BELOVED fellow-servants of Christ, our work requires us to be in the best possible condition of heart. When we are at our best, we are feeble enough; we would not, therefore, fall below our highest point. As instruments, we owe all our power for usefulness to the Divine hand; but, since tools should always be kept in order, we would have our spirit free from rust, and our mind sharp of point and keen of edge to answer at once to the Master’s will. It is because I fear we do not always keep up to the mark that the subject for this morning’s address shall be “A New Departure,” or, in other words, a renewal, a revival, a starting afresh, a return to our first love, even the love of our espousals, when first our soul was wedded to our Redeemer’s work.
The subject is exceedingly needful to us all, because the process of running down is such a very easy one. Upon that topic, let me speak for a few minutes. To run down, requires no care or effort: it can be accomplished without a wish; it can come to pass, in a measure, in opposition to our wish; we can decline and decay without so much as being conscious of it, and all the more easily because we fancy that we are rich and increased in goods. By a law which asks no help from us, we gravitate to a lower level.
Do not wind up the weights, and the wheels will soon cease to move, and the old clock on the stairs will remain motionless, useless, silent, dead, like a coffin set on end. To keep a farm in good order, needs constant labor and watchfulness; but to let the land get out of heart till it would starve a lark, is a very simple matter, which can be accomplished by any sluggard; simply let it alone, or take crop after crop from it, and give it neither manure nor rest, and you will change fruitful fields into barrenness, and turn a garden into a desert. It is just so with ourselves. Only do not wind up your soul with daily prayer, and you will soon run down; only neglect the culture of the heart, and thorns and briers will grow uninvited. Neglect your inner life, and your whole being will. deteriorate.
I do not know, my brethren, that we can expect to see energy continuous at its full in any one of us. I suspect that he who burns like a seraph knows moments in which the flame somewhat abates. As the sun itself is not at all times alike powerful, so the man who, like the shining light, shineth more and more unto the perfect day, is not uniformly bright, nor always at his noon. Nature does not hold the sea for ever at flood; ebbs intervene, and the ocean pauses a while ere it returns again to the fullness of its strength.
The vegetable world has its winter, and enjoys a long sleep beneath its bed of snow. It is not wasted time, that ebb or that winter; flood and summer owe much to ebb and frost. I suspect that, because we are in affinity with nature, we, too, shall have our changes, and shall not abide at one elevation. No man’s life is all climax. Let us not despond if, just now, our spirit is at a low ebb; the tide of life will roll up as before, and even reach a higher point. When we stand leafless and apparently lifeless, our soul having become like a tree in winter, let us not dream that the ax will cut us down, for our substance is in us though we have lost our leaves, and before long the time of the singing of birds will come, we shall feel the genial warmth of returning spring, and our lives shall again be covered with blossoms, and laden with fruit.
It will not be wonderful if there should be lulls and pauses in our spiritual work, for we see the like in the affairs of men. The most eager after worldly objects, who can by no means be accused of a want of earnestness in their endeavors, are yet conscious that, by a sort of law, dull times will come, wherein business necessarily flags. It is not the tradesman’s fault that, sometimes, trade must be pushed, and that after pushing it remains as dull as ever. It seems to be the rule that there should be years of great prosperity, and then years of decline; the lean kine still devour the fat kine.
If men were not what they are, there might be a perpetuity of equable progress, but it is evident that we have not reached that point yet.
In religious affairs, history shows us that churches have their palmy days, and then again their times of drought. The Universal Church has been thus circumstanced; it has had its Pentecosts, its Reformations, its revivals; and between these there have been sorrowful pauses, in which there was much more cause for lamentation than for rejoicing, and the Miserere was more suitable than the Hallelujah. I should not, therefore, wish any brother to condemn himself if he is not conscious just now of possessing all the vivacity of his youth. — he may find it return before our meetings close. I would have the husbandman long for spring, and yet not despair because of the present cold; so would I have a man lament every degree of decline, and yet not despond. If any man walk in darkness, and see no light, let him trust in God, and look to Him for brighter days.
Still, taking all this into account, and allowing all margin and discount, I fear that many of us do not maintain our proper elevation, but sink below par. Many things tend that way, and it may do us good to think of them. A degree of running down in spirit may be purely physical, and arise out of the evaporation of our youthful vigor. Some of you enjoy all the force of your early manhood; you are fleet of foot as the roes of the field, and swift of movement as birds on the wing; but others of us wear a tinge of grey in our locks, and middle life has sobered us. Our eye has not yet waxed dim, nor has our natural force abated; but yet the flash and flame of our youth have departed, and from the style of our speech and the manner of our action men miss that morning dew which was the glory of life’s young hours. Older men are apt to ridicule young fellows for being too zealous; let them not retaliate, but cautiously abstain from ever charging the elder brethren with excess of fervor. Surely, malice itself would not dare to invent such a libel.
For my own part, I would have remained a young man if I could, for I fear I am by no means improved by keeping. Oh, that I could again possess the elasticity of spirit, the dash, the courage, the hopefulness of days gone by!
My days of flying are changed to those of running, and my running is toning down to a yet steadier pace. It is somewhat cheering that the Scriptures seem to indicate that this is progress, for such is the order which it prescribes for saints: “They shall mount up with wings as eagles;” away they go, out of sight. In your first sermons, — how you mounted up! Your first evangelistic efforts, — what flights they were! After that, you slackened and yet improved your pace; but it grew more steady, and perhaps more slow, as it is written: “They shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” God grant that we may not faint; and if our running days are over, may we walk with God as Enoch did, till the Lord shall take us home!
