A Wise Work!
Archibald G. Brown, Stepney Green Tabernacle
"He who wins souls is wise." Proverbs 11:30
The book of Proverbs may well be compared to a basket of pearls; to a collection of glittering gems cast together in richest profusion, without any connecting links between them. Search in any part of this silver casket, and you are sure to be repaid by finding some pearl of great price, some jewel which flashes with the light of Heaven's inspiration.
The other books of scripture may more properly be compared to necklaces of pearl or priceless jewelry, in which verse is linked to verse with bands of gold, and compose not so much a rare collection of various precious stones as one brilliant whole, the beauty of every gem being enhanced by its relative position to the rest. The beauty and preciousness of many verses lie more in their union with those that precede them, and in their bearing on those that follow them, than in their own isolated interpretation. The whole chapter, and often the whole of the epistle, needs to be perused in order to dive into the depths, rise to the heights, or view the true splendor of anyone particular verse.
It is not so with the book of Proverbs. Every verse in it contains some truth (and often truths) of intrinsic value, that needs no other light than the light it gives itself. Each verse in itself is complete; the truth contained within it, is of independent worth. Without any commentary therefore on the surroundings of the text, we will take it as it were, out of the casket, and meditate on its own beauty.
No one verse in the whole of this book is better known, better loved, more often quoted — and less often acted upon. It forms a matter for almost every prayer for minister or teacher — but it is too little reduced to daily practice by most Christians. Yet to every child of God present, it must present a theme of deepest interest; for who, if he has never won a soul, does not want to? Who has relatives or dearly loved friends who are yet without Christ, that does not desire the wisdom spoken of in the text, in order that they may win them for the Savior? To those who have been the means of winning any, and to those who pant to win some — the subject must be all overflowing with interest and importance.
I will divide the subject very simply, and as follows:
Wisdom is seen in the attempt to win souls;
wisdom is required in the work of winning souls; and
conclude by giving some hints on the best way to win souls.
I. Wisdom is seen in the ATTEMPT to win souls.He who endeavors to win souls to Christ, is a wise man. The very effort itself is a proof of true wisdom.
1. The SOUL'S DREADFUL POSITION proves it. There is a man yonder in the water. The stream is bearing him away with impetuous haste. He has sunk twice already, and with out-stretched hands, he is about to go down for the last time. There are two men on the bank angrily discussing the question as to how he got into the water. One thinks he fell in, and the other that he was thrown in. His certain death is forgotten in heat of argument.
I then see a plain country-man, who from his aspect never could enter into an argument except to be beaten, rush deep into the flood, fling the drowning wretch a rope and drag him high and dry onto the shore.
Now I ask you "who was the wise man?" The one who debated — or the one who acted; the one who speculated how the man got into the water — or the man who drew him out of it? Why the latter of course.
Or to change the illustration. In a street near to us there is a house wrapped in flames, and in the front room upstairs I can discern the figure of a man. A group of wiseacres are busily employed in trying to discover whether the fire broke out in the basement or first floor, in the front or back of the house — when their learned disquisitions are disturbed by the hoarse shout of the fireman, "clear the way, clear the way!" He knocks some of them over in his haste as he struggles through them, throws the ladder up and mounts it.
I see the red glare reflected on his helmet which seems to glow in the blaze; the sparks fall round him like a shower of fire drops; he does not heed them; with mailed hand he dashes in the window, and is lost to view as he leaps into the smoke-vomiting room.
A moment's pause, and a ringing cheer breaks forth from the assembled crowd; for here he comes with the half-suffocated man in his herculean grip. A hundred hands are stretched out to grasp his, while a thousand lips shout, "Well done, brave action!"
Who was the wise man? The rough but heroic member of the fire brigade — or the moonstruck wondering dotards we have noted?
It is an impertinence to common sense to ask. And yet, friends, how many there are who are playing an equally fool's part in the matter of souls. Men who are always trying to find out the origin of sin, to solve the problem of why God permitted it in his universe, and to answer the old question of "why didn't God kill the Devil?" Far wiser is he who argues "I do not know the why and the wherefore of sin's existence; but this I do know — that it exists, and that souls are being damned daily through it; and therefore I will try by all means to save some. I do not know where the first spark of sin came from — but this I do know: that human nature is in a blaze, and if it is possible by God's help, I will pluck some firebrand from the burning."
