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ON THE DUTIES OF A CHRISTIAN FLOCK TOWARDS THEIR MINISTER.
EZEKIEL XXXIII. 9.
Nevertheless, if thou warn the wicked of his way to turn from it; if
he do not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity ; but thou hast delivered thy soul. My discourse on last Sunday treated of the office and responsibility of a christian minister, and the duties required on his part for the furtherance of the salvation of souls. In the chapter from which my text is taken, the prophet declares, in the name of the Lord, the fearful consequence of neglecting these duties. “If the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman's hands." This is, indeed, an awful consideration, and one which will keep alive in the heart of every faithful minister a serious and solemn contemplation of the proceedings of that great day, when he shall meet the members of his charge on earth before the tribunal of God in heaven. In such meditations his heart almost sinks under the weight of care and perplexity which overloads his thoughts, as he reflects upon the widelyvarying tempers and dispositions of those with whom he has to do ; the carelessness of some to receive instruction, the impatience of many to endure reproof, and the waywardness of almost all in excusing those sins " which do most easily beset them.” Still he knows in whom he has trusted, and that he is not left to himself in the performance of the arduous task of watching over the souls of men; and that God will not make him accountable for those who refuse his warning, and will none of his reproof. True it is that he will be called upon to render an account of every discourse which he has delivered, and of its tendency to forward the immortal happiness of his hearers. It will be published before men and angels, whether he has laboured with vigilance, and prayed with solicitude, to promote the salvation of his flock; and, if he has been idle and negligent in a matter of so great concern, the blood of each individual will be required at his hands; and how shall he be enabled to wash out so deep a stain ? If, on the other hand, his instructions, however holy, have been disregarded ; if his rebukes, however seasonable, have been slighted ; if his exhortations, however earnest, have been set at nought and ridiculed ;-on whom do you suppose the blame will be cast; and on whom will the consequences fall? God is not unjust, that he should inflict punishment where it is not due ; and he will not be more rigid in exacting the duties of a minister towards his flock, than in requiring those of the flock towards their minister. Of these duties I now proceed to treat, and to warn you seriously against the neglect of them.
The first great duty of a member of Christ's Church consists in a regular attendance upon the public worship of God, and the celebration of the Lord's Supper. On the return of each succeeding Sabbath, it would be well if men would consider that God himself requires them to assemble before him, to worship him as one family in the beauty of holiness, to “come into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise." It is lamentable to observe that the most frivolous excuses, the most trifling engagements, and even the most senseless pleasures, will induce the generality of those who profess and call themselves Christians, to absent themselves from this sanctuary of the Lord on that day which he himself has blessed ; on which his onlybegotten Son rose again from the dead; and on which the blessed Spirit descended from above upon the first preachers of the gospel. While the prayers of the Church are ascending to the throne of grace for all sorts and conditions of men, and while the gospel of peace is proclaimed aloud in the ears of the congregation, there are many who are idling at home, or eager to "buy and sell, and get gain,” rather than to acquire those treasures, which are bestowed " without money and without price" upon those who “ask in faith, nothing wavering.” Even of those who attend with tolerable regularity upon public worship, there are many who come from far other motives than those which ought to actuate the christian worshipper. During the prayers, which are unquestionably, and beyond comparison, the most important part of the service of the Church, they draw nigh to God with their lips perhaps, but their hearts are far from him. They come, in fact, merely to hear the sermon; and that without due consideration of its real object and design. Let me advise and exhort you, brethren, to “take heed how ye hear," and to receive with meekness the word of God, which is able to save your souls. As the preacher is required to preach not himself, but Christ Jesus, and him crucified, so are his hearers to receive his admonitions, as the minister of Christ, and a “steward of the mysteries of God." As he is required to “beseech them, in Christ's stead, to be reconciled to God," so are they to attend to his exhortations, whether of reproof, to depart from iniquity, or of persuasion, to "adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things;" and if what he delivers be agreeable to the will of God, as revealed in the Scriptures, they are bound not only to hear, but to observe it. Preaching is not to be considered as a mere exercise of human eloquence, intended to gain applause by a vain and empty display of fine words and flowing sentences, but as one of those ordinances which Christ has appointed for the promulgation of the gospel, for the conversion of the sinner, for the encouragement of the believer, and for the general edification of the Church.
