Heart Talks

By Elmer Ellsworth Shelhamer

Chapter 21


By Charles G. Finney


     "He that winneth souls is wise." (Prov. 11:30.)

     The great end for which the Christian ministry was appointed is to glorify God in the salvation of souls. In speaking on this subject I propose to show:

     1. That a right discharge of the duties of a minister requires great wisdom. In order to be successful a minister needs great wisdom to know how to keep the church to the work. To know how to break them down again when their heart gets lifted up because they have had such a great revival; to wake them up afresh when their zeal begins to flag; to keep their hearts full of zeal for the work; these are some of the most difficult things in the world. Yet if a minister would be successful in winning souls, he must know when they first begin grow proud, or to lose the spirit of prayer and when to prove them and how to search them over again, how to keep the church in the field, gathering the harvest of the Lord.

     A minister needs great wisdom to get sinners away from their present refuges of lies without forming new hiding places for them. I once sat under the ministry of a man who had contracted a great alarm about heresies and was constantly employed in confuting them. And he used to bring up many such heresies as his people never heard of. He got. his ideas chiefly from books and mingled very little among the people to know what they thought. And the result of his labors often was that the people would be taken with the heresy more than with the argument against it. The novelty of the error attracted their attention so much that they forgot the answer. And in that way he gave many of his people new objections against religion, such as they never thought of before.

     Not a little wisdom is sometimes needed by a minister to know when to put a stop to new measures. When a measure has novelty enough to secure attention to the truth, ordinarily no other new measure should be introduced. You have secured the great object of novelty. Anything more will be in danger of diverting the public mind away from the great object and fixing it on the measures themselves. And then, if you introduce novelties when they are not called for, you will go over so large a field that by and by, when you really want some thing new, you will have nothing else to introduce with out doing something that will give too great a shock to the public mind.

     The amount of a minister's success in winning souls (other things being equal) invariably decides the amount of wisdom he has exercised in the discharge of his office. This is plainly asserted in the text, "He that winneth souls is wise." That is, if a man wins souls, he does skillfully adapt means to the end, which is, to exercise wisdom. He is the more wise by how much the greater is the number of sinners that he saves A blockhead may indeed now and then stumble on such truth, or such a manner of exhibiting it, as to save a soul. It would be a wonder indeed if any minister did not sometimes have something in his sermons that would meet the case -of some individual. But the amount of wisdom is to be decided, "other things being equal," by the number of cases in which he is successful in converting sinners. Take the case of a physician. The greatest quack in New York may now and then stumble upon a remarkable cure and so get his name up with the ignorant. But sober and judicious people judge the skill of a physician by the uniformity of his success in overcoming disease, the variety of diseases he can manage, and the number of cases in which he is successful in saving his patients. The most skillful saves the most. This is common sense. It is truth, and it is just as true in regard to success in saving souls, and true in just the same sense.

     An unsuccessful minister may be pious as well as learned, and yet not wise. It is unfair to infer because a minister is unsuccessful, that therefore he is a hypocrite. There may be something defective in his education, or in his mode of viewing a subject, or in exhibiting it, or such as want of common sense as will defeat his labors and prevent his success in winning souls, while he himself may be saved -- "yet so as by fire."

     Want of success in a minister (other things being equal) proves, (1) either that he was never called to preach, and has taken it up out of his own head; or (2) that he was badly educated and was never taught the very things he wants most to know; or (3) if he was called to preach, and knows how to do his duty, he is too indolent and too wicked to do it.

     Those are the best educated ministers who win the most souls. Ministers are sometimes looked down upon and called very ignorant, because they do not know the sciences and languages; although they are very far from being ignorant of the great thing for which the ministry is appointed. This is wrong. Learning is important and always useful. But, after all, a minister may know how to win souls to Christ without great learning, and he has the best education for a minister, who can win the most souls to Christ. There is evidently a great defect in the present mode of educating ministers.

     Let education be of the right kind, teaching a young man the things he wants to know and not the very things he does not want to know. bet them be educated for the work. Do not let education be such, that when young men come out, after spending six, eight, or ten years in study, they are not worth half as much as they were before they went. I have known young men come out after what they call "a thorough course," who were not fit to take charge of a prayer meeting. and who could not manage a prayer meeting so as to make it profitable or interesting. And here I would say, that to my own mind, it appears evident, that unless our theological professors preach a good deal, mingle much with the church, and sympathize with her in all her movements, it is morally, if not naturally impossible, that they should succeed in training young men to the spirit of the age. It is a shame and a sin, that theological professors, who preach but seldom, who are withdrawn from the active duties of the ministry, should sit in their studies and write their letters, advisory, or dictatorial, to ministers and churches who are in the field, and who are in circumstances to judge what needs to be done.

     Finally, I wish to ask you, before I sit down, who among you can lay any claim to the possession of this divine wisdom? Who among you, laymen? Who among you, ministers? Can any of you? Can I? Are we at work, wisely, to win souls? Or are we trying to make ourselves believe that success is no criterion of wisdom? It is a criterion. It is a safe criterion for every minister to try himself by. The amount of his success, other things being equal, measures the amount of wisdom he has exercised in the discharge of his office. How few of you have ever had wisdom enough to convert so much as a single sinner!

     Don't say now, "I cannot convert sinners; how can I convert sinners? God alone can convert sinners." Look at the text, 'He that winneth souls is wise," and do not think you can escape the sentence. It is true that God converts sinners. But there is a sense, too, in which ministers convert them. And you have something to do; something that requires wisdom; something which, if you do it wisely, will insure the conversion of sinners in proportion to the wisdom employed. If you never have done this, it is high time to think about yourselves and see whether you have wisdom enough to save even your own souls.