All honor to the men who, taking the world as they find it, do not waste precious moments in unavailing speculation — but with all their might strive to save some out of the general wreck.
Just a little while back, a fearful storm raged on the north-east coast; the cliffs were crowded with thousands of pale-faced anxious relatives. One question was on every lip — but the answer to it on none. The question was, "Do you think they will ever get back?" Who get back? Why the fleet of fishing boats which were all out plying their trade, and had been caught in an unexpected hurricane. It was a sickening sight to see the anxious faces of wives, sisters, and friends. At last one brave heart could stand it no longer, and shouted out in tones that could be heard above the roaring of the wind. "Are there twelve of God's children here that don't mind going to the bottom in the effort to save some?" May it be spoken to their honor, a dozen came forward as volunteers in the desperate enterprise. Together they kneeled down upon the deck of a tug steamer and commended themselves to God; and then telling their friends that if they saw them no more, they might know they were in glory, they steamed out of the harbor.
Through blinding spray, over mountain waves, through walls of water they fought their way — watched with breathless interest by the mourning crowd. For six long hours they battled with the storm; at last they were seen returning and flying before the furious gale like an arrow from the bow. Straight they made for the harbor mouth. But why that joyous shout? Why? Because, towing behind them were six vessels they had saved, with their crews rescued from the jaws of death.
Does your heart beat quicker, Christian, and does your pulse bound at the recital of such noble and godly daring?
I tell you there is a far fiercer storm just outside your dwelling than ever raged upon the north-east coast; not ships but souls are being wrecked, not merely going to the bottom of the ocean — but to the bottom of Hell! Oh! Do not stand in amazement and wonder how it is that so fierce a storm is thus allowed to blow — but "man" the gospel life-boat, and commending yourself to God, face the wild waste of furious water, and see if you cannot rescue some perishing soul, and draw it into the haven of perfect calm.
The soul's position, which is a perishing one, declares that "he who wins souls is wise."
2. Soul winning is a NOBLE work. What is winning gold in untold amounts, or fame in almost boundless degree — in comparison to winning a soul? Suppose it were possible for you to acquire the whole wealth of the universe, and have it in one glittering pile at your feet — yet the humble Sunday-school teacher who has been the means of winning one child's heart to Jesus — has won, at a single stroke, more than you have, with all your wealth, amassed by years of slavish toil.
Is it counted an honor to be an ambassador for any country in a foreign climate, and above all to be the means of making peace between two hostile nations? To cause the din of war to cease, and "garments rolled in blood" to become things of the past? To cause the happy song of peace to be heard in place of the shouts of battle and groans of the dying? Greater honor by far is it to be an ambassador for Christ — to beseech men in his stead to be reconciled to God.
Oh! the honor of being a herald of peace to any anxious soul; of being the means of bringing a heart at war with God to throw down its weapons; of running up the white flag of peace in any breast!! A soul-winner need envy no one; his work surpasses all in true nobility; the greatest honor God can put on man, has been placed on him.
3. Soul winning is a LASTING work, and therefore he who attempts it is wise. Where will you find a work of earth that is really lasting?
"I paint for eternity," said an artist. But is the artist's work a lasting one? Let him with the skill of a genius and the colors of a rainbow, make the dull canvas instinct with life and a "thing of beauty," but it will be no "joy forever." Father time will rob the colors of their brightness, and centuries from now men will wonder what they once portrayed, while the very canvas hangs in rags from a moldering frame.
The sculptor laughs at the painter and says, "Away with the thought of your painting for eternity, mine is the work that will outlive time!" and with the chisel he models the rough marble into a veritable Venus for beauty, or Hercules for strength. Proudly he gazes upon his masterpiece, and indulges the flattering thought that there is something which will defy the influence of ages. But look at the now crumbling stone, trace the once clearly cut features — if you can.
Scornfully the builder views the effort of the previous two, and vaunts "mine is the work that lasts." Is it? Where is Nineveh? Where is Babylon, with her hanging gardens? Where are most of the grand cities that used to rule the world? Let broken walls, and heaps of rubbish, the accumulation of long years, give the answer — and also give the lie to the proud boast.
