DISLIKE TO MINISTERIAL FAITHFULNESS
STATED AND EXPLAINED
By John Angell James, originally published
in the "The Monthly Preacher"
They are a rebellious people, deceptive children, children who do not obey the Lord's instruction. They say to the seers, "Do not see," and to the prophets, "Do not prophesy the truth to us. Tell us flattering things. Prophesy illusions. Get out of the way! Leave the pathway. Rid us of the Holy One of Israel." (Isaiah 30:9-11)
A wish to be deceived is a state of mind by no means uncommon. Many have made truth their enemy, and it is not to be wondered at that they are then in love with falsehood. They who have everything to fear from the light, will retire from its beams, even in those cases where darkness will only yield them a little present relief, at the dreadful expense of future happiness. The moral courage which can calmly look danger in the face, and patiently listen to the alarming report which is made by some faithful expositor of the whole affair, is what few possess. Even in reference to their temporal concerns, how prone are men when they have a lurking suspicion that things are not right, to wish to be deceived; how eagerly do they look to the bright side of their fortunes; how anxiously do they cover or diminish every unfavorable symptom; and how petulantly do they rebuke or contradict the individual who has sagacity to foresee, and fidelity to predict, the gathering storm! Had they the fortitude to look steadily at the approaching ruin, had they the hardihood to endure the present distress, which a perfect knowledge of their perplexed circumstances would bring with it, they might perhaps be extricated from these difficulties. But shrinking with fatal cowardice from the painful disclosure, they court deception for the sake of a little present ease.
This was the case with the Jews at the time when this prophecy was delivered. Their national crimes were bringing destruction nearer and nearer. Their political horizon was perpetually becoming darker, and signs of the accumulating vengeance of Heaven were multiplying around them. The prophets, bearing the burden of the Lord, represented him as a holy Being, whom their transgressions insulted, and whose justice must necessarily be roused to avenge wrong. One denunciation followed another, until the people, alike unwilling to be reformed and to hear of the punishment which would come upon them for their impenitence, were anxious to change the tone of the prophets' ministrations. They could not bear the pungent warnings of those holy men; they trembled under the solemn and impassioned appeals of Isaiah and his fellow-prophets, and endeavored, either by threats to silence, or by bribes to corrupt, the prophets from heaven. The holiness of God was a subject peculiarly offensive to them—hence the exclamation, "Rid us of the Holy One of Israel!"
They wanted to hear only of his mercy. They would have disrobed him of his garments of light, and silenced, if they could, the song of the seraphim, uttered in praise of his unsullied purity. The deity they wanted to hear of, was an indulgent being, who would overlook sin, and never punish the transgressor. They wished to hear no more of the rigid and strict requirements of the law—but to listen only to the soothing sounds of promise; they were anxious that the terrible thunders of justice should die away midst the soft whispers of mercy. They were determined to go on in sin, and therefore desired, whatever might be "right things," to hear only smooth things, and to be left to go on unmolested in their career of iniquity.
Happy would it be for multitudes, if this love of deception had been confined to the Jews, if this demand for "smooth things" had been made only by them. But, alas! they have many, very many followers under the present dispensation. The faithful ministers of Jesus Christ meet with the same reception from many of their hearers, as did the prophets of the older economy.
There are not lacking in our age many who are anxious to save their own souls and those that hear them; who, in their solicitude to be clear from the blood of all men, shun not to declare "the whole counsel of God." Their aim is not to please men—but to profit their hearers; not to satisfy their taste, or amuse their fancy, or lull them into a false peace, or wrap them up in unfounded security—but to save them from the wrath to come. Hence, they are anxious to convince them of sin, and by "the terrors of the Lord to persuade" them to urge the all-important enquiry, "What shall I do to be saved?" They know that without previous conviction, alarm, and penitence, there can be no true comfort and therefore their aim is, like that of the skillful surgeon, to probe the wound before they attempt to heal it. This many of their hearers cannot endure; they want smooth things, not right things; they cannot bear to have their consciences roused, their fears alarmed, and their minds rendered uneasy. They wish the preacher to avoid all harsh themes, and confine himself to more agreeable and palatable topics. The people to whom I here allude, are those people in our congregations, who, though they attend an evangelical ministry, have never yet been converted by the grace of God—but are still living either in open sin, or predominant worldly-mindedness; who know that if religion is indeed what they hear it often described, they can make no pretensions to it; who have no intention of altering their course, and who wish, therefore, to be left to pursue it, without being disturbed by the voice of ministerial faithfulness.
I. I shall state the TRUTHS which are usually obnoxious to such people.There are many doctrines to which every faithful preacher of God's word feels bound to give ample room in his stated ministry, that are by no means welcome to many of his hearers; such, for instance, as the spirituality and unbending strictness of the divine law, the deep depravity of human nature, the exceeding sinfulness of man's conduct, the universal necessity of regeneration, the inefficacy of works for justification, and the indispensable obligation to a separation from the world—but as long as these truths are not enforced by the solemn denunciations of Divine vengeance, many will tolerate them who still would more willingly listen to other topics. But it is especially the holiness of the Divine nature, which, when scripturally explained, breaks in upon the quietude, and disturbs the peace of the unconverted sinner. It is the splendor of this glorious attribute of God, which, like the beams of the sun falling upon the diseased and tender eye, offends and irritates. "Remove from our sight the Holy One of Israel!" is the demand of multitudes. Not, however, that the purity of the Divine nature, when abstracted from the Divine government, is so peculiarly offensive to sinners. As long as the Holy One will let them alone, and not cause his purity to bear upon their interests, or interfere with their pursuits, they feel perhaps no revulsion from it; as an object of mere intellectual contemplation, or of poetic taste, it is agreeable enough; they can admire the sublimity of the seraphic anthem, and feel no alarm as they sing the celestial chorus, "Holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty." As long as Jehovah will retire from the affairs of men into the mysterious abyss of his own perfections, they care not how holy he is; nor how much the preacher descants upon so lofty an abstraction as infinite purity. But when holiness is made the very basis of the Divine administration; when it is made to appear in the purity of the law, in the tremendous penalties by which that law is sanctioned, in the irreconcileable hatred of God to all sin, and in his irrevocable purpose to punish it; when, in fact, that holiness is set forth in all the terrors of the retributive justice of the Governor and Judge of the universe—then it is that it wounds, and offends, and irritates the minds of many who hear the solemn theme. The punitive justice of God, or his determination to visit the sins of transgressors upon themselves—is the holiness of the Divine nature in action. He could not be holy if he did not punish sin, and he could not be God if he were not holy. But, Oh! with what aversion and disgust; with what indignation and ill-will; with what clamor and defamation, is many a faithful minister of the word followed through his course, because he asserts the claims of God, and denounces the threatenings of a holy God!
