Charles Simeon's Devotional Commentaries
True Piety Described
1 Thessalonians 1:2–4. We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers; remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father; knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God.
THIS epistle, though not placed first in the sacred canon, is generally supposed to have been the first in point of time: and in point of tenderness and affection, it is certainly inferior to none. The Church at Thessalonica was subjected to heavy trials. In their first reception of the word, they sustained grievous opposition; and, in their subsequent profession of it, they endured a great fight of afflictions, being no less cruelly persecuted by their own countrymen than the Apostles were by the Jews. From them Paul had been driven by the fury of his bloodthirsty enemies, who had followed him even to Berea with the most relentless animosity. No wonder therefore that he felt extremely anxious for his new converts, under a situation of such peril. Gladly would he have returned to them again and again: but his watchful and malicious adversaries would not suffer it. Hence his anxiety for them became exteme; so that he could no longer endure the suspense he was in concerning them. The presence of Timothy with him at Athens was of great importance: yet on the whole he thought it better to be left at Athens alone, that, by sending Timothy to them, he might gain certain information of their state, and promote their establishment in the faith. After Timothy's return to him, he wrote them this epistle. It is an epistle admirably calculated to impress the minds of all who read it, whether ministers or people, and to show them what ardent affection should exist between all who stand in that relation towards each other. In the commencement of it we see how ready he was to acknowledge and commend what was good in them: and herein he particularly instructs us how to minister with effect. Though doubtless it is the duty of every minister to reprove and correct what he sees amiss in his people, his chief delight should be to comfort the feeble-minded, to support the weak, and to build up all in their most holy faith. The object he should continually aim at should be, to be "a helper of their joy."
In discoursing on the words which we have just read, we shall consider,
I. The graces which he had seen in them.
The great leading graces of Christianity are, "faith, hope, and charity." On these all other graces essentially depend; so that where these are, there will all others most assuredly be found. But of all these graces there are counterfeits: there is "a faith that is dead," there is "a love, which is" little else than "dissimulation," and there is "a hope of the hypocrite that perishes." Such however were not the graces which had been exercised among them: in them he had seen,
1. An active faith.
True faith is active: it brings to the Christian's view the Lord Jesus Christ, as having in him a fullness of all imaginable blessings treasured up for the use of the Church; just as the vine has in its root and trunk that sap, of which all the branches partake, and by which they are nourished—Faith, moreover, brings him to Christ for daily supplies of those blessings which his various necessities require—And having received communications of grace according to his necessities, he is stirred up by it to improve them to the glory of his Redeemer's name—In a word, whatever the Christian has to do for God, he does it through the operation of this principle; by which, and by which alone, he overcomes the world, and purifies his heart. This faith he had seen in his Thessalonian converts: yes, so eminently had it shone forth in them, that they were celebrated for it in almost every Church throughout all the Roman empire, and were held forth as patterns and examples of it to all the Christian world!
2. A laborious love.
Love is that fruit by which, above all, the truth and reality of faith will be discerned. It is by this, above all, that we can assure ourselves, or be known to others, as faithful followers of Christ. If we have it not, all else that we can have is of no value. But love is a laborious grace: it is always seeking for something which it may do, either for God or man. It cannot endure to be idle. Whether it can do little or much, it delights to be doing what it can. Nor is it diverted from its pursuit by slight obstacles: no; like the water obstructed by the dam, it will overcome them; and will evince its strength and ardor, in proportion to the difficulties that impede its exercise. Love is a self-denying grace: and where it exists in due measure, it will prompt a man not only to sacrifice ease and interest, but even to lay down his life itself for the brethren. This grace was so conspicuous in the Thessalonian converts, that Paul judged it quite unnecessary to write to them on the subject: they were so taught by God himself respecting all its duties and offices, that he could add nothing to them, but only exhort them to abound more and more in the conduct which they had already pursued.
3. A patient hope.
Hope is the offspring of faith and love, or at least of that faith which works by love. It is here called "hope in our Lord Jesus Christ;" because "in him all the promises of God are yes, and amen." It is a patient grace, leading us to expect all that God has promised, however long we may have to wait for it; and to fulfill all that God has required, to the utmost possible extent; and to suffer all that God has ordained us to suffer, in hope of a final recompense; and, finally, to continue in a constant course of well-doing, even to the end. Such was the hope which the Thessalonians had maintained; and in which they had greatly rejoiced, even in the midst of all their afflictions.
From considering the graces of these eminent Christians, we proceed to notice,
II. The effects produced by them in his own mind.
They excited in the Apostle's breast,
1. A lively interest in their welfare.
A person less connected with them than he, could not but have admired such excellencies: but he was their father: he had begotten them in the Gospel: and therefore he might well boast of them, as "his glory, and joy." Accordingly we find that, "whenever he came into the presence of his God and Father," he both gave thanks for them, and prayed for their still greater advancement in everything that was good. Most exalted was the joy which he felt on their account. When he saw the transcendent eminence of their attainments, he quite forgot all his own afflictions: the sight inspired new life and vigor into him: and he felt in himself a recompense, which richly repaid all that he had done and suffered for their sake.
This shows what are the views and feelings of every faithful minister, when he sees his people adorning by their conduct the Gospel of Christ. Truly, as John says, "they have no greater joy than to see their children walk in truth." This comforts them in all their approaches to the throne of grace: this fills them with praises and thanksgivings to God. That so great an honor should be conferred on themselves—that such advantages should be imparted to their perishing fellow-creatures—and that such glory should be brought to God by their means—is to them a subject of almost stupifying amazement, and of overwhelming gratitude. And while they render thanks to God for these things, they pour out their hearts before him in prayers and supplications in their behalf. In a word, these things form a bond of union between a minister and his people, such as exists not in the whole world besides.
2. An assured confidence in their state.
When he beheld these fruits produced by his converts, he "had no doubt of their election of God," the graces they exercised were manifestly wrought in them by the power of God, who had wrought thus upon them in consequence of his own purpose which from all eternity he had purposed in himself.
The same blessed assurance we also may entertain, wherever the same ground for it exists. Assurance, so founded, can never be productive of any bad effect. It is only when persons pretend to be assured of their election on other grounds, that any evil can arise from it. If, for instance, a person founded such a conceit on a dream, or vision, or strong impression on his own mind, then we would be among the first to bear testimony against him, as a wild enthusiast, and a self-deluding impostor. Against such a delusion we readily acknowledge that no terms of reprobation are too severe. But when such fruits as those which the Thessalonian converts produced are visible in any, then may we indulge the pleasing thought respecting them, as they also may respecting themselves, that "God loved them with an everlasting love, and therefore with loving-kindness has he drawn them." Only we may observe, that this assurance is no farther justifiable than it is warranted by the graces which exist in the soul: with the increase of those graces it may justly rise; and with the diminution of them it must proportionably fall. Any other assurance than this is unscriptural and vain: but this not only may be entertained, but is the privilege and comfort of all who believe in Christ.
Happy should we be to improve this subject in such a way only as corresponds with the general tenor of the Apostle's address: but,
1. Must we not rather take up a lamentation over you?
Of how small a part of our audience can we speak in the terms here used towards the Thessalonian converts! For, where are the works of faith, the labors of love, the patience of hope, of the generality among you? Where are those fruits which would warrant your minister to say, that he "knew from them your election of God?" What is the faith of the generality, but a dead faith? what their love, but an empty name? what their hope, but presumption? We would not willingly speak thus, God knows! We would be glad to be found false accusers in this matter. Greatly should we rejoice to be convinced of our error, and to revoke every intimation we have here given. But, while the fruit produced by you is no other than what the world at large produce, we can address you in no other terms than those of grief and sorrow. If the fruit be bad, the tree must be bad also. O brethren! examine well the daily operation and effect of your faith and love and hope; and then ask, whether Paul would have exulted over you, as he did over the Thessalonian converts? and, if your own consciences testify that he would have found no such cause for joy in you, then learn to relax your confidence of your state before God, and seek to be made "Israelites indeed, in whom is no deceit."
2. Suffer you then yet farther a word of exhortation.
To those who really possess and manifest the graces before described, we would say, Be thankful to God for his electing love; and give him all the glory of whatever good there is in you. "Press onward too, forgetting what is behind, and reaching forward to what is before," and never think that you have already attained, while and thing remains to be attained.
But to those in whom there is little or no evidence of such a work of grace we would say, For Christ's sake deceive not your own souls. This which you have seen in the Thessalonians is Christianity: and this is the state to which the Gospel is designed to bring you also: this too is the object of all our ministrations: and, if these graces be not wrought in your hearts, we consider ourselves as "laboring in vain, and running in vain." While we see not this effect of our ministrations, how can we "give thanks for you?" or how, with any comfort, can we "make mention of you in our prayers?" Instead of rejoicing over you, we can only mourn and weep on your account: and, instead of having the delightful thought of presenting you to God "as the children which God has given us," we have the terrible apprehension that we shall prove swift witnesses against you to your eternal condemnation. We pray you, brethren, lay to heart these affecting considerations; and begin without delay to seek that entire change both of heart and life, which invariably characterizes the elect of God, and which alone can warrant any hope of happiness in the eternal world.
The Manner in Which the Gospel Becomes Effectual
1 Thessalonians 1:5. Our Gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance.
IT is not uncommon for persons to be troubled in their minds respecting their interest in the Divine favor: they want to know whether they belong to the elect. But this is a point which can never be ascertained, except in one way. No man can go up to Heaven, and search the book of God's decrees: no man can turn over the pages of the book of life, to see whether his name be written there. The discovery must be made by an examination of our own heart and life. If we find the fruits of the Spirit within us, we know infallibly who the agent is that has produced them; and from such an undeniable evidence of God's love we may safely conclude, that we are elected of him. It was thus that Paul discerned the interest which the Thessalonians had in God's electing love. Their "fruits of faith, and labors of love, and patience of hope in the Lord Jesus," flowing as they did from a powerful operation of the Gospel upon their souls, left no doubt upon his mind respecting their state, but enabled him confidently to assert, that "he knew their election of God." He saw the fruit; nor was he at any loss to determine from what root it sprang.
It is for this fruit that we now purpose to inquire: and, in order that we may attain a just knowledge of our state, we shall show,
I. When the word may be said to come in word only.
By "our Gospel" the Apostle means, that which he and his fellow-laborers, Timothy and Sylvanus, had preached to them, and which had "come to them" as sent and authorized by God himself. But notwithstanding its divine origin, it comes to many "in word only." Now it comes thus.
1. When it makes no impression on the minds of those who hear it.
Many hear the Gospel for years, and yet never come to the knowledge of it. Not that they want a capacity to understand it; but they want an inclination to attend to it with that seriousness that it requires. They listen to the voice that utters it; but they do not reflect upon the subject itself; so that it passes through their minds, like a vessel in the ocean, leaving no trace behind. Our Lord compares them to the way-side, on which good seed is sown, but is instantly taken away again by the birds, so that none of it springs up. It is truly said of them, that "hearing, they hear not, neither do they understand."
2. When it makes no other impression than what mere moral suasion will produce.
Oratory on some occasions will produce very powerful effects. Even the recital of some calamitous event will greatly affect the passions, and either rouse us to indignation, or melt us to tears. But these emotions are only transient: the memory of the things that caused them vanishes away; and no abiding effect is produced. Thus it is with many who hear the Gospel. They are affected by it for a time: sometimes they are depressed with fear and terror, and sometimes elated with hope and joy: but they experience no radical change of heart and life. Such were many of Ezekiel's hearers: they were delighted with his eloquence, as people are with a performance of vocal or instrumental music; but their hearts were as much addicted to covetousness, and as averse to real piety as ever. Such persons are represented by our Lord as the stony-ground hearers, who receive the word instantly and with joy; but, having no root in themselves, they quickly wither, and come to naught. James also compares them to men who see their face in a glass, but go away and forget what manner of persons they are. Whatever impressions therefore the Gospel may make upon them at the time, it certainly comes to them in word only.
Such an application of the Gospel being of no value, we proceed to show,
II. In what way it must come, in order to be effectual.
To whoever it be declared, whether to men of greater or less capacity, it must come,
1. With a divine energy to the soul.
The Gospel is "the rod of God's strength," even that wonder-working rod whereby the most astonishing miracles are wrought. By it "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life again." Weak as it is in itself, even as the rod of Moses was, it is "mighty through God to the pulling down of the strong-holds of sin and Satan; bringing, not the actions only, but even the thoughts, of men into captivity to the obedience of Christ." This is "the sword which Christ girds upon his thigh," and with which he subdues his enemies. It is "the sword of the Spirit" also. It is, in short, that instrument whereby the Sacred Three accomplish all their mysterious purposes in converting and saving a ruined world. But then it must be wielded by an almighty arm: it must "come in demonstration of the Spirit and of power." or else it will fail of producing any permanent effect. None but He who moved upon the chaos, and formed it into order and beauty, can new create the soul. Such a change may be wrought as we road of in Ezekiel's vision, where the dry bones came together, and the sinews and flesh came up upon them; but they were only a corpse still, until the Spirit breathed upon them: and then they rose up, even a great army. Thus persons who are dead in sin, may be brought to a profession of religion by other means: but nothing short of a divine power can ever "turn men truly from darkness unto light, and from the power of Satan unto God." Paul may plant, and Apollos may water; but it is God alone who can give the increase.
2. With an assured sense of its truth and excellence.
One reason why the Gospel has so little effect, is, that "men do not mix faith with what they hear." They regard it "rather as the word of men, than as the word of God." In going to hear it, they consider themselves as going to hear a man; when they should rather go in the spirit of the Centurion and his friends, saying, "Behold, now we are all here present before you, to hear all things that are commanded you of God." Moreover the Gospel should be viewed as a remedy, a remedy of God's providing, and exactly suited to our wants. We should go to hear it, as a hungry person goes to a feast: he will not be satisfied with barely looking upon the things that are set before him; he feels an appetite for them; he believes them to be good for him; and he partakes of them for his own personal benefit and satisfaction. When the Gospel comes in this manner, even as it did on the day of Pentecost, it lays open the whole heart; it pierces deeper than a two-edged swords; and heals the wounds that it inflicts. Then it is truly precious to the soul; sweeter than honey or the honeycomb; and more desirable than one's necessary food.
Coming in this manner, the Gospel is of inestimable value; as will appear, while we consider,
III. What effects it will then produce.
It will work in us precisely as it did in those at Thessalonica: it will make us,
1. Imitators of Christ.
The Thessalonian Christians instantly became "followers of Christ and of his Apostles," they made an open profession of Christianity, and consorted with those who were like-minded with themselves. In the same manner, all who "receive the truth in the love thereof" will "join themselves to the Church," without any fear of that reproach which their new profession will bring upon them. They have counted the cost, and are willing to pay it. They take up their cross cheerfully, "choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy all the pleasures and honors of the worldy."
While they call themselves followers of Christ and his Apostles, they also become imitators of them. They will no longer follow the course of this world, but will regulate their conduct by a higher standard: they will look to the example which Christ has set them, and endeavor to "walk as he walked." His meekness and gentleness, his humility and kindness, his patience and self-denial, his devotedness to God, and love to man, will be progressively transcribed into their hearts and lives; nor will they be satisfied "until they arrive at the measure of the full stature of Christ."
2. Patterns to their brethren.
This also is mentioned to the honor of the Thessalonians, as resulting from the manner in which the Gospel came to them. And in this all true Christians will resemble them. One in whom the word has wrought effectually will not be contented with setting a good example to the world around him; (this would be a matter of no great difficulty:) he will make his light so to shine before men, that all, whether believers or unbelievers, may be edified by it. He would gladly say with the Apostle to all who behold him, "Whatever you have seen and heard in me, do; and the God of peace shall be with you." This distinguished piety is not to be sought by ministers only, (though doubtless they, with their peculiar advantages, ought not to be behind others in anything that is good,) but by persons of every age, and of every class. All should endeavor to grow in grace, that from children they may become young men, and from thence advance until they are fathers in Christ. And it is certain, that all who are perfect, or have attained to maturity in the Christian life, will be thus minded.
We may learn from hence,
1. What reason for thankfulness they have, in whom the Gospel has wrought effectually.
If we have experienced any spiritual change, we must trace it up to God, as the sole author of it. The power that effected it was not in the word; for then the same change would have been wrought in all who heard it: nor was the distinction occasioned by our own superior wisdom or goodness; for then the wisest and most moral of men would uniformly be the most forward to receive the Gospel; whereas they are rather the most averse to it. No; it was God alone who made us to differ; and to Him alone must all the glory be ascribed.
2. How we are to obtain benefit from the word delivered to us.
If the mighty working of God's power be requisite, even of the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead, we should implore his presence before we go up to his house; we should be lifting up our hearts in ejaculatory prayer while we are hearing his word; and, after the seed has been sown, we should water it with our prayers and tears. This is the way which God himself has prescribed; and it would insure a blessing, because Christ himself is in the midst of his people, on purpose to bless those who call upon him in spirit and in truth. It is owing to the want of this, both in ministers and people, that the ordinances are so unprofitable. Let us then abound more in the great duty of prayer; and God will pour out his Spirit upon us: He will give us that unction of the Holy One that shall teach us all things; and make his word to be "the power of God to the salvation of our souls.
Scope and End of the Christian Ministry
1 Thessalonians 1:9, 10. They themselves show of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from Heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.
ST. PAUL delighted in bestowing commendation wherever it was due. When writing to the Church at Rome, he told them that "their faith was spoken of throughout the whole world; and here he tells his Thessalonian converts, that their faith was so celebrated, that he heard of it wherever he went; insomuch that in every place he was anticipated in his commendations of them, the extraordinary effects of his ministry among them being in all the Churches a general topic of conversation. The particular effects which had been produced he here specifies: and, in considering them, we shall be led to show,
I. What is the great end and object of our ministrations.
Ministers are ambassadors from God to man: they are sent with tidings of mercy to a rebellious world: but they are sent also to effect a moral change in the hearts and lives of all who receive their message. They are sent to bring men,
1. To serve and obey their God.
Even Christians, until converted by the Spirit of God, are universally addicted to idolatry. They do not indeed, like the heathen world, bow down to stocks and stones; but they "love and serve the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for evermore." "The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life," possess the supreme place in their affections, and are sought after in preference to God—To turn men from these vanities, and to bring them to their God, is the end for which every minister is sent, and at which he should continually aim. And this, we trust, is the object which, in all our addresses, we have in view. Yes, we would bring you to serve the living God, who alone is worthy of your regard; for he alone has life in himself; and he alone can confer life on his devoted servants. But it is not a mere formal service to which we would bring you, but a total surrender of all your faculties and powers to him. This is your "reasonable service." There is none but God that has any claim upon you. What has the world done for you? or what can it ever do? To whom, or to what, are you debtors, that you should consult their wishes, or obey their will? But God has created you, yes, and has redeemed you by the blood of his only dear Son. You are therefore in no sense, and in no degree, your own: your bodies, and your spirits, are altogether his; and with them you must glorify your God alone.
2. To wait for the second coming of their Lord from Heaven.
He who once came down from Heaven to suffer for us, and by his own obedience unto death has "delivered us from the wrath to come," has been raised up from the dead, and is now exalted to the right hand of God, that he may carry on and perfect the work he has begun. And he will once more come down from Heaven to gather together his elect, and to raise them to the fruition of that glory which he has purchased for them. To wait in joyful expectation of that period is the privilege of all his people: and to bring you to such a state of mind is to be the incessant labor of his ministers. We are not to be satisfied with seeing you born to God; but, as loving parents, we are to nourish you in our bosom; that under our fostering care you may "grow to the full measure of the stature of Christ." This waiting posture, this constant readiness for the coming of your Lord, is one of the highest gifts to which any man can attain. We speak not now of persons waiting, like criminals, for the arrival of their Judge; (that is a state from which it is the Christian's privilege to be delivered;) but of their waiting as servants for the coming of their Lord. The diligence of servants is prompted, not by fear, but love; and they feel assured of the approbation of their master, when he shall find everything done, though not with absolute perfection, yet in all material points agreeably to his will. Thus we would have you with your loins continually girt, and your lamps burning with undiminished splendor. But perhaps we may give a yet juster view of the state to which we would wish to bring you, if we compare you to "a bride preparing herself" for the arrival of her bridegroom. Such should be the holy, longing desire which you should feel after the coming of your Lord: and to assist you in this preparation, that eventually we may present you to him in a state of complete readiness, is the blessed service which we have to perform.
