I realize that many who read these words will not be preachers, but these chapters are nevertheless relevant to all believers. Whether we are preachers or hearers, we need to re-examine what we expect from the ministry of the Word. What should we look for? What do we need to hear from the pulpits of our churches? True gospel preaching will not only fulfill the preacher’s ministry, but will revive the desire of every believer to make Christ known.
‘Soul-winning is the chief business of the Christian minister.’
He did not say it is the only business of the minister, but that it is certainly the chief business. To dispute this would be to deny the whole thrust of the New Testament regarding the work of the church of Christ. For a preacher to neglect his chief business is a denial of his calling, yet many good biblical preachers openly admit that they feel more comfortable teaching saints than evangelizing sinners. And because there are few unconverted people attending their churches they have ceased preaching the gospel altogether.
If soul-winning is our chief business, and we are not winning souls, where does that leave our calling to preach? To quote Spurgeon again,
‘Now, in the last place, the man whom Christ makes a fisher of men is successful. But, says one, “I have always heard that Christ’s ministers are to be faithful, but that they cannot be sure of being successful.” Yes, I have heard that saying, and one way I know it is true, but another way I have my doubts about it. He that is faithful is, in God’s way and in God’s judgement, successful, more or less. For instance, here is a brother who says that he is faithful. Of course, I must believe him, yet I never heard of a sinner being saved under him. Indeed, I should think that the safest place for a person to be in if he did not want to be saved would be under this gentleman’s ministry, because he does not preach anything that is likely to arouse, impress, or convince anybody … he that never did get any fish is not a fisherman. He that never saved a sinner after years of work is not a minister of Christ. If the result of his life work is nil, he made a mistake when he undertook it.’
Spurgeon preached that in 1886 just a few years before he died. It is not, therefore, the intolerant judgement of a young man, but the mature conclusion of an old one. To those of us who may go several years without seeing a conversion, it can sound daunting and devastating. Was Spurgeon revealing an unfair lack of sympathy with preachers less able than himself? It is not my business to defend the renowned Baptist, but I would urge all preachers to seek the answer in his book The Soul Winner. I shall use several quotes from this book, because I believe it will help us to understand and share his thinking.
What is the real winning of a soul for God?
Spurgeon asks this question and then proceeds to answer it. He says first of all that the sinner must be instructed so that he may know the truth of God. He cites Matthew 28: 19-20:
‘Go … and teach all nations … teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you,’ (AV)
and concludes that teaching is the heart of gospel preaching. All too often we seem to accept as a fact that there will be less content in a sermon for sinners than a sermon for saints. Spurgeon would strongly disagree with that. He argues that the gospel is good news and that,
‘There is information in it, there is instruction in it concerning matters which men need to know, and statements in it calculated to bless those who hear it. It is not a magical incantation, or a charm, whose force consists in a collection of sounds; it is a revelation of facts and truths which require knowledge and belief. The gospel is a reasonable system, and it appeals to men’s understanding; it is a matter for thought and consideration, and it appeals to the conscience and the reflecting powers.’
This point is emphasized by Paul’s example at the jail at Philippi. The great question is asked: ‘What must I do to be saved?’ The answer is given: ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.’ But Paul did not leave it at that. What exactly was the jailer to believe? Who was Jesus Christ? Acts 16:32 is crucial: ‘Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.’ It was as a result of that preaching of the gospel that the jailer and his family were saved.
Spurgeon goes on:
‘And, do not believe, dear friends, that when you go into special evangelistic services, you are to leave out the doctrines of the gospel; for you ought then to proclaim the doctrines of grace rather more than less. Teach gospel doctrines clearly, affectionately, simply, and plainly, and especially those truths which have a present and practical bearing upon man’s condition and God’s grace. Some enthusiasts would seem to have imbibed the notion that, as soon as a minister addresses the unconverted, he should deliberately contradict his usual doctrinal discourses, because it is supposed that there will be no conversions if he preaches the whole counsel of God. It just comes to this, brethren: it is supposed that we are to conceal truth and utter a half falsehood, in order to save souls … This is a strange theory and yet many endorse it. According to them, we may preach the redemption of a chosen number to God’s people, but universal redemption when we speak with the outside world; we are to tell believers that salvation is all of grace, but sinners are to be spoken with as if they were to save themselves …We have not so learned Christ. He who sent us to win souls neither permits us to invent falsehoods, nor to suppress truth. His work can be done without such suspicious methods. ‘
John Elias makes the same point:
‘There is a great defect in the manner of many preachers. It can scarcely be said that the gospel is preached by them … Though these preachers may not be accused of saying what is false, yet, alas, they neglect stating weighty and necessary truths when opportunities offer. By omitting these important portions of truth in their natural connection, the Word is made subservient to subjects never intended. The hearers are led to deny the truth which the preacher leaves out of his sermons. Omitting any truth intentionally in a sermon leads to the denial of it.’
