Summary of a 10-minute address at the Banner of Truth Leicester Ministers’ Conference, 2009.
Acts 9:1 'Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter.'
Acts 9:3 'Suddenly a light from heaven.'
What drama in the Early Church! The chief antagonist is on the warpath. His theme as he engages on his latest crusade is described as 'breathing out threatenings and slaughter.' God’s people in Antioch must have anticipated a fearful meeting with this ‘gun-running’ Saul of Tarsus. But, O praise God, 'Suddenly . . . a light from heaven,' and everything was different. God worked in sovereign grace upon the chief of sinners and demonstrated yet again that 'Nothing is too hard for the Lord.'
What an encouragement for us in these dark days. But do we have the thrill and holy excitement that ought to accompany those who believe in a God who can save the very worst? Do we need to find a new enthusiasm for Holy Ghost conversions? The apostle Peter refers to '. . . those that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven.' How many of us today would he describe in similar terms? Do we always sound like gospel men, or are we in danger of becoming mere lecturers on matters of sound biblical theology?
A GOOD MAN, BUT
The complaint is sometimes made: ‘Our pastor is a good man, but we had a number of unsaved in last week and we didn’t get anything of the gospel.’ What is the matter with us? Is not 'The glorious gospel of the blessed God' not glorious enough to be preached with clarity and intensity and holy fire? Some Christians work hard to bring sinners under the sound of the gospel. They pray; give a leaflet; give an invitation; pray again; invite again; pray again, and then, to their unspeakable joy, the contact responds and is in church, only to hear a profound and lengthy sermon on supralapsarianism. It is just not good enough. Will it surprise us if the ‘evangelist’ takes his contact to some other place? And also, it is important for us to remember that preaching about the gospel is not necessarily the same thing as preaching the gospel.
A WORD FOR HARRY
Some may make the plea, ‘But all my hearers are believers.’ Then would it not be good, for the benefit of all, sometimes to preach as if the building were full of unbelievers? Who knows, the Christians may begin to say, ‘Week after week our pastor is aiming at genuine conversions. I really must try and get our Harry to hear this. O to see him sitting under the sound of such gospel preaching.’ But if we are forever feeding the saints, the likelihood is that our hearers will stop believing that it has anything to do with the unconverted. It appears that in many churches this has already happened.
TRUE WORK OF GRACE
We are all familiar with cases of professed conversions that don’t last. In fact, we have become experts at discerning what is not a true work of grace. But in so doing we may have become negative and nervous, and doubtful if God will ever again work mightily in the conversion of souls. It is vital that we keep in constant memory the great works of God. 'We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, what work thou didst in their days, in the times of old.'(Psa. 44:1)
If living in a day of small things, and most of us are, we do well to feed on the blessings of any others who will encourage us in this great business. My soul has been stirred deeply in recent days in reading the life of John Ashworth. He lived in Rochdale, Lancashire, in the eighteenth century. O what works of grace are recorded. Born into deep poverty, God was pleased to draw him to himself by sovereign grace some time after his marriage. He soon began to serve God in the gospel. Working amongst those who were desperately poor, he did his evangelism almost exclusively by going from one Lodging House to another. There were many such places so he had a wide field.
GOD AT WORK
Soon God began to work with amazing power and many were drawn into the kingdom. Ashworth gathered these converts and sought to build them up in the faith. Not being sure what to call his new work he decided on, 'The Chapel for the Destitute' - surely a good name for keeping Pharisees away. They could hardly be seen associating with such a cause. The work increased and abounded, so much so, that a larger building had to be put up to accommodate those whom God was saving.
STAGGERING BUT SIMPLE
What follows are accounts of some of those converted to Christ. The stories are staggering but simple. So staggering they cause the heart to burn. So simple they can be read by children. I understand that years ago many were given as Sunday School prizes. But how this generation of preachers would profit from feeding on such a book! I believe it would revive our hope in God for such works again. Sadly it is out of print, but Tentmaker Publications, in the will of God, hopes to remedy that by the summer of 2009. You won’t find a word of deep or profound theology, but you will see again the glory of God in the salvation of what would appear to be hopeless cases. When we pray for our ‘hopeless cases’ John Ashworth’s story will inspire our faith. 'With God nothing shall be impossible.' (Luke 1:37)
Jesus says, 'There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.' (Luke 15:10) This is the only recorded incident on earth of anything that makes the angels happy in heaven. And Jesus did not say ‘over hundreds of sinners,’ nor did he say ‘when there is revival.’ They rejoice over the repentance of just one sinner. That being so, how our hearts should leap at what God has done, and what he may yet do again if it should be his sovereign will and purpose.
PAUL’S CROWN OF REJOICING
Writing to the Thessalonians Paul shares a little of his testimony regarding gospel work.
For this cause also, we thank God without ceasing, because, when you received the word of God which you heard of us, you received it not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually works also in you that believe. What is our hope, or joy, or crown of our rejoicing? Are not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
Sinners being saved, he calls the crown of his rejoicing. Should we not consider it the crown of our preaching - God being glorified in the salvation of a sinner - or to rejoice at God working via somebody else’s ministry?
BACK TO SPURGEON
We do well to go back to Spurgeon’s Lectures to my Students, and in particular to the chapter 'On Conversion as our Aim.' Here are some of the things the good man said:
Do you above all things aim at saving souls?
Our great object of glorifying God is to be mainly achieved by the winning of souls.
When you are able to bring a mourner to Jesus you will feel quite young again.
Sometimes the rapture of newborn souls will electrify you into apostolic intensity.
Do not close a single sermon without addressing the ungodly.
2. C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, pp. 412-426.