Repentance and Faith: Preaching Tips from à Brakel
Charles Spurgeon once said "Soul-winning is the chief business of the Christian minister, indeed, it should be the main pursuit of every true believer." In 2 Timothy 4:5, the Apostle Paul exhorts Timothy to not only preach the Word, but to do the work of an evangelist in order to fulfill his ministry. Evangelism and soul-winning ought to occupy the mind and heart of every minister of the gospel.
It is clear from the works of Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635–1711) that he had a great concern for the salvation of the unconverted. Throughout his instruction in Christian doctrine and practice there are numerous sections where he seeks to exhort and persuade sinners to come to Christ for salvation. From this it is evident that à Brakel was more than just a theologian; he was a pastor with a heart for the lost. He no doubt preached as he wrote, pleading with and exhorting sinners of their need of Christ.
Overview of à Brakel's Ministry
à Brakel was a man who took the calling to the office of a minister of the Word very seriously. W. Fieret writes that he sharply condemned those ministers who performed their task only to gain honour and wealth.  à Brakel believed that there were five primary tasks of a minister: prayer, preaching, catechizing, visitation and the use of church discipline. When it came to preaching he believed that this was the means that God uses to translate souls from darkness to light and therefore that it was of great importance how a minister explains the Word of God.  In appealing to the unconverted in one of his sermons he says,
"O wretched condition - yes, thrice wretched men! Give ear, you who are spiritually dead; that is if you are able to hear. Do you not know that you are dead before God, and thus also in all your works? As long as you remain thus, death will be stamped upon all that you do." 
à Brakel was thus very direct with his warnings. But he never left the sinner without hope. He then called for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ with words like this, "do not despair, but rather look unto this living Jesus and listen to His Word. For when he called Lazarus, He also gave him the ability to hear. This Jesus is mighty to make you alive, for He is the resurrection and life itself."  à Brakel also had false professors of faith in mind and would regularly warn his congregation with examples of apostates from the Word such as Simon the Sorcerer and Judas Iscariot. He would then call for godly sorrow over sin and self-examination that the listener needs to engage in. 
à Brakel's view of the seriousness of ministry was governed by the reality of the coming judgment day. He knew that each minister of the Word would give an account before God as to how they watched over the church. He writes that the Lord will ask the minister, "How did you deal with souls? Are you to be blamed for any of them going lost? Did you tenderly give attention to my lambs and sucklings? Or did you unjustly grieve them, slay them, and take their veil away from them? Where are the souls which, by means of your service, have been converted, comforted and built up?" 
One can sense the holy fear that à Brakel himself had in thinking of the loss of one soul due to carelessness in ministry when he writes, "It will be a dreadful burden to hear the accusations of misled and neglected souls: 'You knew very well that I was ignorant and lived in sin. If you had looked after me, had warned and rebuked me, and instructed and directed me in the way of salvation, I would have been saved. Look however, you unfaithful minister, you unfaithful elder - I am now lost! Let God require my blood from your hand, and deal with you as a wicked and lazy servant." 
In considering à Brakel's view of ministry, the seriousness of the task given to him, it is not surprising to note how often and earnestly he warns sinners to repent and to trust in Christ.
Analysis of à Brakel's Method
à Brakel repeatedly exhorted his hearers to repent of their sin and trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. This is a matter of which the contemporary preacher should take note. There seems to be a serious decline in the use of the doctrine of repentance in today's preaching. à Brakel, in contrast, did not try to make people feel comfortable in the pew. While his writings offer tremendous comfort and encouragement to true believers, there is a tone of seriousness when he turns to exhorting the unconverted. à Brakel was a preacher who clearly believed in the necessity of preaching repentance from all parts of Scripture. We need to take note of this and examine current preaching styles and methods in light of the biblical and Christ-like method that à Brakel followed where sinners were called to repentance because the kingdom of God was at hand.
As one works through the works of à Brakel it becomes evident that he is concerned again and again to appeal to the unconverted to examine their lives in the light of God's coming judgment and turn to the Lord for saving grace. This is what the gospel preacher is called to do in reaching sinners - warn them on the one hand of the great dangers of sin and God's judgment and appeal to them on the other by the mercies of God found in Jesus Christ. There area number of important features about à Brakel's evangelistic appeals that we would do well to consider in our appeals to the unconverted.