But suppose it was possible for man to paint or carve or build that which, if the world were to last another million years, would still endure — it must still go when the world does. In the final wreck and conflagration of the world, all will be destroyed. No eternal work can be performed on a passing world, which every moment draws nearer to its end.
But he who wins a soul is the means of doing a work which will last as long as God lives. Teacher in our Sunday school last week — you were the instrument of leading a soul to Christ, of winning a heart for Jesus. When the trumpet of the archangel declares that time shall be no more, the effect of that work shall still remain. It shall survive the "wreck of matter and the crash of worlds!" It shall endure the pomp of the Judgment day — and long after suns and stars have been quenched forever, it shall shine with yourself as a sun in the firmament. Eternity itself can never diminish, only increase the grandeur of the work. He must be the wise man who engages in the only work that lasts forever.
4. It is a soul PROFITING work. In the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth verses of this chapter you read, "There is one that scatters — and yet increases; and there is one that withholds more than is right — but it tends to poverty. The generous soul shall be made fat; and he who waters shall also be watered himself." These words are as true in relation to spiritual work as financial generosity. The man who imparts a blessing — by the very act receives one. It is well-known that the best way to be happy yourself, is to make someone else happy; and the way to be a joyful Christian, is to be a working one — more especially so if the work engaged in is that of winning souls.
How many Christians there are who always complain about their lack of happiness, and wonder why they lack what others seem to possess. They keep a kind of spiritual thermometer within them which they always study intently; the slightest rise or fall of joy is invariably noticed and registered by them. "Ah," says one of this large family, "I am not as happy today as I was yesterday, and I was not quite as happy yesterday as I was the day before. Tuesday's experience falls far short of what I had on Sunday;" and so this poor soul is everlastingly employed in anatomizing his joy — which is the quickest way to kill it altogether. He tries today to live on the remembrance of yesterday's happiness, and to feed on experiences that are past. It is all in vain. Experience keeps no better than manna. That which was sweet yesterday, if kept today, will "breed worms and smell." Exo 16.20. It must be fresh morning by morning.
But how is this miserable state of things to be altered? How are we to be kept from being suicides to our own bliss? Why by work. "Oh," says the active Christian in answer to the question whether he is as happy today as yesterday. "I am sure I hardly know, for I have not had time to think; but now that you remind me of it, I can say — yes I am, and I think rather more so!" We are never so happy as when we are so absorbed in the cause of our joy, as to forget the joy itself.
Work for Christ is a sovereign remedy against frozen experiences. The stagnant pond is coated with ice the first night of autumn hoar frost; but the leaping mountain stream defies the embrace of winter frost, though it comes clothed in black. It is too quick for Jack Frost — it has no time to freeze.
It is your do-nothing Christian that is always shivering with the cold, and it serves him right — he is just the one that ought to shiver. The exertion of doing work for Christ, keeps the blood dancing through the veins, and keeps the whole man in a healthy glow.
If I were to come in contact with a man who was always complaining that he never "felt better, although he was continually taking medicine," and who in the course of conversation let out "that he had never been outside the room in which I found him for five years" — I would say, "My dear fellow, you don't need the doctor's stuff — throw it all out the window! Come and take a walk; climb over a hill or two; breathe God's fresh air; take a spade and dig in the garden; in fact, do anything — but get out of the close atmosphere of this room and you will be all right at once!"
You smile, friends — but that is just what some of you need. You have been living in the little room of your own heart, doctoring yourself with one prescription after another. Now try this one — go out and work. Take a class in the school, the infant one would perhaps be the most beneficial; take a district and go round with tracts. Go anywhere — but do come out of the little room; its close air will stifle you and strangle every joyful feeling in its birth. For your own sake as well as others, try and be a blessing — and you yourself will be blessed. Try and water some thirsty plant — and your own garden will be moistened while you do it. Try and warm some cold heart — and your own numbness of spirit will depart. Because of the good derived in the effort, "he who wins souls is wise,"
5. Winning souls is a work that COUNTS IN ETERNITY. Other works may revolutionize time — but they leave eternity untouched. They may influence governments and social life to the last moment of time — but there the influence stops, and no power of man can force it forward. But he who wins a soul to Christ is the means of performing a work which, unlike the breaking of a wave upon the shore, flows like the incoming tide over the bar of time, and sends its widening influences far into eternity itself. You were the means of causing the sinner to utter the subdued cry for saving mercy — it finds its way beyond the little room where in prayer it first found birth, beyond the sanctuary where it was unheard to all human ears. It finds its way through boundless expanses of space, until at last, in a melody that makes the angels sing and God rejoice — it breaks upon the ear of infinite mercy in the plaintive cry of "God be merciful to me, a sinner." Luke 18.13. How precious is the thought, beloved, that we may give a fresh impetus to the songs of Heaven, and aid in that satisfaction which Christ feels when he sees the travail of his soul.