Spurgeon and Elias were soul-winners so we must listen to them. They were not advocating heavy theological sermons that the unconverted will not be able to understand: they were stressing the need to preach the full gospel. If sinners are to be saved they must hear the truth, and all the truth. It is our failure at this point that produces the sort of wishy-washy conversions that give churches so many pastoral problems. We owe it to men and women to tell them the entire gospel – to speak of God’s eternal purposes in Christ, of election, calling, justification and redemption; of both God’s love and wrath; of both heaven and hell; of both grace and human responsibility.
‘The preacher’s work is to throw sinners down in utter helplessness, that they may be compelled to look up to him who alone can help them. To try to win a soul for Christ by keeping that soul in ignorance of any truth is contrary to the mind of the Spirit… The best attraction is the gospel in all its purity. The weapon with which the Lord conquers men is the truth as it is in Jesus. The gospel will be found equal to every emergency; an arrow which can pierce the hardest heart, a balm which will heal the deadliest wound. Preach it, and preach nothing else.’
Spurgeon’s second answer to the question:
‘What is the real winning of a soul?’ is that we need to impress the sinner so that he feels his need of Christ. In this he keeps the balance between content and presentation.
He says, ‘A purely didactic [teaching] ministry, which should always appeal to the understanding, and should leave the emotions untouched, would certainly be a limping ministry.’ He then proceeds to make the powerful statement that
‘A sinner has a heart as well as a head; a sinner has emotions as well as thoughts; and we must appeal to both. A sinner will never be converted until his emotions are stirred.’
For most of us who love the Bible, it is relatively easy to preach the truth and give a faithful exposition of Scripture. The difficult thing is to preach the truth in such a way that we stir the hearts and prick the consciences of sinners. An easy way out is to say that only the Holy Spirit can do this. That is true, but is it the whole truth? We must not use this as an excuse to avoid our responsibilities and reduce preaching to mere lecturing.
How can we preach so that sinners’ hearts are stirred? It is not by filling the sermon with sentimental stories and heart-rending illustrations. That may well stir emotions but it will not lead to salvation. That is the method of the actor, not the preacher. Neither will we succeed by filling the service with gimmicks and working up an atmosphere.
So how do we do it? We do it in three ways.
Firstly, by having regard to the content of our message.
What should that content be? We preach, said Paul, ‘the unsearchable riches of Christ’ (Eph. 3:8). If Christ is not the heart of every sermon, then these riches will be missing and our hearers will go away impoverished. We may use the Bible to preach morality, judgement, history, ecc1esiology, eschatology, and so much else. But unless we unveil Christ ‘in all the Scriptures’ (Luke 24:27) we shall leave men forlorn and shut the door to grace.
Secondly, we shall affect our hearers by preaching to them and for them. This means plenty of application all the way through the sermon, pointing the truths, pushing them home, and showing their relevance to the everyday affairs of life. In this way we will guard against being heavy and boring. Sadly, according to many of God’s people who listen to sermons every week, a lot of preachers are simply dull. Their content may well be biblical, but their presentation is so dry that their hearers soon ‘switch offí. Our application of Scripture truth must be such that every sinner who hears us knows that God is speaking about, and to, him or her. Sinners are great wrigglers and they must not be allowed to wriggle out of conviction of sin. Furthermore, our application must be appropriate. For instance, if we go on and on about AIDs, the vast majority of unregenerate men and women in the congregation will totally agree. They will be comfortable, even enjoying our tirade, because we are preaching about a sin of which they are not guilty. We must point up the ordinary sins of ordinary people.