Another cause which frequently conduces to the abatement of vigor is the possible cessation of early success. I do not mean that it is always so; but, usually, when a man goes to a new field, there are many unreaped portions, and he gathers a large harvest, which he does not find afterwards because there is less to reap. If you have a narrow pond, you cannot keep on catching as many fish as you did at first, because there are not so many fish remaining. In London, we are, as it were, in an ocean, and we may spread our nets as often as we please; but in a small town or village, a man may soon have done all his direct converting work if the Lord greatly blesses him; and if, after a time, more souls are not saved, it may be because few unconverted persons attend his ministry. God may have given the brother all those whom He intended to bless by him in that place, and it may be wise for him to fish in other waters. I have read of a lighthouse-keeper who puts a rope round the lighthouse, and then to this cord he attaches a number of lines and hooks. These are all under water at high tide, and at favorable times the fish bite, and when the tide goes down, the lighthouse is festooned with fish of all kinds; there they hang, and the successful fisherman has nothing to do but to gather the spoils. Thus it was with us at first; we baited our hooks, and we drew in the fish without stint. But perhaps, later on, the lighthouse-keeper peers out from his tower, and he cannot see, for the fog is dense, the storm-cloud has settled down around his light, and the wind rages furiously; he is obliged to keep every door and window closed, or he could not live, and then he thinks it hard to be a lighthouse-keeper, and wishes himself ashore. We also are, at times, in a similar condition. We are asked, “Watchman! what of the night?” And the answer is, “No morning cometh, but the night thickens, and the darkness grows denser.” We do not every day draw the net to land full of great fishes, but we experience dreary intervals of fruitless toil, and then it is no wonder that a man’s spirit faints within him. The natural wear and tear of an active life also tend to our running down.
Some of our people think that we have little or nothing to do but to stand in the pulpit, and pour out a flood of words two or three times a week; but they ought to know that, if we did not spend much time in diligent study, they would get poverty-stricken sermons. I have heard of a brother who trusts in the Lord, and does not study; but I have also heard that his people do not trust in him; in fact, I am informed that they wish him to go elsewhere with his inspired discourses, for they say that, when he did study, his talk was poor enough, but now that he gives them that which comes first to his lips, it is altogether unbearable. If any man will preach as he should preach, his work will take more out of him than any other labor under heaven. If you and I attend to our work and calling, even among a few people, it will certainly produce a friction of soul and a wear of heart which will tell upon the strongest. I speak as one who knows by experience what it is to be utterly exhausted in the Master’s service. No matter how willing we may be in spirit, the flesh is weak; and He who made a tender apology for His sleeping servants in the garden knows our frame, and remembers that we are dust. We need that the Master should say to us, every now and then, “Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while;” and He does say so, for He is not a hard taskmaster, and whoever may use the lash, and cause the weary steed to die in harness, our gentle Lord doth not so.
Besides this, we are very apt to run down through our duty becoming routine work, by reason of its monotony. Unless we are careful, we shall be likely to say to ourselves, “Monday evening here again, I must give an address at the prayer-meeting. Thursday evening, and I have to preach, although I have not yet a topic! Sunday morning, Sunday evening; I have to preach again! Yes, preach again! Then there are all those extra engagements; it is for ever preach, preach, preach! I am always preaching.
What a weariness it is!” Preaching ought to be a joy, and yet it may become a task. Constant preaching should be constant enjoyment, and yet, when the brain is tired, pleasure flies. Like the sick boy in the prophet’s day, we are ready to cry, “My head! my head!” We ask, “How can we keep up our freshness?” It is hard to produce so much with such scant leisure for reading; it is almost as bad as making bricks without straw. Nothing can maintain us in the freshness of our beginnings but the daily anointing of the Spirit.
I do not wonder that some brethren run down through want of association with others of warm heart and of kindred spirit. I will give you another lighthouse illustration; a gentleman, who called to see the keepers of a lone light, said to one of them, “I suppose, after all, you fellows are quite happy in this tower?” “We might: be happy,” replied the man, “if we had a chat with one another; but my mate and I have not exchanged a word with each other for a month.” If you are banished to a country place, where you have no superior or even equal mind to converse with, no intellectual or spiritual friend near at hand, I can feel for you. “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend,” and when that sharpening is missed, it is no marvel that the mind grows dull. We cannot live alone, brethren, and yet a dreadful solitude as to our higher cares is one of our sorest trials. Oh, for a twin spirit to converse with! The worst of it is that, if we have few to refresh us with their conversation, we have many to vex us with their chatter; and when we would fain be uplifted to noble themes, we find ourselves dragged down by the dreary gossip of a hamlet. What wonder if, with such surroundings, we lose force, and run down!
Yet, dear brethren, none of these things furnish us with an excuse for falling into a low state, and it may possibly be true that our mental decline is the result of our weak spiritual condition. It may be that we have left our first love, that we have wandered away from the simplicity of our faith, that we have back-slidden in heart, and grieved the Holy Spirit, so that our God walks contrary to us because we walk contrary to Him. Perhaps the rain is withheld because prayer has been restrained, and the heavenly wind has ceased to blow because we have been too indolent to spread the sail.
