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Challies 2019 Reading: J.I. Packer on Evangelism and God’s Sovereignty

February 18, 2019 2 comments

Going through my stack of paperback books, here is an interesting one: J.I. Packer’s early work (1961) on “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.”  This is an early work (originally published in 1961), preceding his “Knowing God” which made him an evangelical household name.  I find it especially interesting for the historical context of the mid-20th century, the era of “Forgotten Spurgeon” (see this previous post).  Much of what is said here regarding the two seemingly-contradictory truths of divine sovereignty and man’s responsibility, is found in the Charles Spurgeon sermon volumes — ideas brought out in a few sentences at a time over the course of many sermons, and well covered within Packer’s book.

I have not read any other J.I. Packer books, but relate much of what he says here to his comments in a lecture series on the Puritans (and this previous post about the Puritan Papers), in terms of overall ideas about preaching the whole gospel and its full range of application: addressing certain points in one sermon or setting and other doctrinal truths at other times, yet regularly addressing the whole counsel of God, so that people will get the full picture.

In addition to the topic of God’s sovereignty, Packer discusses “wrong” versus more biblical methods of evangelism:  the  Arminian-style special prayer meetings with use of emotion; and, positively, the need to present the full gospel, so that people know what they are committing to. He also describes and advocates what is now known as ‘friendship evangelism’, of the type that presents all of the word of God–as contrasted with the manipulation method of inviting an unsaved friend to a special prayer meeting.

Describing the antinomy between the seemingly conflicting truths, Packer describes the mystery and transcendence of our creator God:

We ought not, in any case, to be surprised when we find mysteries of this sort in God’s Word. For the Creator is incomprehensible to his creatures. A God whom we could understand exhaustively, and whose revelation of himself confronted us with no mysteries whatsoever, would be a God in man’s image and therefore an imaginary God, not the God of the Bible at all. – J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God

Another great quote from Packer:

For sin is not a social concept; it is a theological concept. Though sin is committed by man, and many sins are against society, sin cannot be defined in terms of either man or society. We never know what sin really is till we have learned to think of it in terms of God, and to measure it, not by human standards, but by the yardstick of his total demand on our lives. – J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God

Near the end, Packer addresses the implications of God’s sovereignty in evangelism, as an answer to the discouragement of evangelicals at this point in the mid-20th century, a discouragement brought about by nearly 100 years of “revival” type evangelism campaigns and the dismal results.  Noting the early success of D.L. Moody and others of that era as occurring “not because they were always well planned and run, but because God was working in Britain in those days in a way in which he is evidently not working now,” yet even then the campaigns experienced the law of diminishing returns.

 We had come to take it for granted that good organization and efficient technique, backed by a routine of prayers, was itself sufficient to guarantee results.  We felt that there was an almost magical potency in the special meeting, the special choir and soloist, and the special preacher.  We felt convinced that the thing that would always bring life into a dead church, or a dead town, was an intensive evangelistic mission.  With the top of our minds, many of us still think that, or profess to think that…. But with the bottom of our minds, in our heart of hearts, we have grown discouraged and disillusioned and apprehensive.  … we do not know what to make of a situation in which our planned evangelism fails.

After acknowledging the disappointments (failure of converts) through these methods, Packer brings home the underlying reality:

First, we must admit that we were silly ever to think that any evangelistic technique, however skillful, could of itself guarantee conversions; second, we must recognize that, because man’s heart is impervious to the Word of God, it is no cause for surprise if at any time our evangelism fails to result in conversions; third, we must remember that the terms of our calling are that we should be faithful, not that we should be successful; fourth, we must learn to rest all our hopes of fruit in evangelism on the omnipotent grace of God.

This is a well-written book for layperson reading, a short book yet very informative, with a lot of solid Christian teaching as to how evangelism has been done and what we need to remember about how it should be done.

 

Evangelism and ‘Revival’: God’s Divine Purpose

December 10, 2014 4 comments

From my recent readings, including George Mueller and the recent newsletter of the SGAT (Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony), comes a point often overlooked in our day, regarding God’s purpose in evangelism and missionary work. There is a difference between the salvation of individuals and “praying for revival,” and we understand this issue based on our interpretation of scripture including overall eschatology and the prophetic word.

