|RPM, Volume 13, Number 5, January 30 to February 5, 2011|
1. Ultimate, and 2, Proximate. Let us explain the difference between them. An ultimate end is that for the sake of which anything is undertaken. A proximate end is that which, though not the primary object of the undertaking, yet is obtained at the same time in an intermediate way. Take the following illustration of the difference between them. In desiring to preach the gospel, the chief or ultimate end of one on whose mind the work of the ministry was laid would be the glory of God. To exalt, magnify, and set him on high who had done so great things for his soul would be his highest aim and object, and would be therefore his ultimate end. But seeing the misery of those who have no hope, and are without God in the world, or feeling an ardent love to the suffering saints of God, he might desire also to preach the gospel that he might be an instrument of good to the souls of men. This would be a proximate or intermediate end, as the glory of God would be his ultimate or final end.
These two ends generally meet together in the bosom of every servant of God, and their fulfillment crowns his ministry. He might have very little success in the work, and yet find his happiness in the glory of God. But if his ministry were blessed, it would much increase his joy. We have a beautiful example of this in the words of our great Exemplar, the blessed Lord himself, as prophetically addressed to his heavenly Father, when, foreseeing his rejection by the literal Israel, he thus rested in God—"Then I said, I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing, and in vain; yet surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God." (Isa. 49:4.) But the Father not only accepted his work, as done for his glory, but gave him, as his reward, to become a light to lighten the Gentiles, that he might be his salvation unto the ends of the earth. This simple illustration may give us a key to the ends for which the ministry of the gospel was established. They are, as we have already said, ultimate and proximate. The ultimate end was the glory of God; the proximate end was the benefit and blessing of the Church. We will consider these two ends separately.
1. The ULTIMATE end of the ministry—the glory of God. That all God's counsels, all his ways, and all his works in creation, in providence, and in grace, are for the display of his own glory is a truth so firmly established in every believer's heart that it is scarcely necessary to bring forward on its behalf, as might be easily done, any great amount of Scripture proof. And yet a few testimonies may be desirable, as we never wish to advance any point without a "Thus says the Lord" to establish it on a scriptural basis. Let it suffice, then, to quote two testimonies from the Old Testament and two from the New. Speaking to Pharaoh, God said—"And in very deed for this cause have I raised you up, for to show in you my power; and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth." (Ex. 9:16.) Why was this mighty king raised up and allowed to oppress the people of God? That the name of God might be declared—that is, glorified, in all the earth. And what said the Lord to Moses when he interceded for rebellious Israel? "And the Lord said, I have pardoned, according to your word; but as truly as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord." (Num. 14:20, 21.) Whether, then, Pharaoh was hardened, or Israel forgiven, the glory of God was the ultimate end of each.
Now hear Paul's testimony as regards the dispensation of his grace, and see how the glory of God and the good pleasure of his will is the ultimate end of his predestinating purposes—"Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he has made us accepted in the Beloved." (Eph. 1:5, 6.) And again—"In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who works all things after the counsel of his own will; that we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ." (Eph. 1:11, 12.)
But the exaltation of his dear Son is so intimately connected with, so wrapped up and involved in the display of this glory of God that the ministry of the gospel can have for its ultimate end nothing less than the setting of the crown on the head of Jesus. On his head are many crowns, (Rev. 19:12,) and he deserves and will ever wear them all. But the crown which belongs to him as the Redeemer of the Church by his own blood is the crown of crowns. Now, that to set this crown upon his head is the great, the ultimate end of the ministry of the gospel none will deny who know what the gospel is; and cold and dead must be the heart which beats in a minister's bosom, which does not feel that the glory of Jesus is his highest aim and best reward.
It is beautiful to see the union between the glory of God and the exaltation of his dear Son. This is the decree which secures and harmonizes both—"I have set my king upon my holy hill of Zion." (Psalm 2:6.) And then follows the promise—"Ask of me, and I shall give you the heathen for your inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for your possession." (Psalm 2:8.) So in that memorable prayer, (John 17,) our Lord said to his heavenly Father, "Glorify your Son, that your Son also may glorify you;" and again—"I have glorified you on the earth; I have finished the work which you gave me to do. And now, O Father, glorify you me with your own self with the glory which I had with you before the world was." (John 17:4, 5.) Similarly he prayed, on a previous occasion, "Father, glorify your name." And what an immediate answer! "Then came there a voice from heaven saying, I have both glorified it and will glorify it again." (John 12:28.)
But we shall not dwell on these points, as their consideration would take us too far afield, and shall, therefore, come at once to the proximate or intermediate ends, for which the ministry of the gospel was established.
