Perhaps it is because I am preaching less regularly now. Or maybe it is because I feel more acutely my own spiritual impotence. Then again it may be due to my age and the sense of how time is passing more quickly. Or does it come from a covetousness over reports I hear in other places in the world, or reading of the glory of past times? I don’t know. All I do know is that in my breast is a greater yearning than ever to see conversions when I preach and yet an even greater shame over how small a flame it has been all these years.
It is hard to confess that I have not been earnest enough in praying for conversions through preaching, believing souls will be converted by preaching, and calling people to Christ when preaching. To do this is an admission of defeat. Spurgeon says that the Lord hides much of our fruit to keep us humble and only reveals a little fruit to keep us going. That may be the case, but still I am quite sure that the heavenly record would show that I am no great soul winner just as the earthly one does. What makes that even more difficult to get out is that it is a teacher of homiletics admitting to this.
This almost sounds wrong to my ears to say, like it is pointless or conceited to admit this out loud. For thoughts such as “Is it not a bit late?” or “Who do you think you are? George Whitefield?” or “Don’t you know you have to leave the results to God?” spring up, embarrassing and even squelching me. I feel guilty admitting I want to win more souls, like a barren woman wanting children but ashamed to let others know.
Thankfully, I find that this hope for converts via preaching with its accompanying failures does not have to be endured in a shameful silence. After all, Hannah was barren, prayed like a drunkard in public, and look what happened to her. Also, more directly related to the subject at hand, in I Corinthians 9:19-23 the great evangelist Paul declared to all this was his aim.
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
I have also gone to the fathers and, predictably, found they are centuries ahead of me in expressing this appropriately. In the Westminster Larger Catechism, when you get all the way to the 159th question you read, “How is the Word of God to be preached by those that are called thereunto?” then hear some things you would expect from a Presbyterian statement, such as it is to be preached diligently, faithfully, and plainly. But then you also hear that God’s Word is to be preached “zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation.”
Perhaps then what is needed most in this area is public confession. I was reminded again that in a larger chapter of his book Words to Winners of Souls entitled Ministerial Confessions,” Horatio Bonar simply repeats a 1651 confession of sin by the Church of Scotland where they make prayers to God over their preaching failures. I find myself praying with them sentiments such as these regarding my preaching:
Preaching of Christ, not that people may know Him, but that they may think we know much of Him…Not preaching with bowels of compassion to them that are hazard to perish.
The whole soul is not poured into the duty, and hence it wears too often the repulsive air of routine and form. We do not speak and act like men in earnest. Our words are feeble, even when sound and true…and our tones betray the apathy which both words and looks disguise.
Fear has often lead us to smooth down or generalize truths which if broadly stated must have brought hatred and reproach to us…We have feared to alienate friends, or to awaken the wrath of enemies. Hence our preaching of the law has been feebled and straitened; and hence our preaching of a free gospel has been yet more vague, uncertain, and timorous.
Proverbs 11:30 says in part “whoever captures souls is wise.” May the Lord grant me the wisdom both to know this and to work more wisely and boldly at accomplishing it.