Advancing Christ’s kingdom together #4
The previous sections of Andrew Fuller’s letter have seen this pastor-theologian begin by emphasising the principle of co-operation that ought to unite the whole body of Christ in holy endeavour, before going on to deal with two of the four groups of people to whom every pastor seeks to minister: “serious and humble Christians” and “disorderly walkers.” We have looked at Fuller’s counsels and sought to expand and apply them.
Now Fuller moves on to the third group he is considering: people “inquiring after the way of salvation.” This is the longest of the four treatments of these different groups, and the most developed. Fuller traces the declension of many churches to a lack of concern in the hearts of God’s people for the lost among them, and a lack of skill in “the world of righteousness.” He unpacks these twin concerns, and in doing so exposes an error that was prevalent in his own day, and may be prevalent in our own, especially in some churches.
While we will unpack some of the positive exhortations at the close of this post, it is worth noting that the error that Fuller is particularly keen to avoid is the tendency for counsellors of those awakened to their need of salvation to adopt some of the mistaken assumptions of those whom they are counselling. Specifically, Fuller says that many a one inquiring after salvation “is employed in searching for something in his religious experience which may amount to an evidence of his conversion; and in talking with you he expects you to assist him in the search.” Too many believers are ready to help in this quest, turning the eye of the seeker upon himself rather than upon Christ. Fuller is well aware of the fact that it is not wrong for someone to examine himself to see whether the evidences of true conversion are present in his life, but this is not his concern here. Rather, he is thinking of those who are seeking in their own experience some warrant to come to Jesus, some mark that they are ripe for salvation, or some indication from their own distresses or burdens that God is ready to receive them. Fuller’s point is that the gospel is all the warrant that is needed, and that those who look elsewhere are not looking in the right place, and do not in fact properly understand the gospel itself. What sinners need is Jesus as Saviour, and it is to him that we must point men.
Thirdly, In every church of Christ we may hope to find some persons inquiring after the way of salvation. – This may be the case much more at some periods than at others; but we may presume, from the promise of God to be with his servants, that the word of truth shall not be any length of time without effect. Our work in this case is to cherish conviction, and to direct the mind to the gospel remedy. But if, when men are inquiring the way to Zion, there be none but the minister to give them information, things must be low indeed. It might be expected that there should be many persons capable of giving direction on this subject as there are serious Christians; for who that has obtained mercy by believing in Jesus should be at a loss to recommend him to another? It is a matter of fact, however, that though, as in cases of bodily disease, advisers are seldom wanting; yet, either for want of being interested in the matter, or sufficiently skilful in the word of righteousness, there are but few, comparatively, whose advice is of any value; and this we apprehend to be one great cause of declension in many churches. Were we writing on ministerial defects, we should not scruple to acknowledge that much of the preaching of the present day is subject to the same censure; but in the present instance we must be allowed to suppose ourselves employed in teaching the good and the right way, and to solicit your assistance in the work. When the apostle tells the Hebrews that, considering the time, “they ought to have been teachers,” he does not mean that they ought all to have been ministers; but able to instruct any inquirer in the great principles of the gospel.
It has been already intimated that, to give advice to a person under concern about salvation, it is necessary, in the first place, that we be interested on his behalf, and treat him in a free and affectionate manner. Some members of churches act as if they thought such things did not concern them, and as if their whole duty consisted in sending the party to the minister. A church composed of such characters may be opulent and respectable; but they possess nothing inviting or winning to an awakened mind. To cherish conviction, and give a right direction to such a mind, we must be free and affectionate. When a sinner begins to think of his condition, such questions as the following will often cross his mind: – Was there ever such a case as mine? Are there any people in the world who have been what I am, and who are in the way to eternal life? If there be, who are they? Where are they? But if, while he is thinking what he must do to be saved, he neither sees nor hears any thing among you which renders it probable that such was ever your concern – if, as soon as a sermon is ended, he sees merely an exchange of civilities, and, on leaving the place, observes that all the congregation immediately fall into conversation about worldly things, what can he think? Either that there is nothing in religion, or, if there be, that he must seek elsewhere for it. The voice of a Christian church to those who attend upon their ministry should be that of Moses to Hobab: “We are journeying to the place of which the Lord hath said, I will give it you. Come thou with us, and we will do thee good: for the Lord hath spoken good concerning Israel.”