The Scriptures, not only of the Old Testament—but of the New Testament, abound with the most appalling descriptions of the Divine displeasure against sin. Not only prophets—but apostles, have revealed the wrath of God against all ungodliness of men. Yes, it is a striking fact, that He who was love incarnate; who was mercy's messenger to our lost world; who was named Jesus, because he was to be the Savior of his people; who was the manifestation and commendation of God's love to man; delivered, during the course of his personal ministry, more fearful descriptions of Divine justice and the punishment of the wicked, than are to be found in any other part of the word of God. In some of his parables there are tremendous instances of this. What can exceed the solemn scenery of the parable of the rich man in torments? Hell and destruction are there set open before us without a covering.
No man can fulfill his ministry, therefore, without frequently alluding to the justice of God in the punishment of sin. No man can preach as Paul did, who made Felix tremble upon the bench, as he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come; and who gave it as a description of his ordinary preaching, that he persuaded men by the terrors of the Lord—unless he seeks to alarm the fears of the unconverted by a representation of the consequences that will follow a state of final impenitence—nor without this can any one be an imitator of the preaching of Christ. But such a subject frequently calls up all the enmity of the carnal mind. To be told, not only that they are sinners, which all will admit in general terms--but that their sins are such as to deserve the wrath of God, such as to expose them to the torments of hell, and such as will infallibly bring them to the bottomless pit, unless they truly repent; to be told again and again that they are hastening to perdition; to have the rod of Divine vengeance shaken over their heads—to have all the dreadful curses of the violated law analyzed, ascertained and announced; to have this done in their hearing, and done frequently; to be made to sit and hear their future eternal doom, and thus to be tormented before their time; is what they cannot, and will not endure!
Sometimes they will content themselves with railing at the preacher, and accusing him as taking a cruel delight in harrowing up their feelings and disturbing their peace; they will condemn him as unfit to preach to any but the profligate inmates of a prison; until, at length, unable to bear any longer his pointed addresses to the conscience, they will leave his ministry—for the flesh-pleasing pulpit opiates of some flatterer of men's souls, who is too cowardly to trouble the minds, or alarm the consciences of his flock.
But many, whose habits or whose connections allow them not to forsake the faithful servant of God, still most fervently wish that he would not come before them clothed with terrors, and armed with the thunders of a righteous God. He is too searching, too pungent, too discriminating. He allows no loop-hole of retreat for their conscience. They too often feel the iron grasp of his hand arresting their spirits. He leaves them not at ease in Zion. They want to hear more of poetic genius; more of the painting of eloquence; more formal discourse; more logical dissection of error; or, in reference to divinity, they would have the evidences and doctrines of the Gospel treated in an abstract, systematic, theological manner; or the benevolence of God and his goodness set forth; or the duties of practical religion enforced in a general form; or the consolations of religion dispensed indiscriminately. Or they could even bear an occasional sermon on the punishment of the wicked, provided the description of the wicked man's character were so vague as to leave them an opportunity of escaping; but to hear sin so described, and character so delineated, as to perceive that they are shut up to condemnation; and then, in that situation, to have the very prison doors shaken with only the distant sound of the approaching curse; this renders them uneasy, and leads them again and again to express their wish that their minister would prophesy smooth, flattering things, and utter deceit.
II. I shall now consider the CAUSES to which we must trace this dislike of ministerial fidelity—and this love of smooth, flattering and delusive preaching.
In some cases it is occasioned byabsolute unbelief. Many who attend at places of public worship are infidels, although they do not assume the name. Whoever withholds his assent from any portion of acknowledged Scripture, merely because it is opposed to his taste, and unfriendly to his peace, is unquestionably an unbeliever. Multitudes who admit in general the authority of the Bible, deny it in detail. This is very strikingly exemplified in reference to the subject of future punishment. It is the cant of disguised infidelity to affirm that God is too merciful to punish any of his creatures, and that all the circumstances of his vengeance contained in the Scripture, are intended only for the very worst of guilty characters; and perhaps not even for them. Such a spirit is, indeed, scarcely a disguised infidelity—but rather unbelief without a mask. The man who can either doubt or ridicule the torments of hell is, whatever he may think, or say—an infidel; and will one day be convinced, amidst the torments of the bottomless pit, that such torments do really exist! No wonder, then, that those who have brought themselves to believe that the threatenings of divine vengeance, written in Scripture, are figurative, the poetry or prophesy of a terrific scenery—ask for smooth things, and feel offended when these solemn topics are introduced into the pulpit, and made to bear with the force of realities upon the heart and conscience.