Has there been no unbelief to hinder the blessing? We often talk of unbelief as if it were an affliction to be pitied instead of a crime to be condemned.
For us to give the lie to Him who has unveiled the secrets of His heart to us, and almost, I was about to say, gone out of His way to bless us in an extraordinary and unusual manner, must pain the great Father’s heart.
Perhaps we feel less love to Jesus than we once did, less zeal in doing His work, and less anguish for the souls of others; if so, it is no wonder that we enjoy less of the presence of God, and are soon cast down. If the root is not strong, how can the branches flourish?
May not self-indulgence have mixed with unbelief? Have we made provision for the flesh? Have we lost the intimacy with Jesus which we once enjoyed? Have we violated the consecration with which we started? If so, the blue mould will settle on the unsound place. Selfishness will mar our strength, and destroy our usefulness. I will not suppose that this is the case with any of you; or, at least, I will only suppose it, and let it remain a supposition.
It is a dreadful fact that, sometimes, these runnings down end in a catastrophe. After secret backsliding comes a sin which is publicly reported, and men cry, “Shame!” Yet it is not that one sin, but the general state of the man’s heart which is the saddest part of it. No man becomes bad all at once. True, the single lightning flash slew its victim, but the bolt had not fallen if there had been no previous gathering of the elements into the condition of storm. The overt scandal is only the development of what was in the man, — the root of the evil lies deeper still. When we hear of a man who has mined his character by a surprising act of folly, we may surmise, as a rule, that this mischief was but one sulphurous jet from a soil charged with volcanic fire; or, to change the figure, one roaring lion from a den of wild beasts. As you would, on your bended knees, cry day and night that no moral catastrophe may occur to you, beware of the sin which leads to it, beware of the backsliding which culminates in it; for if we have not the cause, the effect will not follow. The Lord will preserve us if, day by day, we cry unto Him to cleanse our way.
There is an evil under the sun which is as terrible as an open catastrophe, — indeed, it works greater ill to the church in the long run, — and that is, when a man’s ministry is eaten through and through with spiritual dry rot.
I heard an old Indian describe the way in which furniture may be devoured by the white ants. The ants will come into the house, and eat up everything; and yet, to all appearance, nothing is touched. The bookcases stand just where they did, and the trunks and everything else remain exactly as they were; at least, it is so to the eye; but directly they are touched, they all crumble to pieces, for the ants have eaten the substance out of them. In the same way, some men still remain in the ministry, and yet the soul of their ministry has gone. They have a name to live, yet they are dead: what can be worse than this condition? One might almost sooner have an explosion, and have done with it, than see men continuing to maintain the form of religion after vital godliness has gone, scattering death all around them, and yet maintaining what is called a respectable position. God save us from this last as much as from that first! If I am a rotten bough, let me be cut off; but to hang upon the tree, all verdant with parasitical lichen and moss, is deplorable. A respectable ministry, devoid of spiritual life, is little better than respectable damnation, from which may God deliver us!
When men drift into this condition, they generally adopt some expedient to hide it. Conscience suggests that there is something or other wrong, and the deceitful heart labors to conceal or palliate this fact. Some do this by amusing themselves with hobbies instead of preaching the gospel. They cannot do the Lord’s work, so they try to do their own. They have not honesty enough to confess that they have lost gospel power, so they ride a hobby; and it is a very mild form of evil when they raise some side issue, which has no other fault about it than that it diverts them from the main point. Many are these playthings; I have no time to mention more than one.
I have known certain brethren give themselves solely to expound prophecy. Now, a man full of the life of God may expound prophecy as much as he likes; but there are some who, having lost their love of the gospel, try to win back what little popularity they once had by taking up with guesses at the future. They may be quite, sure that, if they cannot profit men by bringing them to the manger and the cross, they will make a complete failure of it if they handle the seals and the vials. Did you ever notice, in Calvin’s Commentaries, that there is no exposition of the Book of Revelation? Why not? He said, “I have not ex-pounded that Book because I do not understand it.” When I hear a man say, “I have found much in Matthew which does not belong to the Church, I have outgrown much of the Romans and Galatians, and I cannot enjoy the Psalms, for they do not rise to the perfection of my experience; I want something more elevated and spiritual, more abstruse and wonderful;” I conclude that this brother is spinning his last hank, and spending his last pennyworth of sense.
I have been amused by observing the manner in which speculators have been taken in when they have left the old ship of the gospel to become prophets. The beast of the Revelation was reported to be Napoleon I., and then the creature suddenly reappeared in his nephew, Napoleon III. Byand- by, the deadly wound was healed, and the Prince Imperial wore the dreadful honors of the prophetic book; but the prince is now dead, and it will be needful for the seers to invent a new theory. There is no fear but what they will do it before long; and, meanwhile, “our Israelitish origin” will do to fill up the time. In the story of Sindbad the Sailor, it is said that, as they sailed along, they saw an island, and at the sight thereof they greatly rejoiced. The crew left the ship, and feasted on the island, and were going to take possession of it in the name of the king, when suddenly it began to quiver and to plunge, and finally it went down altogether, for it was a whale’s back, and not an island at all! I have known brethren disport themselves upon the back of some novel speculation, when suddenly the facts of history have gone against them, and the whole thing has gone down very like a whale. I have mentioned one of the more harmless hobbies, but some have taken to fancies which have bred greater mischief.
