Rev. Donald MacLean
This sermon, now slightly abridged, was preached by the Rev. Donald MacLean, Glasgow, the then Moderator of the Southern Presbytery, in the Free Presbyterian Church, Gilmore Place, Edinburgh, on Friday, 2nd October, 1998, on the occasion of the Induction of the Rev. Hugh Cartwright as minister of the Edinburgh Congregation.
Text: Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ. Ephesians 3:8.
IN these words we see the meekness and humility that should be the spirit of all who are called to preach “the glorious gospel of the blessed God”.
We shall consider, first, as we may be enabled, the view that Paul had of himself. He was not one to lord it over Gods heritage far from it. He esteemed other men better than himself and said that he was “less than the least of all saints”. Although he had that low view of himself he did not put himself outside the saints. He included himself among the saints, however unworthy he felt of being there. “By the grace of God I am what I am,” he says in another place. His becoming a saint took place, of course, before he was called to be a minister of the gospel.
Secondly, we shall consider that this man, who was among the saints, tells us that he was set apart to be a minister of the Gospel. Indeed, he was even an apostle, but as he says here, showing the same lowliness of mind, “I was made a minister” or servant (Eph. 3:7). He was set apart for that purpose by the great Head of the Church, in the way that we shall endeavour to explain later.
Then, thirdly, we shall consider the subject and substance of his preaching. He describes it in many ways. Among the Corinthians he was determined to know nothing “save Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Here he explains the substance of the Gospel as “the unsearchable riches of Christ”. This generation, so taken up with its own wisdom and pseudo-religion, despises Christ and his “unsearchable riches”. These riches, which cannot be searched out to their limit in this world or in the world to come, for they have no limit, are all in this glorious person, the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Let us consider then, first of all, that Paul viewed himself as “less than the least of all saints”. But as I said, he included himself among the saints. Therefore, we shall enquire who the “saints” are. They are, as the word “saints” indicates, a people who have been set apart; who are consecrated to God. When we enquire where they were set apart, we discover from the Word of God that they were set apart, first of all, in the love of God the Father, for they are “elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1 Peter 1:2). He loved them “with an everlasting love” (Jer. 31:3), and by that love He separated them from the rest of mankind. That love which was in His bosom from all eternity, and that chose them in Christ before the world was, is a love that separated them from the rest of the human family.
We hear from people who regard themselves as politically correct that there should be no discrimination. These people have yet to learn that Gods love is a discriminating love. It is a love that viewed all the race of mankind as “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), on the broad way to everlasting destruction. And according to His own purpose and will, He chose from among the human family a number that no man can number and loved them “with an everlasting love”. They were embraced in that love although there was nothing in them worthy of His love. There was nothing in them to merit and draw out His love to them. Nevertheless, God in His sovereign grace and mercy, chose them and loved them “with an everlasting love”, and in exercising that love to them He passed by the rest of mankind. In passing by the rest of mankind He did not make their condition any worse. He just left them where they were.
The “saints” referred to here are also described (in Hebrews) as “many sons” who were to be brought to glory. Now we must be very careful when we consider the words “bringing many sons unto glory” (Heb. 2:10). There was no absolute necessity in the divine nature for many sons to be brought to glory. God had one Son, and that was the Son of His love to whom His love went out from all eternity within the communion of the Godhead. He had no need of any other sons. The doctrine of the universal fatherhood of God, which has brought disaster to the Christian church, teaches that because God is a Father, He needs sons. These people who teach this do not understand the nature of God, nor do they understand the nature of the three Persons of the Godhead. God has one Son, His only, eternally begotten Son, who is “the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His Person” (Heb. 1:3). Therefore when God determined to bring to glory many sons, who “were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Eph. 2:3), it was in the sovereign exercise of His gracious and merciful love. Here, then, is the first place where they were separated from the rest of mankind: in the eternal outgoings of the love of God the Father.
