"Coming, one Thursday in the late autumn, from an engagement beyond Dulwich, my way lay up to the top of the Herne Hill ridge. I came along the level out of which rises the steep hill I had to ascend. While I was on the lower ground, riding in a hansom cab, I saw a light before me, and when I came near the hill, I marked that light gradually go up the hill, leaving a train of stars behind it. This line of new-born stars remained in the form of one lamp, and then another, and another. It reached from the foot of the hill to its summit. I did not see the lamplighter. I do not know his name, nor his age, nor his residence; but I saw the lights which he had kindled, and these remained when he himself had gone his way. As I rode along, I thought to myself, 'How earnestly do I wish that my life may be spent in lighting one soul after another with the sacred flame of eternal life! I would myself be as much as possible unseen while at my work, and would vanish into the eternal brilliance above when my work is done.'"--C. H. S.
Seeking the Souls of Men
I OFTEN envy those of my brethren who can go up to individuals, and talk to them with freedom about their souls. I do not always find myself able to do so, though, when I have been Divinely aided in such service, I have had a large reward. When a Christian can get hold of a man, and talk thus personally to him, it is like one of the old British men-of-war lying alongside a French ship, and giving her a broadside, making every timber shiver, and at last sending her to the bottom.
How many precious souls have been brought to Christ by the loving personal exhortations of Christian people who have learned this holy art! It is wonderful how God blesses very little efforts to serve Him. One night, many years ago, after preaching, I had been driven home by a cabman, and after I had alighted, and given him the fare, he took a little Testament out of his pocket, and showing it to me, said, "It is about fifteen years since you gave me that, and spoke a word to me about my soul. I have never forgotten your words, and I have not let a day pass since without reading the Book you gave me." I felt glad that, in that instance, the seed had, apparently, fallen into good ground.
Having promised to preach one evening at a certain river-side town, I went to the place early in the day, as I thought I should like to have a little time in a boat on the river. So, hailing a waterman, I made arrangements with him to take me, and, whilst sitting in the boat, wishing to talk with him about religious matters, I began the conversation by asking him about his family. He told me that the cholera had visited his home, and that he had lost no less than thirteen of his relatives, one after another, by death. My question, and the man's answer prepared the way for a dialogue somewhat in this fashion:
Of course, I told him that I was very glad to hear that he had sympathy for the suffering, and that I considered it far better to be charitable than to be churlish; but I did not see how his good conduct could carry him to Heaven. Then he said:
"Well, sir, perhaps it can't; but I think, when I get a little older, I shall give up the boat, and take to going to church, and then I hope that all will be right--won't it, sir?"
"No," I answered, "certainly not; your going to church won't change your heart, or take away your sins. Begin to go to church as soon as possible, but you will not be an inch nearer Heaven if you think that, by attending the sanctuary, you will be saved."
The poor man seemed perfectly astounded, while I went on knocking down his hopes one after another. So I resumed the dialogue by putting another question to him:
Then I told him, as plainly as I could, how the Lord Jesus Christ had taken the place of sinners, and how those who trusted in Him, and rested in His blood and righteousness, would find pardon and peace. The man was delighted with the simple story of the cross; he said that he wished he had heard it years before, and then he added, "To tell the truth, master, I did not feel quite easy, after all, when I saw those poor creatures taken away to the graveyard; I did think there was something I wanted, but I did not know what it was."
I cannot say what was the final result of our conversation, but I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had at least set before him God's way of salvation in language that he could easily understand.
Sometimes, I have found it less easy, than it might otherwise have been, to influence certain persons for good, because of the neglect of those who ought to have done the work before me. I was trying to say a word for my Master to a coachman, one day, when he said to me, "Do you know the Rev. Mr. So-and-so?" "Yes," I replied,' I know him very well; what have you to say about him?" "Well," said the man, "he's the sort of minister I like, and I like his religion very much." "What sort of a religion is it?" I asked. "Why!" he answered, "he has ridden on this box-seat every day for six months, and he has never said anything about religion all the while; that is the kind of minister I like." It seemed to me a very doubtful compliment for a man who professed to be a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.