Speculation is an index of the spiritual poverty of the man who surrenders himself to it. His flour has all been used, so he tries plaster of Paris; he has no more gold or silver, so he coins the baser metals. He cannot prophesy after the measure of faith, so he exercises his immeasurable imagination.
His own experience does not serve him with topics for his ministry, and therefore he takes airy flights into regions of which he knows nothing.
Far worse is it when a man so runs down in heart and spirit that he has no principles left, and believes nothing at all. He is a Baptist, but he would very cheerfully minister to a Paedo-baptist church. He is a Calvinist, but he is not narrow, and will promise to offend no one. He holds certain views, but “a view to the pastorate” is the chief of them, and in that view the salary is the charm. He boasts of possessing large-heartedness, and receptivity of spirit, and all that sort of thing. He has dry rot in his soul!
That is the truth of the case, and he tries to cover it up with this nonsense!
Such persons remind me of an advertisement of a school in France; its concluding paragraph was to this effect: “The pupils will be taught any religion which may be selected by their parents.” It is abominable when ministers as good as say that any religion will be taught which may be selected by the deacons. “Pray inform me whether the church likes a hightoned Calvinism, or prefers Arminianism.” It is with such as it was with the showman who exhibited the battle of Waterloo, and in answer to the question, “Which is Wellington, and which is Napoleon?” replied, “Whichever you please, my little dears; you pays your money, and you takes your choice.” These broad-churchmen are prepared to supply any article for which there is a demand. This is a terrible condition of things, but men do not generally rest there; in the lowest depth, there is still a lower deep.
When the heart has got out of order, and the spiritual life has run down, men soon fall into actual doctrinal error, not so much because their head is wrong, for many of them have not erred very much there, but because their heart is in an ill condition. We should never have known that some men had brains at all if they had not addled them. Such departers from the faith usually fall by little and little. They begin by saying very little concerning grace. They serve out homoeopathic doses of gospel: it is marvelous what a very small globule of the gospel will save a soul, and it is a great mercy that it is so, or few would be saved. These snatches of gospel, and the preacher who gives them, remind us of the famous dog of the Nile, of whom the ancients said that he was so afraid of the crocodiles that he drank of the river in a great hurry, and was away from it directly.
These intellectual gentry are so afraid of the critical crocodiles that the moment they touch the living water of the gospel they are away again.
Their doubts are stronger than their beliefs. The worst of it is that they not only give us very little gospel, but they give us much that is not the gospel.
In this they are like mosquitoes, of whom I have often said that I do not mind their taking a little of my blood, but it is the poison which they put into me which is my great cause of quarrel with them. That a man should rob me of the gospel, is bad enough; but that he should impregnate me with his poisonous doctrine, is intolerable.
When men lose all love to the gospel, they try to make up for the loss of its attractions by sparkling inventions of their own. They imitate life by the artificial flash of culture, reminding me of the saline crystals which cover the salt deserts. There is a lifeless plain, in the heart of Persia, so sterile and accursed that even saline plants do not thrive; “but the salt itself, as if in bitter mockery, fashions its crystals in the form of stems and stalks, and covers the steppe with a carpet of unique vegetation, glittering and glistening like an enchanted prairie in the dazzling light of the Eastern sun.”
Woe be unto the poor congregations who behold this substitute for life, this saline efflorescence of dainty errors and fascinating inventions! Alas, whatever a man may now propound, he will find learned personages to support him in it! Fontenelle used to say that, if he could only get six philosophers to write in its favor, people could be made to believe that the sun is not the source of light and heat; and I think there is a great deal of truth in the remark. We are told, “Well, he is a very learned man, he is a Fellow of Brazenface College, and he has written a book in which he upsets the old dogmas.” If a learned man writes any nonsense, of course it will have a run; and there is no opinion so insane but, if it has the patronage of so-called scientific men, it will be believed in certain quarters. I have myself watched the labors of novelists in theology, and have tried to get what I could out of their books, but I have been struck with the remarkably poor results of their lucubrations. I have stood by the shore at Mentone, and seen fishermen with miles of line, and a vast net buoyed up by great tubs, visible far out at sea. A dozen men are hauling at one rope, and as many more are pulling in another, drawing this great net to land. Pull away! Ahoy! Pull away at the ropes, and bring the fish to land. I believe that, on one occasion, I did see them produce a fish not so long as my little finger, but that was a rather successful occasion! Our German friends have diligently made vast nets with which they have enclosed the sea of thought: and upon drawing them out, what a noise there has been, and what a sensation, and what at trembling and a fainting among the old ladies of Christendom; but when we have seen their mighty catch, it has not been the tenth part of a sardine! The next philosopher who came along, has fitted on his spectacles, with due gravity, after wiping them most solemnly, and then he has put his critical fork into this small fish, and, holding it up to be admired of all, he. has discoursed upon its species, till another philosopher equally wise has declared that it was rotten, and pitched it back into the deeps. This kind of game is continually going on, and many young ministers have been fools enough to give up the apostolic fishery to join in this stupid waste of mental effort. What have they ever done, these doubters, since the world began? What will they do?
What can they do? All that they can do now is to wriggle into our churches, and hiss from pulpits which were once filled by the orthodox.
They cannot build places of worship of their own, — they could not build a mousetrap; as a rule, there is not power enough in their teaching to gather a congregation, or to keep one when it is gathered. All the vitality, force, and energy they possess are spent, cuckoo-like, in laying their eggs in the nests which we take the trouble to fashion, for they cannot build their own.
