I should like to connect what I have to say with a text of Scripture, which you may remember as a motto for this occasion. Take, then, that pastoral exhortation to a young minister in 1 Tim. iv.16: |Take heed unto thyself, and to the doctrine; continue in them; for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee.|
There are three subjects recommended in this text to one in your position -- first, yourself; second, your doctrine; third, those that hear you.
I. Take heed unto thyself. -- Perhaps there is no profession which so thoroughly as ours tests and reveals what is in a man -- the stature of his manhood, the mass and quality of his character, the poverty or richness of his mind, the coldness or warmth of his spirituality. These all come out in our work, and become known to our congregation and the community in which we labour.
When a man comes into a neighbourhood, as you are doing now, he is to a large extent an unknown quantity; and it is very touching to observe the exaggeration with which we are generally looked on at first, people attributing to us a sort of indefinite largeness. But it is marvellous how soon the measure of a man is taken, how he finds his level in the community, and people know whether he is a large or a petty man, whether he is a thinker or not, whether he is a deeply religious man or not. The glamour of romance passes off, and everything is seen in the light of common day.
The sooner this takes place the better. A true man does not need to fear it. He is what he is, and nothing else. He cannot by taking thought add one cubit to his stature. Any exaggeration of his image in the minds of others does not in reality make him one inch bigger than he is.
It seems to me to lie at the very root of a right ministerial life to be possessed with this idea -- to get quit of everything like pretence and untruthfulness, to wish for no success to which one is not entitled, and to look upon elevation into any position for which one is unfit as a pure calamity.
The man's self -- the very thing he is, standing with his bare feet on the bare earth -- this is the great concern. This is the self to which you are to take heed -- what you really are, what you are growing to, what you may yet become.
All our work is determined by this -- the spirit and power of our preaching, the quality of the influence we exert, and the tenor of our walk and conversation. We can no more rise above ourselves than water can rise above its own level. We may, indeed, often fail to do ourselves justice, and sometimes may do ourselves more than justice. But that is only for a moment; the total impression made by ourselves is an unmistakable thing. What is in us must come out, and nothing else. All we say and do is merely the expression of what we are.
Evidently, therefore, there can be nothing so important as carefully to watch over our inner life, and see that it be large, sweet and spiritual, and that it be growing.
Yet the temptations to neglect and overlook this and turn our attention in other directions are terribly strong. The ministerial life is a very outside life; it is lived in the glare of publicity; it is always pouring out. We are continually preaching, addressing meetings, giving private counsel, attending public gatherings, going from home, frequenting church courts, receiving visits, and occupied with details of every kind. We live in a time when all men are busy, and ministers are the busiest of men. From Monday morning till Sunday night the bustle goes on continually.
Our life is in danger of becoming all outside. We are called upon to express ourselves before conviction has time to ripen. Our spirits get too hot and unsettled to allow the dew to fall on them. We are compelled to speak what is merely the recollection of conviction which we had some time ago, and to use past feelings over again. Many a day you will feel this; you will long with your whole heart to escape away somewhere into obscurity, and be able to keep your mouth closed for weeks. You will know the meaning of that great text for ministers, |The talk of the lips tendeth only to penury,| -- that is, it shallows the spirit within.
This is what we have to fight against. The people we live among and the hundred details of our calling will steal away our inner life altogether, if they can. And then, what is our outer life worth? It is worth nothing. If the inner life get thin and shallow, the outer life must become a perfunctory discharge of duties. Our preaching will be empty, and our conversation and intercourse unspiritual, unenriching and flavourless. We may please our people for a time by doing all they desire and being at everybody's call; but they will turn round on us in disappointment and anger in the day when, by living merely the outer life, we have become empty, shallow and unprofitable.
Take heed to thyself! If we grow strong and large inwardly, our people will reap the fruit of it in due time: our preaching will have sap and power and unction; and our intercourse will have about it the breath of another world.
We must find time for reading, study, meditation and prayer. We should at least insist on having a large forenoon, up, say, to two o'clock every day, clear of interruptions. These hours of quietness are our real life! It is these that make the ministerial life a grand life. When we are shut in alone, and, the spirit having been silenced and collected by prayer, the mind gets slowly down into the heart of a text, like a bee in a flower, it is like heaven upon earth; it is as if the soul were bathing itself in morning dews; the dust and fret are washed off, and the noises recede into the distance; peace comes; we move aloft in another world -- the world of ideas and realities; the mind mounts joyfully from one height to another; it sees the common world far beneath, yet clearly, in its true meaning and size and relations to other worlds. And then one comes down on Sabbath, to speak to the people, calm, strong and clear, like Moses from the mount, and with a true Divine message.