6. Sixthly and lastly on this point, winning souls is a work which will influence you in Heaven. I think I can hear some of you saying, "Take care, Sir, what you are saying, for you are treading on dangerous ground." I know it dear friends — but I repeat the assertion. Do not think for a moment that I hold the God-dishonoring lie that heavenly bliss rests on human merit, or that it is proportioned according to human deserts. It would go hard with us all, if it were. I know salvation is all of grace; and it is so entirely so, that not a single foot of ground is left on which pride can stand and boast. I am also certain that every soul in Heaven is perfectly happy and could not be more so; its bliss is full to overflowing.
Yet I hold that some will have more capacity for joy than others, and therefore have the most joy, though none could have more than they possess. I think it was McCheyne, though I will not be sure as to the authorship, who thus illustrates this truth. Suppose there a number of jars are standing in a row, of various sizes, from one of great capacity to one of very small, let them all be filled to the brim with water so that not one could contain a drop more. They are all perfectly full; the smallest could not hold another drop without running over; and the largest is full; and neither of them can be more full; but for all that, the largest has the most in it. The difference is not in the filling up — but in the capacity to hold.
Just so, in Heaven all will be perfectly happy; the water of joy will be to the brim in every experience; but there will be a difference in degrees of capacity, and certainly he will have the greatest capacity who has won most souls to Christ. It must increase the joy of the glorified one, to see those he brought to Jesus reveling in the same sea of bliss as himself.
Surely next to seeing our Savior, we will love to see those who are our "crown of rejoicing." 1The 2.19. I will never forget the language of a dear old woman who was among the first I had the joy of bringing to the Savior. Her ideas of Heaven were as simple and as ardent as her faith. She said. "Oh, Mr. Brown, it won't be long before I am there (pointing upwards); and when I have seen my Savior and cast my crown at his feet, I will come and stand upon the edge of Heaven and look down to watch for you coming up." For the reasons then I have mentioned, and there are many, many others, he who wins or attempts to win souls is wise. Not only is wisdom seen in the attempt to win souls — and this leads us to our second division on which we will be very brief,
II. Wisdom is REQUIRED in the work.
1. The nature of the work as suggested in the text shows it. The word translated "wins" has at least three references. It refers to the snaring of birds, to the catching of fish, and to the taking of a city.
Now in the accomplishment of all these wisdom is required. It is not any fool who can catch a bird, for as the Psalmist says, "in vain is the snare set in sight of the bird." In catching fish it is requisite to know the right bait to use, the right place to go to, and the right time in which to try. No city will be taken by merely looking at it; there must be effort and strategy. Leaving the first two illustrations alone, let us for a minute or two dwell upon this last.
Every soul by nature is like Jericho, "tightly shut up" against Joshua or Jesus; Jos 6.1. But unlike Jericho, its walls will never fall by merely making a noise. It is a hard place to carry by assault. It has its deep moat of depravity, its frowning portcullis of prejudice, and its high walls of unbelief defended by all the powers of Hell. In order to capture it, there must be holy art employed.
Our blessed Savior, who is in all things our example, is wonderfully so in the way of winning souls. Did you ever carefully study the matchless way in which Christ won the heart of that poor woman of Samaria? When she drew near to him, he did not say to her as so many would, "Well, you are an outrageous sinner; I wonder that you are not ashamed of yourself!" If he had, in all probability she would have returned to the city with her waterpot, either in fear or anger, and never have said, "Come see a man who told me all the things I ever did — is not this the Christ?"