Such being the great end of preaching, it is clear that it is not a mere passing ceremony; and the duty of a Christian is not wholly performed in simply hearing it explained. “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only,” says the Apostle. In order to be doers of the word, it is necessary not only to hear, but to meditate upon it. What is delivered from the pulpit in church should form the subject of serious reflection at home; and the resolutions of amendment, which the preaching of the word has suggested, will thereby be improved, and cherished, and carried into execution. Moreover, the word must be received without partiality and without hypocrisy ; not as the word of man, but, as it is in truth, the word of God. The preacher is not to be regarded as having any other object to advance than the salvation of souls, and more especially of those who are the immediate object of his care. His heart's desire, and prayer to God for mankind in general will be, that they may be saved; but all his energies will be devoted to the welfare, spiritual and temporal, of that particular flock,“ over whom the Lord has made him overseer.” Indeed, if he tends the sheep of other folds, he must neglect his own ; and while he is entering, not by the door, but climbing up some other way, into a neighbouring sheepfold, he must leave his own sheep either to a “hireling" or to themselves. Jf any of his sheep go astray, he will endeavour to bring them back to the fold; but if they will not know his voice, they become none of his, nor will “ their blood be required at his hand.”
It is indeed as true as it is lamentable that offences will come by reason of the word; and that even the doctrines of the ever-blessed gospel of Christ, instead of bringing peace upon earth, are productive of strifes and contentions, and every evil work. Many there are“ who will not endure sound doctrine, but after their own lusts heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears," which seek to be tickled with some favourite discussion, or flattered into an idea of the certainty of their salvation. They love to be regarded as the “elect," as the predestinated to eternal salvation, from which the rest of mankind are excluded by an irreversible decree. They say unto their prophets, “Prophesy not unto us right things, but prophesy smooth things; prophesy deceits :" and those who will hold out such enticing words, will have their followers, and they will have their reward. Brethren, I have not so learned Christ ; and may God of his mercy grant that I may never deceive you by such partial and perverted views of his allsufficient sacrifice! And be not ye offended if I declare unto you the whole counsel of God, who has predestinated none to life but such as seek redemption only by the atoning blood of Christ, and endeavour to fulfil the conditions of his covenanted mercy; and who has doomed none to perdition but those who reject his love, and cast his words behind them. It is better that your ears should tingle with the appalling, yet scriptural truth, that “ sinners shall be cast into hell, with all those that forget God ;" than be tickled with the unscriptural and delusive fantasy, that the elect can never fall from grace, or fail of salvation. If such be the doctrine of the gospel, I cannot find it there ; and as I dare not subject myself to the condemnation of those who add to God's word, or diminish from it, I cannot delude you with such an expectation.
As there are some who forsake their appointed minister for teachers whom they conceive to be more evangelical in their views, so there are others who imagine that the gospel is never delivered in its uncorrupted purity in the Church, and, instead of joining in her service, attach themselves to other communions, where they receive, or fancy they receive, greater edification. If, by deserting the Church, they are made better men than by attending it; if they become better husbands, better fathers, better neighbours, better Christians, I would say unto them, “Go, and the Lord be with you!" But if the teachers they follow be mistaken ; if “they deliver for doctrines the traditions of men;" if they lead them to trust to a broken reed for the salvation of their souls ; they will have sad cause to regret their folly in embracing their tenets, without a due examination of their truth. “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they be of God." The sin of schism consists in an open violation of church unity by the formation of new communions, the institution of new rites, the creation of an unauthorized ministry, and a departure from that subordination of teaching and ministering, which originally prevailed in the Church. “Is Christ divided ?" asks the Apostle ; and “while one saith, I am of Paul, and another, I am of Apollos, are ye not carnal ?" Where the unity of the Spirit is broken by such divisions, it is impossible that the bond of peace should be preserved; and they are accordingly denounced by the Apostle as inconsistent with the spirit, and falling short of the rewards, of the gospel. At all events, “ halt not between two opinions. If the Lord be God, follow him ; but if Baal, then follow him.” If you are really persuaded that the Church is apostolical in her discipline, and scriptural in her doctrine, act in conformity with such persuasion; and if, on the other hand, you believe that your salvation depends upon relinquishing her communion, (and that alone can justify your separation,) abandon her altogether. A divided service betokens an unsettled faith ; and an unsettled faith, no more than a partial obedience, will be received as a fulfilment of the gospel covenant.
