As important as it is to understand the gospel and defend it, it is no less important to proclaim it. One must not only articulate the gospel faithfully, one must “gospelize”—that is, evangelize. Register now for The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference which we hope will spur you on to proclaim the gospel as we examine a selection of “conversations with Jesus.” The conference will be held April 1-3 in Indianapolis. Registration is $149 until September 19.
Pastors spend a lot of time talking about evangelism, but far too many of us don’t actually do evangelism throughout the week. I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, for I know many pastors who faithfully seek to share Christ. So I’ll say this is generally true of the pastor whose work I know best: me.
A few years ago, I encountered an old book titled A Pastor’s Sketches: Conversations with Anxious Souls Concerning the Way of Salvation—republished in 2002 by Solid Ground Books—by an obscure 19th-century pastor (unforgettably) named Ichabod Spencer. It challenged me to become more faithful in evangelism and instructed me as to how I might best do so. Seldom has so much glory been found in a work written by one named Ichabod.
Who was he?
Bunyan of Brooklyn
Spencer served as pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York, from 1832 to 1854, a time of significant numerical and spiritual growth for the church. At his arrival, the church had no building and about 40 attendees. At his death, Second Presbyterian had become one of the largest and most influential churches in New York. Known as the “Bunyan of Brooklyn,” Spencer was committed to visiting every member of his church at least once a year, an approach modeled by the Puritan Richard Baxter.
Spencer was a tireless hound for heaven: he averaged nearly 800 pastoral appointments annually. Additionally, he visited many lost persons and preached multiple times weekly. The majority of his sketches arise from personal visits, which makes the book unique. The theological tides of Spencer’s time were washing forth in a frightening tsunami of revolution. American churches were rapidly moving away from the theology of Jonathan Edwards toward the more pragmatic message and methods of Charles Finney. Others were embracing theological liberalism.
While the language is a bit arcane in places, the stories of evangelism in A Pastor’s Sketches drip pastoral wisdom, spiritual sensitivity, and theological savvy.
In one sketch, Spencer tells of a young man wrestling with predestination. He had encountered the doctrine in Scripture and wondered if perhaps he was not elect and beyond God’s mercy. The man didn’t want to come to Christ until he was certain he was chosen. Spencer showed uncommon sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s work (“I am to conspire with the Holy Spirit”) and offered wise council to the perplexed seeker, unpacking for him the threefold purpose of election: “To teach men the character of God, to repress the audacity of the wicked, and to comfort God’s people.” Election by no means eliminates human responsibility, Spencer said: “Do what God bids you. Obey the invitations of his grace. Flee to Christ and be saved.”
Spencer’s style of interaction varied depending on the psychological makeup of the individual—and here the reader sees his remarkable patience toward those to whom he ministered. Often Spencer tells of visiting a seeker many times, day after day, unpacking the gospel over several weeks, even months. He sometimes called for a prompt embrace of Christ, but more often than not, Spencer would do the last thing we might think prudent: he would leave. This was not an odd personality tick; rather, it demonstrated Spencer’s confidence in the gospel’s power. “Not one will be lost that should be found,” he said.
Spencer’s love for people, his compassion for their souls, and his concern for true conversion permeates every vignette. During one encounter with a lost man, Spencer said he found it best to be silent after presenting Christ: “[The man] sat in silence for a long time. I did not think it best to interfere with his thoughts.” The pastor knew when to talk, when to listen, and when to simply be silent as the Spirit applied God’s truth to the heart.
Spencer’s encounters also demonstrated both grace and truth. One person told Spencer that her unsettled conscience had been quieted by a friend’s wisdom. Though she remained outside of God’s grace, the lady assured Spencer she “felt better about herself” because of the friend’s comfort. Spencer cut to the heart of the matter: “Feel better? Mary, you are resting on a lie. You are miserably deceived. Doing well? How can you be doing well while an impenitent sinner rejecting Christ and exposed every moment to the wrath of God forever?”
The Bunyan of Brooklyn knew when to be tender, and when to be tough. Though ministry took place in a distant place and time, Ichabod Spencer has helped me profoundly as both a pastor and an evangelist, particularly in five ways.
1. Pastors ought to be evangelists.
A pastor should diligently seek opportunities to share the good news of God’s redeeming love in Christ. Some sketches read like biblical counseling sessions, as Spencer pursues the inquirer’s reconciliation with God.
2. Evangelism is more spontaneous and relational than we think.
Many excellent resources teach Christians to share the gospel with their lost neighbors, and I am grateful for them. However, Spencer’s sketches demonstrate that evangelism encounters usually happen in the full-court press of everyday life. He was not formulaic in his approach, and though outlines can be helpful, the best kind of evangelism is more organic. Spencer took time to build relationships with people, and so should we.
3. Reformed theology does not stifle evangelism.
In my denomination there is an ongoing debate over whether belief in the doctrines of grace presents a stumbling block to evangelism and missions. Many say it does. But Spencer’s methods demonstrate beautifully the practical import of holding together both God’s sovereignty in salvation and man’s responsibility to repent and believe. Knowing that God is mighty to save was a catalyst that drove Spencer into the highways and byways of his community.
4. The Holy Spirit convicts, draws, and regenerates, but that’s no excuse to sit on the sidelines.
The pressure is not on us to “get them in.” However, this does not absolve us from demanding that lost people repent and believe. Like no other resource on evangelism I’ve seen, Spencer’s sketches illustrate this important truth.
Like no other resource on evangelism I’ve seen, Spencer’s sketches illustrate this important truth.
Spencer often prayed with the lost—and then left them to the Holy Spirit. And numerous stories report that the person was saved several days, weeks, or months later—more often than not outside Spencer’s presence. Spencer was relentless in going to the lost, then trusting the Spirit to fertilize the proclaimed gospel.
5. We should bring people to a point of decision.
Many us have concerns over the potential damage done by a method of “decisionism,” though the heart behind this approach is—in many cases—doubtless driven by a genuine concern for the lost. Myriad churches in my own denomination have been weakened by impatient evangelism.
Sometimes, however, I think we who cherish the doctrines of grace are lethargic in evangelism due to a subtle fear that we will violate God’s decrees in calling persons to repentance—which is actually contrary to our belief in a meticulously sovereign God. I’ve been guilty of such thinking for sure. Spencer, who was theologically Reformed, used terms like “seeker” and even encouraged counselees to “give your heart to Jesus.” Yes, that’s a slogan that makes many of us squirm, but Spencer reminds us that conversion is, at its most fundamental level, a changed heart that enables genuine faith. Scripture’s command is for active confession of sin and faith in Christ (Rom. 10:9). Spencer’s theology was a catalyst that drove his evangelism, not a straight jacket that inhibited it.
Convicting and Challenging
Every time I pick up Spencer’s book, I am convicted, challenged, and edified. Spencer reminds me that I am not nearly zealous enough for those who walk in darkness, that I far too often preach the Great Commission but fail to obey it. May it please the Lord to instill in me and every pastor the compassionate concern for lost souls that characterized Ichabod Spencer.
Pick up A Pastor’s Sketches—and be freshly challenged yourself.