It is of great consequence to the well-being of a church, that there be persons in particular in it who are accessible to characters of this description, and who would take a pleasure in introducing themselves to them. Barnabas, who, by a tender and affectionate spirit, was peculiarly fitted for this employment, was acquainted with Saul while the other disciples were afraid of him. It was he that introduced him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus.
Affection, however, is not the only qualification for this work: it requires that you be skilful in the word of righteousness; else you will administer false consolation, and may be instrumental in destroying, instead of saving souls. Not that it requires any extraordinary talents to give advice in such cases; the danger arises principally from inattention and erroneous views of the gospel.
If, brethren, you would assist us in this delightful work, allow us to caution you against one prevailing error, and to recommend one important rule. The error to which we allude is, Taking it for granted that the party has no doubts as to the gospel way of salvation, and no unwillingness to be saved, provided God were but willing to save him. Such are probably his thoughts of himself; and the only question with him is, whether he have an interest in Christ and spiritual blessings. Hence he is employed in searching for something in his religious experience which may amount to an evidence of his conversion; and in talking with you he expects you to assist him in the search. But do not take this account of things as being the true one: it is founded in self-deception. If he understood and believed the gospel way of salvation, he would know that God was willing to save any sinner who is willing to be saved by it. A willingness to relinquish every false confidence, every claim of preference before the most ungodly character, and every ground of hope save that which God has laid in the gospel, is all that is wanting. If he have this, there is nothing in heaven or earth in the way of his salvation. In conversing with such a character we should impress this truth upon him, assuring him that if he be straitened [hemmed in or restricted] it is not of God, but in his own bowels [inner being] – that the doubts which he entertains of the willingness of God, especially on account of his sinfulness and unworthiness, are no other than the workings of a self-righteous opposition to the gospel (as they imply an opinion, that if he were less sinful and more worthy, God might be induced to save him) – and that if he be not saved in the gospel way, while yet his very moans betray the contrary, we should labour to persuade him that he does not yet understand the deceit of his own heart – that if he were willing to come to Christ for life, there is no doubt of his being accepted; in short, that, whenever he is brought to be of this mind, he will not only ask after the good way, but walk in it, and will assuredly find rest unto his soul.
The rule we recommend is this: Point them directly to the Saviour. It may be thought that no Christian can misunderstand or misapply this important direction, which is every where taught in the New Testament. Yet if you steer not clear of the above error, you will be unable to keep to it. So long as you admit the obstruction to believing in Christ to consist in something distinct from disaffection to the gospel way of salvation, it will be next to impossible for you to exhort a sinner to it in the language of the New Testament. For how can you exhort a man to that which you think he desires with all his heart to comply with, but cannot? You must feel that such exhortations would be tantalizing and insulting him. You may, indeed, conceive of him as ignorant, and as such labour to instruct him; but your feelings will not suffer you to exhort him to any thing in which he is involuntary. Hence, you will content yourselves with directing him to wait at the pool of ordinances, and it may be to pray for grace to enable him to repent and believe, encouraging him to hope for a happy issue in God’s due time. But this is not pointing the sinner directly to Christ. On the contrary, it is furnishing him with a resting-place short of him, and giving him to imagine that duties performed while in unbelief are pleasing to God.
If you point the awakened sinner directly to the Saviour, after the manner of the New Testament, you will not be employed in assisting him to analyze the distresses of his mind, and administering consolation to him from the hope that they may contain some of the ingredients of true conversion, or at least the signs that he will be converted. Neither will you consider distress as ascertaining a happy issue, any otherwise than as it leads to Christ. If the question were, Do I believe in Jesus for salvation? then , indeed, you must inquire what effects have been produced. But it is very different where the inquiry is, What shall we do? or, What shall I do to be saved? The murderers of Christ were distressed; but Peter did not attempt to comfort them by alleging that this was a hopeful sign of their conversion, or by any way directing their attention to what was within them. On the contrary, he exhibited the Saviour, and exhorted them to repent and be baptized in his name. The same may be said of the Philippian jailer. He was in great distress, yet no comfort was administered to him from this quarter, nor any other, except the salvation of Christ. Him Paul and Silas exhibited, and in him directly exhorted him to believe. The promise of rest is not made to the weary and heavy laden, but to those who come to Christ under their burdens.
