Rev. James S. Sinclair
An editorial based on Acts 20:27. (From The Free Presbyterian Magazine, Vol 13, May 1908).
For an account of the life of Mr Sinclair, former editor of the Magazine, see later article.
THE Apostle Paul, in his touching farewell charge to the elders of the Church at Ephesus, lays very special stress upon the fact that during the whole period of his personal ministry among the Ephesians he had “kept back nothing that was profitable” unto them, and had “not shunned to declare” to them “all the counsel of God.” In remembrance of this unreserved faithfulness in proclaiming the truth to his hearers, the apostle calls the elders solemnly to record that he was “pure from the blood of all men.” If any of those who professed to receive his doctrine should afterwards depart from the faith, or if any of his manifestly unconverted hearers should persist in their unbelief to the end, he felt deeply convinced that he was entirely free from responsibility for their final destruction. He was pure from the blood of apostate professors or of obdurate unbelievers.
The apostle was well acquainted with the Old Testament Scriptures, and we think we hear an echo in his words of the solemn message which the Lord addressed to Ezekiel (chapter 33) regarding the duty of the watchman to warn the people when he saw the sword coming upon the land. The Lord reminded the prophet that He had set him as a watchman unto the house of Israel, and that if he did not speak, according to the divine word, to warn the wicked from his way, he would be verily guilty of his blood. “That wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.” But on the other hand, the Lord said: “If thou warn the wicked of his way to turn from it; if he do not turn from his way he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.”
The Apostle Paul is one of the most distinguished examples of a faithful minister of Christ given us in the Scriptures, and the record of his labours and instructions has been handed down by the Holy Ghost for the direction of others in subsequent times, who may go forth to speak in the name of Christ. There were no doubt circumstances attending the apostolic ministry that are not now in the Church, such as extraordinary gifts of the Spirit and the power to work miracles; but there is one thing in which the most humble servants of the Lord may even now be able to follow closely in the footsteps of the Apostles, namely, in the faithful declaration of the truth as it is in Jesus. Indeed, it will be criminal on their part if they do not walk in apostolic steps in this important particular. This does not require any extraordinary gifts of the Spirit; it is the common privilege and duty of the Church in all ages, and must be observed by those who are loyal to Christ in the darkest, as well as the brightest, times. In fact, the darker and more erroneous the times we live in, the more incumbent it is upon us to hold fast and proclaim the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
It is our present intention to notice briefly the statement of the Apostle in Acts 20:27, “For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God,” and in doing so we shall observe, first, the terms in which he describes the subject matter of his preaching, “the counsel of God;” secondly, the fact that he declared “all” this counsel; and thirdly, his assertion that he “shunned not” to perform this important task.
1. The first thing, then, to be observed, is the terms in which he describes here the subject matter of his preaching. He calls it “the counsel of God.” Paul was a man deeply versed in the learning of his own day, and, possessing a penetrating genius, was capable of handling the profoundest problems of the universe in a masterly manner, but he did not preach any philosophy or wisdom of his own as the remedy for the worlds evil. By the grace of God he became the devoted servant of Jesus Christ, and spent all his energies in proclaiming the divine counsel for the salvation and edification of sinners. He lays great emphasis on this here. The Jews were very ready to charge him with introducing new doctrines of his own invention, but he invariably disclaimed any such thing, and proved in the most convincing manner that he preached the very things that “the law and the prophets” bore witness to from first to last.
It is clear, then, that the truth which the apostle and others declared, and were willing to lay down their lives for, was the counsel the will the wisdom of God, not the thoughts or ideas of mans wisdom. They were not the ministers of a new philosophy or system of theology after their own ideas, but they were the mouthpieces of the Holy Ghost who spoke in and through them, and made them the instruments of declaring “the counsel of God.” Men sometimes speak of Pauline, Johannine, and Petrine Theology, but these are expressions that must be very discriminatingly used, if used at all, otherwise the divine origin and spiritual oneness of apostolic teaching will be seriously obscured. Paul and John and Peter had their distinct and varied gifts in unfolding the will of God, but it was the one Sun of Righteousness who shone upon them, and whose light they reflected for the instruction and salvation of men.
2. Let us notice, secondly, the fact that the apostle declared “all” the divine counsel. He did not preach a partial gospel or keep back any part of the truth that was profitable for his hearers. He preached the whole truth, whether pleasing to men or not. Taking the Epistle to the Ephesians as an example, we see that he spake much concerning redemption as originating in the sovereign will and love of God the Father, as purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ the Son, and as applied by the quickening power of the Holy Ghost. He declared the complete fall of men as sinners, dead in trespasses and sins, and salvation as not of works, but of grace and through faith in Jesus Christ. He also strongly inculcated holiness of life and conversation on the part of believers, and the concluding part of this Epistle dwells largely on the precepts of practical godliness and of devotedness to Christ and his service. The apostle was an all-round preacher of the truth as it is in Jesus. He declared law and gospel, precepts and promises, the divine order and relations of Church and State, the first things of grace and godliness here, and the last things of death, resurrection, and final judgment hereafter. He preached all the counsel of God for the destruction of Satans kingdom, and the upbuilding and extension of Christs kingdom in the hearts of Jews and Gentiles throughout the world. He omitted no truth that the Lord commissioned him to declare; and the terms of our commission to-day are in this respect the same as his.
