11 April 2013

Spurgeon discussed: expect conversions?

by Dan Phillips

 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.
[Spurgeon, C. H. (1895). The Soul Winner: How to Lead Sinners to the Saviour (52–53). New York; Chicago; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell.]
Is Spurgeon right, or wrong? He is, after all, Spurgeon, and not Scripture.

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.

This is one of those cases where I wonder whether outrageously wonderful success did affect the vision of the great man. Spurgeon had a singularly blessed ministry, and supposed that everyone who had strong enough faith should have the same.

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.

Dan Phillips's signature


Frank Turk said...

You know: Even Spurgeon can't always be right. He was still a man.

However: I am a fan of post-millennial confidence that the Gospel preached is the Power to Save.

Michael Coughlin said...

Ha! Who is Kerry going to quote on this one?

Good points, DJP. Especially the part about "what are you believing?" In what is your faith?

The written Word of God seems to make it clear that NOT EVERYONE who hears the gospel will be saved. So when we believe THAT by faith, the expectation of conversions changes, doesn't it?

But I prefer to be hopeful personally, like Jonah was that God will be merciful to sinners.


There seems to be a point where God answers our prayers and we are to pray believing. So, in a way, if we are not praying believing or we are not praying about fruit/conversions/harvest then maybe we are shooting ourselves in the foot, by God's providence as much as it is by His grace and providence that we may pray rightly at all as well.

trogdor said...

While I think Spurgeon overstepped here, what I see is the great antidote to the nonsense and tomfoolery that infests evangelicalism today. Namely, unwavering confidence in God and His Word. He was wrong to assert that God will save each and every time his Word is faithfully preached, but right to assert that the faithfully preached Word is the only thing which can save.

The big problems in the evangelical mess all come back to a lack of confidence in God's Word. We believe we need to make it more palatable, so we file off the sharp edges. We think they won't listen, so we try to entertain with motorcycles and fire and praisertainment concerts and monkey knife fights and puerile sex talk and fake signs and tongues. We don't trust the Spirit to regenerate the soul, so we use sappy music and sales tactics to manipulate the emotions.

And this is where Spurgeon's point could be headed. Do you really believe when you go to preach, or talk to your neighbors and coworkers and family, that the gospel (and only the gospel) is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes?

His second paragraph there is pretty convicting and largely right on. When I present the Word and the response is lacking, it's far, far too easy to brush it off. I presented it faithfully, now salvation is up to God. True, but... why am I not crying out to God, beseeching Him for the salvation of those people? Does prayerlessness show a lack of faith every bit as much as seeking to entertain people into the kingdom?

There's danger in expecting 'results' from every act of preaching - that way lies Pelagian Finneyism. But there's also danger in hypercalvinistic lack of concern over the results.

Kerry James Allen said...

Michael, I'm still going to quote Spurgeon: "We are poor tools."

I've read that CHS passage many times as Dan has and I too have been a little mystified and disappointed by it. He also believed that there was life on other planets and in the so called Gap theory, and waffled in a few other issues also, so all he does in some areas is prove that great men are not always wise. What we must remember is that Spurgeon lived during a time of a great harvest of souls. McLaren, Parker, and Meyer all held court in London at that time and all had churches in the thousands. His time, just as Pentecost, was not the norm. I think the men of the 1662 ejection might have a few differences with CHS' comments. If memory serves, D.M. Lloyd Jones treated Evan Roberts for depression due to the fact that he had great success in his early ministry and little as time went on.

Read the bio of Billy Sunday by Lyle Dorsett and you will see a man who was used to sweep many into the kingdom preaching to small churches and small crowds by the end of his life. Times had changed.

When Jesus comes "shall He find faith on the earth?" Luke 18:8 (Sorry, Frank). Given the fact that Spurgeon used no gimmicks and no musical instruments, and took roll on members at the Lord's Table, and elders visited you if you missed, I doubt that he'd be as effective today. He came to the kingdom "at such a time as this." Our time is plowing rock, sad to say. Amos 6:12

Great post, Dan, I concur.