Such is the office of those to whom the cure of souls is assigned: and corresponding with it is,
II. The duty of those to whom we minister.
As we must not seek to please men, but to edify them, so they must not be satisfied with reaping mere instruction, but must determine,
1. To yield themselves up to the full influence of our labors.
In coming to the house of God, all persons should resemble Cornelius and his friends, when Peter came to minister unto them: "Now are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded you of God." There should be no disposition to cavil at what they hear, or to sit in judgment on the preacher, but a real desire to learn the will of God, and a full determination through grace to do it. If the minister endeavor to probe the conscience, they should welcome the beneficial wound, and cry unto the Lord, "Search me, O God, and try the ground of my heart!" If he be endeavoring rather to bind up the broken spirit, they should thankfully embrace the gracious promises of the Gospel, as those who most need the blessings which it offers. If, on the other hand, he be denouncing the terrors of the Lord, they should humble themselves before God in dust and ashes, if perhaps they may be lifted up in due time. And lastly, if he be expatiating on any duty, they should set themselves, like racers in a course, to run with ardor and with patience the race that is set before them. Whoever it be that speaks, and whatever it be that is spoken, provided only it be agreeable to the standard of truth, they should receive it, as the Thessalonians did, "not as the word of man, but as the word of God." The whole assembly of you should come to the ordinances as to a banquet prepared of the Lord; or as the sick and diseased came to our Lord in the days of his flesh, each feeling his own malady, and determined, if possible, to obtain a cure: however difficult it may be to gain access to him, you should press through the crowd, as it were, to touch but the hem of his garment; or seek to be let through the tiling of the house, so that you may by any means find admittance into his presence, and obtain the blessings which you stand in need of. In a word, Christians should be satisfied with nothing short of a perfect conformity to the Divine will; and should come to the house of God with hearts so melted, as easily to be poured into the mold of the Gospel, and permanently to retain the very image of their God.
2. To display the efficacy of them in the sight of all men.
The Thessalonians were "examples," not to the world only, but to believers also, and that throughout all the regions of Macedonia and Achaia. This is what we also should endeavor to be: we should "shine as lights in the world," and in every situation and relation of life we should so make our light to shine before men, that all who see us may glorify our Father which is in Heaven. We should bear in mind, that the honor of God is greatly affected by our conduct; and that our fellow-creatures also may either be "won by our good conversation," or be eternally ruined by our misconduct. We should, from these considerations, take especial care never to lay a stumbling-block in the way of others; but so to walk, that we may be able to say unto all around us, "Whatever you have seen and heard in me, do; and the God of peace shall be with you." Thus we should "show to all what manner of entrance the Gospel has had among us," and what are its genuine effects: and thus putting to silence the ignorance of foolish men, we should constrain them to acknowledge, that the doctrines we profess are holy, and "that God is with us of a truth."
We conclude with one or two inquiries:
1. What entrance has the Gospel had among us?
Has it so wrought, as to attract the attention, yes, and excite the admiration also, of all around us? Alas! in how many has it produced no change at all! and in how many a change in profession only, or in external conduct, while the heart is as worldly, and the temper as unsubdued, as ever!—Look to it, brethren, that you do not thus receive the grace of God in vain: for if the Gospel be not unto you a savor of life unto life, it will be a savor of death, to your more aggravated condemnation.
2. How may it be rendered more effectual for our good?
Search what it is that has hitherto obstructed the operation of the word upon your souls. Some are careless and inattentive, so that the word never enters into their hearts; in others, the word takes not any deep root; while in others its growth is hindered by the lusts and cares which grow up together with it. All these therefore must be rooted out, that the good seed may prosper and increase. But there is yet another evil, which renders the most faithful ministry unavailing for the good of many: I refer to that pride and conceit which so inflate the hearts of many, and render the Gospel itself odious in the world. This must be mortified; and a childlike spirit be cultivated in the midst of us. "The meek will God guide in judgment; the meek he will teach his way."
The Ministerial Character Portrayed
1 Thessalonians 2:7, 8. We were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherishes, her children: so, being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the Gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because you were dear unto us.
BOASTING, when it proceeds from vanity, is hateful in the extreme. But there are occasions whereon it may be necessary to declare what the Lord has done for us, or what we have been enabled to do for him. When, for instance, we are suffering under false accusations, it may be necessary to state many things, which none but God has seen. And we have reason to rejoice that Paul's enemies constrained him to have recourse to this method of clearing and vindicating his own character; because by this means we have all his exalted principles clearly developed, and the brightest pattern of human excellence exhibited to our view. But, independent of any such occasions, it is allowable to express the feelings of our hearts, and to bring to the remembrance of those whom we love the opportunities we have had of testifying our regard. It is by such communications that we revive both in ourselves and others those sublime affections, which constitute the basis of Christian friendship. The Apostle, when writing to the Corinthians, was constrained to sound forth, as it were, his own praises, in order to answer the calumnies that had been circulated respecting him: but in this epistle he speaks only out of the fullness of his heart to those whom he regarded with the most endeared affection: and the whole of what might be called boasting was nothing but the effusion of a mind glowing with love, and animated with the noblest sentiments.
From what he says of himself in the words before us, we shall take occasion to show,
I. What are the dispositions and habits of a faithful minister.
Ministers are represented in the Scriptures under a great variety of characters. Sometimes they are called shepherds, whose office is to search out the straying sheep, and bring them to the fold of Christ: and, when once brought thither, to watch over them with all imaginable care, "strengthening the diseased, healing the sick, binding up the broken, bringing back again any that have been driven away," and as to the lambs, they are to "carry them in their bosom, and gently to lead those that are with young."
But they are designated by a far more exalted character, even that of a father; which comprehends in it everything that is tender and endearing. How much of care and responsibility is involved in this relation, may be judged from the complaint which Moses poured out before God, when he was called upon to stand, as it were, in this relation to all the people of Israel.
There is however a still more tender image by which God is pleased to represent his own stupendous love to his people, and by which also the duty of ministers is portrayed; I mean that of a mother, nursing her infant offspring. Paul, declaring his anxiety for the welfare of his converts, compares his feelings with the pangs of a woman in child-birthe; and his delight in them, with that of a mother cherishing in her bosom her new-born infant. The language in our text is exquisitely beautiful and touching. The nurse spoken of, is not an alien, but a nursing-mother: it is not in her arms only, but in her bosom, that she cherishes the child. In all her treatment of it, she is not harsh, as one that is soon wearied in performing offices of love; but gentle. If absent from her infant for a few hours only, she is most affectionately desirous of it, and delights to draw forth to it the breast, even though it be with great pain and inconvenience to herself; and she would impart to it, as it were, her vital strength, yes, her very soul: and all this she does to it because of the tender affection which she bears towards it. The whole creation does not afford a sublimer image than this; yet this fitly represents the conduct of Paul towards the Church of Christ, and consequently, the conduct of every faithful minister, in proportion as he resembles Paul.
Mark then, under this image, the habits of the faithful minister;
1. His tender affection.
Paul's concern for his converts was never surpassed by that of any mother for her children. If there was the least reason to fear that any temptation had operated to the injury of their souls, he had no rest in his spirit, until he had ascertained their real state; and, if he received a favorable account of them, then every trial was easy, and every affliction light. Thus it is also with every servant of the Lord Jesus. "If any man care not for his sheep, he is an hireling," and unworthy of the name of a minister of Christ. The true shepherd will, I had almost said, "lay down his life for the sheep." Well he knows that nothing but the Gospel, faithfully administered, can benefit their souls: and this he is willing to impart to them to the utmost of his power, as the remedy for all their diseases, and as a supply for all their wants: and, according to its efficacy upon their souls, will be his hopes and fears, his joys and sorrows. "He has no greater joy than to see his children walk in truth."
2. His self-denying exertions.
Paul wrought with his hands by night, to supply his own temporal necessities, while he labored, with incredible exertion, throughout the day, to communicate spiritual benefits to the souls of men. Though he might justly have claimed a maintenance for his body, yet he forbore to do it, that he might have the satisfaction of dispensing freely the blessings which he himself had so freely received. Every minister indeed is not called to forego in like manner his claims of temporal support; but every minister should be able to declare to his people, as in the presence of God, "I seek not yours, but you." The only object of a faithful servant of Christ is, to advance the welfare of his people: for this end he will "not count even life itself dear to him," but will "endure all things for the elect's sake, that they may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory." And if he be really called to sacrifice his life in the sacred cause, he will account it rather a ground for congratulation than any cause of sorrow or condolence.
But, as in every relation of life there are duties belonging to the one side as well as the other, it will be proper for us to consider also,
II. The reciprocal obligations of a faithful people.
A husband and wife, a parent and child, a magistrate and subject, have each their appropriate duties; and so have also a minister and his people: and as the minister's duties are fitly represented by those of a mother, so those of the people may justly be considered as analogous to those of an affectionate and obedient child. They owe then,
1. Love to his person.
In this very epistle, wherein Paul testifies such unbounded love to his converts, he tells them what they also ought to feel towards those who ministered unto them: "We beseech you, brethren, to know them who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake." We speak not here of that partiality, which renders men unwilling; to receive the Gospel from any one besides their own favorite minister—that is a reprehensible attachment, leading to an idolatrous regard to some, and a contemptuous disregard of others: but a grateful sense of the obligations conferred by those who labor in the word and doctrine, ought to be cultivated and expressed by all. Indeed it can scarcely be carried to too great an extent: it should not stop short of any sacrifice, not even of the surrender of life itself, if by such means their labors may be preserved for the Church of Christ.
2. Attention to his instructions.
No one can doubt whether this be the duty of a child towards his parent: and it is equally the duty of a people towards their spiritual parent. A minister is sent especially from God himself to impart unto them the knowledge of the Gospel. Though he is only an earthen vessel, he has the treasures of salvation committed to him for the benefit of others; and, as a faithful steward, he is to dispense them to all according to their several necessities. He is to them in the place of God himself. He is to them in God's stead, when he is proclaiming to them, in his name, the word of reconciliation. His word, as far as it agrees with the inspired volume, is the word, not of man, but of God: and they who despise it, despise not man, but God.
3. Submission to his authority.
This in the Church of Rome is carried to an absurd and impious extent: but in the reformed Churches, and especially in our own, it is almost entirely set aside; and a minister who claims the measure of authority which God has given him for the edification of his Church, is considered as an usurper. But what would be the consequence, if the parent had no authority in his own family? What but confusion must ensue, if all his children thought themselves at liberty to follow their own inclinations, without any direction or restraint from him? True, a minister is "not a lord over God's heritage," his authority relates only to things pertaining to the welfare of his Church; but in these his judgment should be a rule of conduct to those committed to him. This is the command of God himself respecting it: "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account; that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you."
4. Cooperation with him in every good work.
A minister cannot do everything. Moses had seventy elders given to him, as assistants in his great work: and such should our people be in the Church of God. They can aid in instructing the rising generation: they may do incalculable good, in searching out the wants and necessities of the poor, and in administering, not to the temporal benefit only of their neighbors, but also to the benefit of their souls. Women, as well as men, have much in their power: and, without the aid of their people, it is little, comparatively, that any ministers can effect. The Apostles themselves were greatly indebted in this respect to their people; and to this even Paul ascribed, in some degree at least, the efficiency of his labors. What if, in a large family, the children cannot supply the place of their father? can they do nothing to second his endeavors, and to promote the welfare of the whole? Thus then should even the weakest among our people labor, according to their ability, to promote to the uttermost the advancement of the Redeemer's kingdom, and the glory of his great name. The richer part should contribute of their abundance to help forward every pious and benevolent plan; and the poorer afford their aid also in any way that may best comport with their sphere, and be best suited to their several capacities.
1. How is such a blessed state of things to be produced?
Let all consider the relation into which they are brought: and above all, let them consider, how the honor of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the success of his Gospel, are involved in their conduct. Ministers can never hope to be extensively useful, unless they put away all worldly and selfish interests, and labor to attain all those holy feelings which their station imperiously demands. Nor can any people really adorn their holy profession, unless they also on their part seek to become as little children, and cultivate a humble, loving, and heavenly deportment. Let us then, each in his station, aim at this; and pray earnestly to God for his grace, which alone can qualify us for the discharge of our respective duties.
2. How is such a blessed state of things to be revived?
It must be expected that where the Gospel has been long preached, Satan will sow tares with the wheat, and that evils of some kind or other will arise. It was so in the apostolic age, and it will be so in every age. It were unreasonable to expect that it should be otherwise, considering how corrupt the hearts of men are, and how easy it is for any one of a perverse spirit to create dissension. But if what we may call the family union and harmony have been interrupted, every one should exert himself to the uttermost to restore the bonds which have been dissolved. Let all in the first place set themselves to find out what has been the occasion of dissension; and endeavor, if possible, to remove the cause, and especially to subdue and mortify those evil dispositions which have unhappily been exercised. If there be any of a perverse spirit, withdraw from them, that they may be put to shame. If any be conscious that they have done amiss, let them repent and humble themselves before God and man. Thus will evil be done away: thus will Satan also, our great adversary, be disappointed: and thus shall we all "grow together a holy temple in the Lord."
The Duty of Those Who are Called
1 Thessalonians 2:11, 12. You know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father does his children, that you would walk worthy of God, who has called you unto his kingdom and glory.
NEXT to the example of our blessed Lord, there is none so worthy of imitation as that of Paul. He appears to have been so entirely cast into the mold of the Gospel, that he was a living image of all that it requires. In the ministerial office especially he was almost a perfect pattern. His intrepidity, his singleness of heart, his self-denial, his fervent zeal for God, and tender love to man, never were surpassed, nor ever equaled by any human being. Respecting the purity of his intentions, and the probity of his conduct, he could appeal to all among whom he had labored, yes to God also: no less than eight times in eleven verses does he repeat this appeal; so conscious was he who he had exerted himself to the utmost of his power to promote the welfare of his fellow-creatures, and the glory of his God.
In the appeal before us we may notice,
I. The duty of Christians.
The first great duty of those to whom the Gospel comes, is to believe in Christ. But yet even this is subservient to a higher end, even to the attainment of holiness, and the glorifying of God by a heavenly conversation. The Christian is not to be satisfied with low attainments, but to walk worthy of his God; to walk worthy of him,
1. As his Governor.
God has given us a law which is a perfect transcript of his mind and will. This law is to be the rule of our conduct. In obeying it therefore we must not select the easier parts, and overlook the precepts which are more difficult: we must not attempt to reduce the standard to our practice; but rather endeavor to raise our practice to the standard. We should not inquire, How little can I do, and yet escape punishment? but rather, What can I do to please and honor my Divine Master? How shall I commend to others his government? How shall I convince them that his service is perfect freedom? How shall I illustrate his perfections by my own conduct? How shall I make my light so to shine before them, that all who behold it shall be constrained to glorify my God, and to take upon them his light and easy yoke?
2. As his Benefactor.
God has "called" his people, not by the word only, but also by "the effectual working of his power," he has called them to be subjects of "his kingdom" on earth, and heirs of "his glory" in Heaven. This distinguishing grace calls for every possible expression of love and gratitude. Our one inquiry therefore should be, "What shall I render unto the Lord for all the benefits that he has done unto me? How shall I walk worthy of such a Benefactor? Shall not my soul overflow with love to him? Shall I not "delight myself in him;" and "present myself a living sacrifice to him;" and strive incessantly to "glorify his name?" Shall I think anything too much to do or suffer for his sake? Shall I not seek to be "pure as he is pure," and "perfect as he is perfect?" Surely, "as He who has called me is holy, so should I be holy in all manner of conversation."
This is the Christian's duty; thus to argue, and thus to live.
In order to enforce this subject yet further, we will consider,
II. The duty of ministers.
It is through the exertions of ministers that God carries on his work in the hearts of his people. Ministers are set apart on purpose to teach men their duty, and to urge them to the performance of it. They stand related to their people as a parent to his children: and in the exercise of their high office, they are to address them with parental tenderness, and parental authority.
"Suffer you then the word of exhortation," while we endeavor to impress upon your minds a due regard for holiness: and permit me, however unworthy of the sacred office, to address you,
1. In a way of affectionate entreaty.
"God has called you unto holiness," and "this also we wish, even your perfection." Consider then, I beseech you, how much is to be attained by your advancement in holiness.
Consider, how it will contribute to your present happiness.—Experience must long since have shown you, that there is no comfort in religion, when we are living at a distance from God, or in the indulgence of any besetting sin. We hope too you have found how "pleasant and peaceful are the ways" of godliness, when we are steadfastly walking in them. Go on, and you will have continually increasing evidence, that "in keeping God's commandments there is great reward."
Consider also how your piety will promote the good of others. We speak not of the benefit that will arise to society from the good offices you do them: but of the effects which your good example will produce. If your life be not "such as becomes the Gospel of Christ," the world will despise religion as a worthless unproductive thing: and those who profess godliness will be apt to catch the infection, and to sink into lukewarmness. But if you "walk worthy of your vocation," you will "by your well-doing put to silence the ignorance of foolish men;" you will constrain them to confess, that the principles which operate so powerfully on your souls, must needs be good; and you will perhaps win many, who would never have been won by the word alone.
Consider further how it will advance your eternal happiness. What though there be no merit in your works, shall they not be rewarded? Shall not every one reap according to what he sows; and that too, not according to the quality only, but the quantity also, of his seed? Yes; "every man shall be rewarded according to his own labor," he shall "reap sparingly or bountifully, according as he has sown;" and every talent that is improved shall have a correspondent recompense in the day of judgment.
What further inducement can you wish for? Only reflect on these things, and surely I shall not have "exhorted" you in vain.
2. In a way of authoritative injunction.
Paul, when least disposed to grieve his people, said to them, "As my beloved sons, I warn you." And in the text he tells us, that he "charged" them in a most solemn manner, and testified unto them. Behold then, we testify unto you that the holiness which we inculcate is of prime importance, and indispensable necessity.
Consider that nothing less than this will prove you to be real Christians. If you are "Israelites indeed, you must be without deceit." If fire descend from Heaven into the bosom to consume your lusts, it will burn until all the fuel be consumed. The contending principles of flesh and spirit will never cease from their warfare, until the flesh be brought into subjection. "If you are Christ's, you have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts." Deceive not yourselves; for, "whoever you obey, his servants you are." If you are born of God, you will not harbor any sin, or be satisfied with any attainment; but will seek to be "righteous, even as God is righteous."
Consider that nothing less will suffice to comfort you in a dying hour. When you come to that solemn season, things will appear to you in a different light from what they now do. The truths, which have now gained your assent indeed, but float in your mind as though they were devoid of interest or importance, will then present themselves to your mind as the most awful realities. What will you then think of cold and lifeless services? What bitter regret will seize you, and terrible forebodings too, perhaps, when you look back upon a partial obedience, and an hypocritical profession? O that you may not fill your dying pillow with thorns! O that you may serve the Lord in such a manner now, that in that day you may "enjoy the testimony of a good conscience," and "have an abundant entrance into the kingdom of your Lord and Savior!"
Consider, lastly, that nothing less will avail you at the bar of judgment. We repeat it, that you will not be saved for your works: but we repeat also, that you will be dealt with according to your works. It will be to little purpose to have cried "Lord, Lord," if you are not found to have done the things which he commanded. God has said, "Cursed be he who does the work of the Lord deceitfully;" nor will either our self-commendations, or the applause of others, avail us, if the heart-searching God do not bear witness to our integrity.