In so doing, my dear brother, thou shalt save thyself. Lose your inner life, and you lose yourself, sure enough; for that is yourself. You will often have to tell your people that salvation is not the one act of conversion, nor the one act of passing through the gate of heaven at last; but the renewal, the sanctification, the growth, into large and symmetrical stature, of the whole character. Tell that to yourself often too. We take it for granted that you are a regenerated man, or we would not have ordained you to be a minister of the Gospel to-day. But it is possible for a man to be regenerate and to be a minister, and yet to remain very worldly, shallow, undeveloped and unsanctified. We who are your brethren in the ministry could tell sad histories in illustration of this out of our own inner life. We could tell you how, in keeping the vineyard of others, we have often neglected our own; and how now, at the end of years of ministerial activity and incessant toil, we turn round and look with dismay at our shallow characters, our unenriched minds, and our lack of spirituality and Christlikeness. O brother! take heed to thyself -- save thyself!
II. Take heed to the Doctrine. -- A very little experience of preaching will convince you that in relation to the truth which you have to minister week by week to your people you will have to sustain a double character -- that of an interpreter of Scripture and that of a prophet.
Let me first say something of the former. With whatever high-flown notions a man may begin his ministry, yet, if he is to stay for years in a place and keep up a fresh kind of preaching and build up a congregation, delivering such discourses as Scotchmen like to hear, he will find that he must heartily accept the role of an interpreter of Scripture, and lean on the Bible as his great support.
This is your work; the Book is put into your hands to-day, that you may unfold its contents to your people, conveying them into their minds by all possible avenues and applying them to all parts of their daily life.
It is a grand task. I cannot help congratulating you on being ordained to the ministry to-day, for this above everything, that the Bible is henceforth to be continually in your hands; that the study of it is to be the work of your life; that you are to be continually sinking and bathing your mind in its truths; and that you are to have the pleasure of bringing forth what you have discovered in it to feed the minds of men. The ministerial profession is to be envied more for this than anything else. I promise you that, if you be true to it, this Book will become dearer to you every day; it will enrich every part of your nature; you will become more and more convinced that it is the Word of God and contains the only remedy for the woes of man.
But be true to it! The Bible will be what I have said to you only if you go deep into it. If you keep to the surface, you will weary of it. There are some ministers who begin their ministry with a certain quantity of religious doctrine in their mind, and what they do all their life afterwards is to pick out texts and make them into vessels to hold so much of it. The vessels are of different shapes and sizes, but they are all filled with the same thing; and oh! it is poor stuff, however orthodox and evangelical it may seem.
To become a dearly loved friend and an endless source of intellectual and spiritual delight, the Bible must be thoroughly studied. We must not pour our ideas into it, but apply our minds to it and faithfully receive the impressions which it makes on them. One learns thus to trust the Bible as an inexhaustible resource and lean back upon it with all one's might. It is only such preaching, enriching itself out of the wealth of the Bible and getting from it freshness, variety and power, that can build up a congregation and satisfy the minds of really living Christians.
The intellectual demand on the pulpit is rapidly rising. I should like to draw your earnest attention to a revolution which is silently taking place in Scotland, but is receiving from very few the notice which it deserves. I refer to the changes that are being made by the new system of national education. No one can have travelled much for several years past through this part of the island without his attention being attracted by the new and imposing school buildings rising in almost every parish. These are the index of a revolution; for inside, in their management and in the efficiency of the education, there has also been an immense change. I venture to say that nothing which has taken place in Scotland this century -- and I am remembering both the Reform Bill and the Disruption -- will be found to have been of more importance. There will be a far more educated Scotland to preach to in a short time, which will demand of the ministry a high intellectual standard. It is a just demand. Our people should go away from the church feeling that they have received new and interesting information, that their intellects have been illuminated by fresh and great ideas, and that to hear their minister regularly is a liberal education.
