Is There Not a Cause
The question is often asked, “Why the dearth of conversions in our gospel meetings?”
White in no way desirous of diverting attention from so serious a question or the exercises it should awaken, I would like to raise another of equal gravity, and one that should arouse exercises equally deep.
Why is it that, in spite of all the ministry of the truth which Christians bear and read, the practical and manifest results are so small?
Is personal holiness and fidelity to Christ more manifest? Is holy energy and zeal in His service more ardent and evident? Are Christians brighter, more consistent and devoted in their lives in consequence of such ministry? What shall the answer be?
These are serious questions, and yet surely every bit of true ministry is aimed at the realization of these things, and if they are not realized, do we not do well to seriously ask the question, Why?
“Why is it,” asks a correspondent, “that there seemed more for God in our lives when we knew less?” Solemn question!
Surely it is not the divine intention that our devotion to Christ and usefulness in service should be inversely proportioned to the amount of our knowledge! Anyway, this question furnishes food for reflection, and should give as much cause for exercise amongst saints and servants of God as the dearth of genuine conversions should do to the evangelist.
Is one of the reasons for this state of things to be found in James 4:2—“Ye have not, because ye ask not?”
In meetings for prayer for the gospel we ask that God might graciously give us very manifest blessing as the result of the preaching—that is, blessing that shall be distinctly evidenced by the altered lives of the hearers.
Do we not need to pray just as earnestly and fervently that saints of God may be equally affected by the ministry of the truth to them?
Surely the divine object of all true Spirit-given ministry—whether in the gospel or “in the word and doctrine”—is the positive, apparent, and abiding blessing of those to whom it is ministered—apparent and abiding not in speech only, but in the production of Christ-like spirit and walk.
Paul’s desire for young Timothy was that he should “give attendance to reading,” and “meditate upon these things,” not merely for the sake of gaining increased scriptural knowledge, but “that thy profiling may appear to all” (1 Tim. 4:13-15).
If with the superabundance of such ministry as there is today the results are not more manifest, we do well to examine ourselves as to the wherefore of it, saying each one for himself, “Lord, is it I?”
Paul, writing to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 6:12-13), says, “Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own souls . . . Be ye . . . enlarged.”
He then points out to them that which is calculated to account for the straitening and hinder true enlargement by showing certain links which, if maintained, would be bound to hinder their spiritual progress, and finally adds, “Be ye separate.”
In order to detect some of the causes that lie at the bottom of this serious obstruction to the work of God in us I would suggest that Luke 8:4-21 may help us in some measure.
It is evident on reading these verses that the sowing of the Word of the kingdom is in view of three results at least.
1. FRUIT-BEARING toward God—“Having heard the Word . . . bring forth fruit with patience” (v. 15).
2. LIGHT-BEARING towards the world—“That they . . . may see the light” (v. 16).
3. CHRIST- LIKENESS—“My brethren . . . hear the Word of God, and do it,” i.e. they bear His moral features (v. 21).
This means, of course, that the result of the genuine reception of the Word will be the reproduction of the life of Christ in His people, both in regard to His own moral graces and also in His fruitfulness to God and testimony to the world.
This will call forth the determined opposition of Satan and his allies. He will seek to prevent such an end being reached now, as he did when these features shone in all their resplendent beauty and perfection in Christ Himself.
The first hindrance we are definitely told is SATAN himself (v. 12).
The heart being under the influence of the father of lies is absolutely unexercised and indifferent to the truth. There being no sense of need, no preparedness of heart, the seed of the Word falls and lies—not long—for “then cometh the devil and taketh away the word out of their hearts,” and the result for God or man is nil. True, these are the unregenerate, but the practical hindrances are in principle the same for the saint, and hence we do well to let ourselves be tested by the truth here unfolded. Have our hearts become in any measure like this?
It is a matter for very serious reflection that we may go to meetings and leave them again, take up written ministry and put it down again, and be absolutely unaffected for good in any way. If I am in that condition, although a Christian, I am a wayside hearer in character.
Lack of exercise in heart and conscience is the first great hindrance in this parable. It is true we see people on entering a meeting bow their head in the attitude of prayer—but what do they say? Often we have been curious enough to wish we could hear what they say. Is it the earnest breathing of an exercised heart saying, “Teach me Thy way, O Lord,” or, “Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth,” or, “Search me, O Lord, and know mine heart; try me and know my ways?”—or is it only a few formal words they are uttering, or, indeed, are they saying anything at all! If the latter, then their action is but a ritualistic posture and imposture, and of no more value in the eyes of Heaven than the crossing with holy water by a papist.