No! His dealing with her was far otherwise. He first wins her sympathy by asking a favor. He excites her womanly curiosity by saying, "if you knew," and he then leads her gently step by step until finally she is prepared for the announcement, "I who speak to you am he." Blessed Jesus, you who spoke "as never man spoke," we would learn from you how to win reluctant hearts.
2. The variety of disposition seen in souls requires it. What is just the very right thing for one, may be the very wrong thing for another.
He would be a strange kind of doctor who only had one medicine, and no matter what was the nature of the patient's disease, always gave them all a dose from the same bottle. If he ever did effect a cure, it would be by mistake! There are as many (indeed, more) varieties of soul disease than bodily disease; and will we treat the higher part of man in a way that we would not dare treat the inferior part?
Has the painter only one brush with which he puts in the dark background, and depicts in gentle colors the rainbow on it? Has the sculptor only one chisel with which to strike off the rough edges of the untouched marble block, and also put the last delicate line upon the countenance? Certainly not!
Nor must we, in our far higher work. Experiments which would never be made on unfeeling marble, must not be tried on delicate and sensitive souls. When we remember also how long and terribly a soul may suffer through unwise dealing with it — what years, perhaps a lifetime of unhappiness it may endure through our mistake — what need there is to pray. "Lord teach me what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. Help me to be kind but firm — truthful yet gentle — stern yet loving; let no soul be the worse for my tampering with it — but O! make me wise to win it."
And now in the third and last place I will,
III. Try and give some HINTS as to how to set about winning souls.
1. In order to win souls, they must first be ALARMED. By this I mean they must be made conscious of the danger of their lost position. The absolute necessity for conversion in order to be saved, must be forced home. The truth that they are either . . .
saved — or lost;
forgiven all their sins — or not forgiven any;
on the road to Heaven — or on a journey to Hell
— must be brought before them with startling clearness. To talk to a sinner about conversion as if it was some little addenda to life — something that is at least desirable; but not as the grand necessity for salvation — is to act the traitor to God and the soul. We must not mind the feelings of the friend receiving somewhat of a shock; it will do them no harm, and far better to be awoke from a pleasing dream now, than by the icy hand of death, when it is too late! He will never win many souls who keeps in the background all that is calculated to alarm them.
The first step towards being saved is when the sinner feels himself lost; and it is when he feels himself within a step of Hell — that he is just putting his foot on the road to Heaven. The water will never be valued — until the thirst is felt. The pardon will be unsought — so long as its need is unthought of. The beauties of the Savior will only he seen — when that which he saves us from has been in some measure understood by the soul. The sinner's danger must be shown to him!
2. They must be ALLURED. Faithfulness alone will not be sufficient; there must also be love. Souls may be alarmed from indifference — but they must be drawn to Jesus. The peace and joy that there is in him must be told to them, as it is felt by ourselves. The sweet music of the gospel must be sung until some note awakens an echo in their heart. It is for us to hold before their eyes the joys and bliss of pardon; friendship with Christ; and Heaven at last, and so "Allure to brighter worlds and lead the way."
3. They must be LED BY THE HAND. They must be made to feel that you do indeed take an interest in their safety; that it is no mere officialism on your part. In one sense, the manner of speech often has more power in it than the matter. The eye that glistens with the tear, is sometimes the most effective part of all appeal. If you would win, you must not stand at a distance; you must come down from the pedestal of your dignity, and follow in the footsteps of your Lord, of whom it was said "this man receives sinners, and eats with them."
4. Those who would win others, must show that they are won themselves. A life that gives rise to doubts whether you are a Christian or not, will prove a fatal barrier to winning others. Light as snow flakes, and as soon trodden in the mire, are words that have no corresponding life to back them up. Let there be cause for a doubt as to your own conversion, and you may rest assured that not many will ever be won by you.
There are some here to whom the subject does not apply, for they themselves are not yet saved. Friend, would you be? Is there the faintest desire in your heart after the Savior? If so, thank God for it, for the Spirit has commenced his blessed work within your heart. And now, cast yourself at once upon the finished work of Christ; accept him as your only Savior. Stake all your eternal interests upon his atoning death. From this day forth, let Christ's blood and righteousness be your only trust, and you shall be saved. The Lord grant it for Jesus' sake. Amen.