This article is an edited version of Alexander MacLaren’s sermon, “The Secret of Power.” The sermon made a remarkable impression on the men who first heard it. We offer it as an encouragement to Christians beginning a new year of ministry for the Lord.
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?
… 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.
…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.
II. The condition of exercising this power is faith.
… There have been men of all sorts who have been honored to do much in this world for Christ. Wise and foolish, learned and ignorant, differing in tone, temper, creed, forms of thought, and manner of working, in every conceivable degree; but one thing, and perhaps one thing only, they have all had—a passion of enthusiastic personal devotion to their Lord, a profound and living faith in Him and in His salvation. All in which they differed is but the gilding on the soldier’s coat. That which they were alike is as the strong arm which grasps the sword, and has its muscles braced by the very clutch. Faith is itself a source of strength, as well as the condition of drawing might from heaven.
III. Our faith is ever threatened by subtle unbelief.
It would appear that the disciples were ignorant of the fact that unbelief had made them weak. They fancied that they had confidence in their Christ-given power, and they certainly had in some dull kind of fashion expected to succeed in their attempt. But He who sees the heart knew that there was no real living confidence in their souls; and His words are a solemn warning to us all, of how possible it is for us to have our faith all honeycombed by gnawing doubt while we suspect it not, like some piece of wood apparently sound, the whole substance of which has been eaten away by hidden worms.
Our time, and the object in view, preclude my speaking of the general sources of danger to our faith. But I may very briefly particularize two of the enemies of that faith which have a special bearing on our work, and may be illustrated from the narrative before us.
First, all our activity in spreading the gospel, whether by personal effort or by our gifts, like every form of outward action, tends to become mechanical, and to lose its connection with the motive which originated it. We may very easily become so occupied with the mere external occupation as to be quite unconscious that it has ceased to be faithful work, and has become routine, dull mechanism, or the result of confidence, not in Christ, whose power once flowed through us, but in ourselves the doers. So these disciples may have thought, “We can cast out this devil, for we have done the like already,” and have forgotten that it was not they, but Christ in them, who had done it.
How widely this foe to our faith operates amid the multiplied activities of this busy age one trembles to think. We see all around us a Church toiling with unexampled expenditure of wealth, and effort, and time. It is difficult to repress the suspicion that the work is out of proportion to the life. Brethren and fathers in the ministry! How many of us know what it is to talk and toil away our early devotion; and all at once to discover that for years perhaps we have been preaching and laboring from mere habit and routine, like corpses galvanized into some ghastly and transient caricature of life. Christian men and women, beware lest this great enterprise of missions, which our fathers began from the holiest motives and in the simplest faith, should in our hand, be wrenched away from its only true basis, and be done with languid expectation and more languid desires of success, from no higher motive than that we found it in existence, and have become accustomed to carry it on. If that be our reason, then we harm ourselves, and mask from our own sight our own unbelief. If that be the case the work may go on for a while, like a clock ticking with fainter and fainter beats for a minute after it has run down; but it will soon cease, and neither heaven nor earth will be much the poorer for its ending.
[Second], the atmosphere of scornful disbelief which surrounded the disciples made their faith falter. It was too weak to sustain itself in the face of the consciousness that not a man in all that crowd believed in their power; and it melted away before the contempt of the scribes and the incredulous curiosity of the bystanders.
And, brethren, are not we in danger today of losing the firmness of our grasp on Christ, as our Savior and the world’s from a precisely similar cause? We live in an atmosphere of hesitancy and doubt, of scornful rejection of His claims, of contemptuous disbelief in anything which a scalpel cannot cut. And for every man who is led by the sheer force of reason to yield to the intellectual ground of sin on which modern unbelief reposes, there are twenty who simply catch the infection in the atmosphere. They find that their early convictions have evaporated, they know not how; only that once the fleece was wet with dew and now it is dry. For unbelief has a contagious energy wholly independent of reason, no less than has faith, and affects multitudes who know nothing of its grounds, as the iceberg chills the summer air for leagues, and makes the sailors shiver long before they see its barren peaks.
We cannot help seeing that the creeping paralysis of hesitancy and doubt about even the power of Christ’s name is stealing over portions of the Church, and stiffening the arm of its activity. Lips that once spoke with full confidence the words that cast out devils, mutter them now languidly with half belief. This icy breath, dear brethren, is blowing over our Churches and over our hearts. And wherever it reaches, there labor for Jesus and for men languishes, and we recoil baffled with unavailing exorcisms dying in our throats and the rod of our power broken in our hands. “Why could not we cast him out?” “Because of your unbelief.”
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.)