1. Use of the doctrine of eternal judgment
Firstly, he often reminds his hearers of the impending judgment of God in an effort to stir up terror for the unconverted sinner who is outside the covenant of grace. He writes,
"There is no rest and safety for you in God; instead He is your enemy. God with His entire being, together with all creatures, is against you and will afflict you with all those terrors which cause a man to be wretched and in pain according to body and soul...Oh, how dreadful it will be for you to fall into the hands of the living God! Where will you hide yourself? Heaven above, hell beneath, your conscience within, and all creatures surrounding you will conspire to bring you into such a condition that your hair will stand up straight if you but consider it." 
He moves on to boldly state and argue the next few points with the cornered sinner: that the Lord Jesus is not his Saviour; that his faith is but the same as the devils who tremble before God and as such it will not save him; that he is cursed of God; that an eternity lies before them in hell where there will be no comfort where they will dwell without light and rest; where they will be filled without grace and hope and experience an inexpressible despair.
à Brakel's goal here is not to drive the sinner to hopeless despair, but rather to awaken them to see their need of salvation. This surely is one of the biggest challenges today within the church. There are many who have professed faith; made some or other shallow commitment to Christ but whose soul is still in terrible danger because they remain dead in their trespasses and sins.
It was this that concerned à Brakel as he drove home the utter misery that awaited such a spiritually dead sinner. But he does not leave the matter there. He goes on to urge the spiritually dead sinner not to leave the matter there, but to seriously consider all he has said so that the terror of the Lord would persuade them to believe. He notes "for God does use conviction and impressions of terror as a means unto conversion." 
2. Anticipating the thoughts and questions of his hearers
A second feature of à Brakel's evangelistic addresses would be to anticipate the thoughts and questions in his hearer's minds before answering them. For example, he raised the following questions which he proceeded to answer:
What must I do to be saved?
1 Am I able to? Is this in the realm of my ability?
2 What counsel do you have? Is there any hope for me at all?
3 Shall I then be converted and saved if I do all this?
He also anticipated the thoughts of the convicted sinner. He reasons with the convicted sinner in the first person:
"I am separated from and live in separation from God. I am not united to Him in Christ Jesus...It is my delight to yield to my lusts and to indulge in the commission of sin. I neither know God nor know of spiritual life with God. It does not appeal to me; I do not love it; it is not my objective..."
à Brakel aims here to get the unconverted person to be true to his own feelings. He wants the unsaved sinner to come to the conclusion that he is very definitely unconverted.  This reminds us of the need to help people to be truthful about themselves. Too many will sit in church spiritually dead and see no reason for conversion. It is the preacher's duty to help them come to see their wretched, desperate condition before he can make an appeal to them to seek Christ for salvation.
This reminds us of the need to be placing ourselves in the shoes of our hearers and seeking to answer any questions that might be going through their minds.
3. Openness of the gospel invitation
A third important feature to note is the openness of his invitations despite his strong Calvinistic views. He did not hesitate to appeal to every needy sinner to come to Christ. For example, he wrote the following, "Come, all whom I have named and also those to whom I have not alluded; come murderers; adulterers; fornicators; unjust persons, thieves, drunkards, you who revel in sin, gamblers, dancers, you criminals who have been given over to yourself, liars, backbiters, perjurers; come whomever you may be and whatever your circumstances may be; come to Jesus, believe in Him and you will be saved."  à Brakel's invitation was simple and clear. It was open to all. It invited the sinner of whatever form or shape to come to Jesus; to put his faith in Him for salvation.
4. Reasoning with the sinner
Fourthly, one notices how à Brakel makes use of various reasons to persuade the sinner to trust in Christ. In this he does not by pass the mind but appeals using a number of reasons.
For example, he appeals to the wretched condition the sinner finds himself in. He says, "Can anything be more dreadful than to be without God, to be confronted with God as an angry Judge, to be eternally outside of heaven, to have all that is desirable and sought after here to be hostile toward you, and hereafter to be forever condemned in the pool of fire?"