Nothing will meet this demand except thorough study of Scripture by minds equipped with all the technical helps, as well as enriched by the constant reading of the best literature, both on our own and kindred subjects. One of our hymns says that the Bible |gives a light to every age; it gives, but borrows none.| Nothing could be more untrue. The Bible borrows light from every age and from every department of human knowledge. Whatever especially makes us acquainted with the mysterious depths of human nature is deserving of our attention. The Bible and human nature call to each other like deep unto deep. Every addition to our knowledge of man will be a new key to open the secrets of the Word; and the deeper you go in your preaching into the mysteries of the Word, the more subtle and powerful will be the springs you touch in the minds and hearts of your hearers.
But preparation of this sort for the pulpit is not easy. It requires time, self-conquest and hard work. Perhaps the greatest ministerial temptation is idleness in study -- not in going about and doing something, but in finding and rightly using precious hours in one's library, avoiding reverie and light or desultory reading, and sticking hard and fast to the Sabbath work. I, for one, must confess that I have had, and still have, a terrible battle to fight for this. No men have their time so much at their own disposal as we. I often wish we had regular office-hours, like business men; but even that would not remedy the evil, for every man shut up alone in a study is not studying. Nothing can remedy it but faithfulness to duty and love of work.
You will find it necessary to be hard at it from Tuesday morning to Saturday night. If you lecture, as I trust you will -- for it brings one, far more than sermonising, into contact with Scripture -- you will know your subject at once, and be able to begin to read on it. The text of the other discourse should be got by the middle of the week at latest, and the more elaborate of the two finished on Friday. This makes a hard week; but it has its reward. There are few moods more splendid than a preacher's when, after a hard week's work, during which his mind has been incessantly active on the truth of God and his spirit exalted by communion with the Divine Spirit, he appears before his congregation on Sabbath, knowing he has an honestly gotten message to lavish on them; just as there can be no coward and craven more abject than a minister with any conscience who appears in the pulpit after an idle, dishonest week, to cheat his congregation with a diet of fragments seasoned with counterfeit fervour.
But, besides being an interpreter of Scripture, a true minister fills the still higher position of a prophet. This congregation has asked you to become its spiritual overseer. But a minister is no minister unless he come to his sphere of labour under a far higher sanction -- unless he be sent from God, with a message in his heart which he is burning to pour forth upon men. An apostle (that is, a messenger sent from God) and a prophet (that is, a man whose lips are impatient to speak the Divine message which his heart is full of) every true minister must be. I trust you have such a message, the substance of which you could at this moment, if called upon, speak out in very few words. There is something wrong if from a man's preaching his hearers do not gather by degrees a scheme of doctrine -- a message which the plainest of them could give account of.
What this message should be, there exists no doubt at all in the Church of which you have to-day been ordained a minister. It can be nothing else than the evangelical scheme, as it has been understood and expounded by the greatest and most godly minds in all generations of the Church and preached with fresh power in this country since the beginning of the present century. It has proved itself the power of God, to the revival of the Church and the conversion of souls, wherever it has been faithfully proclaimed; and it is a great trust which is committed to your hands to-day to be one of its heralds and conservators.
Not that we in this generation are to pledge ourselves to preach nothing except what was preached last generation. That would be a poor way of following in the footsteps of men who thought so independently and so faithfully fulfilled their own task. The area of topics introduced in the pulpit is widening, I think. Why should it not? The Bible is far greater and wider than any school or any generation; and we will fearlessly commit ourselves to it and go wherever it carries us, even though it should be far beyond the range of topics within which we are expected to confine ourselves. Your congregation will put one utterance side by side with another; and, if you are a truly evangelical man, there will be no fear of their mistaking your standpoint. There is no kind of preaching so wearisome and unprofitable as an anxious, constrained and formal repetition of the most prominent points of evangelical doctrine. The only cure for this is to keep in close contact with both human nature and the Bible, and be absolutely faithful to the impressions which they make.
Yet take heed that your doctrine be such as will save them that hear you. What saving doctrine is has been determined in this land by a grand experiment; and it is only faithfulness to the history of Scotland, as well as to God and your people, to make it the sum and substance and the very breath of life for all you preaching. Our calling is emphatically |the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us; we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. For He hath made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.| This is the glorious message of the Gospel, which alone can meet the deep spiritual wants of men.
