I have been very struck with the simplicity with which the work of evangelism was carried out in NT times––so very unlike a great deal of what obtains today. It seems to me that we moderns are much too hampered by conventional rules––too much fettered by the habits of Christendom. We are apt to think that in order to evangelise there must be a special gift, and even where there is this special gift, there must be a great deal of human arrangement. When we speak of evangelism, we have before our minds great public arenas, and crowded audiences, for which there is a demand for considerable gift and power for speaking.
Now I thoroughly believe that in order to preach the Gospel publicly there must be a special gift from the Head of the Church. I also believe that Christ has given, and still does give “evangelists” (Eph. 4: 11). Despite this, I find in the Gospels and Acts a significant quantity of most blessed evangelistic work being done by persons who were not specially gifted in that way at all, yet who had an earnest love for souls and a deep sense of the preciousness of Christ and His salvation.
Let us look a little into Scripture. Take that lovely scene in John 1: 35–46. There John pours out his heart in testimony to the Lord: “Behold the Lamb of God”. His soul was absorbed with one glorious Object. What was the result? “Two disciples heard him speaking, and followed Jesus.” What then? “Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two who heard [this] from John, and followed Him”. So what does he do? “He first finds his own brother Simon, and says to him, We have found the Messias (which being interpreted is Christ). And he led him to Jesus.” Again, “On the morrow he would go forth into Galilee, and Jesus finds Philip, and says to him, Follow me ... Philip finds Nathanael, and says to him, We have found him of whom Moses wrote in the law, and the prophets, Jesus, the son of Joseph, who is from Nazareth ... Come and see”.
Here is the style of thing for which I earnestly long––this individual work, this laying hold of the first man that comes our way, this finding one’s own brother, and bringing him to Christ. I do feel we are deficient in this. Of course it is good to gather congregations, and address them. I would not pen a single word to detract from the value of such a line of work. By all means hire halls, put out adverts inviting people to come––leave no proper method untried to spread the Gospel. That said, does it not strike you that we want more of the individual work––more of the private, earnest, personal dealing with souls? Do you not think that if there were more ‘Philips’ there would be more ‘Nathanaels’, and if we had more ‘Andrews’, we should have more ‘Simons’? There is amazing power in an earnest personal appeal. Many have found that it is after the more formal public preaching is finished and the close personal work begins that souls are reached. How is it then that there is so little of the latter? At public preachings, is it often not the case that when the formal address is delivered, a hymn sung and a word of prayer offered, all disperse without any attempt at individual work? I am not speaking here of the preacher––who cannot possibly reach every case––but of the Christians who have been listening to him. They have seen strangers enter the room and they have sat beside them. They have, it may be, noticed their interest, and yet they have let them pass away without any effort to reach them, or to follow up the good work! You may reply that ‘It is much better to allow the Spirit of God to follow up His own Work as we may do more harm than good. Besides, people do not like to be spoken to. They will look upon it as an impertinent intrusion, and will be driven away from the place altogether.’ Now I fully appreciate that there is considerable weight in all this. I fear great blunders are committed by injudicious, if well–meaning, persons intruding upon the sacred privacy of the soul’s deep and holy exercises. It needs tact, judgment and, above all, direct spiritual guidance to be able to deal with souls––to know whom to speak to, and what to say. Yet even if we allow for all this, there is still often a marked deficiency in our attitude. I have at times been pained by what I see in our halls. If strangers come in they are left to find a seat wherever they can––usually at the front. Heads turn to stare. No one thinks to offer them a Bible or hymn–book. When the preaching is over, they are allowed to go as they came––not a loving word of inquiry as to whether they enjoyed the truth preached, nor a kindly look which might win confidence and invite conversation. On the contrary, there seems to be a chilling reserve.
