What Happens to the Church When Preachers No Longer Preach Against Sin

David Wilkerson (1931-2011)

You’re probably familiar with the story of King David and his adulterous, one-time affair with Bathsheba. The incident resulted in Bathsheba’s pregnancy. And as soon as she discovered her condition, she sent a note to David, saying, “I’m with child.”

When David read the note, he panicked. His reputation as a godly, upright man was in jeopardy. Here was a man who had written more than 3,000 Psalms and spiritual songs. He had been God’s instrument in slaying Israel’s enemies. And he’d illustrated to the world what it meant to have a great heart for God.

Yet now, in his panicked state, David thought not only of his own reputation, but of the Lord’s. If his sin were exposed, it would be connected to God’s name. Visions of a huge scandal flooded his mind. So David conceived a plan to cover up his affair with Bathsheba. And he set it into motion by sending a message to Joab, the general of his army. The message said, “Send me Uriah the Hittite” (2 Samuel 11:6).

Now, Uriah was Bathsheba’s husband, and was an infantryman in Israel’s army. Evidently, Uriah was part of an elite detachment of soldiers, because Scripture lists him as one of David’s thirty-seven strongest men (see 23:39). When Joab received David’s message, he must have been suspicious. He knew David’s heart, including his lustful tendencies. Nevertheless, the general instructed Uriah to go to Jerusalem, to find out what David had to say.

When Uriah arrived, David received him at his royal residence and immediately engaged him in military conversation. He asked, “How is the war going? And how is your general doing? Are your fellow warriors getting along?” Uriah had to wonder, “What’s this all about? I’m just an infantryman. I haven’t done anything to merit this kind of attention.” Or, he also might have been suspicious. He could have heard gossip about the affair (although Scripture doesn’t state whether this was public knowledge).

The truth is, Uriah was being set up by David. The king thought his problem would be solved if he could just get Uriah into Bathsheba’s bed for a night. Then Uriah would think he had caused his wife’s pregnancy. David said to him, “You’ve fought a long battle, and you must be weary. Why don’t you go home and rest tonight? I’ll send over some special food for you to enjoy.” But when Uriah left, he didn’t go home. Instead, he slept in the guardhouse outside the palace. When David learned about it the next day, he called Uriah back in and asked, “Why didn’t you go to your wife last night?”

Uriah replied, “My lord Joab, and the servants of my lord, are encamped in the open fields; shall I then go into mine house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As thou livest, and as thy soul liveth, I will not do this thing” (2 Samuel 11:11). Uriah could think only of his fellow soldiers. His loyalty must have heaped hot coals on David’s head.

Now the king’s panic grew. He quickly ordered Uriah to stay in Jerusalem one more night. Then he set into motion another plan. That evening, he would invite Uriah to his table for dinner, ply him with lots of wine and get him drunk. If Uriah’s wits left him, he would forget about his fellow soldiers and want to sleep with his wife.

Can you imagine this godly king, a preacher of righteousness, trying to get one of his faithful soldiers drunk? That’s exactly what David did. And the plan worked: Uriah did get drunk. David instructed the palace guards, “Take this man home and carry him to his bed.” But again, Scripture says, “At even (Uriah) went out to lie on his bed with the servants of his lord, but went not down to his house” (11:13).

At this point, David’s panic grew beyond control. He knew he had to take drastic action. So he wrote a letter to Joab, commanding him to put Uriah on the front line of the hottest battle. Then, when the enemy surged, Joab was to pull back all his troops except Uriah. In short, David wanted Uriah killed.

David handed the sealed letter to Uriah, with instructions to give it to Joab. The loyal Uriah didn’t know it, but his commander-in-chief had just handed him his own death warrant. When Joab read the letter, he saw through David’s scheme. Yet he obeyed the king’s order anyway. He sent Uriah on a suicide mission. And, just as David had planned, the soldier was killed in battle.

It’s hard to conceive that a godly, righteous man like David could fall into such awful sin. Even today, with all the news reports of rape, violence and murder, David’s story stands out as one of the worst falls any leader has ever taken. Why? It happened to a man of God, someone who was passionate for righteousness.

You probably remember what happened next: Bathsheba mourned her husband’s death for seven days, according to the law. Then David brought her into the palace, where she joined his harem of wives (he already had five). Eventually, Bathsheba gave birth to David’s baby. And for an entire year after the murder, David showed no sign of repentance for his acts. In fact, he justified Uriah’s death to Joab, saying Uriah had died by the fortunes of war: “The sword devoureth one as well as another” (11:25).

