What We Would Be*
HIS ASSEMBLY begins to be venerable. For years, we were a band of young men; but now, our own sons are with us, comrades of our ministry, and we feel that we are, no longer striplings. We have not yet reached the sere and yellow leaf, nor have we come to our dotage, or our anecdotage; but we are tending toward maturity, and are impressed with the conviction that, if ever we are to do anything for our Lord Jesus, we must do it at once. To us remains no time for loitering, or even for leisure. To me, at least, eternity seems so near that I cannot frame an excuse for delay. "Now or never," sounds sternly in my ears.
Coming together, as we do now, after more than twenty years of brotherly Conferences, and some of us after more than thirty years of ministry, what recollections surround us! In the crystal glass of memory, we see the past living and moving. Far be it from me, though racked with pain, to cloud that glass with the hot breath of my own anxiety; yet I must. say this,Never do I look back upon my own past without regret. I am among the most favored of my Lords' servants, and I sink into the dust while I joyfully confess it. I have no complaints to make against my God, yet I have nothing else but complaints to make against myself. It seems to me that, wherein by Divine grace I have succeeded, I might have succeeded on a far larger scale had I been a better man. Want of faith on my part may have hampered and hindered my Lord. If I have fed the saints of God, I might have fulfilled that sacred pastorate far more to my Lord's praise had I only been more fit to be used by His Spirit. How can I take a vainglorious complacency in the little which has been accomplished, when before my eyes I see an immeasurable mass of possibilities which I have missed?
This will be a healthy feeling for the younger brethren, who are flushed with their first victories. Let them rise to a higher scale of expectancy, lest they readily become self-satisfied, and thus destroy all hope of a great life. Believe me, young brother, as our years sober us, we become more and more aware of our imperfections, and feel less and less inclined to admire our own performances. To me, a retrospect means a hearty psalm of praise, and a deep sigh of regret. Unto the Lord be glory forever; but unto me belong shame and confusion of face.
But what is the use of regret unless we can rise by it to a better future? Sighs, which do not raise us higher, are an ill use of vital breath. Chasten yourselves, but be not discouraged. Gather up the arrows which aforetime fell wide of the mark, not to break them in passionate despair, but to send them to the target with direct aim, and a more concentrated force. Weave victories out of defeats. Learn success from failure, wisdom from blundering. Through grace, if we have done well, we will do better. We will more fully acquaint ourselves with God, that, being more in harmony with Him, our life may be pitched to a Diviner key. Mayhap, the cure for these ill days may lie near to our own mending. When our own torches have less of smoke, and more of heavenly flame, the night may not seem quite so drear.
With regard to the prospect before us I may be supposed to be a prophet of evil; but I am not. I mourn the terrible defections from the truth which are now too numerous to be thought of in detail; nevertheless, I am not disquieted, much less dispirited. That cloud will blow over, as many another has done. I think the outlook is better than it was. I do not think the devil is any better: I never expected he would be; but he is older. Brethren, whether that is for the better or for the worse, I do not know; but, assuredly, the arch-enemy is not quite such a novelty among us as he was. We are not quite so much afraid of that particular form of devilry which is raging now, because we begin to perceive its shape. The unknown appeared to be terrible; but familiarity has removed alarm. At the first, this "modern thought" looked very like a lion; the roaring thereof was terrible, though to some ears there was always a suspicion of braying about it. On closer inspection, the huge king of beasts looked more like a fox, and now we should honor it if we likened it to a wild cat. We were to have been devoured of lions, but the monsters are not to be seen. Scientific religion is empty talk without either science or religion in it. The mountain has brought forth its mouse, or, at any rate, the grand event is near. Very soon, "advanced thought" will only be mentioned by servant girls and young Independent ministers. It has gradually declined till it may now be carried off with the slops. There is nothing in the whole bag of tricks.