George Mueller’s autobiography notes his establishment of the “Scriptural Knowledge Institute” in the early 1830s. He provided several scriptural-based reasons for this decision, to establish this new organization instead of working with existing missionary organizations. The first reason involved scriptural understanding of God’s purposes, as Mueller noted that the other missionary organizations referenced scriptures such as Habakkuk 2:14 and Isaiah 11:9 in support of their idea that the whole world will eventually be converted to Christianity. As Mueller well observed:

These passages have no reference to the present dispensation but to the one which will begin when the Lord returns.  In the present time, things will not become spiritually better, but worse.  Only people gathered out from among the Gentiles for the Lord will be converted. (Ref. Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43; 2 Tim. 3:1-13; Acts 15:14.) A hearty desire and earnest prayer for the conversion of sinners is quite scriptural. But it is unscriptural to expect the conversion of the whole world.

From the latest issue (Jan-Mar 2015) of the Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony newsletter, “Watching and Waiting” comes an article on a similar topic: “Did Noah Pray for Revival?” A look at several scriptures, including the time of Noah as well as Jeremiah’s day, shows indeed that it is not (always, or even usually)  God’s purpose to bring revival and save the majority of people at any given point in time. Select individuals were saved even in times of judgment, such as wicked King Manasseh (2 Chron. 33:12-20) and King Josiah, yet the nation as a whole faced judgment. There was undoubtedly a great measure of blessing, of revival and reformation, but the judgment brought on by the wickedness of Manasseh and his generation remained and was still going to be judged after the death of Josiah. The scriptures tell us similar for the future, of ever increasing apostasy within the church.

I was made to think of Noah and his circumstances as I listened to a Christian friend pray for the United Kingdom that God would send a mighty revival that would turn the whole land back to Him. Thinking upon this request, I pondered the fact that we are surrounded by an ever-increasing tide of apostasy. What are called the ‘main’ churches have abandoned all semblance to Bible religion and have embraced wicked doctrines to a degree never before witnessed in the history of Christendom. Furthermore, the remnant of true believers has never been smaller or weaker. This being so, it does seem likely that we cannot be far removed from the days of that last generation and the manifestation of the antichrist and the Savior’s return to earth to destroy him and establish His own Millennial Kingdom. That raises the question then: Is it the will of God for God’s people in the close of this age to pray for revival?

These facts serve to bring home to us that it is so necessary for God’s people to rightly divide the Word of God and so understand the signs of the times in which we live. It is through God’s Word that the final generation of believers in this age will know of the approach of the end and what it is we should be praying for and expecting the Lord to do. It is only by studying the prophetic scriptures and being informed of God’s will that we will be saved from praying and hoping vainly for revival when it is clearly the purpose and mind of God to bring down man’s rebellion and apostasy by judgment.

The Unbelieving Spouse: A Spurgeon Illustration, and Application

August 28, 2014 8 comments

From my recent Spurgeon reading comes this interesting story: a possibly greater motive, for wives with unbelieving husbands, than the words of 1 Peter 3:1-4:

We have heard of a wife, a godly woman, who for 20 years had been persecuted by a brutal husband—a husband so excessively bad that her faith at last failed her, and she ceased to be able to believe that he would ever be converted. But all this while she was more kind to him than ever. One night, at midnight, in a drunken state, he told his friends he had such a wife as no other man had; and if they would go home with him, he would get her up, to try her temper, and she would get a supper for them all! They came and the supper was very soon ready, consisting of such things as she had prepared as well and as rapidly as the occasion would allow; and she waited at the table with as much cheerfulness as if the feast had been held at the proper time! She did not utter a word of complaint. At last, one of the company, more sober than the rest, asked how it was she could always be so kind to such a husband. Seeing that her conduct had made some little impression, she ventured to say to him, “I have done all I can to bring my husband to God, and I fear he will never be saved. Since, therefore, his portion must be in Hell forever, I will make him as happy as I can while he is here, for he has nothing to expect hereafter.”

In a later telling of this account (this sermon) Spurgeon added that the husband was saved as a result of this event.