The refinements and taste of upper society, lead many to ask for smooth flattering things. It should never be forgotten that there is but one Bible; and that it is intended for the rich no less than the poor, and is as imperative in its demands upon the former as it is upon the latter. There is no respect of persons with God; before him the distinctions of society have no place. Neither the coronet, the crown, the official robe, nor the royal purple, will have the weight of a feather in the eternal destiny of their possessors. When our Lord laid open the infernal world to our view, it was to disclose to us the soul of a rich man in torments. The rich will, therefore, suffer the vengeance of eternal fire in another world, if they may not hear the description of it in this.
How crude and unmannerly would it be thought in many congregations for the preacher to introduce, in all its fearful gloom, in all its dreadful and solemn reality—the subject of eternal punishment. What a breach of taste, what a violation of all the rules of elegant society, to mention hell to 'polite ears'. The curses of a violated law may be uttered in barns or churches for the poor, and may fall on the crude ears of the multitude—but the doctrine and the style of those who preach in God's name to the congregations of rank, and fashion, and wealth, must be as soft and smooth as the velvet over which they are pronounced, and as tasteful and adorned as the building (classic or mediaeval) in which they are delivered. How would some philosophic, literary, or affluent congregations, frown with indignation, or stare with astonishment, or sneer with contempt—at the man of God, who, with the boldness of the ancient prophets, would stand up and denounce, in unsoftened language, in plain Bible terms—the wrath of God against all ungodliness. What, say they—is nothing due to the distinctions of rank, to the polish of elegance, to the delicacy of taste, to the decorum of high life? Must the same harsh doctrine be delivered to the courtly circles of fashion, and the uncouth assemblies of rustics? Must no allowance be made for upper society?
None whatever! "Woe to you, rich!" was the language of the Savior of the world. He and his apostles made no allowance for the wealthy circumstances of high society—but published the same truths to all; and so must his servants in every age. There is one eternal common receptacle for the lost souls of the rich and of the poor; and he is the enemy of the rich, who conceals or softens the humiliating fact.
Wounded prideis with some the cause of a dislike of faithful preaching. To be publicly denounced as deserving Divine wrath; to be told that they are sinners to such a degree as to merit the eternal punishment of a holy God; to be reminded that, instead of their fancied good heart, pure nature, and blameless life—they are, in the sight of God, depraved in every faculty and polluted in every part; to be represented as unfit for communion with God here, and for his presence hereafter; all this is so opposed to all their notions, so mortifying to their vanity, so degrading to their dignity, that they cannot but dislike it. To such a debasement they would not willingly descend; and hence their demand for the language of deceit, and the smooth speech of falsehood. What they want is to be flattered into a good opinion of themselves, or be assisted to maintain such opinion when already formed. They hate the doctrine which disturbs their self-delight, and they revile the man who attempts to tell them the solemn realities! They do not like to have the mirror of God's holy law held up before them; much less do they like to be brought by the preacher into the presence of the Holy One himself, and made to see, in the pure light reflected upon them from the great white throne—how vile they are.
But still, in by far the greater number of instances, this dislike of the truth, and this love of smooth flattering things, is the result ofpainful forebodings of future misery. The people of whom I am speaking are, in many cases, not in ignorance, as other men; they know too much of God's Word to imagine that they are pardoned, holy, and fit for heaven; and they believe too much of it to be in a state of peace. They are aware that they are living in sin; that they have neither repentance towards God, nor faith in our Lord Jesus Christ; they "know the judgment of God, that they who commit such things are worthy of death;" that, if there be any truth in the Scriptures, for them, in their present state, there remains nothing but a fearful looking for—of fiery indignation, which shall consume God's adversaries. Yet they secretly hope that things may not be so bad as they have been represented; that God will be more merciful than rigid pastors have foretold; still, however, they are determined to go on and take their chance. They cannot, will not—give up their sin. An occasional season of repenting comes on—but temptation soon ends it, or time wears it out.
Now, it is easy to conceive how unwelcome to such people must be the uncompromising faithfulness of the man who is determined to obey the voice which says to him, "Cry aloud, spare not; lift up your voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgressions." How disturbing and annoying are his discourses! How his appeals pierce the heart! He will never let them be at peace. When they have almost lulled their conscience to sleep, and quieted the stern voice that so often arouses them, the thunders of his doctrine awaken it from its slumber, and again bring its reproaches and accusations upon them. How often do they revile him as sent to torment them before their time! "O that he would be less severe!" they say. "O that he would not so often touch upon the evil nature and dreadful consequences of sin! O that he would less frequently conduct us to the borders of the flaming pit! Why will he not leave us to ourselves? Even if he thought we were going on to perdition, why not let us be at peace until our time comes?" Because the faithful pastor dares not, cannot, will not. Mercy to you forbids it; fidelity to God forbids it; regard to his own safety forbids it. He must warn the wicked, until their salvation renders it no longer necessary, or their destruction renders it no longer possible!
III. I shall now represent the FOLLY, the SIN, and the DANGER of a desire to suppress the faithful voice of truth—and to be flattered with the soothing language of deceit.