The doctrine of hell and eternal punishment feature too as one of his reasons to repent of sin and turn to Christ. Here he says, "If you still remain insensitive and continue in this way, there is no hope that you will escape eternal condemnation, and with sorrow we must observe that you are on your way to hell. You are at the very edge of hell..." 
He also draws the sinner's attention to the worth of Christ. This he does by magnifying the beauty and loveliness of Christ. Of Christ he says, "In Christ there is a fullness to meet all your needs and fulfil all your desires...In Him there is complete fullness: (1) to remove all your sins (2) to reconcile us with God (3) to deliver us from the eternal wrath of God and from condemnation (4) in Him there is fullness of Spirit (5) of light (6) of life (7) of peace (8) and of full salvation."  He emphasises the fact that all these blessings are to be found in Christ alone. He then points out the loveliness of the character of Christ by speaking of His omnipotence to save; His inexpressible goodness and kindness toward the soul that seeks Him and His faithfulness as Good Shepherd and High Priest. He thus concludes, "One may therefore entrust himself to Him, abide peacefully in Him as in a safe hiding place." 
One would think that he has said enough. Most preachers would think that they have fulfilled their responsibility in inviting the sinner to Christ. à Brakel, however does not end then. He continues to drive his appeal into the hearts of his hearers by emphasizing the great wickedness of not believing in Christ. He lists several consequences of them not believing, including (1) making God out to be a liar by implying that true life is not to be found in His Son; (2) despising Christ in His friendly invitation and by (3) despising all heavenly gifts that pertain to their salvation. Having done all this à Brakel informs them that they will be liable for the greatest of all punishments. 
We see thus the use of various reasons to persuade the sinner of the need to repent of sin and trust in Christ.
5. Removal of obstacles and impediments in coming to Christ
Fifthly, à Brakel considers certain impediments in the way of sinners coming to Christ. He deals with common problems such as ignorance; an unwilling spirit; fear; feeling too sinful; believing that ones broken heartedness is insufficient.  In this he is seeking to remove any obstacle that is preventing the sinner from trusting in Christ.
6. Use of self-examination
Sixthly, à Brakel makes much use of self-examination. This he does by calling his hearers to examine themselves as well as by asking them questions. For example, he writes,
"Examine yourself by this, for if these spiritual frames, motions and considerations are not to be found in your heart, and if the motives mentioned do not stir you up to refrain from evil and perform that which is good, you have not been regenerated. Your sanctification is not in truth but is counterfeit. Oh that God would grant you to be truly convinced of this and that it would result in your conversion." 
In his chapter on the fear of God, he asks various questions,
"Do you fear God? Is your focus on your walk of life upon the Lord? Does reverence for his majesty arise within when you think about Him, speak of Him or make mention of His name? Do you reverently bow before Him...?"
7. Use of imagery
Seventhly, à Brakel would also use vivid imagery to make his appeals to the unconverted. For example in writing on the resurrection from the dead, he said,
"Those eyes which you now misuse so greatly to stir up filthy lust, whereby you now display the wrath, pride and vanity of the heart, will behold with terror the Lord Jesus, the righteous judge and see light no more. Those ears, which are now ready to receive all vanities, curiosities, immoral language, foolishness and backbiting, will hear with terror the sentence of the Judge, 'Depart from Me, ye cursed,' and to all eternity your ears will be filled with the howling of those who are damned together with you...That mouth and tongue which you now misuse to curse, lie, backbite, say vain things, indulge, carouse, drink and fornicate, will then howl and scream, and in grief you will chew in that tongue...You who now despise the smell of the poor will be no more than a filthy stench. Those hands which now handle cards and dice, and which you now misuse in unrighteousness...will then wring in pain. Yes, all the members which you are now using as weapons of unrighteousness to serve the world and sin will eternally be in the flames." 
He concludes with an appeal: "May the terror of the Lord persuade you to believe." What à Brakel is doing is to inform his hearers that the very body which they are using in this life to indulge in the pleasures of sin will turn out to be an instrument of pain and torture after the resurrection. He is as he said, trying to persuade the unconverted to tremble at the thought and repent of their sins.