The second place where they were separated from the rest of mankind is in the love of the Son of God. The love of the Father chose them. The Father, in His love, gave them to His beloved Son to manifest His love for them by redeeming them. He is the one who was to redeem them in the fulness of times; who would deliver them from their sins and from the wrath to come. He was to deliver them from divine condemnation and from the sentence of death passed upon them for their sins, by redeeming them. In redemption is revealed the love of the Son the redeeming love of the Son. In becoming their redeemer the Son of God became the Son of Man and continued to be the Son of God. By a personal act of His own He took into union with His divine person a holy humanity, conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of Mary, in order that the promise would be fulfilled, “The Redeemer shall come to Zion” (Isa 59:20). Redemption means deliverance by payment of a ransom price. The Son of God manifested His love to His people in His being willing to pay the ransom price to redeem them from their sins and to save them “with an everlasting salvation”. Therefore He, the Son of God, had to become the Son of Man because the price of redemption was described in these words, “Without shedding of blood is no remission” (Heb. 9:22). The Son of God became the Son of Man in order that His blood would be shed as the ransom price for those whom He loved “with an everlasting love”. He said when He came into the world, “The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). In accordance with this divine redemptive purpose the guilt of the sins of those who were loved “with an everlasting love” was imputed to and laid upon Christ, the sinless, holy Lamb of God, “without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:19). He bore their sins “in His own body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24), and died for these sins. He thus paid the penalty due to the holy, inflexible, glorious justice of God by His people for these sins. We read in Zechariah, in connection with the Saviour, that God the Father gave the command to the sword of divine justice, “Awake, O sword, against my Shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow. . . Smite the Shepherd” (Zech. 13:7). He was smitten! “He was wounded for our transgressions,” said the church, “he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him” (Isa. 53:5). His body was broken and His blood shed for the remission of the sins of those who are His sheep. They were separated from the rest of mankind because their sins were imputed to the Redeemer, and He died in their stead.
There is another place in which the saints are separated from the world: and that is, in the love of the Holy Ghost. You know that there are three Persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. I have spoken of the electing love of the Father and the redeeming love of the Son. I now come to the separation which takes place in time, in this world, as a result of the regenerating love of the Holy Ghost in setting apart sinners by the call of the everlasting gospel. Those who are loved “with an everlasting love”, and for whom Christ died, are set apart from the rest of mankind by the love of the Holy Ghost applying the gospel with divine power to their souls. The gospel is effectual when it is preached “with the Holy Ghost sent down from Heaven” (1 Pet. 1:12). The Holy Spirit uses the preached Word of God as the instrument to bring a sinner out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of Gods dear Son. There is a separation effected when the gospel is applied with divine power to the soul of a sinner. That sinner living in sin, living in the world and living for the world, living without God and without hope in the world, now experiences conviction of sin by the light of the Word of God beginning to shine in the understanding and in the conscience. It is the Holy Spirit who convinces of sin. He does so by bringing the soul to understand that God is, and that God is not the being he thought He was. Although that sinner was coming to church he did not realise that God is a holy and just being, and that He declares that the sins of Judah “have kindled a fire in mine anger, which shall burn for ever” (Jer. 17:4). That sinner has to say now, as his sins begin to rise up in his conscience, as Paul himself said, “I was alive without the law once, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died” (Rom. 7:9). Sin had a resurrection in his spiritual experience. This is true also of all who are savingly wrought upon by the Holy Ghost. Their sins become a reality. They learn that it is an evil and a bitter thing to have sinned against God. They discover that they are unable to deliver themselves from their sins from the guilt of sin, or from its reign and power. They say with the Psalmist,
“I lookd on my right hand, and viewd
but none to know me were;
All refuge failed me, no man
did for my soul take care” (Ps. 142:4, metrical).
Then, when the soul receives the light of the gospel, this is what it says:
“I cryd to thee; I said, Thou art
my refuge, Lord, alone;
And in the land of those that live
thou art my portion” (Ps. 142:5, metrical).
The Holy Spirit takes of the things of Christ and reveals them to the soul, as Paul says when speaking of his own conversion, “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). By the “face of Jesus Christ” we are to understand the person and the work of Christ, about which we will have something to say later. It is by the inward grace and the teaching of the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God, that the soul is brought to a saving knowledge of Christ, and that the soul now sees and believes, as Peter said, that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God”.
Some of you know that the pseudo-religious men of today say that faith must have doubt in it, and that faith is a leap in the dark. Well, the kind of faith that such unbelievers have is a leap into the blackness of darkness for ever! Ask Peter about his faith and you will discover that this is what he says: “We believe and are sure!” No doubt there. “We believe and are sure that thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:69). The saints have also been brought to believe in the merit of the blood of Christ that there is enough in that blood to cleanse them from all sin, and that there is salvation in Christ for the chief of sinners. As they viewed the work that Christ performed, and the love and the grace revealed in that work, they embraced Christ by faith. That is, of course, the turning point in the conversion of a soul.
Paul says, speaking of himself, “God, who separated me from my mothers womb,” that is, the natural birth, “called me by His grace to reveal His Son in me” (Gal. 1:15, 16), that is, the spiritual birth. You see, the everlasting gospel is the place where the soul closes in by faith with Christ, and is united to Him for time and for eternity, and also is justified in the sight of God through the righteousness of Christ being imputed to him. This, then, is the way by which the saints are separated from the world. The Saviour says of them, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:14). In our own day we hear a great deal from pseudo-evangelicals about certain so-called film stars and pop stars being converted. But we see that they are still of the world; they are still serving “divers lusts and pleasures” in the world. Now the people of God are altogether different. They have been delivered from the world, and are separate from it. They are in it, but they are not of it. They have got to be in it, but they belong to Christ; they are united to Him. They are coming up through the wilderness of time leaning on the arm of their Beloved.
