The Art of Man Fishing

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An excerpt from the Art of Man Fishing by Thomas Boston


Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. In these words there are two things to
be considered.
1. There is a duty, Follow me
Wherein consider first the object, me, even the Lord Jesus Christ, the chief fisher of
men, who was sent by the Father to gather in the lost sheep of the house of Israel,
who was and is the infinitely wise God, and so knew the best way to catch men, and
can instruct men how to be fishers of others.
Next, consider the act, Follow (Gr. come after) me: Leave your employment, and
come after me. Though no doubt there is a direction here to all the ministers of the
gospel, that have left their other employments, and betaken themselves to the
preaching of the word, vis., that if they would do good to souls, and gain them by
their ministry, then they are to imitate Christ, in their carriage and preaching, to
make him their pattern, to write after his copy, as a fit mean for gaining of souls.
2. There is a promise annexed to the duty
Wherein we may consider:
(a) The benefit promised; that is to be made fishers of men; which I take to be not
only an investing of them with authority, and a calling of them to the office, but also a
promise of the success they should have, that fishing of men should be their
employment, and they should not be employed in vain, but following Christ, they
should indeed catch men by the gospel.
(b) The fountain cause of this, I, I will make you; none other can make you fishers of
men but me.
Thou mayest observe first then, O my soul, that it is the Lord Jesus Christ that makes
men fishers of men. Here I shall shew:
(1) How Christ makes men fishers of men.
(2) Why unconverted men are compared to fish in the water.
(3) That ministers are fishers by office.
In answer to this question, consider spiritual fishing two ways: first, as to the office
and work itself; and second, as to the success of it.
First, he makes them fishers as to their office, by his call, which is twofold, outward
and inward, by setting them apart to the office of the ministry; and it is thy business,
O my soul, to know whether thou hast it or not. But of this more afterwards.The Art Of Manfishing Thomas Boston
Second, he makes them fishers as to success; that is, he makes them catch men to
himself by the power of his Spirit accompanying the word they preach, and the
discipline they administer:
The preaching of the cross – unto us which are saved, is the power of God (1 Cor.
Our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost,
and in much assurance (1 Thess. 1:5).
He it is that brings sinners into the net which ministers spread; and if he be not with
them to drive the fish into the net, they may toil all the night, and day too, and catch
O my soul, then see that gifts will not do the business. A man may preach as an
angel, and yet be useless. If Christ withdraw his presence, all will be to no purpose. If
the Master of the house be away, the household will loath their food though it be
dropping down about their tent doors.
Why shouldst thou then, on the one hand, as sometimes thou art, be lifted up when
thou preachest a good and solid discourse, wherein gifts do appear, and thou gettest
the applause of men? Why, thou mayst do all this, and yet be no fisher of men. The
fish may see the bait, and play about it as pleasant, but this is not enough to catch
On the other hand, why shouldst thou be so much discouraged (as many times is the
case), because thy gifts are so small, and thou art but as a child in comparison of
others? Why, if Christ will, he can make thee a fisher of men, as well as the most
learned rabbi in the church: Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou
ordained strength (Ps. 8:2). Yea, hast thou not observed how God owned a man very
weak in gifts and made him more successful than others that were far beyond him in
parts? Has not God put this treasure in earthen vessels, that the power might be seen
to be of him? Lift up thyself then, O my soul, Christ can make thee a fisher of men,
however weak thou art. Follow thou him. My soul desires to follow hard after thee, O
Be concerned then, in the first place, O my soul, for the presence of God in
ordinances, and for his power that will make a change among people (Ps. 110:3).
When thy discourse, though ever so elaborate, shall be but as a lovely song, O set
thyself most for this. When thou studiest, send up ejaculations to thy Lord for it.
When thou writest a sermon, or dost ruminate on it, then say to God, ‘Lord, this will
be altogether weak without thy power accompanying it.’