*With respect to those who seldom attend the public worship of their Maker, and those who absent themselves altogether, they can scarcely be numbered among those for whom the minister of the gospel will be called to an account at the great day of final retribution. It is, doubtless, his duty to warn them of their danger; but he can scarcely hope that those, who dare to set God at defiance, will deign to listen to the voice of man. There is a point at which his ministrations will stop, when his admonitions are treated with contempt, and his reproofs returned with revilings. It is useless to “cast pearls before swine," and it is sacrilege to“ give that which is holy to the dogs.” Often rejected, and often slighted, he will often repeat his warnings, while there is a gleam of hope that the hardened heart will relent; nor will he fail to take advantage of any event which may tend to give weight to his exhortations. Sickness and distress will often awaken the sinner to a sense of his danger, and he will then be fain to listen to advice which he had hitherto treated with disdain. Then will the drunkard tremble for his intemperance; then will the swearer shudder at his curses and imprecations; then will the Sabbath-breaker abhor himself for his profaneness, and tremble, like Felix, at the thought of a future judgment. Could I, my brethren, but portray to you the horrors of a death-bed repentance; could I but describe the anguish with which the dying sinner starts back from the precipice upon which he totters, and hopes, almost against hope, by a faltering prayer, and deep-drawn sigh, to avert the vengeance of an offended God; there is not one of you who would not forfeit all the pleasures which this world can give in order to escape them.
In his private visitations, as well as in the public ministry of the word, the christian pastor is entitled to the attention and cooperation of his flock. He will not intrude himself into the privacies of his
people; but he will endeavour, by advice, to forward their interests, and more especially to comfort the bed of sickness, by preparing the sufferer for the happiness of heaven. It is lamentable, that in the discharge of our duties, so many stumbling-blocks should be thrown in our way, not only by the scoffs of the scorner, but by the carelessness and indifference of mankind in general to the concerns of religion. Against infidelity on the one hand, and enthusiasm on the other, our struggles, if they be not incessant, must be vain. If, then, in our endeavours to make full proof of our ministry, we seem “ to stretch ourselves beyond our measure;" if we “reprove, rebuke, exhort," with all the earnestness which the case demands ; if, in setting before your eyes the dangers which await you, and warning you, as you dread the torture of everlasting burnings, to avoid them, we utter truths unpleasant to fastidious ears," forgive us this wrong.” We have solemnly sworn that, “ whether men will hear, or whether they will forbear,” we, for our part, will not fail to declare unto them the whole counsel of God. We have engaged “to be instant in season and out of season; and through evil report and good report,” to preach the truth as it is in Jesus. “To bring many sons unto glory,” is the object of our appointment; but if you refuse to hear the glad tidings of the gospel, “ye will die in your iniquity, but we shall have delivered our souls.” Receive us, then, in our publie ministry with attention, and in our private intercourse with confidence and esteem. There are many, very many, considerations which should render the connexion between a pastor and his flock the most intimate and the most endearing. It is he, who joins the happy mother in her “thanksgivings to Almighty God for her safe deliverance, and her preservation in the great pain and peril of childbirth.” It is he, who receives her new-born babe into the congregation of Christ's flock, baptizing him with the laver of regeneration, and signing him with the sign of the cross, "in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner against sin, the world, and the devil, and to continue his faithful soldier and servant unto his life's end." It is he, from whose hands are distributed the sacred elements of bread and wine, “ according to our Saviour's holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, whereby alone we obtain remission of our sins, and are made partakers of the kingdom of heaven." It is he, who sanctifies the marriage vow before the altar of God, and takes the plighted troth between husband and wife, that,“ forsaking all other, they will live together in holy love so long as they both shall live.” It is he, who kneels beside the bed of sickness, pouring the balm of consolation into the heart of the true penitent, and praying that the Almighty“ will consider his contrition, accept his tears, and assuage his pain ; that, forasmuch as he putteth his full trust only in the Divine mercy, he would not impute unto him his former sins, but strengthen him with his blessed Spirit; and that when he is pleased to take him hence, he would take him to his favour, through the merits of Jesus Christ." It is he, who, at the opened grave, commits the lifeless body to the dust,“ in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.”