The Soul-winning Ministry of Paul


The Soul-winning Ministry of Paul

November 19th, 1978 @ 7:30 PM

Acts 20:17-21

And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. And when they were come to him, he said unto them, Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews: And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house, Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

Acts 20:17-21

11-19-78    7:30 p.m.


This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas.  This is the pastor of the church bringing the message entitled The SoulWinning Ministry of Paul.  And wherever you are, turn your Bible to Acts 20 and read with us a portion that will be expounded in the message this evening.  Acts chapter 20, and we are going to read verses 17 through 21; Acts chapter 20, verses 17 through 21.  Now all of us all out loud together, 20 verse 17:

And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.

And when they were come to him, he said unto them, Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons,

Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews:

And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have showed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house.

Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ

[Acts 20:17-21]

And now, to add to the passage, “Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men” [Acts 20:26].   And then, “Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I cease not to warn every one night and day with tears” [Acts 20:31]; the soul-winning ministry of the apostle Paul.

Frequently I hear at conventions and at evangelistic conferences and in groups of visiting and talking preachers—frequently I will hear the phrase “the greatest preacher since Paul.”  And they will refer to someone such as Charles Haddon Spurgeon or George W. Truett or Robert G. Lee or someone, who in the course of Christian history has been a beautiful and a faithful and a marvelous servant of the Lord.  So they will use that expression “the greatest preacher since Paul.”  Now, I know exactly what they mean when they use that nomenclature.  When you say that, and when they say that, immediately there comes before your mind the image of a marvelous exponent of the gospel of Christ, standing up in majesty, with impressive mean and with stentorian voice and with oratorical perorations, and he rises from one flight of Ciceronian expression to Demosthenean description, until finally, he comes to the very gates of heaven itself.  That is what they mean by that, “the greatest preacher since Paul”—a man of tremendous and majestic presence and the gift of oratorical flight and fancy.

Just exactly what kind of a preacher was Paul?  You know, it would not hurt for the preachers who say that to read the Bible, would it?  And then they would find in the Bible what kind of a preacher Paul was.  In 2 Corinthians 10 and verse 10, Paul quotes what people said about him when they heard him preach.  Now do you remember what that was?  He quotes them saying, “They say that his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” [2 Corinthians 10:10].  That is what the people who heard Paul preach said about him—his bodily presence is weak, far from that majestic presence that we think of when we use the expression “the greatest preacher since Paul,” and his words, his speech, his preaching is contemptible—how far from those stentorian flights and Ciceronian fancies that we imagine in the apostle Paul.

Well, immediately, you could say, “If that was the kind of a man as he looked, and if that was the kind of preacher as he spoke, then how did he do the incomparable work that he did, such as here in Ephesus where he describes his ministry?”  It was the greatest of any single ministry in the history of Christendom.  There has been nothing like it.  All the Roman province of Asia heard the gospel [Acts 19:10].  The seven churches of Asia, to whom the Lord addressed the Revelation [Revelation 2:1 – 3:22], were founded in that ministry, and everybody heard the gospel of Christ, and uncounted thousands of them were turned to the Lord [Acts 19:10].  Well, how did this man bring that to pass?  What kind of a ministry did this apostle Paul possess and how did he do his work?  He describes it here in this address he makes to the Ephesian elders, who he has invited to be present in Miletus.  And now, I have summed up that ministry as he describes it under three headings.  These are descriptions of the apostle Paul.  They are the reasons that lie back of the great power that he had and the success with which the Lord crowned his efforts.

Number one:  he was a man of deep, deep convictions.  I don’t suppose you could plumb to the depths of the convictions of the apostle Paul, testifying to the Jew, to the Greek, to everybody, “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” [Acts 20:21].  That is the premise of the Christian faith itself—that we need to repent, and we need to be saved.  And without that conviction, Christianity becomes a metaphysic; it becomes a philosophy; it becomes a speculation; it becomes optional; it becomes intellectual and academic.  But when a man has a deep and abiding conviction—that without the saving grace of Christ, he is lost, immediately, his message comes; it is described; it is delineated; it is denominated in an altogether different world.  Paul had that deep and abiding conviction that men were lost without Christ, that there was no way to heaven except through Him; and he preached that!  In the Book of Ephesians, the second chapter, he says, we are all dead; cadaverous; lifeless; decadent; lost in trespasses and in sins [Ephesians 2:1].  And the whole introduction of the Book of Romans, which is a theological treatises—the whole introduction, the first chapters of the Book of Romans is this: that all of us have sinned [Romans 3:23], and all of us are under the condemnation and judgment of God [Romans 5:12], then follows the glorious gospel that “He was delivered for our offenses, and was raised for our justification” [Romans 4:25].  The preaching of the apostle Paul came out of—was born in deep conviction that we are lost without Christ [Romans 6:23].