O power and life from God in ordinances is sweet. Seek it for thyself, and seek it for
thy hearers. Acknowledge thine own weakness and uselessness without it, and so cry
incessantly for it, that the Lord may drive the fish into the net, when thou art
spreading it out. Have an eye to this power, when thou art preaching; and think not
thou to convert men by the force of reason: if thou do, thou wilt be beguiled.The Art Of Manfishing Thomas Boston
What an honorable thing is it to be fishers of men! How great an honor shouldst thou
esteem it, to be a catcher of souls! We are workers together with God, says the
apostle. If God has ever so honored thee, O that thou knewest it that thou mightst
bless his holy name, that ever made such a poor fool as thee to be a co-worker with
him. God has owned thee to do good to those who were before caught. O my soul,
bless thou the Lord. Lord, what am I, or what is my father’s house, that thou hast
brought me to this?
Then seest thou not here what is the reason thou toilest so long, and catchest
nothing? The power comes not along. Men are like Samuel, who when God was calling
him, thought it had been Eli. So when thou speakest many times, they do not discern
God’s voice, but thine; and therefore the word goest out as it comes in.
Then, O my soul, despair not of the conversion of any, be they ever so profligate. For
it is the power of the Spirit that drives any person into the net; and this cannot be
resisted. Mockers of religion, yea, blasphemers may be brought into the net; and
many times the wind of God’s Spirit in the word lays the tall cedars in sin down upon
the ground, when they that seem to be as low shrubs in respect of them, stand fast
upon their root. Publicans and harlots shall enter the kingdom of heaven before selfrighteous Pharisees.
What thinkest thou, O my soul, of that doctrine that lays aside this power of the
Spirit, and makes moral suasion all that is requisite to the fishing of men? That
doctrine is hateful to thee. My soul loaths it, as attributing too much to the preacher,
and too much to corrupt nature in taking away its natural impotency to good, and as
against the work of God’s Spirit, contrary to experience; and is to me a sign of the
rottenness of the heart that embraces it. Alas! that it should be owned by any among
us, where so much of the Spirit’s power has been felt.
Among other reasons, they are so because as the water is the natural element of fish,
so sin is the proper and natural element for an unconverted soul. Take the fish out of
the water, it cannot live; and take from a natural man his idols, he is ready to say
with Micah, Ye have taken away my gods, and what have I more? The young man in
the gospel could not be persuaded to seek after treasure in heaven, and lay by the
world. It is in sin that the only delight of natural men is; but in holiness they have no
more delight than a fish upon the earth, or a sow in a palace.
Oh, the woeful case of a natural man! Bless the Lord, O my soul, that when that was
thy element as well as that of others, yet Christ took thee in his net, held thee, and
would not let thee go, and put another principle in thee, so that now it is heavy for
thee to wade, far more to swim in these waters.
The fish in a sunny day are seen to play themselves in the water. So the
unregenerate, whatever grief they may seem to have upon their spirits, when a storm
arises, either without, by outward troubles, or within by conscience gnawing
convictions, yet when these are over, and they are in a prosperous state, they play
themselves in the way of sin, and take their pleasure in it, not considering what it
may cost them at the last. Oh! how does prosperity in the world ruin many a soul! The Art Of Manfishing Thomas Boston
The prosperity of fools shall destroy them. And how destructive would prosperity have
been to thee, O my soul, if God had given it to thee many times when thou wouldst
have had it! Bless the Lord that ever he was pleased to cross thee in a sinful course.
As the fish greedily look after and snatch at the bait, not minding the hook; even so
natural men drink in sin greedily, as the ox drinketh in the water. They look on sin as
a sweet morsel; and it is to them sweet in the mouth, though bitter in the belly. They
play with it, as the fish with the bait; but, Oh! alas, when they take the serpent in
their bosom, they mind not the sting (Prov. 9:17, 18). The devil knows well how to
dress his hooks; but, alas! men know not by nature how to discern them.
Pity then, O my soul, the wicked of the world, whom thou seest greedily satisfying
their lusts. Alas! they are poor blinded souls; they see the bait, but not the hook; and
therefore it is that they are even seen as it were dancing about the mouth of the pit;
therefore rush they on to sin as a horse to the battle, not knowing the hazard. O pity
the poor drunkard, the swearer, the unclean person, etc., that is wallowing in his sin.