At other times, the difficulty in dealing with individuals has arisen from their ignorance of the plan of salvation. When I have spoken of my own hope in Christ to two or three people in a railway carriage, I have often found myself telling my listeners perfect novelties. I have seen the look of astonishment upon the face of many an intelligent Englishman when I have explained the doctrine of the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ; I have even met with persons who had attended their parish church from their youth up, yet who were totally ignorant of the simple truth of justification by faith; ay, and some who have been to Dissenting places of worship do not seem to have laid hold of the fundamental truth that no man is saved by his own doings, but that salvation is procured by faith in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. This nation is steeped up to the throat in self-righteousness, and the Protestantism of Martin Luther is very generally unknown. The truth is held by as many as God's grace has called, but the great outlying masses still talk of doing their best, and then hoping in God's mercy, and I know not what besides of legal self-confidence; while the master-doctrine, that he who believes in Jesus is saved by His finished work, is sneered at as the utterance of misguided enthusiasm, or attacked as leading to licentiousness. Luther talked of beating the heads of the Wittenbergers with the Bible, so as to get the great doctrine of justification by faith into their brains. But beating is of no use; we must have much patience with those we are trying to teach, and we must be willing to repeat over, and over, and over again the elements of truth. Someone asked a mother once, "Why do you teach your child the same thing twenty times?" She answered, very wisely, "Because I find that nineteen times are not sufficient;" and it will often be the same with those who need to be taught the A B C of the gospel.
Though this is a Protestant land, it is beyond all question that there are in it people who are Popish enough to perform great religious acts by way of merit. What a goodly row of almshouses was erected by that miserly old grinder of the poor as an atonement for his hoarding propensities! What a splendid legacy somebody else left to that hospital! That was a very proper thing, but the man who left it never gave a farthing to a beggar in his life, and he would not have given anything when he died only he could not take his money with him, so he left it to a charity as an atonement for his sin.
Sometimes, persons are so foolish as to think that the doing of some professedly religious act will take them to Heaven; attending church prayers twice a day, fasting in Lent, decorating the altar with needlework, putting stained glass in the window, or giving a new organ; at the suggestion of their priest, they do many such things; and thus they go on working like blind asses in a mill, from morning to night, and making no more real progress than the poor donkeys do. Many who are nominally Christians appear to me to believe in a sort of sincere-obedience covenant, in which, if a man does as much as he can, Christ will do the rest, and so the sinner will be saved; but it is not so. God will never accept any composition from the man who is in debt to Divine justice; there is no Heavenly Court of Bankruptcy where so much in the pound may be accepted, and the debtor then be discharged. It must be all or nothing; he who would pay his debt must bring all, even to the uttermost farthing, and that can never be, for God's Word declares that "by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight". Some people have a notion that going to church and chapel, taking the sacrament, and doing certain good deeds that appertain to a respectable profession of religion, are the way to Heaven. If they are put in the place of Christ, they are rather the way to hell; although it is strewn with clean gravel, and there be grassy paths on either side, it is not the road to Heaven, but the way to everlasting death.
Strange as it may seem at the first glance, yet the very fact that a person has been brought up in a system of error will, sometimes, by force of contrast, make it all the easier to bring home the truth to the heart and conscience. I can bear personal witness that the simple statement of the gospel has often proved, in God's hand, enough to lead a soul into immediate peace. I once met with a lady who held sentiments of almost undiluted Popery, and in conversing with her, I was delighted to see how interesting and attractive a thing the gospel was to her. She complained that she enjoyed no peace of mind as the result of her religion, and never seemed to have done enough to bring her any rest of soul. She had a high idea of priestly absolution, but it had evidently been quite unable to yield repose to her spirit. Death was feared, God was terrible, even Christ was an object of awe rather than of love. When I told her that whosoever believeth on Jesus is perfectly-forgiven, and that I knew I was forgiven--that I was as sure of it as of my own existence, that I feared neither to live nor to die, for all would be well with me in either case, because God had given to me eternal life in His Son--I saw that a new set of thoughts had begun to astonish her mind. She said, "If I could believe as you do, I should be the happiest person in the world." I did not deny the inference, but claimed to have proved its truth, and I have reason to think that the little simple talk we had has not been forgotten, or unprofitable.
One advantage of dealing personally with souls is, that it is not so easy for them to turn aside the message as when they are spoken to in the mass. I have often marvelled when I have been preaching. I have thought that I have exactly described certain people; I have marked in them special sins, and as Christ's faithful servant, I have not shunned to picture their case in the pulpit, that they might receive a well-deserved rebuke; but I have wondered when I have spoken to them afterwards, that they have thanked me for what I have said, because they thought it so applicable to another person in the assembly. I had intended it wholly for them, and had, as I thought, made the description so accurate, and brought out all their peculiar points, that it must have been received by them. But, on at least one occasion, a direct word to one of my hearers was not only taken by him in a sense I did not mean, but it was resented in a fashion which I did not anticipate. I felt constrained to say that I hoped the gentleman who was reporting my discourse would not do it as a mere matter of business routine, but that he would take the Word as addressed to himself as well as to the rest of the audience. I certainly did not think there was anything offensive in the remark, and I was astonished to see the reporter fling down his pen in anger, as though resolved not to take down anything more that I might say. Before long, however, his better judgment prevailed, he went on with his work, and the sermon duly appeared in The New Park Street Pulpit--under the circumstances, of course, with the omission of the personal reference which had unintentionally caused offence.
