Here is a challenging passage from Spurgeon, one that has stuck with and gnawed at me since I first read it years ago.
You must also believe in the power of that message to save people. You may have heard the story of one of our first students, who came to me, and said, “I have been preaching now for some months, and I do not think I have had a single conversion.” I said to him, “And do you expect that the Lord is going to bless you and save souls every time you open your mouth?” “No, sir,” he replied. “Well, then,” I said, “that is why you do not get souls saved. If you had believed, the Lord would have given the blessing.” I had caught him very nicely; but many others would have answered me in just the same way as he did. They tremblingly believe that it is possible, by some strange mysterious method, that once in a hundred sermons God might win a quarter of a soul. They have hardly enough faith to keep them standing upright in their boots; how can they expect God to bless them? I like to go to the pulpit feeling,
“This is God’s Word that I am going to deliver in His name; it cannot return to Him void; I have asked His blessing upon it, and He is bound to give it, and His purposes will be answered, whether my message is a savour of life unto life, or of death unto death to those who hear it."
Now, if this is how you feel, what will be the result if souls are not saved? Why, you will call special prayer-meetings, to seek to know why the people do not come to Christ; you will have enquirers’ meetings for the anxious; you will meet the people with a joyful countenance, so that they may see that you are expecting a blessing, but, at the same time, you will let them know that you will be grievously disappointed unless the Lord gives you conversions. Yet, how is it in many places? Nobody prays much about the matter, there are no meetings for crying to God for a blessing, the minister never encourages the people to come and tell him about the work of grace in their souls; verily, verily, I say unto you, he has his reward; he gets what he asked for, he receives what he expected, his Master gives him his penny, but nothing else. The command is, “Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it;” and here we sit, with closed lips, waiting for the blessing. Open your mouth, brother, with a full expectation, a firm belief, and according to your faith so shall it be unto you.Is Spurgeon right, or wrong? He is, after all, Spurgeon, and not Scripture.
[Spurgeon, C. H. (1895). The Soul Winner: How to Lead Sinners to the Saviour (52–53). New York; Chicago; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell.]
I don't like saying this, but I think he's right and wrong. I don't like the admission, since "both/and" is invariably the laziest and most noncommittal response, and often means either "I don't really want to think" or "I don't want to commit myself." But in this case, those are the only words that fit.
Spurgeon is wrong in that many, many, many have preached with faith and apparent fruitlessness. At various points in their ministries, Moses and Samuel and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the apostles and the Lord Jesus Himself all preached with either no apparent success, or even with negative results. Would Spurgeon say that any of these men were weak in faith, or that everything would have been different if they'd only believed fervently enough?
More, I think it is a misapplication of the idea of "faith." Faith is a response to a word from God (Gen. 15:6). What "word" is in view here, promising conversions on every preaching of the Gospel? I know of none. God has given me no promise, in so many words, that every occasion of Gospel preaching will bear the fruit I wish to see in terms of folks' response.
Well, everyone doesn't, and that is apparently God's will.
Someone told me some months back that John MacArthur was the greatest preacher of this generation. I replied that I very much doubt that to be the case -- meaning not a bit of offense to MacArthur. I expect that there are thousands, perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands of equally-capable and (in measure) fruitful men across the world, preaching in relative anonymity and to meager results to congregations of 500, 100, or even 10. What makes MacArthur noteworthy in addition to his character and convictions are the fact that he is an exception. He is a faithful man who preaches it straight and has a lot of people pour out to hear it. We are not led to expect this to be the norm, to say the least (2 Tim. 3-4).
On the other hand...
Spurgeon puts his finger on something important. He challenges me, in a good and needed way. We are preaching a Word that is living, powerful, and so sharp that it cuts what nothing else can cut (Heb. 4:12). The Gospel is the power of God that results in salvation for all believers (Rom. 1:16), and his His means of saving the lost (Rom. 10:17). It is He who wants to send workers to a ripe harvest (Matt. 9:37-38). We are those workers, aren't we?
So why don't we pray and plead and labor and set our hopes on seeing fruit? I'll not speak for anyone other than myself. It can be lack of faith. It also can be wish to protect oneself from disappointment. After all, if you don't really expect to see anyone saved, and nobody is saved, you're not disappointed, right? But if you do so expect, yet nothing comes of it... ouch. Then comes disappointment, and self-searching, and self-doubt, and introspection. And that way lies risks of bitterness and gloom and despair.
I've seen bitter, disappointed pastors. I truly, truly do not say that judgmentally; I write with great sympathy and compassion. They hoped for much, they labored hard, and it came to little. They were betrayed, sold out, slandered. They trusted and invested and hoped, and they had replays of Judas and Demas, over and over again. You'd have to be made of stone not to feel that, and we aren't, we aren't made of stone. We're flesh and blood. So it hurts, it hurts badly. And bitterness is one sad way of coping with the pain.
So what do you do?
Wellsir, best I have is that you've got to pray and you've got to hope and you've got to work with prayerful hope (cf. 1 Cor. 9:10). That means you do have to risk hurt and disappointment. In fact, I'm afraid that if you aren't disappointed, you probably didn't hope and trust that strenuously.
I had that experience not long ago. I'm telling this story because it doesn't have a "happy ending" yet. Most preachers only tell "happy ending" stories, I find; and I'm not sure they're always the most helpful. So here's one that isn't, so far.
On August 12, 2012, I preached a sermon titled What's Next for Me? In our series loosely based on the church's statement of faith, we had come to eschatology, and I chose to begin with personal, individual eschatology. That means indescribable glory for saints, and unimaginable Hell for the lost.
I really felt this one. I prayed for it intensively. I prepared as assiduously and prayerfully as I could. I asked my dear flock in advance to join me in prayer. I prayed in the auditorium before the service; I prayed weeping. And I delivered the message to the best of the ability God gave me.
The results? I have the dearest flock in the world, no man is more blessed than I. They said kind, gracious, encouraging things. They could not have been sweeter.
But not one conversion that I know of. Zero.
Not one person saying that the word had penetrated, that God had nailed him to his pew as I myself was over forty years ago. Nothing of the sort.
So what do I do with that? Conclude that I didn't have enough faith? Give up? Neither.
I search my heart. Pray more. Seek God, ask for Him to help us. I'm blessed with folks in this church in particular who are doing everything they can to reach out with the Gospel. I confess to you that I need to "bring up my game," to catch up with them. And that's what I'm praying for, and striving for.
But I'm not there yet.
So again: do I conclude, with Spurgeon, that I must not have believed God? That's always possible. But I don't want to go the "faith-healer" line. God didn't promise me that someone would come to Christ in that service, so I don't have warrant to demand that He do so. He will do as He wishes with His Word, and only eternity will tell what He does choose to do. And that is what I am called to believe, that He did His will with His word -- a will which, in this case, did not dovetail with my pleas.
But that doesn't mean I'm letting myself off the hook and hiding under a Calvinism of convenience.
God forbid. Seriously, God forbid.