When we speak of a person being converted to faith in Christ Jesus or when we speak of a prodigal coming to his senses and returning to the Father, we must understand that it is God at work in converting and restoring the wayward person. God typically does this work by speaking through his word. This is the reason that preaching and teaching the Bible is a necessary activity.
Yet we must also understand that the unconverted person or the wayward person lacks the ability to hear the word of God in the depths of his soul. It matters not how loudly the preacher preaches. Conversion and restoration are dependent upon God opening the eyes, unstopping the ears, and quickening the heart.
The truth of this is wonderfully explained by Edward Payson in a sermon based on 1 Kings 19:12-13. Payson was pastor of the Second Church of Portland, Maine (a Congregational church) for twenty years until his death in 1827. God richly blessed his ministry as part of the revival known as Second Great Awakening.
And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
–1 Kings 19:12-13, ESV
Here is a portion of Payson’s sermon preached on this text.
Ministers may give voice and utterance to the Bible which is the word of God. Like James and John they may be sons of thunder to impenitent sinners. They may pour forth a tempest of impassioned, eloquent declamation. They may proclaim all the terrors of the Lord; represent the earth as quaking and trembling under the footsteps of Jehovah; flash around them the lightnings of Sinai; borrow, as it were, the trump of the archangel, and summon the living and the dead to the bar of God…and still God may not be there; his voice may not be heard either in the tempest, the earthquake, or the fire; and if so, the preacher will have labored but in vain; his hearers, though they may for the moment be affected, will receive no permanent salutary impressions.
Nothing effectual can be done unless God be there, unless he speaks with his still small voice. But this still, small voice we mean the voice of God’s Spirit; the voice which speaks not only to man, but in man; the voice, which, in stillness and silence, whispers to the ear of the soul, and presses upon the conscience these great eternal truths, a knowledge and belief of which is connected with salvation.
Large congregations often sit and hear a message from God, while perhaps not a single individual among them feel that the message is addressed to himself, or that he has any personal concern in it. But it is not so when God speaks with his still small voice. Every one, to whom God thus speaks, whether he be alone, or in the midst of a large assembly, feels that he is spoken to, that he is called, as it were, by name. The message comes come to him, and says, as Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Hence, while multitudes are around him, he sits as if he were alone. At him alone the preacher seems to aim. On him alone his eye seems to be fixed. To him alone every words seems to come.
And when God thus speaks to the whole or the greatest part of an assembly at once, as he sometimes does, when he comes to revive his work extensively, these effects are experienced, and there appearances exhibited by all. No scene, on this side the bar of God, can be more awfully, overpoweringly solemn, than the scene which such an assembly exhibits. The the Father of spirits is present to the spirits he has made; present to each of them, and speaking to each. Each one feels that the eye of God is upon him, that the voice of God is speaking to him. Each one therefore, though surrounded by numbers, mourns solitary and apart.
The powers of the world to come are felt. Eternity, with all its crushing realities, opens to view, and descends upon the mind. The final sentence, though uttered by human lips, comes with scarcely less weight, than if pronounced by the Judge himself. All countenances gather blackness, and a stillness, solemn, profound, and awful, pervades the place, interrupted only by a stifled sob, or a half repressed sigh. My hearers, such scenes have been witnessed. Within a very few years they have been witnessed in hundreds of places.
—Works of Payton. Quoted in Revival & Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858 by Ian Murray. (I have added the paragraph breaks in the text.)