Thus à Brakel proves to be a pastor and preacher who has carefully thought about the plight of every sinner that may be seated in his congregation. He has considered their desperate plight; their need of Christ; the great sin that would be theirs of rejecting Christ and the obstacles that there may be in their way of coming to Christ for salvation. While he knows that salvation is all of God he believes that God has given the means of conversion which include the preaching of the Word. He therefore makes every effort to persuade the sinner to repent of sin and come to Christ. He uses the wretchedness of the state of the sinner; the terror of the Lord and the blessedness and glory of Christ. He strives to remove obstacles in the way of sinners coming to Christ, opening up the offer of the gospel to all. He urges his hearers to examine their hearts to see whether they are truly believers.
This essay is a call for preachers to examine the place of repentance in their preaching as well as the method they use in calling sinners to turn from their sin and trust in Christ. It is clear from à Brakel's works that he had a constant yearning to see people saved from their sin and God's eternal wrath. He thus used every measure humanly possible to persuade the sinner to repent of their sin. The impending judgment of God was woven together with earnest appeals for the sinner to examine their heart and come to Christ for salvation. He would anticipate the objections and questions of those to whom he preached in the hope to be able to answer them and remove impediments to them coming to Christ. He would make use of imagery to awaken the listener to the reality of hell and judgment. He would engage the hearers mind, heart and will through reasoning with them as to the reasonableness of leaving their sin and embracing Christ as Lord and Saviour. In this à Brakel serves as an example of a true gospel preacher who did not blush at directly confronting the sinner and calling them to repentance.
There is a vital need for a fresh working of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of God's Word in the church today. William Cooper speaking of the church in America wrote,
"For a great while, it has been a dead and barren time without fruit in all the churches of the reformation. The showers of blessing have been restrained. The influence of the Spirit stopped. The gospel has not had any famous success. Conversions have been rare and dubious. Few sons and daughters have been born to God." 
Far too many hearers in churches are entertained and made to feel happy when they are living in a state of unbelief and self-deception in which they assume they are right with God and going to heaven, when in reality the flames of hell are licking at their feet. It is hoped that from this essay, those called to preach the gospel, will be made aware of the need to persuade sinners to repent of their sin and turn to Christ for salvation that in all this God may be glorified.
Jonathan Holdt is the pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Pretoria, South Africa. He is married to Adele.
Reformed Preaching by Joel Beeke
Words to Winners of Souls by Horatius Bonar
"A Resolution for the Church" by Zachary Groff
"Defending Door-to-Door and Open Air Evangelism" by Al Baker
A Workman Not Ashamed: Essays in Honor of Albert N. Martin, ed. by David Charles and Rob Ventura
à Brakel, W., The Christians Reasonable service, Vol 1-4, Reformation Heritage Books, 2007.
Chantry, W., Today's Gospel Authentic or Synthetic?, Banner of Truth Trust, 1989
Davis, M, More than a Purpose, Pleasant Word, 2006
Lawson, S.J., Famine in the Land, Moody Publishers, 2003
MacArthur, J.F., The Gospel According to Jesus, Zondervan, 1988
Parrish, A.& Sproul, R.C., The Spirit of Revival, Crossway Books, 2000
Spurgeon, C.H., The Soul Winner, Christian Focus Publications, 1993
 Spurgeon, C.H., The Soul Winner, Christian Focus publications 1992:5
 à Brakel, Vol I, p xxxiv.
 à Brakel, Vol I, p xxxv
à Brakel, Vol I, p Xli
 Ibid, p xlii.
 Ibid, p xliv.
 Ibid, p. xxxix.
 Ibid, p xxxix
 Lawson, S.J., Famine in the Land, Moody Publishers, 2003:44
 Lawson, 2003:66-68
 Davis, M, 2006:66
 Chantry, W., 1989:50
 Ibid, 256
 Ibid, p. 257
 Ibid, p. 258
 à Brakel, Vol II:256
 à Brakel, Vol II: 297
 Ibid, p 298.
 à Brakel, Vol II:299
 Ibid, p. 300
 à Brakel, Vol II:302
 Ibid, p.303
 Ibid, p 336
 Ibid, p. 336
 Parrish, A & Sproul, R.C.,2000:43
Note: This article originally appeared on reformation21 in April 2011. Image by Vecteezy.