ON CONVERSION AS OUR AIM
Extracted from Lectures to my Students by C. H. Spurgeon
The grand object of the Christian ministry is the glory of God. Whether souls are converted or not, if Jesus Christ be faithfully preached, the minister has not laboured in vain, for he is a sweet savour unto God as well in them that perish as in them that are saved. Yet, as a rule, God has sent us to preach in order that through the gospel of Jesus Christ the sons of men may be reconciled to Him. Here and there a preacher of righteousness, like Noah, may labour on and bring none beyond his own family circle into the ark of salvation; and another, like Jeremiah, may weep in vain over an impenitent nation; but, for the most part, the work of preaching is intended to save the hearers. It is ours to sow even in stony places, where no fruit rewards our toil; but still we are bound to look for a harvest, and mourn if it does not appear in due time.
The glory of God being our chief object, we aim at it by seeking the edification of saints and the salvation of sinners. It is a noble work to instruct the people of God, and to build them up in their most holy faith: we may by no means neglect this duty. To this end we must give clear statements of gospel doctrine, of vital experience, and of Christian duty, and never shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God. In too many cases sublime truths are held in abeyance under the pretence that they are not practical; whereas the very fact that they are revealed proves that the Lord thinks them to be of value, and woe unto us if we pretend to be wiser than He. We may say of any and every doctrine of ScriptureÂ—
“To give it then a tongue is wise in man.”
If any one note is dropped from the divine harmony of truth the music may be sadly marred. Your people may fall into grave spiritual diseases through the lack of a certain form of spiritual nutriment, which can only be supplied by the doctrines which you withhold. In the food which we eat there are ingredients which do not at first appear to be necessary to life; but experience shows that they are requisite to health and strength. Phosphorus will not make flesh, but it is wanted for bone; many earths and salts come under the same descriptionÂ—they are necessary in due proportion to the human economy. Even thus certain truths which appear to be little adapted for spiritual nutriment are, nevertheless, very beneficial in furnishing believers with backbone and muscle, and in repairing the varied organs of Christian manhood. We must preach “the whole truth,” that the man of God may be thoroughly furnished unto all good works.
Our great object of glorifying God is, however, to be mainly achieved by the winning of souls. We must see souls born unto God. If we do not, our cry should be that of Rachel, “Give me children, or I die.” If we do not win souls, we should mourn as the husbandman who sees no harvest, as the fisherman who returns to his cottage with an empty net, or as the huntsman who has in vain roamed over hill and dale. Ours should be Isaiah’s language uttered with many a sigh and groanÂ—”Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?” The ambassadors of peace should not cease to weep bitterly until sinners weep for their sins.
If we intensely desire to see our hearers believe on the Lord Jesus, how shall we act in order to be used of God for producing such a result? This is the theme of the present lecture.
Since conversion is a divine work, we must take care that we depend entirely upon the Spirit of God, and look to Him for power over men’s minds. Often as this remark is repeated, I fear we too little feel its force; for if we were more truly sensible of our need of the Spirit of God, should we not study more in dependence upon His teaching? Should we not pray more importunately to be anointed with His sacred unction? Should we not in preaching give more scope for His operation? Do we not fail in many of our efforts, because we practically, though not doctrinally, ignore the Holy Ghost? His place as God is on the throne, and in all our enterprises He must be first, midst and end: we are instruments in His hand, and nothing more.
This being fully admitted, what else would be done if we hope to see conversions? Assuredly we should be careful to preach most prominently those truths which are likely to lead to this end. What truths are those? I answer, we should first and foremost preach Christ, and Him crucified. Where Jesus is exalted souls are attractedÂ—”I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.” The preaching of the cross is to them that are saved the wisdom of God and the power of God. The Christian minister should preach all the truths which cluster around the person and work of the Lord Jesus, and hence he must declare very earnestly and pointedly the evil of sin, which created the need of a Saviour. Let him show that sin is a breach of the law, that it necessitates punishment, and that the wrath of God is revealed against it. Let him never treat sin as though it were a trifle, or a misfortune, but let him set it forth as exceeding sinful. Let him go into particulars, not superficially glancing at evil in the gross, but mentioning various sins in detail, especially those most current at the time: such as that all-devouring hydra of drunkenness, which devastates our land; lying, which in the form of slander abounds on all sides; and licentiousness, which must be mentioned with holy delicacy, and yet needs to be denounced
unsparingly. We must especially reprove those evils into which our hearers have fallen, or are likely to fall. Explain the ten commandments and obey the divine injunction: “Show my people their transgressions, and the house of Jacob their sins.” Open up the spirituality of the law as our Lord did, and show how it is broken by evil thoughts, intents, and imaginations. By this means many sinners will be pricked in their hearts. Old Robbie Flockhart used to say, “It is of no use trying to sew with the silken thread of the gospel unless we pierce a way for it with the sharp needle of the law.” The law goes first, like the needle, and draws the gospel thread after it:
therefore preach concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment to come. Let such language as that of the fifty-first Psalm be often explained: show that God requireth truth in the inward parts, and that purging with sacrificial blood is absolutely needful. Aim at the heart. Probe the wound and touch the very quick of the soul. Spare not the sterner themes, for men must be wounded before they can be healed, and slain before they can be made alive. No man will ever put on the robe of Christ’s righteousness till he is stripped of his fig leaves, nor will he wash in the fount of mercy till he perceives his filthiness. Therefore, my brethren, we must not cease to declare the law, its demands, its threatenings, and the sinner’s multiplied breaches of it.