This week I’ve also been listening to S. Lewis Johnson’s Revelation series, including Revelation 3, the church at Laodicea. The above situation involved someone who was “cold” to the things of God, one who was apart from professing Christianity, knew he was not a believer and wasn’t interested. As Dr. Johnson observed regarding Revelation 3 and the desire that the Laodiceans would be cold rather than lukewarm: Perhaps because if a person is really cold in the spiritual sense it might be possible for them to be awakened, but if a person has a kind of protecting covering of religiosity, it is most difficult to reach such people.

If the godly woman (in the above account) had given up hope of her very ungodly husband ever being saved, how much more the seeming (and perhaps actual) hopelessness for the “lukewarm” professing, nominal Christians who may well be just as lost – only they don’t realize it and are quite content with regular attendance at church but completely secular interests the rest of the week (and even while at church, only interested in secular topics of conversation), lives conformed to a non-Christian worldview. What James said (James 2:19) also comes to mind, to explain the seeming paradox of people who say they believe all the basic truths of the word of God, yet show no application of it in their lives: You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!

Regardless of the type of husband (cold or lukewarm) the godly woman’s actions serve as a very strong motivator for those among us unequally yoked; if anything the case is all the more true and urgent with the “luke-warm” professing husband. “I fear he will never be saved. Since, therefore, his portion must be in Hell forever, I will make him as happy as I can while he is here, for he has nothing to expect hereafter.”  Others are not guaranteed the same outcome this godly woman had (1 Cor. 7:16, “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”), and realizing that sobering fact that this life may be the best that the unbelieving partner has, the only proper response is to “make him as happy as I can while he is here.”

Evangelism, Islam, and the Kingdom of God

June 19, 2014 5 comments

A speaker from a Christian missionary group recently presented an evening conference at a local church, about how to evangelize and reach Muslims. The presentation was a condensed form of material sometimes presented in all-day seminars, covering several interesting points: basic history of the Muslim faith, the cultural connection with blending of state and religion, the overall population of Muslims worldwide (only about 20% are Arabic, and representing many dialects and ethnic groups even within the Arab world), as well as the main beliefs and the 5 or 6 “pillars” of Islam, and how this works-based religion approaches these pillars: really good Muslims will try to follow most or all, while others may skip on some of the works while performing others.

The speaker had experience mainly with Turkish Muslims, and thus no reference to Muslims in more radical Islamic countries.  Rather, he emphasized the variation among individual Muslims and varying commitment level to their faith, while acknowledging that yes, parts of the Koran (Mohammed’s later writings as compared to earlier) do advocate violence.  Nothing was said regarding present-day events, such as the trend evident in Europe, of the increasing Muslim population and the gradual overthrow of European society by these immigrants. Likewise nothing was said regarding Muslim eschatology and the Mahdi, or even any mention of the historic and ongoing enmity between Jews and Muslims.

Much of what the speaker had to say included general evangelistic principles, applicable to any group of unbelievers, whether Muslims, Jews, or secular atheists: personal evangelism rather than theological debates; most Muslims you meet on the street are not that expert in what their religion teaches, so talk to each one and find out what they believe).   As anyone who has spent any time in facebook group theological discussions knows, yes of course such “debates” are not useful for changing someone’s beliefs: whether unbelievers to Christianity, or even for convincing believers of secondary doctrines they misunderstand.  Also, same as with other unbelievers, it usually takes many experiences of hearing about Christianity before God works in the heart; we plant seeds and pray for God to change the heart, but often it takes many years and a lot of exposure to Christian truth before a Muslim, or any other unbeliever, comes to Christ.

It was the speaker’s handling of one doctrinal issue that led me to tune out briefly. After pointing out the Muslim’s negative association with the term “crusade” as referencing what was done in the name of Christianity (Catholicism) so many centuries ago, he asserted that the kingdom is only spiritual and not an earthly kingdom such as that attempted by the crusaders. The second part of that is certainly correct: the kingdom of God is not something such as was attempted by the medieval Crusades. But why not rather acknowledge that Christians do have differing views of this, including the fact that the church itself was generally premillennial for the first 300 years, and that premillennialism returned early in the Protestant era? Instead the speaker gave a brief one-sided and partial “exposition” of Acts 1: just before Jesus’ ascension, the disciples are asking if the kingdom will be restored; after all this time of Jesus teaching them they are still confused, they don’t get it and they don’t know that the kingdom is only spiritual — and instead they need to be out evangelizing the world. As usual with amillennial teaching, the speaker stopped at that verse and did not continue to consider Christ’s actual response in the very next verse.  He did not rebuke them or give any indication that they had an incorrect understanding (that they were such idiots for thinking Christ’s kingdom is a real, physical kingdom), but merely said it was not for them to know the “times or seasons.” And Peter’s speech in Acts 3, plus other references later in Acts, tell us that the apostles later on were still expecting the future kingdom.