God forbid that we should ever try to cover our decline of heart by the invention of our self-conceit! I hope that, when our ministry begins to lose power, we shall be driven to our knees, and to our God, that He may quicken us again by His good Spirit.
Perhaps I have spoken at too great length upon the former part of my subject; I now propose to dwell upon the necessity of renewing grace. If any of us have come down from the heights, it is time that we returned to them again. If we have fallen from our first love, it is most needful that we should at once renew the ardor of our youth. If we have gone down even in a small degree, it behoves us to ask for help to get back what we have lost.
This is necessary on account of our own happiness; for I appeal to any brother who declines in heart, and grows weak in faith, and doubtful in spirit, whether he is not unhappy. Do you not derive the purest joy and the most solid satisfaction from walking with God? Indeed, those who are “called to be saints” are doomed to be unhappy apart from Christ. It is a doom which destiny has fixed upon you that, if you depart from Christ, you must depart into hell; for it is hell for you to depart from Christ. If, therefore, in any measure, you have roamed away from Christ, mind that you fly home again to Him at once. Last year, when sojourning in the South of France, I went for a mountain ride to the foot of Castiglione, an old, half-deserted town. It was clear and bright at the time, and while the friends who were with me went up the hill to survey the place, I remained a little lower down. I soon observed that the clouds were coming from the other side of the mountains, and in a few minutes I was in a fog, chilled to the bone. I could just see Mentone under the bottom of the clouds, and I said to my man-servant, “Get the horses in, for I must get down again into the sun at once.” Soon, the fog was all round me, and I hastened to descend until I reached the sunlight again. You must feel like that, my brethren; if you are caught in a mist, and a chill is upon you, you must hurry back to Christ. You may joyfully repose in Him, and find every blessing and comfort surrounding you; but if you have climbed into high notions, and entered upon the cold regions of speculation, you must hasten down again. You must say of the old gospel,” I can see the blessed spot of my repose, and I will get back to it at once.” This is wise advice for those who are conscious of lost comfort through leaving the good old way.
We cannot afford, I am sure, to be in a state of running down, for we were never too much alive. Our shortcomings, at our best, are quite sufficient to warn us against what we should be if we were worse. I can imagine some men losing a part of their courage, and yet remaining brave; but if any of mine were to evaporate, I should be a coward indeed. There would have been power in Calvin even if half the steadfastness of his mind had gone, for he was a man of mighty faith; but if I were to lose any measure of my faith, I should be a sorry unbeliever, for I have not a grain of faith to spare.
Dear brethren, have we ever reached our right condition as compared with our early ideal of what we hoped to be? Do you recollect when you first entered the College or the ministry? Do you remember what a high standard you set up for yourself? You did well to fix the mark high; for, if you aim at the moon, you will shoot higher than if you fired at a bush. You did well to have a high standard, but you do not well to fall short of it; and, yet, who does not fall short even of his own ideal? Do you not wish to hide your head when you contrast yourself with your Lord? He saved others, and therefore could not save Himself; but we are keen to guard ourselves and our reputations, and often act as if we thought self-preservation the highest law of nature. Our Lord endured great contradiction of sinners against Himself, while we are provoked if we are thwarted in any degree.
He loved His sheep, and followed them when they went astray; but we have far too little pity even upon those who gather at our call. We are far, far, far below the true glory of the Well-beloved, and even fall short of our poor ideal of Him. Neither in private in His prayers, nor in public in His life, or His ministry, or His teaching, do we approximate to Him so nearly as we should; and yet, to fall short of likeness to Him, ought to make us blush and weep. We cannot afford, therefore, to run down.
Indeed, if we do not compare ourselves with our Master, but only with our brother-ministers (for certain of them have done right noble work for Jesus), we shall come to the same conclusion. Some of our brethren have held on under fearful discouragements, serving the Lord faithfully; others have won souls for Christ, to whom the winning of one soul has cost more self-denial than the winning of hundreds has cost certain of us. I could sit with delight at the feet of such consecrated brethren as I am now thinking of, and look up to them, and glorify God in them. Such have been found among men of inferior abilities, slender powers, and small attainments; but how they have worked, and how they have prayed, and how God has blessed them! It may be that, with ten times their ability and opportunity, we have not done anything like as much as they have. Do we not mourn over this? Can we afford to decline?
Beloved brethren, we cannot afford to remain in any state lower than the very best; for, if so, our work will not be well done. Time was when we preached with all our might. When we began to preach, what preaching it was for zeal and life! In looking back, it must increase our self.-humiliation if we perceive that, in our younger days, we were more real and intense than we are now. We preach much better, so the critics say; and we know that there is more thought and more accuracy in our sermons, and that we use better elocution than we did in our young days; but where are the tears of our early ministry? Where is the heart-break of those first sermons in our first sphere? Where is the passion, where is the self-annihilation that we often felt when we poured out our very life with every syllable we spoke?
Now, sometimes, we go into the pulpit resolved that we will do as we did then, just as Samson went out to shake himself as he had done aforetime.
He had snapped the cords and bands before, and he was going to do the same again; but the Lord had departed from him, and he was weak as another man. Brethren, what if the Lord should depart from us? Alas for us, and for our work!
