There can be little doubt that one of the real gifts that P.T. Forsyth bequeaths to the Church is the encouragement of her pastors to forego the ‘sin of bustle’ that would see them running errands for the culture motivated in no small part by an attempt to convince the world – and the church! – of the use, value and worthiness of their vocation, and to instead give themselves to preach the Gospel, to believe in that divinely-ordained foolishness, and to trust its effects to God.
Those who carry the burden – a joyous burden to be sure, but a burden nonetheless – of preaching week after week will no doubt be familiar with that anxiety that attends the final read through the manuscript, the fruit of one’s wrestling with the very real possibility of God’s communication – which is nothing less than God’s self-disclosure – to those not only desperate to hear the Word of life but also to those long deafened by the drums of seemingly-endless counter words, that Saturday night feeling that, despite all one’s best efforts, things for tomorrow’s sermon just don’t seem right, that the fire that burns so freshly in the heart of the biblical witness has all but been snuffed out by the time the sermon was penned, and perhaps the best that one can now hope for is a decent night’s sleep and to simply trust that something that one says on the morrow might find fertile soil. To be sure, to believe in preaching is to believe in miracles or, more properly, it is to believe in One who not only already longs to speak but who also ‘gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist’ (Romans 4.17). Moreover, to believe in preaching is to believe that such calling into existence occurs via the irresponsible method of liberally sowing seeds whether in places where there is no soil, or on rocky ground, or among thorns, or in fertile and productive soil (see Matthew 13).
To those who so believe – or who wish to believe in such things in spite of all appearances – I hope that these words of Forsyth’s from a sermon on Ezekiel’s prophecy to the dry bones, and to the Spirit, preached over a century ago might come as an encouragement:
‘God takes the man of little faith, takes him like Ezekiel, carries him back in spirit through history to the dark ages of Europe; plants him beside a church with its faith dried and enterprise dulled into mere orthodoxy beneath the Pagan empire. He sets you in the valley of the dark ages, when the Spanish Moors had more light and life than the Christians of Europe. He asks you, “Can these bones live? You cannot say, but God’s answer is the wonderful eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. The past was not dead; the Church is never without its recuperative power somewhere. As the body of Christ, it must rise, and cannot be holden of death, howsoever long the torpor may be.
Or again, God takes you onward, and sets you in another dismal valley, the church of the Borgias and Medicis, amongst the parched bones of faith, when the former revival had shrunk to a mere renaissance, when Paganism was not in the Empire but in the Church’s own heart and head. He points you to the wicked Church of all the cultures at Rome in the valley of the fifteenth century, when the faithful had all but ceased to be. “Can these bones live?” You see not how. God’s answer is Luther, Calvin, and the sixteenth century, the rediscovery of St. Paul, the coronation of faith, the vitalising of Europe, Puritanism, the birth of democracy, the rise of constitutionalism, Free Churchism, and the dawn of modern times. No, the past is not dead.
And once more He plants you by the English Church of last century, with Deism outside, and drought within, but no thirst. Can they live? God’s answer is Wesley and the Evangelical revival, Newman and the Oxford revival, and much more that I cannot name because I must single out the feature which has gathered us here – modern missions. I doubt if any such answer has ever been given to the prophet’s question as this. We have the answer before our eyes. The world has it, and it is often as smoke in its eyes. But the men who first faced the problem, and first moved in these missions had not this answer before their eyes, they had it before their faith alone. They were prophets indeed, in the true inspired line, for they had it in their souls only. They had it surer there in their faith than many of us who have it in our sight. They lived in the valley of the eighteenth century, but their souls stood upon Pisgah; they saw the Promised Land, and all things delivered unto Christ of the Father. They had Imperial minds, but they had also holy methods. They saw the bones stirred and clothed, and men trooping from their living graves at the call of the Spirit alone. They saw races roused, rescued, civilised by the Gospel. Nay, they saw more; they saw the Church itself converted to missions, a bony Church quickened, fleshed, and marshalled anew. They saw that the Church must be reconverted if it was to survive, but they also saw that it would be reconverted, because they had the Spirit that makes the Church, and felt the first flutter of His breast. And the Church did need this reconversion. There was not among the heathen more contemptuous opposition to missions than these men met sometimes in the Church at home. When we speak of the great effect of the Church on the heathen, let us not forget the great blessing of the heathen to the Church. The receiving of them has been to the Church itself life from the dead. The Church has more faith in its own Gospel because of its proved power abroad; it is more sure of its own word, and it feels that it is not only a mighty word, a true word, but a more genial and pitiful word. The old bones live again in a humaner life. Every missionary is preaching to the Church that sent him no less than to the churches he found. When we speak of the action of grace, think also of the reaction of grace, the force of its recoil; deep calleth unto deep. The Gospel’s word to the world includes also its echo to the Church. Missions are an integral part of the Church and a source of new life to it, and the missionaries are prophets that call flesh upon our bones. To convert the heathen is to bless and serve the Church. These missionaries are not hobby-riders that the Church patronises; they are organs, agents, and deputies of the Church itself. They do not act alongside of us, but for us; they are the long arms of the Church and the limbs by which it covers the breadth of the world. The man to whom missions are a fanatic fad, and not his own concern, has yet to learn the soul of the Christian Gospel and the secret of the Church’s life …
Some members of the Church – yea, some Churches themselves – make a greater problem than even the world or the heathen does. They make us ask, “Can these bones live?” These people who go to church, who uphold their Church, who would fight for their Church, would make civil war for its privileges, who have more fight than faith in them, whose souls are exceedingly filled with contempt, and they have a name to live, but are spiritually dead, who care for their Church chiefly as partisans, or because it is a centre of social rank or of juvenile amusements – can they live? What preacher but is cast into occasional despair by that question as he looks upon many spiritual skeletons around him? What preacher has not many a time to answer with Ezekiel that they can only live by some miracle of God; he, poor son of man, has failed, and is hopeless. He is preaching, perhaps, out of duty more than inspiration; he often prophesies in obedience rather than in hope. Well, preach hope till you have hope; then preach it because you have it. “Prophesy over these bones; call out to the Spirit,” says the Lord. At the Lord’s call, if not at your own impulse, call; call with a faith of life when the sense of life is low; speak the word you are bidden, and wait for the word you feel; and then the matter is the Lord’s, and you win a new confidence in the midst of self-despair.