Whatever may have been the feelings of my hearers, I can honestly say that scores, and, indeed, hundreds of times I have gone from my pulpit groaning because I could not preach as I wished; but this has been my comfort, "Well, I did desire to glorify Christ, I did try to clear my conscience of the blood of all men, I did seek to tell them the whole truth, whether they liked it or not." It will be an awful thing for any man, who has been professedly a minister of Christ, and yet has not preached the gospel, to go before the bar of God, and to answer for the souls committed to him. That ancient message still needs to be heard: "If the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand." This it is that makes our work so weighty that our knees sometimes knock together when we are thinking of going up to our pulpit again. It is no child's play, if there is to be a judgment, and we are to answer for our faithfulness or unfaithfulness. What must be our account if we are not true to God and to man? I have prayed, many a time, that I might be able, at the end of my ministry, to say what George Fox, the Quaker, said when he was dying, "I am clear, I am clear."
It has often been a marvel to me how some old ministers have continued to labour for twenty, or thirty, or even forty years in one place without gathering any fruit from all their toil. I will not judge them--to their own Master they stand or fall; but if I had been in such a position, although I should not have dared to leave the vineyard in which my Lord bade me work while I was yet a youth, I should have concluded that He had need of me in some other part of His field where my efforts might be more productive of blessing. I thank God that I have not had to labour in vain, or to spend my strength for nought. He has given me a long period of happy and successful service, for which, with all my heart, I praise and magnify His holy Name. There has been a greater increase sometimes, or a little diminution now and then; but, for the most part, the unbroken stream of blessing has run on at much the same rate all the while. It has ever been my desire, not to "compass sea and land to make proselytes" from other denominations, but to gather into our ranks those who have not been previously connected with any body of believers, or, indeed, who have attended any house of prayer. Of course, many persons have joined us from other communities, when it has seemed to them a wise and right step, but I should reckon it to be a burning disgrace if it could be truthfully said, "The large church under that man's pastoral care is composed of members whom he has stolen away from other Christian churches," but I value beyond all price the godless and the careless, who have been brought out from the world into communion with Christ. These are true prizes not stealthily removed from friendly shores, but captured at the edge of the sword from the enemy's dominions. We welcome brethren from other churches, if in the providence of God, they are drifted into our midst, but we would never hang out the wrecker's beacon, to dash other churches in pieces in order to enrich ourselves with the wreckage. Far rather would we be busy, looking after perishing souls, than cajoling unstable ones from their present place of worship. To recruit one regiment from another, is no real strengthening of the army; to bring in fresh men, should be the aim of all.
From the very early days of my ministry in London, the Lord gave such an abundant blessing upon the proclamation of His truth that, whenever I was able to appoint a time for seeing converts and enquirers, it was seldom, if ever, that I waited in vain; and, usually, so many came, that I was quite overwhelmed with gratitude and thanksgiving to God. On one occasion, I had a very singular experience, which enabled me to realize the meaning of our Lord's answer to His disciples' question at the well of Sychar, "Hath any man brought Him aught to eat? Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of Him that Sent Me, and to finish His work." Leaving home early in the morning, I went to the chapel, and sat there all day long Seeing those who had been brought to Christ through the preaching of the Word. Their stories were so interesting to me that the hours flew by without my noticing how fast they were going. I may have seen some thirty or more persons during the day, one after the other, and I was so delighted with the tales of mercy they had to tell me, and the wonders of grace God had wrought in them, that I did not know anything about how the time passed. At seven oclock, we had our prayer-meeting; I went in, and prayed with the brethren. After that, came the church-meeting. A little before ten o'clock, I felt faint, and I began to think at what hour I had my dinner, and I then for the first time remembered that I had not had any! I never thought of it, I never even felt hungry, because God had made me so glad, and so satisfied with the Divine manna, the Heavenly food of success in winning souls.
