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He that winneth souls is wise. - Proverbs. 11:30.
I. Several passages of Scripture ascribe conversion to men; and that:
II. This is consistent with other passages which ascribe conversion to God.
III. I also purpose to discuss several further particulars which are deemed important, in regard to the preaching of the Gospel, and which show that great practical wisdom is necessary to win souls to Christ.
I. THE BIBLE SCRIBES CONVERSION TO MEN.
There are many passages which represent the conversion of sinners as the work of men. In Daniel 12:3 it is said: "They that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever." Here the work is ascribed to men. So also in 1 Corinthians 4:15: "Though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the Gospel." Here the apostle explicitly tells the Corinthians that he made them Christians, with the Gospel, or truth, which he preached.
Again, in James 5:19, 20, we are taught the same thing. "Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins."
I might quote many other passages, equally explicit. But these are sufficient abundantly to establish the fact, that the Bible does actually ascribe conversion to men.
II. THE BIBLE ASCRIBES CONVERSION TO GOD.
Here let me remark that to my mind it often appears very strange that men should ever suppose there was an in consistency here, or that they should ever have overlooked the plain common sense of the matter. How easy it is to see that there is a sense in which God converts them, and another sense in which men convert them.
The Scriptures ascribe conversion to four different agencies - to men, to God, to the truth, and to the sinner himself. The passages which ascribe it to the truth are the largest class. That men should ever have overlooked this distinction, and should have regarded conversion as a work performed exclusively by God, is surprising. So it is that any difficulty should ever have been felt on the subject, or that people should ever have professed themselves unable to reconcile these several classes of passages.
The Bible speaks on this subject, precisely as we speak on common subjects. There is a man who has been very ill. How natural it is for him to say of his physician: "That man saved my life." Does he mean to say that the physician saved his life without reference to God? Certainly not, unless he is an infidel. God made the physician, and He made the medicine too. And it never can be shown but that the agency of God is just as truly concerned in making the medicine take effect to save life, as it is in making the truth take effect to save a soul. To affirm the contrary is downright atheism. It is true, then, that the physician saved him; and it is also true that God saved him.. It is equally true that the medicine saved his life, and also that he saved his own life by taking the medicine; for the medicine would have done no good if he had not taken it.
In the conversion of a sinner, it is true that God gives the truth efficiency to turn the sinner to God. He is an active, voluntary, powerful agent, in changing the mind. But the one who brings the truth to the sinner's notice is also an agent. We are apt to speak of ministers and other men as only instruments in converting sinners. This is not exactly correct. Man is something more than an instrument. Truth is the mere unconscious instrument. But man is more: he is a voluntary, responsible agent in the business. In a sermon, I have illustrated this idea by the case of an individual standing on the banks of Niagara.
"Suppose yourself to be standing on the banks of the Falls of Niagara. As you stand upon the verge of the precipice, you behold a man, lost in deep reverie, approaching its verge, unconscious of his danger. He approaches nearer and nearer, until he actually lifts his foot to take the final step that shall plunge him in destruction. At this moment, you lift your warning voice above the roar of the foaming waters, and cry out: 'Stop!' The voice pierces his ear, and breaks the charm that binds him; he turns instantly upon his heel; all pale and aghast he retires, quivering, from the verge of death. He reels and almost swoons with horror; turns, and walks slowly to the hotel; you follow him; the manifest agitation in his countenance calls numbers around him; and on your approach he points to you, and says: 'That man saved my life.' Here he ascribes the work to you; and certainly there is a sense in which you had saved him. But, on being further questioned, he says: "'Stop!" How that word rings in my ears. Oh, that was to me the word of life!' Here he ascribes it to the word that aroused him, and caused him to turn.
"But on conversing still further, he says: 'Had I not turned at that instant, I should have been a dead man.' Here he speaks of it (and truly) as his own act. But you directly hear him say: 'Oh, the mercy of God! If God had not interposed, I should have been lost!' Now, the only defect in this illustration is this: In the case supposed, the only interference on the part of God was a providential one; and the only sense in which the saving of the man's life is ascribed to Him, is in a providential sense. But in the conversion of a sinner there is something more than the providence of God employed; for here, not only does the providence of God so order it, that the preacher cries: 'Stop!' but the Spirit of God urges the truth home upon him with such tremendous power as to induce him to turn."