Preach it out of a living experience. Bunyan, in his autobiography, gives an account of his own preaching, telling how, for the first two years of his ministry, he dwelt continually on the terrors of the law, because he was then quailing beneath them himself; how for the next two years he discoursed chiefly on Christ in his offices, because he was then enjoying the comfort of these doctrines; and how, for a third couple of years, the mystery of union to Christ was the centre both of his preaching and his experience; and so on. That appears to me the very model of a true ministry -- to be always preaching the truth one is experiencing oneself at the time, and so giving it out fresh, like a discovery just made; while at the same time the centre of gravity, so to speak, of one's doctrine is constantly in motion, passing from one section of the sphere of evangelical truth to another, till it has in succession passed through them all.
III. Take heed to them that hear you. -- I almost envy you the new joy that will fill your heart soon, when you fairly get connected with your congregation. The first love of a minister for his own flock is as original and peculiar a blossom of the heart as any other that could be named. And the bond that unites him to those whom he has been the means of converting or raising to higher levels of life is one of the tenderest in existence.
You have come to a hearty people, who will be quite disposed to put a good construction on all you do. This is a busy community, that appreciates a man who works hard. If you do your work faithfully and preach with the heart and the head, they will come to hear you. It is wonderful how lenient those who hear us are. You will wonder, I daresay, some Sabbaths, that they sit to hear you at all, or that, having heard you, they ever come back again. But, if a man is really true, he is not condemned for a single poor sermon. Honesty and thorough work and good thinking are not so easily found in the world that a man who generally exhibits them can be neglected. If we fail, it must surely generally be our own fault.
The more we put ourselves on a level with the people the better. We stoop to conquer. It is better to feel that we belong to the congregation than that it belongs to us. I like to think of the minister as only one of the congregation set apart by the rest for a particular purpose. A congregation is a number of people associated for their moral and spiritual improvement. And they say to one of their number, Look, brother, we are busy with our daily toils and confused with domestic and worldly cares; we live in confusion and darkness; but we eagerly long for peace and light to cheer and illuminate our life; and we have heard there is a land where these are to be found -- a land of repose and joy, full of thoughts that breathe and words that burn: but we cannot go thither ourselves; we are too embroiled in daily cares: come, we will elect you, and set you free from our toils, and you shall go thither for us, and week by week trade with that land and bring us its treasures and its spoils. Oh, woe to him who accepts this election, and yet, failing through idleness to carry on the noble merchandise, appears week by week empty-handed or with merely counterfeit treasure in his hands! Woe to him too, if, going to that land, he forgets those who sent him and spends his time there in selfish enjoyment of the delights of knowledge! Woe to him if he does not week by week return laden, and ever more richly laden, and saying, Yes, brothers, I have been to that land; and it is a land of light and peace and nobleness: but I have never forgotten you and your needs and the dear bonds of brotherhood; and look, I have brought back this, and this, and this: take it to gladden and purify your life!
I esteem it one of the chief rewards of our profession, that it makes us respect our fellow-men. It makes us continually think of even the most degraded of them as immortal souls, with magnificent undeveloped possibilities in them -- as possible sons of God, and brethren of Christ, and heirs of heaven. Some men, by their profession, are continually tempted to take low views of human nature. But we are forced to think worthily of it. A minister is no minister who does not see wonder in the child in the cradle and in the peasant in the field relations with all time behind and before, and all eternity above and beneath. Not but that we see the seamy side too -- the depths as well as the heights. We get glimpses of the awful sin of the heart; we are made to feel the force of corrupt nature's mere inert resistance to good influences; we have to feel the pain of the slowness of the movement of goodness, as perhaps no other men do. Yet love and undying faith in the value of the soul and hope for all men are the mainsprings of our activity.
For the end we always aim at is to save those who hear us. Think what that is! What a magnificent life work! It is to fight against sin, to destroy the works of the devil, to make human souls gentle, noble and godlike, to help on the progress of the world, to sow the seed of the future, to prepare the population of heaven, to be fellow-sufferers and fellow-workers with Christ, and to glorify God.
This is your work; and the only true measure of ministerial success is how many souls you save -- save in every sense -- in the sense of regeneration, and sanctification and redemption.
Delivered at the Ordination of the Rev. William Agnew, Gallatown, Kirkcaldy, 1879.