A proper perspective helps at this point. Yes, certainly, it is better that Muslims be saved even if with incorrect understanding of a secondary doctrine. The Unitarian, who denies the divinity of Christ yet participates in online Christian eschatology groups, who understands and can defend premillennialism with all the scriptures, yet isn’t even a Christian at all, serves as a clear example of what Al Mohler likely meant by “theological triage.”  Still, premillennialism is not some evil doctrine that would prevent anyone, including Muslims, from coming to Christ. To evangelize Muslims and address this point of the nature of the kingdom — as contrasted with the negative Crusade experience — one can simply explain that the kingdom is something that will be established by Christ upon His return, not that which has been attempted by the outward visible “Church” during this age.

Do Unbelievers Really Just Not Understand the Gospel?

February 27, 2013 24 comments

From my readings through a devotional book (Daily Readings from the Life of Christ, volume 2), comes this excerpt from the Feb. 21 reading:

Many of the lost fail to embrace the gospel because no one has presented it clearly to them.  That’s because many Christians communicate a muddled gospel that emphasizes lots of secondary issues, thanks in many respects to their leaders’ digressing from the genuine message. A sure way for Satan to weaken the gospel is simply to prevent its clear and accurate presentation.

The devotional’s point was for believers to stay focused on the gospel itself and not chase rabbit trails onto less important, secondary issues. Still, somehow in reading that, I considered the fact that, really (and generally speaking), lost people don’t have a problem of “not understanding” the gospel message.  I’ve been going through S. Lewis Johnson’s Gospel of John series, in which he pointed this out, that people don’t have a problem with understanding the gospel.  Jesus perfectly communicated the saving message, and they understood His message so well that they crucified Him.
Sometimes I think, that people think that if the Lord Jesus were the preacher everyone would respond.  If the Apostle Paul were preaching in Believers Chapel there would be much better results.  Well, I’m willing to grant there would probably be some better results, but let me assure you it would not be because when a man gives a clear presentation of the gospel and gives it in a greater spirit of love, that there must therefore be a response.  Just think for a moment, who was preaching?  The Lord Jesus Christ.  Whoever gave the gospel message more clearly than he?  No one would debate that.  Whoever spoke out of a greater sense of divine love than the Lord Jesus?  What was his response?  Well he was crucified. … The facts are that men are unresponsive to the word of God.  They are unable to come.  They rebel against the Scriptures, for the mind of the flesh is enmity against God.  …  So when those who were listening to the Lord Jesus said, “This is a hard saying; who can hear it?” they were really representative of human nature.
Regarding the idea that believers do not always present the gospel message because they (believers) get side-tracked onto “secondary” issues, and therefore the unbeliever hears a “muddled gospel”: perhaps that does happen, just not within my experience.  Instead, in conversations with unbelievers what usually happens is that the unbeliever likes to throw up objections, and the unbeliever likes to get sidetracked, away from the gospel itself to other unrelated issues.  Here again I recall something that S. Lewis Johnson mentioned sometimes, both from his own experience as an adult unbeliever in conversations with the Christian people around him (including his wife and mother-in-law) as well as the similar advice he was given on this very issue soon after he was saved.  Here is one excerpt from SLJ, describing this:
This reminds me of something that the man who led me to the Lord said when I was just a brand new Christian.  I came to him and spoke to him about a friend of mine with whom I had spoken about the Lord Jesus, and whom I’d sought to bring to faith in Christ, and was totally unsuccessful.  And then he said, Lewis, you’ll notice this about dealing with the lost.  They frequently will come to you with six or eight intellectual reasons why they should not believe the gospel.  He said, you ask them to list them, and they do, and you answer the first objection, and the second objection, and so on down through the six or seven.  And he said, “Lewis, you will notice that when you finish answering the seventh, the last one, they won’t say, ‘well then I’ll become a believer’; as a general rule, they’ll go back to number one again.”