1. Its FOLLY is apparent from the consideration that no concealment of the situation of the sinner can alter his condition in the sight of God, or change the relation in which he stands to eternity.This—whatever pains he may take to delude himself, or whatever solicitude he may feel that others should join him in the delusion—remains the same. Like the ostrich, which is said, when closely pursued, to put her head beneath her wing, as if to blind herself to impending destruction—he may refuse to see or have his true situation unfolded—but the case is unaltered! Is it wise in the man who has nearly ruined his constitution by intemperance, to demand that the physician tell him that he is in good health, and is carrying on a harmless course of indulgence? Is it wise in the man who is wasting his property by neglect or extravagance, to persuade his friends to hush their reproving voice, and flatter him that his prosperity is secure? Would the deceit in the former case, change the condition of the patient? or the falsehood in the latter case, restore the fortunes of the spendthrift? How much greater is the folly of the sinner, who, instead of turning from sin to God, through faith in Christ, and thus getting rid of his alarms by abandoning his course of sin—refuses to change his conduct, and asks for a false representation of his real condition. He is like a blind man walking to the edge of a precipice—who solicits those who see his danger to tell him that he is safe. Of what avail will the sermons of the smooth-tongued preacher be to the victims of his wicked cajolery in another world? Such a ministry may blind the eyes and stupify the senses—but not avert the eternal destruction which is advancing silently and slowly—but certainly, notwithstanding the falsehoods of the blind leaders of the blind. Their flattery is not the last tribunal—theirs is not the ultimate decision. From their verdict there must be an appeal to the tribunal of an omniscient and holy God, whose judgment will be according to truth. Millions of sentences pronounced on character by human arbiters are perpetually revoked by Him. It is of no service, therefore, to gain the testimony of ministerial approbation—unless it is confirmed by God. Nor will it be any bar to his condemnation of any sinners at the last day—to affirm that they were flattered into a good opinion of themselves by the religious ministers. Myriads of souls are thus flattered into hell—but not one will ever gain heaven by deceit. The utmost, therefore, which could be gained by our prophesying smooth things to our hearers, would be their enjoying a little temporary ease—which would only be as the calm before the tempest.
2. The SIN of this disposition is equal to its folly."This, then, is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who practices wicked things hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed." (John 3:19-20)
It is sinful alike in its origin, its nature, and its consequences. It is PRODUCED by a confirmed and inveterate sinful habit of mind. Why does a person wish to have a false representation of his state? Why does he wish nothing to be said about his sins and their punishment? Why does he wish the demands of the law, in the way of duty, to be abated—and the terrors of its penalty softened? For this one reason—that as he is determined to go on in sin, he may be left to sin with less reluctance and remorse. He is in love with some evil course, and he wants to be left in it without disturbance. He is set against a holy life, and he therefore dislikes to hear anything about the fruits of sin.
As it is sinful in its origin, it is manifestly so in its NATURE, for it is the love of falsehood; a desire to confound the distinction between sin and holiness. The man who wishes the preacher to treat him as if he was in a state of safety, while he is himself conscious that he is unconverted, and exposed to the wrath of God—is guilty of the sin of calling evil good, of putting darkness for light, and bitter for sweet. The fool says in his heart, "There is no God!" His sinful disposition is at deadly enmity with the perfection of the Divine character. The holiness of God is the object of his abhorrence--as long as this exists he cannot be at perfect peace. The rays of Divine purity, as often as they fall upon his disordered mind, must disturb and exasperate it. He secretly wishes there was no Supreme Being--or that He was not holy. If his powers were equal to his desires, he would wrest the sword of justice from the hand of Deity, strip the character of Jehovah of the beauties of holiness, dash in pieces the tables of His law, overturn the throne of judgment, and establish the reign of anarchy, in order that he might sin in peace, and escape the punishment of his wickedness! The very existence of a holy God is, and ever must be, an annoyance to him, in whose mind there are combined the love of sin, a dread of its consequences, and a wish to be unmolested in his course of iniquity.
Nor is this all; in aiming to suppress the voice of warning and the note of alarm—he acts the part of that infatuated and cruel wretch, who would bribe the sentinel to be silent—when the foe is about to rush, sword in hand, into the camp! Or he would seduce the watchman to be quiet—when the fire had broken out at midnight, and was raging through the city! For thus says the Lord, "Son of man, I have made you a watchman over the house of Israel. When you hear a word from My mouth, give them a warning from Me. If I say to the wicked person: You will surely die, but you do not warn him—you don't speak out to warn him about his wicked way in order to save his life—that wicked person will die for his iniquity. Yet I will hold you responsible for his blood." (Ezekiel 3:17-18)
Under such peril would the prophet of the Lord comply with the wishes of those who would have him keep back the words of the Most High, and comfort those whom he had commanded to alarm. His own salvation is at stake—his own eternal perdition would be the punishment of his treachery. The crime of the sentinel who betrays an army and ruins an empire by his lack of vigilance, or by his treachery, is venial—a mere trifle compared with that of a minister of religion who cries peace to the wicked, and prophesies deceit! He allows the tide of perdition to flow in silently and slowly upon immortal souls! He allows the enemy of souls to come in and wander at his leisure! He allows the fires of the bottomless pit to kindle and rage unchecked—and what does he deserve?
Yet those who ask for smooth things for the ear and the conscience of the sinner, are soliciting him to commit this crime and do this mischief—they are bribing him to ruin his own immortal soul, and the souls of those who hear him—that they may be permitted to go on quietly in sin. Little do they know, and less do they care, what havoc they would make in the eternal interests of mankind, if they could have their wish, and render the pulpit an oracle of flattery and lies!
As it is, the voice of alarm is not always successful; multitudes rush onwards to their ruin, notwithstanding the most faithful and repeated warnings. They are not turned back—but like the infatuated and obstinate Balaam, they force a passage to their destruction, in opposition to the preacher, though he stands, like the angel of the Lord, with a flaming sword across their path. What, then, would be the case if he stood in the very midst of the broad road, and by his soft speeches, and smooth doctrine, confirmed the habits and sanctioned the course of the multitude running to do evil—and from thence to the bottomless pit!
3. The DANGER of such a disposition to the individual himself, is as great as its sin and its folly.The man who is unwilling to hear of approaching misery, is not likely to use any means by which it may be averted. His object is present repose—not future and permanent safety. While a person can look an apprehended calamity in the face, especially if it is a calamity which it is in his power to prevent; while he can allow himself to calculate consequences and anticipate results; and, above all, while he opens his ear to the monitory voice of concerned and faithful friendship, and solicits the counsels of unbending integrity—there is hope of his escape. But if, through a fearful or obstinate temper, he will hearken to no advice; if, through a dread of knowing his real situation, he will close his ears against every warning; if, through a fatal love of present tranquility, he will listen to no prediction of coming mischief; if, through a determination to think well of his case—he rebukes those who admonish him to alter his course of action while yet he has opportunity—his peril is extreme, and his destruction draws near!
