A preacher, reflecting on the difficulty of preaching the gospel faithfully and effectively, wrote these words in his journal:
‘Oh what need of the powerful presence of the Holy Ghost, without whom a free Saviour will, and must, be a Saviour despised and rejected of men!
‘How hard it is to unite in just proportions the humbling doctrines of man’s inability to come to Christ without regeneration, and the free gospel offer which is the moral means employed by God in conversion!’
That preacher was William Chalmers Burns (1815-1868). He was writing from St Peter’s Church, inDundee, where he was supply minister for Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, who was abroad on a Church of Scotland ‘inquiry’ concerning the Jews. That supply was to last for seven months, until M’Cheyne returned fromPalestine.
Burns then evangelised in bothScotlandandChina, until his death in 1868. His last words were: ‘Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever!’
Preachers today should note his journal entry. They too need to keep a firm grip on the doctrinal base of their gospel preaching (1 Timothy 4:16).
Some assume that Jesus Christ did ‘all that he could’ on the cross for the salvation of mankind and, since he died for the sins of the whole human race, all that preachers now have to do is persuade young and old, by one means or another, to ‘do their bit’ to help Christ’s work of salvation and ‘make their decision’ for Christ.
But this emphasis ignores the moral inability of the lost to turn to Christ. It also overlooks the fact that salvation is a sovereign work of God.
Others agree that man is by nature incurably wicked and cannot choose Christ without the Spirit first regenerating. But then they reason erroneously, ‘Why offer Christ to those who may be non-elect? Why announce gospel commands and invitations, exhorting such sinners to do the very things they are incapable of?’
The outcome of this flawed logic is to make the lost duty-bound to seek for signs of election within themselves as a basis, or ‘warrant’, for believing on Jesus Christ as Saviour.
This approach introduces preparationism into the gospel and is actually a subtle form of Arminianism, or works-righteousness.
Such words of Christ as ‘Repent and believe the gospel’ are, in fact, the only warrant needed to believe on him. And they are spoken to all indiscriminately.
What troubled Burns was the need to give due weight, on one hand, to Christ’s promise that all who come to him for salvation will be unconditionally welcomed (John 6:37b; Matthew 11:28); and, on the other, to the truth that only those the Father draws will come to Christ (John 6:37a; Matthew 11:27).
Burns was honest enough to admit he found it difficult to do justice to the antinomy and honour both scriptural principles. Both principles are equally true, even if paradoxically so.
Yet he did not resolve the tension by scissoring out those truths he couldn’t accept or understand. Instead, as his diary entry makes clear, he continued, in dependence on the Spirit, to preach the whole counsel of God.
Within just a few months, he witnessed a powerful awakening at St Peter’s. He writes that, one Tuesday in August 1839, a worship service started at 10.00am and lasted unexpectedly for five hours.
‘The people listened with the most riveted and solemn attention … but at the last their feelings became too strong … and broke forth simultaneously in weeping … intermingled with shouts of joy and praise’.
Many experienced the new birth there and then. M’Cheyne returned in November to find a powerful, ongoing revival at St Peter’s. Burns’ text that Tuesday morning had been ‘Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power’ (Psalm 110:3).
Being true to all the variant emphases of Scripture is still the best approach!