So this man, Paul, was set apart to be a saint to enjoy the love of the Father and to be able to say, “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God.” As to the love of Christ he could now say, “The love of Christ constraineth us” ( 2 Cor. 5:14); and, “The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). And he tasted of the love of the Spirit in bringing him out of darkness into Gods “marvellous light”.
Now, secondly, Paul was set apart in another way, as he says here: “I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power”. All who are true ministers of the gospel were given by the Father to Christ, when He ascended up on high and “received gifts for men” (Psl. 68:18). They were given to Him as the exalted Saviour, and He, in turn, gives them to the church by setting them apart “by the effectual working of His power” in calling them to the work of the ministry. Of course they are set apart by presbyteries that is the outward act. We are talking at present about the inward act. They are set apart “by the effectual working of His power”. Now, let me illustrate this by the ordinary call of the gospel, that is, the open, free call made to sinners of mankind: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:7). That call is made effectual in the experience of the soul by the communication of the grace of the Holy Ghost. The same thing is true in its own way with regard to a person being set apart to be a minister of the Gospel. He is set apart by the inward call, and in that call there is the communication of the grace of the Holy Spirit. We call it ministerial grace.
That call, coming by the Word of God and the Spirit of God, first of all closes a man out from whatever employment he may be engaged in. Also, it closes him into the work of preaching the gospel of the glory of the blessed God. That man is given ministerial grace to do so, and he is made willing in a day of Christs power to forsake all that belongs to the world, and to devote himself to this great work that Paul describes as the preaching of the “the unsearchable riches of Christ”. Thus they are set apart from among the saints yes, from among the saints! The saints are set apart in the way I have endeavoured to explain, but these men (of course, Im speaking about men; I have no place or time for the unscriptural notion about women being ministers and I wont waste your time refuting it), these men, I say, who are among the saints by coming to a saving, spiritual knowledge of Christ, are now called by this special call, by the effectual working of Gods power, to be ministers of the everlasting Gospel, and to preach the “glorious gospel of the blessed God”. They come into that realm of which Paul says, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christs stead, be ye reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). So they are called in this way.
Now Paul speaks here about this wonderful work: the preaching of “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” Of course a man who does not know Christ cannot preach Christ. I am of the opinion that there is no more miserable creature on the face of Gods earth than a man who ascends a pulpit professing to preach Christ a Christ whom he never came to know spiritually by the saving work of the Spirit of God. Paul makes it quite plain that those men who are set apart to the ministry of the gospel have a spiritual knowledge of the Saviour. Therefore, being enlightened by the Word and Spirit of God, they preach “the unsearchable riches of Christ”.
Now thirdly, we are to note that it was “the unsearchable riches of Christ” that was the sum and subject of Pauls preaching. And this is what all ministers are to preach. We can but mention only a very little of these riches. If you think of the idea of “unsearchable”, it indicates an ocean without bounds to be measured or depths to be sounded. Such are the limitless riches of Christ.
I have referred already to the riches of the person of Christ that He is “the Son of the Father, in truth and love” (2 John 3); that He is the brightness of the Fathers glory; that He is the express image of the Fathers person; that the fulness of the divine nature dwells in His divine person. In Him are all the attributes of the divine nature: the incommunicable attributes of infinity, eternity, and unchangeableness, and the communicable attributes of wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. They are all shining in the person of Christ; they all belong to His glorious person as the Son of God. Those who are called to preach the gospel, preach the person of Christ as the Son of God who became the Son of Man and who continues to be the Son of God.
They also preach the unsearchable riches of what we may call His mediatorial office. The doctrine of the mediatorial office of Christ embraces the fact that He was appointed by the everlasting Father to be the mediator between God and man, and that through Him, as the Mediator, sinners are to be reconciled to God. Therefore, the two natures, human and divine, meet together in the person of Emmanuel, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23).
