John Vassar: How much can love do? – 1/1/2018

While waiting for an appointment, the old fellow struck up a conversation with a very fashionable and proud-looking lady who was also sitting in the room.  With great seriousness he urged her on the necessity of the new birth and her need for Christ as Savior.  The lady was shocked at his fervor, responding that she did not believe in any of those things.  But her response simply provoked him to appeal all the more, quoting Scripture, warning her of the danger of rejecting Christ and the certainty of wrath to come if she failed to repent.

Another fellow, observing the exchange, reported that he was alarmed at the boldness of the confrontation.  Suddenly, however, the gentleman for whom the old fellow was waiting appeared and called him into another room.  A moment later the lady’s husband came in.

John Vassar: 1813 - 1878

John Vassar: 1813 – 1878

“There has been an old man here talking with me about religion,” she said.

“Why did you not shut him up?” he asked gruffly.

“He is one of those persons you can’t shut up,” was her reply.

“If I had been here,” he said, “I would have told him very quickly to go about his business.”

“If you had seen him you would have thought he was about his business,” was her answer.

1-2-1 evangelism was the only ‘business’ that John Vassar cared about.  Why?  After his conversion at the age of 28, attending a Baptist revival meeting while working in a brewery in Poughkeepsie, New York, he dove into his Bible, wrote Scripture verses on the wall where he worked to aid in memorization, joined prayer meetings, and teamed up with others to reach out into the community with the Gospel.  He simply came to realize that if in reality men and women are lost sinners and Jesus is their only hope for salvation, that judgment is sure, and that Heaven and Hell are real and physical locations, then what could possibly be more important?

A simple way to look at his life is that he fully embraced the Christian worldview.  Sure, we’ve all got to earn a living for food, clothing, and shelter, but what’s really important?  What really lasts?  What has more than merely temporal value?

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

In this essay I’ve pulled some nuggets from various online sources, but I suspect they all derive from his 1879 biography, Uncle John Vassar:  The Fight of Faith.  I also suspect that Heaven’s library shelves feature several thick volumes of his exploits . . . exploits that he would never have taken the time to write about, since he was always rushing to the next opportunity to share the Gospel or to teach and exhort believers to do the same.

John was no respecter of persons, not at all timid before the rich or powerful, not at all reticent to seek out the poor or despised.  When he met President Grant, he paid him the respect due to the chief executive of the United States, but held onto his hand until he had told him of the Lord Jesus Christ, courteously questioning whether the President had been born again.  Once introduced to the Mormon ‘prophet’ Brigham Young, John made the same appeal and pressed the same searching questions on that lost fellow’s soul.

I haven’t had the same opportunities with celebrities, although I’ve occasionally thought that it would be great fun to try.  I once shared the Gospel with the mayor of a small town, but she didn’t really qualify as a celebrity.  Before I left my position as a professor in a major state university many years ago, I sought out several people, including the university’s president, to share the Gospel . . . not to any observable effect, however.  But I did give them a chance and made sure to relieve my own conscience of my responsibility.  I have shared the Gospel personally with many thousands of individuals and given tracts to hundreds of thousands and simply don’t care what worldly position anyone occupies.  We’re all the same, after all, all sinners in need of the Savior.

What I have learned over the years is that lost people are generally clueless about spiritual realities.  Whether rich or poor, religious or atheistic, brilliant or stupid, pleasant or obnoxious, lost people simply do not understand the Gospel.  They do not understand the brilliant sense of the Gospel and the nonsense of competing philosophies.  Because they embrace a non-Biblical worldview, they suffer inconsistencies and illogic.  They are not in touch with the reality of who God is, who man is, what the purpose of life is, and what is really going on in the world . . . which includes spiritual warfare, a subject about which the most brilliant power brokers and pundits are entirely ignorant.

Jeb Stuart

Jeb Stuart

To my surprise, many years ago, I came to realize that inner city gang members tend to be more in touch with spiritual realities than any other ‘class’ of people.  The twenty-year-old gang member (generally) does not need to be convinced he’s a sinner, he doesn’t deny that he deserves Hell, and the necessity of repentance for salvation, as his responsibility, is an easy sell.  In fact, it’s quite refreshing to talk to such spiritually savvy lost people, in contrast with typical Roman Catholic or Protestant or Mormon or evangelical church members, all quite righteous in their own eyes.

But the Great Commission, Mark 16:15 for example, is about reaching out to every soul.  Don’t try to find ‘easy cases.’  There are none!  Just go after everybody!  John Vassar took no rest while unsaved souls were in reach.  He would often visit forty families in a day, in their homes, and on Sundays would travel to speak to three different Sunday schools, if possible.  Vassar mentioned at one point that he had conversed with over 3,000 people during the previous three months, and anticipated that the city he was working in was about to experience a great blessing.

A friend laboring with John recalled meeting a man on the road, resting his team of horses.  When John engaged him, he loudly declared that he was an atheist.  But John put him under such tremendous pressure, using Scripture and argument, that within five minutes the skeptic’s countenance changed startlingly, as he avowed, “I need this Savior, and will seek Him.”  You just don’t know who is hard and who is already under conviction.  Who was harder than Saul of Tarsus as he traveled to Damascus to arrest and imprison Christians?  Yet he crumbled immediately upon confrontation with the Lord Jesus, showing no rebellion, no defensiveness, no arguments, as soon as he knew that his Lord was Jesus, whom Saul had persecuted by persecuting Jesus’ followers.  Saul must have been under increasing conviction since the stoning of Stephen, but no one knew it, except the Lord.