Behold then, as in the sight of God, we testify these things; and charge you all, that if you would ever behold the face of God in peace, you make it the great object of your life to walk as becomes saints, and to "adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things."
The Apostle contented not himself with general exhortations; but addressed himself to individuals; even, as far as he could, to "every one" of his people. Let me then apply my subject more particularly to you, dispensing to each his portion in due season.
Are there among you those who make no profession of religion?—Think not that you are excused from that strictness which is required of the saints. As the creatures of God, you are bound to obey him; and as "bought with the inestimable price of his Son's blood, you are bound to glorify him with your bodies and your spirits, which are his." Nor should it be any consolation to you that you make no profession of religion; for, if you have not been called to be subjects of God's kingdom, and heirs of his glory, you are vassals of Satan, and partakers of his condemnation.
Are there any who, by reason of their unsteady walk, are ready to doubt whether they have ever been effectually called? Let me both "exhort and charge" them not to leave this matter in suspense; but to obtain of God that "grace that shall be sufficient for them." Let me at the same time suggest some considerations proper to "comfort" and support their minds. They would ask perhaps, How shall I gain the object of my wishes? How shall I walk worthy of my God? I answer, "Walk in Christ," in a continual dependence on the merit of his blood, and the assistance of his good Spirit. By his blood you shall be cleansed from guilt: "by his Spirit you shall be strengthened in your inner man," and enabled to do whatever He commands.
Finally, let all, whatever they may have attained, press forward for the prize of their high calling, and endeavor to abound more and more.
A Due Reception of the Gospel
1 Thessalonians 2:13. For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when you received the word of God which you heard of us, you received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually works also in you that believe.
A PARENT of a numerous family must expect trials of various kinds: yet will He have many consolations to counterbalance them. And so it is also with the faithful minister. Both from without his Church and from within, he will experience much that is painful and afflictive: but, if his afflictions abound, so will his consolations also: if his doubts respecting the state of some of his people renew in him pangs, like those of a woman in travail, the progress and advancement of others will afford him much heartfelt satisfaction. Thus Paul found it. The anguish that was occasioned in his bosom by some of his converts, was so keen, that he could scarcely speak of them without weeping: but over others he rejoiced with a very lively and exalted joy. The Church at Thessalonica in particular was contemplated by him with pre-eminent delight; insomuch that, whenever the thought of them occurred to his mind, he could not but pour out his soul before God in praises and thanksgivings in their behalf.
It is our intention at present to show,
I. What there was in his ministry among them which occasioned such incessant thankfulness to God.
His success among them was great, not only as to the number of his converts, but especially in the spirit which they manifested. In ministering to them the Gospel, there were two things in particular which filled him with joy and gratitude; namely,
1. The manner of its reception.
They did not consider his word as a system, like that of different philosophers, invented by man, and standing only on human authority; but they regarded it as the word of God himself, even while it was delivered to them by a weak instrument, "a man of like passions with themselves." They looked, through the messenger, to Him whose ambassador he was; and every word that was uttered by him was received as if it had been spoken from Heaven by the Deity himself: they received it as proceeding from his love, as sanctioned by his authority, and as assured to them by his truth and faithfulness. The great wonders of redemption through the blood and righteousness of the Lord Jesus were not looked upon "as a cunningly devised fable," but as a most stupendous effort of divine wisdom, planned from all eternity in the councils of the Father, and executed in due season by his only-begotten Son, and applied to their hearts by the agency of the ever-blessed Spirit—They felt not themselves at liberty to reject these overtures of mercy, or to cavil at them as exceeding the comprehension of our feeble reason; they considered that they had no alternative, but to believe, and live: or to disbelieve, and perish—But their acceptance of these overtures was not a matter of constraint: they saw that the veracity of God was pledged to fulfill every promise which the Apostle made to them in Jehovah's name; and that it was as impossible for a penitent believer to perish, as it was for God to lie—How could he be otherwise than thankful, when his word among them was thus received?
2. The manner of its operation.
Truly his word among them was "quick and powerful;" and most effectually did it work upon them in their first conversion, in their subsequent support, and in their progressive sanctification. He speaks before of "the entrance he had had among them," in that "they had turned from idols to serve the living and true God," and, immediately after our text, he mentions the heavy trials they had had to endure; which yet they had sustained with unshaken fortitude: and the tidings he had heard from Timothy, of their advancement in faith and love and every grace, completed his joy, so that he forgot all his own afflictions through his joy on their account. What could he desire more than this? John, who had been admitted to nearer fellowship with his Savior than any other of the Apostles, knew no greater joy than this. Well therefore might Paul pour forth his soul to God in praises and thanksgiving for such a mercy as this.
In Paul's acknowledgments we may see,
II. What grounds of thankfulness all ministers have, whose labors are so blessed.
Wherever the Gospel is so received, and so operates, there is abundant cause for praise and thanksgiving unto God;
1. For the people's sake.
Happy, thrice "happy are the people that are in such a case, yes happy are the people who have the Lord for their God." "Who is like unto you, O people saved by the Lord!" Can we reflect on the change that has taken place on you, and not rejoice? "Look unto the rock whence you are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence you are dug." Do you congratulate Lot on his escape from Sodom? What was that fire in comparison of those burnings from which you are escaped? He was saved to die at last: you are saved to live forever. You are not merely delivered from the power of darkness, but are translated into the kingdom of God's dear Son, yes, and are made heirs together with him of an everlasting inheritance. Little can we know of the value of an immortal soul, if we are not filled with joy and gratitude at the thought of such blessings being imparted to it.
2. For the Church's sake.
No language could adequately express the transports of the saints of old, when they contemplated the effects that are here described: "Sing, O you heavens; for the Lord has done it: shout, you lower parts of the earth: break forth into singing, you mountains, O forest, and every tree therein: for the Lord has redeemed Jacob, and glorified himself in Israel." Where such children are multiplied, Zion, the mother of them all, may well rejoice: her honor will be great; her happiness exalted: with what joy will she draw forth her breasts of consolation to her numerous offspring! with what delight will she dandle them on her knees, and bear them in her arms! In the sight of all the world shall she be glorified; and she shall be a blessing to all around her.
3. For the world's sake.
The dishonorable conduct of professors is a stumbling-block to the world; as our Lord has said, "Woe unto the world because of offences." But wherever the sanctifying operations of the Spirit appear, there "the ignorance of foolish men is put to silence;" and they are constrained to acknowledge the excellency of the principles which they hate. Independently of any spiritual benefit, the world are greatly advantaged by the progress and advancement of true religion: for if they will only inquire, Who are the great promoters of every charitable institution, they will find that the most active agents are uniformly found among those who love and profess the Gospel. But besides this, their spiritual welfare is greatly advanced by the blameless and heavenly deportment of professing people: their prejudices are weakened, and they are often led to inquire candidly into those principles, which they see to be productive of such blessed effects.
4. For the Lord's sake.
It is from the Church alone that God has any glory upon earth. But when his people do indeed adorn the doctrine of God their Savior, their light constrains many to glorify their heavenly Father. Then too does the Savior himself rejoice: he "sees of the travail of his soul, and is satisfied." Yes, God the Father too is comforted, if we may so speak, in the successful issue of his eternal counsels: "He beholds his obedient people with infinite satisfaction;" "he rejoices over them with joy; he rests in his love; he joys over them with singing." Can we then behold events in which God the Father and God the Son take so deep an interest, and not be thankful for them? If we ourselves love God in any measure as we ought, we shall rejoice in his joy, and glory in his glory.
See from hence,
1. Whence it is that the word preached is so generally ineffectual to any saving purpose.
As in the wilderness, so now, "the word preached does not profit men, because it is not mixed with faith in them that hear it," Men do not hear it as the word of God. They see nothing, and hear nothing, but a man like themselves; and therefore they hear without interest and forget without remorse. But be it known to all, that their disregard of God's messages, by whoever delivered, involves them in the deepest guilt, and will subject them to the heaviest punishment.
2. How it may be made effectual to the good of our souls.
Whenever you come up to the house of God, come with prepared hearts, as Israel did to Mount Sinai at the giving of the law. Look through the minister to God himself. Sit at his feet, as Mary at the feet of Jesus. Seek not to be pleased, but edified. Do not indulge a critical and captious spirit; but "receive with meekness the engrafted word;" and then you shall find it both able and effectual to save your souls. If it be a precept or an exhortation, a promise or a threatening, receive it as if it were addressed to you by an audible voice from Heaven: so shall it descend on your souls as dew or rain, that fail not to accomplish the ends for which they are sent.
Christians the Joy of Their Ministers
1 Thessalonians 2:19, 20. What is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming? For you are our glory and joy.
THE relation between a minister and his people is a subject rarely touched upon, except in addresses exclusively intended for those who sustain the pastoral office. But it is a subject of general importance; and ought to be felt by the people, as well as by the minister; between whom there should be at all times a feeling of reciprocal affection. A pious pastor does not undertake his office in order to feed himself with the fat, and clothe himself with the wool, of his flock. No; he has higher objects in view: he seeks their best interests, and makes their welfare his chief concern. The epistles of Paul, not those addressed to Timothy and Titus merely, but those addressed to whole Churches, are full of this subject. This to the Thessalonians is almost one continued breathing of parental tenderness, on the Apostle's part, and a call on his converts for correspondent emotions on their part. The extreme ardor of his affection for them is indeed the immediate subject of all the preceding context. He had been driven from them suddenly by a violent persecution; and it was owing to the unabated malice of his enemies that he had not visited them again. Greatly had he longed to do so; and repeated efforts had he made; for they were exceeding dear to him, as he tells them: "For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming? Yes, you are our glory and joy."
From these words we will take occasion to show,
I. In what light a faithful minister views his people.
If a man be a faithful servant of Christ, the prosperity of his people will be the one aim of all his labors, and the one source of all his joys: both at the present hour, and in the prospect of the eternal world, their welfare will be "his hope, his joy, his crown of rejoicing." Is it asked, Wherefore they are so dear to him? we answer, He glories in them;
1. As witnesses for God.
God is excluded as it were from this lower world. The great mass of mankind acknowledge him not, or acknowledge him in word only, and not in deed and in truth. But true believers confess him openly before men: they are his witnesses, that he is great, and worthy to be feared; that he is good, and worthy to be loved; that he is faithful, and worthy of entire trust and confidence. But yet more particularly they are witnesses of all his perfections, as united and glorified in the cross of Christ; and they proclaim to all around them, that, in Christ Jesus, God is "a just God and a Savior," yes "just, and yet the justifier of all that believe in Jesus." These are the truths which ministers have it in commission to make known to the sons of men: and by the free publication of these truths they hope to turn men from the guilt and dominion of sin, to peace with God, and universal holiness. Obstinate unbelievers will deride this attempt as visionary: but the minister of God can point to his converts as living witnesses for God, and as monuments of the saving efficacy of his Gospel; and in this view they give him a ground of joy and exultation far beyond all that the whole world besides could afford. Hence "he glories in them in the Churches," as God himself also does, seeing that "they are to him for a name and for a praise and for a glory" throughout the whole earth.
2. As trophies of the Redeemer's grace.
There is not one of them who was not once a bond-slave of Satan, "the God of this world, who rules in all the children of disobedience." But secure as they once seemed to be in the hands of "the strong man armed, the stronger Potentate, even Jesus, has rescued them" from his dominion, and "brought them into the glorious liberty of the children of God." Jesus, when he yet hanged upon the cross, triumphed over the principalities and powers of Hell, and "by death overcame him that had the power of death;" but in his resurrection and ascension he triumphed yet more, "leading captivity itself captive." But it is in the preaching of his word that all this is made to appear. By that men are "turned from darkness unto light, and from the power of Satan unto God." Not that he drags them like captives at his chariot-wheels, but rather takes them up with him into "his chariot, wherein ho goes forth conquering and to conquer." How Jesus exults in them in this view may be judged from that expression of the prophet; "You are a crown of glory and a royal diadem in the hands of your God." No wonder therefore that the soldiers of Christ, through whose instrumentality the victory has been won, exult also.
3. As the fruits of his own labor.
It is rarely, if ever, now, that faithful servants of Christ are suffered to labor, like Isaiah, fifty years, and, like Hosea, seventy, with scarcely any visible fruits of their ministry. Though God does not make equal use of all, yet, if they be faithful, he will not leave them without witness: he will "accompany their word with signs following." Were they left to "labor in vain and run in vain," their hands would soon hang down, and their hearts faint: but when they see "the dry bones quickened, and the dead come forth out of their graves," through the influence of their word, they greatly rejoice. They point to such persons as "seals of their ministry," and as attestations from God, that the word delivered by them is His word. It is said of women, that, when once they behold the fruit of their travail, they "forget, as it were, all their pangs, for joy that a man-child is born into the world." And thus it certainly is with those who minister in holy things. Much they have to endure in the prosecution of their great object: but when they see sons and daughters born to God, they account their labors richly recompensed; and, for the attainment of such a blessing "they count not even their lives dear unto them."
4. As pledges of his own eternal felicity.
There is, it is true, no merit in converting sinners unto God, seeing that the whole work is God's alone. "Whoever plant or water, it is God alone who gives the increase." But it is nevertheless true, that "they who turn many to righteousness shall shine as the stars forever and ever." It is not indeed in proportion to every man's success, that a recompense will be bestowed: but according to every man's labor it will. And O! what a blessed period will that be, when the faithful minister shall present his converts before the throne of God, saying, "Here am I, and the children you have given me!" Not even in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ himself will he forget those with whom, as Paul expresses it, he once travailed in birth: "there will they be his joy and crown of rejoicing," there will they be, as it were, jewels in his crown. Every fresh accession to the Church thus enhances the minister's joy: and in the prospect of this, "he joys according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil."
But since it is not over all that a minister can rejoice, we proceed to show,
II. Who they are whom he can truly recognize under this character.
In the first ages, when every one was exposed to so much peril on account of his Christian profession, there was reason to hope that all were sincere: and therefore the Apostle could say to the whole Philippian Church, "It is meet for me to think thus of you all." But Christianity is professed now under far other circumstances: and the great mass of those who are called by the name of Christ are far from being "a joy and crown of rejoicing" to their minister. Even of religious professors, there are great multitudes "of whom we must stand in doubt," and of whom we cannot speak, but with grief. Those who alone will ultimately prove the joy and crown of their ministers, are,
1. Those who embrace the faith.
There must be a real conversion of the soul to God. It is not necessary that this conversion be sudden, or that it should be attended with such circumstances as shall enable a person to declare the precise time and manner in which it was accomplished: but it is necessary that every man should have an evidence within himself that he is "translated from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God's dear Son." He must receive Christ into his heart, and build on him as the only foundation of his hope. "Christ must become truly precious to his soul." Christ must be his life, his peace, his strength, his joy, his all. Until this be done, a minister can have no comfort in any man, because he has no ground to believe him truly and savingly converted to God: but when this change is manifest (for no natural man in the universe ever thus gloried in Christ alone,) then does the person in whom it is wrought become the joy and crown of his minister: he then, in the judgment of charity, is brought to the fold of Christ: and his minister, like a faithful shepherd, rejoices over him, as a sheep that was lost, and is found.
2. Those who walk in love.
If there be a mere adoption of Christian principles, without the attainment of Christian practice, this change will produce no satisfaction, in the heart either of God or man. But if there be a corresponding change in the heart and life of a professor, and a suitable exercise of Christian graces and tempers, then the minister will feel a proportionable confidence respecting a work of grace within him: seeing the fruit to be good, he will conclude that the tree is good also. The grace of love in particular must be predominant. "This is the grace whereby all men are to know whether we be Christ's disciples." If pride, envy, malice, or any other temper contrary to love, reign in the heart, we only deceive ourselves in imagining ourselves Christians: we are yet in darkness, and children of the wicked one. A minister can only weep over such persons: they are a grief to him here: they will be yet more so in that day when the Lord Jesus Christ shall come to judge the world: they themselves too, if they be not undeceived in time, will have to bewail their delusions to all eternity. Love is absolutely and indispensably necessary to prove the sincerity of our faith. If that reign not in the heart, our faith is but the faith of devils: but if that be the governing principle of our lives, then have we "that which accompanies salvation;" and a minister may confidently rejoice over us as the elect of God.
3. Those who advance in holiness.
It is essential to grace, that it grows and advances in the soul. The children of God's family are all expected to grow from "babes" to "young men," and from young men to "fathers." Now, as a mother, however she might rejoice at the birth of her infant, would soon cease to rejoice, if it did not grow in stature and in strength; so is a minister's joy turned into grief, if he see his people making no proficiency in the divine life, but continuing under the habitual influence of those defects which characterized them in their unconverted state, or in the earlier stages of their professed conversion. O you who profess godliness, consider this; and inquire whether you do indeed make your profiting to appear? It is only when we have clear evidence that you are growing up into Christ as your living Head, and progressively transformed into his image, that we can glory in you, or look forward with comfort to that awful meeting which we shall have with you in the great day of the Lord Jesus.
We will improve this subject,
1. In a way of appeal.
The text is an appeal to the whole Church at Thessalonica, that he had sought nothing, and gloried in nothing, in comparison of their spiritual welfare. And the same appeal, we hope through grace, we can make also. Yes, blessed be God, we can, and do, appeal both to you and to God himself, that that we have lived but for the benefit of those committed to our charge, and "have known no greater joy than to see our people walk in truth." Permit us then to ask, whether you can make the same appeal to the heart-searching God? Have you sought, as the one great object of your Hie, so to improve our ministrations, that "you might be our joy and crown of rejoicing in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ at his coming?" Has there also been a reciprocity of affection, so that "we have been your rejoicing, even as you also have been ours, in the prospect of the great day of the Lord Jesus?" Let this be well fixed in all your minds, that unless the regard between a minister and his people be mutual, and their endeavors to reap benefits from his ministry keep pace with his efforts to impart them, little ultimate good can result from the connection: on the contrary, the word which he labors to make unto you "a savor of life unto life, will prove in the issue a savor of death unto death."
2. In a way of exhortation.
A meeting must soon take place between us before the judgment-seat of Christ: and in reference to that awful period Paul exhorted the Thessalonian Church, saying, "We beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him." In reference to that solemn meeting we also would exhort you. In a little time we shall be called to give an account of our ministrations, as you also will of your improvement of them. Let not him who wishes you to be his joy and crown be disappointed of his hope. If he have not to "present you in a perfect state to Christ in that day," all his warnings and instructions will have been lost upon your, yes, worse than lost, seeing that he will be "a swift witness against you."
O you, who have never yet been converted by the labors of your minister, let him now prevail on you to turn unto the Lord with your whole hearts.
And let those of you who look up to him as your spiritual Father, hold fast the truth you have received, and endeavor to shine more and more as lights in the world, that his joy in you may be complete in the last day. Yes, we would address you in the words of Paul to his Philippian converts; "My brethren, dearly beloved, and longed for, my joy and crown, so stand you fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved."
The People's Stability is the Minister's Comfort
1 Thessalonians 3:8. Now we live, if you stand fast in the Lord.
THERE is nothing that more strongly characterizes a faithful ministry, than the mutual affection that is found to exist between the minister and his stated hearers. The people, while they retain any just regard for their Lord and Savior, will love those who have been his instruments for good to their souls: and those who are instrumental in bringing others to the knowledge of salvation, will consider their converts as their children, "whom they have begotten to God," and "with whom they have travailed in birth." We see this exemplified in all Paul's epistles, especially in that before us. After a short stay at Thessalonica, he was driven from thence by "certain lewd fellows of the baser sort," who sought to kill him; and who, on hearing that he was fled to Berea, followed him thither with the same intent, and drove him thence also. He was now at a great distance from them, and very apprehensive on their account; lest the sufferings which he had endured for them, and the trials which they themselves also experienced, should have deterred them from maintaining their steadfastness in the faith. "When therefore he could no longer forbear," he thought it better to be left at Athens alone, than to remain any longer in uncertainty about them; and accordingly he sent his only friend and companion, Timothy, to see them, and to report to him their state. Having heard a good account of them, he declares, that all sense of his own personal afflictions vanished, as soon as he heard of their spiritual advancement; and that his spirits, which had been exhausted by a long and painful suspense, were revived, so that he began, as it were, to "live" anew, since he was informed that they "stood fast in the Lord."
