By Jonathan Watson -
General Editor of the Banner of Truth
For C. H. Spurgeon it was an axiom that God sends preachers into the world so that sinners may be reconciled to him. Admittedly, there may be some notable exceptions to this rule (e.g. Noah and Jeremiah), but for the most part, God has ordained the preaching of the gospel for the purpose of saving the hearers.
When King Agrippa asked the Apostle Paul, ‘In a short time would you persuade me to become a Christian?’, Paul’s reply gave vent to the spirit in which the true evangelist must always preach the gospel: ‘Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am – except for these chains.’ The Apostle’s clear aim in bearing witness to Christ before kings and their subjects was the conversion of all who were present with him.
Do you preach with the same clear aim? What exactly is your intention? What would you have God do? The conversion of one or two, a mere handful, perhaps, of your hearers? Or do you climb the pulpit steps praying, ‘would to God that every single one of my hearers may be converted through the means of this sermon’?
C. H. Spurgeon was truly apostolic in this respect, as in many others. He considered this such an important element in true preaching that he devoted one whole lecture to it during his Friday afternoon visits to The Pastors’ College, of which he was the President.
In ‘On Conversion as our Aim’, he clearly sets before his students their great goal: ‘The grand object of the Christian ministry is the glory of God . . .Our great object . . . is, however, to be mainly achieved by the winning of souls. 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 groan – “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.’
For Spurgeon this was the great foundational truth, and having established it, he then turned his attention to the practical steps preachers must take if they are to be the instruments in God’s hands for the conversion of men and women. What is the preacher to do who longs to see sinners converted? Here is the considered counsel of an experienced soul winner.
1. Depend entirely upon the Spirit of God and look to him for power over the minds of men.
This is absolutely necessary because conversion is a divine work. ‘Often as this remark is repeated, I fear that 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.’
2. Give prominent place in your preaching to those truths which are most likely to lead to conversions.
Spurgeon names a number of these (several of which were being soft-pedalled or even attacked in his time – ‘there is nothing new under the sun’!). Doctrines which ought to be prominently preached, taught, explained, and applied, include:
a. First and foremost Christ and him crucified. ‘Where Jesus is exalted souls are attracted . . . The preaching of the cross is to them that are saved the wisdom of God and the power of God.’ Preach all those doctrines which cluster around the person and work of Christ – the evil of sin especially, which created the need of a Saviour. Be specific: ‘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.’ ‘Explain the ten commandments . . . 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 . . .’ Quoting Robbie Flockhart, he adds: ‘It is of no use trying to pierce 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 . . . Aim at the heart. Probe the wound and touch the very quick of the soul.’‘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.’
b. Teach the depravity of human nature. ‘Show that sin is not an accident but the genuine outcome of their corrupt hearts . . . It is an unfashionable truth; for nowadays ministers are to be found who are very fine upon “the dignity of human nature” . . . 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.’
c. Preach the necessity for the Holy Ghost’s divine operations. This will follow on as a matter of course from the previous doctrine. ‘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 prepare him to receive the mercy of God.’
d. Set before your hearers God’s justice and the certainty that every transgression will be punished. ‘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 the 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.’
e. Be most of all clear on the soul-saving doctrine of the atonement. Preach a real bona fide substitutionary sacrifice, and proclaim pardon as its result. ‘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.’
f. ‘If men are to be saved we must in plainest terms preach justification by faith alone, as the method by which the atonement becomes effectual in the soul’s experience . . . Justification by faith alone must never be obscured, and yet all are not clear upon it.’
g. Preach earnestly the love of God in Christ, 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 . . . 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 . . . The true character of God is fitted to awe, impress, and humble the sinner: be careful not to misrepresent your Lord.
3. If we are anxious to see souls saved, we must not only preach the truths which are likely to lead to their conversion, but we must also use modes of handling these truths which are appropriate for securing that end.
a. Instruct: sinners are saved out of darkness; shine the light of God’s truth into their eyes – ‘the entrance of they word giveth light.’ Instruction must precede exhortation. ‘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 doctrine, 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.’
b. Appeal to the understanding. ‘True religion is as logical as if it were not emotional . . .Of carnal reasoning we would have none, but of fair, honest pondering, considering, judging, and arguing the more the better.’
c. Plead with sinners by way of emotional persuasion. ‘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 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 consciences and move men to fly to Jesus we must perpetually employ, if by any means we may save some. But always do this in absolute sincerity; affectation is despicable.
d. Be careful to vary your tone – at times you need to threaten, at times to invite. ‘Let the two methods be set side by side as to practical result, and it will be seen that those who never exhort sinners are seldom winners of souls to any great extent, but they maintain their churches by converts from other systems.’
4. Think carefully about the times when you address the unconverted.
More commonsense is needed in this matter. Don’t always address the unconverted at the same point in every sermon – ‘Why give men notice to buckle on their harness so as to repel our attack?’ Use the element of surprise; apply the truth and plead with them when least expected, or when their attention is awakened. Vary your services and don’t always speak to the saints in the morning and sinners in the evening – avoid falling into an evangelical rut. But never close a sermon without a word for the unbeliever. Think also about what season is best to wage a war against the unconverted. For Spurgeon, the winter month of February he found very useful for special evangelistic efforts.
5. Among the important elements in the promotion of conversions are the preacher’s own tone, temper and spirit in preaching.
a. Don’t be dull and monotonous – yes, it’s possible that God may choose to bless such preaching, but in all probability he will not.
b. Guard against a hard, unfeeling spirit in preaching. ‘Great hearts are the main qualifications for great preachers, and we must cultivate our affections to that end.’ But don’t let love degenerate into effeminate religious cant.
c. Preach believingly, always expecting the Lord who has sent you to bless his own word – ‘this will give us a quiet confidence which will forbid petulance, rashness, and weariness.’
d. ‘Preach very solemnly, for it is a weighty business, but let your matter be lively and pleasing, for this will prevent solemnity from souring into dreariness.’
e. Aim for conversions, expect them and prepare for them. ‘Resolve that your hearers shall either yield to your Lord or be without excuse, and that this shall be the immediate result of the sermon now in hand . . . Impressed with a sense of their danger, give the ungodly no rest in their sins; knock again and again at the door of their hearts, and knock as for life and death. Your solicitude, your earnestness, your anxiety, your travailing in birth for them God will bless to their arousing. God works mightily by this instrumentality.’
6. In addition to earnest preaching it will be wise to use other means.
These may include:
a. Pastoral visitation – make yourself available to and converse with all your people
b. Special meetings for the awakened and anxious with a view to further instruction, prayer, and the sharing of testimonies by recent converts. But he adds a caution here: ‘There must be no persuading to make a profession, but there should be every opportunity for so doing, and no stumbling-block placed in the way of hopeful minds.’ ‘Doubts may be cleared away, errors rectified, and terrors dispelled by a few moments’ conversation’
c. ‘Seek out the wandering sheep one by one, and when you find all your thoughts needed for a single individual, do not grudge your labour, for your Lord in his parable represents the good shepherd as bringing home his lost sheep, not in a flock, but one at a time upon his shoulders, and rejoicing to do so.’
d. ‘Call in every now and then a warm-hearted neighbour, utilize the talent in the church itself, and procure the services of some eminent soul-winner, and this may, in God’s hands, break up the hard soil for you, and bring you brighter days.’
‘In fine, beloved brethren, by any means, by all means, labour to glorify God by conversions, and rest not till your heart’s desire is fulfilled.’
 All quotations taken from this lecture. Lectures to My Students, Second Series (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1882) pp. 179-192.