Such is the condition of many in reference to eternity. They are living without saving religion—or with only such as is absolutely delusive! They are going on every moment to the judgment of the great God, without being prepared for the tribunal. The minister whom they hear sees their danger, and, in faithful affection for their souls, attempts to disturb their peace, by showing them their situation. To preach smooth things to them would be to become accessory to their destruction, and he therefore sounds the unwelcome, but seasonable note of alarm. But they will not hear him; they have made up their minds to think well of their case; they shun his advice, as well as the counsels of all those who could do them any good, and listen only to the opinions and flatteries of such as are blind leaders of the blind! Instead of wishing to know the real state of the case—their only wish is to be deceived! Instead of running to the physician—their aim is to persuade themselves that they do not need him! Instead of anxiously enquiring, "What shall I do to be saved?" they do not see their danger of being lost! Instead of fleeing from the wrath to come—they covet to be let alone! It is only by a faithful disclosure of their situation that they can escape—but they will not hear it! Like the man whose house is on fire over his head, and who is angry with neighbors who have disturbed his slumbers and alarmed his fears—they entreat that nothing may be said to them about the quenchless fire, although it is kindling around them! They take pains to be lost—and are offended with the people who would save them!
Having changed their place of hearing the word, in order to be at ease in their sins; having left the man whose thunders were perpetually breaking in upon their 'fatal repose', for one of those guilty creatures whose soft whispers lull their devoted hearers to the sleep of death; they obtain, under his soothing discourses, that which they sought—ease from the stings of conscience, and from the anticipations of judgment to come! There, indeed, they are sometimes gently reproved for the grosser eruptions of carnal appetite, and reminded to be a little more virtuous—but, at the same time, are furnished with excuses drawn from the 'weakness of humanity', comforted with assurances of God's indulgence to the frailties of his erring creatures, and reminded that any considerable defects in virtue may in due season be repented of, or made up, by some extra acts of charity or devotion. Conscience is bribed and deceived! From that moment, the poor wretched creature is at ease in Zion—resists and resents every attempt to undeceive him—hugs to his bosom the lie which is destroying him—lavishes his compliments and caresses upon the false prophet that is the accomplice of his soul's murder—lives in peace, dies perhaps in tranquility!
But there the delusion ends! For "in hell he lifts up his eyes, being in torment!" He who on earth would not hear of his sin—now feels all its bitter consequences—when repentance is too late, and where pardon never comes at all. He who on earth reviled the faithful minister—now curses the preacher of smooth things. He that on earth could never bear to hear of the bottomless pit—is now in the midst of it! He that wished his imagination never to be terrified by the flame of the burning lake—is now tossed upon its billows! He had his wish, for he heard the tongue of flattery, and selected a false minister of religion, who caused the Holy One to cease from before him—and now he is in that horrible place, where the dreadful form of holiness, as it is seen in retributive justice—is the chief object that will ever be present to his astonished, affrighted, and agonized spirit! He chose rather to be flattered to his ruin—than alarmed to his salvation! He has his choice, and proves now the truth of that fearful declaration, "If such a man, hearing the words of this curse, takes comfort in the thought that he will have peace even if he goes on in the pride of his heart, taking whatever chance may give him—the Lord will have no mercy on him, but the wrath of the Lord will be burning against that man, and all the curses recorded in this book will be waiting for him! He will be marked out by the Lord, for an evil fate, in keeping with all the curses of the agreement recorded in this book of the law." (Deuteronomy 29:19-21)
How great are the importance, responsibility, and difficulty, which attach to the ministerial office; and how concerned those who sustain it should be, to discharge its duties with uncompromising fidelity. As to those wicked and miserable men who have taken up the ministerial office as a mere profession to live by, without any spiritual qualifications for its duties, their guilt now, and their punishment hereafter, exceed the powers of language to describe, and of imagination to conceive! They are the most sinful beings on earth, and will be the most wretched creatures in eternity! A pretend lawyer, who undertakes to conduct men's cases or to prepare their title deeds without a knowledge of law; or a person professing to be a physician, and undertaking to cure dangerous diseases, without the least knowledge of medicine; a pilot, taking the helm of a ship without any acquaintance with navigation; or a general, leading an army into battle without any experience in military tactics—are modest and harmless characters—compared with the man who professes to be a minister of religion without a personal acquaintance with the subject! The others only destroy men's bodies or properties—but the false minister is accessory to the ruin of their souls! Upon him will rest the blood of all those whom he has guided to destruction!
That such should prophesy smooth things is, of course, to be looked for; they know nothing else; they prophesy those things to themselves, and will declare them to others. Melancholy, most melancholy, is it to reflect how many of the public teachers of religion, even in this Protestant country, are perpetually employed in the 'ministry of deceit'—assiduously laboring to hide men's spiritual condition from their view; zealously endeavoring to suppress the concern produced in the souls of their neighbors, by men more faithful than themselves; exerting all their influence to keep mankind 'asleep in sin'—thus busying themselves in the work of perdition—and, like their master Satan—whom they serve and imitate, going about as a roaring lion, seeking whom they may devour. They are mere pulpit agents of the devil, receiving the wages of the sanctuary while they do his fatal work; keeping all still and quiet among his slaves, preventing all attempts to throw off his hateful yoke, by flattering them with the idea that they are the servants of God.
