One of the features of Covenant Renewal Worship at TRC is the exhortation. This is typically a five-minute homily encouraging the church to remain faithful in a sinful world. Our weekly exhortations cover a range of issues, including, keeping your kids from worldliness, living in steadfastness, how sentimentalism can suck the joy out of Christmas, the sin of grumbling, how gratitude is good improv, wisdom in the use of sarcasm, and even an exhortation to exhort.
The exhortation is neither a replacement nor a warm-up for the sermon. It’s a surgical admonition about the sins that tempt God’s people. More simply, the exhortation is when we talk about sin out loud while assembled. It’s easy for Christians to talk about sinfulness in the abstract while avoiding talking about particular personal sins. It’s the phenomenon of opposing sin in theory but not in practice. The exhortation ensures that Christians properly gauge the depth and breadth of their sin in light of the sanctifying power of the gospel.
What does the New Testament say about exhortations?
The Greek word for “exhortation” is parakaleō. It has a range of meanings, including to encourage (Eph. 6:22), to comfort (Heb. 6:18, 12:5), to call for (Acts 28:20), and to summon (Acts 28:14). If you set the distinctive nuances aside, these meanings all exist under the common meaning of “to address.” So an exhortation is an address spoken in the name and power of God (2 Cor. 5:20; 6:1; 1 Thess. 4:1).
Exhortations accompany the preaching of the word (Luke 3:18), the “public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13), and bearing witness of the truth (Acts 2:40). Sometimes exhortations say the words “save yourself from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40). Sometimes they encourage God’s people “to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” (Acts 11:23). Sometimes they take the form of rebuke (Titus 2:15). In the New Testament, the church is exhorted to present their bodies as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1), to live in a way that pleases the Lord (Eph. 4:1, 1 Thess. 4:1), to pursue unity (Phil. 4:2) and to pray (1 Tim. 2:1). The church needs regular (Heb. 3:13) exhortations to “walk in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thess. 2:12) and to “not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord” (Heb. 12:5).
Exhorting is a spiritual gift (Rom. 12:8). It’s part of the pastoral responsibilities of the elders. The design is to establish God’s people in the faith (1 Thess. 3:2). It must be performed “with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2) and the church is to “bear with” the exhortations of the elders (Heb. 13:22). More broadly, mutual exhortations between church members are a regular part of a healthy Christian community (Heb. 3:13). Sometimes, even, elders are to exhort one another (1 Pet. 5:1).
The exhortation is not a mere moral appeal. It’s not self-help or self-righteousness. When exhortations are given to the church, they refer back to God’s work of salvation. Since God’s sovereign grace is the presupposition and basis of the exhortation, it is a ministry of the church in service to the cross of Christ. Encouragement to faithfulness is affected by the Spirit in coordination with the saving work of Jesus Christ.
Why do Christians need the weekly exhortation?
The world makes sin look normal and obedience bizarre. Prosperity, comfort, and technology conceal the sins in our life. This is the deceit of sin, that it lives and moves in our heart without our knowing it. The result is that grace becomes cheap, divine judgment cartoonish, and the gospel an agent for mere cosmic alterations.
It’s hard for people to recognize the sin in their own life. This is especially pronounced in the modern world where moral categories are displaced by self-improvement. Life becomes a series of techniques for boosting one’s personal image in imitation of what culture admires. When the church combines the latest trends with superficial theology, cultural norms become the fixed standard of conformity. This explains how the church has lost its moral vision.
God’s people need regular reminders about the moral facts of God’s universe. We must be reminded that the sinful nature of the human heart lusts after things fleshly and ungodly. Sin puts us at enmity against God and all that is holy. The exhortation is preparation for the confession of sin. If the exhortation beseeches the congregation to live righteously, then confession is the act of betraying the sinful nature in order to be true to the power of the gospel. Confessing sin is a key step in taking our thoughts captive in obedience to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). It’s only those who are spiritually sorry for their sin who are driven to turn from it. Insordescent is a word the Roman Catholic Church uses to describe someone who is growing in filthiness. This is what happens when we don’t regularly confess our sins and receive the washing of the Holy Spirit (Ez. 36:25; 1 Jn. 1:7; 1 Jn. 5:7-8).
During Covenant Renewal Worship, the exhortation precedes the confession of sin. The confession is in response to the exhortation. The congregation kneels during confession. After the minister leads the congregation in corporate confession, there is a time for private confession. After we confess, we rise to hear the good news of the gospel. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). Then we announce our common faith in the words of one of the ecumenical creeds.
Even though God is the one against whom sin is committed (Ps. 51:4), he gives the solution. In and of ourselves, we are powerless to turn impurity to purity or ugliness to beauty. In our strength sin is illutible (Philippians 3:9). In God’s strength, sin is propitiated (1 Jn. 2:2). When sin does its worst, God does his best. In the words of John Owen, “Grace contains a two-fold mystery: We are not only to walk with God but to go to God.”
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Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.
 John Owen, Sin and Temptation: The Challenge to Personal Godliness (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1983), 67.