One of the sorrows of the servants of Christ today is the acknowledged “dearth of conversions.” No true-hearted soul-winner but mourns this terrible fact. Where does the fault lie? If it should lie in any way in the preaching, then it becomes the preacher to take heed. It is quite true that new birth is the work of God alone. But for His sovereign grace not one of us would have turned to Him. Never would we have owned our lost condition had not His Spirit wrought a sense of it in our consciences.
Still, that is God’s side, and while fully and thankfully owning it, the preacher must address himself to his side of the blessed work.
And what can the preacher do? He can only preach, but if he preach in divine power he does very much. Thus we read: “How shall they hear without a preacher?” And, again, “So then faith comes by hearing” (Rom. 10). Hence the preacher, though but a vessel, holds a very important place in the blessing of the soul. He is God’s channel of communication. He must, therefore, be exceedingly and prayerfully dependent on God for His message on each occasion of delivering it.
But assuming that he seeks to reach souls that are clearly unconverted, who have never, so far as can be judged, felt conviction of sin, or the struggle of a guilty conscience, his one great effort should be to bring them to repentance before God.
Repentance is a sine qua non! “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish,” said the Lord to the people of His day (see Luke 13:3); and He it was who charged His apostles, ere He ascended to heaven, to preach “repentance and the remission of sins” (Luke 24:47).
Repentance lies at the bottom, and is absolutely essential in any divine work in the soul. If that be lacking there is clearly no foundation at all. It may be deep and overwhelming, or it may be comparatively feeble, as in the case of Lydia; but apart from that which repentance implies, viz., the judgment and repudiation of self before God, there can be no work in the soul.
But what does repentance mean? It means, literally, a “change of mind.” That may appear small thing, but it is not so. Think of what it is to have a change of mind as to God! It means that all your previous thoughts of Him were wrong! in a word, that you yourself were wrong toward God! It implies a revolution, a collapse, a complete breakdown of the whole inner man! No change so radical as repentance! And, notice, this change is absolutely necessary.
But what is the preacher’s part in the production of repentance? He must do his best to grapple with the conscience of his hearers; he must feel as though everything depended on himself; he must view them as sinners guilty of specific sins, and these he must charge home, fearlessly, on their consciences. He must expose their lives to them; he must connect their guilt with the judgment-bar of God—the great white throne; he must announce that judgment as the certain and inevitable goal of the impenitent; he must proclaim “the wrath of God” and “eternal judgment” as that which awaits all who have failed to repent. He must not flinch from calling sin by its own name, or from linking it, as cause and effect, with death and judgment. Preachers must never be guilty of moral cowardice, nor pander to the taste of man.
They tread on tremendously solid ground when they deal with actual sins. Thus the early preachers dealt. Their preaching was very matter-of-fact. (See Acts 2, 4, 7.) And facts, facts, FACTS, are very formidable things!!
Other truths may well be introduced at a later stage (e.g., the judgment that rests, even now, on man, and the presence of the Holy Ghost, in itself the conviction of the world because of sin); but, in dealing with a totally unrenewed soul, there is nothing so effective as the enforcement of its own personal offences. It is this which, under God, will bring about the necessary collapse, and remove the complaint of “the dearth of conversions.”
The spirit in which such preaching should be done is one of deep Christlike love. The soul of the preacher must be imbued by the infinite love of that Saviour who passed through Gethsemane, and who bled on Calvary under divine judgment against sin, in order to deliver us from “the wrath to come.” Nothing is done without love (1 Cor. 13).
I should like to quote part of a letter received the other day from a beloved and honoured servant of Christ, bearing out the above remarks:
“I have had a very decided conviction lately, and it has grown upon me, that there is a great lack today of the good old-fashioned call to repentance! I feel I should like myself to make up for lost time in this respect, and preach it more, and try to explain it less, but rather leave it to the Spirit of God to explain it to the soul, and to enforce its necessity in any soul that listens to the echo, in our lips, of God’s own call.
“I would not surrender my faith in the necessity of God’s sovereign action for anything; but repentance, rather than this side, was what characterized the preaching of the apostles.”
Quite so; it is, thank God, all His work from beginning to end, otherwise it were valueless; but as His servants and messengers to the souls of men, it is our duty and privilege to do His work effectively; not to daub with untempered mortar nor lightly heal; but if the conscience must be conquered and the pride of man humbled, then the first and primary effort must be to show man his guilt—to “open his eyes” to that which he has done and is—that he may take his true place before the God of infinite love and holiness, in utter detestation of himself and his ways.
This is repentance. The goodness of God leads to it. The soul must repent when consciously in His holy presence, as we may see in Job, Isaiah, Saul of Tarsus, and others; and this, however it may be brought about, should be the supreme object of the preacher who would be faithful to the souls of his unsaved and sin-imperilled audience.
If only he have that prophetic power which can say to the sinner, “Thou art the man,” and cause the conscience of the adulterer to quail under the charge of his crime, or the drunkard, or the thief, or “the sinner of the city,” or the Pharisee who prides himself on his supposed moral superiority—this is far more effective, though it may call for much more personal dealing with God, than broad generalizations, which, though perfectly true, lack the grip of individual application.
When the soul is thus gripped it is reached. It must then repent. No doubt the call to repentance is not the gospel; but neither is the plough the seed-basket! But repentance is as preparatory for the gospel as the furrow is for the seed.
When conviction is wrought in the conscience, how unspeakably happy then to unfold the heart of God and the value of the atoning death of Christ, and all that flows from Himself on high! But the preparation for this, as for all blessing, is found in repentance before God.
Hence we find that repentance was the loud and earnest call of John the Baptist, in view of the coming of his Master, who, when He had come, took up the same note, as His first and continued appeal. So, too, Peter, on the day of Pentecost, called for repentance on the part of those guilty thousands whom he had charged with having slain, with wicked hands, their Messiah. And, finally, from Mars’ Hill went forth that universal command that “all men,” “everywhere,” should repent! Yes, “all men,” from king to captive, and from wise to foolish; “everywhere;” from north to south, and from east to west, without one single exception! It is God’s command! Obedience is necessary! Shall not God’s command be the preacher’s care?
May the Lord grant the needed wisdom, love, and courage to His beloved servants, who rightly yearn for the blessing of men, so to preach in this proud, pleasure-loving day, that, ere the door close, multitudes may be awakened to their true state, and led to know Himself in the surpassingness of His rich and saving grace.