Cathy said...

I actually think Jonah expected (and possibly wanted judgement) not conversion. Yet God granted repentance despite any of Jonah's expectations. He was faithful to open his mouth though.
God calls us to pray and to act and to speak according to His will, and then trust that He will work and move and answer according to His own will as well.

rfb said...

An open, guileless question: how much, if any, is the optimism, pessimism, or any emotional expectation of the continuing advance of God's Kingdom related to U. S. centrism?

Kerry James Allen said...

Great point about Jonah, Cathy.

I remember one summer in college working at a chemical plant with a guy who I had befriended. I am ashamed to say that I wasn't praying for him but was avoiding witnessing to him since I just knew he would reject it and think me a lunatic. I put it off and put it off until I could stand it no longer and finally as he was leaving to go back to college himself, I asked to take him to lunch and shared the Gospel with him. It was the most receptive conversion I had seen up to that point. His response? "I wish you had told me this sooner and I could have come to your church." God in His mighty power uses us in spite of ourselves not because of ourselves.

I admit again: "We (I) are poor tools."

Michael Coughlin said...

With all due respect, I believe in Jonah's own word it is clearly expressed that he expected the Lord to save Niniveh - not judge Nineveh.

Jonah 3:10-4:2
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.

The smiley face in my comment is the part where I hint that I don't actually want to be JUST LIKE JONAH, who, although he believed the Lord would save souls through the proclamation of His Word, did not also desire that. I simply want to hope that the Lord actually saves, like Jonah (just that his hope was not also his desire).

But the point remains, that Jonah BELIEVED the preached Word would save, then preached the Word, and witnessed what may be the greatest conversion/revival story in history.

Solameanie said...

Good post, Dan.

And I know I risk coming across like I'm joking here, but I'm not. Know what tune came to my mind when reading the post? "Eleanor Rigby" by the Beatles, because of that one line about Father MacKenzie and "no one was saved." That line always made me sad even as a child when I'd hear it on the radio. And as I've gotten older, it still gives me a note of melancholy because I have personally seen many pastors visibly sadden at the end of messages they've preached from the heart, and got no visible response. My late stepfather was one of those pastors. But in the end, we really do have to leave it in the Lord's hands, and be sure we're preaching with the right heart and right motivations, for His glory and not ours.

DJP said...

Shorter Trogdor:

Even when Spurgeon's wrong, he's right.

(And of course, Trogdor's right.)

Tom Chantry said...

And here's another question: Is effective preaching always measured in soul's saved?

We would generally hold that a pastor who holds the hand of a dying man and assures him of the faithfulness of Christ to all His people has done good service. Then what about the pastor who preaches the same on Sunday, not knowing that one of his congregation will suddenly face death on Monday, remembering the gospel comfort preached?

Again, most would agree that a pastor who stands over the coffin of one of the saints and tells his family that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life has done his work well. What of the pastor who does the same in church, knowing nothing of the sister who came into church that day remembering her mother and missing her terribly, and who was built up and encouraged?

Neither of these scenarios involve someone being saved. Both involve true fruit of gospel preaching - fruit which the pastor cannot see.

But there is more - there is also the fruit which the hearers themselves do not see. What makes the faithful grow in grace? What strengthens them not only in their understanding, but in their trust and in their resolve? The Second London Confession suggests that faith is not only "ordinarily wrought" by the "ministry of the Word," but that it is further "increased and strengthened" by the same word. So the effectiveness of gospel preaching may be incremental and thus invisible. Christians are built up by the preaching of the gospel.

Don't get me wrong; I want conversions. I am elated when they occur, and I know the frustration when they do not. But part of the problem with Spurgeon's thinking is that it suggests that there is one fruit of gospel preaching: conversion. This is not true, nor is it biblical.

Tom Chantry said...


I will give Spurgeon some leeway here. Not that he is right, but that his mistake is understandable, and it is in some sense a mark of grace.