Not only does the minister cry: "Stop!" but through the living voice of the preacher, the Spirit cries: "Stop!" The preacher cries: "Turn ye, why will ye die?" The Spirit sends the argument home with such power that the sinner turns. Now, in speaking of this change, it is perfectly proper to say, that the Spirit turned him; just as you would say of a man who had persuaded another to change his mind on the subject of politics, that he had converted him, and brought him over. It is also proper to say that the truth converted him; as, in a case when the political sentiments of a man were changed by a certain argument, we should say that argument brought him over. So, also, with perfect propriety, may we ascribe the change to the preacher, or to him who had presented the motives; just as he would say of a lawyer who had prevailed in his argument with a jury: "He has won his case; he has converted the jury." It is also with the same propriety ascribed to the individual himself whose heart is changed; we should say that he has changed his mind, he has come over, he has repented. Now it is strictly true, and true in the most absolute and highest sense; the act is his own act, the turning is his own turning, while God by the truth has induced him to turn; still it is strictly true that he has turned, and has done it himself. Thus you see the sense in which it is the work of God; and also the sense in which it is the sinner's own work.
The Spirit of God, by the truth, influences the sinner to change, and in this sense is the efficient Cause of the change. But the sinner actually changes, and is therefore himself, in the most proper sense, the author of the change. There are some, who, on reading their Bibles, fasten their eyes on those passages that ascribe the work to the Spirit of God, and seem to overlook those which ascribe it to man, and speak of it as the sinner's own act. When they have quoted Scripture to prove it is the work of God, they seem to think they have proved that it is that in which man is passive, and that it can in no sense be the work of man.
Some time ago a tract was written, the title of which was, "Regeneration, the Effect of Divine Power." The writer goes on to prove that the work is wrought by the Spirit of God; and there he stops. Now it had been just as true, just as philosophical, and just as scriptural, if he had said that conversion was the work of man. It is easy to prove that it is the work of God, in the sense in which I have explained it. The writer, therefore, tells the truth, so far as he goes; but he has told only half the truth. For while there is a sense in which it is the work of God, as he has shown, there is also a sense in which it is the work of man, as we have just seen. The very title to this tract is a stumbling block. It tells the truth, but it does not tell the whole truth. And a tract might be written upon this proposition that "Conversion, or regeneration, is the work of man" which would be just as true, just as Scriptural, and just as philosophical, as the one to which I have alluded. Thus the writer, in his zeal to recognize and honor God as concerned in this work, by leaving out the fact that a change of heart is the sinner's own act, has left the sinner strongly entrenched, with his weapons in his rebellious hands, stoutly resisting the claims of his Maker, and waiting passively for God to make him a new heart. Thus you see the consistency between the requirement of the text, and the declared fact that God is the author of the new heart. God commands you to make you a new heart, expects you to do it; and, if ever it is done, you must do it.
And let me tell you, sinner, if you do not do it you will go to hell; and to all eternity you will feel that you deserved to be sent there for not having done it.
III. GOSPEL PREACHING AND SOUL WINING.
I shall now advert to several important particulars growing out of this subject, as connected with preaching the Gospel, and which show that great practical wisdom is indispensable to win souls to Christ.
1. In regard to the matter of preaching.
(a) First, all preaching should be practical. The proper end of all doctrine is practice. Anything brought forward as doctrine, which cannot be made use of as practical, is not preaching the Gospel. There is none of that sort of preaching in the Bible. That is all practical. "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Timothy 3:16:17).
A vast deal of preaching in the present day, as well as in past ages, is called doctrinal, as opposed to practical preaching. The very idea of making this distinction is a device of the devil. And a more abominable device Satan himself never devised. You sometimes hear certain men talk a wonderful deal about the necessity of "indoctrinating the people." By which they mean something different from practical preaching; teaching them certain doctrines, as abstract truths, without any particular reference to practice. And I have known a minister in the midst of a revival, while surrounded with anxious sinners, leave off laboring to convert souls, for the purpose of "indoctrinating" the young converts, for fear somebody else should indoctrinate them before him. And there the revival stops!