We don’t know who is already feeling the pressure as the Lord draws on lost souls, as Jesus said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”  He draws all . . . our job is to ping all with the Gospel.  Vassar traveled from Maine to Florida, from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific, on foot, on horseback, by rail, and by steamer in pursuit of souls.

Chicago's State Street - lots of opportunities

Chicago’s State Street – lots of opportunities

From 1863 to 1865, John Vassar worked among the soldiers of the Union armies, leading thousands to Christ.  A witness of his army labors writes:

“From a merely physical point of view his achievement was prodigious.  He began his day at roll call, and was in a state of intense activity for sixteen to eighteen hours.  He ate little, and slept little, yet never flagged, and never gave out.  Week after week, and seven days in the week, the same even high rate of energy was sustained.  I suppose there were few of the 8,000 officers and men of our division with whom in the time he was with us he did not talk, and with the majority of them more than once or twice.  I used to see him running in his eagerness to get about.  Yet he was as far as possible from being in a hurry.  His restlessness was wholly eternal.  He always knew exactly what he was after . . . Conversing with 75 to 100 different men a day, he came to the 50th or 60th just as fresh in his manner, just as much interested, just as tender, as at the first.  He wasted no words.  He went right to the heart of his errand at once, and his bearing was such that it was hardly possible to take offense.”

Our temptation in reading about such dedicated saints is to throw up our hands and say, “Wow, what a great guy!  I could never hope to aspire . . .”  Ok, but could we maybe learn something encouraging, something useful, and then do . . . something?  Maybe even a little more than we’re doing now?

In my own little way I can resonate a bit with Vassar’s experience.  When I lived near Chicago and would occasionally spend the day in the downtown area,  I typically worked myself to exhaustion.  The hours I spent on the ground, tracting and doing 121s, were precious and I didn’t want to waste any time.  I had to work hard to be fresh with every tract offer.  Since many 121s tend to be very similar, I worked hard to be fresh with every new one, knowing that it might be the only 121 that fellow ever experienced.  I regularly got tempted to experiment beyond what I knew were the best approaches, the best arguments, etc., just to ‘have some fun’ . . . but I never could, because the soul in front of me was too precious to play with.  John Vassar’s example . . . be fresh with each one . . . was often in my mind, urging me to do the same.

Blog 110 image - young gang membersJohn Vassar was once captured by troops under the command of Jeb Stuart, the legendary Confederate cavalry general.  Suspected of being a Union spy, he was brought to a Colonel for interrogation.  John stepped right up to the Colonel and said, “Colonel, I see by your uniform what side you are fighting on; but are you on the Lord’s side or against him?”

The Colonel replied, “We won’t speak about that just now.”  So John turned to another officer and said, “Major, how is it with you?”  He faced each officer in turn, speaking to them about the Lord Jesus.  Finally, one of them said, “Colonel, you had better let this man go.  If you don’t turn him loose we will have a prayer-meeting all the way from here to Richmond.”  They released the evangelist after eliciting a promise from him that he would not speak of anything he had seen for 48 hours.

Many years ago I visited a family that lived in the public housing projects in Rockford, Illinois.  After a good visit, sharing the Gospel with the family, I stepped out of the building to discover seven fellows in their late teens hanging around my car, leaning against it.  My old minivan surely wasn’t the attraction, so I figured that they were waiting for me.  No one else was in sight in the parking lot or outside the adjacent buildings.

It took me about a half-second to evaluate the situation and decide what to do.  I smiled and walked directly toward the fellows, greeting them enthusiastically, and pulled a stack of Gospel tracts out of my pocket.  I handed each fellow a different tract, explaining what they were, then began to ask them about their spiritual condition.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far.  They all made excuses and left in a hurry before I could explain much of the Gospel to them.  But they did keep the tracts (the small comic book tracts from Chick Publications).  As I left I thanked the Lord for the boldness that may well have saved me some trouble.

Blog 110 image - walking off cliffJohn Vassar was always direct.  Life is too fragile and too short for subtilty, when lost souls are walking blindly over a cliff into eternity.  Evangelist Ray Comfort once received a challenging letter from an atheist who was dumbfounded that Christians said they believed in Hell, but didn’t care enough to warn others with fervor and compassion.  Here is an excerpt (The entire letter is posted at Way of the Master) . . .

“If you believe one bit that thousands every day were falling into an eternal and unreacheable fate, you should be running the streets mad with rage at their blindness.  That’s equivalent to standing on a street corner and watching every person that passes you walk blindly directly into the path of a bus and die, yet you stand idly by and do nothing. You’re just twiddling your thumbs, happy in the knowledge that one day that ‘walk’ signal will shine your way across the road.”

Steven Weinberg

Steven Weinberg

In a PBS interview, Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg was asked about religious believers . . .

“I have very good friends who belong to religious denominations whose teaching is that since I don’t accept their teaching I am damned for all eternity.  And you would think that these friends would try to convert me.  But they never do.  Now, you could explain this in various ways.  It may be that they really don’t like me very much and are just as glad to see me damned for all eternity – that’s a possible explanation.  But another explanation which I tend to think is more likely is that although they know what their church teaches, they give lip service to it.”

In the New Heaven and New Earth, in the ages to come, I hope to meet John Vassar, and look forward to hearing more stories about the grace of God in his life.  I hope to meet some folks who became part of the family through his work.  I also hope to have something to talk about if that wonderful saint asks me about what God did in my life.  I won’t have any trouble being humble about it.  Yet I do want something to be humble about.  I can’t match John’s efforts or trials or results, but I can use whatever days I have to try to do something.  How about you?

  • drdave@truthreallymatters.com

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