From SLJ’s own experience:

I can remember when I was like that.  Whenever spiritual things would come up, and I would get involved in the conversation, I had about half a dozen things that I thought were things that prevented me from responding to the gospel.  I was in the insurance business, and I prided myself on thinking fairly logically.  And so I had a series of reasons that I would lodge against the Christian faith as it was understood by my mother-in-law and by others.  I usually reduced her to tears.  I won the arguments, and lost the ultimate battle of course.  But anyway, this is what I would do.  I would start with reason number one, why is the Bible the word of God?  How can we know the Bible is the word of God?  And I would go one, two, three, four, five, six.  And if we were in a large group of people, everybody would pounce in and they would answer my question.  So I would move on to number two, number three, number four, number five, number six.  And when I finished number six I would go back to number one again, number one, two.  That’s the way we are.

Unbelievers don’t have a problem of not understanding the gospel.  Jesus perfectly explained it and they still rejected it.  The greater issue is not so much that Christians do not clearly present the gospel and instead present a “muddled gospel” due to being sidetracked into non-essentials, but that unbelievers themselves, by nature, do not want to hear the gospel and will use such “defensive” tactics to distract away from the presentation of the gospel message.

All the Fitness He Requires? Spurgeon the Evangelist

July 12, 2012 5 comments

Steve Lawson well described Spurgeon the Evangelist, as in this message from the 2012 Shepherd’s Conference.  Through the last few years of reading Spurgeon sermons that has been the biggest impression of Spurgeon: sermons that show true Calvinism with its great evangelistic zeal, as in the well-known sermon, Compel Them to Come In.

Spurgeon Sermon #336, “Struggles of Conscience” from September, 1860, is another interesting one that shows Spurgeon’s great zeal in tearing down any obstacle in the way of a person coming to Christ, including the thought that a person doesn’t “feel” the greatness of their sins, doesn’t feel a particular type of repentance as was characteristically defined in the Puritan age.

In our day the evil has taken another, and that a most extraordinary shape. Men have aimed at being self-righteous after quite an amazing fashion; they think they must feel worse, and have a deeper conviction of sin before they may trust in Christ. Many hundreds do I meet with who say they dare not come to Christ, and trust Him with their souls, because they do not feel their need of Him enough; they have not sufficient contrition for their sins; they have not repented as fully as they have rebelled! Brothers and Sisters, it is the same evil, from the same old germ of self-righteousness, but it has taken another and I think a more crafty shape. Satan has wormed himself into many hearts under the garb of an angel of light, and he has whispered to the sinner, “Repentance is a necessary virtue. Stop until you have repented, and when you have sufficiently mortified yourself on account of sin, then you will be fit to come to Christ, and qualified to trust and rely on Him.”

While reading along I thought of the well-known hymn “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy”, sung often at the local church.  One verse ends with the line “all the fitness He requires, is to feel your need of Him.” The teaching at the local church, in the standard Reformed Baptist tradition, occasionally points out that part of that hymn, and how this is the only fitness necessary to come to Christ.  Spurgeon at this point was clearly going further, arguing against any “standard” of what we must feel when we come to Christ.

In the very next paragraph Spurgeon answered my question about that hymn, with the full story even there:  that particular hymn only includes the first part of the line.

Let me counsel you, then, to never quote part of a hymn, or part of a text—quote it all!—
“All the fitness He requires
Is to feel your need of him—
This He GIVES YOU,
It is His Spirit’s rising beam!”

So that particular misunderstanding has been with the church for some time (that particular version of the hymn dates to 1759). The modern-day gospel-lite evangelical view is probably in the opposite direction from Spurgeon’s day, but (at least some) Reformed churches today continue the Puritan tradition of reacting in the opposite extreme.