From the words before us we shall take occasion to show,
I. What is that stability which all Christians must attain.
When any persons first receive the Gospel, so as to yield themselves up to its influence, they are said to "be in Christ," when they make advances in grace, they are said to "walk in Christ," and when they are established in a firm adherence to the truth, they are said, as in the text, "to stand fast in the Lord." This is that stability which is required of us; namely, a stability in the faith, the profession, and the practice of the Gospel.
1. In the faith of the Gospel.
There are many things which may occasion us to make shipwreck of the faith—and many more, which may rob us of the vital experience of it in our souls. But all these must be withstood: we must "hold fast the form of sound words that has been delivered to us;" and, not contented with a barren orthodoxy, we must live altogether by faith in the Son of God, enjoying his presence, and "receiving out of his fullness grace for grace."
2. In the profession of it.
When persecution arises because of the word, a separation is made between the professors of religion, as the corn and chaff are separated when tossed to and fro in the sieve. But woe be to us, if we be like the chaff, that is driven away with the wind. We must "not put our light under a bushel," but be bold, and "quit ourselves like men," we must "endure hardships as good soldiers of Jesus Christ," we must "hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering," we must be "willing to be bound, or even to die, for the name of the Lord Jesus," we must not count our lives dear to us, so that we may but finish our course with joy. It is true, we are not to court persecution by an indiscreet declaration of truths, which people are not yet prepared to receive: but we must not conceal our religion, as if we were ashamed of it: we must in no respect deny Christ: "if we draw back, it will be unto perdition," "if we only look back," after having put our hands to the plough, we are not fit for the kingdom of God," "he who loves his life, shall lose it; and he only that is willing to lose his life for Christ's sake, shall save it unto life eternal."
3. In the practice of it.
In times like ours, it is easy to retain orthodox opinions, and to keep up a profession of religion: but many are found enlisted under the banners of Christ, who are not really "fighting the good fight of faith." Even in matters of plain truth and honesty, it is not every professor that can bear a scrutiny into his conduct: yes, there really is often found a higher sense of honor and integrity among the men of this world, than among some, of whom better things might have been hoped. In respect of tempers, too, there are many who will talk of Christ, and show a love to his Gospel, who are yet proud, haughty, imperious, passionate, contentious; many who are so fretful and impatient on every trifling occasion, as to make all around them uncomfortable; many too, who, when they ought rather to be judging themselves, are constantly judging others with uncharitable severity. But let not those who possess so little of the meekness and gentleness of Christ, imagine that they are standing fast in the Lord: for, whatever experience they may have had in times past, they are certainly in a state of awful departure from him. We must possess the image of Christ, and we must advance in the attainment of it, or else our faith and our profession will be vain.
But if there be no particular deviation from the path of duty in these things, yet may we have greatly declined from true religion. We must preserve a spirituality of mind, a zeal for God, a love to his ways, a delight in secret communion with God, and a tender regard for the temporal and eternal welfare of our fellow-creatures. This is the stability which chiefly characterizes the growing Christian, and which is the surest evidence of an interest in Christ.
That all may be stirred up to seek this stability, we shall show,
II. Why the attainment of it lies so near to the heart of every faithful minister.
A minister stands related to his people as a pastor to his flock, over which he is to watch, and of which he must give a strict account: and his solicitude about them, instead of terminating when they are brought into the fold, may be said then more properly to commence. He will be anxious about their attainment of stability in the divine life,
1. Because the honor of God is deeply interested in it.
Let any professor of religion either renounce his profession, or dishonor it by any misconduct, and the world will immediately cry out against religion, and represent all the professors of it as hypocrites. Thus it was that "the name of God was blasphemed" on account of David's fall: and thus "the way of truth is evil spoken of" at this time; as though religion were only a cloak for wickedness. On the other hand, the name of God is glorified, when his people adorn their holy profession: the light which they reflect around them, compels many to acknowledge the beneficial influence of his Gospel, and the powerful efficacy of his grace.
And can ministers be indifferent about the honor of their Divine Master? If they are so dear to him, that "whoever touches them, touches the apple of his eye," ought not He, and His interests, to be dear in their sight? Ought not rivers of tears to run down their eyes, when men keep not his law, and especially when his sacred name is blasphemed through those who bear his name and profess his religion? Yes; much as they must feel when an injury is done to themselves, their grief is incomparably more poignant, when they see their blessed "Lord crucified afresh, and despite done to the Spirit of his Grace."
2. Because their salvation altogether depends upon it.
It is not sufficient that men "run well for a season;" they must "endure to the end, if ever they would be saved." To what purpose are we in Christ, if we do not stand fast in him? Our departure from him only makes "our last end worse than our beginning." And is not this a fearful consideration to all of us? When Paul saw reason to stand in doubt respecting his Galatian converts, "he travailed in birth with them, as it were, a second time, until he should have clear evidence that Christ was truly formed in them." And whoever reflects upon the value of a soul (in comparison of which the whole world is lighter than the mere dust upon a balance), must have continual sorrow and heaviness in his spirit, when he sees any moved away from the hope of the Gospel, and "forsaking the fountain of living waters for broken cisterns that can hold no water."
3. Because the great ends of the ministry are answered by it.
When any persons turn, either in faith or practice, from the holy commandment delivered to them, "all the labor we have bestowed upon them is in vain," it is even worse than in vain, because it will bring upon them a more aggravated condemnation. What a reflection is this for those who have spent their strength, and perhaps jeopardized their very lives for the salvation of their fellow-creatures! Can we wonder that the declension of those who have professed our holy religion, should be as a dagger in the hearts of those who have watched and labored for their souls; and that the lives of faithful ministers should be bound up, as it were, in the stability of their people? The beloved Disciple could say, "he had no greater joy than that his children walked in truth," and, no doubt, his greatest grief was, as that of every faithful minister must be, to see any of them departing from it.
We shall conclude our subject with a few words,
1. Of grateful acknowledgment.
It would not always be proper to commend people to their face: yet on some occasions the Apostle judged it expedient to do so. We rejoice therefore in bearing testimony to the steadfastness which you have maintained during our afflictive separation from you; and we can truly say with the Apostle, that "in all our affliction we have been greatly comforted by your faith." "We thank God for all the joy with which we joy before him on your account;" and we pray, that "what he has thus begun in you, he may carry on and perfect until the day of Christ."
2. Of affectionate warning.
Never let it be forgotten, that we must first be in Christ, before we can stand fast in him. If apostates are in an awful condition, so also are they who have never embraced the Gospel of Christ. We must flee to Christ, as our only refuge from the wrath of God; and must seek to be found in him, not having our own righteousness, but that which is of God through faith in him.
Let the saints too remember (what the text strongly intimates), that they are in continual danger of falling. They have a subtle enemy, whose devices have ruined thousands, even of those who once appeared eminently holy. "Let him therefore that thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall."
3. Of joyful encouragement.
It is not in yourselves, but in the Lord, that you are to stand fast: and while you are placing all your dependence on him, he is engaged to "keep you by his own almighty power unto everlasting salvation." "Be strong then in the Lord, and in the power of his might." "His grace is sufficient for you," and shall "make you more than conquerors" over all your enemies. Weak as you are in yourselves, "He is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy." "As then you have received the Lord Jesus Christ, so walk you in him, etc.."
A Minister's Joy in His People
1 Thessalonians 3:9, 10. What thanks can we render to God again for you, for all the joy with which we joy for your sakes before our God; night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith?
THE connection between a minister and his people is little considered, and little felt. A general concern on his part, and a respectful esteem on theirs, are deemed adequate expressions of their mutual regard. But the relation of a father is not nearer than that which a minister sustains towards those whom he has begotten by the Gospel: nor should their mutual feelings be a whit less tender than those of a parent and a child. "They should be his joy; and he theirs." It was in this light that Paul regarded his Thessalonian converts. They were the fruit of his ministry. It was the word delivered by him that had been made effectual to their conversion to God; and they had greatly adorned their holy profession. He had meditated a longer stay among them; but had been driven away from them suddenly, by the violence of persecution. He had also made repeated attempts to return to them; but had been prevented by the determined hostility of his enemies. Not knowing how far they might be able to maintain their steadfastness, he felt extreme anxiety in their behalf: and "when he could no longer forbear, he thought it good to be left at Athens alone," rather than continue any longer in such painful suspense respecting them. He dismissed Timothy therefore, though he could but ill spare the labors of so dear a friend, to inquire into their state, and to bring him a faithful account of their progress. The tidings he received were highly favorable; and they filled him with unutterable joy; his very life being bound up, as it were, in their welfare. Indeed, he had never ceased to pray, and with extreme earnestness, to God, to open a way for his return to them, and to make him still more useful to their souls. Of this he assures them, in the words which we have just read; which will lead me to show you,
I. The delight which a pious minister has in the fruits of his ministry.
A pious minister has troubles which are unknown to others; so also has he joys, which are peculiar to himself. God makes use of him, to gather out of the ungodly world a Church and people; and over them he rejoices with a very sublime joy. He rejoices in,
1. Their past deliverance.
Lately, how different was their state from what it is now become! "They were afar off from God; (alas! how far!) but now they are made near by the blood of Christ," they were "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise; but now are made fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God." Now, how can a minister contemplate his people as "recovered out of the snare of the devil, by whom they had been led captive at his will," yes, and as "brands plucked out of the burning," even out of the fire, as it were, of Hell itself, and not rejoice? Was it a matter of exceeding joy to the lame man to be restored, so that "he went into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God?" and was it a matter of grateful admiration to an assembled populace, when they saw all manner of bodily diseases healed? and must it not fill a minister's heart with joy to see the souls of men dispossessed and healed? to see them "turned from darkness unto light, and from the power of Satan unto God?" Truly, he must be very unworthy indeed to have such an honor conferred upon him, who does not exult and leap for joy at the benefits imparted through the instrumentality of his word.
2. Their present walk.
They are brought to a state of peace, with God, and in their own souls. This is a blessing, of which no others can have any just idea: for there is "a peace that passes all understanding;" and "there is no such peace to the wicked." Moreover, they are enabled to "walk in newness of life," and to approve themselves faithful servants to their God. In truth, they are the only people from whom God has any tribute of praise and honor. From the world at large he has nothing but an unmeaning observance of forms and ceremonies; but from these, the service of the heart. They are "lights in a dark world," they are "witnesses for God," they are "epistles of Christ, known and read of all men." Perhaps, too, they may be chosen vessels, to convey the same rich treasure to others, and to dispense to a benighted world the benefits which they themselves have received. How can a minister look on these, and not sing for joy? Does a parent rejoice in the progressive advancement of his children, in their opening prospects of further attainments, and in the hope that they shall one day prove blessings to the world? Much more must a pious minister rejoice in the growth of his people in faith and charity, in the honor which by their holy walk they bring to God, and in the benefits which they confer on men. We wonder not, that, in hearing such tidings of his Thessalonian converts, the Apostle could say, "We were comforted over you, in all our affliction and distress, by your faith."
3. Their future destinies.
For them is prepared a throne of glory, on which they shall reign forever and ever in the presence of their God: and the very angels in Heaven are waiting, as it were, with eager expectation, to instal them there: nor do they ever execute a commission with sublimer joy than when sent down from Heaven to receive a departing spirit, and to bear him on their wings into the realms of bliss. Let a minister view his people in this light, and contemplate what they shall shortly be—the very angels not so exalted, or so near their God, as they; and must he not rejoice? The very stones would cry out against him, if his heart did not leap for joy at. such a thought as this. To expatiate upon the glory of that state is needless: suffice it to say, that every glorified saint will be filled with bliss according to the utmost extent of his capacity, and that without alloy, or intermission, or end: and for this it is, that the minister is preparing them with tender assiduity and incessant care: and well may he water these plants with joy, when he recollects whose planting they are, and where they shall grow to all eternity.
His joy, however, is mixed with affectionate solicitude; as will be seen, while we consider,
II. The great object which he aims at in all his inter—course with them.
In his absence from them will he pray to God in their behalf; yes, "very exceedingly" will he pray for them: (for this is the best test and evidence of love:) and, when he shall have again the happiness of ministering unto them, he will labor to advance their every grace, but chiefly "their faith." This (their faith), I say, he will particularly endeavor to increase, and to extend to the uttermost,
1. Its realizing views.
Men imagine, that an assent to the truth of the Gospel is faith: but such a faith as that may be no better than the faith of devils; of whom it is said, that they "believe and tremble." But true "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," it gives a reality to things invisible and future, as if they were actually before our eyes. It does not merely acknowledge our fall, and our recovery by Christ; but it brings them home with power to the mind, so as to produce a suitable feeling of those truths in our souls. Let us suppose a sepulcher opened before us, and all its nauseous and offensive contents exhibited to our view: we may easily conceive what disgust we should feel: yet is it no other feeling than what a believing apprehension of our own inward corruptions will create in our souls; insomuch, that we shall "loath ourselves," yes, and "abhor ourselves, even as holy Job did, in dust and ashes." We may form some idea, too, what our feelings would be, if we were shipwrecked, and saw the boat, to which we were about to commit ourselves, stored with such necessary articles as the impending danger would admit of, and by the help of which we hoped to reach a place of safety. Such is the light in which faith will present the Lord Jesus Christ to our view. Our lost state by nature and practice we shall feel, together with the absolute impossibility of preserving ourselves by anything that we can do. We shall see the Savior offering himself to us as the means afforded us by God for our deliverance; and we shall with eager solicitude commit ourselves to him, if perhaps we may escape the perils of the sea, and reach in safety our destined port. The whole work of salvation will become a reality, in which all the emotions of hope and fear will be roused, and the utmost efforts of our souls be called into activity. Nay, it is not merely the alternative of life or death that will press upon us, but the infinitely more fearful alternative of Heaven or Hell; of Heaven, with all it glory; or Hell, with all its terrors. I need not say how the sight of such things operates in relation to the body: and surely a realizing view of them by faith will not operate less powerfully in relation to the soul. To this state, then, a minister will labor to bring his people, that they may have the most vivid apprehensions of divine truths, and live under an impression of them as strong as if they were actually made visible before their eyes.
2. Its influential energies.
Nothing but faith will produce an abiding influence upon the soul. How that will operate, we see at large in the 11th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews: and to have it operate in that way upon his people's minds, will be the continued aim of every pious minister. He will not be content to see them "run, as uncertainly; or fight, as one that beats the air," he would have them like people engaged in the race, who have no time to look about them; and as people in actual combat, who must either slay their adversary, or be slain. We need not ask why those persons so exert themselves: the reason is plain: with them, the duty to which they are called is a reality. Others may trifle; but they cannot: they have too much at stake. Others may think it an easy thing to get to Heaven: they find it calls for the utmost exertion of all their powers. Others may imagine that they have within themselves a sufficiency of all needful strength: they know that a new-born infant is not weaker than they; and that, if not aided by continual supplies of grace and strength from above, they must inevitably and eternally perish. Hence they "live altogether by faith in the Son of God;" applying to him for everything, and "receiving everything out of his fullness." This is living Christianity: this is practical religion: and to this every pious minister labors to bring his people; that so, at whatever moment they be summoned to the presence of their God, they may be found ready, and meet for the inheritance provided for them.
This subject will clearly show us,
1. What is the source of all our other deficiencies.
Faith is at the root of all that is good; and unbelief, of all that is evil. According to our faith will every grace be found within us. Look at a person in a state of departure from his God: to what is his condition owing? There is "in him an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God." Look at persons anxious to attain the highest grace, so as to be able to forgive their brother, not seven times, but seventy times seven: for what do they pray? an increase of love? no; but of faith: "Lord, increase our faith." But turn to the world around you; and you shall see, that unbelief is the one great source of all their rebellion against God: they believe not that he will call them to so strict an account as he has declared he will; and, consequently, they see no need of such humiliation, and such earnestness in the divine life as he calls for. Let them once be brought to believe these things, and they from thenceforth regard the care of their souls as "the one thing needful."
2. What we should chiefly seek for in the ministry of the word.
What the enlightened minister chiefly labors to impart, we should chiefly labor to obtain. Doubtless we should not be unmindful of any grace: but we should remember, that faith is the parent of all the rest. It is faith that "overcomes the world," and "works by love," and "purifies the heart." Let me then recommend to you to seek increasing views of Christ, so as to realize his presence with you. Put him before your eyes, as dying for you on the cross; as interceding for you at the right hand of God; as possessing all fullness for your use. Realize his great and precious promises, as made to you, and as in due season to be fulfilled to you: and from day to day take Pisgah views of the Promised Land, until you obtain a blessed foretaste of your inheritance. This is the way to "walk by faith;" and in this way you shall proceed with joy, until your faith be turned into sight, and Your hope into fruition.
The Effect of Love on Universal Holiness
1 Thessalonians 3:12, 13. The Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you: to the end he may establish your hearts unblamably in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.
THE grace which is most generally spoken of in the Holy Scriptures as establishing the souls of men, is faith: "If you believe not," says the prophet, "you shall not be established," and again, "Believe in the Lord your God, and so shall you be established." It is by faith that we lay hold on the word of God; and by faith that we commit our every concern to God; and by faith that we expect the accomplishment of all that God has promised: and therefore the composing and establishing of our minds in relation to all future events is properly represented as the fruit of faith. But there is a sense in which love also establishes the heart, as the Apostle intimates in the passage before us; where he prays, that God would make the Thessalonian Christians to abound in love, in order to the establishment of their hearts in universal holiness. In this view love is sometimes united with faith, as concurring with it to strengthen and fortify the soul; as when Christians are said to "have on the breastplate of faith and love."
But this effect of love not being generally understood, we will enter the more carefully into the subject, and point out,
I. The influence of love on universal holiness.
Love is an extremely powerful principle in the heart of every one that is truly born of God: it is the great wheel which sets the whole machine in motion, and gives a vital energy to every part. In that chiefly does the new man consist; and from it does every Christian grace derive its strength.
1. It rectifies all the powers of the soul.
Self has usurped an entire dominion over the whole race of mankind. It has pervaded and debased all their faculties. The understanding is so blinded by it, as to be incapable of seeing anything in its true light: and the judgment is so perverted, that men universally "call evil good, and good evil; they put darkness for light, and light for darkness; bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter." The will is altogether indisposed for exertion, except in that line where self may be gratified, and our own ease, or pleasure, or interest, or honor may be advanced. Even conscience itself is an unfaithful guide, having no sensibility at all, except in concurrence with the corrupt dictates of a perverted judgment and a carnal will.
But let love come into the heart, and assume that ascendency over it which God has ordained, and all these faculties will receive a new direction,—I had almost said, a new power. Now as soon as truth is proposed to the mind, its beauty and excellence shall be discerned, and its superiority to every adverse principle shall be acknowledged. Now also, notwithstanding the yet remaining bias of the corrupt nature towards what is evil, the prevailing and dominant inclination will be towards what is good; the Divine nature within us counteracting the motions of the old man, and not suffering it any longer to retain the mastery over us; and the conscience continually impelling us to greater measures of conformity to God's revealed will.
This process will be best seen by some examples placed before our eyes. The Apostle Paul, previous to his conversion, had all the advantages which a man could have for the improvement and direction of all his faculties: but yet every faculty of his soul was entirely engaged on the side of sin. Not having love in his heart, notwithstanding his imagined rectitude, he was no better than a savage beast in his conduct towards the Christian Church: "he breathed out nothing but threatenings and slaughter against them," and thought all the while he was acting in the path of duty, and rendering to God an acceptable service. But when once he was converted to God, and brought under the influence of a principle of love, he condemned all which he had before approved; and was willing to die for those, whom he had just before labored to destroy. We may behold the same effect in those who were converted on the day of Pentecost. Compare the state of their minds when they came together that morning, and when they separated, and our subject will have all the elucidation that can possibly be desired.
