Wednesday, January 10, 2007

What is it to win a Soul? Part I

I have been a Christian for nineteen years. Within the first two years of my walk with Christ, I was introduced to a man who became a fast friend and godly example for both my life and future ministry. His name was Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892). Now of course I am not the only believer nor minister who has been so strongly shaped and influenced by Spurgeon. It would be probably incalculable to really know how many men and women in Christ have been richly blessed by the ministry of C.H. Spurgeon. All one can really say in view of Spurgeon's vast influence, is that it has simply pleased God for His own inscrutable purposes and good pleasure to use His servant to reach across generations with the Word of God.
One thing I have really settled in my heart over the years about Spurgeon, is that God has given the church only one Charles Spurgeon! Though there be many things about his character, doctrine, and ministry which are commendable for any leader or layperson to emulate; yet, there will not be another Spurgeon. And I believe this could be said for all of us. As Stephen Olford was always fond of declaring: "God never makes duplicates - only originals!" Hence, the Lord has taught me over the years (and continues to do so) to learn to be content with who and what His grace has made me for the glory of His name. Nevertheless, I love and admire Spurgeon and thank God for giving to His church this precious gift (cf. Eph.4:12; Heb.13:7).
Recently, I have begun reading again Spurgeon's classic work entitled, The Soul Winner. The subject of this book centers on the ministry of personal evangelism (if you couldn't tell by the title). If you were to rank this book among the many that have been written on this matter in the last 150 years, I would have to say that The Soul Winner is certainly going to be perched in the top five, if not in the top three. Other worthies in this catagory would be Will Metzger's Tell the Truth and J.I. Packer's Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God. What I appreciate so much about The Soul Winner though, is that Spurgeon takes nearly the first half of this book to speak directly to pastors. In fact, out of the fifteen chapters which make up the book, the first six were delivered at Spurgeon's Pastor's College to his ministerial students. So there is a wealth of godly wisdom and insight here for any pastor who cares about bringing the gospel to the lost. And for me personally, this is a high priority.
I want to be more intentional in this work of evangelism as a pastor; and yet at the same time, I want to be biblical. There is so much today that passes for evangelism, but it is not. Evangelism is the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ (see Acts 5:42; I Cor.1:17; 2:2). It is nothing more nor less. Hence, if we as Christians are not telling others about Christ and pointing them to Christ for who He is and what He has accomplished by His saving work - then we are not "doing" evangelism. So although we must give ourselves to this glorious work for the sake of Christ and the privilege it is to proclaim His name; yet, we must be careful in how we take the gospel to others. It is not in our power to save a soul, but it is an entrusted stewardship from God to deliver the message through which God has chosen to bring that sinner to himself. Therefore the work of evangelism is, to say the least, a very weigthy work in the service of Christ.
Now Spurgeon, in the opening chapter of The Soul Winner, gives an excellent treament for pastors to understand what evangelism is and what it is not. He begins by saying very matter of factly, that "Soul-winning is the chief buisness of the Christian minister; indeed, it should be the main pursuit of every true believer." From here Spurgeon raises this great question: "What is it to win a soul?" And he starts answering this question with a list of negatives. In this present post I will look only at these negatives of what evangelism is not. I intend to follow this up in a future post with what Spurgeon deems as biblical evangelism. But for now, let's be negative!
First, he declares: "We do not regard it to be soul-winning to steal members out of churches already established, and train them to utter our peculiar Shibboleth: we aim rather at bringing souls to Christ than at making converts to our synagogue." It is very sad and deplorable to think that a pastor would make it his buisness to steal sheep, as it were. But I know first hand of men in the ministry whose verbally stated goal it is to empty out all the churches in their area to boost the numbers of their own. And to add to this sin of greed and coveting, they would even report such a swelling of new church members as the result of evangelism! It's lying and deceiving. But in addition to this practice, Spurgeon also denounces the act of converting men to "our own peculiar views of Christianity." Consider his wise and stinging counsel here:
We would do a great deal to make a Paedo-baptist brother into a Baptist, for we value our Lord's ordinances; we would labour earnestly to raise a believer in salvation by free-will into a believer in salvation by grace, for we long to see all religious teaching built upon the solid rock of truth, and not upon the sand of imagination; but, at the same time, our grand object is not the revision of opinions, but the regeneration of natures. We would bring men to Christ...Our first care must be that the sheep should be gathered to the great Shepherd; there will be time enough afterwards to secure them for our various folds. To make proselytes, is a suitable labour for Pharisees: to beget men unto God, is the honourable aim of ministers of Christ.