But it is not with bones or mummies that the preacher has chiefly to do. He comes, let us say, and lifts a vital voice. He is a man of parts and force; he collects a following, he is the centre of an interesting congregation. It looks well, comfortable; it is no skeleton crowd, it has flesh and blood. What is lacking? Perhaps the things that are not revealed to flesh and blood, the unearthly lustre in the eye, and movement in the mien, the Spirit of life. It is a congregation possibly, not a church; it is not dry, but it is not inspired; it is cultured possibly, but it is not kindled. The spirit has not come to stay, and there is not amongst them the shout of a king. So far, perhaps, it is only education, culture, that the preacher has supplied; it is mere religion, not regeneration. The bones are clothed, but not quickened; they know about sacred things, but they do not know about the Holy Ghost.
So prophesy once more, Son of man, saith the Lord. Prophesy to the Spirit of life; preach, but, still more, pray; invoke the abiding Spirit to enter these easy forms. They are less dismal than they were, but still too dull. Court for their sake the spirit and cultivate the discernment of the Spirit. Amid the many airs that fan them, amid the crowd of vivacious interests that tickle them as they pass, make the Spirit of a new life blow on them. Above every other influence woo and wait upon the Spirit. Trace and press the Spirit of God; in every providence seize the Divine grace, subdue the spirit of the age to the Spirit of Christ; set up among the critics the Judge of all the earth. Preach the Spirit which not only clothes the skeletons decently and comfortably, but set them on their feet in the Kingdom of God. Preach what cast down imaginations and high things to the obedience of Christ; proclaim that Spirit which turns mere vitality into true life, mere comfort into the mighty peace; turn your worldly skeletons, by all means, into living congregations, but, above all, turn your congregation into a living Church.
And how shall you do that if your appeals to men have not been preceded by your cry to the Spirit, if your action on them is not inspired by your wrestling with God? Only then can you turn a crowd into a people, and a people into the Kingdom of God. That is the way to turn your Aceldama into the habitation of a multitude, and your multitude into a spiritual phalanx. Prophesy no more to the bones, preach no more as if it were dead worldlings you had; pray to the Spirit of God and preach to the spirit of man. Preach as to those who have begun to live and seek life. Never mind about current literature, mind the deep things of God. Preach to them great things. Let the trivial rubbish alone that occupies too much of our Church interest. It is possible to lose the soul in the effort to win souls. Dwell less upon the minor truths, dwell more upon the mighty truths which grow mightier by iteration. Take care of the spiritual pounds, and the current pence will look after themselves. Preach character by all means more than has been done, but preach it through a Gospel which takes the making of character out of your hands. Preach the Lord’s Supper more often, and the tea-meetings less, as the Church’s social centre and family hearth. Do not preach about goodness less, but about grace more. Do not preach self-denial, preach a cross that compels self-denial. Don’t mistake fervour and ardour for the Holy Ghost; do not take the flush for the blood or the blood for the life. Bring to men the Spirit, prophesy to the spirit in them; bring to them great demands – it is the demands of life that make men, is it not? Tax them, ask of them great sacrifices. We grow up as we lay down. Sacrifice before faith? No, first the sacrifice which is faith. There is no such tax on self-will as faith, no such sacrifice of our self-satisfaction as true faith, faith of the right kind, faith which is a cross as well as a trust in a cross and a resurrection, too. Trouble them, trouble them with the stir of a higher life. Living water is always troubled, it is an angel’s trace upon the pool. Leave them not at ease; do not stop with putting on the flesh that just saves them from being skeletons. Infuse the flesh with the spirit; propose a great task, a thing incredible, and keep it before them till they rise to it. Does not the spirit make demands on us which no preacher can venture to do? Does not something in our own soul as he prophesies stir us, rebuke us, exact from us more than we dare? All the movements the true prophets store escape beyond their dreams and demands’.
– from Jason A. Goroncy (ed.). Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P.T. Forsyth. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, forthcoming.