2. It enters into every action of the life.
It is as the soul, which pervades, and operates in, every part of the body. We are apt to view it only in some particular act; but it enters into, and forms, the very habit of the soul. Paul's description of it will serve us as a rule whereby to judge of its office, and as a clew whereby to discover its most hidden operations. "Love (or 'charity,' as it is called,) suffers long, and is kind; it envies not, vaunts not itself, is not puffed up, does not behave itself unseemly, seeks not her own, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil, rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." Here we see, that not only our actions towards others, but the dispositions of our own minds in secret, are most materially affected by it; and consequently, that its influence extends to every branch of universal holiness.
3. It prepares the soul for heavenly communications.
Dispositions that are contrary to love, bar the soul against God: they shut out good, from whatever quarter it might come. If a man under their influence read the Bible, what is it but "a sealed book?" If he attempt to pray, the heavens to him are as brass: his prayers have no power to ascend: they have no warmth in them: they freeze upon his very lips. If he enter into conversation, there is no savor in anything he says, nor any capacity to receive good from anything he hears. In the public ordinances, and in his private chamber, he is alike dull and formal. Go where he will, or do what he will, he neither communicates good, nor receives good.
But when love comes into his soul, his heart is expanded and enlarged towards both God and man. To God he goes with holy confidence, and finds access even to his very bosom: and "God, who is love" itself, delights in his own image as reflected from the suppliant's face, and rejoices to communicate to him all the blessings of grace and peace. A soul filled with love is just such an habitation as God delights in; and he will not fail to descend and dwell in itl. Nor is it in relation to this life only that a person under the influence of love enjoys this confidence; he looks forward, even to the day of judgment, with a sweet assurance, that that God, whose image he so earnestly desires to bear, will not cast him into outer darkness. Let the same person now go into company, or attend the public ordinances, or take up the blessed word of God, he has new eyes, new ears, new feelings altogether. There is an unction of the Spirit upon his soul, that enables him to derive edification from everything, and to diffuse, wherever he goes, "a sweet savor of the knowledge of Christ." His love is like "the ointment of the right-hand which betrays itself," refreshing both himself and all around him with its sweet odors. In a word, there is no limit to the communications which such an one may expect from "God, who does already dwell in him, and whose love is, and shall be, perfected within him."
Seeing then that love is of such fundamental importance, let us notice,
II. The attention due to it under this particular consideration.
Love, for its own sake, should be cultivated to the uttermost: but when we consider its vast influence both on our present and eternal welfare, we should seek it with all our might. This appears from the solicitude which the Apostle expressed for the growth of the Thessalonians in this heavenly virtue. In reference then to his expressions, we say,
1. Let us seek to abound in it.
Whatever advancement any persons may have made in this virtue, they should still press forward for higher attainments in it, desiring to "increase and abound in it more and inure." The Thessalonians were eminently distinguished in this respect, so as not to need from the Apostle any instructions on the subject: yet even them did he exhort to "increase more and more," imitating and emulating his love to them. Consider for a moment the Apostle's love to them, the ardor, the tenderness, the efficiency of it: he compares his feelings with those of a father, yes, and of a nursing mother towards her infant offspring. And such was his anxiety about them, that he could scarcely endure his existence, until he was assured of their spiritual welfare; and he was us willing to lay down his life for them, as a mother was to draw forth the breast to her sucking child. Now such is the love that we should all aspire after: for nothing short of this is required of us by Almighty Gods.
2. Let us entreat God to work it in us.
"Love is of God," nor can any but. God create it in the heart. We may attempt to stir up in others this heavenly flame, but we shall never succeed, until God himself shall send down fire from above, and create the vital spark in the soul. Solomon justly observes, that "if a man would give all the substance of his house for love it would be utterly contemned." We may labor and toil to the uttermost; but our efforts will only be like those of the Disciples, when they strove in vain to row their ship to shore, until Jesus entered into their vessel; and then they were immediately at the land where they wished to go. In many cases, the "more abundantly we endeavor to testify our love, the less we shall be loved;" yes, we shall only be "casting our pearls before swine, that will turn again and rend us." But God can in one moment kindle the sacred flame, even in the soul that has indulged the most inveterate malignity. Behold the jailor: one hour he executed his commission against Paul and Silas with savage and needless cruelty; the next, he washed their stripes with all imaginable tenderness and love. Let us cry then to him for the gracious influences of his Spirit, to create us anew, and to form and fashion us after his blessed image.
3. Let us be stirred up to this especially from the consideration before us.
Shortly is the Lord Jesus Christ coming with all his glorified saints to judge the world: and then will an inquiry be instituted, not after this or that particular grace, but after universal holiness. This consideration surely ought to weigh with us, and to make us thoroughly in earnest in the pursuit of love. Many grounds of confidence we may appear to have; but they will all fail us in that awful day: "Our knowledge may be so extensive, as to embrace all the mysteries of religion; our faith so strong, as to remove mountains; our liberality so great, as to give all our goods to feed the poor; and our zeal so ardent, as to give our bodies to be burned—and yet, for want of a radical principle of love in our souls, it may profit us nothing; and we may be, in God's estimation, no better than sounding brass or tinkling cymbals." O, how carefully should we examine ourselves as to the existence of this principle within us, and how ardently should we seek its increase! "As a man thinks in his heart, so is he," if he be altogether under the influence of love, "he fulfills the law," and is approved of his God: but, if this be not the reigning principle in his soul, whatever he may be, or whatever he may do, "he is in darkness even until now," and will be consigned to everlasting darkness at the last day.
With those who feel the importance of this subject, two questions will naturally arise;
1. How shall I know whether my love increases?
This question deserves an attentive consideration: for, if we form our judgment on inadequate and erroneous grounds, we shall only deceive ourselves to our everlasting destruction. Let not any then imagine that their love increases, because they feel an increased attachment to any particular individual or party, or have a general desire to do good. If we would form a correct estimate of our love, we must examine what difficulties it surmounts, what sacrifices it makes, and what victories it gains over every selfish inclination or corrupt affection? "If we love those only who love us, what do we more than others? do not even the Pharisees the same?" We must "love them that hate us, and bless them that curse us, and do good to them that despitefully use us and persecute us," and it is in this way only that we can approve ourselves "children of our heavenly Father." Enter then deeply into the workings of your own hearts: see how far pride, and anger, and malice, and envy are mortified within you; and how far humility, and meekness, and forbearance, and forgiveness, and a disposition to prefer others in honor above yourselves, are risen up in their stead, and are brought, though under the most trying circumstances, into easy and habitual exercise. Real love has, if I may so say, an intuitive and instinctive operation. See it in the mother of the child which Solomon ordered to be divided between the claimants: she did not need to reason upon the matter; but love, instantly operating in her soul, inclined her to sacrifice her own interests for the good of her child. So it is that love will evidence itself, wherever it exists: it will rise to the occasion, whatever the occasion be; it will "heap coals of fire on the bead" of those whom it cannot otherwise soften; and, "instead of being overcome of evil, it will overcome evil with good." Try yourselves by this standard, and you will soon see what the state of your souls is before God.
2. What shall I do to get an increase of it?
Many directions here might be given: but we will content ourselves with only one. Nothing but love will beget love: nor will anything but a sense of God's love to us prevail to create in us any real love towards our fellow-creatures: we must know what he has done in laying down his life for us, before we can feel any disposition to lay down our lives for the brethren. But if by grace we are enabled to "comprehend in some good measure the height and depth and length and breadth of Christ's love," then shall we be transformed by it into his image, yes, and "be filled with all the fullness of God." Contemplate then this stupendous mystery: dwell upon it, as it were, incessantly in your minds: muse upon it, until the fire of divine love kindle in your souls: and from thus "beholding his glory, you shall be changed into his image from glory to glory by the Spirit of the Lord."
Advancement in Holiness Enforced
1 Thessalonians 4:1. We beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as you have received of us how you ought to walk and to please God, so you would abound more and more.
OUR blessed Lord, when about to leave the world, commanded his Apostles to go and "proselyte all nations" to his religion, "teaching them at the same time to observe and do all things that he had commanded them." Thus, in their ministrations, principle and practice were to go hand in hand. But many are disposed to separate what he has thus united; some making the Gospel little else than a system of moral duties; while others omit duty altogether, and occupy themselves entirely in establishing their own peculiar views of its doctrines. Both of these parties we conceive to be wrong. A superstructure is nothing without a foundation; neither is a foundation anything without a superstructure. Each indeed has its appropriate place; but both are alike important: for if, on the one hand, the superstructure will fall, without a foundation; so on the other hand, it is for the sake of the superstructure alone that the foundation is laid. Paul, "as a wise master-builder," was careful at all times to lay his foundation deep and strong: but, having done this, he was careful also to raise upon it a beauteous edifice, such as God himself would delight to inhabit. This appears in all his epistles, not excepting those which are most devoted to the establishment of sound doctrine. In the epistle before us he seems to have had little else in view, than to assure the Thessalonians of his tender regard for them, and to excite them to the highest possible attainments in universal holiness. He was ready enough to acknowledge, that his instructions had produced the most beneficial effects upon them; but he was anxious that they should still press forward for higher attainments, as long as anything should remain to be attained.
The words which we have just read consist of an appeal, and an exhortation. Let us consider,
I. The appeal.
Paul had not sought to amuse them by curious speculations; nor had he given them maxims whereby they might please and gratify their fellow-creatures. His object had been to bring them to such a holy and consistent "walk," as would be pleasing and acceptable to their God. What kind of a walk that is, it will be profitable for us to inquire.
If we would so walk as to please God, we must,
1. Walk in Christ, by a living faith.
This is particularly required by Paul in the Epistle to the Colossians: "As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk you in him." By this is meant, that we should walk in a continual dependence on the Lord Jesus Christ for all those blessings which we stand in need of. He is the fountain of them all: they are treasured up in him, on purpose that we may have them secured for us against every enemy. Do we need a justifying righteousness? To him we must look for it, and from him we must receive it: "We must call him, The Lord our Righteousness." Do we need grace to sanctify and renew our souls? From him we must receive it, according to our necessities. Our wisdom, our strength, our peace, our all, is in him, and must be derived from him in the exercise of faith and prayer. Thus it was that Paul himself walked: "The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for meg." And thus it is that we also must live, depending on him for everything, and glorying in him alone.
2. Walk after Christ, by a holy conversation.
This also is particularly specified by another Apostle as essential to an acceptable walk with God: "He who abides in him ought himself also so to walk even as he walked." Our blessed Lord "has left us an example, that we should follow his steps." Like him, we must live altogether for God, making it "our meat and our drink to do his will." Like him, we must rise superior to all worldly cares, or pleasures, or honors, "not being of the world, even as he was not of the world." Like him, we must exercise meekness and patience, and forbearance, and love even to our bitterest enemies, never swerving in the least from the path of duty for fear of them, nor yielding to anything of a vindictive spirit on account of them, but rendering to them, under all circumstances, good for evil, and committing ourselves entirely to the disposal of an all-wise God. In a word, "the same mind must be in us as was in him," under every possible situation and circumstance of life: and then, as "he pleased the Father always," so shall we infallibly be approved by him in the whole of our conduct.
The Apostle, appealing to them that he had so taught them, exhorts them to press forward in the course he had pointed out. Let us proceed then to consider,
II. The exhortation.
In this he acknowledges, that they had already done well: but he wishes them to redouble their exertions in their heavenly way. Let us notice here,
1. The fact conceded.
When he says, "You have received of us," he does not mean merely that they had heard his instructions, but that they had so heard them as to be influenced by them. It was at all times a delight to the Apostle to acknowledge the good that was in his converts, and to bestow commendation on them as far as it was due. And it is with sincere joy, that we can make the same acknowledgment respecting those to whom we have ministered, We bless God that many have been brought to live by faith upon the Lord Jesus Christ, and "so to walk as they have him for an example," and it is our earnest desire and prayer to God, that our ministrations may produce the same blessed effect on all. But whatever advances you may have made in the divine life, we must call your attention to,
2. The duty urged.
Paul would not that any one of his converts should faint or be weary in well-doing. "The path of the just is like that of the sun," which advances without intermission to its meridian height and splendor. Having begun to run well, we must continue; yes, like racers in a course, we must forget that which is behind, and press forward with ever-increasing ardor to that which is before, exerting ourselves the more, the nearer we approach the goal. Behold then our duty: Have we begun to "walk in Christ Jesus?" let us live more entirely upon him every day we live. Let us resemble the branch of a vine, which incessantly derives its sap and nourishment from the stock, and derives it only in order to its more abundant production of the choicest fruit. Have we begun to "walk after Christ?" let us seek a more entire conformity to his image, yes, a perfect transformation into it "from glory to glory by the Spirit of the Lord." We must know no bounds, no limits to our exertions: we must seek to "grow up into him in all things," to attain "the full measure of his stature," be "holy as he is holy," and "perfect as he is perfect."
The affectionate and earnest manner in which the Apostle urges this duty upon them, will furnish us with an important and appropriate conclusion.
He might well have enjoined these things in an authoritative manner; but "for love's sake he rather besought them." But what an argument did he use! "I exhort you by the Lord Jesus!" By this sacred name I would also beseech you, beloved brethren: I would entreat you,
1. By the consideration of all that he has done and suffered for you.
Can you reflect on the humiliation, the labors, the sufferings to which he submitted for you, and not long to requite him to the utmost of your power? He never assigned any bounds to his love, and will you fix any bounds to yours? He never ceased from his work, until he could say, "It is finished," and will you stop short in yours? O brethren, "this is our wish, even your perfection." Let the same be your wish, your labor, your continual pursuit.
2. By the consideration of all the interest that he yet takes in your welfare.
Night and day is he occupied in promoting the salvation of your souls. Though seated on his Father's throne, and partaking of all his Father's glory, he is not forgetful of you. On the contrary, he is making continual intercession for you, and administering the affairs of the whole creation for your good. Does he see you deviating in any respect from the path which he trod? "Father," he cries, "forgive them, and lay not this sin to their charge." Does he see the powers of darkness striving to ensnare you? He sends a host of angels to your aid, that they may "minister unto you," and "hold you up in their hands, that you dash not your foot against a stone." Does he see you ready to faint in your spiritual course? "Go," says he, "go, my Spirit, strengthen the hands, and encourage the heart, of that drooping saint," "Take of the things that are mine, and show them unto him," "glorify me before him," and "fulfill in him all my good pleasure."
Now then, when the Savior thus cares for you, will you intermit your care for him? When he is thus managing your concerns, will you not with increasing confidence commit them to his care? When he is doing everything that can possibly be done for you, will you leave anything undone that can be done for him?
3. By the consideration of the honor he will derive from you.
He himself tells us, that "his Father is glorified in our fruitfulness." And Paul speaks of Christ also as magnified in his body, whether by life or death. What a thought is this! Can you, my brethren, glorify the Father, and magnify the Lord Jesus, and will you not strive to do it? Know assuredly, that "your professed subjection to the Gospel of Christ" does cause him to be exceedingly magnified: and the more "the exceeding grace of God" appears in you, the more of praises and adoration and thanksgiving will abound to him. Let this blessed prospect animate your souls: and wherein you have hitherto glorified him, seek to "abound more and more."
4. By the consideration of the glory that will accrue to him in the day of judgment.
In that great day the Lord Jesus "Christ will be glorified in his saints, and admired in all them that believe." The brighter his image shone upon them here, the more radiance will appear around them there; and all will be as jewels to compose his crown. When the demoniac had confessed his inability to withstand the Lord Jesus, and yet had prevailed over seven men who attempted to cast out the evil spirit, we are told that "the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified." How then will it be magnified, when the extent of his power in you shall be seen, and your once dark polluted souls shall shine forth as the sun in the firmament forever and ever! Now then is the time for you to exalt his name, and to augment his glory to all eternity. It is but a little time that you will be able to do anything for him: when death comes, all your opportunities to advance his glory will cease forever. Up then, and be doing. We have shown you how to walk and to please God, and you have begun the blessed work: but O, we entreat you to abound more and more! And may "the God of peace, who brought again from the dead the Lord Jesus, that Great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ: to whom be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amend."
1 Thessalonians 4:13–18. I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that you sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For, if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you. by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from Heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.
IT is justly said by the Apostle, that "godliness is profitable unto all things, having the promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come." Certainly true religion doubles our joys, at the same time that it greatly diminishes our sorrows. Whatever temporal happiness a man of God enjoys, he has, by anticipation, the joys of eternity also added to it; while his griefs, whatever they may be, are also proportionably mitigated by the consideration of their transitory nature, their sanctifying efficacy, and their glorious issue. This Paul intimates in the passage before us. There were some of the Thessalonian Church who had given way to sorrow in an unfitting manner; so that, in that respect, they could scarcely be discerned as differing from the unconverted heathen around them. To correct this, he tells them of the glorious prospects which they have in the eternal world, and begs them to look forward to their future destinies, as the means of tranquillizing their minds under all the painful circumstances which might at any time occur.
In the words which we have just read, he declares,
I. The certainty of the resurrection.
The heathen quite derided the idea of the resurrection, deeming it altogether incredible: and some who professed Christianity explained away the doctrine relating to it, and represented the resurrection as a merely spiritual change, which had passed already. Even some of the Thessalonian Church did not appear to be well grounded in it: and therefore Paul assured them, that it was a doctrine on which they might fully depend.
They did believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
On these two facts all Christianity was founded, namely, that "Jesus had died for our sins, and had risen again for our justification." If Jesus had not risen, all their faith in him, and all their hope from him, was altogether vain.
These facts admitted, the resurrection of man would follow of course.
The resurrection of our blessed Lord was both an evidence that God can raise the dead, and a pledge that he will. The same power that could raise him, can raise us: nothing less than Omnipotence was necessary for the one; and to Omnipotence the other also must yield. Had Jesus risen merely as an individual, we might have supposed it possible that the power exerted in his behalf would not be exercised for us. But he rose as the federal Head of his people: and what has been done for him, the Head, shall also be done for all his members. He is "the first-fruits of them that sleep." Now the first-fruits sanctified and assured the whole harvest. We may be sure therefore, that, as "our Forerunner" is gone before, we shall all follow him in due season. The one gives us a full assurance of the other.
For their fuller instruction, he proceeds to state to them,
II. The order in which it shall be effected.
This perhaps is a matter of curiosity, rather than of any great practical importance: but Paul would not that the Thessalonian Christians should be ignorant of it; and therefore it is not undeserving of our attention. The resurrection then will take place in this order:.
First, the dead will be raised from their graves.
All that have ever departed out of the world will be restored to life, each clothed in his own proper body. The sea and the grave will yield up those who have long since been entombed within them, and they shall all live again upon the earth. The text indeed speaks of the righteous only, who had fallen asleep in Christ: but in other passages we are informed that the ungodly also will hear the voice of the Son of God, and, in obedience to it, come forth from their graves. Irresistible will be the summons, when "the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet of God," shall sound. When Jesus came in his state of humiliation, thousands withstood his voice: but none will, "when he shall come in his own glory, and the glory of his Father, with his holy angels." The great and mighty, as well as the mean and insignificant, shall come forth alike, each re-united to his kindred body, and each appearing in his own proper character.
Next, those who remain alive upon the earth will be changed.
Certainly those who are on the earth will not be changed first; and it appears, that they will remain unchanged, while all who have ever died are restored to life. What a surprising sight will it be, to behold such countless multitudes of the children of Adam bursting forth from their graves, and standing up, an innumerable host, in their incorruptible and glorified bodies!—But, this once effected, the people who are then living upon earth will be changed in an instant, their mortal and corruptible bodies becoming at once, and without any dissolution preparatory to it, incorruptible and immortal. This is the order which Paul has specified also in another epistle: first the trumpet, then the rising of the dead, and then the change of the living. Well may the Apostle call it a "mystery." But as all will then be in that form which they will bear to all eternity, what an amazing difference will then appear in those who once perfectly resembled each other! the godly how beautiful! the ungodly, how deformed! both having either Heaven or Hell depicted in their very countenances! Amazing sight! how infinitely surpassing all human conception!