All right, number two:  what characterized the ministry of this man Paul?  Number two: he had an everlasting persuasion, as high as heaven and as deep as the earth itself, that God had called him to deliver the saving message of Christ.  Wherefore, he says, “I take you to record this day, that I am free from the blood of all men.  I have delivered to them the message that God has given to me” [Acts 20:26-27].  And when you read the life of the apostle Paul in the Book of Acts and in his letters, that is the apostle himself!  He has felt the responsibility of delivering the saving message of Christ to all men.

He will say in the first Corinthian letter, chapter 9 and verse 16: “Woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel! [1 Corinthians 9:16].  Woe is unto me; condemnation awaits me; judgment awaits me if I preach not the gospel.  If I do it,” he says, “willingly, I have a reward: but unwillingly a dispensation—a oikonomia, a stewardship—has been committed to me just the same” [1 Corinthians 9:17].  Whether I want to do it or whether I do not want to do it, he says, I am called of God to deliver this message.  And he felt that responsibility.  This is God’s assignment for me; to deliver the message of Christ.  That is seen in every facet in every aspect of the apostle’s life.  When he stood before King Agrippa and described his conversion, he described also his world mission.  “I have raised you up, sent you out, that you might be a witness to the Gentiles, to the nations of the earth” [Acts 26:12-18].  And then the apostle concluded: “Wherefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: but showed first in Jerusalem, in Damascus, and then to the whole world that we should repent and turn to God” [Acts 26:19-20].  That is the apostle Paul, with deepest persuasion, feeling, commitment of responsibility in his call to preach the gospel.

Now, a third characteristic of this man: how he did his work, the soul-winning ministry of the apostle; a third characterization; he was a man moved by deepest, deepest compassion.  “Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears” [Acts 20:31].   One of the sermons that I am preparing to be delivered a Sunday or so from hence will be entitled The Tears of Paul.  “Remember, that by the space of three years I cease not to warn every one night and day with tears” [Acts 20:31].  Then the passage you read: “publicly, from house to house, testifying to the Jew, and to the Greek”—to any one, all—“repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” [Acts 20:20-21].   Paul will often mention his tears.  He will mention the feeling that he has in his heart for the lost—for example, for his own people.

The Book of Romans is a theological treatise addressed to a Gentile church, and it is a Gentile message.  It is framed in Gentile words and addressed to a Gentile church.  But you look what he will say in the ninth chapter of the Book of Romans.  He will say, “I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ—damned, my soul damned in hell—I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” [Romans 9:3].   All right, he will start the same way in the next chapter.  In the tenth chapter of Romans, he will say, verse number one. “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for my people Israel is that they might be saved” [Romans 10:1].   That is Paul.  That is the apostle Paul.  And not only for his own people was he moved in compassion that they might be saved, but he had a like moving compassion for the whole world.  “Remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn everyone night and day with tears” [Acts 20:31].   So when you follow and describe the ministry of the apostle Paul, there is nothing stentorian in it.  There is nothing of Ciceronian peroration in it.  There is nothing of majestic presence in it.  What you find in it is deep conviction and responsibility to deliver the saving message of God, and a heart of infinite love and compassion.

Now we are going to take this characterization of the apostle Paul, and his great soul-winning Asian ministry, and apply it to us today.  First of all, if we are to have a marvelous, God-blessed, soul-saving ministry, it must be characterized first of all by deep, deep, deep conviction.  There is no such thing as winning people to Jesus if you don’t have the conviction that they are lost without Him.  If Christ is optional, if the church is optional—if it is a matter of—if you want to belong to the church, fine; if you want to belong to the Kiwanis Club, fine;  if you want to belong to the Rotary Club, fine;  if you want to belong to PTA, fine;  if you want to belong to the house of the Lord, that’s fine—but it is optional.  It is not a matter of life and death whether you are a Mason or not.  It is not a matter of life and death whether you belong to the Eastern Star or not.  It’s not a matter of life and death whether you belong to the Kiwanis Club or the Rotary Club or not.  It is not a matter of life and death whether you belong to the PTA or not.  And it is not a matter of life and death whether you are a Christian or not.  It is altogether optional.  If you have that feeling in your heart and that persuasion in your mind, you will never be a soulwinner, and God will never give us souls.

