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Hywel Jones: Preaching Justification by Faith Alone ‘to the Conscience’

28 May, 2008

Excerpted from Hywel Jones, “Preaching Sola Fide Better,” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, ed. R. Scott Clark (P&R, 2007).

What is involved in preaching sola fide “to the conscience”? Authentic preaching is never a direct assault on the emotions or the will without a prior address to the understanding. It contains teaching but it cannot be identified with it. Without teaching, preaching becomes a harangue, but preaching cannot be equated with the presentation of true statements…which all too often are couched in general terms. Preaching goes one step beyond all that — a vital step. It goes closer to each individual and also deeper. It digs through the walls of sinners’ hearts (Ezek 8:8), carrying the truth beyond the mind to the door of the sinner’s conscience, knocking repeatedly there until the whole house (heart) is wakened. It it therefore to the conscience — that critical faculty that alarms the mind (understanding) by means of exposing the disposition and censuring the conduct — that the message of sola fide is to be strongly addressed. Such preaching is not congenial to any sinner whose innate and idolatrous tendency to self-righteousness has not been illumined or undermined — especially the righteous….

So what is involved in “alarming the conscience”? It is an attempt to bring a sinner into the last judgment ahead of time, issuing a summons to him that he is to appear at the bar of God. The pew becomes the dock, and the pulpit the judge’s seat. He is read God’s rights — his just demands and threats. The charge of being a transgressor is read; evidence is presented of infringements of the law. He is called to face and answer the charge, but warned that to try and conduct his own defense against the Almighty by way of excuse or mitigation, let alone denial, will but increase the heinousness of his transgression. He is declared to be guilty before God, sentenced to an unbearable and unending punishment in hell, and that most justly.

How can a frail preacher do that? Can it be done? Yes it can, but not by human power or eloquence. It can be done only by the discriminating use of the law and dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit who alone can “reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8 AV). The law has been given specifically for this purpose. By it, a sinner who thinks he is alive before God (Rom 7:9) is enabled to identify sin for what it is, experience its unmanageable power as he seeks to deal with it by himself, and feel death at work within him. This results from the striking description of the “coming” of the commandment to him. This is not the same as being able to quote the commandment or knowing where to find it in Scripture. It is the result of its reverberating in his conscience and his being unable to silence it. It is the Spirit bringing the given, written Word and using it as a sharp, two-edged sword — and being pleased to do so through frail preaching.

All this is to be pursued as the way to conscience being pacified — before God, through Jesus Christ. When people know what it is to be a “wretched man,” they will have had enough of themselves and want to hear only of a “blessed man” who kept the law for sinners and yet bore their curse. They are all to be told that there is nothing left for them to do as a condition of obtaining peace with God and heaven and nothing left for them to fear, though they have sinned (and still will, perish the thought). Jesus has done it all and borne it all. Coming to God as they are by way of trusting in Jesus as he is, God will gladly accept them; he will cancel the sentence, imputing Christ’s righteousness to their account in the ledgers of heaven and freely pardoning them all their sins against him.

In the light of all this, better preacing of sola fide will not focus on Jesus to the exclusion of God, on his love to the neglect of wrath, on forgiveness to the neglect of righteousness, on assent and decision to the exclusion of trust. It will differentiate between sin and sins and between regret and repentance; it will seek to abase man and exalt God and to present the Lord Jesus Christ in all his mediatorial glory. It will do this by a firm and searching use of the moral law of God as expressed in the Ten Commandments and a winsome description of the life and death of Jesus that fulfilled them. It will focus on the divine transaction completed on Calvary between the Son and the Father and not on a human decision, on a canceled law and not on a filled-in card. Justification by faith cannot be preached at all where texts are used without any doctrinal explanation and where the message is grounded on felt needs rather than on the need that needs to be felt. And it will exult in speaking of faith without works of any kind, whether those done before by way of preparation to receive Christ or those done after by way of gratitude, as if they were part of the basis on which defiled and condemned sinners are accepted by God unreservedly, not put on probation but installed in his favor.

This kind of preaching need no defense when it is the unbelieving world that is being addressed. To fail to engage in it there for fear of giving offense and merely to focus on psychological frailty and social alienation (real though these felt needs are) is a dereliction of sacred duty, and it is also the greatest unkindness conceivable.

But what about such preaching in the church? Can it be done there — and with conscience before God and men? Yes, it can — and, what is more, it should be done and often. Here perhaps is the real reason why sola fide has not been given its due prominence…. Given the existence of a church as the covenant people of God, an appreciative understanding of sola fide can almost be taken for granted. Every preacher should beware of thinking like this because God is said to have “evangelized” Abraham with the message (Gal 3:8 ) — and, judging from the Genesis record, to have done so more than once.’

  1. 28 May, 2008 5:27 pm

    best preacher in the world!!

  2. Jun Ang permalink
    28 June, 2008 11:35 pm

    heard him for the first time and twice at that at the IBCD summer institute. He’s really something. By the way, very humble man of God, i might add.

  3. 29 June, 2008 9:43 am

    Yeah, he’s a real blessing. We listen to him at night pretty often.


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