The following article concerns a South African preacher who has said that Jesus had HIV. Read about this nonsense at:
I have recently come across an article on the Banner of Truth website that ‘deals’ with expository preaching, or rather, attempts to define the dangers of what goes by ‘expository preaching’ in this day and age. The basic explanation or definition given in the article is pretty good really – that of a preacher confining himself to the text of Scripture and making it plain to others. That in itself is a fairly good explanation of being ‘expository’ I think. I do however think that some other things are probably required to fulfill the definition of what preaching ought to be – such as there being a place for application to the listeners, etc.
My point of disagreement with the article in question, is that of the need to issue a ‘caution’ to what goes by expository preaching today, which according to the article is the method of preaching through a passage or a book of Scripture week by week. I have no issue with saying that this is not the only way of being expository, but to issue a caution about the ‘modern way’ seems somewhat extreme to me.
I wouldn’t say that the ‘modern way’ is the only way to preach, nor would I go so far as to say it is the best way of preaching. I would say that I find it the best way of preaching for me, but I wouldn’t lay it down as a rule for others. I think the method of preaching used by a preacher is best left to that preacher and between himself and the Lord. I don’t think I would even call most of the preaching of Charles Haddon Spurgeon expository, yet you cannot argue that he didn’t preach in a manner used of God. So I think caution needs to be used in laying down ‘rules’ as to what method of preaching is best for a preacher, etc.
I have heard ‘preaching’ that has been systematic in its approach to a book of the Bible and it has left me bored, dry and thinking ‘what was the point of listening to it.’ However, as a person commented on the Banner of Truth article, this has probably got more to do with the validity of the preacher’s call than anything else. Perhaps the preacher is in a not so good place before God at the time of preaching also. Who knows – but a bad experience of someone ‘preaching’ systematically through a book of the Bible or passage doesn’t necessarily mean that that method is therefore proven to be a bad one. There are other variables that come into the picture.
So the Banner of Truth article is probably leading off in the wrong direction in my opinion. Readers of this Blog can make up their own opinion by reading the said article at:
“Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by Me.” JOHN 14:6
IT is the saying of an old divine, that God often orders it, that when He is in hand with the greatest mercies for us, then we are most of all sinning against Him; which He doth to magnify His love the more.
In the words I have read, we find an example of this. At no time did the heart of Jesus overflow with a tenderer and more sovereign love to His disciples, than when He said, “Let not your heart be troubled.” They were troubled by many things. He had told them that He was going to leave them; He had told them that one should betray Him, that another should deny Him, that they should all be offended because of Him that very night; and perhaps they thought He was going from them in anger. But whatever the cause of their trouble was, Jesus’ bosom was like a vessel full to overflowing, and these words were the overlipping drops of love: “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in Me.” Surely such words of confiding tenderness were never whispered in this cold world before; and oh, then, think how cold, how dark, how dull is the question with which Thomas breaks in upon the heavenly discourse: “Thomas saith unto Him, Lord, we know not whither Thou goest; and how can we know the way?” And yet how condescendingly does Jesus bear with their cold-hearted dulness! How lovingly does He begin the very alphabet of salvation with them, and not only answers, but over-answers Thomas, – gives him more than he could ask or think. He asked about the way and the place; but Christ answers: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by Me.”
Regarding this, then, as a complete description of the gospel salvation, let us go over the different parts of it.
I. Christ is the Way. – “I am the way: no man cometh,” etc. The whole Bible bears witness that by nature we have no way to the Father. We are by nature full of sin, and God is by nature infinitely holy, – that is, He shrinks away from sin. Just as the sensitive plant, by its very nature, shrinks away from the touch of a human hand, so God, by His very nature, shrinks away from the touch of sin. He is everlastingly separate from sinners; He is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity.
(1) This was impressively taught to Adam and the patriarchs. As long as Adam walked holily, God dwelt in him, and walked in him, and communed with him; but when Adam fell, “God drove the man out of paradise; and He placed at the east of the garden of Eden, cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” This flaming sword between the cherubim was a magnificent emblem of God, – the just and sin-hating God. In the bush, He appeared to Moses as a consuming fire; in the temple, He appeared between the cherubim in the milder glory of the Shechinah; but here He appeared between the cherubim as a sword, – a just and sin-hating God. And I beseech you to remark, that this flaming sword turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. If it had not turned every way, – if it had left some footpath unglared across, – then Adam might have stolen in by that footpath, and made his own way to the tree of life. But no; whatever avenue he tried, – however secret, however narrow, however steep and difficult, however silently he crept along, – still this flaming meteor met him, and it seemed to say, “How can man be just with God? by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh living be justified.” Well might Adam sit down, wearied with the vain search for a pathway into life; for man by nature has no way to the Father.
But Christ says, “I am the way.” As He says in Psalm xvi., “Thou wilt show Me the path of life.” No man could find out this path of life; but Jesus says: “Thou wilt show it Me: in Thy presence is fulness of joy; at Thy right hand are pleasures for evermore.” Jesus pitied the poor sons of Adam vainly struggling to find out a way into the paradise of God, and He left the bosom of the Father, just that He might open up a way for us into the bosom of the Father. And how did He do it? Was it by escaping the vigilance of the flaming sword? No; for it turned every way. Was it by exerting His divine authority, and commanding the glittering blade to withdraw? No; for that would have been to dishonour his Father’s law instead of magnifying it. He therefore became a man in our stead, – yea, became sin. God caused to meet on Him the iniquities of us all. He advanced in our stead to meet that fiery meteor – He fell beneath its piercing blade; for He remembered the word of the prophet, which is written: “Awake, O sword! against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, saith the Lord of hosts.”
And now, since the glittering blade is bathed in the side of the Redeemer, the guiltiest of sinners – whoever you be, whatever you be – may enter in over His bleeding body, may find access to the paradise of God, to eat of the tree of life, and live for ever. Come quickly, – doubt not; for He says, “I am the way.”
(2) The same fact – that man has by nature no way to the Father – was impressively taught to Moses and the people of Israel.
When God condescended to dwell among the children of Israel, He dwelt peculiarly in the holiest of all – the innermost apartment of the Jewish temple. There the visible token of His presence rested between the cherubim, at one time described to us as a light inaccessible and full of glory, at another time as a cloud that filled the temple. But this innermost apartment, or holiest of all (or secret place, as it is called in the Psalms), was separated from the holy place by a curtain or veil; and through that veil no man was allowed to pass, lest he should die, except the high priest, who entered in once in the year, not without blood. Now, no picture could express more plainly that the way into the holiest was not made manifest, that no sinful man has any way of coming into the presence of God.
But Jesus says, “I am the way.” Jesus was grieved that we were shut out from the holiest of all – from the presence of God; for He knew by experience that in that presence there is fulness of joy. But how did He open the way? Did He pull aside the veil, that we might steal in secretly and easily into the presence of the Father? No; but He offered Himself an offering to satisfy divine justice and reconcile us to God. “He said, It is finished: and bowed His head, and gave up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain, from the top to the bottom.” It is finished: the punishment of the law is borne, the demands of the law are answered, the way is finished, the veil is rent from the top to the bottom! Not a shred of the dreadful curtain now remains to intercept us. The guiltiest, the vilest sinner of you all, has now liberty to enter in through the rent veil, under the light of Jehovah’s countenance, – to dwell in the secret of His tabernacle, to behold His beauty, and to inquire in His temple.
And now, my friends, is this your way of coming to the Father? Christ says, “I am the way; no man cometh unto the Father but by me.” If, then, you will still keep to your own way, whatever it be, – whether it be the way of tears, or penances, or vows of amendment, or hopes that God will not deal strictly, – if you will not be warned, you will find in the judgment day that the cherubic sword turned every way, and that you are left a prey to the consuming fire.
But oh, if there be one soul that can find no peace in any self-righteous way, – if there be one of you who find that you are lost in yourself, – behold, Christ says to you, “I am the way,” as He says in another place, “I am the door.” It is a full, free, and open way, and it is a way for sinners. Why wait a moment longer? There was once a partition wall between you and God; but Christ hath cast it down. God was once angry; but His anger is turned away from this blessed path. In Christ He is ever well pleased.
II. Christ is the Truth. – The whole Bible, and the whole of experience, bear witness that by nature we are ignorant of the truth. No doubt there are many truths which an unconverted man does know. He may know the truths of mathematics and arithmetic, – he may know many of the common every-day truths; but still it cannot be said that an unconverted man knows the truth, for Christ is the truth. Christ may be called the key-stone of the arch of truth. Take away the key-stone of an arch, and the whole becomes a heap of rubbish. The very same stones may be there; but they are all fallen, smothered, and confused, – without order, without end. Just so take Christ away, and the whole arch of truth becomes a heap of rubbish. The very same truths may be there; but they are all fallen, – without coherence, without order, without end. Christ may be called the sun of the system of truth. Take away the sun out of our system, and every planet would rush into confusion. The very same planets would be there; but their conflicting forces would draw them hither and thither, orb dashing against orb in endless perplexity. Just so take Christ away, and the whole system of truth rushes into confusion. The same truths may be in the mind, but all conflicting and jarring in inextricable mazes; for “the path of the wicked is as darkness; they know not at what they stumble.” But let Christ be revealed to an unconverted soul – let it not be merely a man speaking about Christ unto him, but let the Spirit of God reveal Him, – and there is revealed, not a truth, but the truth. You put the key-stone into the arch of truth; you restore the sun to the centre of the system. All truth becomes orderly and serviceable in that mind.
Now he knows the truth with regard to himself. Did the Son of God really leave the bosom of the Father to bear wrath in our stead? – then I must be under wrath. Did the Lord Jesus become a servant, that He might obey the will of God instead of sinners? – then I must be without any righteousness, – a child of disobedience.
Again, knowing Christ, he knows the truth with regard to God. Did God freely give up his Son to the death for us all? – then, if I believe in Jesus, there is no condemnation to me. God is my Father, and God is love.
My friends, have you seen Christ, who is the truth? Has He been revealed to you, not by flesh and blood, but by the Spirit of our God? Then you know how true it is that in Him “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” – that He is the “Alpha and Omega,” the beginning and the ending of all knowledge. But if you have not seen Christ, then you know nothing yet as you ought to know; all your knowledge is like a bridge without a key-stone – like a system without a sun. What good will it do you in hell that you knew all the sciences in the world, all the events of history, and all the busy politics of your little day? Do you not know that your very knowledge will be turned into an instrument of torture in hell? Oh, how will you wish in that day that you had read your newspaper less and your Bible more, – that, with all your getting, you had got understanding – that, with all your knowledge, you had known the Saviour, whom to know is life everlasting!
III. Christ is the Life. – The whole Bible bears witness that by nature we are dead in trespasses and sins – that we are as unable to walk holily in the world, as a dead man is unable to rise and walk.
Both Scripture and experience alike testify that we are by nature dead in trespasses and sins; and yet it is not a death in which we are wholly inactive, for in it we are said to walk according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air.
This truth is taught us impressively in that vision of the prophet Ezekiel, where he was carried out by the Spirit, and set down in the midst of an open valley full of dry bones; and as he passed by them round about, behold, there were very many in the open valley, and lo! they were very dry.
Just such is the view which every child of God gets of the world. The dry bones are very many, and they are very dry; and he asks the same question which God asked of Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” Oh yes, my friends; and does not experience teach you the same thing? True, the dead cannot know that they are dead; and yet, if the Lord touch your heart, you will find it out. We prophesy to dry bones; for this is the Lord’s way; – while we prophesy, the breath enters in. Look back over your life, then. See how you have walked according to the course of this world. You have always been like a man swimming with the stream, – never like a man swimming against the current. Look into your heart, and see how it has turned against all the commandments: you feel the Sabbath to be a weariness, instead of calling it a delight and honourable. If ever you tried to keep the commandments of God, – if ever you tried to keep your eyes from unlawful desires, your tongue from words of anger or gossiping or bitterness, your heart from malice and envy and covetousness, – if ever you have tried this, and I fancy most unconverted men have tried it, – if ever you have tried this, did you not find it impossible? It was like raising the dead. Did you not find a struggle against yourself? Oh, how plain that you are dead – not born again! Marvel not that we say unto you, Ye must be born again. You must be joined to Christ, for Christ is the life. Suppose it were possible for a dead limb to be joined into a living body so completely that all the veins should receive the purple tide of living blood, – suppose bone to join on to bone, and sinew to sinew, and nerve to nerve, – do you not see that that limb, however dead before, would become a living limb? Before, it was cold and stiff and motionless, and full of corruption; now it is warm and pliable, and full of life and motion. It is a living limb, because joined on to that which is life. Or suppose it possible for a withered branch to be grafted into a living vine so completely that all the channels should receive the flow of the generous sap, do you not agree that that branch, however dead before, becomes a living branch? Before, it was dry and fruitless and withered; now it is full of sap, of life, and vigour. It is a living branch, for it is joined to the vine, which is its life. Well, then, just in the same way, Christ is the life of every soul that cleaves to Him. He that is joined to the Lord is one spirit. Is your soul like a dead limb – cold, stiff, motionless, and full of corruption? Cleave you to Christ, be joined to Him by faith, and you shall be one spirit, – you shall be made warm and vigorous and full of activity in God’s service.
Is your soul like a withered branch – dry, fruitless, and withered, wanting both leaves and fruit? Cleave you to Christ; be joined to Him, and you shall be one spirit. You will find it true that Christ is the life; your life will be hid with Christ in God. You will say, “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and 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 me.’
Remember, then, my unbelieving friends, the only way for you to become holy is to become united to Christ.
And remember you, my believing friends, that if ever you are relaxing in holiness, the reason is, you are relaxing your hold on Christ. Abide in me, and I in you; so shall ye bear much fruit. Severed from me, ye can do nothing.
“Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” Acts 26:28
The chapter, out of which the text is taken, contains an admirable account which the great St. Paul gave of his wonderful conversion from Judaism to Christianity, when he was called to make his defence before Festus a Gentile governor, and king Agrippa. Our blessed Lord had long since foretold that when the Son of man should be lifted up, “his disciples should be brought before kings and rulers, for his name’s sake, for a testimony unto them.” And very good was the design of infinite wisdom in thus ordaining it; for Christianity being, from the beginning, a doctrine of the Cross, the princes and rulers of the earth thought themselves too high to be instructed by such mean teachers, or too happy to be disturbed by such unwelcome truths; and therefore would have always continued strangers to Jesus Christ, and Him crucified, had not the Apostles, by being arraigned before them, gained opportunities of preaching to them “Jesus and the resurrection.” St. Paul knew full well that this was the main reason why his blessed Master permitted his enemies at this time to arraign him at a public bar; and therefore, in compliance with the Divine Will, thinks it not sufficient barely to make his defence, but endeavours at the same time to convert his judges. And this he did with such demonstration of the Spirit, and of power, that Festus, unwilling to be convinced by the strongest evidence, cries out with a loud voice, “Paul, much learning doth make thee mad.” To which the brave Apostle (like a true follower of the holy Jesus) meekly replies, “I am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak forth the words of truth and soberness.” But in all probability, seeing king Agrippa more affected with his discourse, and observing in him an inclination to know the truth, he applies himself more particularly to him. “The king knoweth of these things, before whom also I speak freely; for I am persuaded that none of these things are hidden from him.” And then, that if possible he might complete his wished-for conversion, he, with an inimitable strain of oratory, addresses himself still more closely – “King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest them.” At which the passions of the king began to work so strongly that he was obliged in open court to own himself affected by the prisoner’s preaching, and ingenuously to cry out, “Paul, almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”
These words, taken with the context, afford us a lively representation of the different reception which the doctrine of Christ’s ministers, who come in the power and Spirit of St. Paul, meets with now-a-days in the minds of men. For notwithstanding they, like this great apostle, “speak forth the words of truth and soberness,” and with such energy and power, that all their adversaries cannot justly gainsay or resist. Yet, too many, with the noble Festus before-mentioned, being, like him, either too proud to be taught, or too sensual, too careless, or too worldly-minded to live up to the doctrine, in order to excuse themselves, cry out, that “much learning, much study, or, what is more unaccountable, much piety, hath made them mad.” And though, blessed be God! all do not thus disbelieve our report, yet amongst those who gladly receive the word, and confess that we speak the words of truth and soberness, there are so few, who arrive at any higher degree of piety than that of Agrippa, or are any farther persuaded than to be almost Christian that I cannot but think it highly necessary to warn my dear hearers of the danger of such a state. And therefore, from the words of the text, I shall endeavour to show these three things:
FIRST, What is meant by an almost Christian?
SECONDLY, What are the chief reasons, why so many are no more than almost Christian.
THIRDLY, I shall consider the ineffectualness, danger, absurdity, and uneasiness which attends those who are but almost Christian; and then conclude with a general exhortation, to set all upon striving not only be almost, but altogether Christians.
I. And, FIRST, I am to consider what is meant by an almost Christian.
An almost Christian, if we consider him in respect to his duty to God, is one that halts between two opinions; that wavers between Christ and the world; that would reconcile God and Mammon, light and darkness, Christ and Belial. It is true, he has an inclination to religion, but then he is very cautious how he goes too far in it: his false heart is always crying out, Spare thyself, do thyself no harm. He prays indeed that “God’s will may be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” But notwithstanding, he is very partial in his obedience, and fondly hopes that God will not be extreme to mark everything that he wilfully does amiss; though an inspired apostle has told him, that “he who offends in one point is guilty of all.” But chiefly, he is one that depends much on outward ordinances, and on that account looks upon himself as righteous, and despises others – though at the same time he is as great a stranger to the divine life as any other person whatsoever! In short, he is fond of the form, but never experiences the power of godliness in his heart. He goes on year after year, attending on the means of grace, but then, like Pharaoh’s lean kine, he is never the better, but rather the worse for them.
If you consider him in respect to his neighbour, he is one that is strictly just to all; but then this does not proceed from any love to God or regard to man, but only through a principle of self-love. He knows dishonesty will spoil his reputation, and consequently hinder his thriving in the world.
He is one that depends much upon being negatively good, and contents himself with the consciousness of having done no one any harm; though he reads in the gospel, that “the unprofitable servant was cast into outer darkness,” and the barren fig-tree was cursed and dried up from the roots, not for bearing bad, but no fruit.
He is no enemy to charitable contributions in public, if not too frequently recommended: but then he is unacquainted with the kind offices of visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the naked, and relieving the hungry in a private manner. He thinks that these things belong only to the clergy, though his own false heart tells him that nothing but pride keeps him from exercising these acts of humility; and that Jesus Christ, in the 25th chapter of St. Matthew, condemns persons to everlasting punishment, not merely for being fornicators, drunkards, or extortioners, but for neglecting these charitable offices, “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, he shall set the sheep on his right-hand, and the goats on his left. And then shall he say unto them on his left hand, depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was an hungered, and ye gave me no meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also say, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, or a-thirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have not done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it not unto me: and these shall go away into everlasting punishment.” I thought proper to give you this whole passage of scripture at large, because our Saviour lays such a particular stress upon it; and yet it is so little regarded that were we to judge by the practice of Christians, one should be tempted to think there were no such verses in the Bible.
But to proceed in the character of an almost Christian. If we consider him in respect of himself; as we said he was strictly honest to his neighbour, so he is likewise strictly sober in himself: but then both his honesty and sobriety proceed from the same principle of a false self-love. It is true, he runs not into the same excess of riot with other men; but then it is not out of obedience to the laws of God, but either because his constitution will not away with intemperance; or rather because he is cautious of forfeiting his reputation, or unfitting himself for temporal business. But though he is so prudent as to avoid intemperance and excess, for the reasons before-mentioned, yet he always goes to the extremity of what is lawful. It is true, he is no drunkard; but then he has no CHRISTIAN SELF-DENIAL. He cannot think our Saviour to be so austere a Master, as to deny us to indulge ourselves in some particulars: and so by this means he is destitute of a sense of true religion, as much as if he lived in debauchery, or any other crime whatever. As to settling his principles as well as practice, he is guided more by the world, than by the Word of God. For his part, he cannot think the way to heaven so narrow as some would make it; and therefore considers not so much what scripture requires, as what such and such a good man does, or what will best suit his own corrupt inclinations. Upon this account, he is not only very cautious himself, but likewise very careful of young converts, whose faces are set heavenward; and therefore is always acting the devil’s part, and bidding them spare themselves, though they are doing no more than what the Scripture strictly requires them to do. The consequence of which is, that “he suffers not himself to enter into the kingdom of God, and those that are entering in he hinders.”
Thus lives the almost Christian: not that I can say I have fully described him to you; but from these outlines and sketches of his character, if your consciences have done their proper office, and made a particular application of what has been said to your own hearts, I cannot but fear that some of you may observe some features in his picture, odious as it is, to near resembling your own; and therefore I cannot but hope, that you will join with the apostle in the words immediately following the text, and wish yourselves “to be not only almost, but altogether Christians.”
II. I proceed to the second general thing proposed; to consider the reasons why so many are no more than almost Christian.
1. And the first reason I shall mention is, because so many set out with false notions of religion; though they live in a Christian country, yet they know not what Christianity is. This perhaps may be esteemed a hard saying, but experience sadly evinces the truth of it. For some place religion in being of this or that communion; more in morality; most in a round of duties, and a model of performances; and few, very few acknowledge it to be, what it really is, a thorough inward change of nature, a divine life, a vital participation of Jesus Christ, an union of the soul with God; which the apostle expresses by saying, “He that is joined to the Lord is one spirit.” Hence it happens that so many, even of the most knowing professors, when you come to converse with them concerning the essence, the life, the soul of religion, I mean our new birth in Jesus Christ, confess themselves quite ignorant of the matter, and cry out with Nicodemus, “How can this thing be?” And no wonder then, that so many are only almost Christian, when so many know not what Christianity is.
No marvel that so many take up with the form, when they are quite strangers to the power of godliness; or content themselves with the shadow, when they know so little about the substance of it. And this is one cause why so many are almost, and so few are altogether, Christians.
2. A second reason that may be assigned why so many are no more than almost Christian is a servile fear of man. Multitudes there are and have been, who, though awakened to a sense of the divine life, and have tasted and felt the powers of the world to come, yet out of a base sinful fear of being counted singular, or contemned by men, have suffered all those good impressions to wear off. It is true, they have some esteem for Jesus Christ; but then, like Nicodemus, they would come to him only by night. They are willing to serve him; but then they would do it secretly, for fear of the Jews. They have a mind to see Jesus, but then they cannot come to Him because of the press, and for fear of being laughed at, and ridiculed by those with whom they used to sit at meat. But well did our Saviour prophesy of such persons, “How can ye love me, who receive honour one of another?” Alas! have they never read that “the friendship of this world is enmity with God;” and that our Lord Himself has threatened, “Whosoever shall be ashamed of me or of my words, in this wicked and adulterous generation, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father and of his holy angels?” No wonder that so many are no more than almost Christian, since so many “love the praise of men more than the honour which cometh of God.”
3. A third reason why so many are no more than almost Christian, is a reigning love of money. This was the pitiable case of that forward young man in the gospel, who came running to our blessed Lord, and kneeling before him, inquired “what he must do to inherit eternal life?” to whom our blessed Master replied, “Thou knowest the commandments, Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal:” To which the young man replied, “All these have I kept from my youth.” But when our Lord proceeded to tell him, “Yet lackest thou one thing; Go sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor; he was grieved at that saying, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions!” Poor youth! He had a good mind to be a Christian, and to inherit eternal life, but thought it too dear, if it could be purchased at no less an expense than of his estate! And thus many, both young and old, now-a-days come running to worship our blessed Lord in public, and kneel before Him in private, and inquire at His Gospel, what they must do to inherit eternal life: but when they find they must renounce the self-enjoyment of riches, and forsake all in affection to follow Him, they cry, “The Lord pardon us in this thing! We pray thee, have us excused.”
But is heaven so small a trifle in men’s esteem, as not to be worth a little gilded earth? Is eternal life so mean a purchase, as not to deserve the temporary renunciation of a few transitory riches? Surely it is. But however inconsistent such a behaviour may be, this inordinate love of money is too evidently the common and fatal cause why so many are no more than almost Christian.
4. Nor is the love of pleasure a less uncommon, or a less fatal cause, why so many are no more than almost Christian. Thousands and ten thousands there are who despise riches, and would willingly be true disciples of Jesus Christ, if parting with their money would make them so; but when they are told that our blessed Lord has said, “Whosoever will come after him must deny himself;” like the pitiable young man before-mentioned, “they go away sorrowful” for they have too great a love for sensual pleasures. They will perhaps send for the ministers of Christ, as Herod did for John, and hear them gladly. But touch them in their Herodias, tell them they must part with such or such a darling pleasure, and with wicked Ahab they cry out, “Hast thou found us, O our enemy?” Tell them of the necessity of mortification and self-denial, and it is as difficult for them to hear, as if you were to bid them “cut off a right-hand, or pluck out a right-eye.” They cannot think our blessed Lord requires so much at their hands, though an inspired apostle has commanded us to “mortify our members which are upon earth.” And who himself, even after he had converted thousands, and was very near arrived to the end of his race, yet professed that it was his daily practice to “keep under his body, and bring it into subjection, lest after he had preached to others, he himself should be a castaway!”
But some men would be wiser than this great apostle, and chalk out to us what they falsely imagine an easier way to happiness. They would flatter us. We may go to heaven without offering violence to our sensual appetites; and enter into the strait gate without striving against our carnal inclinations. And this is another reason why so many are only almost and not altogether Christians.
5. The fifth and last reason I shall assign why so many are only almost Christian, is a fickleness and instability of temper.
It has been, no doubt, a misfortune that many a minister and sincere Christian has met with, to weep and wail over numbers of promising converts, who seemingly began in the Spirit, but after a while fell away, and basely ended in the flesh, and this not for want of right notions in religion, nor out of a servile fear of man, nor from the love of money, or of sensual pleasure, but through an instability and fickleness of temper. They looked upon religion merely for novelty, as something which pleased them for a while; but after their curiosity was satisfied, they laid it aside again – like the young man that came to see Jesus with a linen cloth about his naked body, they have followed him for a season, but when temptations came to take hold on them, for want of a little more resolution, they have been stripped of all their good intentions, and fled away naked. They at first, like a tree planted by the water-side, grew up and flourished for a while, but having no root in themselves, no inward principle of holiness and piety, like Jonah’s gourd, they were soon dried up and withered. Their good intentions are too like the violent motions of the animal spirits of a body newly beheaded, which, though impetuous, are not lasting. In short, they set out well in their journey to heaven, but finding the way either narrower or longer than they expected, through an unsteadiness of temper, they have made an eternal halt, and so “returned like the dog to his vomit”, or like the sow that was washed to her “wallowing in the mire!”
But I tremble to pronounce the fate of such unstable professors, who, having put their hands to the plough, for want of a little more resolution, shamefully look back. How shall I repeat to them that dreadful threatening – “If any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him.” And again, “It is impossible (that is, exceeding difficult at least) for those that have been once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and the powers of the world to come, if they should fall away, to be renewed again unto repentance.” But notwithstanding the Gospel is so severe against apostates, yet many that begun well, through a fickleness of temper – O that none of us here present may ever be such – have been by this means of the number of those that turn back unto perdition. And this is the fifth, and the last reason I shall give, why so many are only almost, and not altogether Christians.
III. Proceed we now to the general thing proposed, namely, to consider the folly of being no more than an almost Christian.
