Lying here beside me is a small volume entitled The Crisis of Missions by A. T. Pierson. My copy was personally autographed by Pierson and presented to Dr. Alexander Maclaren during the World Missionary Conference held in London in May of 1888. I enjoy having it in my hands and thinking of these esteemed preachers holding it in theirs. But I also enjoy it because of its mute testimony to Maclaren’s interest in missions.
Maclaren rarely accepted invitations to preach away from his own church. He made exceptions, however, for gatherings of Christian workers—particularly pastors and foreign missionaries. In the early 1870s he agreed to speak in Surrey Chapel to the directors and friends of the London Missionary Society. His sister-in-law related, “Every inch of room was occupied, and as the service went on there was the tense feeling of which one is conscious when hundreds are fixedly listening. . . . Though fifty years and more have passed, some who were present can recall the awed attention of the great congregation.”
The preacher’s choice of texts that evening was Matthew 17:19, 20—“Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief.” The effect of the message can only be imagined. One testimony lingers, however, from Dr. Thomas Binney, one of Maclaren’s former teachers and mentors. Dr. Binney told a friend that he went home from the service and wept. He felt he himself had fallen so far short of what had been placed before him that it was as if he had never even seen it as an ideal.
This message to ministers remains one of the classics in the history of preaching. Although regrettably edited in order to fit this column, it is hoped nevertheless that the sermon’s stirring analysis of powerlessness will serve as a probing preparation for the new year of ministry into which we have just entered. Here then, is Alexander Maclaren’s sermon, “The Secret of Power.”
Matthew 17:19 Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? 20 And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
What has become of [the disciples’] supernatural might? Has it ebbed away as suddenly as it flowed? Is their Lord’s endowment a shadow—His assurances delusion? Has He taken back what He gave? Not so. And yet His servants are ignominiously beaten. One poor devil-ridden boy brings all their resources to nothing.
No wonder that, as soon as Christ and they are alone, they want to know how their mortifying defeat has come about. And they get an answer which they little expected, for the last place where men look for their explanation of their failures is within; and they will ascend into the heavens, and descend into the deeps for remote reasons, before they listen to the voice which says, “The fault is nigh thee—in thy heart.”
They little expected to be told that they had failed because they had not been sure they would succeed. They had thought they believed in their ability to cast out the demon. They had tried with some kind of anticipation that they could. They had been surprised when they found they could not. They had wondrously asked why. And now Christ tells them that all along they had had no real faith in Him and in the reality of His gift. So subtly may unbelief steal into the heart, even while we fancy that we are working in faith.
The principles which the text suggests touch the perpetual possession of the power which conquers; the condition of its victorious exercise by us, as being our faith, the subtle danger of unsuspected unbelief to which we are exposed; and the great means of preserving our faith pure and strong. I ask your attention to a few considerations on these points in their order.
I. We have an unvarying power.
No doubt the explanation of their defeat which most naturally suggested itself to these disciples would be that somehow or other—perhaps because of Christ’s absence—they had lost the gift which they knew they once had. And the same way of accounting for later want of success lingers among Christian people still. You will sometimes hear it said, “God sends forth His Spirit in special fullness at special times, according to His own sovereign will; and till then we can only wait and pray.” Or “The miraculous powers which dwelt in the early Church have been withdrawn and therefore the progress is slow.”
We fancy that because apostles were its teachers, and the Cross within its memory, the infant society was stronger, wiser, better than any age since, and had gifts which we have lost. What had it which we do not possess? The power of working miracles. What have we which it did not possess? A completed Bible, and the experience of eighteen centuries to teach us to understand it, and to confirm by facts our confidence that Christ’s gospel is for all time and every land. What have we in common with it? The same mission to fulfill, the same wants in our brethren to meet, the same gospel, the same spirit, the same immortal Lord.
The Church has in it a power which is ever adequate to the conquest of the world; and that power is constant through all time, whether we consider it as recorded in an unvarying gospel, or as energized by an abiding spirit, or as flowing from and centered in an unchangeable Lord.
To be continued…
Dr. Mark Minnick pastors Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.
(Originally published in FrontLine• Jan/Feb 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)