All this is very sorrowful, and perhaps you will tell me that I am painting too coloured a picture. I am thankful if your experience is different but sadly my picture is often only too accurate. I feel persuaded that much might be remedied if those Christians who attend the Gospel preachings were more on the look out for souls––if they would attend, not so much for their own profit, as in order to be co–workers with God in bringing souls to the Lord Jesus. No doubt it is very refreshing to Christians to hear the Gospel fully and faithfully preached––but it would not in any way interfere with their personal enjoyment and profit to cultivate a loving interest in those around them, and to seek at the close of the meeting to help any who need to be helped. It has a surprising effect upon the preacher, upon the preaching, and upon the whole occasion, when the Christians who attend are really entering into their high and holy responsibilities to Christ and to souls. Yet how often is it otherwise! How cold, how dull, and how dispiriting it is at times to see the whole congregation clear out the moment the preaching is over! No lingering groups gathering round young converts or anxious inquirers. All hasten away as though it were a matter of life and death that they should be home at a certain hour! Do not suppose that I wish to lay down rules for my brethren––far be the thought. I am merely, in the freest possible manner, pouring out the thoughts of my heart. I feel convinced there is something lacking. It is my firm persuasion that no Christian is in a right condition if he is not seeking in some way to bring souls to Christ. We should all be on the lookout for souls, and then we may rest assured we should see soul–stirring results! However, if we are satisfied to go on from week to week, month to month, and year to year, without a single leaf stirring, without a single conversion, then our state is truly appalling!
There is one point in connection with this subject which has much occupied my mind and that is the immense importance of cultivating an earnest faith in the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. It is vital that we remember, on the one hand, that we can do nothing, and, on the other, that the Holy Spirit can do everything. It holds good in the great work of evangelisation, as in all beside, that it is “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith Jehovah of hosts” (Zech. 4: 6). The abiding sense of this would keep us humble, and yet full of joyful confidence. Humble, because we can do nothing; full of joyful confidence, because God can do everything. Furthermore, it would have the effect of keeping us very sober and quiet in our work––not cold and indifferent, which is something very different, but calm and serious. Of course we should be fervent in our labours, but it is a great mistake to confound mere excitement with divine energy. I love a deep–toned fervency and earnestness in the work. I do not see how a man can be other than deeply and thoroughly in earnest who realises in any measure the awfulness of a lost eternity and the state of those who die in their sins. How is it possible for any one to think of an immortal soul standing on the brink of hell, and not be urgent, serious, fervent and energetic? Yet this is not excitement. What I understand by excitement is the working up of mere nature, and the putting forth of such efforts of nature as are designed to work on the natural feelings––all high pressure, all that is merely sensational. A deliberate choice of sentimental songs and emotional music, a conscious effort to whip the audience up to fever pitch, a stage–managed, rehearsed and choreographed ‘show’. All such is worthless. We never find anything of this in the ministry of the Lord––and yet what earnestness, what untiring energy, what tenderness! We see an earnestness which wore the appearance of being beside oneself (see Mark 3: 21––AV), an energy which hardly afforded a moment for rest or refreshment (see Luke 21: 37), and a tenderness which could weep over impenitent sinners (see Luke 19: 41). All this we see, but no excitement. There was urgency, but also solemnity. In a word, all was the fruit of the Eternal Spirit, and all was to the glory of God. By comparison, how frivolous and shallow is much of today’s so–called evangelism!
