Hope, may I add, in the biblical sense of that word. Hope that knows that God cannot lie, has made great and precious promises, keeps His promises and has called us to serve him. Hope that is defined, not as mere wishes like we hope for certain things for Christmas. But real hope that knows that God will do for us what He has promised even though we do not have it yet.
1 Tim. 4:16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
That is, you will be the means of their salvation. It is not necessary to suppose that the apostle meant to teach that he would save all that heard him. The declaration is to be understood in a popular sense, and it is undoubtedly true that a faithful minister will be the means of saving many sinners. This assurance furnishes a ground of encouragement for a minister of the gospel. He may hope for success, and should look for success. He has the promise of God that if he is faithful he shall see the fruit of his labors, and this result of his work is a sufficient reward for all the toils and sacrifices and self-denials of the ministry. If a minister should be the means of saving but one soul from the horrors of eternal suffering and eternal sinning, it would be worth the most self-denying labors of the longest life. Yet what minister of the gospel is there, who is at all faithful to his trust, who is not made the honored instrument of the salvation of many more than one? Few are the devoted ministers of Christ who are not permitted to see evidence even here, that their labor has not been in vain. Let not, then, the faithful preacher be discouraged. A single soul rescued from death will be a gem in his eternal crown brighter by far than ever sparkled on the brow of royalty.
Yes, yes, I know there are things said in the above quote that irritate our sensibilities. I do not believe that the mark of the faithful minister is necessarily “many” converts. But what this quote says about labouring for the salvation of one soul is worth putting the whole thing in.
Brokenness and thankfulness and joy can reside in the same heart at the same time in the same person. The people of God are called by God and commanded by God to be joyful always even as they have broken hearts. Those people in the pews need to see the possibility of that joy in the pulpit and they need to know that this is the mark of their heart. This is true regardless of the personality of the preacher. I do not get off the hook regarding joy simply because I have a depressive personality. Anger at sin and stupidity and ignorance does not excuse us from being joyful. Agony created by the circumstances of our church or personal lives is not to erase the deeper seated joy that no amount of tragedy can take away. Our work is for the joy of our people (II Cor. 1:24) and we will never accomplish that if we are curmudgeons. Anger and righteous indignation are easy, especially when there is so much theological nonsense, evangelical stupidity and religious pluralism in the Christian community. We may look to Jeremiah for justification for our angst but the God who calls us to Jeremiads also calls us to produce the fruit of the Spirit that is joy. It is not an either/or prospect. It is both/and. There is much to produce joy in us even as we have broken hearts for God’s glory, the souls of the lost and the spiritual growth of our people.
Heart preaching will preach in faith that God has people in this place and He has not sent us on a fool’s errand. He has not placed us where we are, for nothing. I left St. John’s Newfoundland in the fall of 1986 after five years of labour planting a church and seeing almost no fruit from the efforts. I can look back on three converts and a church of thirty people in the five years I was there. Shortly before I left I surmised that I had not done much and that I wish more had happened. My fellow elder responded by saying that it was no small thing that there was a group of people who still believed the Gospel and had not given in to all that came at them tempting them to give up. No small thing that God put me in St. John’s for five years just to be the tool that He would use to lead three of His children chosen from before the foundation of the world. No small thing that God could have done it through a hundred other means but in His providence chose to bring me back to my homeland to do it. There is no joy greater than knowing that the doors of your church are still open because God is going to use you to win some of His chosen ones to Himself through you.
Preaching means that God uses human means. We need to believe that God can save people without us. The fact that He chooses to use us is not a testimony to our ingenuity but rather to the fact that God uses the foolish to confound the mighty. We know that preaching the Gospel is not a matter of positive thinking, but we should also know that it is also not a matter of insurmountable pessimism either. It is a poor preacher who is convinced that nothing will result from the preaching of the Gospel. We believe that God saves sinners through the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and we should deliver it with the conviction that the people we are preaching to or the person we are witnessing to is not hearing it from us by accident. The God who works out everything after the council of His own will, has put that person and those people under the hearing of our speaking and we should leave room for the possibility that the reason He has done so is to save them.
Some of you may have read the blog post by Russell Moore a few months ago regarding the future of the evangelical church. I copy a portion of it here now for you because it fits.
The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might be a misogynist, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now. The next Billy Graham might be passed out drunk in a fraternity house right now. The next Charles Spurgeon might be making posters for a Gay Pride March right now. The next Mother Teresa might be managing an abortion clinic right now.
But the Spirit of God can turn all that around. And seems to delight to do so. The new birth doesn’t just transform lives, creating repentance and faith; it also provides new leadership to the church, and fulfills Jesus’ promise to gift his church with everything needed for her onward march through space and time (Eph. 4:8-16).
After all, while Phillip was leading the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ, Saul of Tarsus was still a murderer.
Most of the church in any generation comes along through the slow, patient discipleship of the next generation. But just to keep us from thinking Christianity is evolutionary and “natural” (or, to use Dr. Henry’s term “genetic”), Jesus shocks his church with leadership that seems to come like a Big Bang out of nowhere.
Whenever I’m tempted to despair about the shape of American Christianity, I’m reminded that Jesus never promised the triumph of the American church; he promised the triumph of the church. Most of the church, in heaven and on earth, isn’t American. Maybe the hope of the American church is right now in Nigeria or Laos or Indonesia.
Jesus will be King, and his church will flourish. And he’ll do it in the way he chooses, by exalting the humble and humbling the exalted, and by transforming cowards and thieves and murderers into the cornerstones of his New City.
How we need to believe this as we approach our pulpits every Sunday and as we go out to wherever it is that we go, to give the Gospel to the lost in our communities.