But I would address myself to those ministers who profess to be experimentally acquainted with true religion, and to declare with fidelity the whole counsel of God. To them I would, with great deference, suggest two things.
1. The conversion of sinners should be the chief object of every minister of Christ.By listening to the habitual strain of some good men's preaching, we would be led to conclude, either that they had no unconverted hearers in their congregation, or they had nothing to do with their conversion. Almost everything which they utter is addressed to believers, or if an occasional appeal be made to the impenitent, it is so formal, so cold, and so general, that it is not likely it should produce much effect. When we consider that, in most congregations, the majority, it is to be feared, is composed of unregenerate people, surely, surely, they ought to be viewed as the first object of ministerial solicitude—they will soon be gone beyond the reach of salvation; almost every Sabbath some one or other of them retires from beneath the minister's voice, to return no more. Besides, the means that are calculated to impress, convince, and convert them, are adapted to keep up in the minds of believers, a deep and impressive sense of eternal realities. Is not this justified by the parable of the Shepherd leaving the ninety and nine sheep in the fold, to go into the wilderness after the solitary wanderer? Here I will quote the language of Baxter—"The work of conversion is the great thing we must drive at—after this we must labor with all our might. Alas! the misery of the unconverted is so great, that it calls loudest to us for compassion. If a truly converted sinner does fall, it will be but into sin which will be pardoned, and he is not in that hazard of damnation by it as others are. Not but that God hates their sins as well as others, or that he will bring them to heaven, let them live ever so wickedly—but the Spirit who is within them will not allow them to live wickedly, or to sin as the ungodly do. But with the unconverted it is far otherwise. They are in the 'gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity,' and have yet no part nor fellowship in the pardon of their sins, or the hope of glory. We have, therefore, a work of greater necessity to do for them, even 'to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God; that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among those who are sanctified.' He that sees one man sick of a mortal disease, and another only pained with the tooth-ache, will be moved more to compassionate the former than the latter; and will surely make more haste to help him, though he were a stranger, or the other a brother or a son. It is so sad a case to see men in a state of damnation, wherein, if they should die, they are lost for ever, that methinks we should not be able to let them alone, either in public or private, whatever other work we have to do. I confess I am frequently forced to neglect that which should tend to the further increase of knowledge in the godly, because of the lamentable necessity of the unconverted. Who is able to talk of controversies, or of nice unnecessary points, or even of truths of a lower degree of necessity, however excellent, while he sees a company of ignorant, carnal, miserable sinners before his eyes, who must be changed or damned? Methinks I even see them entering upon their final woe. Methinks I hear them crying out for help, for speediest help! Their misery speaks the louder, because they have not hearts to ask for help themselves. Many a time have I known that I had some hearers of higher fancies, that looked for rarities, and were addicted to despise the ministry, if I told them not something more than ordinary; and yet I could not find in my heart to turn from the necessities of the impenitent—for the humouring of them; nor even to leave speaking to miserable sinners for their salvation, in order to speak as much as should otherwise be done to weak saints for their confirmation and increase in grace. Methinks, as Paul's 'spirit was stirred within him, when he saw the Athenians wholly given to idolatry,' so it should cast us into one of his paroxysms to see so many men in the greatest danger of being everlastingly undone. Methinks, if by faith we did indeed look upon them as within a step of hell, it would more effectually untie our tongues. He that will let a sinner go down to hell for lack of speaking to him, sets less value on souls than did the Redeemer of souls; and less by his neighbor than common charity will allow him to do by his greatest enemy. O, therefore, brethren, whoever you neglect, neglect not the most miserable! Whatever you pass over, forget not poor souls that are under the condemnation and curse of the Law, and who may look every hour for the infernal execution, if a speedy change does not prevent it. O call after the impenitent, and ply this great work of converting souls, whatever else you leave undone."
2. If, then, the conversion of the impenitent be the first object of ministerial solicitude, this must be sought by suitable means.The means for awakening the unconverted are of course various; some are wrought upon by one truth in the hand of the Spirit, and some by another; and, perhaps, most ministers have sometimes been surprised by finding that discourses have been rendered beneficial for the rousing of the careless, which, in their purpose at the time, were neither specially adapted nor intended for this object. But I am speaking now of the means which, to our view, appear generally most adapted to awaken attention, produce impression, and lead to conversion. On this subject I do not hesitate for a moment to give it, as my opinion, that what may be called the 'alarming style of preaching' is most adapted to convert the impenitent. I do not mean gross and revolting descriptions of eternal torment, nor the carrying out into minute detail what may be called the material and corporal representations of the punishment of the wicked. This is offensive and disgusting, and generally defeats its own purpose; especially when done, as is often the case, in a harsh, cold, and unfeeling manner.
What I mean by alarming preaching is an exhibition of the purity and unbending strictness of the law, together with such a method of applying this strict rule to the heart and conduct of the individual sinner, as is calculated to awaken and startle his conscience; a faithful portraiture of the heinousness of sin, stripped of all the excuses which our deceitful nature is so skillful in framing for its defense; a careful discrimination between mere reformation and a renewed heart; the indispensable necessity of regeneration, and the absolute certainty that every man will perish who dies without it; a solemn manifestation of the immaculate holiness of God, and of his retributive justice in the punishment of the wicked; an impressive description of the solemnities of judgment, together with a chastened but awakening account of the torments of those who reject the sacrifice of Christ, and refuse the offer of mercy. These are the subjects, explained and enforced in suitable language, with close application to the heart, pungent appeals to the conscience, and with an affectionate, earnest, solemn manner, that are likely to arouse the careless and convert the sinner. I do not mean, of course, that we should make such topics the incessant subjects of our ministerial addresses. A perpetual denunciatory strain would at length render those for whom it was intended, carelessly familiar with the terrors of the Lord. The timid would come at length to listen to the most appalling tempest without alarm, if it always thundered.