These words by Spurgeon are needed across all denominational and even theological lines. For me, no matter how strong my convictions are as both a Baptist and a Calvinist, I am not seeking to convert sinners to be Calvinists or Baptists. My hope and great aim must always be to "bring men to Christ." In other words, let's first give ourselves to seeing sinners become Christians by God's grace in Christ through the faithful preaching of the gospel. This is what matters above all else for the souls of men. And that was Spurgeon's great point.
Another matter Spurgeon raises which he decries as a false form of true evangelism he describes in this way: "we do not consider soul-winning to be accomplished by hurriedly inscribing more names upon our church-roll, in order to show a good increase at the end of the year." Spurgeon could not be more contemporary in this observation. In fact, he goes on to explain his point by describing a practice that is so fixed in many modern evangelistic enterprises, that to undo this practice would be to remove a very adored and idolized "sacred cow." Consider what Spurgeon says here:
By all means let us bring true converts into the church, for it is a part of our work to teach them to observe all things whatsoever Christ has commanded them; but still, this is to be done to disciples, and not to mere professors; and if care be not used, we may do more harm than good at this point. To introduce unconverted persons to the church, is to weaken and degrade it; and therefore an apparent gain may be a real loss...It is a serious injury to a person to receive him into the number of the faithful unless there is a good reason to believe that he is really regenerate...Some of the most glaring sinners known to me were once members of a church; and were, as I believe, led to make a profession by undue pressure, well-meant but ill-judged. Do not, therefore, consider that soul-winning is or can be secured by the multiplication of baptisms, and the swelling of the size of your church. What mean these despatches from the battle-field? "Last night, fourteen souls were under conviction, fifteen were justified, and eight received full sanctification." I am weary of this public bragging, this counting of unhatched chickens, this exhibition of doubtful spoils. Lay aside such numberings of the people, such idle pretence of certifying in half a minute that which will need the testing of a lifetime.
These comments by Charles Spurgeon need to be heeded by the majority of pastors and church members alike throughout American Evangelicalism. Especially among churches that use public "alter-calls" as the means of securing so-called decisions for salvation. I particularly long for the day when such practices will be abandoned completely (if such a day could come). For I am convinced that the number one problem facing churches across the land is a membership of people who have never been born again (Jn.3:3). And among the reasons which could be offered for such an epidemic, are in fact the aforementioned observations by Spurgeon.
We are counting chickens before they are hatched! We are playing the Holy Spirit and giving something which it is not our call to give; namely, assurance of salvation. This is not the work of biblical evangelism. It is rather in many cases emotional manipulation, though not premeditated I'm sure; but nevertheless, it plays on the feelings of people in order to secure a decision for salvation. What it really boils down to, is that many pastors do not believe in the sufficiency of the gospel nor in the omnipotence of God to save. Thus they turn to fleshly tactics to "get people saved" and end up unwittingly filling church rolls with sinners who are still lost and in spiritual death & darkness.
As a pastor, I can honestly attest to the fact that my own greatest struggles in church ministry have been with people who hold membership to a church but are still in the world. And when I have labored to proclaim to them Christ and Him crucified, they look at me as if I am speaking a foreign language. Of course, much worse than this - they become angry and hostile. They have no taste nor delight in the truth of the gospel. Yet, they hold positions in churches as deacons and Sunday School teachers, along with filling many other positions of influence and leadership. And why is this? Because at some point in their lives they made an emotional decision to join a church but never savingly came to faith and repentance in Jesus Christ. Moreover, as the result of staying a part of that church, they eventually secured positions which they were not spiritually qualified and able to fulfill. However, due to the loss of true evangelism and a ministry of expounding the biblical gospel, these "professing" church members remain settled in a self-righteous condition of thinking they are safe with God when in fact they are heaping up wrath for the day of wrath (see Romans 2:1-5). But if anyone will give an ultimate account to God for how many unconverted sinners fill church rolls and pews, it will be the pastors. Therefore, may all of us who have been privileged to shepherd the Church of God, be careful to handle accurately the gospel and its presentation to all men! Let's be faithful to preach the gospel in full and be content with how God chooses to bring the results of His Word going forth.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Remaining Sin Over-ruled for Good

