep making the faithful members busier and busier with church related activities, this can wear them out physically and emotionally or cause them to neglect taking the proper time and giving the proper attention to their families (spouses and children) and to their earthly callings. I grew up in a small city in the Midwest that had probably at least thirty evangelical churches. Very few of the preachers’ kids were believers. Of those I spoke with, the failure of their minister father to take any time for them was one of their most frequent complaints. Later, in college, several of my evangelical professors around the age of my father warned us who were studying for the ministry that we needed to make sure we took time for our families. Those who did seemed more likely to have believing and serving children. Taking time to love our spouses and to train and care for our children must never be deemphasized because of an overemphasis on staying busy in church activities every free moment. There must be a balance.

Allen C. Tomlinson is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and pastor emeritus of the First Church of Merrimack (OPC) in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, November, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: November 2023

The Martha Complex

Also in this issue

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Hearing God’s Word in the Modern World,[1] Chapter 8

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 9

The Elder, the Session, and Leadership: Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 9

A Tale of Two Exegetes: A Review Article

The Trinitarian Theology of Cornelius Van Til, by Lane G. Tipton: A Review Article

“Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun” from Cymbeline, Act IV

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