Nothing can be done if the Holy Spirit be withdrawn; indeed, nothing truly good will be attempted. I have marveled at the way in which certain persons avoid preaching the gospel when they profess to be doing it. They get a text which you think must cut into the conscience, and they contrive to speak so as neither to arouse the careless nor distress the self-confident.
They play with the sword of the Spirit as if they were mountebanks at a show, instead of thrusting the two-edged sword into the hearts of men, as soldiers do in actual combat. The Emperor Gallienus, when a man hurled a javelin many times at a bull without hitting him, and the people hissed him, called the performer to his seat, and placed a wreath on his head, saying, “You are most clever to be able to miss so large a mark so many times.”
What shall we twine into a crown for those ministers who never strike the heart, never convince men of sin, never drive a Pharisee out of his own righteousness, never influence the guilty so that he casts himself as a lost sinner at the feet of Jesus? He may expect one day to be crowned with shame for such a crime. Meanwhile, twine the deadly nightshade about his brows. Be it ours to be like the left-handed men of Benjamin who “could sling stones at an hair breadth, and not miss.” We cannot reach to this unless the life of God be in us and abound.
A man ought to take care of himself, merely as a man, for the sake of himself and his household; but much more should a man, who is a minister, take care of himself for the sake of those who are committed to his charge.
A captain, in the South Seas, was observed to go beyond the usual point for turning into the harbor, taking a longer but a safer course. On someone remarking to him that he was too careful, he replied, “I have so many souls on board, I cannot afford to run any risk.” How many souls there are on board of some of our vessels! How many souls — ay, notwithstanding that the doctrine is unfashionable, I repeat it, — how many souls, not of creatures which will die out like cats and dogs, but of priceless, immortal beings, are committed to our charge! Since, upon our ministry, under God, hang everlasting things, — life and death, Heaven and hell, — what manner of persons ought we to be? How careful we ought to be as to our inner health! How anxious to be always at our very best! If I were a surgeon, and I had to operate upon a patient, I should not like to touch either the knife or his flesh if I felt bilious, or if my hand was quivering; I would not like to be in any but the calmest, coolest, most forceful condition, at the moment in which the difference of a hair’s breadth might touch a vital chord, and end a precious life! God help all soul-physicians to be always at their best!
I believe the headway of God’s cause in the world depends upon our being in prime condition. We are come to the kingdom for such a time as this.
As much as ever Simon Menno was raised up to preach believers’ baptism in Holland, and keep the lamp burning for God there, and as surely as ever, in our own land, such men as Hansard Knollys, and Kiffin, and Keach, and the like, were bold to stand the brunt of the battle for the Lord, so I believe that you are intended to be in lineal succession defenders of the purest form of gospel truth. We have it in charge to pass on to the next age the everlasting gospel which our venerable sires have handed down to us. As Neander said, there, is a future for the Baptists. There is a future for any church which has faithfully kept the ordinances of God, and is resolved in all things to be obedient to its covenant Head. We have neither prestige, nor wealth, nor the State at our back; but we have something better than all these.
When a Spartan was asked what were the boundaries of his country, he replied, “The limits of Sparta are marked by the points of our spears.” The limit of our church is also determined by the points of our spears; but our weapons are not carnal. Wherever we go, we preach Christ crucified, and His word of solemn proclamation, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” The enquirer turned, and said to the Spartan, “You have no walls to Sparta.” “No,” he replied, “the walls of Sparta are the breasts of her sons.” We have no defenses for our churches, either in Acts of Parliament or enforced creeds; but the regenerated hearts and consecrated spirits of men, who resolve to live and die in the service of King Jesus, have hitherto sufficed, in the hands of the Spirit, to preserve us from grievous heresy. I see no beginning to this business, this battle of truth commenced so long ago; and I see no end to it, except the coming of the Master and the eternal victory. Yet some trembling persons say we ought to stop, and let the young men already in College learn a trade, and forego the ministry, lest England should become over-ministered; and they add that there is no use in preparing men for the foreign fields, for the Missionary Society is in debt, and its expenses must be curtailed. God bless the Missionary Society! But the condition of a Society is not the limit of our personal endeavor; besides, the Society will soon throw off its burden.
If you, my brethren, are worthy of your calling, you will be bravely independent, and not hang too much upon the help of others. Sparta could not have been defended by a race of timid creatures armed with pointless spears, neither can young men of timorous spirit do great things for God.
You must be braced to heroism, brethren, if you are to meet the demands of the hour. May God make the feeblest among you as David, and the house of David as God! (Zechariah 12:8.)
I have a proposal to make before I come to my conclusion, and it is this: let this be the time of renewal to each one of us. Let us each seek for a personal revival by the Divine Spirit.
We shall see that it is a fit time if we take an outlook upon our own nation.
Politically, we have come back to a condition in which there will be a respect for righteousness, justice, and truth, rather than for self-assertion, and national gain, and conquest. We shall, I trust, no longer be steered by a false idea of British interests, and the policy which comes of it; but by the great principles of right, justice, and humanity. This is all I want to see: parties, as such, are nothing to us; nor individual statesmen, except so far as they represent right principles. We are for those who are on the side of justice, peace, and love. And now, instead of lying still year after year, and making no progress, — no laws amended, no home legislation attended to, but time wasted upon glittering foreign adventures, — something will be done that is worth doing.