Once more, If you keep this rule, though you will labour to make the sinner sensible of his sin, (as till this case he will never come to the Saviour,) yet you will be far from holding up this his sensibility as affording any warrant, qualification, or title to believe in him, which he did not possess before. The gospel itself is the warrant, and not any thing in the state of the mind; though, till the mind is made sensible of the evil of sin, it will never comply with the gospel.
While in the first two categories of persons, our author was more concerned with the progress of the gospel intensively (that is, in the hearts of those converted, pursuing increasing godliness) here he turns to the progress of the kingdom extensively, in the conversion of sinners. Like Charles Spurgeon after him, Fuller wants the church to be a true ‘Salvation Army’: “We want, in the Church of Christ, a band of well-trained sharpshooters, who will pick the people out individually, and be always on the watch for all whom come into the place, not annoying them, but making sure that they do not go away without having had a personal warning, a personal invitation, and a personal exhortation to come to Christ” (Spurgeon, The Soul Winner, [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994], 135). Are you ready to play your part? If so:
- Consider whether or not you have played a part in the past. If not, then repent of your sins against men and God, particularly with regard to any lack of concern for the souls of men and any culpable failure to grasp the truth so as to be able to explain it to others. Pray God that – should you have the opportunity – you would be one who is willing and able to contribute in this way, and not merely ready to send the inquirer to the preacher, or someone else presumed to be competent in the matter.
- Remember that the whole church ought to be concerned in the salvation of the lost. Consider that it is not solely the pastor’s responsibility, neither only the officers’ business, nor a matter for the keen and zealous, but rather the concern of the whole local body.
- Then, pursue an affection for and accessibility to those burdened in soul. The former must spring from within, and must be nurtured with prayer for men. Pray for it generally, that God would give you a heart for the lost, and specifically, that God would bless this one or that one whom you know to be troubled in heart, and so stir up a holy regard and concern for the individuals who need Christ. Avoid all coldness, distance, pomposity, invasiveness, false joviality, and all the other boundaries to transparent and earnest conversation about things that matter. Seek the “tender and affectionate spirit” that characterised Barnabas, and made him such an encourager to Saul and countless others.
- Further, do nothing to inhibit the seeker or to counteract his concerns, especially in the immediate context of the worship of God. I distinctly remember as a child my disgust – as I felt it then to be – with the church for professing to be concerned with high and holy things, and yet to see men and women turn to each other within moments of a service ending to begin talking about things that simply did not matter. Perhaps I was right to be disgusted. Might we not see more results if our first questions to each other were less along the lines of “How was your week?” and more akin to “How are things with your soul?” Labour to communicate to others that you are as much concerned about your soul and theirs as they are or should be about their own, and that the things of eternity press more upon your spirit than the things of time.
- Remember that no special gifts or extraordinary talents are required for you to speak the good news about Jesus to a needy sinner. Do not be hindered by flawed and false expectations of yourself. Your primary qualification is your own experience of grace, “for who that has obtained mercy be believing in Jesus should be at a loss to recommend him to another?”
- In this regard, do not be sucked into a man’s own mistaken notions of his warrant for believing (see above), but rather make it your errand to point sinners directly to Christ as Saviour. Do not, first and foremost, urge them to attend more sermons, come to more services, read more books, search their hearts more diligently, consider their sins more humbly, pray for grace to repent and believe, or tell them simply to wait upon God’s time for a blessing. Though some of these counsels may be appropriate in a legitimate context and their proper place, our primary business as believers is this: to urge sinners as lost and needy to flee to the Lord Christ, and to trust and take Jesus Messiah as their Redeemer and Lord.