The second hindrance is THE FLESH—not coarse immoral flesh, but religious and intellectual flesh—the lust of the mind.
There may be a joyful mental acceptance of the truth with nodding head, approving smile, or even a loud response, and yet the conscience and heart be altogether unreached. An admiring intellect does not by any means involve an exercised heart. It is one tiling to accept the truth, it is another to adopt it. Some one has said, “If I get hold of the truth, I shall endeavour to make the truth suit me; but if the truth gets hold of me it makes me suit it.” Practical Christianity does not consist in what we know but in what we show.
An interested, intelligent mind capable of taking in the meaning of terms may enjoy hearing the truth clearly, simply, and forcibly put, may thus “anon with joy receive the word,” catch the phraseology in which it is ministered, pass their friendly criticism on it and repeat it like a phonograph, and yet the heart be unreached, unjudged, and unrepentant, and their life altogether unaltered. Such trafficking with the truth of God is a most dangerous and conscience-hardening weapon in the enemy’s hands. It is one thing to be religiously educated in the terms of the truth, but another thing to adopt the truth expressed by those terms in the power of the Spirit.
“The time of temptation”—testing—for all such surely comes, and then it is surprising to observe the facility with which all is let go again! Every truth of Christianity carries with it the cross, and that the flesh shrinks from. Truth that is held in power is truth that will be held at personal cost if needs be, and that is the truth that “effectually worketh in them that believe” (1 Thess. 2:13).
The third great hindrance is THE WORLD—a professed acceptance of the truth, but no break with the world! Its cares, riches, pleasures, and lusts of other things (v. 14; Mark 4:19) are the thorns which choke and make unfruitful the word ministered.
It matters not whether it is the world on its material side—earth with its cares and riches—or its moral side—lust and pride—it has ever been a successful weapon in the enemy’s hand for robbing us of blessing and God of glory. Friendship with the world is enmity with God—“Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (Jas. 4:4). “Be ye separate” (2 Cor. 6:17).
The Spirit of Truth by whom all truth is effectually ministered to us is here, sent by the Father and the Son, and demonstrates this world’s guilt and doom (John 16:8).
“All that is in the world . . . is not of the Father” (1 John 2:16); and Christ “gave Himself . . . that He might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father” (Gal. 1:4); He has said, “The world hated Me” (John 1:18); and, “Now have they both seen and hated both Me and My Father” (John 15:23-24).
Therefore how could I maintain old worldly links without appearing to frustrate the object of Christ’s death and thereby forfeit the support and smile of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost?
To endeavour to illustrate my meaning, let us stand beside yon canal. How can this approaching boat travelling along that low level proceed on its way beyond this point where the level of the canal is so suddenly raised so many feet?
You say:“ Engineering skill has made that a simple matter. Boats are raised by this lock arrangement from the lower to the higher level.” But how is this done? You begin to give the various steps in the procedure. You observe first the boat must be placed in the lock. You inform us the next step is to open the sluice-gates and the water will commence to rush in from the higher level and immediately we shall observe the boat begin to rise.
Would you be surprised if we expressed a doubt about such a result being possible?
Protesting, you might say, “I’ve seen it done many times!” With apologies we beg leave to contradict you and say you have never seen it once! But here comes the boat! Let us carefully watch the operation ourselves. Notice:
(1) The boat is run into the lock;
(2) The lock gates are closely shut behind—and then
(3) The sluice-gates are opened and the boat begins to ascend to the height whence the water comes.
What was the omission you made, and why was it fatal to the raising of the boat?
You left the lock gates open behind, and thus every drop of water that would come down from above would as quickly run out behind, and the boat would not be advanced a foot.
Do you see the application of this figure? I wonder if it has any bearing on your own case? How many Christians there are who are leaving, it may be secretly, a back door open to the world, and in spite of all the flood of heavenly ministry that reaches them they are not raised one inch spiritually towards the source of all ministry. Does not Hebrews 2:1 (margin) suggest and warn us of such a danger? “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should run out as leaking vessels.” Oh that we might maintain through His grace a clean-cut from this world and a whole heart for Christ.
The Lord’s own significant exhortation in Luke 8:18 seems to be a fitting summing up of the whole burden of the parable—“Take heed how ye hear!” Do not the salient points of the parable itself supply us with some answer to that serious and anxious question—Why such feeble outward results from such abundance of ministry amongst God’s people?
May the Lord beget and maintain within us a true-hearted concern about these things, so that every bit of ministry we may be privileged to receive may accomplish that which He pleases and prosper in the thing whereunto He sends it (Isa. 55:11).