By the age of 17, I had been to church just twice. However, shortly before my high school graduation, some friends invited me to a camp at which, for the first time, I heard of God’s holiness, my sin, and the Substitute who took my punishment—Jesus. I never said a “sinner’s prayer.” Instead, I wept, knowing that God had converted me. But after my conversion, a simple question plagued me: If the Gospel is true and Jesus is the only hope for sinners, why aren’t more Christians concerned to tell their neighbors and co-workers?
Seventeen years later, the question still plagues me. Now, however, as an evangelist and church planter, I have a bit of perspective—limited and perhaps even controversial, but perspective nonetheless. I believe that one reason Christians have so little zeal to evangelize is that they have learned well from their pastors.
For example, at a presbytery meeting I once asked a candidate for ordination about a requirement set forth in my denomination’s Book of Church Order. It says that, among other things, ministers “should set a worthy example to the flock entrusted to their care by their zeal to evangelize the unconverted and make disciples” (8.3). So I asked the man, “Can you tell us about your zeal to evangelize the unconverted?” He replied, “Does it really say zeal?” After the nervous laughter abated, he humbly confessed that he hadn’t thought much about this part of his “job description.” Many of us don’t. But that brings up the next question—should we?
The great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon thought so. Although one need not look further than the Scriptures for encouragement to pursue the lost, promises that God will build His church, and a mandate from the lips of Jesus, we also have Spurgeon’s sermons and writings to feed our evangelistic zeal.
Whenever I am tired and apathetic, I pick up Spurgeon. Whenever I am frustrated and uncertain, I pick up Spurgeon. Whenever I am beginning to doubt the power and efficacy of simply preaching Christ crucified, I pick up Spurgeon—specifically, his book The Soul Winner.
Hear his opening words: “Soul-winning is the chief business of the Christian minister; indeed, it should be the main pursuit of every true believer.” If he uttered these words in some circles today, no doubt, he would be accused of being a theologically weak “church-growth type.” However, we know better.
Spurgeon not only ardently defended Calvinism, he believed that the Calvinist preacher should be the most zealous evangelist of all. Why? Because the Calvinist preacher believes that God does all the work, from beginning to end, of salvation. He believes that his preaching is God’s primary means, not only of “perfecting,” but also of “gathering” the elect.
Spurgeon exhorted his students: “Tell the sinner all the doctrines. If you hold to Calvinistic doctrine, as I hope you do, do not stutter about it, nor stammer over it, but speak it out … Give the people every truth, every truth baptized in holy fire.… But the great truth is the cross, the truth that ‘God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ Brother, keep to that. That is the bell for you to ring. Ring it, man! Ring it! Keep on ringing it!”
Spurgeon aimed his preaching at the conversion of the sinner. His understanding of the Reformed faith was not that of a mathematician over his formulas and axioms, but that of an adversary whom God in His mercy had conquered, changed, and recommissioned as a soldier of the Cross. He experienced the mercy of God in Christ and never got over it.
Spurgeon asked ministers: “How many others have you brought to Christ? You cannot do it by yourself, I know; but I mean, how many has the Spirit of God brought by you? How many, did I say? Is it quite certain that you have led any to Jesus? Can you not recollect one? I pity you then!”
His words are sharp, but they demand a hearing. How many people have been converted as a result of our ministries, our preaching, our hospitality, and our pursuit of self-denial? Why do many view the Reformed faith as being, in principle, opposed to evangelism and missions? Undoubtedly because they have met too many Reformed people who, if not in principle, certainly in practice, are chronically opposed to evangelism and missions.
What of those who are “faithful” and still see no conversions? Spurgeon has words for them as well: “ ‘But,’ says one, ‘I have always heard that Christ’s ministers are to be faithful, but that they cannot be sure of being successful [in seeing conversions].’ Yes, I have heard that saying, and one way I know it is true, but another way I have my doubts about it.… This brother is ‘faithful’; so he says. Well, if any person in the world said to you, ‘I am a fisherman, but I have never caught anything,’ you would wonder how he could be called a fisherman.… He that has never saved a sinner after years of work is not a minister of Christ. If the result of his life-work is nil, he made a mistake when he undertook it. Go thou with the fire of God in thy hand, and fling it among the stubble, and the stubble will burn.”
I have often heard pastors respond to such a challenge by saying, “My ministry has seen many Arminians come to the Reformed faith and many Baptists become Presbyterian”—or vice versa. Although Spurgeon considered these kinds of “conversions” a type of victory, he didn’t consider them to be evangelism, examples of zeal for the unconverted, or the main pursuit of every true believer—and neither should we.