1. And the FIRST proof I shall give of the folly of such a proceeding is that it is ineffectual to salvation. It is true, such men are almost good; but almost to hit the mark, is really to miss it. God requires us “to love him with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our strength.” He loves us too well to admit any rival; because, so far as our hearts are empty of God, so far must they be unhappy. The devil, indeed, like the false mother that came before Solomon, would have our hearts divided, as she would have had the child; but God, like the true mother, will have all or none. “My Son, give me thy heart,” thy whole heart, is the general call to all: and if this be not done, we never can expect the divine mercy.
Persons may play the hypocrite; but God at the great day will strike them dead, (as he did Ananias and Sapphira by the mouth of his servant Peter) for pretending to offer him all their hearts, when they keep back from Him the greatest part. They may perhaps impose upon their fellow-creatures for a while, but He that enabled Elijah to cry out, “Come in thou wife of Jeroboam,” when she came disguised to inquire about he sick son, will also discover them through their most artful dissimulations; and if their hearts are not wholly with Him, appoint them their portion with hypocrites and unbelievers.
2. But, SECONDLY, What renders a half-way-piety more inexcusable is, that it is not only insufficient to our own salvation, but also very prejudicial to that of others.
An almost Christian is one of the most hurtful creatures in the world; he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is one of those false prophets our blessed Lord ids us beware of in his sermon on the mount, who would persuade men, that the way to heaven is broader than it really is; and thereby, as it was observed before, “enter not into the kingdom of God themselves, and those that are entering in they hinder.” These, these are the men that turn the world into a luke-warm Laodicean spirit that hang out false lights, and so shipwreck unthinking benighted souls in their voyage to the haven of eternity. These are they who are greater enemies to the Cross of Christ, than infidels themselves: for of an unbeliever every one will be aware, but an almost Christian, through his subtle hypocrisy, draws away many after him, and therefore must expect to receive the greater damnation.
3. But, THIRDLY, As it is most prejudicial to ourselves and hurtful to others, so it is the greatest instance of ingratitude we can express towards our Lord and Master Jesus Christ. For did He come down from heaven, and shed his precious blood to purchase these hearts of ours, and shall we only give Him half of them? O how can we say we love him, when our hearts are not wholly with Him? How can we call him our Saviour, when we will not endeavour sincerely to approve ourselves to him, and so let him see the travail of his soul, and be satisfied!
Had any of us purchased a slave at a most expensive rate, and who was before involved in the utmost miseries and torments, and so must have continued forever, had we shut up our bowels of compassion from him; and was this slave afterwards to grow rebellious, or deny giving us but half his service; how, how should we exclaim against his base ingratitude! And yet this base ungrateful slave thou art, O man, who acknowledgest thyself to be redeemed from infinite unavoidable misery and punishment by the death of Jesus Christ, and yet wilt not give thyself wholly to him. But shall we deal with God our Maker in a manner we would not be dealt with by a man like ourselves? God forbid no! Suffer me, therefore, to add a word or two of exhortation to you, to excite you to be not only almost, but altogether Christians. O let us scorn all base and treacherous treatment of our King and Saviour, of our God and Creator. Let us not take some pains all our lives to go to heaven, and yet plunge ourselves into hell at last. Let us give to God our whole hearts, and no longer halt between two opinions. If the world be God, let us serve that; if pleasure be a God, let us serve that; but if the Lord He be God, let us, O let us serve him alone. Alas! why, why should we stand out any longer? Why should we be so in love with slavery, as not wholly to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil, which, like so many spiritual chains, bind down our souls and hinder them from flying up to God. Alas! what are we afraid of? Is not God able to reward our entire obedience? If he is, as the almost Christian’s lame way of serving him, seems to grant, why then will we not serve him entirely? For the same reason we do so much, why do we not do more? Or do you think that being only half religious will make you happy, but that going farther, will render you miserable and uneasy? Alas! this, my brethren, is delusion all over. For what is it but this half piety, this wavering between God and the world, that makes so many that are seemingly well disposed, such utter strangers to the comforts of religion? They choose just so much of religion as will disturb them in their lusts, and follow their lusts so far as to deprive themselves of the comforts of religion. Whereas on the contrary, would they sincerely leave all in affection, and give their hearts wholly to God, they would then (and they cannot till then) experience the unspeakable pleasure of having a mind at unity with itself, and enjoy such a peace of God, which even in this life passes all understanding, and which they were entire strangers to before. It is true, if we will devote ourselves entirely to God, we must meet with contempt; but then it is because contempt is necessary to heal our pride. We must renounce some sensual pleasures, but then it is because those unfit us for spiritual ones, which are infinitely better. We must renounce the love of the world; but then it is that we may be filled with the love of God: and when that has once enlarged our hearts, we shall, like Jacob when he served for his beloved Rachel, think nothing too difficult to undergo, no hardships too tedious to endure, because of the love we shall then have for our dear Redeemer. Thus easy, thus delightful will be the ways of God even in this life. But when once we throw off these bodies, and our souls are filled with all the fullness of God, O! what heart can conceive, what tongue can express, with what unspeakable joy and consolation shall we then look back on our past sincere and hearty services? Think you then, my dear hearers, we shall repent we had done too much; or rather think you not, we shall be ashamed that we did no more; and blush we were so backward to give up all to God; when He intended hereafter to give us Himself?
Let me therefore, to conclude, exhort you, my brethren, to have always before you the unspeakable happiness of enjoying God. And think withal that every degree of holiness you neglect, every act of piety you omit is a jewel taken out of your crown, a degree of blessedness lost in the vision of God. O! do but always think and act thus! You will no longer be labouring to compound matters between God and the world. But, on the contrary, be daily endeavouring to give up yourselves more and more unto Him. You will be always watching, always praying, always aspiring after farther degrees of purity and love, and consequently always preparing yourselves for a fuller sight and enjoyment of that God, in Whose presence there is fullness of joy, and at Whose right hand there are pleasures for ever more. Amen! Amen!
Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee. (1 Tim. iv. 16).
The words are a substantial part of the good counsel and direction the apostle gives to Timothy, and through him to all the ministers of the gospel.
In them are two things:
1. A threefold duty laid on gospel-ministers, Take heed unto thyself, and unto thy doctrine; continue in them.
2. A double advantage consequent upon the discharge of this duty: For in doing this, thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.
1. Ministers’ duty is in three things here.
First, Take heed unto thyself. You are set in a high office in a dangerous place; take good and narrow heed, look well to thyself, thy heart and way.
Second, Take heed unto thy doctrine. Though thou be ever so well gifted, and approved both of God and men; though thou be an extraordinary officer (as Timothy was); yet take heed unto thy doctrine. These two we pass at present; because we shall resume them at greater length, when we take their help to the resolving of this question.
Third, Continue in them. This is related to vs.12, and 15. as well as to the preceding part of this verse. I shall dismiss this part of the verse with these comments,
(1.) Continue in thy work. Thou who art a minister, it is a work for thy lifetime; and not to be taken up and laid down again, according as it may best suit a man’s carnal inclinations, and outward conveniences. The apostles that laboured with their hands have, by that example, set the conscience of a minister at liberty to provide for the necessities of this life by other employments when he cannot live of the gospel, yet certainly no man that is called of God to this work can with a safe conscience abandon it wholly. Paul, for example rather than necessity, both preached and wrought as a tent maker. As preaching doth not make working unlawful, so neither should any other business of a minister make preaching to cease.
(2.) Continue in endeavours after greater fitness for thy work. No attainments in fitness and qualifications for this work can free a man of the obligation that lies on him to increase and grow therein more and more. It is not enough that a man study and be careful ere he enter into the ministry, but he must labour still to be more fit for his great work.
(3.) Continue in your vigour, and carefulness, and diligence. Young ministers that are sound and sincere before God are usually warm and diligent in the first years of their ministry; and many do decline afterwards and become more cold and remiss. This exhortation is a check thereunto: Continue in them.
2. The second thing in the word is, the double advantage proposed to encourage ministers to this hard duty.
The first advantage is, Thou shalt save thyself. Thy own salvation shall be promoted thereby.
How becoming is it for a minister to mind his own salvation! and to mind it so heartily, as to be animated from the hopes of it unto the greater diligence in his ministry!
But how doth faithfulness in the ministry of the gospel further the minister’s salvation?
(1.) Thou shalt save thyself from the guilt of other men’s sins and ruin, if thou be faithful in the ministry: Ezek. xxxiii. 9. Thou hast delivered (or saved) thy soul, saith the Lord to the prophet in the case of unsuccessful faithfulness. So Paul, Acts xviii. 6. I am clean, your blood be upon your own heads: and Acts xx. 26-27. I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men: for I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. Every minister pledgeth his soul to God, that he shall be a faithful servant, whatever his success may be.
(2.) Faithfulness and carefulness in the ministry of the gospel, promotes a man’s own salvation, in so far as the work of Christianity is woven in with the right discharge of the office of the ministry. Many ministers can say that if they had not been ministers they had in all appearance lost their souls. The subject of the minister’s work, is the same with that of a Christian’s; and above all men should he be careful of his heart and intentions that all be pure and spiritual. No man in any work he is called to is under so strict a necessity of dependence on the influence and assistance of the Holy Ghost both for gifts and grace. And are not all these great helps unto our own salvation?
The second advantage is, Thou shalt save them that hear thee. There is little hope of that man’s being useful to save others that minds not his own salvation; and therefore the apostle puts them in this order, thyself, and then, them that hear thee.
This description of the people, them that hear thee, tells us that the principal work of a minister is preaching; and the principal benefit people have by them is to hear the Lord’s word from them; though there be a seeing (i.e. of their holy conversation) that is also useful, Phil. iv. 9. But the apostle knew no such ministers as were only to be seen in worldly pomp and grandeur and seldom or never heard preaching.
Thou shalt save them. The great end of both preaching and hearing, is salvation; and if salvation were more designed by preachers and hearers, it would be more frequently the effect of the action.
Thou shalt save them. Thou shalt, by the Lord’s blessing on thy ministry, be successful in converting sinners, and in building up of saints in holiness and faith unto salvation. Not that ministers are of themselves able by all their endeavours to carry on this great end; they are only God’s tools and instruments, 1 Cor. iii. 6, 7. Concerning this,
(1.) We find that the Lord hath appointed this great ordinance of the gospel-ministry for this end, the saving of men, Eph. iv. 11-13. It is through their word that men believe, John xvii. 20. And divine appointment of the means, declares it to be both useful and the end to be hopeful.
(2.) He hath also given many promises of His presence, blessing, and success, to follow and attend them whom He sends on this great errand. Christ’s first calling of the apostles had this promise in it, I will make you fishers of men; which not only declared what that employment was he called them to, but it assured them of success in it. At his leaving of them, Matt. xxviii. 20, He promised to be with them unto the end of the world. And this promise is as good to us as it was to them.
(3.) He has also revealed much of His mind about ministers’ duty, in order to this end of saving men. This also makes the end more hopeful.
(4.) We find that the Lord does qualify and fit them whom He makes successful. He makes men able ministers of the New Testament, the word of life, 2 Cor. iii. 5-6. And still, according to the success the Lord hath a mind to bless a man with gifts, and qualifications, and assistance, are proportionably given. The apostles that had the greatest harvest to gather in were made the strongest labourers: and, though in a far inferior degree, the same method is observed by the Lord in dealing with and by ordinary ministers. It is true, that not always the most able and learned ministers are most successful; yet, generally, the most skilful labourers are most blessed. Neither are the most learned and able men for parts most fit and skilful in dealing with souls at all times.
Now, having opened the words, we shall return to the question to be resolved,
By what Means may Ministers best win Souls?
Consider what this text speaks about this matter. It looks two ways upon this question. 1. It gives a direct answer to it: and points out duty. 2. It gives an encouraging promise of the good effect and fruit of the discharge of the duty.
I. Take heed unto thyself. Would you be a saved and successful minister? Take heed unto thyself. Such warnings imply always a case of difficulty and danger.
First; Take heed that thou be a sound and sincere believer, The importance of sincere godliness in a minister, is written in the deep wounds that the church of Christ has received by the hands of ungodly ministers. It has been made a question, whether an ungodly man can be a minister? But such men are in a most desperate condition: Mat. vii. 22, 23. Depart from me; not because you ran unsent, or preached error instead of truth, or preached poorly and meanly, (all great sins in themselves); but because you work iniquity; the usual expression of entire ungodliness. What use the Lord may make of the gifts (for, great gifts He gives to the worst of men) of ungodly men, even in the ministry of the gospel, is one of His deep paths. But no man can reasonably imagine, that a walker in the way to hell can be a fit and useful guide to them that mind to go to heaven. If a man would have peace in his conscience and success in his work of the ministry, let him take good heed to this, that he be a sound Christian. There is a special difficulty for a minister to know his grace. Gifts and grace have deceived many with their likeness; although the difference be great, both in itself, and to an enlightened eye.
Second; Take heed to thyself, that thou be a called and sent minister. This is of great importance as to success. He that can say, “Lord, thou hast sent me,” may boldly add, “Lord, go with me, and bless me.” It is good when a man is serious in this inquiry. It is to be feared that many run, and never asked this question; so is it seen in their speed and success. Jer. xxiii. 32. I sent them not, therefore they shall not profit this people at all, is a standing rule to this day.
These things, if found, may serve to satisfy a minister’s conscience, that Jesus Christ hath sent him.
(a.) If the heart be filled with a single desire after the great end of the ministry, the glory of God in the salvation of men. Every work that God calls a man to, He makes the end of it amiable. This desire sometimes attends men’s first conversion. Paul was called to be a saint and an apostle at once, Acts ix; and so have many been called to be saints and ministers together. If it be not so, yet this is found with him that Christ calls, that when he is most spiritual and serious, when his heart is most under the impressions of holiness, and he is nearest to God in communion with Him; then are such desires after the serving of Jesus Christ in the ministry most powerful. And the sincerity of his desire is also to be examined: and when it is found, it adds greatly to a man’s peace: when his heart bears him witness, that it is neither riches, nor honour, nor ease, nor the applause of men, that he seeks after, but singly Christ’s honour in the saving of men.