I am not sure that I ever had another day quite like that, but I had much to interest me, and sometimes a good deal to humble me, in the different cases with which I had to deal. I have seen very much of my own stupidity while in conversation with seeking souls. I have been baffled by a poor lad while trying to bring him to the Saviour; I thought I had him fast, but he has eluded me again and again with perverse ingenuity of unbelief. Sometimes, enquirers, who are really anxious, surprise me with their singular skill in battling against hope; their arguments are endless, and their difficulties countless. They have put me to a nonplus again and again. The grace of God has at last enabled me to bring them to the light, but not until I have seen my own inefficiency, and realized that, without the Holy Spirit's aid, I should be utterly powerless to lead them into the liberty of the gospel. Occasionally, I have met with a poor troubled soul who has refused to be comforted. There was one good Christian man who, through feebleness of mind, had fallen into the deepest despair; I have hardly ever met with a person in such an awful condition as he was, and it puzzled me to give him any sort of comfort; indeed, I fear that I failed to do so after all. He said, "I'm too big a sinner to be saved." So I told him that God's Word says, "the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin". "Ay!" he replied, "but you must remember the context, which is, 'If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.' Now, I do not walk in the light; I walk in the dark, and I have no fellowship with the people of God now, and therefore that passage does not apply to me." "Well, "I rejoined, "but Christ is able to save to the uttermost all them that come unto God by Him." "That is the only text," he admitted, "I never can get over, for it says 'to the uttermost', and I know I cannot have gone beyond that; yet it does not yield me any comfort." I said, "But God asks nothing of you but that you will believe Him; and you know, if you have ever so feeble a faith, you are like a child--the feeble hand of a child can receive, and that is the mark of a Christian: 'of His fullness have all we received', and if you only receive with your hand, that is enough." "Ay!" said he, "but I have not the hand of faith." "Very well," I answered, "but you have the mouth of desire; you can ask with your lips if you cannot receive with your hand." "No," said he, "I do not pray, and I cannot pray; I have not the mouth of desire." "Then," I pleaded, "all that is wanted is an empty place, a vacuum, so that God can put the grace in." "Ah, sir!" said he, "you have me there; I have a vacuum; I have an aching void; if there was ever an empty sinner in this world, I am one." "Well," I exclaimed, "Christ will fill that vacuum; there is a full Christ for empty sinners," and there I had to leave the matter.
Very often, when enquirers have come to me to relate the story of their spiritual history, they have told their little tale with an air of the greatest possible wonder, and asked me, as soon as they have finished it, whether it is not extremely unusual. One has said, "Do you know, sir, I used to be so happy in the things of the world, but conviction entered into my heart, and I began to seek the Saviour; and for a long time, when I was under concern of soul, I was so miserable that I could not bear myself. Surely, sir, this is a strange thing?" And when I have looked the friend in the face, and said, "No, it is not at all strange; I have had a dozen people here tonight, and they have all told me the same tale; that is the way almost all God's people go to Heaven"--he has stared at me, as if he did not think I would tell an untruth, but as if he thought it the queerest thing in the world that anybody else should have felt as he had done.
"Now, sit down," I say sometimes, when I am seeing an enquirer or a candidate for church-membership, "and I will tell you what were my feelings when I first sought and found the Saviour." "Why, sir!" he exclaims, "that is just how I have felt, but I did not think anyone else had ever gone over the same path that I have trodden." It is no wonder that, when we have little acquaintance with each other's spiritual experience, our way should seem to be a solitary one, but he who knows much of the dealings of God with poor seeking sinners, is well aware that their experiences are, in the main, very much alike.
Sometimes, a desperate case requires a desperate remedy. I had once to deal with a man who assented to everything I said. When I talked about the evil of sin, he agreed with me, and said that I was very faithful. When I set before him the way of salvation, he assented to it, but it was evident that his heart was not affected by the truth. I could almost have wished that he had flatly denied what I said, for that would have given me the opportunity of arguing the matter with him, and pressing him to come to a decision. At last, I felt that it was quite hopeless to talk to him any longer, so I said, "The fact is, one of these days you will die, and be damned"--and I walked away without saying another word. As I expected, it was not very long before he sent for me, and when I went to him, he begged me to tell him why I had said such a dreadful thing to him. I answered, "It seems quite useless for me to talk to you about the salvation of your soul, for you never appear to feel the force of anything that I say. I might almost as well pour oil down a slab of marble as expect you to be impressed by the truth that I set before you, and my solid conviction is that you will be damned." He was quite angry with me for speaking so plainly; and I went away again, leaving him very cross. Before many hours were over, he was in an awful state of mind; the Holy Spirit had convinced him of his state as a sinner, and he was in an agony of soul. That sharp sentence of mine was like the hook in a fish's gills, but that fish was landed all right. The man was brought to repentance and faith; he was baptized, joined the church, and a few years ago went home to Heaven.