One of His mediatorial functions is that of being the great Prophet of the church. As the Prophet of the church He has “the tongue of the learned, to speak a word in season to him that is weary” (Isa. 50:4). As the Prophet of the church He has grace poured into His lips, as we read in Psalm 45, in order that He would pour saving grace and saving light into the dark souls of those who are to be redeemed and brought to everlasting glory. There are “unsearchable riches” in Him as the Prophet of the church in being able to teach all His people, without exception. “They shall be all taught of God” (John 6:45). The promise given to the church is this: “All thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children” (Isa. 54:13). They are hearing peace from the mouth of Him who, as the Prophet of the church, says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). These words are very applicable to His people in this day in which we live, amid all the turbulence, the wickedness, the immorality, and the violence of the age. In the God-despising, Christ-crucifying generation in which we live, Christ the Prophet continues to lead His people, and says to them, “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
Then there are “unsearchable riches” in the priesthood of Christ. The high priest, you remember, was the person who stood before God on behalf of the congregation of Israel. We have got the great High Priest, Christ Jesus, in whom are “unsearchable riches” of His priesthood in a twofold sense. First, there are “unsearchable riches” in the blood through which He reconciles sinners to God. He says to this church in Ephesus, “Ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh” (Eph 2:13). How? By the blood of Christ; by the “unsearchable riches” of the precious blood of Christ. However great your sins, however innumerable your sins, however vile your sins, there are unsearchable riches in the blood to make you whiter than the snow. Secondly, there are unsearchable riches in the intercession of this glorious Priest. When you think of Christ interceding, you must not think of Him as He was in the garden of Gethsemane “in an agony” (Luke 22:44), praying to His Father with strong cries and tears. No! He is now glorified in His holy humanity at Gods right hand and His very presence in Heaven is an intercession in itself. It is an intercession in itself, but He does actually pray for His people, and therefore “he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him,” (Heb. 7:25). Just as the high priest represented the twelve tribes of Israel before God, as was symbolised by the twelve stones upon his breastplate, so our divine, glorified High Priest appears in the upper sanctuary of heaven, interceding for His people, bearing them upon His bosom. And because “he ever liveth to make intercession for them” He is able “to save to the uttermost” all those who “come unto God by Him”.
Lastly, in His mediatorial office there are “unsearchable riches” in His kingship. “All power” is given unto Him “in heaven and in earth”. That power is not given to Clinton in America, Blair in Britain, or Schroeder in Germany, who are parading in the world as though they were the powerful ones of the world. No! We have a King who was dead but who is now alive, and “alive for evermore” (Rev. 1:18), and who has said, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matt. 28:18). Mark the extent of the riches of His power: “in Heaven and in earth”. Connecting that Kingly power with what Ive been saying about the ministry, we come to the great commission under which Paul, Peter, James, and John exercised their ministry, and under which every true minister of the Gospel today exercises his ministry. That commission, given by the King and Head of the church, is this: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19). What I, as a minister of the gospel, have to teach is what Christ has said. Christ then goes on to say this: “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20).
Oh, yes, the wiseacres of our day are saying that we are living in “the post-Christian era”. They say that Christianity was all right for the Victorians, but that now we are living in the technological age in which Christianity has no place. They are wrong! The Gospel is going to be preached until time will be no longer to the end of the world. “Lo, I am with you alway,” He says, and the word “alway” means this: “all the days” the days of spiritual prosperity and the days of spiritual adversity. Christ is saying to those who are preaching the gospel, “I am with you.” He is with them to maintain the preaching of the gospel until the end of the world. That is why we read in connection with the sacrament of the Lords Supper, “As often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lords death till he come” (1 Cor. 11:26). “Till He come”! People are too busy saying that “God is dead” and “Christianity is dead”. They are wrong because we have “unsearchable riches” in the power of this King, and in the power of His love being exercised to protect and advance His cause in every age and generation.
Now these riches of Christ are without limit; they are “unsearchable”. These unsearchable riches were all spread before the idolatrous Gentiles by Paul, as our text says, and they are spread before sinners today. This glorious person, Jesus Christ, is set before them, and they are encouraged to believe in Him and to “trust in the Lord for ever: for in the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength” (Isa. 26:4).
What a privilege it is for any man to be a minister of the Gospel and to be preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ! I saw in todays newspaper some talk about ministers becoming members of parliament. Well, you just wonder. Yet, you do not need to wonder, for you know perfectly well that such ministers have not begun to really understand what the work of the ministry is. Ministers are dealing with souls and they are dealing with souls in the name of the divine Saviour. What a privilege it is to be engaged in this work and what a responsibility it is! Nevertheless, this is what Paul says: “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.”
As it was by the effectual working of Gods power that Paul was called to do so, so it was by the effectual working of Gods power that his preaching of the gospel resulted in fruit. It is when the gospel is accompanied by divine power that this man and that man is born in Zion, and that a willing people come to Christ, and follow Him through good and evil report. You see, those who were singing the “new song” that none could sing but those who “were redeemed from the earth”, and of whom we read in Revelation, chapter 14, were doing more than that. They were also following the Lamb whithersoever he went. They were like Caleb and Joshua, who journeyed through the wilderness and were the only two, of those who left Egypt, who entered the promised land. They entered in because they followed the Lord fully. Now, that is what we should be engaged in, in our day and generation following Christ fully by divine grace, valuing the ministry of the Gospel, and praying for its prosperity in our day and generation. May He bless His Word.