But what I mean is, that while a minister's habitual strain of preaching should be so discriminating as to leave no unconverted sinner at a loss with whom to class himself, whether with believers or with unbelievers. It should frequently contain those allusions to, and descriptions of, the wrath of God, which like the distant rumblings of the gathering and approaching storm, should drive men to the refuge provided by infinite mercy in the cross of Christ. No one will flee for shelter who does not see a tempest at hand; and then only will the shelter be valued when the storm is believed to be coming. Hence the necessity of a minister's raising the warning voice to announce the approach of that storm of divine vengeance which is coming upon the wicked, and which, as it cannot be seen by the eye of sense, should be the more vividly described and more earnestly represented to the mind. That this style of preaching has been the most useful, could be easily proved by an appeal to the history of the church. Who have been the most successful ministers of the world? Certainly those who have been most pungent and alarming.
(Let any one read the discourses of Baxter, who seemed to speak as between heaven and hell, with the glories of one and the torments of the other open before him—and remember his success. Or let him peruse the discourses of Whitfield, which were followed with a measure of success unparalleled since the days of the apostles; what a pungent and alarming strain do we find running through them! Equally in point are the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, which were the means of an astonishing revival of religion in his town and neighborhood. The preaching of that great man appears to have been more alarming than any which we are ever accustomed to hear. And, as to modern times, may it not be asked whether the most alarming preachers have not been the most successful ones. In further confirmation of this view of the subject, I might appeal to those popular tracts and treatises which have been so signally blessed for the conversion of sinners, such as "Alleine's Alarm," "Baxter's Call," "Doddridge's Rise and Progress," etc. If the reading of these has been so useful, surely it may be expected that preaching in a similar strain would be still more so.)
But ministers, notwithstanding this, are under a great temptation to preach smooth things, and to shrink from what may emphatically be called the burden of the Lord. A false charity leads them, in some instances, to be unwilling to disturb the peace or distress the feelings of their hearers; or, perhaps, there are some in their congregation who may feel an objection to what they contemptuously call the harrowing style. But most of all are those in danger of compromising their duty, who are appointed to minister to well educated and wealthy audiences. We all, perhaps, feel it more difficult, even in private conversation, to deal plainly and faithfully with a rich man than a poor one; and we carry too much of this sinful respect of people with us into the pulpit. We do not like to offend the delicacy of people of refined sentiments and well-informed minds. Even the most pious ministers, the men not usually lacking in fidelity, are too susceptible of impressions of this nature, and are in some peril of softening the terms of their message, and, out of compliment to rank, wealth, or intelligence, merging the terrors of the Lord in elegances of style or the ornaments of eloquence. They will not, perhaps, dare to withhold the substance of truth—but in their attempts to render it palatable to people of education, property, or talent, they will so dilute it with foreign admixtures as to deprive it of its efficacy. They will relate a parable and leave the rich man to discover and make the application to himself, instead of boldly saying, like the prophet to the monarch of Israel, "You are the man!" Away, away, with this false, this ruinous deference to the rich and the learned; it is treachery to God and their souls. At our peril is it that we soften down the terrors of the Lord to please any man; we must not shun to declare the whole counsel of God to nobles or to monarchs, if we were to preach to them; we must stand clear of the blood of the rich as well as of the poor. Did Paul regard the feelings of Felix? No! he made him tremble upon his seat, with the themes of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come.
Nor must we allow ourselves to be drawn away from our duty in these things by any in our congregation, whose nervous temperaments or mistaken notions may set them against a faithful and impressive exhibition of the justice of God in the punishment of the wicked. We must not, in compassion to the weak, or in compliment to the erroneous, keep back those truths which are ordained by God for the conversion of men's souls. Nor must we listen to the seductive insinuations, the selfish policy, or the spiritual covetousness of those, who would intimate that we are robbing the children to benefit the stranger. We have a message from God unto sinners, which all the saints on earth, were they assembled, must not allow us to suppress in silence.
Sin is raging all around us! Satan is busy in the work of destruction! Men are dying! Souls are every moment departing into eternity! Hell is enlarging her mouth, and multitudes are continually descending to torments which knows no mitigation and no end! Is this a state of things in which any who believe its reality can allow themselves to be flatterers? Alas! such flattery ends in eternal death! How important and incumbent is it that all who hear the Word of God, should be willing to hear it fully and faithfully delivered.
A word of admonition is here needed for two classes of professing Christians. Are there not many who are dissatisfied with everything but words of comfort and statements of privilege? They object to everything of a searching and practical tendency. Their incessant demand is for doctrine and consolation. Everything besides this is said to be legality. This disposition is, though in a modified sense of the text, a demanding of smooth things, and is, in a measure, asking for deceit, and requesting that the Holy One of Israel may depart from his people. Such people value themselves as being believers of greater eminence, children in the family of God of taller stature and greater strength than others; but reasoning from analogy, one should be led to suppose that the oldest and best children would be most anxious to hear their father's command, and do their duty by fulfilling his will; for in the families of men, it is the younger and more ignorant and petulant that quarrel with commands and cry after luscious sweets.
The strongest mark of great grace is to delight more than others in knowing and doing the will of God, and yet to think least of what we do. Many who boast of their high attainments in religion, would have the ministers of God leave out more than half their message; and what is this but to do the work of the Lord deceitfully? Upon their principles, all parts of God's Word but the promises are unnecessary—they are useless to believers, for they are above them by privilege; useless to sinners, for they are below them in respect to obligation.