Spurgeon’s point here is well-taken, a clear distinction in understanding the “feeling” someone has upon coming to Christ:

And I think I know the reason of its great commonness. In the Puritan age, which was noted certainly for its purity of Doctrine, there was also a great deal of experimental preaching, and much of it was sound and healthy. But some of it was unscriptural, because it took for its standard what the Christian felt, and not what the Savior said—the inference from a Believer’s experience, rather than the message which goes before any belief. Those excellent men, Mr. Rogers, of Dedham, who has written some useful works, and Mr. Sheppard, who wrote The Sound Believer, and Mr. Flavel and many others give descriptions of what a sinner must be before he may come to Christ, which actually represent what a saint is, after he has come to Christ! These good Brothers have taken their own experience—what they felt before they came into the Light of God—as the standard of what every other person ought to feel before he may put his trust in Christ and hope for mercy.

There were some in Puritan times who protested against that theology, and insisted that sinners were to be bid to come to Christ just as they were—with no preparation either of feeling or of doing. At the present time there are large numbers of Calvinistic ministers who are afraid to give a free invitation to sinners. They always garble Christ’s invitation thus—“If you are a sensible sinner you may come.” Just as if stupid sinners might not come! They say, “If you feel your need of Christ, you may come.” And then they describe what that feeling or need is, and give such a high description of it that their hearers say, “Well, I never felt like that,” and they are afraid to venture for lack of the qualification.

Mark you, the Brothers speak truly in some respect; they describe what a sinner does feel before he comes, but they make a mistake in putting what a sinner feels, as if that were what a sinner ought to feel! What the sinner feels, and what the sinner does, until he is renewed by Grace, are just the very opposite of what he ought to feel or do! We are always wrong when we say one Christian’s experience is to be estimated by what another Christian has felt.  No, Sir, my experience is to be measured by the Word of God! And what the sinner should feel is to be measured by what Christ commands him to feel, and not by what another sinner has felt!

Lordship Salvation Views: Matthew’s Gospel

April 28, 2011 6 comments

As an online friend once commented, it’s interesting to see how different preachers treat the same scripture passages, revealing their own distinctive views and emphases.  As one recent example, considering Matthew 16:24-27, I’ve noticed that one’s ideas of salvation and discipleship come into play and affect our understanding of Jesus’ words.

In this text Jesus says “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  In S. Lewis Johnson’s teaching on this text, he notes that this can be taken in two different senses:

1.  As referring to salvation and the gospel, “that every true Christian is a person who denies himself and takes up his cross and follows the Lord Jesus.”  — or —
2.  Referring to discipleship:  Jesus here is speaking to disciples, and the phrase “come after Me” differs from the basic gospel message, “come unto Me.”

Though the term “Lordship Salvation” is never mentioned here, the concept was clearly in SLJ’s mind as he noted the two views, pointing out that he did respect those who hold to the first view and that “a truth is expressed by what lies back of that interpretation.”  He then continued to emphasize the discipleship that is conveyed here.

By contrast, a message from John MacArthur‘s Matthew series assumes the first view without really addressing the other interpretation, as in this excerpt:

Now, what does He mean “if any man will come after Me?” Basically just this, if you want to be a Christian, if you want to follow Jesus, if you want to be a disciple, if you want to come to Christ…it’s an evangelistic word here. You say, “Well, then why is He giving it to the disciples?” Well, the evangelistic thrust goes to the multitude. But it also has a tremendous message to the disciples because it’s easy for us having understood that total commitment to the Lordship of Christ and submission to Him when we got in, to eventually begin to try to take back some of our own rights. … this is not only a word for those who need to know how to come to Christ to start with, but this is a word for those who having come may have forgotten what they said they came for in the beginning. So if you come to follow Jesus Christ, you come on His terms.

Later in this same Matthew 16 message SLJ also brought up the story of Lot, one who was a true believer yet had no fruit or influence.  Again, discipleship is better and the desirable state for believers, but is it really scriptural to say that only mature believers are truly saved?  In the previous post I referenced J.C. Ryle as one who clearly did recognize this distinction between types of believers.  As Johnson pointed out, Charles Hodge is another one — and from my googling online I found references to that fact.

Recognizing this distinction between justification and sanctification, and between two types of believers, the carnal immature versus spiritual mature, of course does not mean that Christians should evangelize with Arminian-style “decision cards” or tracts promoting the idea that it’s okay to be a carnal Christian.  Throughout history the gospel has always been proclaimed through preaching and teaching of the Word, proclaiming gospel salvation to lost sinners, and the results are born out in the lives of those who respond to the gospel message and come to faith in Christ.  God’s word convicts a person of his own sinfulness and brings regeneration and faith to that person, who afterwards begins attending at a local church — sanctification beginning in the believer’s life.  Yet scripture and church history clearly show that some believers do not mature to the extent that others do.  God alone understands why this is so, but He is the one who has consigned all of us over to disobedience so as to have mercy — on so many of us.