I have struggled through this question for years in ministries of uneven effectiveness. I suspect that so has Dan, and so have most preachers. Consider Spurgeon's life: no sooner did he begin preaching than God brought a vast harvest of souls. New Park Street burst out of its building and was forced to relocate. Spurgeon knew hardship - he was attacked and maligned more than most of us ever will be - but he did not know the struggle of the preacher who fears nothing is accomplished through his preaching. Spurgeon had evidence before his eyes every day of how effective preaching could be.

I not only wonder if I would have come to his conclusion; I suspect that I would have come to worse. My temptation would have been to tell young preachers, "You just need to preach better." Which, if you translated the thought of my heart, would have been, "You need to be more like me; look how great I am!" How quickly I would forget who it is that saves souls!

But Spurgeon, who became a sensation when he was half my age, continued to believe that God is the only source of salvation - not just to say it, but to really believe it. His words here actually demonstrate that fact. So even though he may be wrong, he is wrong in a way that evidences the grace of God in his own heart.

DJP said...

Right, Tom. And another problem with what CHS says (a big one) is that it plays to the idea that the main purpose of church services is to tell lost people how to become Christians. That should of course be a regular facet of preaching, but it is an extremely truncated view of Mt. 28:19.

That said, now that I've returned to pastoral ministry, I find it a more regular feature of just about every sermon on just about every text or Biblical topic that I think of possibly lost attenders, and try to come beside them and help them see where the "door in" is, from where they're sitting.

Jim Pemberton said...

So one would expect, if Spurgeon were right, that positive results bolster future faith in the method of our faith toward results. But we're not called to place our faith in results.

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

The Gospel is not always preached to win souls, but to condemn them, as well. After all it was Spurgeon himself that said, "The same sun which melts wax hardens clay."

Tom said...

"An open, guileless question: how much, if any, is the optimism, pessimism, or any emotional expectation of the continuing advance of God's Kingdom related to U. S. centrism?"

For Americans? It's somewhat related. This is not a peculiarly American phenomenon, however. The same often occurs for others folks regarding how things are going in their countries.
There is, however, much more of a tendency to relate how Christianity is doing in the West to the state of the kingdom of God.

Ted Cleaver said...

Major kudos, big-ups, props, well-played, etc, for the Berean-like nature of this post. Much of what Spurgeon wrote was golden, but as Frank said, he was still a man.

I personally think that you are being far too generous to Spurgeon regarding this quote though. It's simply full of fail -- chock-full of definitive "this is the way it is" statements with either no Scriptural backing or misinterpreted/misapplied Scriptural backing.

And yet, you were able to learn from it. You were able to draw more nuanced lessons and self-applications that Spurgeon (apparently) did not intend.

Application of this principle on a broader scale is left as an exercise for the reader.

canewbie said...

1 Corinthians 3:5-15
English Standard Version (ESV)

5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building.

10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Ted Cleaver said...

Well, gee, canewbie -- if you're going to go and whip out the Bible on us .... :)

Nash Equilibrium said...

It's a good analysis, Dan. I suspect these times could be as discouraging for preachers as they are for the rest of us, since people seem so disinterested and unbelieving. But the Word is powerful. I think the Word is sometimes "in season" and sometimes "out of season," so maybe we're currently out of season but we're not wholly accountable for results - only for obeying.

Carl C. said...

Dan, This was an insight into pastoral ministry that as a layperson I appreciate, to know what struggles pastors face behind the scenes and be able to pray more specifically. Pastor or not though: good exhortation for us to proclaim the Gospel faithfully, with hope and endurance, and reflections on coping with disappointment, especially the unfinished tale in progress at your church. May God grant blessings of visible harvest there, as well as continued growth in the flock.

Carl C. said...

I have a question related to your response to Spurgeon: can we legitimately refer to apparent conversions as 'fruit', or a plentiful harvest of souls (per Matt 9:37-38) as 'fruitfulness'? I noticed you used this term in this way a few times, although often with nuance -- apparent fruitlessness, (in measure) fruitful men. Maybe I've misread, but even if you don't mean it this way, many do.

