The great work of the Church is to preach the gospel. It is the special means God has provided to deliver sinners from bondage to Satan and bring them into the glorious liberty of Christ’s kingdom. The Saviour compared it to someone sowing seed. When the farmer scatters his seed, some, perhaps most, of the seed will germinate in due course and, before long, little plants will be growing out of the ground. Yet often, when the good seed of the gospel is sown, nothing happens. And, whatever other factors may be involved, we must recognise the divine sovereignty which has withheld the Holy Spirit, so that the truth was not blessed to unconverted sinners. Those souls are still spiritually dead in which the good seed does not take root. They are totally incapable of making any spiritual response to the proclamation of law or gospel while they continue in that state.
We must not ignore the fact that the devil, in whose kingdom dead souls languish, is altogether unwilling to let them go. Paul describes his malicious activity: “The god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them” (2 Cor 4:4). He is “the strong man armed”, who does all in his power to keep “his goods” in peace – to keep sinners undisturbed as they drift on towards a lost eternity. His power is great but it is not unlimited; there is a “stronger than he”. And when Jesus Christ comes with a purpose of mercy to a soul which the devil has made his stronghold, nothing can prevent the Saviour drawing that soul to Himself. Christ’s resources are infinite. When He works by the Holy Spirit, His purposes in salvation are bound to be fulfilled.
It is the Holy Spirit who, in the new birth, gives life to a soul and He does so in connection with the Word of God. Especially when the seed is sown in the preaching of the gospel, He calls sinners effectually. The preacher gives the outward call; acting as an ambassador for Christ, he calls sinners to “forsake the foolish and live”, to flee to the Saviour from the wrath to come. That call has all the authority of the One who sent out the preacher as His ambassador but, unless it is accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit, the call will be ineffective. Even when the call was given by the great King Himself personally, it was often ineffective. Did He not have to accuse His hearers: “Ye will not come to Me, that ye might have life”? And that unwillingness to respond to the call of the gospel is as strong today as ever it was. Still the questions must be asked, “Who hath believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?” (Is 53:1).
But why is the preacher’s message not believed? Because, as the prophecy goes on to declare, “He (the Messiah) hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected of men” (Is 53:2f). In their heart of hearts, because they are spiritually dead, unconverted sinners do not find the Saviour attractive. The eyes of their soul are out of order; they lack the capacity to recognise the beauty of Christ; they cannot say, “Yea, He is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend” (Song 5:16).
Yet when it pleases God to exercise His power – to work effectively by the Holy Spirit – sinners are made truly willing to leave their sins and turn to Christ. They then begin to see the beauty of Christ. It is one evidence of spiritual life to recognise the incomparable beauty of Him who became the Man of sorrows. It was to those in Corinth who, when they were born again, had eyesight restored to their souls, that Paul said, “Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich” (2 Cor 8:9). They had seen the glory of the lovingkindness of God the Son, who became man so that He might work out salvation for sinners – and who must therefore be brought even to “the dust of death”. With new life in their souls, they had believed in the Saviour. Accordingly they had been delivered from eternal destruction and had set out on the way that leads to eternal blessedness. No wonder Archibald Alexander declared: “There is no more important event that occurs in this world than the new birth of an immortal soul”.
Those who believe, as well as being safe for eternity, are under God’s care in this life. The Lord watches over the field in which the seed has been planted, and in which the plants are growing up. Strong winds of trouble may sweep through the field but the plants will be all the stronger as a result. One such plant, a Colin Mackenzie of Gairloch, recorded, after a winter when he had experienced much severe pain, that “in the midst of my trouble I had the anchor of my soul cast on the Rock that the storms of time and tribulation can never move”.
