I am sorry that I did not rest in a routine of personal devotions early on. Settled into a place at a time and seeking the face of God sounds natural, like morning ablutions, but it is a living holy world you are entering and so there is bound to be dark spiritual resistance. It is the Holy One, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, whose face you are seeking. What a struggle for some of us, to impose upon the flesh a spirit of contrition, penitence and hunger for the divine, yet how essential to gain some progress there.
I remember every member of the congregation who stayed for a few services, or maybe a few years, and then grew disillusioned with my life and preaching and drifted off disgruntled. But that is not of first priority in my areas of failure. None left to hear more of Jesus Christ or a better gospel than the one they heard sitting at my feet. I thank God for that. They had another agenda hidden from me and the congregation, different ecclesiastical, social and philosophical convictions, and some of them moved on to where they could find their own prejudices gently rearranged on Sundays. It happens. But my regrets are more substantial than the dynamics of the movement of people into and out of a congregation.
i] I am sorry that I have not done more personal evangelism The times I have defended the faith with a critic have been rare. Occasions on which I have gone back to a non-Christian’s home and explained the faith, answered his objections and spelled out the nature of Christianity have been too infrequent. I could have made a rule for myself that for every occasion on which I had preached publicly I would seek to speak to one unbeliever about the Lord Jesus, and then to seek and pray for such opportunities.
The occasions on which I have spoken to sinners have been fruitful. Some of them have come to church and become Christians. Their objections were paper thin, no weighty considered arguments – not at all. They had read an article or briefly heard a sentence or two, and all their complaints about the Christian religion were hanging on that. For example, that ‘most of the wars in the history of the world have been fought over religion.’ They were the ones to be believing myths; my life was rooted in the history of the Sermon on the Mount, the cross and the empty tomb. I said a few words to them and they agreed with me instantly. When they said half smiling, ‘Who made God?’ I said ‘He is eternal and uncreated,’ and they nodded their heads satisfied. They changed and would hear more. Why haven’t I put myself in places where those sorts of exchanges could take place? I love to speak about Jesus Christ to people, more so these days than ever before. May God guide.
A mother from Swansea asked me to visit her son at the University in Aberystwyth. I was happy to do so, but he was resistant and embarrassed and did not want to hear of the claims of Christ. It seemed an unfruitful tense time, but his roommate sitting on a bed in the room was listening to all the conversation and the next week he turned up in church, became a Christian and married a girl in the congregation. I had not even been talking directly to him and yet the word was effectual.
The most fruitful evangelism in our church has been done by members of the congregation showing friendship to people to whom God has led them. I should have been more of an example in this. I should be explaining to them each week the people I was seeing, and encouraging these new arrivals to feel at home in the Sunday congregation. It has been a failure in my life; my life has been consumed in preparing two sermons for Sundays. I pray that my last years will be my most fruitful years in personal evangelism.
ii] I am sorry that I did not do a Spurgeon on Sunday nights for the first five years of my ministry. In other words I wish I had given myself to the great texts of the Bible once a Sunday for that period. Consider these famous words of Jesus in Luke chapter 9:
Then he said to them all: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels (Luke 9:23-26).
There are three or even four great texts there: The Cost of Discipleship, Losing your Life in order to Save it, The Folly of Gaining the World and Losing your Soul, and Who will be those Whom the Lord will be Ashamed of when He Comes Again? These sorts of texts have been honoured by God to the salvation of hearers for twenty centuries. They are plain and they focus on the heart of the Christian message. These themes are what Ryle and Spurgeon and Whitefield and Wesley preached on. Those of us who listened to Dr. Lloyd-Jones on his visits around the United Kingdom heard him preaching on such passages as those with a heavenly anointing. Today there are entire and influential preaching movements which are cold towards such mighty texts being declared on single occasions. The followers of those schools regard those four verses of Luke 9:23-26 as a sub-section within a single sermon on the whole of Luke 9. They would make a few comments on each of those texts, moving on and on restlessly to their goal of completing their studies of the entire gospel of Luke in six months. Such sermons are mere glorified Bible studies.
There are mighty texts of Scripture which are gems of truth, summaries of the gospel. They are in the Word of God to be preached; their power is to be felt by a congregation, by the young and the old. If the Christian religion is divided into three sections – its devotional emphases, its ethics and its teaching – then the usual method of expounding the devotional is to take the Lord’s prayer and go through it clause by clause. The customary way of expounding the ethical is via the ten commandments and seeing it expanded in Matthew six and Romans twelve. It is a commendable expository approach. However, how have the divines dealt with the third section, the nature of the Christian faith? They have turned away from the big texts and mightiest passages and built the exposition of the faith on the Apostles’ Creed or the Westminster Shorter Catechism or the Heidelberg Catechism, admirable helpful statements, sure, but the great passages from Genesis 1, Genesis 3, Isaiah 6, Isaiah 53, John 1 and 3, Romans 1, 5, 6 and 8, Ephesians 1 and Ephesians 2 are those which present the heart of Christianity more naturally and winsomely.
I am pleading that texts that present the essence of the faith should not be dealt with en passant in the flight to ‘finish the book,’ even made more cerebral by being dissected on a screen from a PowerPoint projection. Where is the prophetic declaration? Where is the excitement of digging a hole in a field and discovering that the spade has struck the lid of a treasure box; ‘Look at this…and consider this diamond…and here is gold dust…’ The preacher, upheld by God, brings these themes to bear on the consciences of his hearers. Do they see this beauty? Do they feel the weight of these truths? Are they almost crushed? Do they feel they are teetering on the brink of a precipice almost falling off…’O the depth…’ not hitting the buttons on the laptop built into the pulpit and bringing up the next coloured box with its three points on the screen. This is an exercise in addressing the intellects of the congregation. The atmosphere is one of the classroom rather than Pentecost. The doxology is diluted, and God himself in his power, holiness and grace beseeching men by one he has appointed and gifted is marginalized.
I wish I had learned early on how to preach the gospel from those vivid verses that sum up the plight of man and the power of God to save. Consecutive expository preaching at both services on a Sunday when you are actually beginning your ministry is an unwise self-imposed burden. You are forced to consider passages that do not readily lend themselves to popular preaching, and there is no greater need in our pulpits today. Now that I have learned my craft I preach evangelistically morning and evening, intermingling the emphases of my role-models, Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones. I love to sit under expository, consecutive evangelistic ministry.