The Word Made Effective
We may be amazed that so few people seem to have been brought into the kingdom of God through Christ’s direct activity while he was in this world. One reason no doubt was that the course of providence must run on unimpeded that would bring him to Calvary, to be slain by the hands of wicked men. If sinners were to be saved, the Saviour must die.
But when he ascended to heaven, when he sat down on the right hand of God, multitudes were brought into his kingdom. Peter and the other disciples went out into a public place in Jerusalem and, as a result of their preaching, 3000 people were brought under conviction of sin. These disciples were mere men who, only a matter of weeks before then, seemed entirely without strength, for ‘all the disciples forsook’ their Master ‘and fled’. Now it was otherwise; they were firm in reproving the sin of those who had crucified the Lord of glory; they were forceful in pointing to Jesus of Nazareth as the one Saviour from sin.
Yet, though the preaching of the gospel is a means ordained by God to bring about conversion, it is not human power that produces the result. On the Day of Pentecost, the power was altogether greater than that of Peter or of any of the other disciples: it was the power of the Holy Spirit. And in perfect harmony with that power we should recognise the power of Christ as the supreme Prophet, who can teach sinners effectively, for he can reach their hearts. He had told the disciples that the Holy Spirit ‘shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you’ (John 16:14). To quote David Brown: ‘The whole design of the Spirit’s office is to glorify Christ . . . in the view and estimation of men. For this purpose he was to “receive of Christ” – that is, all that related to his Person and work – “and show it unto them”, or make them, by his inward teaching, to discern it.’
That teaching is effective. It was effective on the Day of Pentecost; it is effective today and always will be. Preachers do not know the exact state of the hearts of their individual hearers; nor do they know what particular truths are most relevant to the needs of the hearers. So preachers must declare the whole counsel of God – in particular, the great central truths of law and gospel. When Peter rebuked his hearers for their sin in crucifying the Lord of glory, there was a wonderful result: a large number of the people cried out: ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ They were disturbed in their souls, which was a great mercy. Unless the Spirit had so convicted them, they would never have sought salvation; they would have been lost for ever. But the fact that so few souls today are disturbed about their sins shows that this generation is under God’s judgment. For God to leave a generation to itself – to ignore him and his authority – is most certainly a judgment.
When Peter pointed these individuals to Jesus, the Spirit powerfully accompanied his words so that 3000 souls believed. The further instruction which Peter gave them was effective only because the Spirit applied it. In themselves, Peter’s words could have no power, but when the Spirit took these truths about the Person and work of Christ and showed them to these 3000, they were altogether powerful. These people trusted in Christ; they were savingly changed; they began to live to God’s glory; and they are now in heaven, absolutely perfect, serving God and praising him with their whole hearts – what they will go on doing for ever and ever.
When a preacher speaks about sin, its seriousness, its offensiveness to God, and the fearful consequences that will follow throughout eternity, it may be the most unexpected statement which impresses a sinner; and it may be the most unlikely person who is impressed. When Ahab went to battle with the Syrians, he was fatally wounded by an arrow after one of the Syrian soldiers ‘drew a bow at a venture’ (1 Kings 22:34) – he had not targeted the King; he did not even recognise him; but in God’s providence he fired the arrow in such a way that the King was the victim. So the Holy Spirit applies a particular truth to a particular individual although the person speaking could not know how suitable they were; indeed the thought may have been entirely unpremeditated. Yet it came into his mind in God’s providence; he uttered the words, and the Spirit applied them.
How necessary it is for God’s children, whether or not they are preachers, to pray that such arrows of conviction would find their way into sinners’ hearts. How good it would be to see the words fulfilled on a large scale in our time: ‘Thine arrows are sharp in the heart of the King’s enemies; whereby the people fall under thee’ (Psa. 45:5), for, ultimately, the arrows are Christ’s; it is he, working by the Spirit, who sends conviction into the hearts of sinners so that they submit to him.
One may be at a loss to know the best words to use in seeking to direct a sinner to Christ. One’s words, however scriptural, will fail entirely in the absence of divine power. But when Christ himself speaks – and he may use the human instruments who have so often failed – the sinner will believe to the saving of his soul, for now the Holy Spirit is applying truths which previously had no effect. This is illustrated in the case of the woman with the issue of blood: she had consulted many physicians without success; but a mere touch of the Saviour’s clothes brought immediate healing.
Whatever spiritual trouble an individual may experience, spiritual healing must be the result of treatment by the great Physician – no matter the human instruments he may be pleased to use. So he speaks in prophecy: ‘The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary’ (Isa. 50:4). In his infinite wisdom and knowledge he knows exactly how to speak to a weary soul. Thus when Paul was wearied by the thorn in the flesh, the Lord said, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9).
Christ as Prophet is still full of wisdom and knowledge, as Robert Gordon comments on Isaiah 50:4:
Is it not the word of Christ, accompanied by the power of the Spirit, that gives rest to the weary and the heavy laden, when they are enabled to receive, as addressed to themselves, his gracious invitation to come to him? Is it not the word of Christ, even the blessed assurance, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee’, that imparts new strength and vigour to many a depressed soul, struggling against temptation, or ready to sink under the burden of difficult and self-denying duties? And is it not the same word, even the greatest declaration that their great High Priest is touched with a feeling of their infirmities, and sympathises in all their sorrows, that imparts consolation to believers under the manifold trials and bereavements to which they are here exposed? So true is it still, and ever will be, that he knows ‘how to speak a word in season to him that is weary’. This then is the gracious office to which Christ here says that he was appointed, even to bring a message of peace to sinners ““ to reveal to them the will of God for their salvation.’1
Although we live in a generation under judgment, we might look back to another generation which was very much given over to hardness of heart: the one into which the Saviour was born. He had the power to bring the truth to bear effectively on multitudes of souls but, as we have noted, it was not his will to do so. Instead he told his disciples: ‘The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest’ (Matt. 9:38). We in our generation also are to pray in this way; we are likewise to pray that, as these labourers go out to preach, the Holy Spirit would be poured out and that the Word preached would be powerfully applied to the souls of those who listen, so that many would be convinced of sin and brought to faith and repentance. Then, as David Brown pointed out, Christ will be glorified.
- Christ in the Old Testament, Free Presbyterian Publications, 2002 reprint, vol 3, p 303
Kenneth D. Macleod is pastor of the Free Presbyterian Church in Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris. He is the editor of The Free Presbyterian Magazine, from the December 2011 issue of which the above editorial has been taken with permission.
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