July 26th, 1992
"Undying Zeal for Perfection"
At my theological College we used a small book of services and prayers called Cambridge Offices and Orisons as part of our daily routine. I still think it's a very good book for anyone who finds praying difficult.
One item in it is called "A Litany of Missionary Intercession" which holds up to God former members of the college who are now serving with the Church Overseas. And one of its petitions was the following:
"Give them an earnest love of souls, wisdom to win them, diligence to keep them and undying zeal for their perfection"
Those words have stuck in my mind ever since, and although I may have failed to put them into practice they still seem to be the best description of what Evangelism is all about. Since this is the Decade of Evangelism it seems a good chance to talk about them.
Give them an earnest love of souls. The prayer asks that this love of souls like all the other things mentioned should be given to us by God. So a "love of souls" is not the same thing as the feeling of benevolence or affection which most people feel to a greater or lesser extent towards their fellow men. That benevolence which comes naturally, more naturally to some people than to others, is something quite different from "an earnest love of souls".
Benevolence in itself is quite a valuable things. Don't misunderstand me; I'm not belittling it just because it's natural – most of us here this morning are, I guess, feeling a bit of benevolence towards each other. We wish each other well, not ill. But that is not what the prayer means by "an earnest love of souls".
Earnest (I looked it up and in the dictionary) means "proceeding from intense conviction". So our love of souls has got to spring not from any feeling (which may change with the hour of the day or the season of the year or the state of our digestion) but an intense belief that Jesus Christ is our Saviour and Lord and that "there is no other name under heaven given to men whereby we may be saved."
It follows that this intense belief from which our love of souls comes rules out from the Decade Of Evangelism what well-meaning clergy and others mean when they say that "Christianity is just one religion among many" or that "all religions are the same in the end". It isn't and they aren't. Although we should be genuinely wrong if we said that other religions are mistaken through and through, or that they cannot give their followers anything worthwhile, we must nevertheless insist that in the end Jesus Christ is the only way and "nobody comes to the Father except through him".
If we hold that conviction earnestly then where does that love of souls come from? The answer is "from God" to-face and God will give it to us. He will make it grow in us.
It's no use trying to work ourselves up into a state called "an earnest love of souls". That way we shall only end by disliking more or less everyone. The love we are talking about is a gift of the Holy Spirit together with faith and hope "but the greatest of these and the best is love"
Those who've stopped growing spiritually cannot expect to develop an earnest love of souls. It just won't happen any more than flowers will grow unless you water them, or babies will flourish unless you feed, clean, clothe and educate them. The love of which I am speaking is as delicate a plant as a new-born baby. So to be an effective evangelist we first need to be sure that we ourselves are growing spiritually.
Give them an earnest love of souls, wisdom to win them.
Bringing others to Christ requires wisdom; it's not enough to love people however earnestly we do so. There is an art to be learnt for which no amount of enthusiasm for God can substitute.
Jesus likened catching men to men trying to catch fish. One of the things you don't do in fishing is to go plunging into the water with both feet so to speak in the hope that the fishes will swim into your arms. Fishes are much too sensible to be caught in that way. They will regard anyone invading their element, the water, from outside with the deepest suspicion.
We have to be aware that those who do not know our Lord Jesus Christ inhabit a different element from those who know him. The Bible compares these worlds to darkness and light. Those who live in darkness find any sort of light is bound to be disturbing if not actually threatening. We shouldn't then be surprised if the first response of people to the light of Christ is "no thank-you, I'd rather remain in the dark." For the light shows up things for what they really are, and as one poet said "humankind cannot bear very much reality".
Wisdom to win them means being able to recognise when a person is ready to make the leap into the arms of the Saviour. There must be no high-pressure salesmanship but on the contrary a certain reserve in our attempts to communicate eternal truths to all other people. Not because we want to keep them secret, but because as we know only too well, to frighten people or still worse to bore them is the surest way of killing their interest stone dead and causing them to swim back swiftly into the darkness. When Jesus told us to let our light so shine before men that they begin to glorify God and seek after him, he was thinking of the long-term process needing patience. The single dazzling flash of blinding intensity will not achieve as much as a steady penetrating beam of light and interest in another's welfare. It all takes time, and impatient evangelists are no more successful than impatient fishermen.
"An earnest love of souls, wisdom to win them, diligence to keep them".
When people start to take an interest in being saved it does not follow that their interest will be self-sustaining and continue of its own accord. It's just not enough to leave them to their own devices. One of the things I am always advising confirmation candidates is that sooner or later they will find discipleship becoming more difficult. It may be that life itself will get harder; more often they will run into a fellow Christian who is having an off-day and makes them feel unwanted or unwelcome. All of us need to be constantly on our guard (that's what diligence means) not only to to avoid giving offence ourselves to these "little ones who believe in him", those new to the faith in other words; but also to be instantly aware when anyone has been offended by someone else. Very often the person having the off-day won't realise the harm they have done. "diligence to keep them" means not only being aware of one's own feelings but of other people's as well, and limiting the damage which they unwittingly do. Being diligent means developing a sixth sense as to how people are responding to the pressures they are under.
"An earnest love of souls, wisdom to win them, diligence to keep them and undying zeal for their perfection".
It's not enough just to turn to Christ. Do you remember that proverb "God is easy to please but hard to satisfy"? Nowhere does this apply more critically than to the business of the evangelism.
Perfection as I have often said is not a single, impossibly far-off goal which is the same for everyone all the time – it's something to be sought for right now. Perfection for a child at primary school mean something different from perfection for somebody at university; and something different again young single parent trying to cope on their own and different yet again for a retired person living on a generous pension.
For each and every one of us there is a fairly immediate but different goal, and once that goal has been reached there is another one on the horizon.
The task of the evangelist is not only to help people see the next goal but also to assist them in getting there. That is why our zeal for their perfection must be an undying zeal. It's not enough simply to "bring people to Christ" for them to be confirmed as if that were like getting a graduation certificate after which everything follows automatically. Undying zeal for someone's perfection cannot just mean a pat on the head and that's it. None of us can rest content until he or she is sure that they are progressing rather than standing still, that the grace of God is flowing through us and our fellow Christians and not just stagnating inside.
There if you like is a complete programme, an agenda for us in the Decade of Evangelism. We have eight years or so left to go to get it up and running. By then some of us will have died and others moved elsewhere. So the time is short and as every good evangelist knows only too well, "Behold now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation!"
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