Every Christian is called by God to be faithful. Whatever else we are called to be, we are called to be faithful, unyielding, kindly but uncompromising believers. I don't suppose any right-thinking Christian would disagree. I wonder, however, if you have made faithfulness an excuse for the absence of spiritual usefulness and fruitfulness in your life? I fear, too often, I have.
It is absolutely true that steady faithfulness in the life of faith wonderfully adorns our Christian profession and greatly honours the Lord. Our Lord Jesus Christ is called 'Faithful and True' (Rev. 19:11) and was obedient unto death, even the sin-bearing, wrath-exhausting death of the cross (Phil. 2:8). To the church in Smyrna our risen Lord wrote, 'Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life' (Rev. 2:10). Faithfulness is a Christ-like and God-glorifying grace. But is it possible that we can so admire and pursue faithfulness that we become content with little obvious spiritual fruitfulness in our lives?
Perhaps like me you have often been challenged by James' words, 'You do not have, because you do not ask.' Or by our Lord's words, 'Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.' He goes on in the following verses, you will remember, to give us the greatest of incentives to do this: 'If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him' (Matt. 7:7ff). Jesus is clearly expecting his disciples to prevail with the Father in prayer and receive from him 'good things' (in Luke's account it is the 'Holy Spirit' who is given by the Father).
We could no doubt spend some time exegeting the 'good things' that the Father gives to those who ask, seek and knock. But surely not least among these 'good things' are lives rescued from the coming wrath and brought into the kingdom of God. Is it not then to our shame that we (if you are anything like me) can be so little concerned or humbled by the lostness of the people we live beside, work among, or recreate with? Richard Baxter was speaking to ministers when he wrote these next words, but what he wrote has pertinent application to all of us. It was Baxter's deep, felt sense of sinners' tragic state before God that so invested his preaching with converting power:
The work of conversions is the first and great thing we must drive at; after this we must labour with all our might. Alas! The misery of the unconverted is so great, that it calleth loudest to us for compassion . . . I confess I am frequently forced to neglect that which should tend to the further increase of knowledge in the godly, because of the lamentable necessity of the unconverted. Who is able to talk of controversies, or of nice un-necessary points, or even truths of a lower degree of necessity, how excellent soever, while he seeth a company of ignorant, carnal, miserable sinners before his eyes, who must be changed or be damned? Methinks I see them entering upon their final woe . . . (The Reformed Pastor, pp. 94-95).
These are striking and surely sobering words. I know well enough that the contrast Baxter highlights is overdone. The 'increase of the knowledge of the godly' should never be neglected and there will be times when even truths of 'lower degree' must be contended for. And yet, is he not by the sheer extravagance of his language forcing us to take more seriously than we do the 'misery of the unconverted'? To Baxter and the Puritans of his generation, the lostness of the unbeliever was not merely a doctrine to acknowledge; it was an awesome reality to reckon with. Baxter 'felt' their lostness. There is little doubt that this Christ-like concern and compassion gave a compelling lustre and urgency to his ministry. It was not enough for Baxter that he was faithful; he also wanted to be 'compassionately urgent' and fruitful in his gospel ministry.
Jesus said 'Ask, and it shall be given to you.' Our Father in heaven delights to give us 'good gifts'. Indeed he is more ready to give than we are to ask. But what is the nature of our 'asking'? Do we ask and ask and ask and then ask again (not because God is deaf but because we are constrained, not least by 'the misery of the unconverted')? Is it a daily burden on our hearts that our lives are not bearing the good fruit that makes all heaven rejoice (cf. Luke 15:7)? Yes, godliness and faithfulness are rich spiritual fruit that rejoices God's heart. But does anything rejoice him more than lost sinners being found and savingly restored to their God?
Perhaps I am only speaking to myself, though I doubt it. I am often struck by how Jacob-like many of God's most fruitful servants were and are: they will not let God go, 'until you bless'. Pray with me that in 2009 it may please the Lord to add many saved sinners to our churches. Pray unceasingly, as Paul urges us, that the Lord will use us as 'instruments of righteousness'. 'The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and whoever captures souls is wise' (Prov. 11:30).
Ian Hamilton is Pastor of the Cambridge Presbyterian Church.