At this hour, I see the tide turning;not that I care much for that, for the rock on which I build is unaffected by ebb, or flood of human philosophy. Still, it is interesting to remark that the current is not setting in quite the same direction as heretofore. Young men, who have tried modern doubt, have seen their congregations dwindle away beneath its withering power; and they are, therefore, not quite so enamoured of it as they were. It is time they should make a change; for Christian people have observed that these advanced men have not been remarkable for abundant grace, and they have even been led to think that their loose views on doctrine were all of a piece with looseness as to religion in general. Want of soundness in the faith is usually occasioned by want of conversion. Had certain men felt the power of the gospel in their own souls, they would not so readily have forsaken it to run after fables.
Lovers of the eternal truth, you have nothing to fear! God is with those who are with Him. He reveals Himself to those who believe His revelation. Our march is not to and fro, but onward unto victory. "The Egyptians whom ye have seen today, ye shall see them again no more for ever." Other enemies will arise, even as Amalekites, Hivites, Jebusites, Perizzites, and all the rest of them, rose up against Israel; but, in the Name of the Lord, we shall pass on to possess the promised heritage.
Meanwhile, it is for us quietly to labor on. Our daydreams are over: we shall neither convert the world to righteousness, nor the church to orthodoxy. We refuse to bear responsibilities which do not belong to us, for our real responsibilities are more than enough. Certain wise brethren are hot to reform their denomination. They ride out gallantly. Success be to the champions! They are generally wiser when they ride home again. I confess great admiration for my Quixotic brethren, but I wish they had more to show for their valor. I fear that both church and world are beyond us; we must be content with smaller spheres. Even our own denomination must go its own way. We: are only responsible so far as our power goes, and it will be wise to use that power for some object well within reach. For the rest, let us not worry and weary about things beyond our line. What if we cannot destroy all the thorns and thistles which curse the earth; we can, perhaps, cleanse our own little plot. If we cannot transform the desert into a pasture, we may at least make two blades of grass grow where only one grew before; and that will be something.
Brethren, let us look well to our own steadfastness in the faith, our own holy walking with God. Some say that such advice is selfish; but I believe that, in truth, it is not selfishness, but a sane and practical love of others which leads us to be mindful of our own spiritual state. Desiring to do its level best, and to use its own self in the highest degree to God's glory, the true heart seeks to be in all things right with God. He who has learned to swim has fostered a proper selfishness, for he has thereby acquired the power of helping the drowning. With the view of blessing others, let us covet earnestly the best blessings for ourselves.
I want to make the most of myself. I may not even yet know the way to be most useful, but I would like to know very soon. At least, I can honestly go the length of saying that, if I felt that I could be more useful outside of the pulpit than within it, I would hurry out of it at once. If there was a street corner where I was Divinely assured that, by my blacking of shoes, God could be more glorified than He is by my bearing witness before the great congregation, I would welcome the information, and practically obey it. Some men never can do much for God in the way which they would prefer, for they were newer cut out for the work. Owls will never rival falcons by daylight; but, then, falcons would be lost in the enterprise of hunting barns at night for rats and mice, and such small deer. Each creature is not only good, but "very good" in its own place, fulfilling its own office: out of that place, it may become a nuisance. Friend, be true to your own destiny! One man would make a splendid preacher of downright hard-hitting Saxon; why must he ruin himself by cultivating an ornate style? Another attempting to be extremely simple would throw himself away, for he is florid by nature; why should he not follow his bent? Apollos has the gift of eloquence; why must he copy blunt Cephas? Every man in his own order. It seems to me; that, nowadays, every man prefers his own disorder. Let each man find out what God wants him to do, and then let him do it, or die in the attempt. In what way can I bring my Lord most glory, and be of most service to His Church while I am here? Solve that question, and pass into the practical.
One thing is past all question; we shall bring our Lord most glory if we get from Him much grace. If I have much faith, so that I can take God at His word; much love, so that the zeal of His house eats me up; much hope, so that I am assured of fruit from my labor; much patience, so that I can endure hardness for Jesus' sake; then I shall greatly honor my Lord and King. Oh, to have much consecration, my whole nature being absorbed in His service; then, even though my talents may be slender, I shall make my life to burn and glow with the glory of the Lord! This way of grace is open to us all. To be saintly is within each Christian's reach, and this is the surest method of honoring God. Though the preacher may not collect more than a hundred in a village chapel to hear him speak, he may be such a man of God that his little church will be choice seed-corn, each individual worthy to be weighed against gold. The preacher may not get credit for his work in the statistics which reckon scores and hundreds; but in that other book, which no secretary could keep, where things are weighed rather than numbered, the worker's register will greatly honor his Master.