(b.) It helps to clear a man’s call, that there has been a conscientious diligence in all the means of attaining fitness for this great work. That love to the end that does not direct and determine to the use of the appointed means, may justly be suspected as irregular, and not flowing from the Holy Ghost. Even extraordinary officers seem not to have been above the use of ordinary means, 2 Tim. iv. 13: old, dying Paul sends for his books and papers.
(c.) A competent fitness for the work of the ministry is another proof of a man’s call to it. The Lord calls no man to a work for which He does not qualify. Though a sincere humble man (as all ministers should be) may and should think little of any measure he has, whether compared with the greater measures of others, or considered with regard unto the weight and worth or the work; yet there must be some confidence as to his competency, for clearing a man’s call, 2 Cor. iii. 5, 6. What this competency is, is not easy at all times to determine. But in general there must be, 1. A competent knowledge of gospel-mysteries. 2. A competent ability of utterance to the edifying of others. This is aptness to teach, required of the apostle in I Tim. iii. 2: and Titus i. 9. that a minister be able, by sound doctrine, to exhort and to convince gainsayers.
(d.) The savour of a man’s ministry on the hearts and consciences of others, both ministers and people, helps much to clear a man’s call. So that indeed ordinarily a man can never be so well confirmed in the faith of his being called of God, until he make some essay in this work. Deacons must first be proved, I Tim. iii 10; much more ministers. A single testimony given by ministers and Christians, that the word dispensed by the man is savoury and has effect on the conscience is a great confirmation; especially if sound conversion of some follow his labours. That is indeed a seal of his ministry, 2 Cor. iii. 3, and 1 Cor. ix. 2.
Third; Take heed unto thyself that thou be a lively thriving Christian. See that all your religion run not in the channel of your employment. It is found by experience, that as it fares with a minister in the frame of his heart, and thriving of the work of God in his soul, so doth it fare with his ministry both in its vigour and effects. A carnal frame, a dead heart and a loose walk, makes cold and unprofitable preaching. And how common is it for ministers to neglect their own vineyard? When we read the word we read ill as ministers to know what we should teach rather than what we should learn as Christians. Unless there be great heed taken, it will be found that our ministry and labour therein may eat out the life of our Christianity. Not that there is any discord betwixt them; but rather a friendly harmony, when each has its place and respect. The honest believer meditates that he may excite his grace; and ministers too often meditate only to increase their gifts. When we preach, the sincere hearer drinks in the word; and it may be we seldom mix faith with it, to grow thereby. O how hard is it to be a minister and a Christian in some of these acts! We are still conversant about the things of God; it is our study all the week long. This is our great advantage. But take heed to thyself, lest ordinary meddling with divine things bring on an ordinary and indifferent impression of them; and then their fruit to you, and your benefit by them, is almost gone and hardly recovered.
Fourth; Take heed unto thyself in reference to all the trials and temptations you may meet with. Be on your guard, watch in all things, 2 Tim. iv. 5. No men are shot at more by Satan than ministers, and Christ is liberal in His warnings of dangers, and in His promises of help in them.
2. The second word in the text to this purpose of directing ministers how to be useful to others, is take heed unto thy doctrine. Are you a minister? You must be a preacher. An unpreaching minister is a sort of contradiction. Yet, every sort of preaching is not enough; you must take heed to your doctrine what it is.
Here is a warrant for studying what we are to teach and what we have taught people. But the great matter is to take heed, or study aright. Students commonly need little direction about ordinary study. But concerning the doctrine, I shall entreat to take heed unto it in these things:— First; Take heed unto thy doctrine, that it be a divine truth:—Let a man speak as the oracles of God, 1 Pet. iv. 11. And therefore it is needful that ministers be well acquainted with the holy scriptures. It is a mark against a man that relishes any book more than the word of God. The world is full of books written on pretence and design to explain the scriptures; and men’s studies are full of them. There is also a blessing in them, and good use to be made of them; but also a bad use is made of them. Many ministers have found that they have preached better and to more profit to the people when they got their sermon by meditation on the word and prayer than by turning over many authors. From this neglect of the word also come a great many doctrines that are learned by man and borrowed from philosophy; which though they may have some truth in them, yet since it is divine truth that a minister should bring forth to the people, he should not rest on such low things.
Second; Take heed unto thy doctrine that it be plain and suited to the capacity of the hearers. Learned preaching (as it is called) is a vanity, pleasing principally to such as neither design nor desire edification. True godly learning consists in preaching plainly; and therein is no small difficulty. Two things would help to plain preaching. 1. Clearness of knowledge. The alleged depth of our doctrine often proceeds from our own darkness. 2. Humility and self-denial. We must not seek ourselves, nor the applause of men; but God’s glory, and men’s salvation. It is found that the holiest ministers preach most plainly and the plainest preachers are most successful.
Third; Take heed unto thy doctrine, that it be grave, and solid, and weighty; sound speech that cannot be condemned, Tit. ii. 8. Deep and weighty impressions of the things of God upon a man’s own heart would greatly advance this. A minister’s spirit is known in the gravity or lightness of his doctrine.
II. But now we come to the second thing proposed, to give some answer to this question from other things in the word.
And I shall, 1. Shew some things that must be laid to heart about the end, the saving of souls; and then, 2. Shall give some advice about the means.
1. About the end, the winning of souls. This is to bring them to God. It is not to win them to us, or to engage them into a party, or to the espousal of some opinions and practices, supposing them to be never so right and consonant to the word of God. But the winning of them is to bring them out of nature into a state of grace, that they may be fitted for, and in due time admitted into everlasting glory.
Concerning which great end, these few things should be laid deeply to heart by all that would serve the Lord in being instrumental in reaching it.
First; The exceeding height and excellency of this end is to be laid to heart. It is a wonder of condescension that the Lord will make use of men in promoting it. To be workers together with God in so great a business, is no small honour. The great value of men’s souls, the greatness of the misery they are delivered from, and of the happiness they are advanced to, with the manifold glory of God shining in all, makes the work of saving men great and excellent. Preaching the gospel, and suffering for it, are services that angels are not employed in. Mean and low thoughts of the great end of the ministry, as they are dissonant from truth, are also great hindrances to due endeavours after the attaining the end.
Second; The great difficulty of saving souls must be laid to heart. The difficulty is undoubted. To attempt it is to offer violence to men’s corrupt natures; and a storming of hell itself, whose captives all sinners are. Unless this difficulty be laid to heart ministers will be confident of their own strength and so miscarry and be unfruitful. Whoever prospers in winning souls is first convinced that it is the arm of Jehovah only can do the work.
Third; The duty of winning souls must be laid to heart by ministers. That it is their principle work and they are under many commands to endeavour it. It is a fault to look on fruit only as a reward of endeavours; but it should be so minded as the end we would strive for, Col. i. 28-29; which, when attained, is still to His praise: yet most commonly when it is missing it is to our reproach and danger, when it is (as alas! it is often) through our default.
Fourth; The great advantage there is to the labourer by his success is to be pondered. Great is the gain by one soul. He that winneth souls, is happy as well as wise, Prov. ix. 30. Dan. xii. 3. Won souls are a minister’s crown, and glory, and joy. Phil. iv. 1. 1 Thess. ii. 20. How far is this account above all others that a man can give of his ministry? These things fixed upon the heart, would enliven us in all endeavours to attain this excellent end.
2. For advice about the means, I shall add these few thoughts besides what hath been said.
First; Let ministers, if they would win souls, purchase and retain amongst the people a persuasion of their being sent of God; that they are Christ’s ministers, 1 Cor. iv. 1. It is not the confident asserting of it, nor justifying the lawfulness of our ecclesiastical calling, though there be some use of these things at some times: but it is ability, carefulness, faithfulness, humility, and self-denial, and, in a word, conformity to our Lord Jesus in His ministry, that will constrain people to say and think that we are sent of God. Nicodemus comes with this impression of Christ, John iii. 2. A teacher come from God. It is certain, that these thoughts in people further the reception of the gospel; Gal. iv. 14. Ye received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus.
Second; Let ministers, if they would win souls, purchase and maintain the people’s love to their persons. And this is best done by loving them and dealing lovingly and patiently with them. There should be no striving with them especially about worldly things: yea, meekness to them that oppose themselves, 2 Tim. ii. 24-26. It is of great advantage to have their love. How carefully doth Paul sue for it in several epistles; and condescend to intreat and make apologies when indeed he had not wronged them but they only did imagine he had wronged them! 2 Cor. ix.
Third; It would further the winning of souls, to deal particularly and personally with them; not always nor altogether in public, Col. i. 28. Acts xx. 20-21. Great fruit hath constantly followed the conscientious discharge of this duty. The setting of it up in Geneva did produce incredible fruits of piety, as Calvin reports: when the ministers and some of the elders went from house to house and dealt particularly with the people’s consciences. And we are not without many instances of the fruit of this mean in our own time and in these nations. Blessed be the Lord for the labourers and their success.
Fourth; Ministers must pray much if they would be successful. The apostles spent their time this way, Acts vi. 3. Yea, our Lord Jesus preached all day, and continued all night alone in prayer to God. Ministers should be much in prayer. They used to reckon how many hours they spend in reading and study; it were far better both with ourselves and the church of God if more time were spent in prayer. Luther’s spending three hours daily in secret prayer, Bradford’s studying on his knees, and other instances of men in our time are talked of rather than imitated. Ministers should pray much for themselves; for they have corruptions like other men and have temptations that none but ministers are assaulted with. They should pray for their message. How sweet and easy is it for a minister, (and likely it is to be the more profitable to the people), to bring forth that scripture as food to the souls of his people that he hath got opened to his own heart by the power of the Holy Ghost in the exercise of faith and love in prayer! A minister should pray for a blessing on the word, and he should be much in seeking God particularly for the people. It may be this may be the reason why some ministers of meaner gifts and parts are more successful than some that are far above them in abilities; not because they preach better, but because they pray more. Many good sermons are lost for lack of much prayer in study.
But because the ministry of the word is the main instrument for winning souls, I shall therefore add somewhat more particularly concerning this, and that both as to the matter and manner of preaching.
For the subject-matter of gospel-preaching, it is determined by the apostle expressly to be Christ crucified, 1 Cor. ii. 2. Two things ministers have to do about Him in preaching Him to them that are without. 1. To set Him forth to people, Gal. iii. 1; to paint Him in His love, excellency, and ability to save. 2. To preach Him unto them freely, fully, without any limitation as to sinners, or their sinful state. And then Christ’s laws or will to be published to them that receive Him, and are His, for the rule of their walk; and His promises, for the measure and foundation of all their hopes and expectations; and His grace and fulness, for their supply in every case, till they be brought to heaven. This was the simplicity of the gospel that remained but a little while in the Christian church: for ceremonies amongst the Jews, and sinful mixtures of vain philosophy amongst the Gentiles, Col. ii. did by degrees so corrupt the gospel that the mystery of iniquity ripened in the production of Antichrist. It was a sad observation of the fourth century that it became a matter of learning and ingenuity to be a Christian. The meaning was that too much weight was laid on notions and matters of opinion; and less regard had unto the soundness of the heart and holiness of life. In the beginning of the reformation from Popery, the worthies whom God raised up in several countries did excellently in retrieving the simplicity of the gospel from the Popish mixtures. But that good work is on the decline greatly. How little of Jesus Christ is there in some pulpits! It is seen as to success, that whatever the law doth in alarming sinners, it is still the gospel-voice that is the key that opens the heart to Jesus Christ. Would ministers win souls? Let them have more of Jesus Christ in their dealing with men, and less of other things that never profit them that are exercised therein.
As for the manner of successful preaching, I shall give it in a negative and positive, from these two places: 1 Cor. i. 17, and ii. 1, 4.
First; What this negative condemns, is our inquiry. The words are full: For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. Again, I came not to you with excellency of speech, or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. Again, And my speech, and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom. These are the words of the Holy Ghost concerning a way of preaching that is unprofitable: a way that seems was in use and respect with the Corinthians; and honest Paul was despised by them, for his simple and plain way, different from theirs. I shall only instance in things that this scriptural negative doth check and reprove in the way of preaching.
1. The establishing and advancing of divine truth upon the foundation of human reason; as if there were some weakness and insufficency in those methods and arguments of working on men’s consciences, that the Holy Ghost prescribes. The great foundation of all a minister hath to say, is, Thus saith the Lord; and a grave declaring of the testimony of God in this matter is a minister’s duty, 1 Cor. ii. 1, and will have more authority on men’s consciences than many human reasons. There is a rational preaching (as it is called), wherein men do not satisfy themselves to make use of reason as a tool and instrument (and then its use is excellent), but will establish it as a judge and dictator in all divine matters and truth; and so in effect turn all their preaching into little better things than the lectures of the philosophers of old; save that the poor pagans were more sincere in their morals and serious in delivering their opinions.
Let a minister therefore still think with himself, that a plain scripture-testimony is his main argument; and accordingly let him use it. When he teacheth philosophy, and when he teacheth men the will of God about salvation, he is in distinct provinces, and his management of his work therein should be very different.
2. It is to preach with excellency of speech, and words of man’s wisdom, when men think to reach the gospel end on sinners by force of even spiritual reason and persuasion. This corrupt thought riseth in some, from an imagination that moral suasion is all that is needful for converting a sinner: and in some this thought rises on a better account; the light of the glory of God in the gospel shines so brightly in upon their own hearts, that they fall into this conceit, that no man can stand before that light which they can hold forth: Melancthon’s mistake at first, till experience made him wiser. Hast thou a clear knowledge of gospel-mysteries, and the word of exhortation is with thee also, so that thou art qualified to urge, beseech. and plead warmly with sinners on Christ’s behalf? Take heed of this snare. Lest thou think that thy wisdom and gifts can promote and carry on the gospel-design on men.