Teach the depravity of human nature. Show men that sin is not an accident, but the genuine outcome of their corrupt hearts. Preach the doctrine of the natural depravity of man. It is an unfashionable truth; for nowadays ministers are to be found who are very fine upon “the dignity of human nature.” The “lapsed state of man”Â— that is the phraseÂ—is sometimes alluded to, but the corruption of our nature, and kindred themes are carefully avoided: Ethiopians are informed that they may whiten their skins, and it is hoped that leopards will remove their spots. Brethren, you will not fall into this delusion, or, if you do, you may expect few conversions. To prophesy smooth things, and to extenuate the evil of our lost estate, is not the way to lead men to Jesus.
Brethren, the necessity for the Holy Ghost’s divine operations will follow as a matter of course upon the former teaching, for dire necessity demands divine interposition. Men must be told that they are dead, and that only the Holy Spirit can quicken them; that the Spirit works according to His own good pleasure, and that no man can claim His visitations or deserve His aid. This is thought to be very discouraging teaching, and so it is, but men need to be discouraged when they are seeking salvation in a wrong manner. To put them out of conceit of their own abilities is a great help toward bringing them to look out of self to another, even the Lord Jesus. The doctrine of election and other great truths which declare salvation to be all of
grace, and to be, not the right of the creature, but the gift of the Sovereign Lord, are all calculated to hide pride from man, and so to prepare him to receive the mercy of God.
We must also set before our hearers the justice of God and the certainty that every transgression will be punished. Often must we
“Before them place in dread array,
The pomp of that tremendous day
When Christ with clouds shall come.”
Sound in their ears the doctrine of the second advent, not as a curiosity of prophecy, but as a solemn practical fact. It is idle to set forth our Lord in all the tinkling bravery of an earthly kingdom, after the manner of brethren who believe in a revived Judaism; we need to preach the Lord as coming to judge the world in righteousness, to summon the nations to His bar, and to separate them as a shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats. Paul preached of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, and made Felix tremble: these themes are equally powerful now. We rob the gospel of its power if we leave out its threatenings of punishment. It is to be feared that the novel opinions upon annihilation and restoration which have afflicted the Church in these last days have caused many ministers to be slow to speak concerning the last judgment and its issues, and consequently the terrors of the Lord have had small influence upon either preachers or hearers. If this be so it cannot be too much regretted, for one great means of conversion is thus left unused.
Beloved brethren, we must be most of all clear upon the great soul-saving doctrine of the atonement; we must preach a real bona fide substitutionary sacrifice, and proclaim pardon as its result. Cloudy views as to atoning blood are mischievous to the last degree;
souls are held in unnecessary bondage, and saints are robbed of the calm confidence of faith, because they are not definitely told that ‘God hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” We must preach substitution straightforwardly and unmistakeably, for if any doctrine be plainly taught in Scripture it is this,Â—”The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed.” ”He, His own self, bare our sins in His own body on the tree.” This truth gives rest to the conscience by showing how God can be just, and the justifier of him that believeth. This is the great net of gospel fishermen: the fish are drawn or driven in the right direction by other truths, but this is the net itself.
If men are to be saved, we must in plainest terms preach ”justification by faith, as the method by which the atonement becomes effectual in the soul’s experience. If we are saved by the substitutionary work of Christ, no merit of ours is wanted, and all
men have to do is by a simple faith to accept what Christ has already done. It is delightful to dwell on the grand truth that “This man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God.” O glorious sightÂ—the Christ sitting down in the place of honour because His work is done. Well may the soul rest in a work so evidently complete.