Brethren, my desire is to do everything for the Lord in first-rate style. We are all of us eager to do much for the Lord, but there is a more excellent way. With ringing trowel we strike away and build a wall, and girdle a city in six months: the aforesaid wall will be down in six days afterwards. It would be better to do more by doing less. Thoroughness is infinitely preferable to superficial area. It is well to work for God microscopically; each tiny bit of our work should bear the closest inspection. The work of the Church had need be done in perfect fashion; for her flaws are sure to show themselves in exaggerated form before long. The sins of today are the sorrows of ages. Look at those straths in the Highlands which remain to this day Roman Catholic. Had they, at the time of the Reformation, been carefully visited by a Protestant ministry, they could not have remained for centuries in bondage to old Rome. How slight a deviation from the right line may involve ages of dreary labor! Our Puritan forefathers raised their walls, and laid their stones in fair colors, building well the city of God. Then that greatest of heroes, Oliver Cromwell, looked upon them, and lent his aid He handled the sword of steel as few have ever done, but his carnal weapon agreed not with the temple of the Lord. The Lord seemed to say to him, even as He said unto David, "Thou shalt not build an house for My Name, because thou hast been a man of war, and hast shed blood." Therefore Puritanism had to come down, with all its exceeding stateliness of holiness, because it's sons saw not that the Kingdom of the Lord is not of Church and State, nor of the law of nations, but purely of the Spirit of the Lord. We, upon whom the ends of the world are come, must be careful that we do not send the armies of the Lord wandering for another forty years in the wilderness, when Canaan else had been so near. The Lord help us to be workmen that need not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth! May we live in the eye of the ages, past and future; above all, may we live as seeing Him who is invisible!
Need I affectionately call upon you, my brethren, to stir up the gifts which are in you? Cultivate your natural and gracious qualifications for the ministry. The pastor knows far more than when he left College; has he learned all he ought to have learned in that interval? No doubt many of our brethren
And better know the Lord."
I am not so sure about those who are the most eager to assert this of themselves. Real progress may be usually reckoned by the gauge of humility. He knows most who is most aware that he knows little. We have all great need of much hard study if our ministry is to be good for anything. We have heard of the French peasants who sent to the Pope for a cure. "who had finished his education." They complained that their pastor was always studying, and they wanted a man who knew all that was necessary, and consequently needed no time for books and thoughts. What fools they must be in that part of France! We need exactly the kind of preacher whom they despised. He who has ceased to learn has ceased to teach. He who no longer sows in the study will no more reap in the pulpit.
My earnest desire is that all of us may really be
I hope it will never get to be your notion that only a certain class of preachers can be soul-winners. Every preacher should labor to be the means of saving his hearers. The truest reward of our life work is to bring dead souls to life. I long to see souls brought to Jesus every time I preach. I should break my heart if I did not see it to be so. Men are passing into eternity so rapidly that we must have them saved at once. We indulge no secret hope which can make it easy to lose present opportunities. From all our congregations a bitter cry should go up unto God, unless conversions are continually seen. If our preaching never saves a soul, and is not likely to do so, should we not better glorify God as peasants, or as tradesmen? What honor can the Lord receive from useless ministers? The Holy Ghost is not with us, we are not used of God for His gracious purposes, unless souls are quickened into heavenly life. Brethren, can we bear to be useless? Can we be barren, and yet content?