3. This also is checked in the apostle’s words, the setting forth the beauty of the gospel by human art. The truth of the gospel shines best in its bare proposal; and its beauty in its simple and naked discovery. We may observe from church history, that as soundness of doctrine and the power of godliness decayed in the church, the vanity of an affected way of speaking and of writing of divine things came in. Quotations from the fathers, Latin, and languages, are pitiful ornaments to preaching if a man design conversion and soul-edification. And yet more despicable are all playing on words, jinglings, and cadences, (which things are in all the rules of true eloquence justly exploded); and yet some men reckon much on them. But would any man think his friend in earnest with him that would accost him in any affair with such sort of language and gesture?
Second; The positive is, in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power, 1 Cor. ii. 5.
1. Paul preached so as gave a demonstration that the Holy Ghost was in him, sanctifying him. This is a plain and blessed thing. Happy is the minister that manageth his work so that if the hearers get not a demonstration of great parts and learning, yet they have a demonstration of the sanctifying Spirit of God in the minister.
2. Paul preached so as gave a demonstration that the Spirit of God was with him, assisting and helping him in his work; even when he was amongst them in much weakness, fear, and trembling, ver. 3. Happy is the minister that can preach this way. He must be a depender upon assistance from the Holy Ghost.
3. Paul preached so as a demonstration of the power of the Holy Ghost was given to the hearts of the hearers. The Spirit of God so wrought on them by His power in and by Paul’s preaching, 2 Cor. iv. 2, commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. This is the principle thing to be aimed at, and it is the proper source of all profitable preaching.
III. To conclude: You that are ministers, suffer a word of exhortation.
Men, brethren, and fathers, you are called to an high and holy calling. Your work is full of danger, full of duty, and full of mercy. You are called to the winning of souls; an employment near akin unto our Lord’s work, the saving of souls; and the nearer your spirits be in conformity to His holy temper and frame, the fitter you are for, and the more fruitful you shall be in your work. None of you are ignorant of the begun departure of our glory, and the daily advance of its departure, and the sad appearances of the Lord’s being about to leave us utterly. Should not these signs of the times rouse up ministers unto greater seriousness? What can be the reason of this sad observation, that when formerly a few lights raised up in the nation, did shine so as to scatter and dispel the darkness of popery in a little time; yet now when there are more and more learned men amongst us, the darkness comes on apace? Is it not because they were men filled with the Holy Ghost, and with power; and many of us are only filled with light and knowledge, and inefficacious notions of God’s truth? Doth not always the spirit of the ministers propagate itself amongst the people? A lively ministry, and lively Christians. Therefore be serious at heart; believe, and so speak; feel, and so speak; and as you teach, so do: and then people will feel what you say, and obey the word of God.
And, lastly, for people: it is not unfit that you should hear of ministers’ work, and duty, and difficulties. You see that all is of your concernment. All things are for your sakes, as the apostle said in another case.
Then only I entreat you,
1. Pity us. We are not angels, but men of like passions with yourselves. Be fuller of charity than of censure. We have all that you have to do about the saving of our own souls; and a great work besides about the saving of yours. We have all your difficulties as Christians; and some that you are not acquainted with, that are only ministers’ temptations and trials.
2. Help us in our work. If you can do anything, help us in the work of winning souls. What can we do, say you? Make haste to heaven, that you and we may meet joyfully before the throne of God and the Lamb.
3. Pray for us. How often and how earnestly doth Paul beg the prayers of the churches! And if he did so, much more should we beg them, and you grant them; for our necessities and weaknesses are greater than his: 2 Thess. iii. 1-2. Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, even as it is with you: and that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men: for all men have not faith.
MATTHEW v. 1, 2, 3.
Videns autem Jesus turbas ascendit in montem, et cum consedeiset, & c.
When Jesus saw the people he went up into a mountain, and when he was set
down, his disciples came unto him: and he opened his mouth, and taught
them, saying, Blessed are the poor in spirit.
DEARLY beloved in our Saviour Christ, I have to tell you at this present time of a certain pilgrimage, which may be called the Christian man’s pilgrimage, but ye shall not think that I will speak of the popish pilgrimage, which we were wont to use in times past, in running hither and thither to Mr. John Shorn, 1. or to our Lady of Walsingham. 2. No, no; I will not speak of such fooleries, but I will speak of such a pilgrimage, which our Saviour Christ himself taught us, being here present with us, with his own mouth. Therefore whosoever will come to the eternal felicity, must go that pilgrimage, else he shall never attain thereunto. Cum vidisset autem turbas, “When he saw the people.” It appeareth by the end of the fourth of Matthew, that our Saviour had walked throughout all Galilee, and had done many miracles, so that the fame of him went throughout all the country: And there gathered a great number of people together to hear him: he seeing the people how hungry they were, conveyed himself into a higher place, and his disciples came unto him, and he taught them; but not only the disciples, but also the whole people; for Luke saith, Docebat audiete populo, “He preached, the people hearing it;” Also, et turba admirabitur super doctrina illius, “and the people marvelled because of his doctrine:” How could they marvel, if they had not heard it! So it appeareth that Christ made his sermon not only to his disciples, but also to the whole people: yet specially he taught his disciples, to that end that they might teach afterwards to others; for he taught them such doctrine which he would have taught all the whole world, therefore he so diligently taught them; for though he made many sermons, yet these two sermons, the one in Matthew, and the other in John, ought to be regarded most above all others, for they contain the sum of a Christian man’s life.Now our Saviour seeing them so hungry, what doth he? The evangelist saith, Aperuit os suum, “He opened his mouth, and taught them.” Our Saviour did not only send out his apostles to preach and teach the people, but also he opened his own mouth, and taught the people his own self. Which act of our Saviour, is to the reproach of our lordly prelates; which in a manner disdain to preach themselves, in their own persons; but they think it to be enough to have one or two pertaining unto them, which preach in their dioceses; they themselves being occupied in worldly business: our Saviour did not so, he opened his own mouth, and taught the people.Certainly this ensample of our Saviour ought better to be considered of our prelates than it is: for they be not better than Christ was. Christ hath sent them, and given unto them a commission to preach; wherefore disdain they then to open their mouth, and teach the people? Seeing that our Saviour himself taught, how will they be excused when they shall make account for their doings? What shall be their reward for their slothfulness? No doubt, everlasting damnation hangeth over their heads.Now our Saviour opening his mouth, what taught he them? Marry, he taught them a pilgrimage, the christian man’s pilgrimage: and this is a good and true pilgrimage that he taught; for this pilgrimage standeth not in running hither and thither: No, no; this is a right pilgrimage, but there is strange gear in it; yea, such gear, that if I should say it of my own head, you would not believe me, you would say I lie: for it agreeth not with our mother wit, we cannot compass this gear with our natural wit: therefore we must consider who speaketh it, and so captivate our reason and wit to the wisdom of God.
Now Christ, the eternal Son of God, he teacheth us this pilgrimage: of which God the Father himself saith, Hic est Filius meus dilectus, in quo mihi bene complacitum est, ipsum audite: “This is my well-beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear him.” Seeing then that the Almighty God commanded us to hear him, we ought not to regard his doctrine little, to esteem and value it for nothing; but most highly esteem it as the unfallible word of God. Now what saith he? Beati pauperes spiritu quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum, ” Blessed be the poor in the spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” &c. I intend to be very short, else I could not have time to go through all things that pertain to this pilgrimage. This is a pilgrimage of eight miles, or of eight days’ journeys; all things that pertain unto it are comprehended in eight points.
Our Saviour saith, Beati pauperes, “Blessed be the poor ;” this is contrary to our reason: for who would think poverty to be a blessedness? who is that would not rather be rich than poor? To be rich is a blessedness in our eyes; to be poor is an unhappiness in our minds: but we must subdue our judgments. We esteem it to be a cursedness to be poor: Well, our Saviour saith, “Blessed are the poor.” Luke hath no more but these words; Matthew addeth, Spiritu, “In the spirit.”These eight miles, or days’ journeys, may be called paradoxa; that is to say, inopinable, incredible, and unbelievable sayings: For if Christ had not spoken it himself, who should have believed it? for we see daily before our eyes what a miserable thing is poverty; therefore our nature is ever given to avoid poverty, and to come to riches. But Christ saith, Beati pauperes, “Blessed be the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”The kingdom of heaven is taken sometimes for the office of preaching; as when he compared the kingdom of heaven to “a net that catcheth good and bad fishes,” there he meaneth the office of preaching; sometimes it is taken for eternal felicity, which Christ our Saviour merited for us. When John Baptist sendeth his disciples unto Christ to ask him whether he be Christ or not, he told them what miracles he had done, and amongst other things he said, Pauperes evangelizant, “The poor hear the gospel;” meaning, that the poor be more willing to hear the gospel, they take more pain in hearing God’s word, than the rich do: for the rich commonly least regard the gospel. Look throughout all England, and you shall find it so. Likewise he saith by the prophet, Ad evangelizandum pauperibus misit me, “He hath sent me to preach the gospel unto the poor;” because the poor hath more pleasure in it: the rich men commonly regard it for nothing: therefore it is a wonderful thing that such terrible things are written of rich men, and yet we seek all to be rich, and call them blessed and happy that be so. But ye heard upon Sunday last, how that these rich farmers made their excuses: they would not come to the banquet which God had prepared for them, because their riches did let them: therefore riches are called thorns in scripture.
As for an ensample: There be two ways to a town, the one is plain and straight, the other is full of thorns. Now he that goeth the plain way shall sooner come to his journey’s end, than he that goeth the thorny way: So it is more easier without riches to come to heaven, than with riches: but our nature is so corrupt, that we ever desire that thing that may do us harm. I will not say but men may have riches, and many good men have had great riches; yet riches must be had, cum tremore, with fear: for it is a dangerous thing to have them: they be but burthens, they that have them be but bailiffs and stewards over them, they must make account for them. And therefore above all things rich men must have in fresh memory this scripture: Divitiae si affluant nolite cor apponere, “When riches come upon you, set not your hearts upon them:” use them to such end as God hath appointed: with your copiousness help the wants of the poor miserable people: and this is our duty to do. For he that hath riches, and helpeth not the poor withal, but layeth them up for himself, he is a thief before God, though he do come rightly and justly by his goods: for he doth not his duty: he withdraweth that from the poor that pertaineth unto them; for God requireth of the rich to relieve and help the poor with his riches: when he now doth it not, the writers call him a thief. Here ye see what a burthen it is to have riches, therefore let us not be so greedy over them: and when we have them, let us remember that we be but God’s stewards, and distributers of his treasures.
You must mark here that our Saviour when he saith: “Blessed be the poor;” he commendeth not the friar’s poverty, that same wilful poverty, but if you become to poverty for confessing of Christ, then thou art blessed. Again, I am a rich man, the fire cometh and taketh away my riches. As Job was a rich man, but what happened? His enemy came and took away all together: so we may this day be rich, and tomorrow we may be beggars: for the riches be chanceable unto us, but not unto God: for God knoweth when, and to whom he will give them, or take them away again. Now when I come to poverty by chance, so that God sendeth poverty unto me, then I am blessed; when I take poverty well, without grudging.
And therefore he addeth, Spiritu, “In spirit;” that is, to take it in good part with a faithful heart, knowing that God sendeth the same unto us: so that when we come to poverty by such chances, or by persecutions, so that I cast not away my goods wilfully as the friars did, which was a leaving of riches devised by their own minds: but else he that doth his business according unto his calling, and then God endueth him with poverty; let him take it with joy and gladness: for these blessings which Christ promised unto us here in this gospel, shall light upon him; therefore take it so, that poverty is a blessing, when she is taken with a faithful heart; else indeed it is to no purpose, except it proceed out of faith. Be not eager therefore to have riches, and when ye have them, that God sendeth them, set not too much by them. For Christ saith it is hard for a rich man to come to heaven; speaking of those which set their hearts upon riches: which men indeed be very idolaters: for they put their hope, trust, and confidence in them; so that whatsoever shall happen, they think they will escape, having money, and so they make money their God; which is a most wicked and abominable thing in the sight of the Lord. For God would have us to hang upon him, to trust in him, be we poor or rich: If we be rich, we should not set our hearts upon riches: if we be poor, we should comfort ourselves with this scripture, Non est inopia timentibus eum, ” They that fear him shall not lack.”Now the second mile, or day’s journey in this pilgrimage, is this; Beati qui lugent, quoniam ipsi consolabuntur, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall have comfort.” We after our reasons esteem them happy that can make merry in this world; but our Saviour, contrariwise, pronounceth them blessed that mourn and weep in this world. We seek all to be in that case, that we might laugh and be merry, for we think that to be a great blessedness: but our Saviour pronounceth them blessed that weep. And therefore Scripture saith, Melius est ite ad domum luctus, quam ad domum convivii, ” It is better to go to the mourning house, than to the house of banquetting:” For he that goeth to sick folks, it shall be a good admonition, it shall make him to consider the fragility and weakness of mankind, and so stir him up to make ready, and not to set much by this world. St. Paul speaketh of two manner of sorrowfulness, the one is worldly, the other is ghostly; the worldly sorrowfulness is without faith: as the wicked, when they weep, they are sorrowful: yet this comfort, of which Christ here speaketh, is not promised unto them. Esau wept when Jacob beguiled him, but his weeping was without faith. Truly happy are those that have much occasion to weep and wail: For, Vexatio dat intellectum, “Vexation and trouble maketh us to know ourselves, and teacheth us to leave sin and wickedness.” There be many which be in great miseries, shut out of their houses, or in sickness, or other trouble: they shall comfort themselves with this blessing, which Christ our Saviour promiseth unto them: namely, they shall be sure that they shall have comfort and relief of their miseries, for he will not suffer them to be further tempted than they shall be able to bear, and then in the end they shall have everlasting comfort.
