Christian history is full of “ordinary greatness”.
No better example of this is Charles Simeon (1759-1836), who dedicated his life to preaching Christ in Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge for over half a century. His influence extends down the centuries and it's probably fair to say that few men have influenced the Christian scene in England more than him. So, where do we see “ordinary greatness” in the life of Charles Simeon?
Simeon was committed to opening up the Scriptures to people as he preached week after week. He saw that the Scriptures' 'exclusive subject' was Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Therefore, 'this is the subject in which as sinners we are most deeply interested' (1). Not that Simeon searched for the cross under in every biblical branch and twig. Rather, he was determined to 'deliver...the mind of God in every passage immediately under consideration' (2). As a preacher, he was more concerned about what God had first spoken to us, than what he felt he ought to speak to men.
Simeon's convictions may sound a tad unremarkable to many of us today. Isn't that what everyone well-grounded Christian is supposed to think? Seemingly not in Charles Simeon's church. His congregation initially didn't want him for the job, and later resorted to locking the pews on Sundays. For 12 years! It's hard to argue from Simeon's writings that his doctrine of Scripture explicitly drove his perseverance, but when you look at this life and see that for 54 years he patiently taught the Scriptures without thrashing and bashing his stiff-necked congregation, there is no mistaking it to be the case. Recalling the importance of the role of a pastor and the eternal stakes of gospel ministry, he once referred to himself as a lighthouse keeper: always awake, lest ships be wrecked and bodies strewn across the rocky coastline! (3). Simeon kept his congregation from spiritual shipwreck by constantly feeding them with the word of God. Whether they were grumpy or not was an irrelevance. Simeon's preaching through painful trial eventually lead to a united and transformed church.
However, chief among Simeon's trials was not his church, but himself (4). He was at his core a sinner, and he knew it. But that didn't make Simeon a moper. Quite the opposite. His deep awareness of sin kept him close to his Saviour, and that was undoubtedly the bedrock of his ministry. Each morning would begin at 4am with him pouring over the Bible by his fire, eager to know more of 'the unsearchable riches of Christ' (Eph. 3:8). What else could a sinner do, but to run after their Saviour? And so this flowed out of the pulpit: 'Seek to feel deeply your own sins, and then you will preach earnestly...preach...as fellow sinners.'(5) By living in the word, he humbled himself and exalted his Saviour. Just before his death, he said this: 'When I look to HIM I see nothing but faithfulness...and truth; and I have not a doubt or a fear, but the sweetest peace - I cannot have more peace.'(6) In spite of his reputation as a great preacher, this humility protected him from pride right until his joyful, dying breath. He was nothing. Jesus was everything. The Bible told him so.
Great men like Simeon are rightly commended for their views on the word of God. Yet, those views on Scripture are nothing unless they lead to a view of the Saviour in Scripture. That is the secret to “ordinary greatness”.
If you're interested in finding out more about the life and ministry of Charles Simeon, why not check out the following resources below:
1 Memoirs of Charles Simeon, cited Derek Prime (2011), An Ordinary Pastor of Extraordinary Influence, p.79
2 Prime, p.81
3 John Piper, sermon entitled Brothers, We Must Not Mind a Little Suffering: Meditations on the Life of Charles Simeon (accessed 7th November 2016)
6 Prime, p.226