Either his doctrine was not true, or it was not preached in the right way.
To preach doctrines in an abstract way, and not in reference to practice, is absurd. God always brings in doctrine to regulate practice. To bring forward doctrinal views for any other object is not only nonsense; it is wicked.
Some people are opposed to doctrinal preaching. If they have been used to hear doctrines preached in a cold, abstract way, no wonder they are opposed to it. They ought to be opposed to such preaching. But what can a man preach, who preaches no doctrine? If he preaches no doctrine, he preaches no Gospel. And if he does not preach it in a practical way, he does not preach the Gospel. All preaching should be doctrinal, and all preaching should be practical. The very design of doctrine is to regulate practice. Any preaching that has not this tendency is not the Gospel. A loose, exhortatory style of preaching may affect the passions, and may produce excitement, but will never sufficiently instruct the people to secure sound conversions. On the other hand, preaching doctrine in an abstract manner may fill the head with notions, but will never sanctify the heart or life.
(b) Preaching should be direct. The Gospel should be preached to men, and not about men. The minister must address his hearers. He must preach to them about themselves, and not leave the impression that he is preaching to them about others. He will never do them any good, further than he succeeds in convincing each individual that he is the person in question.
Many preachers seem very much afraid of making the impression that they mean anybody in particular. They are preaching against certain sins - not that these have anything to do with the sinner; they would by no means speak as if they supposed any of their hearers were guilty of these abominable practices. Now this is anything but preaching the Gospel.
Thus did not the prophets, nor Christ, nor the apostles. Nor do those ministers do this, who are successful in winning souls to Christ.
Another very important thing to be regarded in preaching is, that the minister should hunt after sinners and Christians, wherever they may have entrenched themselves in inaction. It is not the design of preaching to make men easy and quiet, but to make them ACT. It is not the design, in calling in a physician, to have him give opiates, and so cover up the disease and let it run on till it works death; but to search out the disease wherever it may be hidden, and to remove it. So, if a professor of religion has backslidden, and is full of doubts and fears, it is not the minister's duty to quiet him in his sins, and comfort him, but to hunt him out of his errors and backslidings, and to show him just where he stands, and what it is that makes him full of doubts and fears.
A minister ought to know the religious opinions of every sinner in his congregation. Indeed, a minister in the country is inexcusable if he does not. He has no excuse for not knowing the religious views of all his congregation, and of all that may come under his influence. How otherwise can he preach to them? How can he know how to bring forth things new and old, and adapt truth to their case? How can he hunt them out unless he knows where they hide themselves? He may ring changes on a few fundamental doctrines - Repentance and Faith, and Faith and Repentance - till the Day of Judgment, and never make any impression on many minds. Every sinner has some hiding place, some entrenchment, where he lingers. He is in possession of some darling LIE, with which he is quieting himself. Let the minister find it out, and get it away, either in the pulpit or in private, or the man will go to hell in his sins, and his blood will be found on the minister's skirts.
(d) Another important thing to observe is, that a minister should dwell most on those particular points which are most needed. I will explain what I mean.
Sometimes he may find a people who have been led to place great reliance on their own resolutions. They think they can consult their own convenience, and by-and-by they will repent, when they are ready, without any concern about the Spirit of God. Let him take up these notions, and show that they are entirely contrary to the Scriptures. Let him show that if the Spirit of God is grieved away, by and by, when it shall be convenient for the sinner to repent, he will have no inclination.
The minister who finds these errors prevailing, should expose them. He should hunt them out, and understand just how they are held, and then preach the class of truths which show the fallacy, the folly, and the danger of these notions.
So, on the other hand, he may find a people who have such views of Election and Sovereignty, as to think they have nothing to do but to wait for "the moving of the waters." Let him go right over against them, urge upon them their ability to obey God, show them their obligation and duty, and press them with that until he brings them to submit and be saved.
They have got behind a perverted view of these doctrines, and there is no way to drive them out of the hiding place, but to set them right on these points. Wherever a sinner is entrenched, unless you pour light upon him there, you will never move him. It is of no use to press him with those truths which he admits, however plainly they may in fact contradict his wrong notions. He supposes them to be perfectly consistent, and does not see the inconsistency, and therefore it will not move him, or bring him to repentance.
