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.
… 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.
…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. …
[Second], the atmosphere of scornful disbelief which surrounded the disciples made their faith falter. … 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.”
IV. Our faith can only be maintained by constant devotion and rigid self-denial.
Our Lord sets forth the condition of our faith, and therefore of our power. “This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” The discipline then which nurtures faith is mainly moral and spiritual.
The first condition of the freshness and energy of faith is constant devotion. The attrition of the world wears it thin, the distractions of life draw it from its clinging hold on Christ, the very toil for Him is apt to entice our thoughts from out of the secret place of the Most High into the busy arena of our strife. If our work is to be worthy, it must ever be freshened anew by our gaze into His face; if our communion with Him is to be deep, it must never be parted from outward service. Our Master has left us the example, in that, when the night fell and every man went to his own home, Jesus went to the Mount of Olives; and thence, after His night of prayer, came very early in the morning, to the temple, and taught. The man that would work for God must live with God. It was from the height of transfiguration that He came, before whom the demon that baffled the disciples quailed and slunk away like a whipped hound. This kind goeth not out but by prayer.
The second condition is rigid self-denial. Fasting is the expression of the purpose to control the lower life, and to abstain from its delights in order that the life of the spirit may be strengthened. As to the outward fact, it is nothing—it may be practiced or not. But in the recoil from the false asceticism of Roman Catholicism and Puritanism, has not this generation of the Church gone too far in the opposite direction? And in the true belief that Christianity can sanctify all joys, and ensure the harmonious development of all our powers, have we not been forgetting that hand and foot may cause us to stumble, and that we had better live maimed than die with all our limbs? There is a true asceticism, a discipline—a “gymnastic unto godliness,” as Paul calls it. And if our faith is to grow high and bear rich clusters on the topmost boughs that look up to the sky, we must keep the wild lower shoots close-nipped. Without rigid self-control and self-limitation, no vigorous faith.
And without them no effectual work! It is no holiday task to cast out devils. Self-indulgent men will never do it. Loose-braced, easy souls, that lie open to all the pleasurable influences of ordinary life, are no more fit for God’s weapons than a reed for a lance, or a bit of flexible lead for a spearpoint. The wood must be tough and compact, the metal hard and close-grained, out of which God makes His shafts. The brand that is to guide men through the darkness to their Father’s home must glow with a pallor of consuming flame that purges its whole substance into light. This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.
Dear brethren, what a solemn rebuke these words have for us all today! How they winnow these works of Christian activity which bring us here this morning! How they show us the hollowness of our services, the self-indulgence of our lives, the coldness of our devotion, the cowardice of our faith! How marvelous they make the fruits which God’s great goodness has permitted us to see even from our doubting service!
Let us cast ourselves before Him with penitent confession, and say, “O Lord, our strength! We have not wrought any deliverance on earth; we have been weak when all Thy power was at our command; we have spoken Thy word as if it were an experiment and a peradventure whether it had might; we have let go Thy hand and lost Thy garment’s hem from our slack grasp; we have been prayerless and self-indulgent. Therefore Thou hast put us to shame before our foes, and our enemies laugh among themselves. Thou that dwellest between the cherubim shine forth; stir up Thy strength and come and save us!” Then will the last words that He spoke on earth ring out again from the throne: “All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore and teach all nations; and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”
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.)