Then will they all together be "caught up to meet the Lord in the air."
Yes, into the presence of their Judge must they go: and as the earth would not be a theater sufficient for the occasion, they must meet the Lord in the air. Blessed, blessed summons to the godly! With what joy will they go forth to meet Him, whom unseen they loved, and out of. whose fullness they received all the grace that ever they possessed, "their spirits being now made perfect," and "their vile body fashioned like unto Christ's glorious body!" On the other hand, with what reluctance are the ungodly dragged into his presence! How gladly would they hide themselves from him, if it were possible. Thousands, who were once the great and noble of the earth, and who thought there was none above them to whom they owed allegiance, will now curse the day that they were born, and "cry to the rocks and mountains to cover them" from the face of their offended Lord.
Having stated this, he declares,
III. The blessed issue of it to the saints.
They "shall be ever with the Lord."
From him they will receive a sentence of acquittal, or rather of unqualified approbation, "Well done, good and faithful servants." To his right hand will they be called, as a prelude to the honor he is about to confer upon them. The judgment finished, he ascends with all his bright attendants to the Heaven of heavens, the immediate residence of the Deity; and these his redeemed people now ascend together with him, to behold his glory in all its unclouded splendor, and to participate his throne, even as he participates his Father's throne. O what fullness of joy do they now possess! How bright their vision of his glory! how unbounded their fruition of his love! Nothing now could add to their felicity; nor can anything now detract from if. That too which constitutes its chief ingredient is, that it will be "forever." Were this happiness to be only for a fixed period, however long, it would not be complete: the idea of its ultimate termination would cob it of half its value. But it will be pure and endless as the Deity himself.
But how different the condition of the ungodly!
They will be bidden to "depart from him; to depart accursed; to depart into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels." Alas! alas! what weeping, what wailing, what gnashing of teeth will they experience; and that also forever and ever! Unhappy creatures! "Good were it for them, that they had never been born."
He further suggests,
IV. The improvement that should be made of this subject.
The word translated "comfort," is in the margin rendered "exhort." Either sense of the word is just; and therefore we will include both. This subject then should be improved by us,
1. In a way of mutual consolation.
Have any of us been bereaved of dear and pious friends? "Let us not sorrow, as those who have no hope." What though they shall not come again to us? it is but a little time, and we shall go to them: and most blessed shall be our meeting at the right hand of God—Are we terrified at the thoughts of our own approaching dissolution? It is but "a sleep," if we belong to Jesus; it is a falling asleep in the Savior's arms. What is there terrific in this? O put away your unbelieving fears; and learn to number death among your richest treasures.
2. In a way of mutual exhortation.
Certainly the thoughts of a resurrection and a future judgment ought to fill us with holy awe: for the consequences of that judgment are such as no words can adequately express, nor any finite intelligence fully comprehend. We then would exhort every one of you, and do you also exhort one another, in the words of the prophet, "Prepare to meet your God." Remember the blessedness "that is here spoken of, is to those only who die in the Lord," and, if you would die in the Lord, you must live in the Lord: you must be in him, as the branch in the vine, by a living faith; and you must abide in him to your dying hour. Seek then "to be found in him, not having your own righteousness, but the righteousness which is of God by faith in him." Then may you look forward to death as to a transient sleep, from which you shall awake in the morning of the resurrection, to everlasting blessedness and glory.
1 Thessalonians 5:1–8. Of the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction comes upon them, as travail upon a woman with child, and they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. You are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breast-plate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.
ON an occasion like the present, when God is so loudly speaking to us by his providence, I am anxious that his voice, and his alone, should be heard among us: for as, on the one hand, it would be peculiarly difficult so to speak, as to cut off all occasion for misconception, so, on the other hand, filled as your minds are with holy fear and reverence, it will be far more grateful to you to sit, as it were, at the feet of Jesus, and to hear what the Lord God himself shall say concerning you. Methinks, in the spirit of your minds you are all, even this whole congregation, like Cornelius and his company, saying, "Now are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded you of God," yes, I would hope that each individual is now in the posture of Samuel, "Speak, Lord, for your servant hears." To meet these devout wishes in a suitable manner, I have chosen a portion of Scripture, which contains all that the occasion calls for, and bears the impress of Divine authority in every part. It comes home to our business and bosoms: it turns our minds from the distinguished individual whose loss we deplore, and fixes them on our own personal concerns; proclaiming to every one of us, "Prepare to meet your God."
The point to which it more immediately calls our attention, is, the coming of our Lord to judgment. The precise period when that awful event shall take place has never been revealed either to men or angels: it is "a secret which the Father has reserved in his own bosom." This only we know concerning it, that it will come suddenly and unexpected to all them that dwell on the earth: and therefore it is our wisdom to be always standing prepared for it. We believe indeed that it is yet far distant from us, because there are many prophecies which yet remain to be accomplished previous to its arrival: but to us the day of death is as the day of judgment; because as death finds us, so shall we appear at the bar of judgment; and "as the tree falls, so will it lie" to all eternity. We shall therefore speak of death and judgment as, in effect, the same to us; and we shall notice in succession,
I. The uncertainty of the period when death shall arrive.
II. The character of those who are prepared for it.
III. The duty of all in reference to it.
I. As to the uncertainty of the period when death and judgment shall arrive, the idea is so familiar to our minds, and the truth of it so self-evident, that, as the Apostle intimates, you have no need to have it brought before you. Yet though universally acknowledged as a truth, how rarely is it felt as a ground of action in reference to the eternal world! We look into the Holy Scriptures, and there we see this truth written as with a sun-beam. We behold the whole human race surprised at the deluge in the midst of all their worldly cares and pleasures; and all, except one little family, swept away by one common destruction. A similar judgment we behold executed on the cities of the plain: and these particular judgments are held forth to us as warnings of what we ourselves have reason to expect. Our blessed Lord says to us, "Be you also ready; for in an hour that you think not the Son of Man comes," yet we cannot realize the thought, that death should ever so overtake us. Nay, we even try to put the conviction far from us, and, in every instance of sudden death that we hear of, endeavor to find some reason for the mortality of our neighbor, which does not attach to ourselves. When, as in the instance now before us, a person is snatched away suddenly, and in full health, as it were, we are constrained for a moment to reflect, that we also are liable to be called away: but it is surprising how soon the thought vanishes from our minds, and how little permanent effect remains. We are told, that our danger is in reality increased by our security; and that we are then most of all exposed to the stroke of death, when we are most dreaming of "peace and safety;" yet we cannot awake from our torpor, or set ourselves to prepare for death and judgment. We are not altogether unconscious, that destruction, even inevitable and irremediable destruction, must be the portion of those who are taken unprepared; and yet we defer our preparation for eternity, in the hope of finding some more convenient season. We see our neighbor surprised as by "a thief in the night;" and yet we hope that notice will be given to us. We even bear about in our persons some disorders or infirmities which might warn us of our approaching end; and yet we look for another and another day, until like a woman in travail, we are unexpectedly seized, and with great anguish of mind are constrained to obey the call.
Now whence is it, that notwithstanding "we know perfectly" the uncertainty of life, we are so little affected with the consideration of it? If there were no future state of existence, we might account for it; because men would naturally put away from them any thoughts, which might diminish their enjoyment of present good. But when this life is only a space afforded us to prepare for a better, and when an eternity of happiness or misery depends on our improvement of the present hour, it is truly amazing that we should be able to indulge so fatal a security. One would think that every one would be employing all the time that he could redeem from the necessary duties of life, in order to provide for his eternal state: one would think that he should scarcely give sleep to his eyes or slumber to his eye-lids, until he had obtained a clear evidence of his acceptance with God, and had "made his calling and election sure." But this is not the case: and therefore, evident as the truth is, we need to have it brought before us, and enforced on our minds and consciences by every argument that can be adduced.
Permit me then to remind those who are living in open sins, that they know not how soon they may be called into the presence of their God, with all their sins upon them. And how will they endure the sight of their offended God? Will they, when standing at his tribunal, make as light of sin as they now do? Will they prevail on him to view it as mere youthful indiscretion, and unworthy of any serious notice? No, in truth: if any could come to us from the dead, they would not designate their crimes by such specious terms as they once used respecting them; but would tell us plainly, that "they who do such things cannot inherit the kingdom of God." Think then, you who make a mock at sin, how soon your voice may be changed, and all your present sport be turned to "weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth!"
Nor is it to open sinners only that we must suggest these thoughts: we must remind the moral also, and the sober, that death may quickly terminate their day of grace: yes, we must "put them in remembrance of these things, though they know them, and be established" in the belief of them. We mean not to undervalue sobriety and outward morality: no; we rejoice to see even an external conformity to Christian duties. But more than outward morality is wanting for our final acceptance with God. We must have a penitent and contrite spirit: we must seek refuge in Christ from all the curses of the broken law: we must be renewed in the spirit of our mind by the sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit: we must be brought to live no longer to ourselves, but unto Him who died for us, and rose again. These things are absolutely and indispensably necessary to our salvation: the form of godliness, how far soever it may carry us, will profit us nothing at the bar of judgment, if we possess not the power of it. How awful then is the thought, that, in a few days or weeks, those persons who are most respected and revered among us for their wisdom and learning, for their probity and honor, may be called to give up their account to God, before they have attained that vital godliness which must constitute their fitness for Heaven!
But indeed the uncertainty of life speaks loudly to the best of men; it bids them to "stand upon their watch-tower," and be ready at every moment to meet their last enemy: for, as mere morality will profit little without real piety, so the lamp of outward profession will be of no service, if it be destitute of that oil which God alone can bestow.
It is a matter of consolation to us, however, that some are prepared for death, however suddenly it may come.
II. Who they are, and what their character is, we now come to show.
The Scriptures everywhere draw a broad line of distinction between the true servants of Christ, and those who are such only in name and profession. Thus, in the words before us, they are called "Children of the light and of the day," in opposition to those who are "of the night and of darkness." Doubtless this distinction primarily referred to their having been brought out of the darkness of heathen superstitions, into the marvelous light of the Gospel of Christ. But we must not suppose that it is to be limited to this. The ways of sin and ignorance are justly denominated darkness, no less than idolatry itself: and the paths of faith and holiness may be called "light," whether we have been brought into them suddenly from a state of heathenism, or gradually, under a profession of Christianity itself. Now of the Thessalonians he could say, in the judgment of charity, that "they all were children of the light and of the day." The state of profession was very different then from what it is at this time: people did not embrace Christianity unless they had been strongly convinced of its truth; and the moment they did embrace it, they strove to "walk worthy of their high calling," and to stimulate each other to "adorn the doctrine of God their Savior in all things." The persecutions they suffered obliged them to have constant recourse to God in prayer for his support; and to watch carefully over their own conduct, that they might not give any just "occasion to their adversaries to speak reproachfully." Hence their religion was vital and practical, and very different from that which obtains among the professors of Christianity at this day. Now men are reputed Christians, though they have their affections altogether set upon the world, and their habits differing but little from those of heathens. A man may be a Christian, though he drink, and swear, and commit evils, which ought scarcely to be so much as named among us. A man may be a Christian, though he have no real love to Christ, no sweet communion with him, no holy glorying in his cross and passion. But "you have not so learned Christ, if so be have heard him, and been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus." The distinction between light and darkness is the same as ever: and those only who walk according to the example of the primitive Christians, can be called "the children of the light and of the day." But those, whoever they be, are prepared for death: to them, though it may come suddenly, it cannot come unlooked for: it "cannot overtake them as a thief."
And such was that exalted character, whom it has pleased our God so suddenly to take from the midst of us. In whatever light we view him, he was a bright and consistent character, an ornament to his profession, an honor to his God. It is the peculiar excellence of religion, that it operates in every department of human life, and stimulates to an exemplary discharge of every duty. It is superfluous for me to mention, with what unwearied diligence, and distinguished ability, he filled the high office which had been assigned him in this university; and how uniform have been his exertions, for upwards of thirty years, for the advancement of learning, the maintenance of order, and the due regulation of all the complicated concerns of the university at large. Long, long will his loss be felt, in every department which he had been called to fill. To him every one looked, as his most judicious friend, in cases of difficulty; assured that, while by his comprehensive knowledge he was well qualified to advise, he was warped by no prejudices, nor biased by any interests: he ever both advised, and did, what he truly believed to be right in the sight of God. His superiority to all worldly considerations was strongly marked throughout the whole course of his life; more indeed to his honor, than the honor of those, by whom such eminent talents and such transcendent worth have for so long a period been overlooked.
Had these excellencies arisen only from worldly principles, though they would have shed a luster over his character, and conferred benefits on the body of which he was a member,—they would have availed little as a preparation for death and judgment. But they were the fruits of true religion in his soul. He had been brought out of the darkness of a natural state, and had been greatly enriched with divine knowledge. He was indeed "mighty in the Scriptures;" his views of divine truth were deep, and just, and accurate; and, above all, they were influential on the whole of his life and conduct. He not only beheld Christ as the Savior of the world, but relied on him as his only hope, and cleaved to him with full purpose of heart, and gloried in him as his Lord, his God, and his whole salvation. Nor was he satisfied with serving God in his closet: no; he confessed his Savior openly; he was a friend and patron of religion, he encouraged it in all around him; he was not ashamed of Christ, nor of any of his faithful followers. He accounted it no degradation to show in every way his attachment to the Gospel, and his full conviction that there is salvation in no other name under Heaven than the name of Jesus Christ. He was, in the highest sense of the word, "a child of light," and truly he caused "his light so to shine before men," that all who beheld it were constrained to glorify God in his behalf.
To him then death came not as a thief in the night. Though it came suddenly, so suddenly that he had not the smallest apprehension of its approach, it found him not unprepared. His loins were girt, his lamp was trimmed, and he entered, a welcome guest, to the marriage-supper of his Lord.
O that we all might be found equally prepared, when the summons from on high shall be sent to us! O that we may have in our souls an evidence, that we also are "children of the light and of the day!" Happy indeed would it be, if the state of religion among us were such, that we might adopt with truth the charitable expression in our text, "You all are children of the light and of the day." But if we cannot do this, we have at least reason to be thankful, that real piety is certainly more prevalent among us than it was some years ago; that prejudices against it have most astonishingly subsided; and that, where it does not yet reign, its excellence is secretly acknowledged; so that on this occasion we may doubt whether there be so much as one among us, who does not say in his heart, "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his."
Let me then proceed,
III. To point out the duty of all, in reference to that day.
We should "not sleep as do others." Those who put the evil day far from them, can live unmindful of their God, and regardless of the sentence that he shall pass upon them. They can go on dreaming of Heaven and happiness in the eternal world, though they never walk in the way thither, or seek to obtain favor with their offended God. But let it not be thus with any who desire happiness beyond the grave. If ever we would behold the face of God in peace, we must improve our present hours in turning to him, and in laboring to perform his will. If the prize held out to those who wrestled, or ran, or fought, could not be obtained without the most strenuous exertions, much less can the glory of Heaven be obtained, unless the acquisition of it be the great object of our lives. It is true indeed that "the Son of Man must give unto us the meat that endures to everlasting life;" but still we must "labor for it" with all our heart, and mind, and soul, and strength. To expect the end without using the means, is to reverse the decrees of Heaven, and to deceive ourselves to our eternal ruin. We must "watch and be sober." It is an inordinate attachment to earthly things that keeps us from the pursuit of heavenly things. The cares, the pleasures, the honors of this life, engross all our attention, and leave us neither time nor inclination for higher objects. This groveling disposition we must resist and mortify. We must set our affections on things above, and not on things on the earth; and must not only keep Heaven constantly in view, but must so run as to obtain the prize. The men of this world affect darkness rather than light, as being more suited to the habits in which they delight to live. "They that sleep, sleep in the night; and they that be drunken, (if not lost to all sense of shame,) are drunken in the night," but we, if indeed we are of the day, shall delight to "come forth to the light, that our deeds may be made manifest that they are wrought in God." We should study the Holy Scriptures, not merely to acquire a critical knowledge of them, (though that is good and necessary in its place;) but to find what is the will of God, and what is that way in which he has commanded us to walk: and instead of being satisfied with doing what shall satisfy the demands of an accusing conscience, we must aspire after a perfect conformity to the Divine image, and endeavor to "walk in all things even as Christ himself walked."
But our duty is described in our text under some peculiar images, to which we shall do well to advert. We are supposed to be as sentinels, watching against the incursions of our spiritual foe. For our protection, armor of heavenly temper has been provided: "for a breast-plate, we are to put on faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation." We might, if it were needful, mark the suitableness of these various graces to the protection of the part which they are intended to defend. But as this would lead us rather from our main subject, we content ourselves with a general view of these graces, as necessary for the final attainment of everlasting salvation. We must put on faith, without which indeed we are exposed to the assault of every enemy, and destitute of any means of defense whatever. It is in Christ only that we have the smallest hope of acceptance with God; and in him alone have we those treasures of grace and strength which are necessary for a successful prosecution of our spiritual warfare: "He is made of God unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption." But how must we obtain these things from him? It is by faith, and by faith only that we can "receive them out of his fullness." This then is the first grace which we must cultivate; for according to our faith all other things will be unto us. To him we must look continually; renouncing every other confidence, and trusting altogether in him alone. In the fountain of his precious blood we must wash our guilty souls, or, as the Scripture expresses it, "Our garments must be made white in the blood of the Lamb." To him, under every conflict, we must cry for strength; for it is his grace alone that can be sufficient for us; and "through his strength communicated to us, we shall be able to do all things." Yet, notwithstanding all our exertions, we shall find that in many things we daily offend; and therefore, under every fresh contracted guilt, we must look to Him who is "our Advocate with the Father, and the atoning sacrifice for our sins." Hence it is that all our peace must flow; and hence we shall find a satisfactory answer to the accusations of every enemy: "Who is he who condemns? It is Christ that died; yes rather, that is risen again, who also makes intercession for us."
But together with this we must cultivate love; which indeed is the inseparable fruit of faith; for "faith works by love." Whether we understand "love" as having God or man for its object, or as comprehending both, it is a good defense against our spiritual enemies. For, if we truly love our God, who shall prevail upon us to offend him? If we "love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity," "who shall separate us from him? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No; in all these things we shall be more than conquerors through Him that loved us." And if we love our fellow-creatures as ourselves, we shall strive to benefit them to the utmost of our power; and account no sacrifice great, which may contribute to their welfare: we shall be ready to "suffer all things for the elect's sake," and even to "lay down our lives for the brethren."
Behold then, what a defense is here against the darts of our enemies! Who shall be able to pierce our breast, when so protected? We may defy all the confederate armies of earth and Hell: "for I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
For the protection of our head there is an helmet provided, even "the hope of salvation." Let a man have been "begotten to a lively hope in Christ Jesus, to a hope of that inheritance which is incorruptible and undefiled, and that fades not away, reserved in Heaven for us," and will he barter it away for the things of time and sense? or will he suffer his views of Heaven to be clouded by the indulgence of any unhallowed lusts? No; he will contend with every enemy of his soul: he will "crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts," he will "lay aside every weight, and the sins that most easily beset him, and will run with patience the race that is set before him, looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of his faith." Instead of forgetting the great day of the Lord, he will be "looking for, and hastening unto, the coming of the day of Christ." Though willing to live for the good of others, he will "desire rather for himself to depart, that he may be with Christ, which is far better" than any enjoyment that can be found on earth. "Not that he will desire so much to be unclothed," because of any present troubles, as to "be clothed upon, that mortality may be swallowed up of life."
This armor then must be procured; this armor must be worn; and, clothed in it, we must watch against all our enemies.