I have been informed of a minister in New England, who was settled in a congregation which had long enjoyed little else than Armenian preaching, and the congregation themselves were chiefly Armenians. Well, this minister, in his preaching, strongly insisted on the opposite points, Election, Divine Sovereignty, Predestination, etc. The consequence was, as might have been expected where this was done with ability, that there was a powerful revival. Some time afterwards this same minister was called to labor in another field, in this State, where the people were all on the other side, and strongly tinctured with Antinomianism. They had got such perverted views of Election and Divine Sovereignty, that they were continually saying they had no power to do anything, but must wait God's time. Now, what does the minister do, but immediately go to preaching the doctrine of Election. And when he was asked how he could think of preaching the doctrine of Election so much to that people, when it was the very thing that lulled them to a deeper slumber, he replied: "Why, that is the very class of truths by which I had such a great revival in -"; not considering the difference in the views of the people. You must take things as they are; find out where sinners lie, pour in truth upon them there, and START THEM OUT from their refuges of lies. It is of vast importance that a minister should find out where the congregation is, and preach accordingly.
I have been in many places in times of revival, and I have never been able to employ precisely the same course of preaching in one as in another.
Some are entrenched behind one refuge, and some behind another. In one place, Christians will need to be instructed; in another, sinners. In one place, one set of truths; in another, another set. A minister must find out where people are, and preach accordingly. I believe this is the experience of all preachers who are called to labor from field to field.
(e) If a minister means to promote a revival, he should be very careful not to introduce controversy. He will grieve away the Spirit of God. In this way, probably, more revivals are put down than in any other. Look back upon the history of the Church from the beginning, and you will see that ministers are generally responsible for grieving away the Spirit and causing declensions by controversy. It is the ministers who bring forward controversial subjects for discussion, and by and by they get very zealous on the subject, and then get the Church into a controversial spirit, and so the Spirit of God is grieved away.
If I had time to go over the history of the Church from the days of the apostles, I could show that all the controversies that have taken place, and all the great declensions in religion, too, are chargeable upon ministers. I believe the ministers of the present day are responsible for the present state of the Church, and it will be seen to be true at the judgment. Who does not know that ministers have been crying out "Heresy," and "New Measures," and talking about the "Evils of Revivals," until they have got the Church all in confusion? 42 Oh, God, have mercy on ministers! They talk about their days of fasting and prayer, but are these the men to call on others to fast and pray? They ought to fast and pray themselves. It is time that ministers should assemble together, and fast and pray over the evils of controversy, for they have caused it. The Church itself would never get into a controversial spirit, unless led into it by ministers. The body of Church members are always averse to controversy, and would keep out of it, only they are dragged into it by ministers. When Christians are revived they are not inclined to meddle with controversy, either to read or hear it.
But they may be told of such and such "damnable heresies" that are afloat, till they get their feelings enlisted in controversy, and then farewell to the revival. If a minister, in preaching, finds it necessary to discuss particular points about which Christians differ in opinion, let him BY ALL MEANS avoid a controversial spirit and manner of doing it.
(f) The Gospel should be preached in those proportions, that the whole Gospel may be brought before the minds of the people, and produce its proper influence. If too much stress is laid on one class of truths, the Christian character will not have its due proportions. Its symmetry will not be perfect. If that class of truths be almost exclusively dwelt upon, that requires great exertion of intellect, without being brought home to the heart and conscience, it will be found that the Church will be indoctrinated in those views, but will not be awake, and active, and efficient in the promotion of religion. If, on the other hand, the preaching be loose, indefinite, exhortatory, and highly impassioned, the Church will be like a ship with too much sail for her ballast. It will be in danger of being swept away by a storm of feeling, when there is not sufficient knowledge to prevent its being carried away with every wind of doctrine. If Election and Sovereignty are too much preached, there will be Antinomianism in the Church, and sinners will hide themselves behind the delusion that they can do nothing. If, on the other hand, doctrines of ability and obligation be too prominent, they will produce Arminianism, and sinners will be blustering and self-confident.