It is a notable answer that Abraham maketh to the rich man, when he lay in hellish fire: My son, saith he, Recepisti, bona in vita, “Thou hast received thy good “days in thy life-time, now thou shalt be punished: But Lazarus hath had miseries and calamities; and therefore he shall be comforted now.” So we must learn to be content, to go from weeping to laughing, from sorrow to eternal felicity; but we must first suffer here; we may not go from the one felicity to the other; therefore, St. Jerome saith, that “he is a delicate soldier that will not suffer sometimes miseries and calamities.”Therefore let us be content with it, let us bear them with a faithful heart, else we shall not attain to this comfort; for the miseries that the godless have, Operantur mortem, “They work their own destruction, and everlasting perdition.” For they cannot bear them as they ought to do; they murmur and cry out against God: but the godly, when he is in miseries he taketh great profit by it, for miseries drive him to leave sin and wickedness, and to repent for that which he hath done against God. Here you may perceive now that they that will have comfort must go to that pilgrimage, they must taste miseries, and so at the end they shall have everlasting comfort.The third mile or day’s journey, is this; Beati mites quoniam inheritabunt terram, “Blessed be the meek, for they shall inherit the land.” This meekness is such a thing, that whosoever hath her can be quiet in all things; he that hath her will not avenge himself. But ye must know there be two manner of vengeance. There is a private vengeance, and there is a public vengeance: the public vengeance is allowed of God; the private is forbidden. For God saith to every private man, Mihi vindictam ego retribuam, “Let me have the vengeance; and I will reward it.” When any man doth me wrong, I shall or may not avenge me, nor yet desire in my heart to be avenged upon him; I being a private man, and not a magistrate.But there is a public vengeance, that is, the magistrates, they must see that wrong-doers be punished, and rewarded according to their misbehaviours. But I may not avenge myself. For I am blessed when my goods be taken from me wrongfully, and I take it well. For Christ saith, Inheritabunt terram, “They shall inherit the land:” he that for God’s sake leaveth his land, or his goods, he shall inherit the land: so he shall with leaving the land, inherit the land: but what shall I do when my goods be taken from me? Answer, go to God’s promises, which are, Centuplum accipiet, “He shall receive it again an hundred fold.” The public vengeance is committed unto the magistrates. God commandeth unto them to punish the transgressors: and again the law-breaker, or misdoer, ought to obey, and to suffer the punishment which the magistrates shall lay upon him: for so it is written, Auferes malum e medio populi, “Thou shalt take away the ill from amongst the people.” So ye hear how that we may not avenge ourselves when any man doth us wrong. Yet, for all that, this taketh, not away the liberty of the use of the law: for a christian man may go to the law, and seek remedy: yet we must take heed that we go not to avenge ourselves upon our neighbour, with a vengeable heart: nor yet should we go with a covetous heart, to get ought of our neighbour: else it is lawful to use the law, when it is done with a charitable heart. As it is lawful for me being sick to go to the physician, without breach of my faith to Godward: but if I should go to the physician in despair of God, then this going were a wicked going. So I say, when we will go to the law, we must beware that it be done charitably, not with a vengeable mind; for whosoever seeketh to be avenged, he shall not be blessed of God. Again, whosoever suffereth wrong at his neighbour’s hand, and taketh it willingly, he shall be blessed of God.An ensample we have in Joseph: his brethren sold him, and handled him most cruelly, and tyrannously: what did he? he took it willingly, without any revengement. What did God? Marry, he fulfilled his promise, Inheritabunt terram, “They shall inherit the land.” Therefore he made him lord over all Egypt; This did God, and so he will do unto us. But our heart is so poisoned with the poison of malice, that we think we should be undone” when we should not avenge ourselves; but they that have the Spirit of God, and to whom these blessings pertain, they will be charitable, and yet use the law when necessity shall require so; but they will do it with a godly mind. Terram, “They shall inherit the land:” some expound the land for eternal life, but it may be understood of this world too: for they that be patient and bear and suffer, God will reward them here in this world; and yonder too. Now ye have heard what we shall have when we be meek-spirited; let us therefore set aside all stubbornness, all vengeance, hatred, and malice, one against another; so that we may obtain that land which Christ promised us.
Beati qui esuriunt et sitiunt justitiam, quoniam ipsi saturabuntur, “Blessed be they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” These words be expounded diversely; it may be understood so, ” Blessed be they that hunger and thirst,” that is to say, that have so great a desire to righteousness, as a hungry man hath to his meat and drink. Some expound it of the justice of the soul: for the faithful be ever hungry, they ever think they be not well: they be sore behind the hand: and so do not the hypocrites, for they have opera supererogationis, they have so much that they are able to sell unto other men too, and bring them to heaven. But I will expound these words so: they that hunger be they that suffer wrong, for when a man suffereth wrong and injuries, he hungereth and thirsteth to have justice, to come to his right; for it is a common saying amongst the people, The law is ended as the man is friended.
Now he that is so injured and wronged, and hath a godly hunger and thirst to righteousness, he shall be satisfied in this world, and in the world to come he shall have everlasting life. Ensamples we have in scripture. Joseph, when he was sold to Potiphar, that great man, he was a fair young springold: now his master Potiphar’s wife, seeing his beauty, cast her love upon him, insomuch that he could be no where but she came after him; but Joseph fearing God, refused her, and would not commit with her the filthy act of lechery. “What followeth, she went by and by and made an outcry, and accused him, as though he would have ravished her. So at the length Joseph was cast into prison, where he hungered and thirsted after righteousness, after justice; that is, he was desirous to have his right: yet for all that he took the matter well and godly, he sought not for vengeance; we in our foolishness, and mother wits, esteem them blessed that can use the matter so, that the law may go with them, that they may have the overhand; they are called blessed which bear the swing, which are not exercised with trouble. I remember I read once a story of a bishop which came to a rich man’s house where he had good cheer, and the good man in the house shewed him all his riches and prosperities, his goodly wife and his fair children: in sum, they lacked nothing at all, he himself had never been sick: the bishop hearing that, thought in his mind, no doubt God is not here; and so commanded his servant to make ready the horses, and by and by went his way. When he came a little far off from the house, he sendeth his man back again to fetch a book, which was forgotten behind; when the servant came, the house was sunk.So we see that worldly prosperity maketh us to forget God, and in the end to be damned. Jacob, that holy man, when he served Laban his uncle and father-in-law, what wrongs had he! how unjustly dealt Laban with him! no doubt he had great hunger and thirst after righteousness, therefore God satisfied his appetite, for he blessed him, and enriched him wonderfully, against Laban’s mind. There be few of such servants nowadays as Jacob was, and though he had a wicked master, yet he served him truly: I wish all servants would follow the ensample of Jacob. This I speak to make you patient in tribulation, and to stir up in you a hunger and thirst after righteousness. You hear how Joseph was blessed in bearing the injuries which that foolish woman did unto him.David also, O what good service did he unto king Saul? yet Saul went about to destroy him; think ye not David hungred and thirsted after righteousness? No doubt he did; yet he might have avenged himself, but he would not: for he had this meekness of which Christ our Saviour speaketh here, and so consequently did inherit the land, according unto his promise.
Beati misericordes, quoniam ipsi misericordiam consequentur, “Blessed be the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” I will not tarry long herein, you know which be the works of mercy. ” I was hungry, saith Christ, I was naked,” &c. (Matthew xxv.) There is a ghostly mercy, which is to admonish them that be in errors, to bring them to the right way. Item, also to forgive them that do me wrong, this is a mercy, and a needful mercy; and therefore they that will be cruel here, so that they will not forgive unto their neighbours their faults, let them not look for mercy at God’s hands. For we must be merciful, loving, and comfortable towards our neighbour, when we will obtain mercy at God’s hands. But this seemeth now as though malefactors ought not to be put to death, because God requireth mercy. Sir, you must understand, that God requireth private mercy; so that private men one shall forgive unto the other: but it is another matter with the magistrates; the king, and all other magistrates, are God’s officers, they must do according as God requireth them to do; he saith, Auferes malum e medio populi, nec misereberis ei, “Thou shalt take away, thou shalt root out the ill, (them that be malefactors) from amongst the people: and shew not mercy unto them.” Here were a place to entreat of ministering of justice, if the audience were thereafter: how justices of peace and other magistrates ought not to be bolsterers, and bearers with wickedness, but punish the malefactors according to their deserts: Vae qui justificatis impium, “Wo be unto you that justify the wicked.” To justify the wicked, is not to punish them: Et qui justificat impium, et qui condemnat justum, ambo abominabiles coram Domino, “He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just; they are both wicked and abominable before the Lord.” So that magistrates ought to punish sin and wickedness; but private men, one ought to shew mercy unto another: that is, he ought to forgive when any man hath done him harm, and so he shall have mercy at God’s hand.
Beati mundi corde quoniam ipsi videbunt Deum, “Blessed be the clean of heart, for they shall see God.” By these words we may perceive that we shall not look to see God, to see our felicity, when we be impure of heart. We cannot come to that unspeakable joy and felicity which God hath prepared for his, except we be clean in our hearts: therefore David, knowing that lesson, saith unto God, Cor mundum crea in me, Deus, “O God, make clean my heart within me.” But ye will ask, how shall our hearts be purified and cleansed? Answer, Fide purificantur corda, “Through faith the hearts of men must be cleansed.” They that hear God’s word; and believe that same to be true, and live after it, their hearts shall be purified, and so they shall see God.There be two manner of seeing God; as long as we be here, we must see him by faith, in believing in him: yonder we shall see him face to face, how he is; therefore believe here, and see there. And so it appeareth, that he that will not hear God’s word, and believe the same, that his heart may be cleansed, he shall not see God.
Beati pacificae quoniam ipsi filii Dei vocabuntur, ” Blessed be the peace-makers, for they shall be called the children of God.” Here is another journey. There is a law in Deuteronomy, where God saith, Non erit susurro nec calumniator in populo, ” There shall not be a slanderer or whisperer, amongst you, which are my people.” But I tell you this law is not kept: for there be a great many of those which speak fair with their tongues, as though they would creep into a man’s bosom, but behind his back, or before other men, they betray him, they lie upon him, and do all they can to bring him out of estimation: these whisperers be peace-breakers, and not peace-makers; for the devil bringeth his matters to pass through such fellows: there be many such in England, which tell false tales of others to promote themselves withal; these be the children of the devil, and no doubt the devil hath many children in the world.I will shew you an ensample: There was one Doeg an Idumean, a servant of Saul the king, he was Princeps pastorum, ” the master “Over his herdmen :” When David flying from Saul, came to the priest Ahimelech, very hungry and weary, and therefore desired some meat, the priest having none other bread but panis propositionis, “the holy bread;” of that he gave David; and after that he gave him the sword of Goliath, whom David had killed before. Now this Doeg being there at that time, what doeth he? Like a whisperer, or man-pleaser, he goeth to Saul the king, and told him, how the priest had refreshed David in his journey, and had given unto him the sword of Goliath. Saul hearing that, being in a great fury, sent for all the priests, and their wives, and their children, and slew them all.This Doeg now, that whisperer, was not a peace-maker, but a peace-breaker; and therefore not a child of God, but of the devil. I could tell you of some other Doegs, of other whisperers; for I have known some in my time, but all such are the children of the devil, they are not God’s children; for Christ our Saviour called those God’s children that are peace-makers, not them that cut their neighbour’s throat. Seeing now that it is so good a thing to be a peace-maker, let all them that be in superiority endeavour themselves to be peace-makers: let the landlords shew themselves to be peace-makers; when they hear of contentions and strifes between their tenants, send for them, and hear their matters, and make him that is faulty to be punished; and so let them be peace-makers. But there be some gentlemen in England, which think themselves born to nothing else but to have good cheer in this world, to go a hawking and hunting. I would wish they would endeavour themselves rather to be peace-makers, to counsel and help poor men, and when they hear of any discord to be between neighbours and neighbours, to set them together at unity; this should be rather their exercise than banquetting, and spending their time in vain. But they will say, it is a great pain and labour to meddle in matters, to be a peace-maker. Sir, you must consider, that it is a great matter to be a child of God, and therefore we ought to be content to take pains to be peace-makers, that we may be the children of God. But in matters of religion, we must take heed that we have such a peace which may stand with God and his word; for it is better to have no peace at all, than to have it with the loss of God’s word,In the time of the six articles, there was a bishop which ever cried unity, unity; but he would have a popish unity. St. Paul to the Corinthians saith, Sitis unanimes, “Be of one mind:” But he addeth, Secundum Jesum Christum, ” According to Jesus Christ;” that is, according to God’s holy word; else it were better war than peace: we ought never regard unity, so much that we would or should forsake God’s word for her sake. When we were in popery we agreed well, because we were in the kingdom of the devil, we were in blindness. In Turkey we hear not of any dissension amongst them for religion’s sake. The Jews that now be have no dissension amongst them, because they be in blindness. When the rebels were up in Norfolk and Devonshire, they agreed all, there was no dissension: but there peace was not, secundum Jesum Christum, ” according to Jesus Christ.” Therefore St, Hilary hath a pretty saying: Speciosum quidem nomen est pacis et pulchra opinio unitatis: sed quis dubitat eam solam unicam Ecclesiae pacem esse quae Christi est; ” It is a goodly word, Peace, and a fair thing Unity; but who doubts but this to be the only right peace of the church, which peace is after Christ; according to his words?” Therefore let us set by unity, let us be given to love and charity: but so that it may stand with godliness. For peace ought not to be redeemed, Jactura veritatis, with loss of the truth; that we would seek peace so much, that we should lose the truth of God’s word.