But there is another class of professors of religion, who are anxious that the preacher should confine himself to consolatory topics, and say little to awaken the conscience, or alarm the mind; I mean those who are but too well convinced of the inconsistency of their conduct, and the irregularity of their walk, to be comfortable under faithful, penetrating, and discriminating sermons. Many such, alas! there are, who, if not altogether hypocrites, approach as nearly as can be to that odious character. They cannot bear the searching discourses of the servant of the Lord. His warnings and appeals; his demands of the surrender of every secret sin, of cutting off of right hands, and the plucking out of right eyes; his declarations that the habitual indulgence of one known and willful corruption, is incompatible with the existence of the Christian character, and will cast the transgressor into perdition; his urgent enforcement of all the branches of evangelical obedience, are as troublesome and annoying to some who call themselves Christians, as vinegar to a fresh wound. They shrink from his descriptions of the distinguishing marks of true and false professors; they tremble at his denunciations of Divine vengeance, and vent their spleen in angry reproaches upon his 'legal preaching'. "We ask for bread," say they, "and he gives us a stone; for an egg, and he gives us a scorpion! We want comfort, and he gives us distress! We want promises, and he denounces threatenings! We want the felicities of heaven, and he describes to us the torments of hell."
Hypocrites! he gives you that which belongs to you. To prophesy smooth things to you would be to corrupt his message—and to comfort those whom God would not have comforted. Consolation to you would be a deadly poison, a fatal opiate. You must forsake your sins, or what have you to do with peace? He must bring you nearer to the Holy One, that you may see more clearly still your vileness. The most appalling denunciations of Divine vengeance are necessary for you. Thunders louder and more dreadful than those that are rolled over the conscience of the men that make no profession, are necessary for you, you unsound professors. You have heard ordinary storms so often, that you can sport with thunderbolts. If you rightly understood your own case, you would deprecate smooth things, dread the language of deceit, and ask for plain dealing and faithful admonition. Your peril is extreme!
It is not uncommon for even consistent Christians, who have only the ordinary imperfections of even the best men, to wish to hear less of the alarming parts of divine truth. "We want comfort," say they; "we are at peace with God; to us he comes not in the earthquake, or the tempest—but in the still small voice." Be it so. But have you no compassion for others, no concern for their salvation? Besides, can you not, while the tempest is abroad, and the storm is passing by, lift up your heart in gratitude to God, that you have found a shelter? And, after all, are there no imperfections yet to be put away from you, no defects yet to be supplied which require the voice of alarm sometimes to be sounded in your ears? Who can tell but this may be necessary for keeping you awake? Cordials, soothings, and dainties may not do for a continuance for your moral constitution—something more pungent and painful may be occasionally necessary. It may be good even for you, sometimes to rejoice with trembling. A blast of the trumpet, at which Moses said, "I exceedingly fear and quake," may prevent the progress of a fearful lethargy which had begun to creep over your soul.
Innumerable Christians have derived unspeakable advantages from the alarms that have sounded from Zion's hill, and have returned to buckle on their armor afresh, and to go forth with renewed strength to the good fight of faith.
Let those who cannot bear to hear the descriptions of future punishment, think with themselves how they shall be able to endure it! There is every reason for believing that they who demand smooth things and deceit from the preacher, are the very people who are going on to suffer the vengeance, to the description of which they cannot be made to listen with patience. Why those alarms and terrors, those painful forebodings, those dreadful apprehensions? Ah, why? Do they not disclose the secrets of a mind aware that if it continues in its present state, it has nothing else to look for but the wrath to come?
"The sinners in Zion are afraid, fearfulness has seized the hypocrites!" But why? Because their awakened and terrified conscience exclaims, "Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings? Who can dwell with devouring fires?" Yes, that unutterable aversion and irreconcileable hatred to the subject of future punishment, which makes them dislike the preaching and the preacher that bring it before them, too plainly indicate the state of their mind. It is like the malefactor not liking to hear the description of the gallows; or the palpitation of the offender, as he passes beneath the gloomy and frowning portals of the prison. Virtuous citizens have nothing to fear from either. Take warning, sinner, from this simple fact. Let your own feelings be your monitor. Ask yourself the simple and natural question—why you tremble at the denunciations of Divine wrath against transgressors—why you should wish the seers to prophesy deceit and lies.
And, then, if the very report of approaching vengeance makes the ear to tingle, what, O! what will be the dreadful reality? All that the most eloquent, the most impassioned preacher can say of the wrath coming upon the wicked is infinitely below the mark. It is only as the description of the most exquisite tortures that were ever inflicted by fire or sharp-edged instruments upon the human frame—compared with the endurance of the horrible agony. Assemble all the threatenings and the curses that the finger of justice has written in the sacred volume; associate all the figures under which the torments of the damned are set forth in the Word of God; array all the terms of indignation and vengeance which can be selected from the page of inspiration; add to these all the passages of that lurid eloquence of man which seems irradiated with the reflection of infernal fires, and vocal with sounds that escape from the bottomless pit—and what is it, after all, compared with the reality of future punishment! It as only the mere pencil representation of the deluge—compared with the real horrors of that most amazing scene of infinite wrath! Oh, no; there is in that one word—Hell—a depth, and length, and breadth of meaning, which nothing short of actually suffering the vengeance of eternal fire can enable us to understand!
These terms are too weak to convey to us adequate ideas on this subject, and therefore figures are employed; figures are too weak, and visions are added to them; words, figures, and visions, are too weak, and therefore does the apostle drop all, and ask, with most alarming emphasis, "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?" With that question, I close my discourse. That question crowds the imagination with more terrors, than the most extended and appalling description; and impresses the heart with the conviction that the man who dies without true repentance towards God, and true faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, goes to a state of misery in another world, which is—unavoidable, indescribable, and eternal!
"This is what the Lord Almighty says: Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They keep saying to those who despise Me, 'The Lord says: You will have peace.' And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts they say, 'No harm will come to you.'" Jeremiah 23:16-17