And though others sleep, yet must not we: yes, if all around us should be drowned in sleep, yet must not we give way to slumber: if to be sober and vigilant must of necessity make us singular, we must dare to be singular, even as Elijah in the midst of Israel, or as Noah in the antediluvian world. If it be true that none but those who are children of the light and of the day are ready for death and judgment, let us come forth to the light without delay, and endeavor to walk in the light, even as God himself is in the light. His word is light: it shows us in all things how to walk and to please him: it sets before us examples also, in following whom we shall by faith and patience inherit the promises, as they now do. Let this word then be taken as a light to our feet, and a lantern to our paths: and let us follow it in all things, as those that would approve themselves to the heart-searching God. Let us not listen to any vain excuses for delay. We see, in the instance before us, how suddenly we may be called away, and how soon our day of grace may come to a close. And how terrible will it be, if that day should overtake us as a thief! Let us be wise: I beseech you all, by the tender mercies of God, to have compassion on your own souls, and to "work while it is day, knowing that the night comes wherein no man can work."
The Duties of Moderation and Watchfulness
1 Thessalonians 5:8. Let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breast-plate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.
THE exact season of the day of judgment is wisely hid from our eyes. If it were revealed to us, there is no reason to think that we should make a right improvement of that knowledge. The uncertainty of its arrival is far better calculated to excite our diligence in religious duties, because, while we are told that it will come as surely, as irresistibly, and as unexpectedly too, as a thief in the night, or as travail upon a woman with child, we see the necessity of continual watchfulness and preparation for it. The world at large indeed will rest in supineness and security, in spite of every warning that is given them: but they who profess to fear God should manifest a different spirit, and, as persons apprised of their danger, should ever stand upon their guard. To this effect the Apostle exhorts us in the text; in discoursing on which we shall consider,
I. The description given of believers.
The careless world are in a state of intellectual and moral darkness.
The light of divine truth has not shined into their hearts, nor have the clouds of nature's darkness been dispelled. "They call evil good, and good evil; and put darkness for light, and light for darkness." Their lives too abound with deeds of darkness; "nor will they come to the light, lest their deeds should be reproved."
As contrasted with them, believers "are of the day."
They have been "brought out of darkness into the marvelous light" of the Gospel, and are enabled to "discern between good and evil." Their dispositions also are changed, so that they desire to "walk in the light, even as God is in the light;" and they "come to the light, that their deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God." They see indeed much in themselves for which they have reason to be ashamed: but they would gladly attain to such purity of heart, that their inmost thoughts and principles, no less than their actions, should bear the minutest inspection of all their fellow-creatures.
But that they are prone to relapse into their former state, is strongly intimated in,
II. The exhortation addressed to them.
The children of darkness are represented in the preceding context as addicted to sloth and intemperance; in opposition to which vices, believers are exhorted to "be sober," that is, to exercise,
They who know not the vanity of earthly things may reasonably be expected to run to excess in their attachment to them, and their anxiety about them. But it ill becomes those who have been enlightened by the Spirit of God, to set their hearts upon such empty, unsatisfying, transient enjoyments. God would have them to "be without carefulness," like "the birds of the air, that neither sow nor gather into barns." He expects them to "set their affections rather on things above," and to put forth the energy of their minds in the pursuit of objects worthy the attention of an immortal spirit. And though they may both rejoice and weep on account of present occurrences, yet they should "rejoice as though they rejoiced not, and weep as though they wept not, because the fashion of this world passes away."
Others yield to sloth, because they see no occasion for activity: but believers know what numerous and mighty enemies they have to contend with: they see too, how short and uncertain their time is for accomplishing the work which God has given them to do: and of what infinite importance it is that, whenever called to appear before God, they should be able to give a good account of their stewardship: surely then they can find no time to loiter. They should rather exert themselves with all diligence; and, "whatever their hand finds to do, they should do it with all their might."
This exhortation is at once illustrated and enforced by,
III. The particular direction with which it is accompanied.
Believers, whatever they may have attained, are yet in a state of warfare.
Their enemies, though often vanquished, are still ready to return to the charge: nor will they fail to take advantage of any unwatchfulness on our part: they know the places where we are most open to assault; nor have we any security against them but by guarding every pass, and standing continually on our watch-tower. Without such precautions the strongest would be overcome, and the most victorious be reduced to a miserable captivity.
There is, however, armor, whereby they may become invincible.
Faith, hope, and love, are the principal graces of the Christian; and, while he keeps them in exercise, they are as armor to his soul. Faith sees the things that are invisible, as though they were present to the bodily eyes: love fixes our hearts upon them: and hope both appropriates them to ourselves, and enables us to anticipate the enjoyment of them. Having these for our helmet and our breast-plate, our head and heart are secured. In vain does Satan suggest, that there is nothing beyond this present world, or nothing better than what he offers us, or that, if there be, we at least have no part in it. These fiery darts are instantly repelled; and we determine to continue our conflicts with him, until he is bruised under our feet.
This armor therefore every believer must put on.
In vain shall we hope to maintain our moderation and watchfulness, if we be not clothed with this divine panoply. Every day must we put it on afresh; or rather we must rest on our arms day and night. Nor must we use it only in the hour of conflict: we must, like good soldiers, habituate ourselves, to the use of it, even when we are not sensible of immediate danger, in order that, when called to defend ourselves, we may be expert and successful in the contest. We must be careful too that we never separate these pieces of armor; for, whether our head or heart were unprotected, our vigilant enemy would assuredly seize his opportunity to inflict a deadly wound. It is on the union of our graces that our safety depends. Whether we lay aside our faith, our love, or our hope, we are equally in danger. Let us then put them on daily, and preserve them in continual exercise, that we may fight a good fight, and be "more than conquerors through him that loved us."
This subject being altogether addressed to those who "are of the day," we need only add a few words to those who "are of the night."
The warning given them in the context is well worthy of their deep attention. It is said, that "the day of the Lord shall overtake them as a thief in the night." They He down in security, concluding that, because the ruffian has not hitherto disturbed their midnight slumbers, he never will: but at last he comes upon them to their terror, and spoils them to their confusion. Thus will the day of judgment, or, which is the same to them, the day of death, come upon the ungodly; and they will lose their souls, which it, should have been their daily labor to secure. Even believers need to be exhorted to sobriety, and must be vanquished, if they follow not the directions given them: what then must the unbeliever do, if he continue in his supineness? What hope can there be for him? Let all arise from their slumbers, and arm themselves for the battle. "It is high time for all of us to awake out of sleep: let us therefore put off the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light," and let us war a good warfare, until "death itself is swallowed up in victory."
The Nature of True Religion
1 Thessalonians 5:16–18. Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.
THE just union of personal and relative duties is the brightest ornament of the Christian profession. The discharge of either will be imperfect, if it be not united with an attention to the other. As beauty in the human body consists not in the exquisite formation of any single feature, but in the just symmetry and configuration of the whole frame, so the perfection of a Christian character consists not in an exclusive attention to any one duty, but in a due regard to all duties, civil and religious, social and personal.
Paul has been giving directions respecting the duties we owe to each other as a Christian society. He now descends from the social to the personal duties; stating at the same time both the grounds on which they stand, and the indispensable necessity of attending to them.
Taking his directions in a comprehensive and united view, we learn that religion is,
I. A spiritual service.
Many, like the Pharisees of old, suppose it consists in a formal attendance on ordinances, and an external decency of conduct. But true religion is inward and spiritual. It calls forth the strongest energies of the soul. It enables a person to maintain a holy fellowship with God in secret. Paul himself describes it as consisting, not in outward ceremonies of any kind, but in a devotedness of heart and soul to God, and declares that no man can be a Christian indeed, who does not possess and manifest this elevated state of mind. How earnestly then should we examine whether we be thus continually waiting upon God in the exercise of prayer and praise!
II. A rational service.
Spiritual religion is too often deemed enthusiasm. Indeed, if we interpreted the text literally and in the strictest sense of the words, we should make religion impracticable and absurd; but, when properly explained, it enjoins nothing but what is highly reasonable. It requires us to live in the stated and devout exercise of public, social, and private prayer; and to maintain such a sense of our own unworthiness, as excites a lively gratitude for every mercy we enjoy, and stimulates to an unwearied admiration of the Divine goodness: and can anything be more reasonable than such a state? Should not they, whose iniquities are so great, and whose wants so numerous, be frequently employed in imploring mercy and grace in the time of need? And they, who are daily loaded with benefits, be daily blessing and adoring their Benefactor? Such a service is expressly called a "reasonable service." To do otherwise were surely most unreasonable: nor are any people more irrational than they who pour contempt on these holy exercises from an affected regard for rational religion.
III. A delightful service.
Many are prejudiced against spiritual religion, as though it must of necessity deprive them of all the comforts of life. Certain it is that it will rob them of all the pleasures of sin: but it will afford them infinitely richer pleasures in its stead. What can be more delightful than to maintain "fellowship with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ?" Can there be any melancholy arising from incessant praises and thanksgivings? Were the first converts, or the Samaritans, or the jailor, rendered melancholy by the acquisition of religion? Many are made melancholy by false views of religion; but none are by just and scriptural apprehensions of it. In proportion as we live in the exercise of it, we resemble the glorified saints and angels.
Such being the nature of true religion, we will endeavor to enforce the practice of it.
The will of God should be the law of all his creatures; and his will respecting us is fully revealed. It is his earnest desire that we should live in the enjoyment of himself. "He wills not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live." It is moreover his authoritative command that we should love and serve him: it is his command to all, whether rich or poor, learned or unlearned. None are so high as to be exempt from this duty, nor any so situated as to be incapable of performing it. The heart may be lifted up in prayer and praise even when we are occupied in the service of the world. Let all then know God's will respecting them. We must delight ourselves in communion with God. O let us be like-minded with our heavenly Father! Let us say, this shall be my will also. From henceforth let us "watch unto prayer and thanksgiving with all perseverance," let us be ashamed that we have so long resisted the Divine will; and let us so live in obedience to it on earth, that we may have our portion with those who are praising him incessantly in Heaven.
Quenching the Spirit
1 Thessalonians 5:19. Quench not the Spirit.
THERE is a harmony between all Christian graces, and a dependence of one upon another; so that none can be exercised aright, unless all be allowed their due place and influence. There are doubtless many occasions of grief and sorrow; yet no circumstances are so afflictive, but we may find in them some ground of joy and gratitude. Hence in the directions which the Apostle gives to the Thessalonian Church, he bids them to "rejoice evermore," and "in everything to give thanks." But to moderate our feelings, and to combine them in such a proportion as occasions may require, is difficult, yes, impossible, to flesh and blood. In this arduous work, we must be directed and assisted by the Spirit of God. In this connection, the caution in the text is extremely forcible: for if we be not attentive to improve the offered aids of the Spirit, we shall never be able to execute any other part of our Christian duty.
The words before us may have some reference to the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit; but being inserted amidst exhortations to various graces, they must be understood in reference to them also.
They contain a very solemn caution; in discoursing upon which we shall,
I. Consider the operations of the Spirit under the emblem of fire.
The Spirit is frequently spoken of under the emblem of fire: and fire justly represents his offices and operations.
Kindle a fire in a dark place, and it will give light to all around it. Draw near to it when chilled with cold, and it will warm and comfort you. Cast wood or straw upon it, and it will cause them to burst forth into a flame. Suppose it heated to a furnace, and, if you put stones into it, it will break and dissolve them. Let gold or silver be submitted to its action, and it will purge them from their dross. Let iron be cast into it, and it will transform the metal into its own likeness, so that it shall come out a solid mass of fire.
Here we see the operations of the Spirit. It is his office to enlighten the mind; nor had the Apostles themselves any light which they did not derive from him. Call upon him in a state of great dejection; and he will be your Comforter. Beg of him to reveal to you the Father's love, and the grace of Christ; and he will inflame your soul with love and gratitude. Submit your stony heart to his powerful operations; and he will break it in pieces, as he did in the days of old, and will melt it to contrition. Carry your corruptions to him to be subdued; and he will purify your soul from their power and defilement. Let him exert his full influence upon you; and he will assimilate you to himself, and transform you into the very image of your God.
Such being the operations of the Spirit, we shall,
II. Show in what way we may "quench" them.
We may quench the Spirit in a variety of ways:
1. By resisting his operations.
There is not any one, on whom the Spirit has not frequently exerted his influence, to bring him to repentance. But how have his motions been regarded? Have they not in many instances been resisted? Have we not plunged ourselves into business or pleasure, perhaps too into reveling and intoxication, in order to drown his voice, and silence the remonstrances of our conscience?
This then is one way in which many quench the Spirit. God has warned us, that "his Spirit shall not always strive with man," and has told us how he dealt with his people of old; that "because they hearkened not to his voice and would none of him, he gave them up to their own hearts' lusts." And a similar resistance on our part will bring the same judgment upon us.
2. By delaying to comply with them.
Few, if any, are so impious as to determine that they will never turn to God. Men deceive themselves with some faint purposes of turning to God at a future period. Thus, when the Spirit "knocks at the door of their hearts," they send him away, as Felix did Paul, with an intention to "send for him at a more convenient season." But, as in the instance alluded to, the more convenient season never came, so it too often happens with respect to us. The Spirit is a sovereign agent, that is not at our command: he is "a wind that blows where he wills," and, if we will not spread our sails to the wind, and avail ourselves of the advantage afforded us, we may bemoan our lost opportunity when it is too late.
3. By entertaining sentiments inimical to them.
It is not uncommon for those whose consciences are awakened to a sense of their condition, to take refuge in infidel opinions. If they do not cull in question the divine authority of the Scriptures, they doubt the veracity of God in them, and deny the certainty and duration of the punishment which he denounces against impenitent sinners. Others adopt an antinomian creed; and from some experience which they suppose themselves to have had of the divine life, conclude they shall never be suffered finally to perish, notwithstanding their present experience attests their hypocrisy and self-deceit. But. all of these are "speaking peace to themselves when there is no peace;" and, if they he not roused from their delusions, will soon reap the bitter fruits of their folly.
4. By indulging habits contrary to his mind and will.
God abhors iniquity of every kind: nor will he dwell in any heart that is allowedly debased by sin. If then we harbor pride, envy, malice, covetousness, impurity, or any other secret lust, we shall provoke him to abandon us to ourselves: for he has said, "If any man defile the temple of God. him shall God destroys."
Lest any of you should be inattentive to the operations of the Spirit on your hearts, we shall,
III. Enforce the caution, not to quench them—Consider then,
1. Whom it is that you resist.
It may appear to us to be only a friend or minister, or, at most, our own conscience, that we resist: but, whatever be the means whereby God speaks to us, the voice is his; and an opposition to the dictates of the Spirit is an opposition to God himself. Have we sufficiently considered whom we thus "provoke to become our enemy?"
2. What is his design, in striving with you.
Has God any interest of his own to serve? Will he be less happy or glorious, whether we be saved or perish? He is moved by nothing but love and pity to our souls. And all that he desires is, to enlighten, sanctify, and save us. The first impressions that he makes upon us may be painful; but they are a needful incision, in order to a perfect cure. And should we resist his love and mercy? In what light shall we view this conduct, when his gracious designs shall be fully known, and our ingratitude be contrasted with them?
3. How awful will be our state, if we finally prevail to quench his motions.
While he continues to strive with us, there is hope. If there be but a spark of this heavenly fire within us, the dying embers may be rekindled: but if once this fire be extinguished, there is no hope. If God has once said, "Let him alone," let him live only to fill up the measure of his iniquities, and to "treasure up wrath against the day of wrath," our state will be inconceivably dreadful: better would it be for us that we had never been born. And who can tell but that this very day the Spirit may depart from him never to return? Let the dread of this awaken us to a sense of our danger, and stimulate us to improve the calls and assistances we now enjoy.
1. Renounce everything that may lead you to quench the Spirit.
Do ungodly companions try to lull you asleep in sin? forsake them. Do earthly, sensual, and devilish affections grieve the Spirit? mortify them. Whatever it be that tends to damp this sacred fire, put it away. Better were it to lose all that we have in the world, than to have the Spirit finally taken from us.
2. Do all that you can to stir up the sacred fire within you.
Fire will go out, if left to itself. We are commanded to "stir it up." This must be done by meditation, by prayer, by reading of the word of God, by attending on divine ordinances, and by holy and spiritual conversation. Watch then the motions of the Spirit, and delay not to comply with them. Let everything serve as fuel to the flame: and, how much soever you delight in God, endeavor to abound more and more.
Investigation of Truth Recommended
I Thessalonians 5:21. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.
THERE are many who, either from an indifference about truth, or from a conceit that they are already sufficiently acquainted with it, neglect the public ministration of the Gospel, and even hold it in contempt. This is extremely culpable; because the ordinances of religion are God's appointed means for carrying on his work in the souls of men. Hence we are bidden "not to despise prophesying;" and "not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is." At the same time, we are not necessarily to give our assent to everything we hear; for error may be proposed to us as well as truth: and therefore the Apostle gives us this advice: "Prove all things: hold fast that which is good."
In considering the two parts of this advice, we shall take each in its order:
I. Prove all things.
Remarkable is that address of Elihu to his friends: "Hear my words, O you wise men; and give ear unto me, you that have knowledge: for the ear tries words, as the mouth tastes meat. Let us choose to us judgment: let us know among ourselves what is good." There is much error abroad in the world; and that not only harbored, but propagated also. It will be well, therefore, for us to prove, by some authorized standard,
1. Our own sentiments.
Every man has some sentiments about religion, though in many cases they are very crude and indistinct. On any other subject, those who have never investigated the science will hold their sentiments with some measure of diffidence and distrust: but, in reference to religion, the most ignorant are often the most confident. The fall of man, the corruption of human nature, the necessity of an atonement, the influences of the Spirit, are not only questioned by many, but are rejected by them as utter "foolishness;" and man's sufficiency to save himself is maintained, as though it admitted not of any doubt whatever. But, whatever be our sentiments on these heads, and on others connected with them, we should bring them to the unerring standard of God's word. Our inquiry in relation to everything should be, "What says the Scripture?" By this must every sentiment be tried: and according to its agreement with this test must every opinion stand or fall.
2. The sentiments of others.
We are particularly cautioned not to "believe every spirit; but to try the spirits, whether they be of God." The one standard, to which everything must be referred, is the word of God: as it is said, "To the law and to the testimony: if men speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them." To this our blessed Lord appealed, in confirmation of his word; "Search the Scriptures: for in them you think you have eternal life; and they are they which testify of me." And Paul commends the Bereans, because, when they heard him, they searched the Scriptures daily, to see whether his doctrines agreed with that unerring rule. If, then, our blessed Lord and his Apostles desired to be tried by that standard, I have no hesitation in saying, "Prove all things," whether delivered by the many, or the great, or the learned, or the pious, or the authorized and commissioned: if even an angel from Heaven were to come to teach you, I would still give the same advice, and say, As God has given you a perfect standard, it becomes you to refer everything to it, and to try everything by it. The Church of Ephesus scrupled not to adopt this plan, in its fullest extent; "You have tried them which say they are Apostles, and are not; and have found them liars." And whether this, or the contrary, be the result of your examination, I say with boldness, "Try even an Apostle by the standard of God's blessed word."
Having thus distinguished truth from falsehood, we must,
II. "Hold fast that which is good."
There are many that would wrest it from us: and we must hold it fast against all assaults,
1. Of proud reason.
Reason will presume to sit in judgment upon the truth of God. But this is not its province. Its proper office is, to judge whether the Scriptures are a revelation from God: but, when that is ascertained, faith is then to apprehend whatever God has spoken: and the highest dictate of reason is, to submit ourselves to God with the simplicity and teachableness of a little child. When, therefore, reason presumes to oppose the declarations of God. and to say, "This is an hard saying: who can hear it?" regard not its proud dictates, but "receive with meekness the written word;" remembering, that "what is foolishness with man may be indeed the wisdom of God," and "the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes it."