At this period, also, our schools are educating the people, and I thank God for that. Though education will not save men, it may be a means to that end; for when all our peasants can read their Bibles, we may surely hope that God will bless His own Word. It will be a grand thing for all our agricultural laborers, by going to the New Testament for themselves, to escape from receiving their religion at second-hand. Godly people must take care to supply them with good books, and so feed the new appetite with healthy food. All light is good, and we, who most of all prize the light of revelation, are on the side of all kinds of true light. God is raising up the people, and I think our time is come to avail ourselves of their advance; and as our one business is to preach Jesus Christ, the more we keep to our work the better, for true religion is the strength of a nation, and the foundation of all right government.
Whatsoever things are honest, true, kind, humane, and moral, may reckon on our aid. We are on the side of temperance, and therefore on the side of the limitation of the abominable traffic which is ruining our country; and we are opposed to all that licenses vice among men, or allows cruelty to animals. We are up to the hilt advocates of peace, and we earnestly war against war. I wish that Christian men would insist more and more on the unrighteousness of war, believing that Christianity means no sword, no cannon, no bloodshed, and that, if a nation is driven to fight in its own defense, Christianity stands by to weep and to intervene as soon as possible, and not to join in the cruel shouts which celebrate an enemy’s slaughter. Let us always be on the side of right. To-day, then, my brethren, I beg you to join with me in seeking renewal. Now is the time for a man to buckle on his harness, and bestir himself.
Surely our holy fellowship at this happy hour should help us all to rise to a higher level. The sight of many of our brethren is cheering and stimulating.
When I remember concerning some their holiness, their depth of piety, their perseverance, I feel comforted in the belief that, if the Lord has strengthened others, He has yet a blessing in reserve for us also. Let this Feast of Tabernacles be the time for renewing our vows of consecration unto the Lord our God.
Let us begin it with repentance for all our mistakes and shortcomings. Let each one do this for himself. You remember how the ancient giant fought with Hercules, and the hero could not overcome him, because every time he fell he touched his mother earth, and received new strength. Let us, too, fall upon our faces, that we may rise invigorated; let us go back to our first simple faith, and recover our lost strength. Men who have been sore sick have cried, “Take me back to my native air, and I shall soon be well.
Among the buttercups and daisies of the meadows, in which I used to play when I was a child, and near the brook where I caught the minnows, I shall soon revive.” Ah! it does our soul good to get back to our days of childlike faith, when we sang, — “Just as I am, — without one plea But that Thy blood was shed for me, And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come.” This will help you to renew your youth: it seems an easy way, but it is the only way.
Next, let us renew our consecration. I do not invite any of you literally to stain the door-post of the College with your blood, but I ask you to think upon that Israelitish slave whose time had run out, but who chose to remain in service because he loved his master and his master’s children, and therefore he put his ear against the post of the door, and they bored it through with an awl. May the Lord bore the ear of each of us, that we may be His servants for ever! We love our Master, do we not, brethren? We love our Master’s work; and we love our Master’s servants and His children, and for His sake we will serve them all, for better or worse, till death doth part us from this lower service. Oh, to get back to the old moorings! I would like for us to preach our old sermons; I do not mean the same sermons, but with the saute force as when we began to — “Tell to sinners round, What a dear Savior we had found.” People said, “That dear young man does not know very much, but he loves Jesus Christ, and he talks about nothing else.” I would like to preach again as I did at first, only a great deal better. I intensely believed and meant every word I spoke; I do so now, but doubts will arise now which never vexed me then. I would like to be a child again before the Lord, and to keep so, for I am sure that questions and doubts are a sad loss to any man.
Return, my brethren, to your earliest Bible-readings, when you were wont to let the promise lie under your tongue as a dainty morsel. Ah! this Book, as I turn it over, wakes up many a memory; its pages glow with a light which I cannot describe, for they are set with stars which in my many hours of gloom have been the light of my soul. I did not then read this divine volume to find a text, but to hear my Lord speak to my own heart; I was not then as Martha, cumbered with much serving, but as Lazarus, who sat at the table with Jesus.
God grant us also a revival of the first aims of our spiritual career! Then, we thought nothing of pleasing men, but only aimed at pleasing God and winning souls; we were rash enough to care for nothing but the fulfillment of our mission; is it so now? We can preach now, can we not? We feel that we are proficient in our art. It might be better if we did not feel quite so well equipped. I find it better to go to the pulpit in prayerful weakness than in self-reliant strength. When I groan out, “What a fool I am!” and come down, after the sermon, ashamed of my poor attempt, I am sure it is better with me than when I am pleased with my performance. Are any of us such babies as to feel like that? What a sense of responsibility we had in our first services; do we retain that solemnity of spirit? We then prayed about the choice of every hymn, and the manner of reading the Scriptures; we did nothing carelessly, for a heavy anxiety pressed upon us. I always read the Scripture carefully at home, and tried to understand it before I read it to the people, and I thus formed a habit from which I have never swerved; but it is not so with all. Some say, “I have been about all the day, and I have to preach to-night, but I can manage.” Yes, but it will not please God for us to offer Him that which costs us nothing. Others have a stock of sermons, and I have heard that, just before the time for entering the pulpit, they turn over their precious manuscripts, pick out a likely one, and without further preparation read it as God’s message to the people. The Lord deliver us from a state of mind in which we dare to put on the table of shewbread the first loaf which comes to hand! No; let us serve the Lord with growing carefulness and reverence.