I'm concerned about it in my own walk, having wrestled with this after a recent conversation with a fellow believer. This person said that as believers, not only are we to evidence the fruit of the Spirit, but the "fruit of souls". Using the parable of the sower (Matt 13:8,23 - the seed in good soil "bears fruit, yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown") and the vine/branches analogy (John 15:5 - the branch that abides in the Vine "bears much fruit"), they claimed we are not being fruitful if we aren't seeing people saved. The implication by using these texts: if this and the other fruit aren't evident, the person should examine his own salvation.

If this is a valid understanding of fruit in these texts -- and I don't doubt there are other texts that speak of fruit -- I want to conform to Christ's measuring stick. Otherwise, I'd say this term can be less than helpful as it relates to conversions.

Carl C. said...

My working, tentative answer to my own question:
Fruit is usually spoken of in the Word as spiritual realities, internal to a believer and having external results. The most obvious example is the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). So, the conversion of someone I've been witnessing to wouldn't properly be called my fruit, since its direct result isn't internal to me but rather internal to someone else.

However, in this scenario, since I'm the 'reaper' I would receive increase in the fruit of joy!

Matthew Henry on Matt 9:38:
Ministers are and should be labourers in God's harvest; the ministry is a work and must be attended to accordingly; it is harvest-work, which is needful work; work that requires every thing to be done in its season, and diligence to do it thoroughly; but it is pleasant work; they reap in joy, and the joy of the preachers of the gospel is likened to the joy of harvest (Isa 9:2; Isa 9:3)

So I don't doubt that they can be related, just not as directly as some would imply (aka Spurgeon's piece here).

Peter said...

Thanks for this post Dan, it was medecine to my soul. As a pastor of a small congregation I understand all of this keenly. Just this Easter I prayerfully preached the Gospel with all my heart. There were unsaved visitors present, which was amazing...and yet on the face of it, no conversions.

Something that comforts me is that part of Gospel ministry is vindicating the judgement of God. When we preach the Gospel, people will have even less of an excuse for not believing. I think the idea of treasuring up wrath in Romans 2 is about those who reject the clear presentation of the truth.

Ted Cleaver said...

Carl C, I believe that the Scripture that canewbie quoted ( 1 Corinthians 3:5-15 ) refutes the idea of "fruit = souls saved". I know that your "working, tentative answer" also does not agree with that false premise -- I'm not arguing with you, but rather giving you further encouragement that you are on the right track.

Also, when we talk to ourselves and answer, that can be worrisome. Best not to admit that out loud. :)

Carl C. said...

I agree that passage may bolster my case, but ultimately it's not as helpful to my question since it doesn't explicitly mention fruit as do the Matthew and John texts.
Besides, it seems this portion of 1 Cor 3 isn't as focused on the qualities of the object of the planting/watering/growth -- the plant -- which is the believer. Rather it's mainly addressing (1) the attitude plants are to have towards the means of spiritual growth, both human instruments and God, and (2) the unity of fellow-labourers. So in this particular plant analogy, my take: the fruit isn't as much in view.

I guess a comprehensive answer would require an all-around understanding of the places in Scripture where fruit is mentioned, which I'm NOT asking anyone to do. Just curious if others have any thoughts about this (mis)use of the term.

Michael Coughlin said...

Wow, I was reading this differently than some other people. I was reading it as someone who goes outside church buildings and preaches and see very little "fruit," that is, conversion.

I have also been in the room when my pastor has faithfully preached, and people are not converted.

I would tend to agree with CHS in a general sense that unless we really pray for conversion believing we will see conversion, we ought not be disappointed.

As a side note, Carl C. Here's my catpcha:
spainian 527

Carl C. said...

Michael, I like it. Have to start referring to my neighbors as Spainians until it sticks . :-) Good thing I'm no William Tapley, lest I spend the rest of the day fretting over the significance of 5, 2 & 7.

Michael Coughlin said...

Carl - "527" is an obvious reference to Matthew 5:27 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: and clearly indicates that Tim Tebow will have 527 rushing yards this season. You've been out of USA too long.