Take a look at the great Ulster revival of 1859. What was the special character of that work in its earlier stages? Was it not most manifestly a work of God’s Spirit? Did not He take up and use instruments most unfit and unfurnished, according to human thinking, for the conversion of souls? Were they not for the most part “unlettered and uninstructed men” (Acts 4: 13)? Working men came from the field and the factory to address crowded audiences, and hundreds hung in breathless interest upon the lips of men who could not speak five words of good grammar. Were they ‘ordained’ or ‘approved’ by men in some way for their service? Not at all. In short, a mighty tide of spiritual life and power rolled in upon the scene, and swept away for a time all human machinery, and ignored all question of man’s authority in the service of Christ. Now just in so far as the Holy Spirit was owned and honoured, so did the glorious work progress; and, on the other hand, in proportion as man intruded himself in bustling self–importance upon the domain of the Eternal Spirit, so was the work hindered and quashed. The truth of this was illustrated in numberless cases. There was a vigorous effort made to cause the living water to flow in official channels, and to make sectarian capital out of the movement, and this the Spirit resented. Nor was this all. The work and the workman were lionised in all directions. Cases of conversion which were judged to be ‘striking’ were blazed abroad and paraded in the public press. Some poor creatures, who had up to that time lived in obscurity, all of a sudden found themselves to be famous. The pulpit and the press proclaimed their sayings and doings, and, as might be expected, many completely lost their balance. Knaves and hypocrites abounded on all hands. It became a grand point to have some strange and extravagant experience to tell. Young converts became heady and high–minded, and looked with contempt on those who did not happen to be converted after their dramatic fashion. Some very remarkable characters––men of desperate notoriety who seemed to be converted––were conveyed from place to place and crowds gathered to hear them recount their history, a history so degraded as to be hardly suitable for public consumption. Several of these individuals afterwards broke down, and returned with increased ardour to their former practices.
I believe the Spirit of God was grieved and hindered by all these things, and the work marred thereby. Yet there is nothing new under the sun, and much valuable evangelical activity today is spoiled by a similar catalogue of scandal and excess. How imperative it is to seek to honour the Holy Spirit in all our work, to lean upon Him, to follow where He leads, and not to run before Him! His work, and His work alone will stand: “What¬ever God doeth, it shall be for ever” (Ecc. 3: 14). Remembering this will keep the mind well balanced. There is great danger of workmen getting so excited about their work, their preaching and their gifts, as to lose sight of the blessed Master Himself. The moment I make preaching my end, I am out of the current of the mind of God, whose end is to glorify Christ. Where the Holy Spirit gets His proper place all will be right. There will be no exaltation of man, no bustling self–importance, no parading of the fruits of our work. All will be calm, real, and unpretending. There will be the simple, earnest, believing, patient waiting upon God. Self will be in the shade and Christ will be exalted. Certainly we want to see the Lord’s labourers thoroughly in earnest, but I believe that true earnestness will result from the most absolute dependence upon the Holy Spirit. It has been said that ‘Heaven will be the best and safest place to hear the results of our work’. This is a wholesome word for all workmen. I shudder when I see the names of Christ’s servants paraded publicly, with flattering references to their work and its fruits. This is not following in the Master’s footsteps. I am fully persuaded that the quiet, shady, retiring path is the best and safest for the Christian workman. It will not make him less earnest nor cramp his energy, but rather increase and intensify it.
Intimately connected with the place of the Spirit of God in the work of evangelisation is the part played by the Word of God. Both are inseparably linked in those memorable words of our Lord to Nicodemus: “Except any one be born of water and of Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3: 5). The Word (here in the figure of water––see Eph. 5: 26) must be applied to the soul by the Spirit if there is to be a work of God. Thus the Word is the grand instrument to be used in the work of evangelisation. Many passages of Holy Scripture establish this point with such clearness and decision as to leave no room for dispute. In James 1: 18 we read, “According to his own will begat he us by the word of truth.” Again, in 1 Pet. 1: 23–25, we read, “being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by [the] living and abiding word of God. Because all flesh [is] as grass, and all its glory as [the] flower of grass. The grass has withered and [its] flower has fallen; but the word of [the] Lord abides for eternity. But this is the word which in the glad tidings [is] preached to you.” This last clause is of vast importance to the evangelist. It binds him in the most distinct manner, to the Word of God as the instrument––the only instrument, the all–sufficient instrument––to be used in his glorious work. He is to give the Word to the people and the more simply he gives it the better. The pure water should be allowed to flow from the heart of God to the heart of the sinner without receiving a tinge from the channel through which it flows. The evangelist is to preach the Word and he is to preach it in simple dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the true secret of success in preaching.