We should not confuse application with illustration. A well-chosen illustration can help enormously in bringing home a point, and in lightening our presentation. But some preachers go overboard in their attempt to be interesting. Illustrations should be neither too lengthy nor so frequent that they destroy the train of thought and logic. If they are to listen well, people must be able to follow the preacher’s argument and line of reasoning.
Thirdly, we must give attention to the manner in which we preach. Richard Baxter said,
‘I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.’
In other words, he had a sense of urgency, of deep concern, of warmth and passion. Speaking of pathos, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones said,
‘A special word must be given also to the element of pathos. If I had to plead guilty of one thing more than any other I would have to confess that this perhaps is what has been most lacking in my own ministry. This should arise partly from a love for the people.’
Richard Cecil, an Anglican preacher in London towards the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, said something which should make us all think,
“To love to preach is one thing; to love those to whom we preach is quite another.”
The trouble with some of us is that we love preaching, but we are not always careful to make sure that we love the people to whom we are actually preaching. If you lack this element of compassion for the people you will also lack the pathos which is a very vital element in all true preaching.’
If we do not feel for the people, and do not feel the power and significance of what we are preaching, they will never feel their need of the gospel. It will come across to them as mere words and nothing more. The gospel has to grip our hearts both in our preparation and in the pulpit.
It ought to excite us and this will be conveyed to our hearers. Are we afraid of emotion in the pulpit? Lloyd-Jones, having distinguished between emotion and emotionalism, complains,
‘Emotion is regarded as something almost indecent. My reply to all that, once more, is simply to say that if you contemplate these glorious truths that are committed to our charge as preachers without being moved by them there is something defective in your spiritual eyesight.’
We are not to preach as lecturers, detached from their subject. Neither are we to preach with the silly excitement of actors doing a TV commercial. Our business, according to Spurgeon, is to
‘continue to drive at men’s hearts till they are broken; and then we must keep on preaching Christ crucified till their hearts are bound up; and when that is accomplished, we must continue to proclaim the gospel till their whole nature is brought into subjection to the gospel of Christ.’
The preaching we need today
In his biography of Jonathan Edwards, lain Murray has a remarkable chapter entitled ‘The Breaking of the Spirit of Slumber’. In this he deals with the type of preaching needed in the 1730s because of the spiritual condition of the day. He says,
‘It has sometimes been assumed that the preaching of the eighteenth century leaders in the revivals in North America was simply continuing a well established tradition. That, however, is not the case. The commonly accepted preaching was not calculated to break through the prevailing formalism and indifference, and the preaching which did bring men to a sense of need and humiliation before God was of a very different order.’
What was this different preaching that God so richly blessed? Edwards said,
‘I know it has long been fashionable to despise a very earnest and pathetical way of preaching, and they only have been valued as preachers who have shown the greatest extent of learning, strength of reason, and correctness of method and language. But an increase in speculative knowledge in divinity is not what is so much needed by our people as something else.
Men may abound in this sort of light, and have no heat… Our people do not so much need to have their heads stored as to have their hearts touched, and they stand in the greatest need of that sort of preaching which has the greatest tendency to do this.’
We are facing people today, in and out of the church, who have little sense of the evil of sin and little love for God. Preaching that merely fills their heads with facts but does not touch their hearts is not going to change anything. Edwards described the people of his day as
‘stupidly senseless to the importance of eternal things.’
Therefore they needed preaching which would ensure that ‘their conscience stares them in the face and they begin to see their need of a priest and a sacrifice’. Note the emphasis on Christ. Such preaching starts with the preacher’s apprehension of Christ in his glorious person and saving power. It continues as he feels the urgency of the task and is satisfied with nothing less than the glory of God in the salvation of sinners. Finally, it requires an experience of, and dependence on, the Holy Spirit, who will honour a Christ-centred ministry.
lain Murray says,
‘True heart-searching, humbling and convicting preaching requires an experimental acquaintance with the Spirit of God on the part of the preacher.’ Murray concludes the chapter with these words: ‘The preaching through which the spirit of slumber was broken in the 1730s was searching and convincing. A band of men was being raised up for whom the gravity of sin, the possibility of an unsound profession of Christ, and the carelessness of a lost world were pressing burdens. Behind their public utterances was their vision of God and of eternity.’