Paul was one of those commissioned to spread the good seed of the gospel. He “planted”, he says himself, and his fellow-labourer Apollos “watered”, the seed that was sown. They proclaimed the truths that reached the ears of their hearers, but neither Paul or Apollos had access to the hearts of those men and women who had the great privilege of listening to them. It was “God [who] gave the increase” (1 Cor 3:6). The Holy Spirit did bless their preaching in Corinth. The seed took root in many hearts. There were signs of life as sinners “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9). Paul explained: “Our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance” (1 Thess 1:5). If the gospel had come to Thessalonica in word only, the seed would have been sown without germinating; there would have been no life; no one would have been born again. But, in God’s kindness, the gospel did come to Thessalonica in the power of the Holy Ghost. As a result, many who heard Paul were absolutely assured that the Word of God is true, and by faith they embraced the Saviour revealed in that Word. They had experienced effectual calling: “the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, He doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel” (Shorter Catechism 31).
There are many difficulties in the way of the seed in a field: the birds may pick it up before it can even begin to grow; insects, disease and weeds may prevent the young plant becoming established. So it is spiritually; there are all the obstacles that may be summed up under the three grim headings: the world, the flesh, and the devil. No doubt, much of the seed which is sown in the preaching of the gospel is, so to speak, wasted. But human duty is plain. Those listening to the proclamation of the Word are to seek earnestly for grace to profit by it; they are to treasure it up in the hearts; they are to believe in the Saviour who is at the centre of all true gospel preaching and is certainly at the centre of God’s revelation in the Scriptures.
Those who have a concern for the honour of God will pray for a blessing on the preaching of the gospel – for themselves and for others. Yet they may feel discouraged in a time when there is little evidence of little plants sprouting up in the Church of God. Who more than Christ was “despised and rejected of men”? But it was fulfilled in Him: “He shall not fail nor be discouraged” (Is 42:4). He had a perfect understanding of the sovereignty of God and He took refuge in it in the face of the refusal of men and women to take heed to His words, which were so full of grace and truth. He had just seen the spiritual hardness of cities like Capernaum when He prayed: “I thank Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in Thy sight” (Matt 11:25f).
No doubt, many preachers are tempted to question if it is worthwhile to carrying on with their work. But they have the encouragement: “Be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58). Of course they are weak, but their Master is mighty; indeed He is almighty. However hard the human heart may be, however resourceful the devil in his efforts to keep sinners in his kingdom, however strong the pull of the world on those who are still following its ways, nothing can prevent the Holy Spirit calling sinners effectually. It is recorded for the encouragement of those who go out to scatter the good seed of the gospel: “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” (Ps 126:6).
In every generation, some will respond to the gospel. In every generation some of the seed sown will germinate and grow. And God will be glorified, whether much or little of the seed bears fruit. In days of great gospel blessing, God will be glorified in bringing many sons to glory. At other times He will be glorified when He brings comparatively few to heaven, but the glory of His work in these times will be enhanced by the fact that His purposes did not fail even when great power was allowed to the devil. Even in such times as this, it must be seen that there is one greater then “the strong man armed”.
Christ as the mediatorial King has been given all power in heaven and in earth. His authority may not be recognised by many today. But that authority is demonstrated whenever sinners are brought to bow at His footstool as a result of the Holy Spirit working in their hearts. As the words of the King are spoken by His ambassadors, the Spirit makes them effective in subduing His enemies – applying to their souls such words as these: “Repent and believe the gospel”. The Spirit gives life so that those who were once His enemies can actually repent and believe the gospel.
The devil cannot hold on to any of God’s elect when the time comes for them to be effectually called. He may have led them as far into immorality as the woman of Samaria; he may have led them as far in the way of self-righteousness and violent opposition to the truth as Saul of Tarsus; but they are all destined to leave his kingdom. In spite of all opposition, every one of God’s chosen ones will in due time be made willing to obey the gospel. Nor can the devil bring any of them back to his kingdom once they have been rescued by the great Captain of Salvation. And at last the triumphant cry will be heard from Christ’s lips: “Behold I and the children which God hath given Me”. Not one of them will be missing.