Bless thou the Lord also, O my soul, that when thou wast playing with the bait, and
as little minding the hook as others, God opened thine eyes, and let thee see thy
madness and danger, that thou mightst flee from it. And be now careful that thou
snatch at none of the devil’s baits, lest he catch thee with his hook, for though thou
mayst be restored again by grace, yet it shall not be without a wound; as the fish
sometimes slip the hook, but go away wounded; which wound may be sad to thee,
and long a-healing. And this thou hast experienced.
As fish in the water love deep places and wells, and are most frequently found there,
so wicked men have a great love to carnal security, and have no will to strive against
the stream. Fish love deep places best, where there is least noise. Oh, how careful
are natural men to keep all quiet, that there may be nothing to disturb them in their
rest in sin! They love to be secure, which is their destruction. O my soul, beware of
carnal security, of being secure, though plunged over head and ears in sin.
As fish are altogether unprofitable as long as they are in the water, so are wicked
men in their natural estate, they can do nothing that is really good: they are
unprofitable to themselves, and unprofitable to others: what good they do to others,
is more per accidens [by accident] than per se [by or in itself] (Rom. 3:12).
How far must they then be mistaken, who think the wicked of the world the most
useful in the place where they live! They may indeed be useful for carrying on designs
for Satan’s interest, or their own vain glory; but really to lay out themselves for God,
they cannot.
They are catchers of the souls of men, sent ‘to open the eyes of the blind, and to turn
them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God’. Preachers of the
gospel are fishers, and their work and that of fishers agree in several things.The Art Of Manfishing Thomas Boston
The design and work of fishers is to catch fish. This is the work that preachers of the
gospel have taken in hand, even to endeavor to bring souls to Christ. Their design in
their work should be the same.
Tell me, O my soul, what is thy design in preaching? For what end dost thou lay the
net in the water? Is it to show thy gifts, and to gain the applause of men? Oh, no!
Lord, thou knowest my gifts are very small; and had I not some other thing than
them to lean to, I had never gone to a pulpit. I confess that, for as small as they are,
the devil and my corruptions do sometimes present them to me in a magnifying
glass, and so would blow me up with wind. But, Lord, thou knowest it is my work to
repel these motions. An instance of this see in my Diary.
Their work is hard work; they are exposed to much cold in the water. So is the
minister’s work.
A storm that will affright others, they will venture on, that they may not lose their
fish. So should preachers of the gospel do.
Fishers catch fish with a net. So preachers have a net to catch souls with. This is the
everlasting gospel, the word of peace and reconciliation, wherewith sinners are
It is compared to a net wherewith fishers catch fish, first, because it is spread out,
ready to catch all that will come into it:
Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money,
come ye, buy and eat; yea, come buy wine and milk, without money, and without
price (Isa. 55:1).
God excludes none from the benefits of the gospel that will not exclude themselves; it
is free to all.
Second, because as fish are taken unexpectedly by the net, so are sinners by the
gospel. Zaccheus was little thinking on salvation from Christ when he went to the
tree. Paul was not thinking on a sweet meeting with Christ, whom he persecuted,
when he was going post-hast on the devil’s errand; but the man is caught
unexpectedly. Little wast thou thinking, O my soul, on Christ, heaven or thyself, when
thou went to the Newton of Whitsome to hear a preaching, when Christ first dealt
with thee; there thou got an unexpected cast.
Third, as fish sometimes come near and touch the net, and yet draw back; so many
souls are somewhat affected at the hearing of the gospel, and yet remain in the gall
of bitterness and the bond of iniquity. So Herod heard John the Baptist gladly, but yet
the poor man was not caught. Wonder not then, O my soul, that thou seest some
affected in the time of preaching; and yet when they are away again, all is worn off.
Fourth, some fish that have not been taken fast hold enough by the net, struggle, and
get out again. So some souls have their convictions, and may seem to be caught; but
yet, alas! they stifle all their convictions, stay in the place of the breaking forth; their
goodness is like the morning cloud, and as the early dew that soon passeth away.