No matter how frustrating, discouraging, and even depressing the reality of indwelling sin can be for the believer - yet, under the all-wise, omnipotent, and loving providence of God, our remaining sinfulness is over-ruled for our good and God's glory (consider Gen.50:20; Rom.7:23-8:39). This is the great subject of John Newton's final letter in his triology on the presence & effects of remaining sin in the believer. It is so encouraging to realize that though we "go softly all our days" because of our abiding depravity; however, "we need not sorrow as they who have no hope," so Newton says. And what makes this difference in the heart of the child of God, as he faces squarely his own corruption? Why should a Christian not cave in to despair over the down drag of sin which seems to impede his every step? It is due to one thing only, as mentioned from the beginning: God's sovereignty over-ruling our remaining sin for His glory and our good.
Consider how Newton explained this:
If the evils we feel were not capable of being over-ruled for good, [God] would not permit them to remain in us. This we may infer from his hatred to sin, and the love which he bears to his people...Though sin wars, it shall not reign; and though it breaks our peace, it cannot separate from his love. Nor is it inconsistent with his holiness and perfection, to manifest his favour to such poor defiled creatures, or to admit them to communion with himself; for they are not considered as in themselves, but as one with Jesus, to whom they fled for refuge, and by whom they live a life of faith.
In these observations, Newton reminds us of a present tension we all face with sin, while seeing that such a tension is merely temporary and shall in no wise separate us from God's love for us in Christ. How often do we need to preach this to ourselves everyday! Moreover, Newton brings us back to the glorious gospel truth of our spiritual union with Christ. This is vital to our understanding as we struggle and battle against those nagging ever-present corruptions. In fact, it is the truth of our union with Christ that God's Word uses as the basis for encouragment and exhortation so that we do not succumb to sin's attempts to regain control (see Rom.6:1-14; 7:1-5; 8:1-39). Furthermore, because we are "in Christ", the Scriptures promise us that we are no longer under God's deserved condemnation. This remains true in spite of all those times we do fall and follow the lusts of the flesh (Rom.8:1, 28-39). God's grace for us in Christ does indeed abound more than our sin (Rom.5:20)!
For John Newton though, these comforting gospel truths do not end his discussion of how God over-rules remaining sin for our good. The rest of his letter now focuses directly on the subject of how indwelling sin is a servant to God's providence and thus an advantage to the believer. He gives three examples which point to this truth.
First, he observes that God's "own power, wisdom, faithfulness, and love, are more signally displayed" because of remaining sin. He notes that God's power is shown by "maintaining his own work in the midst of so much opposition, like a spark burning in the water, or a bush unconsumed in the flame." God's wisdom is displayed "in defeating and controlling all the devices which Satan, from his knowledge of the evil of our nature, is encouraged to practice against us." And God's faithfulness and love are "more illustrated by the multiple pardons he bestows upon his people."
Secondly, Newton notes that indwelling sin is over-ruled to our advantage because "the Lord Jesus Christ is more endeared to the soul." He says that here "all boasting is effectually excluded, and the glory of a full and free salvation is ascribed to [Christ] alone." By way of illustrating this truth, Newton paints a striking and edifying picture to the struggling soul of every believer:
If a mariner is surprised by a storm, and after one night spent in jeopardy, is presently brought safe into port; though he may rejoice in his deliverance, it will not affect him so sensibly, as if, after being tempest-tossed for a long season, and experiencing a great number and variety of hair-breadth escapes, he at last gains the desired haven. The righteous are said to be scarcely saved, not with respect to the certainty of the event, for the purpose of God in their favour cannot be disappointed, but in respect of their own apprehensions, and the great difficulties they are brought through. But when, after a long experience of their own deceitful hearts, after repeated proofs of their weakness, wilfulness, ingratitude, and insensibility, they find that none of these things can separate them from the love of God in Christ, Jesus becomes more and more precious to their souls.
The third and final example Newton offers for how remaining sin works to our advantage is summed up in this way: "a spirit of humiliation, the strength and beauty of our profession, is greatly promoted by our feeling, as well as reading, that when we would do good, evil is present with us." Expounding on this truth, Newton affirms:
A broken and contrite spirit is pleasing to the Lord who has promised to dwell with those who have it; and experience shows, that the excercise of all our graces is in proportion to the humbling sense we have of the depravity of our nature. But that we are so totally depraved, is a truth which no one ever truly learned by being only told it. Indeed if we could receive, and habitually maintain, a right judgement of ourselves, by what is plainly declared in Scripture, it would probably save us many a mournful hour; but experience is the Lord's school, and they who are taught by him usually learn, that they have no wisdom by the mistakes they make, and that they have no strength by the slips and falls they meet with. Every day draws forth some new corruption which before was little observed, or at least discovers it in a stronger light than before. Thus by degrees they are weaned from leaning to any supposed wisdom, power, or goodness in themselves; they feel the truth of our Lord's words, "Without me ye can do nothing;" and the necessity of crying with David, "O lead me and guide me for thy name's sake."
How utterly amazing are the works of God's providence in the lives of His people! Not only does God work our physical trials and tribulations for good, but even the remaining effects and corruptions of indwelling sin. This truth alone should prove to us that there is nothing too difficult for God. Sometimes, I am afraid, we treat our sin as if its power cannot be broken and overcome in spite of the sufficiency of Christ's saving work and the sovereignty of God. Our thinking at this point needs to be desperately renewed by God's Word. Every believer should take heart that God really is working all things together for the good of His people and the praise of His glory.
Thus with remaining sin, as Newton has so warmly reminded us, God over-rules it for the display of His power, wisdom, faithfulness, and love; for the endearment of Christ Himself to our battered souls; and finally, for the promotion and growth of humility before God. This of course doesn't mean that we slack off in our war against sin or treat sin lightly just because God is bringing this (along with everything else in our lives) to work toward our advantage. Far from it! Rather, even in the midst of our hardest fought battles and greatest failures against sin, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture: God is preserving us for His glory and therefore nothing in this world will thwart that destiny (Rom.8:29-31). This includes all the depravity of our flesh that has yet to be put to death. Thanks be to our Lord and God for such "amazing grace!"

  © Blogger template 'BrickedWall' by 2008

Jump to TOP