"Onesimus, whom I have begotten . . . in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable."—Paul to Philemon.
A certain conference president once said, "Today I did one of the hardest things I've ever been called to do. The General Conference sent me blanks and asked me to list all unprofitable and profitable workers in my conference. After much prayer for guidance and honest judgment, it wrung my heart to go over the long roster of those on full pay and make a separation."
Some were failures in soul winning. Some of those men and Bible instructors had failed to bring people to decision and surrender and had had a record of ten and eight years of inadequacy, with no souls won.
Some were mere timeservers, well-educated, refined, well-dressed, fine speakers, good mixer„ and orthodox in their thinking, but they lacked forcefulness, initiative, and self-surrender to God.
Some were balmy-weather evangelists. Paul once said, "The south wind blew softly." Although he spoke of nature, he might have referred to the ease and pleasure loving shipload who wanted carnal security and to be let alone.
Some of those unprofitable evangelists were fair entertainers. They were skillful movie operators, stentorian-voiced lecturers, but they belonged to a fruitless clan. Their messages and personal work brought no conviction nor conversion to hearts.
Suppose you had been that conference president. Suppose you had been paying those men salaries with your own money, what would you have done ? In due time such gospel laborers were edged out as nonproducers. Some were given three months to readjust their lives or find employment to their liking elsewhere.
A Baltimore businessman asked me a question at the beginning of my ministry that constitutes a perpetual challenge. He had heard the same Daniel and Revelation lecture series twice, and bought the book. He said, "Don't yo‘t men know anything else? You're in a rut. You are intellectually anemic." It takes more than newspaper and magazine trivia, and nights spent listening to radio comedy and Hollywood air dramatics to feed the lambs, and valuable time should be jealously guarded by pastor-evangelists and Bible instructors for soul winning.
Not long ago another businessman caused me to think and ruminate. We were at a certain conference workers' meeting, where a year's labor for souls was reported on a huge blackboard. After a number of evangelists had reported but three, five, seven souls won, and two had won only one soul, a real-estate man alongside me inquired in a whisper : "Do they mean thai hat is a whole year's work for each man?"
There may be genuine reasons why the employment of women Bible instructors has dropped to low levels. What we need, besides more of them, is determination among them to sell people something they do not want. The spirit of the old-time colporteur-evangelist, accelerated and heightened, is essential today.
Beauty of form or face, glamour or giddiness, is not enough to bring in hesitant souls. Prayer, Bible study, the power of the resurrection and the new birth are most important.
"Unprofitable, but now profitable," said Paul of Onesimus. A new birth made over Onesirims, a former ne'er-do-well servant, into a profitable worker. And another extreme case on record is the transformation of a high churchman in Jesus' day—Nicodemus, prince of the Pharisees.
Nicodemus was very religious, very intellectual, very busy and absorbed with church affairs. He came to Jesus, to hear ringing words, words he never could shake off : "Ye must be born again !" The fine sensibilities of the good man were stirred. He was a good man as the -world and the church counted goodness, but he was not good enough. .
The words, "You must be born again, or you cannot enter," mystified Nicodemus. He evidently betrayed his amazement, because Jesus said, "Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again." But he did marvel. Were not his parents saintly? He belonged to the Levitical blue blood. He was a Hebrew of the Hebrews and a Pharisee of the Pharisees and came behind few scholars in the Sanhedrin.
Were he to heed the words of this obscure Teacher, the structure that he had -reared through the years, so minutely and meticulously, would be shattered and leveled in a moment. Had he not sacrificed time, money, and education to reach position ! Had he not gained honors in rabbinical studies and reached his doctorate thrice over ? Had he not maintained scrupulous standards in diet, days, and worship, and been marked as a liberal giver to the poor, to the temple, and to the cause in every crisis ! Back came the echoing words, "Ye must be born again." "Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things ?"
How many of us have traveled the way of Nicodemus only to find an unsatisfied longing, an incompetence of soul development, a sense of unprofitableness and fruitlessness ? Among you, I feel as the chief of sinners. Personally, I can enter into sympathetic fellowship with Onesimus, Philemon's unprofitable slave, and with Nicodemus, who had to be miraculously changed to be of use to Christ, and with men who today struggle against mighty odds in our large cities to win souls, but fail.
Upon leaving college, in the space of three years I was called to be pastor of the Baltimore church, ordained, sent to Brazil as a missionary, and then made Bible instructor in our Argentine training school. The rise and change was too rapid; my Christian experience was immature ; I lacked depth and dynamics. While outwardly giving satisfactory service, I had a evolt inwardly. Verities were not certainties, and I lacked a deep experience in Christ. 1 had been a firm believer in the doctrine of the church; but my motions, gestures, and words were those of a 'hireling. My heart was clean gone, but not clean. It is possible for preachers to preach "You must be born again" who themselves are not twice-born. So in desperation I cast off everything.
In three months I found my Lord again, but what a long three months ! I know how a preacher suffers when he slips his moorings and launches on the seas without rudder and compass. I know the struggles of a soul in outer darkness without hope.
When I went forth a twice-born minister I saw a change. Old things had become new, and a life-giving overflow surged through my soul to others. A surcharge of the Spirit had made me a new creation. From the depths of my soul I can commend this to lifeless, fruitless men everywhere. The Holy Spirit can build into you an integrated character and personality and create you a spiritual, towering strength, and withal you will be humble.
With Paul, let us die daily. Let us make it a funeral every night and a fresh resurrection every morning.