2. Of corrupt passion.
This also fights against the truth of God. And no wonder: for the word of God condemns every unhallowed desire, and requires us to "crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts." How should it be supposed that our corrupt nature should approve of a book, which enjoins us to "cut off a right hand, and to pluck out a right eye," lest by sparing either the one or the other we plunge both body and soul into the fire of Hell? It cannot be but that our self-indulgent appetites should rise against such severe dictates, and condemn them all as unreasonable and absurd. But you must not listen to such objectors, who "hate the light, and will not come to the light, lest their deeds should be reproved." Our one question must be, "Lord, what will you have me to do?" and his will once known, must be the sole director of our ways.
3. Of a menacing world.
The world which lies in wickedness ever did, and ever will, set itself against the self-denying doctrines of the Gospel. But we are not to make a sacrifice of divine truth, to please man: for "if we vet pleased men, we could not be the servants of Christ." Nor are we to indulge any anxiety upon this head: for the very desire to retain "the friendship of the world" is a certain mark of enmity against God. Whatever men may say, or whatever they may do, we must be faithful to our God, and "cleave unto him with full purpose of heart." Having "bought the truth, you must never sell it." "Hold fast that you have; and let no man take your crown."
But, before I conclude this subject, let me show you, in few words,
1. How to distinguish what is "good."
You will naturally say, in reply to what has been spoken, 'How shall I know what is good? for those who oppose the Gospel will appeal to the word of God as confidently as those who receive it: and how am I to determine between them?' I answer, the despisers of the Gospel manifestly wrest the word of God, and, by ingenious criticisms, pervert it, for the purpose of maintaining their own erroneous sentiments; while the humble believer receives it with all humility of mind: so that from their very mode of interpreting the Scriptures, you can tell, almost to a certainty, who is right. But, as a general rule, take the entire systems of both, and compare them, and see what is the proper tendency of each: and then remember, that the doctrine which humbles the sinner, exalts the Savior, and promotes holiness, is and must be "good," while everything which has an opposite tendency carries its own evidence along with it, as erroneous and had. This rule, in conjunction with the other, will leave you in no danger of erring, if you cry to God for the teaching of his Spirit, and rely with confidence on his heavenly guidance.
2. How to make a just improvement of it.
Rest not in a speculative view of truth, however good it may appear. The use of divine truth is, to enlarge the mind, and renovate the soul. Your views of the Gospel ought to raise your affections to God, and to fill you with adoring thoughts of your Lord and Savior; and at the same time to transform you into his image. Your soul should "be delivered into it, as into a mold;" so that every one of its divine lineaments may be formed upon you. To hold it fast for any other end than this, will be to little purpose. But let it be thus improved, and it will be found good indeed: for it will free you from everything that is corrupt and sinful, and bring you in safety to the realms of bliss."
Abstaining from All Appearance of Evil
1 Thessalonians 5:22. Abstain from all appearance of evil.
SIN is a tremendous evil. The consequences of one single sin are beyond all our powers of thought or conception. If one only be hardened by it, who can tell where his influence may extend, or through how many generations it may be transmitted? To the individual who commits it, who shall say how much evil will accrue? The Spirit may be grieved; the conscience seared; and Satan may get an advantage that shall never be regained. Hence arises the necessity of standing at the remotest distance from evil: for if a thing be not evil, yet, if it appear to be so, it has all the effect of a positive evil to those who behold it. We should therefore "abstain even from all appearance of evil."
In discoursing on this subject, we shall consider,
I. The injunction itself.
This may relate to,
1. The things we do.
That which is perfectly indifferent in itself, may either appear wrong, or really be so, according to the circumstances under which it is done. The eating of things offered to idols, or the observance of certain days, were indifferent in themselves; and a person might either do or forbear these things, without improving or injuring the state of his soul. But if the doing or forbearing these things had any influence to ensnare the consciences of others, it was the duty of every person to pursue that line of conduct which was most inoffensive. Paul thought, that though "all things were lawful for him, all things were not expedient;" and therefore exercised self-denial with respect to things innocent in themselves, lest his influence should induce others, who were less acquainted with Christian liberty, to follow his example, in opposition to the suggestions of their own consciences. Ezra might have asked a guard to protect him through the desert; and Nehemiah might have gone into the temple, to save himself from danger: but they both chose rather to expose their lives to any peril, rather than do what in their circumstances would have been open to misconstruction, and would have been imputed to them as sin. Thus there are some amusements and indulgences which, under particular circumstances and in a limited degree, may be innocent, from which we nevertheless ought to abstain; lest an undue advantage be taken of our conduct, and we be considered as patronizing that, which, under other circumstances, would be positively evil.
2. The manner in which we do them.
Much, very much, depends on the manner in which we do things which in themselves are inoffensive or even good. None can doubt but that alms-deeds, prayer, and fasting, are good in themselves; yet they may be so performed as to be open to the imputation of vanity or hypocrisy: on which account our Lord gives us rules for the due discharge of these duties. To give instruction or reproof to our neighbors is doubtless an important office; but if it be performed in an unfitting spirit, we shall appear to others to be only venting our own spleen, and all our endeavors will be lost upon them. Hence is that direction given us by the Apostle, "Let not your good be evil spoken of
3. The end for which we do them.
Daniel might with great propriety have prayed in his house with his windows shut: yes, it might have been thought, perhaps, more decorous. But, in his circumstances, he determined to die rather than to suspend his devotions, or even to conceal them by shutting his windows. He was in the midst of idolaters, and therefore he judged it necessary openly to confess his God. And, when the edict was issued by the Persian monarch to forbid the offering of any petition to any one except himself for the space of thirty days, Daniel was more bound than ever to worship openly; because the concealing of his devotions would have been considered as a renunciation or denial of his God. Hence he determined to make no alteration whatever in his conduct, but to abide the consequences of his fidelity to God. Thus should we walk circumspectly, "cutting off occasion from them that seek occasion;" and determining that our enemies "shall find no cause of complaint against us, except concerning the law of our God"
To impress this injunction the more deeply on our minds, let us consider,
II. The importance of it.
The avoiding of all appearance of evil is of great consequence,
1. To ourselves.
Our character is stamped by our actions as they appear to the world. God only can judge the heart: man must of necessity form his judgment in a great measure from the outward appearance: though doubtless he is to put the best possible construction upon everything, so far as truth and reason will admit. We owe it therefore to ourselves to guard against every thing that either deservedly or undeservedly may bring an evil report upon us. Paul was very attentive to this, when he had collected a large sum of money for the poor saints in Judea: he desired that some person of established reputation should go with him, that so he might "provide things honest in the sight of all men," and "give no occasion to the enemy to speak reproachfully."
2. To the world around us.
The world are ever ready to spy out causes of complaint against the people of God, and, when they behold a flaw, to cry out, "There, there, so would we have it." Instantly they proceed to blame religion itself for what they see amiss in the professors of it; and justify themselves as acting a more becoming and consistent part. On this account we should "walk in wisdom towards them that are without," and, if possible, "put to silence the ignorance of foolish men by well-doing." Indeed, as they may be hardened in their sins by an injudicious conduct, so they may be "won by the good conversation" of those around them. It may be, that our light shining before them may constrain them to confess that God is with us of a truth, and lead them to "glorify our Father that is in Heaven." Can we need any greater argument for circumspection? Should not this consideration induce us all to adopt the Psalmist's resolution: "I will behave myself wisely in a perfect way," and make us pray with him, "Lead me, O Lord, because of my observers; make your way straight before my faces."
3. To the Church of God.
A discreet and blameless conduct is no less important as it respects the Church. The weak are of necessity much influenced by those whom they consider as more advanced than themselves: and, if they see anything done by a person whom they respect, they will be ready to follow his example, even though they are doubtful in their minds respecting the lawfulness of the act itself. Then, even though the act be lawful, they commit sin, because they are not thoroughly persuaded of its innocence. And we, if we pay no attention to their weaknesses, actually sin against Christ ourselves, and are guilty of destroying a soul for whom Christ died. Let us not then imagine ourselves at liberty to do all things which are in themselves lawful; for we are not at liberty to cast a stumbling-block before a weak brother; but are to consult his good, no less than our own.
1. How far are they from real Christians who can live in known and allowed sin!
Christianity requires us to abstain even from the appearance of evil: how much more from sin itself! Ah, beloved, you may easily see the folly and hypocrisy of calling yourselves Christians, while your whole conduct proclaims that you have no delight in God, nor any higher aim than to approve yourselves to men.
2. How excellent is the true Christian in comparison of others!
Christians are not improperly called "the excellent of the earth." Behold their care, their tenderness, their circumspection, their "dread of even a garment spotted by the flesh." Their conduct is fitly described by the Apostle; "Whatever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report, these they both think upon" and perform. "See then, Christians, that these things be in you, and abound." Let not "our boasting of you be found in vain" and delusive. But "as you have received how you ought to walk and to please God, so abound more and more."
Complete Sanctification to be Sought After
1 Thessalonians 5:23, 24. The very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he who calls you, who also will do it.
PARENTS naturally desire the prosperity of their children; but they can by no means secure it: even though their children should be disposed to concur with them in every prudent plan, yet cannot their combined efforts insure success; since, in numberless instances, "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong." The spiritual parent, who by the ministration of the Gospel has begotten sons and daughters to the Lord, is more favorably circumstanced: he is sure that no untoward circumstances shall disappoint his hopes, provided only his children exert themselves as becomes them, in the appointed way. True indeed it is, that success in spiritual things is infinitely more difficult to be obtained, on account of the obstacles which are to be surmounted, and the enemies which are to be subdued. But Omnipotence is engaged in behalf of all who sincerely labor for themselves: nor is there any attainment, to which they who go forward in the strength of God may not confidently aspire. The object which Paul desired in behalf of his Thessalonian converts was doubtless exceeding great: it was, that they might be "sanctified throughout, and be preserved blameless unto the day of Christ," but "his hope concerning them was steadfast," being founded, not on their weak powers, but on the power and fidelity of God, who had undertaken to "perfect that which concerned them." In illustrating the words before us, we shall notice,
I. The blessing desired.
This was the greatest that mortal man can enjoy on earth: it was,
1. The sanctification of their whole man.
Man is usually spoken of as consisting of two parts, a body and a soul: but he may, perhaps with more propriety, be considered as having three parts—a corporeal substance; an animal soul, like that which exists in the lower orders of creation; and a rational immortal spirit, which connects him with the world above. This distinction between the soul and spirit is to be found also in the Epistle to the Hebrews; where it is said, that "the word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing to the dividing asunder the soul and spirit." In all of these parts, man is corrupt: "his body, in all its members, is only, and invariably, an instrument of unrighteousness unto sin," his animal soul, with all its affections and lusts, leads him to those gratifications only, of which the brutes partake in common with him: and his immortal soul is filled with all those evil dispositions which characterize the fallen angels, such as, pride, envy, malice, discontent, and rebellion against God. These different kinds of wickedness are frequently distinguished by the Apostle, according to the sources from whence they spring: he speaks of the unconverted man as "fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind;" and tells us, that we must "cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, if we would perfect holiness in the fear of God." Agreeably to these distinctions, the character of fallen man is, that he is "earthly, sensual, and devilish." In all of these parts, then, we need to be renewed and sanctified: we need to have our bodies made instruments of "righteousness unto holiness;" our souls, with "their affections and lusts, crucified;" and our spirits "renewed after the Divine image, in righteousness and true holiness." Hence Paul prays for the Thessalonian converts, that they may be sanctified "wholly" that is, throughout their whole man, even "in their whole spirit, and soul, and body." This, and this only, will constitute us "new creatures," "the old things" pertaining to every part of us must "have passed away, and all things must have become new," then alone can we be said to be "partakers of the divine nature;" and then alone have we any satisfactory evidence that we are Christians indeed.
This entire change was the first part of the blessing which Paul solicited in their behalf. But he could not be satisfied with this, he therefore further entreated.
2. The continuance of it unto the day of Christ.
To be made thus "blameless" is doubtless an unspeakable blessing; but it would be of little service to us, if we were to lose it again, and to return to our former state of sin and impurity. This is an idea which many lovers of human systems do not like: but it is inculcated in every part of the Holy Scriptures: nor can any man get rid of this idea, without doing violence to many of the plainest passages of Holy Writ, and, I had almost said, "wresting them to his own destruction."
By the Prophet Ezekiel, God tells us, that, "if the righteous man depart from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, his righteousness shall no more be remembered; but for the iniquity that he commits, he shall die." Paul warns us, "that, if after tasting of the heavenly gift, and being made partakers of the Holy Spirit, we fall away, it is impossible, (or so difficult as to be all but impossible,) for us ever to be renewed unto repentance." Peter speaks yet more plainly, assuring us, that. "if after having escaped the pollutions of the world through knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we be again entangled therein, and overcome, our latter end will be worse than the beginning: for that it would be better for us never to have known the way of righteousness, than, after we have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto us."
Hence Paul prayed for the Thessalonians, that they might "be preserved blameless unto the day of Christ." To run well for a season would avail them nothing, if they were hindered at last. To little purpose would they have "begun in the Spirit, if they ended in the flesh." We must "endure to the end, if ever we would be saved." And so important is this truth, and so necessary to be inculcated on the minds of even the most exalted Christians, that our blessed Lord himself, in his Letters to the Seven Churches, closes every letter with this solemn admonition, that "to him that over-comes," and to him only shall the full blessings of his salvation ever be extended—Hence are those frequent cautions against declension in the life and power of godliness. The Lord grant we may ever bear them in mind! for God himself expressly says, "If any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him."
On these accounts the Apostle prayed for them, that "the work begun ill them might be carried on and perfected unto the day of Christ."
Vast as this blessing was, he did not doubt of obtaining it in their behalf. This appears from,
II. The assurance given.
To the attainment of this blessed state God "calls us" in his Gospel.
"God has not called us to impurity, but unto holiness," even to the highest measure of it that can possibly be attained. He says not only, "Be you holy, for I am holy;" but, "Be you holy, as I am holy," and "perfect, as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect,"
And, as "the God of peace," he promises to raise us to it.
"God, having given us his Son to bear our sins in his own body on the tree, and to "make reconciliation for us through the blood of the cross," is pleased to reveal himself to us under the endearing character of "the God of peace," and being now "our God and Father in Christ Jesus," he undertakes to do for us all that shall be necessary for our final acceptance with him in the day of judgment. He promises to "sprinkle clean water upon us, and to cleanse us from all our filthiness, and from all our idols." He teaches us also to look, not to his mercy only, or his power, to effect this, but to his truth and faithfulness, yes, and to his very justice too: "He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." This I say, he promises to us, being first of all become, through the atoning blood of Christ, a "God of peace." We are not to get sanctification first, and then, in consequence of that sanctification, to find him a "God of peace;" but first to look to him as reconciled to us in Christ Jesus, and then to experience the sanctifying operations of his Spirit. This order must be particularly noticed in our text, as also in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where it is particularly marked: if we overlook this, we shall be in danger of misapprehending and perverting the whole Gospel of Christ: but if we bear this in mind, then may we expect from God a full and complete salvation. In many places does he pledge ins faithfulness to do for us all that we can stand in need of, and never to discontinue his mercies towards us—He may punish us, and hide his face from us; but he will not utterly abandon us, or cast us off..
We must, however, be found in the diligent use of the appointed means.
The dependence of his blessing on the use of the appointed means is not always expressed; but it is always implied. "He will be inquired of by us," before he will do for us the things which he has most freely promised. He has appointed the means as well as the end, or rather I should say, the end by the means: he has "chosen us to salvation; but it is through sanctification of the Spirit, and belief of the truth." He alone has the power whereby our salvation must be affected, as the words of our text very strongly imply; but he expects that we exert ourselves, as much as if all the power resided in our own arm: and the very consideration which many persons urge as a reason for their inactivity, is suggested by him as a reason and encouragement for our most strenuous exertions. If we will not ask, and seek, and strive, we must expert nothing at his hands: but if we will put forth our own feeble energies in the way of duty, he will "strengthen us by his Spirit in our inward man," and "make us more than conquerors through Him that loved us."
From this subject we may learn,
1. How mistaken they are who think that the Gospel leads to licentiousness.
What symptom of licentiousness is here? Rather, may we not challenge every religious system in the universe to produce morality like unto this? Other systems provide for "the cleansing of the outside of the cup and platter;" but no other so effectually reaches the heart. The Gospel provides for the sanctification of all our faculties and powers, and for the transformation of our whole man into the very image of our find. Its language is, "Sin shall not have dominion over you; for you are not under the law, but under grace." And its effect is, to produce in every mind the desire which is so affectionately expressed in the text, and not for others only, but for ourselves also. Let all jealousy then on this head be put aside: and let us seek to be justified freely by faith in Christ; that, having peace with God through his" precious blood, we may receive the communications of his grace more abundantly, and be "changed into his image from glory to glory by the Spirit of our God."
2. How deluded they are who rest in Christian principles, without aspiring after Christian attainments.
Such there have been in every age of the Church. Not that the Gospel has in itself any tendency to create such characters; but the corruption of men's hearts will take occasion from the Gospel to foster sentiments, which are, in reality, subversive of its most fundamental truths. Many regard all exhortations to holiness as legal: yes, there are not wanting some who will maintain, that Christ, having fulfilled the law for us, has absolved us from all obligation to obey it in any of its commands. They affirm that it is cancelled, not only as a covenant of works, but as a rule of life. They profess, that the sanctification of Christ is imputed to us, precisely as his righteousness is; and that we need no personal holiness, because we have a sufficient holiness in him. Horrible beyond expression are such sentiments as these: and how repugnant they are to those contained in our text, it is needless to observe. That some who advance these sentiments are externally moral, and often benevolent, must be confessed: (if any be truly pious, it is not by means of these principles, but in spite of them:) but the great body of them, with, it is to be feared, but few exceptions, bear the stamp of their unchristian principles in their whole spirit and conduct. The whole family of them may be distinguished by the following marks. They are full of pride and conceit, imagining that none can understand the Gospel but themselves. Such is their confidence in their own opinions, that they seem to think it impossible that they should err. They are dogmatic in the extreme, laying down the law for every one, and expecting all to bow to their judgment: and so contemptuous are they, that they speak of all as blind and ignorant who presume to differ from them. Their irreverent manner of treating the great mysteries of our religion is also most offensive; they speak of them with a most unhallowed familiarity, as though they wore common things: and so profane are they, that they hesitate not. to sneer at the very word of God itself, whenever it militates against their favorite opinions. "By these fruits you shall know them;" and by these fruits you may judge of their principles. True indeed, with their errors they bring forth much that is sound and good: but this only renders their errors the more palatable and the more delusive. They altogether vitiate the taste of the religious world, and indispose them for all practical instruction. They so exclusively set forth what may be called "the strong meat" of the Gospel, as to withhold all "milk" from the household of our God. In a word, they promote nothing but spiritual intoxication, and banish from the Church all spiritual sobriety.
In what we have said, we design not to mark the characters of any particular men, but the character and effect of their principles: and we do not hesitate to say again, that this is the true character and effect of Antinomianism, wherever it exists.
In opposition to all who would thus make "Christ a minister of sin," we must declare, that he came to save his people, not in their sins, but from them; and that "the grace of God which brings salvation, teaches, and must ever teach, men to live righteously, and soberly, and godly in this present world," yes, and to "stand perfect and complete in all the will of God."
3. How blessed they are who have obtained peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
You are not called to "make bricks without straw." That God, who is now reconciled to you through the Son of his love, undertakes to supply you with "grace sufficient for you," and to "fulfill in you all the good pleasure of his goodness, even the work of faith with power." And is he not able to do this? or will he forget his promises, or "suffer one jot or tittle of his word to fail?" No, "He is faithful who has promised, who also will do it." Be of good courage then, whatever difficulties you may have to encounter. Know, that "greater is He who is in you, than he who is in the world." Gird on the armor which is provided for you, and "be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus." Our prayer for you is the same as that of Paul for the Thessalonian Christians: yes, beloved, "this is our wish, even your perfection." And we rejoice in the thought that "God is able to make all grace abound towards you, that you, having always all-sufficiency in all things, may abound unto every good work." Only look to him as "a God of love and peace," and you shall find that "what he has promised he is able also to perform."