It would be well for many to get back to their first prayers and watchfulness, and all else that is good. Can it be done? Brother, it can be done. You can have all the life you had, and more, by the blessing of the Holy Spirit. You can be as intense as you ever were. I have seen old horses turned out to grass, and come back fresh and vigorous. I know a pasture wherein, if a worn-out steed doth graze, it shall come back to be harnessed to the gospel chariot with strength renewed. Let us remember those hallowed spots where Jesus has met with us in former days, where, or ever we were aware, our soul was made “like the chariots of Ammi-nadib.” Lord, renew Thy former mercies, and we shall rise, like the phoenix, from our ashes!
It may cost you a great deal to be set right again. John Bunyan speaks of the pilgrim who lost his roll, and had to go back for it, so that he traveled three times over the road, and then found the sun setting ere he reached his lodging. But cost us whatever it may, we must get right with God. I read a dream, the other day, which was the means of a man’s conversion. He thought that he was going with his friend into one of the Eastern towns, and as he was about to enter, the portcullis above the gate began to fall. As it descended, he stooped; but it fell so fast that he could not get through, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or even lying down. He felt that he must enter, so he made a desperate effort. He had on a very fine laced vest, and he pulled that off, but the portcullis still descended, till he found that the only thing he could do was to strip himself, and then, close to the earth, and grazed by the gravel, he crept through. When he was safely inside the gate, a shining one covered him from head to foot with glittering garments.
It may be that, in order to get right with God, we shall have to part with that fine vest, that splendid theory, that love of popularity, that rhetorical flourishing; but, oh! if we once get through that gate, and God covers us with the robe of acceptance in the Beloved, it will well repay us for anything that the struggle may cost us.
I am sorry to say that I am made of such ill stuff that my Lord has to chasten me often and sorely. I am like a quill pen that will not write unless it be often nibbed, and therefore I have felt the sharp knife many times; and yet I shall not regret my pains and crosses so long as my Lord will write with me on men’s hearts. That is the cause of many ministers’ afflictions; they are necessary to our work. You have heard the fable of the raven that wished to drink, but the pitcher had so little water in it that he could not reach it, and therefore he took stone after stone, and dropped them into the vessel until the water rose to the brim, and he could drink. There is so little grace, in some men, that they need many sicknesses, bereavements, and other afflictions to make their graces available for usefulness. If, however, we receive grace enough to bear fruit without continual pruning, so much the better.
It is expected of us, brethren, that from this time we rise to a higher point.
It is the Lord’s due, if we think of what He has done for us. Some of my comrades in arms, now before me, have gone through battles as hard as any men may wish to fight; and after such success as they have had, they must never say die. After what the Lord has done for us, we must never strike our flag, nor turn our backs in the day of battle. Sir Francis Drake, when it was feared that he would be wrecked in the Thames, said, “What! have I been round the world, and am I now to be drowned in a ditch? Not I.” So say I to you, brethren: you have done business in stormy waters, and will you sink in a village pond? We shall not be worse treated than we have been. We are now in fine fighting trim, for we are hardened by former blows. A great pugilist at Rome was so battered, his nose, eyes, and face were so disfigured, that he was always ready to fight, because he said, “I cannot look worse than I do.” Personally, I am in much the same plight.
Men cannot say anything worse of me than they have said. I have been belied from head to foot, and misrepresented to the last degree. My good looks are gone, and none can damage me much now.
Some of you have had more to batter you than you are ever likely to endure again; you have had trial and tribulation and affliction as heavy as you can have them; and after having stood in the lists so long, surely you are not going to yield, and slink away like cowards? God forbid it! God forbid it! God grant, on the contrary, that the elder ones among you may have the pleasure, not only of winning battles for Christ, but of seeing others, who have been saved under your instrumentality, trained to fight for Jesus better than you yourselves have fought! The other day, I read a story, and with that I will conclude, desiring that I may, in spiritual things, have the same joy myself, and that it may be the lot of you all. Diagoras the Rhodian had, in his time, won many wreaths at the Olympian games. He had two boys, and he brought them up to the same profession. The day came when his own force abated, and he was no longer able to strive for masteries in his own person; but he went up to the Olympian games with his two sons. He saw the blows they gave and received, and rejoiced when he discovered that they were both victorious. A Lacedaemonian said to him,” You may die now, Diagoras;” meaning that the old man might be content to die, because he had, in his own person, and in that of his sons, obtained the highest honors. The old man seemed to feel that it was even so, for when his two sons came, and shouldered their father, and carried him through the arena amid the ringing cheers of the great assembly, the old man, flushed with excitement, died under the eyes of the assembled Greeks. It would have been a wiser thing to have lived, for he had a third son, who became more renowned than the other two; but he passed away on a wave of victory. O brethren, may you have spiritual children who shall win battles for the Lord, and may you live to see them doing it; then may you say, with old Simeon, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word.”
In the Name of the Ever-blessed, we this day again set up our banners. Our watchword is “Victory.” We mean to win for the grand old cause of Puritanism, Protestantism, Calvinism,---all poor names which the world has given to our great and glorious faith, — the doctrine of Paul the apostle, the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We can both strike, and bear the strokes which are returned. Through Divine grace, we have given to us both energy and patience; we can work, and we can wait. May the Divine life in us put forth its mightiest force, and make us strong to the utmost of human possibility, and then we shall gain the victory, and give all the glory of it to our omnipotent Leader. The Lord be with you, beloved!