Finally, the following article, the conclusion from S. Lewis Johnson’s 1989 paper concerning Lordship Salvation (“QT: S. Lewis Johnson on Lordship Salvation”), is quite helpful towards a proper perspective.

Our Conversion: For the Conversion of Others

December 23, 2010 Leave a comment

In my recent Sunday morning sermon reading, came some rather unusual remarks from Spurgeon.  This was at the beginning of Volume 4, #169 (“What Have I Done?”), delivered at the year-end of 1857 as he reflected back on Christian service by believers during the past year.  The words sound very much like something an Arminian evangelist would say, and taken by themselves apart from Spurgeon’s other writings, should indeed be troubling.  A brief excerpt:

I will, however, ask a pointed question—are there not many Christians now present who cannot remember that they have been the means of the salvation of one soul during this year? Come, now. Think—have you any reason to believe that directly or indirectly you have been made the means this year of the salvation of a soul? I will go further—there are some of you who are old Christians and I will ask you this question—have you any reason to believe that ever since you were converted you have ever been the means of the salvation of a soul? . . . And yet there are some of you here who have been spiritually barren and have never brought one convert to Christ! You have not one star in your crown of glory and must wear a starless crown in Heaven!

Perhaps one point in properly understanding the above, is his wording “directly or indirectly.”  For at the surface, at least, these words suggest that we should all be actively talking to others about Jesus — and 20th century terms such as “street evangelism” come to mind.  In contrast to this idea, though, I think of the oft-quoted saying from St. Francis of Assissi:  “Preach the gospel daily.  Use words if necessary.”

But soon after considering Spurgeon’s “What Have I Done?” sermon, I read the following great passage from J.C. Ryle, in Holiness chapter 17.  Here is a better explanation concerning our role as Christians, converted not only for ourselves but to lead to the conversion of others:

I believe that just as ‘no man lives unto himself’ (Rom. 14:7), so also no man is converted only for himself and that the conversion of one man or woman always leads on, in God’s wonderful providence, to the conversion of others. I do not say for a moment that all believers know it. I think it far more likely that many live and die in the faith, who are not aware that they have done good to any soul. But I believe the resurrection morning and the judgment day, when the secret history of all Christians is revealed, will prove that the full meaning of the promise before us has never failed. I doubt if there will be a believer who will not have been to someone or other a ‘river of living water,’ a channel through whom the Spirit has conveyed saving grace. Even the penitent thief, short as his time was after he repented, has been a source of blessing to thousands of souls!

a. Some believers are rivers of living water while they live. Their words, their conversation, their preaching, their teaching, are all means by which the water of life has flowed into the hearts of their fellow men.  …

b. Some believers are rivers of living water when they die. Their courage in facing the king of terrors, their boldness in the most painful sufferings, their unswerving faithfulness to Christ’s truth even at the stake, their manifest peace on the edge of the grave—all this has set thousands thinking, and led hundreds to repent and believe. Such, for example, were the primitive martyrs, whom the Roman Emperors persecuted. Such were John Huss and Jerome of Prague. Such were Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, Hooper and the noble army of Marian martyrs. The work that they did at their deaths, like Samson, was far greater then the work done in their lives.

c. Some believers are rivers of living water long after they die. They do good by their books and writings in every part of the world, long after the hands which held the pen are mouldering in the dust. Such men were Bunyan and Baxter and Owen and George Herbert and Robert MCCHEYNE. These blessed servants of God do more good probably by their books at this moment than they did by their tongues when they were alive. Being dead they yet speak (Heb. 11:4).

d. Finally, there are some believers who are rivers of living water by the beauty of their daily conduct and behavior. There are many quiet, gentle, consistent Christians, who make no show and no noise in the world, and yet insensibly exercise a deep influence for good on all around them. They ‘win without the Word’ (1 Peter 3:1). Their love, their kindness, their sweet temper, their patience, their unselfishness, tell silently on a wide circle, and sow seeds of thought and self–inquiry in many minds.