I was so interested, in these days gone by, in the newspaper.  There used to be every day printed a column entitled “Let’s Explore Your Mind,” and it was written by a doctor of science who was a psychologist by the name of Dr. Albert Edward Wiggam.  And so one day I clipped this out.  The question—he would always have three questions in this column, three psychological questions and then three answers—so here is his second question this day.  “Will it improve your personality to join a club or a church or some other active group?”  Now that is the question.  Now his answer; we would naturally suppose it would, and in this case, science bears it out: “A nationwide study of personality under the direction of the Psychological Corporation of America, a group of some three hundred leading psychologists, shows that persons who belong to churches, clubs, or other active and social organizations score higher on personality tests than non-joiners.”  That just strikes me as being an insult!  God bless you.   If you want to develop your personality, if you want to scintillate and shine, join a social organization, or join a civic club, or join a church—whichever would be more appealing to you.

That kind of an attitude toward the message of God is self-undermining!  It is a negation of the awesomeness of this message that God has given us in Christ Jesus.  The death of our Lord [Matthew 27:26-50], the suffering of our Lord—that our sins might be forgiven [1 Corinthians 15:3], that we might see God’s face someday, and live [Revelation 22:3-5]—and then to put that in the same category with some kind of personality development in a civic or social organization is an affront to God.  And yet, I suppose we give that impression to the people.  I one time heard of a preacher, talking to a very famous actor, and he said to the actor, he said, “I don’t understand.  You are up there on that platform, on that stage, and you deliver those monologues and take part in those dramas and plays, and as you speak, you bring people to tears.  And what you are doing is just fictional!  It is not fact!  It is not truth!  You are just playing a part up there!  But,” he says to that actor, “I stand up in the pulpit and I preach the truth of God, and it doesn’t move anybody, and I do not understand.”  And the actor said to him, he said to him, “The difference is this: when I am up there on that platform in that theater or on that stage, I deliver a lie as though it were the truth.  But when you are up there in that pulpit, you deliver the truth as though it were a lie!”  My, how condemnatory that is to us who deliver the message of Christ.  Instead of it being something that is life and death, heaven or hell, saved or lost, how many times does the message take a philosophical turn, or an academic turn, or a speculative turn, or a theological turn?  God help us.  That’s the first thing of a soul-saving ministry—a deep conviction that we are lost without Christ, and this is the word of salvation [Ephesians 2:12].

Number two: this deep persuasion of the apostle that he was responsible for the souls of men, the blood of all men was on his hands, and he was responsible to deliver to them the message of salvation [Acts 20:20-21, 26].  And here again, what personal rebuke do I have; and do I sense a rebuke to all of our people and members of our church:  that feeling, that under God, I am responsible for the souls, for the salvation of these people.

I read about Augustine one time.  Augustine was one of the most brilliant and capable and able men—one of the most brilliant who ever lived; lived in the days of the fourth and the fifth centuries.  And there was a great change in his life, a great turn in his life, and Augustine described it like this.  He had a dream, and he was there at the gates of heaven, and the gatekeeper asked him, “Who are you?”  And Augustine replied to the gatekeeper of heaven, he replied to him, “Christianus ego sum,” “A Christian I am.”  And the gatekeeper replied, “You’re not a Christian.  You’re a Ciceronian.  For we judge people here in heaven by what interests them, and to what they give the devotion of their lives, and you are not a Christian.  You give your life to the study of Cicero and to the study of the classics.  That’s your interest, and you are not a Christian.  You are a Ciceronian.”  And Augustine awakened out of his dream, and he turned!  In my sermon this morning, “He repented, he changed.”  No longer did Augustine pore over those Greek and Latin classics, but he pored over the Words of Jesus and the gospel of Christ, and began to preach the gospel—the saving message of Jesus.  That’s what we need to do.