Yet while I urge this great cardinal point in the work of preaching, I am very far indeed from thinking that the evangelist should be on the line too much of expounding truth. That is a very great mistake. He ought to leave this to the teacher or pastor. I often fear that very much of our preaching shoots over the heads of the people owing to the fact of our seeking rather to unfold truth than to reach souls. We may be satisfied with having delivered a very clear and forcible lecture, a very interesting and instructive exposition of Scripture, something very valuable for the people of God––but the unconverted hearer has sat unmoved, unreached, and unimpressed. There has been nothing for him. The lecturer has been more occupied with his lecture than with the sinner––more taken up with his subject than with the unsaved soul. One thing I am certain of is that the most successful evangelist is the one who keeps his eye fixed on the sinner, who has his heart bent on the salvation of souls, and whose love for precious souls amounts almost to a passion.
Yet do we not often find that preachers of the Gospel (particularly if they continue a long time in one place) are very apt to leave the domain of the evangelist and travel into that of the teacher and lecturer? This is what I deprecate and deeply deplore. I do not––God forbid that I should––think the less of the work of a teacher or pastor. I believe that wherever there is a heart that loves Christ, it will delight to feed and tend the precious lambs and sheep of the flock of Christ. But the sheep must be gathered before they can be fed––and how are they to be gathered but by the earnest preaching of the Gospel? It is the grand business of the evangelist to go forth upon the dark mountains of sin and error, to sound the Gospel trumpet and gather the sheep––and I feel convinced that he will best accomplish this work, not by elaborate exposition of truth, not by lectures however clear, valuable, and instructive, not by lovely unfoldings of prophetic, dispensational, or doctrinal truth––most precious and important in the right place––but by fervent, pointed, earnest dealing with immortal souls: the warning voice, the solemn appeal, the faithful reasoning of “righteousness and temperance, and the judgment about to come” (Acts 24: 25). I fully admit that there is such a thing as teaching the Gospel, as well as preaching it. For example, I find Paul teaching the Gospel in Rom. 1–8, just as I find him preaching the Gospel in Acts 13 and 17. This is of very great importance at all times, inasmuch as there may well be a number of babes in Christ at the public preachings who need the way of God unfolded to them more exactly––who require a deeper and broader understanding of the salvation that is theirs. But admitting all this, I still believe that what is needed for successful evangelisation is not so much a great quantity of truth as an intense love for souls. Look at that eminent evangelist George Whitefield. What was his secret? Was there any great breadth of truth in his sermons? Not particularly. Yet there was in Whitefield that which you and I so often lack! A burning love for souls, a thirst for their salvation, and a mighty grappling with consciences! A bold, earnest, face–to–face dealing with men about their past ways, their present state and their future destiny! These were the things that God owned and blessed then––and He will surely own and bless them still. I am persuaded that if our hearts are bent upon the salvation of souls God will use us in that divine and glorious work. On the contrary, if we abandon ourselves to the withering influences of a cold, heartless, godless fatalism, if we content ourselves with a formal and official statement of the Gospel, and if our preaching is on the principle of ‘take it or leave it,’ we ought not to wonder if we do not see conversions!
I believe all need to look seriously into this great practical subject. I cannot conceive how any Christian can shirk the responsibility of looking out for souls. A man may say ‘I am not an evangelist: that is not my line; I am more of a teacher, or a pastor’. Well, I understand this, but will any one tell me that a teacher or pastor cannot go forth in earnest longing after souls? It does not matter in the least what a man’s gift is, or even if he should not possess any prominent gift at all––he can and ought to cultivate a longing desire for the salvation of his fellow men. Would it be right to pass a house on fire without giving warning, even though one were not a member of the fire brigade? So, in reference to the Gospel, it is not so much gift or knowledge of truth that is needed, as a deep and earnest longing for souls, a keen sense of their danger, and a desire for their rescue.