The last category is certainly the ideal that the St. Francis quote above upholds, and one we can all aspire to.

In category A I think of the “celebrity preachers,” especially those who have influenced many others by their great teaching and preaching, such as John MacArthur, as well as lesser but still prominent names of good preachers whose audio sermons are regularly updated to the Internet, and/or whose online writings encourage many.

By the very nature of things, most of us will not fit in categories B or C.  Perhaps some of us will yet be “rivers of living water” as martyrs in yet unknown persecutions, but the Lord alone knows that matter.

In reading item C and the list of names, I thought of J.C. Ryle himself, another great saint to add to the list of those who continue to guide believers today — “being dead they yet speak.”

As one plenty guilty of Spurgeon’s words above, having never directly shared the gospel with unbelievers (well, except within the format of “Evangelism Explosion” one year in my early Christian days), I yet take comfort in J.C. Ryle’s observation that it is “far more likely that many live and die in the faith, who are not aware that they have done good to any soul” but that even the dying thief on the cross, by his testimony, has brought comfort to many.  It is enough to trust in the Lord and hold steadfast to Him throughout the daily trials, doing even little things in service each day — even the simple blog format as a way to share my insights and encourage others.

Is Evangelism the Primary Purpose of the Christian Church?

October 8, 2010 1 comment

A recent blog discussion at Pyromaniacs considered the words of John Piper at the recent Desiring God conference on the topic of evangelism, also with reference to Rick Warren (one of the speakers there).  I didn’t quite understand the point of the author, though it seemed a type of criticism of John Piper for admitting that evangelism is not his first thought when he’s preaching.  As later comments brought out, the Pyro writer gives great emphasis to creeds, specifically citing numbers in the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession, and thinks that a pastor’s work is a both/and with reference to shepherding his flock AND high concern for evangelism.

I have limited knowledge concerning the ministries of Piper and Warren, choosing to spend most of my free time in reading the Bible or other Christian writings, so the blog and its comments delved into unfamiliar specifics.  But it seems clear that an underlying issue in the discussion was, what is the focus and purpose of the Christian church, including the pastors and the members of the congregation?  Many believers emphasize the Church’s purpose as evangelism, including intentional evangelism.  Very few pointed out that we need to go beyond evangelism, to focus on the truth of God’s word, and none brought out a point that I find very interesting:  evangelism is not the great work of the Christian church.

In the Divine Purpose series, S. Lewis Johnson addressed this in a message that looked at Ephesians 2.  Ephesians 2:18 shows a trinitarian focus:  “For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.”  Here we see Paul’s perspective, that what our Lord wants is to have access to and communion with Him.  Jesus Christ wants to introduce us to the Father.

Johnson expands further on this point:

You know that is really the great end of the trinity.  We sometimes forget that.  We think the great end of the trinity is that we be saved.  It’s amazing to me after nineteen hundred years people still say the great work of the Christian church is evangelism.  That’s not the great work of the Christian church.  It is a great work.  One would not want to downgrade evangelism, but as we see in Colossians and through the New Testament the whole work of salvation is the great work of the church —  evangelism yes, but evangelism with a view to communion, with a view to maturity, with a view to edification.  Never forget that.  Don’t be carried away because some popular person has made a cliché statement like that.  That’s not true.  Stick to the Bible.  Stick to the words of Scripture.  Follow Scripture and you’ll be wise unto full salvation.  That’s what the Lord would like for all of us to have, a closer more intimate relationship to Him in edifying growth and the knowledge of Him.  So through Him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.

Considering this understanding, and the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 2 — and the whole thrust of the book of Acts — like many others, I see nothing wrong with John Piper’s statement:

but mainly I want to feed the sheep in such a way that the sheep love God, are so thrilled with God, they tell other people about him, and they come and worship and they love God so much, they tell other people about him.

That sounds a lot closer to what S. Lewis Johnson said, in Piper’s own style, concerning the primary work of the Christian church: to bring us into a closer, more intimate relationship to God.  Sure, evangelism is an important part of the Christian life, but I don’t see it as of such primary importance, as being in a “both-and” with reference to the work of the pastor and the Christian church.

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