Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book Note: Thomas Boston's "The Art of Man Fishing"

The Scottish Puritan Thomas Boston (1676-1732) wrote this work when he was only twenty-two years old. It was first published in 1773. The book is a series of personal reflections on Matthew 4:19 (“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”). Note: References below are to Thomas Boston, The Art of Man Fishing (Old Paths Gospel Press, n.d.).

The work falls in two parts. In part one, Boston surveys “The Promise and the Duty” of “man fishing,” and in part two he asks, “How May I Come by This Art?” By the title and subject, one might suppose that the work is about personal evangelism. Indeed, the book is about evangelism but, more centrally, it is about the office of the minister and the exercise of his ministry. Christ makes ministers “fishers as to their office, by his call, which is twofold, outward and inward, by setting them apart to the office of the ministry” (p. 15).

In part one, Boston’s approach to evangelism diverges from many modern conversations on this topic. He does not promote “lifestyle” or “marketplace” evangelism, offer a Puritan version of the four spiritual laws, promote mass meetings or an invitation system, or commend doing good works to build a “platform” to get a hearing for the gospel. Evangelism is simply done through the called minister preaching the gospel. “Preachers of the gospel are fishers…. The design and work of fishers is to catch men” (p. 23). There are “two pools” in which the ministers are to set their nets. The first is “in the public assemblies of the Lord’s people”; the second is “in private conferences” (p. 28). Boston also encourages ministers faithfully to persevere even when the return is scanty: “Fishers may toil long, and yet catch nothing; but they do not therefore lay aside their work” (p. 28).

In part two, Boston addresses the minister directly urging that the way to be a fisher of men is to follow Christ. The minister is a converted man, for “a dead preacher cannot follow Christ” (p. 34). The minister’s ministry must not be guided by “carnal wisdom’ but by “spiritual wisdom” (see the series of convicting contrasts Boston draws between these two approaches, pp. 47-50).

The minister is not to take up “the preaching of the gospel without a call” and so run as one unsent” (p. 53). His call is both extraordinary and ordinary. He cites four aspects of the ordinary call: (1) “knowledge of the doctrine of the Christian religion above that of ordinary professors”; (2) “Aptness to teach, some dexterity of communicating unto others that knowledge”; (3) “A will some way ready to take on the work of preaching the gospel”; and (4) “the call of the church” (pp. 54-55).

Boston then exhorts his fellow ministers through various commendations. Here is but a sampling: They are to consider that their talent is given by their master “to improve till he comes again” (p. 57). They are to consider “that the applause of the world is worth nothing” (p. 58). They are to consider the worth of souls, the hazard they are in, and “what a sad case thou thyself wast in, when Christ concerned himself for thy good” (pp. 62-63). They are to consider the example of Christ and be much in prayer before preaching: “Let thy sermons be sermons of many prayers” (p. 71). They are to be affected by the spiritual state of their hearers, lest they engage in “tongue-preaching but not heart preaching” (p. 73). They are to follow Christ “in the contempt of the world” (p. 77). Though they must sometimes work with their hands “either when the iniquity of the times wherein they live does not allow them what may be for their maintenance, or when the taking of it will hinder the propagation of the gospel,” they are still to remember, “As thou art a preacher of the gospel, other things must cede and give place to that” (p. 78). They should beware “of preaching smoothly upon the account of getting a call from any parish” (p. 79). “Woe is me if a stipend should be that which should engage me to a place. I would shew myself a wretched creature” (p. 81). They are to consider the vanity of the world and know “that he who handles the world, can very hardly come away with clean fingers” (p. 85). Finally, they are to take every opportunity for public preaching: “Do not refuse any occasion of preaching when God calls you to it” (p. 89).


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