Remember that, if we would win souls, we must act accordingly, and lay ourselves out to that end. Men do not catch fish without intending it, nor save sinners unless they aim at it. The prayer of a certain minister before his sermon was, that God would bless souls by his discourse. After hearing that discourse, I wondered at the prayer. How could the man ask for that which he seemed never afterwards to have thought of? His discourse unprayed his prayer. He might as well have poured water on a fire, and have prayed God to make the fire burn thereby. Unless the Lord had caused the people to misunderstand what the preacher said, they could not have been converted by his utterances. God works by means,by means adapted to His ends; and this being so, how can He bless some sermons? How, in the name of reason, can souls be converted by sermons that hill people to sleep; by sermons containing mere frivolities; by sermons which say plainly, "See how cleverly I put it;" by sermons which insinuate doubt, and cast suspicion upon every revealed truth? To ask for the Divine blessing on that which even good men cannot commend, is poor work. That which does; not come from our inmost soul, and is not to us a message from the Lord's own Spirit, is not likely to touch other men's souls, and be the voice of the Lord to them.
Brethren, I long that we may all be "apt to teach." The Church is never overdone with those whose "lips feed many." It should be our ambition to be "good stewards of the manifold grace of God." We all know certain able ministers who are expositors of the Word, and instructors of believers. You always bring something away when you hear them. They trade in precious things; their merchandise is of the gold of Ophir. Certain passages of Scripture are quoted and set in a new light; and certain specialties of Christian experience are described and explained. We come away from such preaching feeling that we have been to a good school. Brethren, I desire that we may each one exercise such an edifying ministry! Oh, that: we may have the experience, the illumination, the industry needful for so high a calling! Oh, for more richly-instructive sermons! Brethren, look at many modern sermons! What fire and fury! What flash and dash! What is it all about? To what purpose is this display? We often meet with sermons which are like kaleidoscopes, marvelously pretty, but what is there in them? See, there are several bits of colored glass, and one or two slips of mirror, and other trifles, and these are put into a tube! How they sparkle! What marvelous combinations! What fascinating transformations! But what are you looking at? You have not seen any more after twenty displays than you saw at first; for indeed there is no more. Some preachers excel in quotations of poetry; and others excel in apposition and alliteration, or in the quaintness of the division of their texts. Many are great in domestic sorrows, and death-bed spectacles, and semi-dramatic picturings. Very telling, very sensational; and, under gracious direction, useful in its own measure; but when souls are to be saved, and saved souls are to be fed, more solid matters must take a prominent place. We must feed the flock of God. We must deal with eternal verities, and grapple with heart and conscience. We must, in fact, live to educate a race of saints, in whom the Lord Jesus shall be reflected as in a thousand mirrors.
The apostle Paul truly says, "Though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers." He calls the general run of teachers pedagogues, and says that we have myriad's of such; but we have not many "fathers." No man has more than one natural father, and in the strictest sense we have each one spiritual father, and no more. How singularly true are the apostle's words at this present hour! Still have we a lack of spiritual fathers. I would suggest to this Conference of brethren who have been for years in the ministry, that we have come to that point of age and experience in which each of us should set before him the image of a father as that to which he should approach more and more. We are already fathers in the sense of having around us converts who are our children in the Lord. We have already heard the penitential cries, and the believing prayers, of those born to God through our preaching. Many of us, beloved brethren, without boasting, can rejoice that the Lord has; not left us without witness. Ours has been an imperfect and feeble ministry; but the Lord has given life to many by our words.
The parental relation is one which requires much of us. A father should be a stable and established man. Something of solid worth and substantial judgment is looked for in a father. Many a preacher we could not call "father"; it would seem too ridiculous. The trifler, the brother of many ways of thinking, and the man who is of an angry spirit, are out of the list when we read over the roll of fathers. Something of weight, kindliness, dignity, steadiness, and venerableness, goes to make up our idea of the father. Great truths are very dear to him, for he has had experience of their power for many years. When some of the boys tell him that he is behind the times, he smiles at their superior wisdom. Now and then, he tries to show them that he is right, though it is hard to make them see it. The boys think the fathers fools; the fathers do not think that of them,there is no need. True fathers are patient; they do not expect to find old heads on young shoulders. They have the knack of waiting till tomorrow, for time brings with it many instructions; and while it may demonstrate the true, it may also explode the false. Father is not blown about by every wind of doctrine, neither does he run after every new thing which is cried up by the skeptical or by the fanatical. A father knows what he does know, stands by what he has verified, and is rooted and grounded in the faith.