Beati qui persecutionem patiunter propter justitiam, “Blessed be they that suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is the last journey, when we be demanded of our faith, and examined, and afterward be forced to believe as they will: when we come to that point, blessed are we when we suffer rather all extremities than forsake the truth, yea, we shall esteem it to be a great blessedness when we be in such trouble. And not only this, but whosoever suffereth any thing for any manner of righteousness’ sake, blessed is he: the questmonger doing uprightly his duty in discharging of his conscience; now he shall have displeasure, happy is he, and he shall have his reward of God.
Beati estis quum maledixerint vobis homines, &c. “Blessed are ye when men speak ill of you;” Gaudete, quoniam merces vestra copiosa est, &c., “Be merry, because your reward is great in heaven.” Now ye have heard which is the way to heaven, what manner a pilgrimage we must go: namely, first by spiritual poverty, by hunger and thirst after righteousness, by meekness and lenity, by weeping and wailing, by pity and mercifulness, also we must have a clean heart, and we must be peace-makers, and we must suffer tribulation and affliction.Then shall the end be, Merces vestra erit capioso est in caelis, “Your reward shall be great in heaven.” Merces,” Reward,” this word soundeth as though we should merit somewhat by our own works, for reward and merit are correspondent, one followeth the other: when I have merited, then I ought to have my reward. But we shall not think so; for ye must understand, that an our works are imperfect; we cannot do them so perfectly as the law requireth, because of our flesh, which ever letteth us. Wherefore is the kingdom of God called then a reward? because it is merited by Christ: for as touching our salvation and eternal life, it must be merited, but not by our own works, but only by the merits of our Saviour Christ. Therefore believe in him, trust in him; it is he that merited heaven for us: yet for all that, every man shall be rewarded for his good works in everlasting life, but not with everlasting life: For it is written, Vita aeterna donum Dei, “The everlasting life is a gift of God.” Therefore we should not esteem our works so perfect as though we should or could merit heaven by them: yet God hath such pleasure in such works which we do with a faithful heart, that he promiseth to reward them in everlasting life.Now to make an end, I desire you in God’s behalf, remember this pilgrimage, which I have taught you: set not light by it, for it is our Saviour’s own doctrine, he with his own mouth taught us this pilgrimage. When we will now follow him, and do according as he teacheth us, then all these blessings, of which mention is made, shall light upon us; and in the end we shall obtain everlasting life: which grant both you and me, God the Father through his only Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. This saint, as Lord Herbert informs us, was also styled Saint John of Ossulston, who was said to shut up the devil in a boot. – STOW, p. 575.
2. In the Monastery at Walsingham in Norfolk, was a stately and beautiful image of the Virgin Mary, which for the miracles done by it was famed all over England. Erasmus has a humorous account of this place of superstitious resort in his Colloquies.
Last week we considered the necessity of the new birth, without which not only is entrance into the Kingdom of God impossible, but even beginning to understand the Kingdom of God in its most elementary stages is impossible.
We saw that Jesus cut right through all the rhetoric of Nicodemus and drove straight at the most important need that this man had, indeed that any man, woman, and child has – that of the new birth. Yes, this man was a Pharisee, and a very important one at that, yet he was also outside the Kingdom of God, and stood in great need of this new birth as wrought within a person by the Holy Spirit.
No man, woman or child can ever hope to enter the Kingdom of God if they have not personally experienced this new birth – it is an absolute necessity. Without it there is no spiritual life, and has therefore no ability to enter the Kingdom of God.
This man had no idea of what Jesus was speaking about – it just all seemed too impossible to him. How could such a thing as being born again be possible, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born (3:4)?’
By his very answers to Jesus, both in verse 3 and in verse 9, Nicodemus proved to all human history from that time forward, that indeed his greatest need, as Jesus had said to him, was to experience the new birth, for ‘the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor 2:14).’
As a Pharisee, and as an important teacher within Israel, Nicodemus should have known this most important truth already. This truth of the necessity of the new birth was of course not absent from the Old Testament from which Nicodemus taught, and we considered for a moment an example given in Ezekiel 36, and verses 26 and 27, ‘A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.’
With the Old Testament full of such allusions to the new birth, and with various types and illustrations of it, Jesus rebuked Nicodemus, ‘Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things (3:10)?’ These are things that someone who is teaching the Bible ought to know, indeed to have experienced, yet he knew nothing of them – he had no spiritual life to understand these realities.
This is no small matter – the most elementary, the most basic teaching concerning entrance into the Kingdom of God, the most necessary prerequisite to being able to keep the statutes of God successfully, was not known by the one who taught the common people within the land! What hope have such people got when their leaders don’t even know the truth!
And what a sad state it is, when the very ones who are charged with the responsibility of teaching people the truth as regards deliverance from sin, and entrance into the Kingdom of God, who are also accountable to God for what they teach, do not know the most basic of Biblical truths – to enter the Kingdom, you must first be born again from above. You cannot begin to move in the right direction without this new birth.
How many will perish for want of a faithful teacher, both then and now? The truth is not taught anymore, even in our own land – people perish, while they yet think they have the Kingdom of God in their very hands, while in reality they have not even experienced the new birth. They are told to repeat simple statements, or simple prayers, to utter strange sounds called tongues, to carry out certain rituals or observances – and with the completion of such things they are assured of a mansion in Heaven. It’s a tragedy, truly it is.
Nicodemus and his fellow Pharisaic teachers were teaching an entrance into the Kingdom based upon the merit of human effort and obedience, a system devoid of any saving merit whatsoever – and yet this is what they taught.
They had no real spiritual idea as to what they were doing. They were prepared to ‘compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves (Mt 23:15).’
What the Pharisee’s taught was in complete contrast to the testimony of Jesus, of the prophets, and of John the Baptist; for while the Pharisee’s taught what was the product of mere human interpretation and invention, Jesus said, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness (3:11).’
When Jesus speaks there is an air of certainty, an authority that the Pharisee’s knew nothing of. This was a word to be trusted, a word that had real clout – for it was truth, and came from a source that is absolutely trustworthy, not the product of mere human invention.
And when I speak to you concerning this truth, I come with similar authority, not because I’m something special, but because I come with the very same words of Jesus – the authority is still in the words, ‘We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen …’
Jesus continues, ‘If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things (3:12)?’ If Nicodemus did not believe and understand the earthly things, what hope did he have of believing and understanding heavenly things?
What is Jesus talking about here? What are the earthly things that Nicodemus didn’t believe? The context points us to the answer – surely it is what Nicodemus has already rejected, what Jesus had already said.
Yes, being born again is a spiritual matter and is clearly from above, yet that which Jesus has already said must be what Jesus is referring to as an earthly thing in this verse. There is nothing else that he has yet pointed to, it must be this. He has said nothing else up to this point, except stressing the need of the new birth.
But it is not so much the new birth that is earthly, though it be something which happens within a person, and occurs on the earth. The way that Jesus sought to teach Nicodemus about the new birth, with these various simple earthly illustrations, in order to simply explain the truth being taught is what Jesus means here. Jesus says in effect, ‘Nicodemus, if you can’t understand these simple illustrations that I have used to point to the truth, then there is no way known that you will understand the truth simply stated without the illustrations.’
The idea behind all this is that these things are basic things – how can you understand anything further if you can’t get what I’ve already told you, and pointed to with earthly pictures and illustrations? If you can’t even get beyond these illustrations regarding the basics, then you won’t understand the bare facts of spiritual life, and how to enter in upon it. If I state them without the illustrations – that is well and truly beyond you.
Though the Old Testament clearly speaks of this truth concerning the new birth, and though it should have been obvious by Nicodemus’s inability to keep the law that he proclaimed as the way to salvation, Nicodemus still could not see the reality of the new birth, and of its need. All screams out to Nicodemus of the need of some other way – yet he will not believe. And why, because he can’t work it out in his own mind, because it doesn’t seem possible to him.
These people would rather persist with there flawed methods of achieving entrance into the Kingdom, then to accept the way of one whom even they recognized as ‘a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him (3:2).’
What is it that you are sticking to this morning – will you continue to stick to methods and ways of salvation that are based upon the interpretations, inventions, and wisdom of man – things that you are able to accept in your own mind? Or will you believe what the Lord Jesus Christ has to say? What is more believable to you?
Do you think you have the way of salvation worked out? Is your little system right? Perhaps it’s a system of belief you have inherited from family, friends, or some religious teacher – is it right? Have you been in the presence of God and had it approved by Him?
‘And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven (3:13).’
Well Jesus has been in heaven, in fact He came from there. He knows the way of life, and He tells it as it is. If there is anyone who has the words of life, surely it must be Jesus. He is the only one who has had such special access to the Father, who indeed is God Himself.
‘Are you prepared to rest all your faith and hope for eternity upon those teachings that you have received Nicodemus? Have any of those men whose teaching you accept above mine ever been to heaven, into the very presence of God, and there received their doctrines and theology? They haven’t been there have they?’ So runs the argument to Nicodemus.
No one on earth has gone into the Presence of God and received the ability to teach the heavenly truths, not one. Not one person has been and done that. To teach heavenly, spiritual things you need first hand information, and that’s received from God Himself – its right outside the experience of man until its revealed to him by God.
But Jesus has come from there, the Son of Man who has come from the very Presence of God has most certainly been there; don’t you think what He has to say is more trustworthy, and that it should be heeded to? Don’t you think that you ought to pay more attention to what Jesus has to say then to the doctrines of men?
And we could quite obviously apply this same idea to every other teaching couldn’t we? Does what you believe and teach measure up to the teaching of Jesus in this Book? If it doesn’t then it should be dropped.
The phrase that is in the text at this point in verse 13, ‘which is in heaven’, is thought to be an addition to the text that was not in the original text, it being absent from the oldest existing manuscripts. But whether it be there or not, it does nothing to add to, or take away from the point that Jesus is making here, ‘I alone have trustworthy information about entrance into the Kingdom.’
If Jesus says something about how one is able to enter into the Kingdom of God, then what he has to say should surely be listened to – who cares what anyone else has to say, whether it be Billy Graham, Louis Palau, or Kevin Matthews. If Jesus says entrance is upon such and such a condition, then you had better believe that it is upon those conditions.
And I would ask you this morning – are you prepared to back the flawed interpretations and inventions of men rather than the truth taught by the Son of Man? The Pharisaic method of earning their place in the Kingdom by their obedience and their own merits was no good – and all methods of obtaining the Kingdom today by human effort and merit is of no value either.
It matters not whether it be by some form of church ritual, be it baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or Church attendance; whether it be some form of attempted obedience to the Word of God; even whether it be a dependence upon the exercise of faith itself – these things will not grant you entrance into the Kingdom – its God’s way, or its no way!
And here Jesus moves on from the new birth to that which follows on after that, to further teaching on how one enters into the Kingdom of heaven. If there has been no new birth, then this next stage will never happen.
To be able to move onto the next stage, that first stage that man is aware of, he must first be born again from above. And though he may not be immediately aware of this new birth having occured within him, this next stage he will be aware of.
‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life (3:14,15).’
What is God’s way for entrance into the Kingdom of God – it is the way that has been foretold in the Old Testament illustration of Numbers 21:4-9. Let’s just read that for a moment:
‘And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived (Num 21:4-9).’
Here as usual the people had sinned against God, and to punish them the Lord God sent serpents in among them to bite them and kill them. The snakes were the just consequence of their sin, and an expression of the wrath of God against sin.
The only escape open to the people of Israel was to look at the serpent that Moses had made, placed on a pole, and lifted up for all to see. This was God’s way of escaping the wrath that had come upon the people of Israel – if you didn’t look at the serpent, it mattered not what else you did, you died.
Now this illustration was used by Jesus to teach an important truth to Nicodemus – that the only way into the Kingdom of God was by Jesus, in a similar way as recorded in this Old Testament story from Israel’s history.
In order to escape the wrath of God that abides upon men, women and children because of sin, men do not need the inventions of men, but the provision of a way of escape provided by God Himself, and Jesus was that provision.
As the serpent on the pole was lifted up, and set up in a prominent place so that everyone could look at it and live, and thereby escape the wrath of God that had descended upon the people in the form of these snakes; so to Jesus would be lifted up as God’s provision for men so that they might escape the eternal wrath of God for sin.
As the people of Israel looked at the bronze serpent as God’s means of escape, so to people would need to look at Jesus by faith in order to escape God’s wrath.
Salvation is not to be found in any human method, but only in the method that God has set down for salvation. If those people bitten by the snakes had decided to set themselves on finding some anti-venom serum, they would have died. If they decided that they would try some religious activity in order to pacify God, they would have died. There was but one way to escape open to them, to look at the God-appointed means of escape.
And this is the point of the illustration from the Old Testament; Jesus is the only God-appointed means to escape the wrath of God, and to gain entrance into the Kingdom of God.
‘And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me (Jn 12:32).’ ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me (Jn 14:6).’
The clear teaching of this Gospel, and of the Word of God, is that Jesus alone is the way of entrance into the Kingdom of God. He is the way to eternal life, the Kingdom life – He and no other. And so you see in this place, the Northlake’s Reformed Baptist Church, we will teach and preach no other way of salvation but ‘Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2)’, ‘Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12).’
‘And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent (Jn 17:3).’
If you are to know this eternal life, then you need to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the way to the Kingdom, and to rest in Him as that way. There is no other name given as a way of salvation – not from God there isn’t.
As the people of Israel needed to first believe in the promise of the bronze serpent being the way that God would restore them to health, before they actually looked in its direction – so it is with Christ.
To exercise faith in Christ is to believe that the way to salvation through Christ is true, and then to act upon that belief with confident action. That is the belief that is needed.
But I might not yet have experienced the new birth? The new birth is something that you are unable to perform, the Holy Spirit works it within a person, and you are not called upon to perform it.
But you are called upon to believe, ‘what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house (Acts 16:30,31)’
If you believe, then you can rest assured that you have also experienced the new birth, for without that you could never have believed. If you believe then the Kingdom is yours, you have eternal life, you have already experienced the new birth.
