Lectures and Discourses

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Especially the Preaching

Rev. John Willison

John Willison was born in the neighbourhood of Stirling in 1680 and was ordained to the ministry in the parish of Brechin in 1703. Translated to Dundee in 1718 he laboured there until his death in 1750. Willison was a noted leader of the evangelical party in the Church of Scotland at a time when the Moderates held sway. Among his writings were several catechisms including an Explanatory Catechism on the Westminster Assembly's Shorter Catechism, published in 1737. The selection we present from it is Willison's explanation of Question 89, in which the importance of preaching in the conversion of sinners is emphasised. In a day when many novelties are finding their way into the church it is good to be reminded of this.

This article was published in thePresbyterian Standard, Issue No. 17, January-March 2000.

Q.89. How is the word made effectual to salvation?

A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith unto salvation.

Q. Who is it that makes the word effectual to salvation?

A. The Spirit of God.

Q. How are we to use the word, if we would have it made effectual to salvation?

A. We must both read it, and hear it preached.

Q. What need we go to hear sermons, when we can read the Bible, or as good sermons at home?

A. Because it hath pleased God, by the foolishness of preaching, to save them that believe; and he calls us to hear, that our souls may live; for, saith he, "Faith comes by hearing," 1 Cor. 1:21; Isa. 55:3; Rom. 10:17.

Q. Do they not slight God's ordinances for saving souls, who slight the preaching of the word?

A. Yes.

Q. Is not the reading of the word God's ordinance for the conversion and salvation of souls, as well as the preaching of it?

A. Yes, as is evident from Deut. 17:19; Acts 8:28; Col. 4:16.

Q. Why is it said in the answer, especially the preaching of the word?

A. Because it pleaseth the Lord to honour the preaching of the word more frequently and usually to convince and convert souls; as is manifest from scripture and experience, 1 Cor. 1:21; Matt. 28:19; Rom. 1:16; 10:14-17; Acts 2:37; 4:2,4; 6:7; 8:5,6; 10:44; 11:19,20; 13:48; 17:3; 18:8-10; 26:18.

Q. Whence is it that the preaching of the word is so honoured?

A. Because it is an ordinance instituted for explaining and applying the word, which God makes use of to awaken, convince, rebuke, exhort, and comfort souls; and to speak directly and particularly to the consciences of men. And seeing God hath thought fit to institute a standing ministry in his church for these very purposes, we may expect he will own and bless it, 2 Tim. 4:2; Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 5:20; Eph. 4:12. As, under the law, God had those who gave the sense of the word, and caused the people to understand it, so, under the gospel, he hath a convincing ministry, by which the secrets of men's hearts are made manifest, Neh. 8:8; 1 Cor. 14:24,25.

Q. Would it not be a better way to convince and convert souls, to send an angel, or one from the dead, unto them?

A. No; for we have greater evidence of the truth, certainty, and divinity of the word of God, than we could have of any such apparition; so that, if men do not hear the prophets and apostles, neither would they be persuaded though one rose from the dead, Luke 16:31.

Q. What use doth the Spirit of God make of the word, in order to the salvation of men?

A. He makes use of it to convince and convert sinners, and to build up the saints, as set forth in the answer.

Q. How is the word made the means of convincing sinners?

A. By searching out hidden sins, and discovering the thoughts and intents of the heart; and by laying before us the evil and malignity of sin in contemning God, the pollution of sin in making us odious in his sight, and the guilt of sin in drawing eternal wrath and damnation upon us, Heb. 4:12; Acts 2:37.

Q. How is the word made the means of conversion?

A. The Spirit of God writes the threatenings, precepts, and promises of it upon the heart; so that the soul is brought under the affecting impressions of the reality of the things of the other world, the evil of sin, and excellency of Christ and holiness; whereby the man is gradually changed into a new creature.

Q. Is there not a difference between the words, convincing and converting of a sinner?

A. Yes; for a sinner may be convinced without being converted, but he cannot be converted without being convinced.

Q. Is not the efficacy of the word very powerful in conversion?

A. Yes; and upon that account the scriptures liken it to rain, to light, to fire, to a hammer, and to a sword, Isa. 55:10,11; Psa. 119:105; Jer. 23:29; Heb. 4:12.

Q. Wherein doth the wonderful efficacy of the word appear?

A. In this, that one plain word or sentence of it will prevail more with the soul than the most rhetorical discourses, or cogent arguments of men; it sometimes of a sudden turns the tide of the heart and the stream of the affections to another course; it dispossesses Satan, and throws down his strongholds; it persuades men to mortify darling lusts, and resist the strongest temptations to sin; it causes men to see things in another light, to abhor what they loved, and love what before they abhorred: yea, so great is the change that the word makes upon men, in conversion, that the scriptures call it a creation, a regeneration, and a resurrection.

Q. What is conversion?

A. It is the implanting of new habits and principles in the soul, whereby there is a universal change wrought in the mind, heart, and life; the whole man is turned from the creature to God, from self to Christ, and from sin to duty; the soul is conformed to the image of God, and the will is subdued to his will; and the man studies to please God in a holy life. In a word, conversion is the same thing with regeneration, or effectual calling.

Q. Of what use is the word to those who are converted?

A. It builds them up in holiness and comfort, through faith unto salvation, Acts 20:32; 2 Tim. 3:15; Rom. 15:4.

Q. What is imported in building up of the converted?

A. 1. It supposes that there is a good foundation laid, by their believing and resting upon Christ crucified, and receiving grace from him. 2. It imports their growing in grace, and that there is added to them more knowledge, more faith, more love, more strength, more holiness, and more comfort.

Q. What mean you by holiness?

A. It is a principle of new life, which inclines the soul to hate all sin, and to love what is pure and pleasing to God, and to study conformity in the whole man to the nature and will of God.

Q. How doth the word build up converted persons in holiness?

A. 1. By discovering to them the defects of their graces and duties. 2. By finding and reproving every lust and hidden sin. 3. By showing them more and more of the evil and deformity of all sin. 4. By fortifying them against the suggestions of Satan, wicked men, and the corrupt heart. 5. By pointing forth their duty, and discovering to them more and more of the beauty and necessity of holiness. 6. By setting before them the attractive examples of Christ and the scripture saints. 7. By directing them where to go for strength for every duty.

Q. How doth the word build them up in comfort?

A. 1. By furnishing them with marks and evidences of the work of grace in their souls. 2. By bringing to them the refreshing promises of pardon through the blood of Jesus Christ. 3. By discovering to them the promises of persevering grace, and new supplies of strength, both for work and warfare, duty and difficulty. 4. By assuring them of the unalterable nature of Christ's love, and of the well-ordered covenant. 5. By holding forth to them the great and glorious things laid up for them hereafter.

Q. How doth the Spirit, by the word, build up the saints in holiness and comfort?

A. He doth it through faith, or by their exercising faith upon the truths and promises of the word; whereby they firmly embrace them, and feed upon them, Acts 15:9; Rom. 15:13; 1 Pet. 1:5,6.

Q. Wherefore hath the word so little efficacy in converting and building us up in our duty?

A. Because we have provoked the Spirit of God to withdraw from the preaching of the word, and we come not to it with preparation and prayer, faith and attention; or else the good seed falls upon rocks, upon the highway side, or among thorns.