But, with all his maturity and firmness, the spiritual father is full of tenderness, and manifests an intense love for the souls of men. His doctrinal divinity does not dry up his humanity. He was born on purpose to care for other people, and his heart cannot rest until it is full of such care. Along our coast, in certain places, there are no harbors; but, in other spots, there are bays into which vessels run at once in the time of storm. Some men present.an open natural harborage for people in distress: you love them instinctively, and trust them unreservedly; and they, on their part, welcome your confidence, and lay themselves out for your benefit. They were fashioned by nature with warm human sympathies, and these have been sanctified by grace, so that it is their vocation to instruct, to comfort, to succor, and in all ways to help spirits of a feebler order. These are the kingly men who become nursing fathers of the church. Paul says of Timothy, "I have no man like-minded, who will naturally care for your state" He himself had this natural care; but he could not just then put his hand upon another of like mind to himself, except Timothy. This natural care may be illustrated by the feeling of birds towards their offspring. See how diligently they work for them, and how boldly they defend them! A hen with chicks beneath her wings is bravery itself. She becomes a very griffin for her little ones. She would fight the Emperor of Russia, ay, and all the great powers of Europe. The man of God, who feels the force of holy fatherhood, would do anything and everything, possible and impossible, for the sake of his spiritual children; he gladly spend,:, and is spent for them. Though the more he loves the less he may be loved, yet by the force of inward prompting he is impelled to self-denying labor.
Does any brother exclaim, "I should like to fill a father's place in my church, for then I could rule it"? This is a sorry motive, and one which will disappoint you. The father of a family usually finds that his pre-eminence is one of superior self-denial, rather than of self-assertion. The best of fathers do really rule, but they never raise the question of "Who is master?" In a well-ordered house, "baby is king." Have you not seen how everything is set aside for him? The warmest welcome is for that little stranger, and the movements of the household are guided by his needs. If you were as great an autocrat as the King of the Cannibal Islands, it would make no difference,baby must be attended to. What means this? Why, that the poorest, weakest, and most easily offended person in the whole church must rule you if you are a true father! You will study the most wayward, and yield your personal pleasure for the good of the most faulty. Somebody asked, "Why should we deny ourselves alcoholic drink because weak-minded persons are overcome by it? That would be to make the weakest persons the virtual rulers of our conduct, which would be absurd." Just so; but the absurdity appertains to the family of love. Our domestic affairs must seem absurd to unsympathetic strangers. Who likes to tell them to the uninitiated? It would be casting pearls before swine. I would say,All hail to the absurdities of holy love: long may they reign! Baby is king: the weakest rule our hearts. The pace of the whole flock is slackened, lest we overdrive the lambs. Our ruling is carried out by seeing that none tread down the weak, and by setting the' example of the greatest self-forgetfulness. He is not fit to be a father who does not see that this is the imperative law of love, and is, indeed, the secret: of power. We lay ourselves down for all men to go over us if thus they may come to Jesus.
Our place is to be the servants of all. The father earns the daily bread, brings it home, and divides it. We blend father and mother in one, and lay ourselves out to fulfil all needful offices for those committed to our charge. If you desire to be a father in the church that you may have his special honor, you see the way to it: it comes of self-denial, patience, forbearance, love, zeal, and diligence. "Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant."
A father must possess wisdom. But in this matter many are deceived, for they aspire to it from a wrong motive, and so become foolish. If you had wisdom, my brother, what would you do with it? Would you so use it as to make others feel your superiority? If so, you have little wisdom as yet. A minister's wisdom lies in endeavoring to be wise for others, not cunning for himself. Some use their wisdom in a very unwise way, and curse the church which they should bless. And so you would go about the church, and put everybody right, being so wise yourself! Herein is often great folly. A man I have heard of said, "I am not at all afraid of thieves breaking into my house. If I heard a burglar, I should touch this button, and in a moment an electric current would explode dynamite in the cellar, and that would blow up the burglar and the whole establishment." You laugh; but we have met with ministers who have acted in much the same manner. I am sorry to know a brother who has performed this feat in five or six churches. The moment he thinks that a member, especially a deacon, has gone wrong, he blows the whole thing to pieces, and calls it faithfulness. This is not acting the part of a wise father. If we have wisdom, we shall maintain peace, and shall attempt reforms with gentleness. Fathers do not kill their children because they are unphilosophical, or unsound in theology, or somewhat disobedient in conduct.