3. The third point we observe is his assertion that he “shunned not” to perform the important task of declaring “all the counsel of God”.
The apostle here clearly implies that there were temptations to shun the declaration of the whole counsel. These temptations chiefly arose from the opposition of men, as we may gather from the opening sentences of his address. There he states, “I have been with you at all seasons, serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears and temptations, which befell me by the lying-in-wait of the Jews.” The Jews were the most determined enemies of the gospel of Christ, and they pursued Paul with relentless hatred and opposition in almost every city where he preached the gospel. He loved them as his brethren according to the flesh, and sought their salvation with intense earnestness, thus their opposition was a great and constant trial to his faith. He would, no doubt, be strongly tempted at times to shun the declaration of those truths that were most unpalatable unto them, but he was enabled by the grace of God, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ, to resist this temptation and to preach the whole truth, whether they would hear or forbear, or pursue him to death.
The apostle knew also that the doctrines which he preached were not pleasant to the carnal mind in the Gentiles as well as the Jews. The Gentiles, no more than others, naturally appreciated the law in its spirituality or the gospel in its grace. “Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” was foolishness to the Greeks as well as a stumbling-block to the Jews. Righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, were not themes that sensual or self-secure sinners anywhere cared to hear much about. The light of spiritual truth was apt to sweep away the cobwebs of self-justification and self-complacency with which they hid themselves from the eye of a heart-searching God, and they hated the light because their deeds were evil. Here again was the temptation to tone down the keen and penetrating truths of Gods word, so as to make his preaching more popular, and as Satan in his subtlety would also suggest, to secure greater success for the kingdom of Christ.
But the apostle was kept very near to his great Leader and Commander, the Captain of salvation, and with a divine courage, he resisted these temptations, and wielded with remarkable vigour “the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God,” not shunning or shrinking to declare the whole divine counsel. And the Lord abundantly blessed his arduous and self-sacrificing labours to the salvation of many souls throughout the cities which he visited. The gospel came “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Ghost and in much assurance.” Many were added to the Church of such as shall be saved.
In the things we have touched upon, the Apostle Paul is a blessed example to all to whom the word of salvation is sent, whether preachers or hearers. We must be brought to accept the truths of salvation as “the counsel of God,” if they are to profit us for eternity. We have to do, not with the word of man, but with the Word of the living God, and until sinners are brought to receive the gospel as a message from heaven to their immortal souls, they will not savingly benefit by it. And the preacher must know this, first, for himself, before he can be a proper instrument for communicating the treasure to others. Many who go out to preach in the present day treat the Bible as if it were merely the word of man. Their efforts are not only useless for any spiritual good, but positively injurious and ruinous to the souls of men.
Again, it is necessary that those who profess to preach the gospel do not shun to declare “all the counsel of God.” There are many temptations in the present time as well as in Pauls, to keep back part of the truth, and not to declare the whole counsel. The true gospel of Christ is an unpopular tale in this man-pleasing and error-loving generation. And many preachers who would fain be considered thoroughly orthodox have taken to the plan of paring down the truth so as to suit the carnal tastes of their hearers. They suppose this is the way they will more easily win the young to Christ. For example, they enlarge as little as possible upon the extent and depth of the Fall and upon the fact that all are dead in trespasses and sins by nature. They omit also to show the deep and radical nature of the new birth which can only take place by the almighty power of the Spirit of God, and without which none can see the kingdom of God, or do any work that is spiritually good. They give the impression to their hearers or readers that the change from darkness to light and death to life is in some cases only a slight matter a mere finishing touch to a character that is already formed. It is only the grossly immoral person that needs anything like a thorough renewal. And again, they take care to say as little as possible about the doctrine of election, or the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners, while the office of the Holy Spirit in conversion and sanctification is little recognised or insisted upon. Great stress is laid upon duties, and the creature is addressed as if he could, with a little assistance, accomplish everything that is necessary for his own salvation.
Now, we believe that this was one of the ways in which error entered the visible Church in past times in Scotland. Even good men, with the object, by the way, of drawing sinners to the gospel, avoided those doctrines against which the carnal mind rises up most readily, and preached smooth things to the people. They did not deny, perhaps, any truth, but they did not preach all the counsel of God, or, if they did, they preached some of it in a slipshod way, and thus a back door was left open for error, which Satan took speedy advantage of. In this way Arminianism and worse have got free course throughout the land. In fact, keeping back part of the truth is one of the devils most subtle and successful means for the destruction of souls a method which he employs more freely than the promulgation of positive error. You may listen to many preachers nowadays and you cannot say they preach positive heresy, and yet you do not hear any saving truth from their lips. By this means, however, they allow sinners to sleep on in their sins until they awaken in a lost eternity.
May the Lord enable us, who profess to stand for the faith once delivered to the saints, to declare without respect to the fear or favour of men “all the counsel of God,” and leave results with the Most High, who has promised to bless His own truth for the eternal salvation of souls.