There are many things that can occupy the hour—many discussions of passing temporalities and ephemeralities.  But what we need to do is to give ourselves to the truths of Almighty God.  What did Jesus say?  What can save our souls from hell and deliver us from damnation?  What can present me in the great day of judgment and the Lord look upon me in forgiveness and in loving and heavenly favor?  “Preacher, does God say anything that will save me?  That will save my family?  That will bless our lives?  That will help us in this earthly pilgrimage?  If God says anything, what does God say?”

I reread this week a description of the great black plague that swept over London in 1665 and 1666.  It was so tragic.  So tragic that the wagons went down the streets each morning, ringing a bell, saying, “Bring out your dead.  Bring out your dead.”  There were so many dying that they had no time for funerals.  They just gathered them up in wagons that were driven down the streets and buried them in vast, common graves.  And in those awful and tragic days, there was an awesome fire that destroyed London.  Did you know that London has less marks of mediaeval times than any other great city of Europe, simply because it is all destroyed, all burned up.  Those were tragic days.

And then I read about the preachers.  I read about the preachers.  Many, many of them fled their pulpits and fled their churches, but those who stayed, they weren’t preaching about trivialities, and inconsequentials, and insignificances, and ephemeralities.  Those men, as they stood in the pulpits in those days, preached to the people about life, and about death, and about God, and about the judgment and how to be saved.  Now what is the difference between the preacher who would preach in those awesome days of the black plague in London and the way the preacher preaches in the pulpit today?  The difference is this.  In that day, in 1665, death was imminent.  It was just there.  Today, it is just a little further removed, but no less there—no less certain.  “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after that the judgment” [Hebrews 9:27].   We have that same, same responsibility today, to point men to Christ that they might be saved [Acts 20:31, 20-21], as they had in the days of Paul, in the days of the black plague; in every generation.  We are a dying people, and we need God.

Oh, how precious it is to see people sensitive to the soul-welfare and the spiritual condition of other people.  I was in South Carolina, and a man, a layman over there in South Carolina, came up to me, and he said, “I was in your services,” and he named the Sunday.  “I was in your services,” he says, “I was there morning and evening.”  And he said, “I cannot tell you how uplifted I was and how blessed I was.”  He said, “It was like heaven to me.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m so glad.  I’m so thankful that we had a service like that.”

“Well,” he said, “I will tell you one of the things that happened.”  He said, “At the morning hour when you were welcoming those people down there at the front, you told the people that this young man who was there and you were welcoming him, that you had gone to a businessman there in the church and said to that businessman, ‘I want you to be responsible for the soul of this boy.  And I want you to pray for him, and win him to Jesus and bring him to the Lord and to the church.’”  And that businessman in South Carolina said, “That morning you welcomed that young man, and then you recognized and had come stand by his side the businessman to whom you had said, I want you to be responsible for the soul, and the life, and the conversion of this boy.”  And that man in South Carolina said, “As I looked on that, I thought that is just precious, marvelous.  That is just wonderful!  I will be responsible for the life of that boy, for his salvation!  And there he brought him publicly to make his confession of faith before men and angels.  Now,” he said, “that wasn’t all.  That wasn’t all.  You said as you were welcoming those people there at that Sunday morning service, you said, ‘I have a family on my heart, and I have given that family to a member of this church, to pray for them and to lead them to Jesus.’  And you told the people that you were praying for that man as he sought to win that family to the Lord.”  So he said, “When I came to church, when I came back on Sunday night, and again you were welcoming the people,” he said, “you presented that whole family; that whole family to the church.  And you told them that that was the family that you had laid in prayerful burden and responsibility on the heart of that member of the church.  And you had the family stand up and you presented them to the church.  And you had that man who had won them to Jesus to come and to stand by your side.”  And that man from South Carolina said, “That was just like heaven to me.  That was just like glory to me.”

Well, I can understand.  If I were a stranger in a church and I saw that, people responsible under God for other people, for their souls that they might be saved, I think if I looked upon it I would say, “Bless God, this is like heaven.  This is the gospel message!  This is what it is all about!  This is it!”  This is the grace of God in Christ Jesus vouchsafed to us and mediated in our loving prayers to those who need the Lord.

Well, the third and the last:  what characterized the ministry of the apostle Paul?  A man of great compassion, a loving devotion—“by the space of three years . . . night and day,” from house to house, “with many tears” [Acts 20:31, 20]; with many tears, “testifying repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” [Acts 20:21]—a compassionate heart; a praying spirit; a loving soul.