Justification by faith must never be obscured, and yet all are not clear upon it. I once heard a sermon upon “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy,” of which the English was, “Be good, very good, and though you will have to suffer in consequence, God will reward you in the end.” The preacher, no doubt, believed in justification by faith, but he very distinctly preached the opposite doctrine. Many do this when addressing children, and I notice that they generally speak to the little ones about loving Jesus, and not upon believing in Him. This must leave a mischievous impression upon youthful minds and take them off from the true way of peace.
Preach earnestly the love of God in Christ Jesus, and magnify the abounding mercy of the Lord; but always preach it in connection with His justice. Do not extol the single attribute of love in the method too generally followed, but regard love in the high theological sense, in which, like a golden circle, it holds within itself all the divine attributes: for God were not love if He were not just, and did not hate every unholy thing. Never exalt one attribute at the expense of another. Let boundless mercy be seen in calm consistency with stem justice and unlimited sovereignty. The true character of God is fitted to awe, impress, and humble the sinner: be careful not to misrepresent your Lord.
All these truths and others which complete the evangelical system are calculated to lead men to faith; therefore make them the staple of your teaching.
Secondly, if we are intensely anxious to have souls saved we must not only preach the truths which are likely to lead up to this end, but we must use modes of handling those truths which are likely to conduce thereto. Do you enquire, what are they? First, you must do a great deal by way of instruction. Sinners are not saved in darkness but from it; “that the soul be without knowledge, it is not good.” Men must be taught concerning themselves, their sin, and their fall;
their Saviour, redemption, regeneration, and so on. Many awakened souls would gladly accept God’s way of salvation if they did but know it; they are akin to those of whom the apostle said, ‘And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it.” If you will instruct them God will save them: is it not written, “the entrance of thy word giveth light”? If the Holy Spirit blesses your teaching, they will see how wrong they have been, and they will be led to repentance and faith. I do not believe in that preaching which lies
mainly in shouting, “Believe! believe! believe!” In common justice you are bound to tell the poor people what they are to believe. There must be instruction, otherwise the exhortation to believe is manifestly ridiculous, and must in practice be abortive. I fear that some of our orthodox brethren have been prejudiced against the free invitations of the gospel by hearing the raw, undigested harangues of revivalist speakers whose heads are loosely put together. The best way to preach sinners to Christ is to preach Christ to sinners. Exhortations, entreaties, and beseechings, if not accompanied with sound instruction, are like firing off powder without shot. You may shout, and weep, and plead, but you cannot lead men to believe what they have not heard, nor to receive a truth which has never been set before them. “Because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge.”
While giving instruction it is wise to appeal to the understanding. True religion is as logical as if it were not emotional. Should not persons of an argumentative cast of mind be provided for? We are to be all things to all men, and to these men we must become argumentative and push them into a corner with plain deductions and necessary inferences. Of carnal reasoning we would have none, but of fair, honest pondering, considering, judging, and arguing the more the better.
The class requiring logical argument is small compared with the number of those who need to be pleaded with, by way of emotional persuasion. They require not so much reasoning as heart-argumentÂ—which is logic set on fire. You must argue with them as a mother pleads with her boy that he will not grieve her, or as a fond sister entreats a brother to return to their father’s home and seek reconciliation: argument must be quickened into persuasion by the living warmth of love. Cold logic has its force, but when made red hot with affection the power of tender argument is inconceivable. The power which one mind can gain over others is enormous, but it is often best developed when the leading mind has ceased to have power over itself. When passionate zeal has carried the man himself away his speech becomes an irresistible torrent, sweeping all before it. A man known to be godly and devout, and felt to be large-hearted and self-sacrificing, has a power in his very person, and his advice and recommendation carry weight because of his character; but when he comes to plead and to persuade, even to tears, his influence is wonderful, and God the Holy Spirit yokes it into His service. Brethren, we must plead. Entreaties and beseechings must blend with our instructions. Any and every appeal which will reach the conscience and move men to fly to Jesus we must perpetually employ, if by any means we may save some. I have sometimes heard ministers blamed for speaking of themselves when they are
pleading, but the censure need not be much regarded while we have such a precedent as the example of Paul. To a congregation who love you it is quite allowable to mention your grief that many of them are unsaved, and your vehement desire, and incessant prayer or their conversion. You are doing right when you mention your own experience of the goodness of God in Christ Jesus, and plead with men to come and taste the same. We must not be abstractions or mere officials to our people, but we must plead with them as real flesh and blood, if we would see them converted. When you can quote yourself as a living instance of what grace has done, the plea is too powerful to be withheld through fear of being charged with egotism.