David may have taken his sin lightly, but God didn’t. Scripture says, “The thing that David had done displeased the Lord” (11:27).

Nathan the prophet was David’s pastor. And he wasn’t afraid to expose the sin of his flock, including the king’s own sin. I see Nathan as a type of godly shepherd who weeps over the sin in his congregation. It must have grieved him deeply that David, a man whom everyone looked to as godly and righteous, was covering up sin.

Nathan knew all that David had done, because the Holy Spirit had revealed it to him. The supposedly righteous king had broken three holy commandments: He’d coveted another man’s wife and stolen her from him. He’d committed adultery with her. And he’d committed murder to cover it all up. How did Nathan handle the situation? How did this preacher of holiness reprove someone who was covering a horrible sin?

Many young ministers have asked me similar questions: “How can I deal with sin in my congregation? So many couples are divorcing, and others are living in adultery. I know I have a responsibility to preach God’s holiness to them. But I don’t want to drive anyone out of the church, either.”

My answer to these young preachers is always the same: “Your congregation will listen to anything you have to say, if you say it through tears. You can’t beat them over the head with your message. They have to know your heart is broken. Try to bring them to repentance by preaching God’s grace. Yes, his Word is a two-edged sword. But you have to wield it wearing velvet gloves.”

Of course, this isn’t the attitude of every preacher. I regularly receive letters from Christians who say, “You have to hear Reverend So-and-so preach. He comes down hard on sin.” Yet, much of the time, these preachers’ sermon tapes are nothing but angry tirades against outward things. Their messages rarely include God’s mercy or grace. Instead, they lay heavy burdens on their sheep, yet never lift a finger to relieve them.

I believe Nathan provides us with a wonderful example of how a godly minister exposes sin. He didn’t storm into David’s presence, his arms flailing and voice thundering. He didn’t gleefully point a bony finger in David’s face and cry, “You’re the guilty one!” No, he delivered God’s awesome, sin-revealing message with great wisdom, persuasive power and tender mercy. And he used a parable to do it.

Nathan told David: “A poor man had only one little lamb. It was the household pet, and was loved just like a member of the family. This lamb would lie in everyone’s lap, wanting to be petted. So the man raised it and fed it just as he would one of his children. Now, the poor man had a wealthy neighbor who owned many herds. One day, the wealthy man was entertaining a visitor. When dinnertime came, he sent his servant out to slay a lamb. Yet he told the servant not to take a lamb from his own vast herds, but instead to steal his neighbor’s lamb, then kill it, dress it and serve it to the visitor.”

When David heard this, he went ballistic. He told Nathan, “That wealthy man is as good as dead!” “As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity” (2 Samuel 12:5–6).

At this point, Nathan must have had tears in his eyes. Trembling, he said to David, “Thou art the man…thou hast despised the commandment of the Lord…thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife” (12:7, 9).

Nathan was saying, “David, don’t you understand? I’m telling your story. You had five wives, yet you stole the only wife of another man. You had no pity on him. You sent him out to battle to be killed, so you could have his lamb. You’ve become an adulterer, a murderer, a thief. You’ve taken God’s Word lightly.” Nathan exposed every detail of David’s sin. But he didn’t do it in a fury. Rather, he simply spoke to the king: “Nathan said to David” (12:7, emphasis mine).

That’s the moment it all hit David, and he broke. As we read David’s writings from this time, we see the cry of a broken heart: “My bones are weak. I can’t sleep. Every night I cover my pillow with tears.” The Holy Spirit had been hounding David, speaking to his heart, urging him to repent. He couldn’t escape God’s merciful hounding.

After studying this passage at length, I began to cry out to God: “Oh, Lord, will you be as merciful to me as you were to David? Will you send me a powerful, sin-exposing word, as you sent to him? Please, God, if I ever slip into compromise, put me under the godly reproof of a prophet who isn’t afraid to expose sin.”

I believe one of God’s greatest gifts of mercy to his church is his faithful ministers, who lovingly reprove us of our sins. I thank God for such “Nathan preachers,” people who aren’t afraid to offend elders, deacons or wealthy church members. They stand face to face with anyone, to expose their iniquities in tenderness and love.

Of course, not everyone wants such reproof. Some on our mailing list have written: “I don’t like opening your letters. Reading them always makes me feel uncomfortable. They’re too unnerving.” “I can’t serve a God like yours, who’s always poking around in my soul to expose things.” “You need to soften your messages. I can’t handle them.”

I know that as a loving shepherd, I have to be careful of my tone. But I can’t apologize for preaching convicting truth. I ask you, what happens to the church when pastors no longer show people their iniquities? Where would David have ended up, if he hadn’t had Nathan to show him his wickedness?

You have to understand, Nathan was well aware that the powerful king could have slain him at any time. He’d seen David fly off the handle many times. So, why didn’t Nathan say, “I’ll just be a friend to David. I’ll pray for him and be there when he needs me. I have to trust the Holy Spirit to convict him.” What would have happened?

The worst possible judgment is for God to turn you over to your sin, to stop all of the Holy Spirit’s dealings in your life. Yet, that’s exactly what is happening to many Christians today. They choose to listen only to soft, flesh-assuring preaching. Where there is no convicting Word, there can be no godly sorrow over sin. And where there is no godly sorrow for sin, there can be no repentance. And where there is no repentance, there is only hardness of heart.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church: “I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner…for godly sorrow worketh repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:9–10). Paul said his outcry against the Corinthians’ sin produced a godly sorrow in them that led to repentance. In turn, that produced in them a hatred for sin, a holy fear of God and a desire to live upright. Yet this never would have happened if he hadn’t preached a sharp, piercing, convicting word.

The reason Paul spoke so strongly to the Corinthians was, “That our care for you in the sight of God might appear unto you” (7:12). In other words: “I wasn’t trying to unnerve you or condemn you. I exposed your sin so you’d see how much I love and care for you. When the Holy Ghost knocks on your heart, sometimes it sounds like harsh pounding. But it’s actually God showing you his tender love.”

Without such a word, David surely would have fallen under terrible judgment. He had already spent a whole year going about his business, without ever facing what he’d done. He didn’t hear any words of rebuke or correction. So with each passing day, his sin became easier to put out of his mind. Moreover, his army was still winning decisive victories. On the surface, everything seemed to be going well for him. Yet I’m sure David had trouble sleeping at night. He probably woke up each day with a dark cloud hanging over him. The fact is, nobody who’s intimate with the Lord can remain comfortable while living in sin.

Let me give you an example: I counseled a dear Christian brother whom I suspected was having an affair. When I asked him about it, he denied it vehemently. Then, a month later, he asked to see me late one night. When I met with him, he was weeping and broken. He confessed, “Pastor, I’ve been living in hell for weeks. I’ve lied to you and to God. I’ve been living in adultery. I’ve replayed every message from the pulpit, every word of warning. And I couldn’t silence God’s Word.” The Holy Spirit continually reminded this man of all the sin-exposing preaching he’d heard. And he was brought to repentance by his remembrance of that preached Word.

Now let me give you a different example. A sister in Christ wrote to me, “Brother David, I’ve been married to my husband for twenty years. I love him, but now I’m probably going to have to leave him, even though I don’t want to. I couldn’t figure out why this man of God, who goes to church with me regularly, would begin to deteriorate so much in character. He became dishonest with me, and a wall grew between us. Soon he became a stranger to our whole family. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I prayed and did everything I could to try to understand why he was coming apart. Then I discovered why: he’d been hooked on pornography ever since we were married, and for some time before that. He still claims to be a Christian and goes to church with me. But he refuses to give it up.”

This man is about to lose his family and home. He claims to be born again and on his way to heaven. Do you think he needs a pat on the back and a word of assurance? Does he need to hear some preacher say, “You’re okay, Jesus loves you”? No, never! He needs a Nathan, someone who’ll tell him, “You’re the guilty man!” He needs to be awakened, to have the fire of the Holy Ghost lit underneath him. Otherwise, he’ll be turned over to his sin, and eventually he’ll be destroyed.

As David listened to Nathan’s loving but searing word, he remembered the time a previous king had been warned by a prophet. David had heard all about Samuel’s warning to King Saul. And he’d heard about Saul’s halfhearted response, confessing, “I have sinned.” (I don’t believe Saul cried from his soul, as David did, “I have sinned against the Lord!”)

David saw firsthand the ruinous changes that befell Saul. The once godly, Spirit-led king continually rejected the Spirit’s reproving words, delivered by a holy prophet. Soon Saul began to walk in self-will, bitterness and rebellion. Finally, the Holy Ghost departed from him: “Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee from being king” (1 Samuel 15:23). “The Lord…departed from Saul” (18:12). Saul ended up turning to a witch for guidance. He confessed to her, “God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams: therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do” (28:15).

David remembered all the madness, ugliness and terror surrounding this man who had shut out God’s word. Suddenly, the truth pierced his own heart: “God is no respecter of persons. I have sinned, as Saul did. And now here’s another prophet, in another time, giving me God’s Word, as Samuel gave it to Saul. Oh, Lord, I’ve sinned against you! Please don’t take your Holy Spirit from me, as you did from Saul.”

David wrote, “I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight… Purge me… Create in me a clean heart… Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51:3–11).

One commentator suggests that in spite of David’s repentance, he never recovered from his fall. He points out that the Bible says little about any victories by David after this time. Rather, he suggests, David merely faded into the background until he died.

It’s true that David paid severe consequences for his sin. In fact, he prophesied judgment upon himself: He told Nathan that the rich man who stole the poor man’s lamb should restore it fourfold. And that’s just what happened in David’s life: The baby that Bathsheba gave birth to died within days. And three of David’s other sons — Ammon, Absalom and Adonijah — all had tragic, untimely deaths. So, David did pay for his sin, with four of his own lambs.

Yet the Bible clearly shows that whenever we return to the Lord in genuine, heartfelt repentance, God responds by bringing absolute reconciliation and restoration. We do not have to end up like Saul, descending into madness and terror. Nor do we have to “fade away” from life, biding our time in quiet shame until the Lord takes us home. On the contrary, the prophet Joel assures us that God steps in immediately when we return to him: “Rend your heart…turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil” (Joel 2:13).

Amazingly, God then gives us this incredible promise: “I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten…and ye shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, that hath dealt wondrously with you: and my people shall never be ashamed” (2:25–26). The Lord promises to restore all.

You have to understand, when this prophecy was given, God had already pronounced judgment on Israel. But the people repented, and God said, “Now I’m going to do wonderful things for you. I’m going to restore everything the devil has stolen.”

Beloved, God’s tender mercy allows even the worst sinner to say, “I’m not a drug addict. I’m not an alcoholic. I’m not an adulterer. I am a child of the living God, with all the rights of heaven in my soul. I no longer live under condemnation, because my past is fully behind me. And I don’t have to pay for any past sins, because Jesus paid the price for me. What’s more, he said he’ll restore everything to me.”

Here is the truth about what happened to David: He listened to God’s Word from Nathan, he repented and obeyed, and, as a result, he spent the rest of his life growing in his knowledge of God. The Lord brought great peace into David’s life. And eventually, all his enemies were silenced.

Yet the clearest evidence of God’s restoration in David’s life is his own testimony. Read what David wrote in his dying days:

  • “The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer…in him will I trust: he is my shield, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower, and my refuge, my saviour” (2 Samuel 22:2–3). This isn’t the testimony of someone who has faded away.
  • “My God…did hear my voice…he took me; he drew me out of many waters…He brought me forth also into a large place: he delivered me, because he delighted in me” (22:7, 17, 20). We’ve just studied all that David did to displease the Lord. Yet, even after all that, David was able to say, “The Lord delights in me.”

Here is why David will forever be known as “a man after God’s own heart”: It’s because he quickly and genuinely repented of his sins. Proverbs tells us:

  • “He that regardeth reproof shall be honoured” (Proverbs 13:18). God will honor you, if you love and obey godly reproof.
  • “They despised all my reproof. Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way…For the turning away of the simple shall slay them” (1:30–32). If you turn a deaf ear to godly reproof, it will end up destroying you.
  • “Reproofs of instruction are the way of life” (6:23). Simply put, God’s convicting Word brings life.

Dear saint, the truth about “hard preaching,” if it’s preached through tears, is that it’s actually “grace preaching.” If you’re being probed by God’s Word — if his Spirit isn’t letting you sit comfortably in your sin — then you’re being shown mercy. It is the deep love of God at work, wooing you out of death and into life.

Will you respond to him as David did? If so, you’ll know true restoration and reconciliation. And God will restore everything the enemy has stolen. Hallelujah!