In these days gone by, as you know, I lived and pastored in the days of the Second World War.  And, of course, any time you would live through a tragic crisis such as that, you could never get over it, never get beyond it.  Ah, those days and the years of that awesome strife with Hitler and Tojo, when it looked as though the existence of the free world was in the offing, and the destiny of our own nation.  Well, out of a Baptist paper I clipped this article, and it is entitled, “I Saw A Boy Come Home.”  And it is about a soldier boy who came back after the war was over.  And I am going to read it to you:

I saw the boy get slowly aboard the train I was taking in Chicago.  He was tall and dark with handsome, regular features.  He wore a uniform stripped of all ribbons.  No decorations on it at all. His only insignia were the numeral and wings of the Fifteenth Air Force.  His left ear had been mutilated, and there was a deep ugly scar just above his lips.  His right leg had been amputated above the knee, and he had hadn’t grown accustomed to crutches. His face was hard and tense.  His eyes held a far-away lost look that left me awed.  You could see he did not want to be bothered.  Choosing the end seat in the club car, he put his crutches aside and just sat down.

Four hours later, he got up and hobbled away.  The next day, I took a train from Buffalo to Scranton, Pennsylvania.  So did that boy.  His eyes had a sort of feverish look now, and his hands twitched.  But still he kept so far removed from the other passengers that no one spoke to him during the entire journey.  When he reached Scranton, he motioned for the porter to take his large overseas bag.  We were the only two people from that car who got off the train.  The boy managed to go down the steps unaided.  But when he finally got down, he just stood there, looking across the tracks at three people.  And I knew suddenly that I was seeing a wounded boy come home.  The three waited for him and started forward.  Then I saw the father freeze in his tracks, staring at that stump of a leg.  I saw a young wife start forward.  I heard her scream, “Oh, mother!” as she turned from him to fling herself sobbing into the mother’s arms.  For one moment, I stood there wishing I could be a father and slap that boy on the shoulder and say, “How does it feel to be back in the old hometown, son?”  With my eyes on his face, not on his legs.  I wished that I could be a mother for that moment and hold that lost boy in my arms and say, “Son, thank God, you are home!”  I wish with all my hear that I could have been a wife for that one moment, to take that boy’s hands and hold them tight in mine and kiss him and say, “It’s so good to have you back, my darling.”  But I was a stranger.  I could only stand there and look in the boys face, and I saw something more dreadful than all the suffering of war.

That is the difference between life and death.  That is the difference between heaven and hell.  That is the difference between salvation and damnation.  It mostly lies in the compassionate, loving, prayerful, intercession of our hearts.  I am deeply in favor, as you know, of all of our academic gestures, and efforts, and teachings, and I am much in favor of knowing the Word of God and being true to the message as it is written in the Book, but there is not anything more chilling than cold orthodoxy.  There is not anything that is like death to the soul in trouble and in need of a loving hand from us and from the Lord than a starchy and conservative and removed indifference.

I can understand the ministry of the apostle Paul and the effect that it would have; “By the space of three years, night and day, with tears from house to house, testifying, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” [Acts 20:31, 20-21]; the loving heart, the praying spirit.  For Jesus sake, who loved you, and gave Himself for you [Galatians 2:20], join with us in the worship and adoration of that dear Lord.  And welcome, whoever you are, you’re somebody for whom Christ died! [Hebrews 2:9; 1 John 2:2].

And welcome, welcome into the kingdom, welcome into the church, welcome into the fellowship of God’s redeemed.  Welcome!  God made us and set us in the earth just for you.  Welcome!

 And that’s our invitation to your heart tonight.  As God would whisper the word to your heart, as the Lord would open the door, as the Spirit would press the appeal to your soul, answer with your life.  “Pastor, tonight I receive the Lord Jesus into my heart.   For all that He said He was, and for all that He promised to do; to forgive sins [Mark 2:10], to write my name in the book of glory [Revelation 17:8, 20:12, 15, 21:27; Luke 10:20], to keep me, to walk by my side, to give me help and encouragement for the pilgrim way, here I am.”  To bring your life into the church, to bring your family with you, as God shall say the word and make the appeal, answer.  Make it now.  Do it now.  Down one of the stairways, down one of the aisles: “Here I am, preacher.  I have decided for Jesus, and I’m coming now.”  May angels attend you in the way as you come, while we stand and while we sing.