If we would be fathers, we must aim at a high degree of holiness. The query is often proposed,Is it possible for believers to be perfectly holy here on earth? That question sounds strangely from some lips. I saw a man, the other day, who had no shoes on his feet, and was only half covered by his rags. Suppose he had asked me whether I thought it was possible that he could become a millionaire, I should have answered that he had better first go and earn sixpence for his night's lodging, and then save up enough to buy a decent suit of clothes. Thus, those who are eager to dispute about perfection had better see that their lives are first of all decently consistent with the profession they have made. Brethren, we can be much more holy than we are. Let us attain first to that holiness about which there is no controversy. At the time of the Council of Trent, there was a controversy between the Church of Rome and the Protestants as to whether it was possible for the laws of God to be kept. The question was awkwardly put, and when Luther endeavored to show that it was impossible, he seems to me to have advocated one truth at the cost of another. At any rate, we dare not set limits to the power of Divine grace, so as to say that a believer can reach a certain degree of grace, but can go no further. If a perfect life be possible, let us endeavor to obtain it. If a faith that never staggers can be ours, let us seek it. If we can walk with God as Enoch did throughout a long life, let us not rest short of it. We dare not straiten the Lord in this matter; if we be straitened at all, it is in ourselves. Let us aspire to saintliness of spirit and character. I am persuaded that the greatest power we can get over our fellowmen is the power which comes of consecration and holiness. More eyes than we wot of are fixed upon our daily life at home, and in the church, and in the world. We claim to be the Lord's ministers, and we must not wonder that we are watched at every turn; ay, watched when we think that no observer is near. Our lives should be such as men may safely copy.
You know the weighty responsibility of a father towards his children; such is ours. I do not think that any of us would dare to say to our people, "Follow me in all thing? And yet their tendency is to follow the pastor. In this tendency lies influence for the holy, and a dreadful power for mischief for the careless. Many beginners take readily to an earthly model; they find it more natural to copy a godly man, whom they have seen, than to imitate the Lord Jesus, whom they have not seen. I do not commend them in this; but so it is, and we must be tender toward this weakness so that it may not become the occasion of evil. Children first obey their parents, and so learn the law of the Lord, and no doubt many of the weaker sort learn the way of holiness from their spiritual guides. A painter, who afterwards becomes a great original, is in his earliest days a disciple of a certain school of art; it is so in religion. The babe in grace is taught to walk by an older brother, and afterwards takes his own path. I believe that many weak ones in our churches are seriously injured, if not entirely broken down, by following the example of their ministers in matters wherein they come short of the Lord's mind. How grievous it would be; if any believers were dwarfed through our conduct! May we not fear that there are some in our churches today who are not what they might have been had we properly guided them? No doubt some have been coddled into weakness, and others have been allowed to grow more in one direction than in others. Do you say, "We cannot help this; it is no business of ours "? I tell you it is our business. Strangers may talk in a careless way, but fathers are conscious of great responsibility as to their children. If a family is not well ordered, a wise father begins to mend his own ways. If our people do wrong, we fret and blame ourselves. If we were better, our church-members would be better. It is little use to scold them; our wiser way is to humble ourselves before God, and find out the reason why our ministry does not produce better results.
I don't think I can say much more, I am so greatly overcome by pain. I was going to say that, as an earthly father stands in the place of God to his children, so do we in a certain measure. We do not aim at it, nor wish for it; but we are placed, by many weak and ignorant persons, in a position from which we would gladly escape if we could, for we abhor everything which wears the semblance of priestcraft. Alas! there are simple souls who forget to look to the Lord's mind as revealed in the Scriptures, but they look to us as their teachers and guides. I grant you that there may be an evil superstition in it, but there it is, and it must not be trifled with. In many instances, however, through their grateful respect, the members of our congregation gather lessons from what we do as well as from what we say, and this should make us very careful lest we lead them astray. Be holy, that others may be holy.