It is a promise not only of the Kingdom life to come, but entrance into that life already – for you already have it, you are already part of that heavenly kingdom.
But of course, if you do not believe then the obvious implication of this verse is that you will perish – not annihilation, but everlasting punishment in Hell.
So far in John 3 then we have seen the necessity of the new birth, and the way of entrance into the Kingdom as being Christ Himself. Next week we will consider more of this important passage, and just how Jesus is the way of entrance into the Kingdom.
As with just about every other area of doctrine taught in the Bible, today we find a number of views concerning the new birth, of being born again, of regeneration. It seems that any area of teaching is open to being misunderstood or corrupted by man. And so it is with this teaching, of being born again.
In fact, being born again is seen today as almost a new category of Christian. I’m sure you have heard someone say, ‘Oh so and so is a born again Christian’, as though that were some other form of Christian, as though being born again was not the normal experience of a Christian. In fact, many of these so-called born again Christians are far from being so, and rather lead to the ridicule of Christianity because of their hypocrisy. And we seem to be seeing an increase in this sort of thing in those trying to get out of jail early for instance.
Then there is the idea that you are born again after you have come to faith and repentance, but surely if you have achieved this is there any real reason to be born again? Haven’t you already got what the new birth gives to you? Haven’t you already displayed spiritual life, so why would you need to be granted spiritual life?
Then there are those who preach as though they are telling you to be born again, as though the ability to do this rests with you – and so people attempt to perform this themselves.
What is this new birth all about? Where can we get the right answers concerning this much-abused doctrine – the answer of course is to go to the Bible. It is there that we will find the answers concerning the new birth, and it is this passage under consideration this morning that is the best place to begin.
John chapter three is an example of what we looked at last week, of Jesus knowing everything, even the hearts and minds of men. And in this chapter we see that Jesus knew just what it was that was so necessary in the life of Nicodemus. Throughout the Gospel of John there are various examples of Jesus knowing the hearts and mind of men, and these include the Samaritan woman at the well in the next chapter, and the lame man at the pool of Bethsaida in chapter 5.
And what we are going to see today is that the thing Jesus knew Nicodemus needed so much was this new birth, and so today we are going to consider ‘The Necessity of the New Birth.’
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and a Scribe according to John 1:10 and 7:50. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus pressed the necessity of absolute conformity to the laws of God. So keen were these Pharisee’s on the law of God, that they added to these laws in an attempt to be more holy, more separated from the mass of humanity, to be the separated ones. In effect, these men taught and practised a form of legalism, a system of belief and life that in reality found salvation in the way of works or human merit.
In other words, they thought they would be saved on the basis of what they themselves achieved in their lives, based upon their ability to observe the Law of God with such preciseness.
The elite of the Pharisee’s sat on the religious committee known as the Sanhedrin, the religious leading body of the Jews, and Nicodemus sat on this board. Even a quick speed read through the Gospels will reveal that the Pharisees and the rest of the Sanhedrin were violently opposed to Jesus.
Could this then be the reason why Nicodemus came to Jesus at night? Was he frightened of what the rest of the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin would think of him? Perhaps he was frightened that he might loose his spot on the committee – whatever the reason, Nicodemus goes to Jesus at night.
And the fact that Nicodemus went to Jesus at all suggests that Nicodemus was very interested in hearing what Jesus had to say. In fact, by the way Jesus talks to Nicodemus, letting the questions of Nicodemus pass by and speaking to his real need, it would seem to imply that Nicodemus had a concern for his real state before God. It would seem from the whole flow and context of the passage that what Nicodemus was truly concerned about was the way into the Kingdom of God – and perhaps he himself was questioning the whole Pharisee way of doing it. Perhaps his conscience was striking out at him, with all his pent up self-righteousness, and he had come to know that before God all this was nothing.
Today some of you here might know this experience yourself – perhaps you are beginning to question your state before God. Maybe you are no longer confident that your coming into the kingdom was via the correct way, God’s way, and now are becoming convinced that it was no way, and therefore that you are still outside of the Kingdom of God.
Does your conscience concern you about such matters? Are you concerned that the religion and practices with which you have been associated for your whole life have deceived you? Well it would certainly seem that this was the case for Nicodemus, and his was surely the right action to take, for he went to Jesus about it.
When he goes to Jesus it seems as though he was representing not only himself but others also, ‘The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him (3:2).’ Perhaps he knew of others among the Pharisee’s who were having the same doubts concerning their state before God, and on the evidence he had seen of Jesus, Jesus seemed to be the one to go to and discuss these things with. Clearly He stood in close relationship with God in some way, for He does what only God can do.
It doesn’t seem as though Nicodemus at this point thought of Jesus as any more than a teacher sent from God, perhaps a prophet. But he was fairly sure given what he had seen of Jesus, that He was certainly someone sent by God, and therefore the right one to direct his questions to.
But before he can say anything else, Jesus cuts to the chase, ‘Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God (Jn 3:3).’ ‘Don’t beat around the bush Nicodemus, I know why your here and this is what you need – you need to be born again.’ What is the way of salvation, well this is what is necessary Nicodemus – you need to be born again.
Well this was just confusion to Nicodemus, ‘Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born (Jn 3:4)?’ He had no idea what Jesus was talking about, it just seemed an impossibility that someone could be born again.
‘Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God (Jn 3:5).’
In the Greek, the text reads as, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you’. The idea of the double amen is to draw attention to what He says, and to emphasis what He says; in other words what Jesus goes on to say is of great importance, and is not to be missed – It is so, it is so.
Jesus as the Son of God, as God Himself, emphasises to Nicodemus the absolute necessity of the new birth, not only to him, but also to all people, ‘Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’
It matters not whether one is a Pharisee, whether one takes seriously what the Pharisee’s say, whether one is a member of the Sanhedrin – you must be born again, or you have no part in the Kingdom of God. That is absolutely certain.
Whether you be a preacher or pastor, a newsletter folder or door keeper, an organ player, a church goer, or whatever you might be in the church – this is an absolute essential, you must be born again – the Son of God has said it. Without this new birth, you have no place in the Kingdom.
Jesus describes the way of entrance into the spiritual Kingdom of God by using a scene that Nicodemus is used to, that of birth. To be born is the way of entrance into the physical world; there is no other way to enter into life at the physical level. To be part of an earthly family you need to enter it by natural birth.
And so too you need to be born in order to enter the spiritual – you need to be born again, to be spiritually born. Something must happen to a person that is similar to physical birth, except it is in the spiritual realm.
Do you see what this is saying to Nicodemus – you have come under the cloak of darkness for fear of loosing your position on the Sanhedrin, yet as far as entrance into the Kingdom of God is concerned, that position counts for nothing. All that you currently have is of no help to you in entering the Kingdom of God.
All of your self-righteous Pharisaic law keeping and legalism is vanity and useless. All earthly things, whether it be of a religious nature or not, all such things are useless as far as entering into the Kingdom of God is concerned – you need to be born again. And this is the point of verse 6, ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.’
No matter what you have or do here on this earth, all is pointless if all you have is your physical birth, for all that comes from your nature is fleshy – that is, corrupted by sin, and is therefore pointless and useless as far as entrance into the Kingdom of God is concerned. Bad trees can only bear bad fruit, like produces like, and because you are sinfully corrupt, all you can produce is sinful corruption.
‘…a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit (Mt 7:17,18).’
Have you considered that? Do you realise, that without the new birth, no matter what religious things you do, whether it be going to Church, being baptised, reading the Bible, praying, trying to believe in Jesus – all that is useless. Do you realise that? You cannot bear anything that is spiritually good.
For Nicodemus it meant that even being born a Jew meant nothing without the new birth – because in Adam he was outside the Kingdom, having no spiritual life.
There’s no point arguing about it, Jesus has said ‘It is so, It is so…’ You don’t agree? Well your argument is not with me, it is with Jesus, with God Himself – for He has said it.
Because of the Fall, every person is born a sinner and is totally corrupted by sin. Every part of your being is corrupted, so that everything you are, do, say, etc is also corrupted by sin – and is therefore unacceptable to God. You have no spiritual life, for spiritual life was lost as a result of the Fall in Adam, ‘Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned … Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come … For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous (Romans 5:12,14,19).’
Sinful man is described as being spiritually dead, spiritually blind, spiritually deaf, and so on, totally incapable of doing anything that can be considered good in God’s eyes. So a person needs to get right away from that state in which he was born if he is to enter into the Kingdom. And a dead person can not do that himself. If not, ‘Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire (Mt 7:19).’
In fact without this new birth you cannot even see the Kingdom of God. That is, you cannot even begin to perceive it or understand it, let alone enter it.
You may continue to proclaim your right to the Kingdom because you don’t consider yourself too bad, or because you go to Church, or even because you profess to be a Christian – but, if you have not experienced the new birth you will not truly understand that the Kingdom of God is so much more than these things. Why? Because these things are beyond you, impossible to you, ‘ In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them (2 Corinthians 4:4).’
Before the new birth, a sinner finds it impossible to get a Biblical view of the Kingdom of God, it is beyond their grasp, because they are in bondage to an understanding that is void of spiritual perception, they have no capacity for spiritual thinking and understanding.
So you see the futility of the belief that one first exercises faith and repentance, and then is born again – for without the new birth you cannot see, you cannot understand the Kingdom, and therefore there is no way you can enter, or you can believe. You don’t even know that there is a Kingdom to enter, and that there is a way to enter – you need to be born again.
And so you see, if you have not experienced this new birth then there is only one possibility for you in the world to come – death. Without being born again you will perish, for without the new birth you cannot believe, which is the way of entrance into the Kingdom.
But this text also tells us something more, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ The word again also contains the thought of ‘from above’. In other words, not only does a person need to be born again, but a person needs to be born from above, a reference to being born of God, ‘born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (Jn 1:13).’ So you see, the new birth that you are to experience is not something that is human in origin.
This new life that is so necessary for entrance into the Kingdom comes not from anything on earth, but from God. It is clearly not something that you yourself are able to do – only God can grant you this new life. He alone is the Source of all life, and this is especially so as regards the spiritual.
And this point is further strengthened by verse 5, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’ Here the reference is clearly to the work of the Spirit as being the active force in the new birth – clearly then it is God who must perform this work if we are to live.
No amount of self-will will do. No amount of moral reform, no amount of self-determined will power to produce change in problem areas, in fact, nothing short of a spiritual birth wrought within the sinner from above is sufficient to bring about this new life that is so necessary unto salvation.
What about the water in verse 5, surely that points to baptism being somehow involved in the new birth? Well, no it doesn’t, no matter how much crowing Roman Catholicism does about it.
It is not talking about the Spirit and baptism, as though new life is received from the Spirit through the ritual of baptism – as is taught in Roman Catholicism and baptismal regeneration. This is simply to point to the cleansing and renewing work of the Spirit in the new birth, or regeneration. This is just to further explain the Spirit’s work in the new birth.
You see verse 5 is a further expansion of verse 3, further explaining what was said there. Nothing new is added as to the means of the new birth, just further explanation in order to make it clearer to Nicodemus. It is designed to take this teacher of the Old Testament back into the Old Testament, to remind him of what was said in the Old Testament.
‘Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them (Ezekiel 36:25-27).’
What a wonderful description of the new birth that is from the Old Testament.
Therefore the introduction of ‘water’ into the passage here is not out of place, for it is used to explain the significance of the Spirit’s work, and that of cleansing. His work is like water, cleansing, washing away the sin and corruption, thereby pointing to the renewing and regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.
And as a teacher of the Old Testament Nicodemus should of recognized this, ‘Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things (John 3:10)? ’ But he didn’t, because ‘the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14).’
So you see, before you can do anything remotely spiritual, you need to be born again, to be granted spiritual life. Before you can believe and repent, you must be born again – because without this new life, you have no ability to believe and repent, because spiritually you’re dead. There is nothing spiritual about us at all; ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh’. You need the life that only God can give, for ‘ that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.’
But I decided to follow Jesus, I believed – do you believe the Bible, it tells you this morning that you could not do this unless you were born again. Salvation is of the Lord; it’s not something you can achieve. Such is human pride, that it will not let go of self but claims even the most obvious of God’s works as its own, ‘Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?’
You did not choose to enter into spiritual life, God granted it to you as His gift to you. It’s grace, not your work at all. How can a spiritually dead person give himself or herself spiritual life? Simply put, you can’t.
As a person has no say about his physical birth, so it is with the spiritual birth – it happens without input from you. And isn’t this the point of verse 8, ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.’
This earthy illustration gets across an important point as regards the new birth. Wind cannot be controlled by anyone, yet we can see its effects all around us. You have no idea where it came from, you have no idea where it is going, but you can sure tell where it’s been – and that’s the way of the Spirit in the new birth.
The Holy Spirit works as He see’s fit, doing as He pleases. You don’t know where He will work, when He will work, etc – but when He has it will be clearly evident, for He works new life in sinners, bringing them out of darkness and into light; from death to life; from blindness to sight.
The possession of new life from the inner workings of the Spirit of God results in the bearing of spiritual fruit that is clear evidence that the Spirit has come calling.
Remember this when you next pray, in fact whenever you pray – it is God who has brought you into possession of your spiritual life; don’t forget to thank Him for it always.
This is the fourth sermon in the series on the Lord’s Supper from 1 Corinthians 11. The first 3 sermons were posted:
· The Institution of the Lord’s Supper – 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. It was posted on this Blog on the 18th September 2008. It can also be found at: http://particularbaptist.com/sermons/sermonscor1.html.
· The Lord’s Supper with Attitude – 1 Corinthians 11:17-22. It was posted on this Blog on the 30th September 2008. It can also be found at: http://particularbaptist.com/sermons/sermonscor2.html.
· The Right Approach – 1 Corinthians 11:27-29. It was posted on this Blog on the 5th October 2008. It can also be found at: http://particularbaptist.com/sermons/sermonscor3.html.
This fourth sermon can be found at: