Gospeling Souls Right Into Hell

By Scott Keith

I recently heard a preacher say that it is possible for preachers and teachers to “Gospel souls right into hell.” I really don’t wish to mischaracterize or impugn what the preacher was trying to communicate, but, needless to say, I was a bit shocked.

I think his concern is that there are preachers and teachers out there who focus too much on the Gospel. That they, in effect, never actually preach to their hearers the immutable Law of God. He believes that these “False Preachers” never preach that apart from Christ, all are dead in their sin and trespasses and that God’s wrath sits justly upon them. These preachers then never actually preach the words of Paul in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…” As an example, he stated that phrases like, “Everything is Going to be OK,” and “You are Forgiven” mislead people, leading them to believe they are in fact “OK,” or “Forgiven” when they are unrepentant and still in their sin.

If this is truly happening, I would agree that there is a problem. A big one. But is the problem that people are being Gospeled into Hell? I’d answer emphatically, no! I do not think that it is possible to Gospel people into Hell. I believe that what some suffer from (at times me, too, I’m sure), and what my Sunday morning preacher suffered from is a confusion of Law and Gospel. To say that people can be Gospeled into Hell is a paramount example of Law-Gospel confusion as it implies that what is needed to save is a little more Law. Thus, in the above scenario, the Gospel condemns, and the Law saves.

My question is this: Is this what the Scriptures teach? No, surely not. The Scriptures clearly teach that Gospel proclamation does not condemn, but rather it is the only proclamation that has the power to save, because with it comes the power of the Holy Spirit who creates, engenders, and sustains in us saving faith. Thus, verses such as: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16) As well as: “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” (Romans 10:17) And finally: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) Obviously, many others could be listed in support of this idea. In fact, this is how the Scriptures speak concerning the Gospel of Christ.

The Law then, though it does many things—restrains, exhorts the Christian unto righteousness, punishes—always rightly accuses and condemns sinners of their sin before a righteous, holy, and just God.

The Scriptures support the idea that the Law condemns in verses like: “realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane…” (1 Timothy 1:9) And: “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.'” (Galatians 3:10) Also: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law, we become conscious of our sin.” (Romans 3:20) And finally: “For through the Law I died to the Law so that I might live to God.” (Galatians 2:19) The Law kills, and condemns. It does not save, and it alone condemns to the point of damnation. Again, on this, the Scriptures seem quite clear.

So, what is the point I am trying to make and what was the point my preacher this Sunday was attempting to preach? I think the point is that both Law and Gospel need to be proclaimed. To this, I shout a loud, Amen! The Law kills, and the Gospel makes alive. When we covered this topic with Pastor Paul Koch on the Thinking Fellows Podcast on the episode entitled, “Preaching the Law and the Gospel,” Paul quoted one of his seminary professors by saying: “The preacher is the hitman and midwife of God.” Meaning, that the preacher kills with the Law and brings to life with the Gospel of Christ. Again, Amen!

So then, saying that people can be Gospeled into Hell mischaracterizes how God works through His Holy Law and by His Saving Gospel of Christ. Once more, the Apostle Paul (not Paul Koch) is helpful here when he says: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His Own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:3-4)

So, for those who are in Christ, who no longer are judged by the condemning weight of the Law, but are judged righteous because of Christ’s death and resurrection for them, everything will ultimately be OK. This is true only because they rely on Christ alone. Proclaiming to sinners that their only hope is in Christ alone will thus never send people to Hell. It literally cannot because it is the power of God unto righteousness for those that believe. (Romans 1:16) Why do they need Christ as their only hope of salvation? Well, because they are poor miserable sinners and apart from standing in Christ, the Law will justly accuse and condemn them of their sin.

Law and Gospel, Gospel and Law. Rightly discerned but not divided. Both are a part of God’s holy word and counsel. Both need to be preached to Christian and non-Christian alike. One kills, and the other brings to life. But please know, that if you stand in Christ, if He alone is your only hope for salvation, if you rely on His righteousness and not your own, that faith is counted to you as righteousness (Romans 4:5), and you are saved. You are forgiven. You are a child of God. Your salvation is in His hands, and you are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. And praise be to God for our salvation given to us by His grace only on account of our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus.

4 thoughts on “Gospeling Souls Right Into Hell

  1. Scott,

    May the grace of our Lord Jesus be with you. This is Pastor Jeremy Rhode of Faith Lutheran Church – Capistrano Beach, and the preacher of the sermon you mention. If you would kindly permit me a bit of your blog space, I would like to link to the sermon in question http://faithcapo.com/pages/page.asp?page_id=349005&programId=261629 and provide some thoughts.

    The text that I preached was Ezekiel 33:7-9 (this text is nearly identical to Ezekiel 3:17-19), and the pertinent verse reads: “If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked one, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.”

    God is requiring that Ezekiel “warn” the wicked, that is, the one who is “in his iniquity.” The alternative is to speak “peace” to such a person, as the false prophets were doing: “Precisely because they have misled My people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace” and “keeping alive souls who should not live” and encouraging “the wicked, that he should not turn from his evil way to save his life” (Ezekiel 13:10, 19, 22).

    God did not want Ezekiel to speak “peace” to the impenitent person, but rather to “warn” him that he shall surely die. Impenitence is clearly in view, and this is not a private interpretation of mine, but precisely how The Lutheran Study Bible understands the text (see, for example, the note on 3:19: “The unrepentant person …”).

    When a prophet (one who represents God) says, “peace,” he is effectively saying, “God is at peace with you.” If a prophet says to an impenitent sinner, “God is at peace with you,” he not only lies, but has also “encouraged the wicked, that he should not turn from his evil way to save his life” (13:22). By preaching the gospel of peace to an impenitent sinner, the false prophet is effectively preaching him right into hell.

    So, in my sermon, I say, “… what the false prophets were doing, wittingly or unwittingly, was ‘gospeling’ Judah right into exile, and ‘gospeling’ souls right into hell.” A bit later in the sermon, I summarized God’s message to Ezekiel in this way: “If you do not warn the wicked to turn from his way, he will die, and so will you. You can gospel people right into hell, Ezekiel, don’t do it. Tell those who will not repent that they will die, and tell those who do repent that they are forgiven.”

    Immediately after these words, I preached: “In our own day, God sends faithful pastors to this same twofold task. In the Small Catechism, we confess: ‘I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.’”

    In other words: both the Scriptures and the Small Catechism plainly teach that we must not speak forgiveness or peace to impenitent hearts. Walther urges this very same thing in Thesis VIII of his “Law and Gospel” lectures: “You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you preach … the Gospel to those who are living securely in their sins.” Telling someone who is living securely in their sins that “everything is going to be alright” or “you are forgiven” is indeed both misleading them and “gospeling” them into hell.

    Walther writes: “We finished the first part of Thesis VIII, which declares that the Word of God is not rightly distinguished when the Law is preached to those in terror of sin. Let us now continue on to the second part of the thesis, which states that the Word of God is not rightly distinguished if the Gospel is preached to those secure in their sins. The latter error is as dangerous as the former. Incalculable damage is done if the consolations of the Gospel are offered to secure sinners or if you preach to a crowd in such a way that secure sinners in the audience would imagine that the comfort of the Gospel is meant for them. That would be the preacher’s fault. By doing this, a preacher could conceivably preach whole crowds of people into hell instead of into heaven” (Walther, Law and Gospel, p. 127).

    What I preached in the sermon is plainly taught in the Holy Scriptures, Small Catechism, and Walther. My entire sermon is simply a reminder, straight from Ezekiel, that we do harm if we preach the gospel to the impenitent, and, that those who “repent of their sins and want to do better” (Small Catechism) have peace and the full absolution of God on account of His pure grace and the precious blood of our Savior. This is a distinction that many today simply miss.

    Based on the particular Scriptures that you chose to cite against me, it seems that the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration V:3-9 might be helpful to you. Specifically, that “the little word ‘gospel’ is not used and understood in the same, single sense at all times, but in two different ways,” and also, “The comforting proclamation of the holy gospel offers [Christ’s] merit to all repentant sinners … for the gospel proclaims forgiveness of sins not to crude, secure hearts, but to those who have been crushed or are repentant” (Luke 4[:18]).

    You make a number of assertions about me in your blog post. I would simply like to state that my concern is most certainly not “that there are preachers and teachers out there who focus too much on the gospel.” Your other speculations about what I “think” or “believe” are likewise completely off the mark. I am being as charitable as I can be, I have combed through your post repeatedly, I think and believe basically nothing of what you assert. Please do think on this.

    What I did was preach Law and Gospel straight from the Bible and the Small Catechism, in exactly the way that the Formula of Concord and Walther teach. You, apparently, do not approve. Please do think on this as well.

    Since we know each other personally, feel free to contact me directly if my preaching strikes you as unclear. Or, if you are indeed convinced that I have preached falsely, please contact the Board of Elders of Faith Lutheran Church and/or my Ecclesiastical Supervisor, Rev. Dr. Larry Stoterau, of the Pacific Southwest District (we presently do not have a Circuit Visitor, otherwise I would direct you to him as well).

    In Christ,
    Pastor Jeremy Rhode

    Faith Lutheran Church
    Capistrano Beach, CA
    Ph. 949-496-1901

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  2. A false prophet telling the wicked that God is at peace with them is not the same thing as proclaiming the Gospel. This peace language is the language of the world that tells sinners “to each his own.” You used the phrase Gospeling into hell for shock value and doing so you tossed in the Grace of Christ crucified with that of pagans who say there need not be a Christ because there is no sin. Gospeling was simply the wrong term for what you were attempting to express. Perhaps as Bo Geirtz suggests in The Hammer of God, the pulpit is better used for bringing the dead to life than for shocking them.

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    1. Caleb,

      Walther writes: “Incalculable damage is done if the consolations of the Gospel are offered to secure sinners. … By doing this a preacher could conceivably preach whole crowds of people into hell …” (Walther, Law and Gospel, p. 127).

      Walther isn’t talking about a false gospel. He is talking about preaching “the Gospel” to secure sinners, and thus ‘gospeling’ them into hell. It’s not meant to be shocking, though I suppose it might be if you don’t have the theological category that Walther teaches in the second part of Thesis VIII.

      Glad to hear you’ve read Hammer of God, by the way, great book! And good to have your family with us at Faith this past Sunday. Please don’t hesitate to call and talk with me directly, it would likely be a much better way to have this conversation. 949-496-1901

      God’s grace to you and yours!

      In Christ,
      Pastor Rhode

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  3. Wow? I don’t know anything about this pastor, but he seems pretty sensitive. I saw the point of this article as saying that the gospel cannot send you to hell. Some kind of distinction about the law might be apropos.

    Your post may have been better as a private email to Scott, the author. For us readers it was confusing.

    Unfortunately, on these message boards the pastors seem to be the angriest and least gracious. I would suggest you take down this post, and then I would take this down. Act like a pastor, please.

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