2. The PROXIMATE end of the ministry—the benefit and blessing of the Church of God. Yet we cannot forbear dwelling for a few moments on the blessed union of these two ends. As the glory of God, and the exaltation of his dear Son unite and harmonize, so is there a union and a harmony between the ultimate and proximate ends for which the ministry of the gospel was established. We showed in our illustration of the work of the ministry, as laid on a man's heart, the union of two ends, the ultimate and the proximate, the glory of God and the good of souls. But in a much higher sense do the ultimate and proximate ends for which the ministry of the gospel was established meet and harmonize in the bosom of God. The union of these two ends, the blessed harmony which exists between them, is even now, as realized by faith, a subject of thankful adoration, and will hereafter, when fully developed, be an eternal source of unutterable joy and praise.
That God should establish his glory in the very heavens by taking into his blissful presence an innumerable multitude of redeemed sinners; that his highest justice and deepest mercy, his ineffable holiness and surpassing grace should meet in the Person and work of his dear Son, and issue in the everlasting salvation of millions of sinners, sunk as low as sin and Satan combined could sink them; O, the depths of wisdom, love, and power, displayed in this mystery of godliness! That God should be glorified, as it is the ultimate end of all his ways and works, as it was the end which our gracious Lord had ever before his eyes when here below, so it is the delight and joy of heaven. Compared with this, redemption itself sinks into insignificance. Better that all should perish, better that earth with all its multitudes should sink forever into the bottomless pit, than that the glory of God should receive a tarnish or a stain.
But that the salvation of the redeemed should redound to the glory of God; that there should be so blessed a union, so thorough and perfect a harmony between the glory of God and the salvation of sinners through the blood and righteousness of his dear Son; that, as he said to Moses when he revealed to him his glory, it was to "keep mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin;" this will make the eternal anthem swell its highest notes of praise; this will be the highest joy of those who will see him as he is, without a veil between.
We come now, then, to the proximate or intermediate end, for which the ministry of the gospel was established—the benefit and blessing of the Church of God.
This point is clearly and beautifully set forth in various parts of the Epistles of the New Testament, especially in what are called the pastoral Epistles, that is, those to Timothy and that to Titus. The counsels and exhortations given by the Apostle to these two servants of Christ, form and embody a complete code of ministerial instruction, and should be pondered over, and attended to, by every minister who desires to know the will of God and do it. But we think that in no part of the New Testament are the ends for which the ministry was established so fully and clearly laid down as in Eph. 4:8-16. We shall, therefore, chiefly confine ourselves to the opening of this portion of the word of truth.
Our blessed Lord in his last interview with his disciples, "commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, says he, you have heard of me. For John truly baptized with water; but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days hence." (Acts 1:5.) This gift of the Holy Spirit we have already shown was necessary to make the ministry a living word to the souls of men. But the blessed Spirit thus given came down in diversities of gifts—"And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers." (Eph. 4:11.) But though the gifts were different, yet the end was the same—"For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." (Eph. 4:12.) Three ends are here named. Let us examine them.
i. The first is "for the perfecting of the saints." But before we enter upon this point it may be as well to define the meaning of both terms. What is meant, then, by "the saints?" Undoubtedly those who are "sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ, and called;" (Jude 1;) who "by the will of God are sanctified by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all;" (Heb. 10:10;) in a word, the members of the mystical body of Christ, "chosen in him before the foundation of the world, that they should be holy and without blame before him in love." (Eph. 1:4.) By the word "perfecting" we may understand several things, but chiefly everything which relates to the calling, gathering in, and promoting the spiritual benefit of these members of the body of Christ. We will look at some of these benefits and blessings.
The word translated "perfecting" means making a thing ready, putting it fully in order, and rendering it complete. It is so used of creation. "Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God." (Heb. 11:3.) It is, therefore, applied to the sacred body of Jesus in the words, "a body have you prepared me," margin, "fitted." (Heb. 10:5.) So, "Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings you have perfected praise;" (Matt. 21:16;) in the Hebrew, "founded." From this idea of preparing or framing, preparing in the mind, and forming by actual operation, comes that of putting together, so as to make a perfect and complete whole. We, therefore, find the word used as expressive of union of heart and judgment—"That you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment." (1 Cor. 1:10.) Thence springs a further idea of growth and development in beauty and completeness—"make you perfect;" ( 1 Pet. 5:10;) "make you perfect in every good work." (Heb. 13:21.)
Let us see whether we have now gained any clearer idea as to the meaning of the expression, "the perfecting of the saints." Take these three meanings into your consideration—1, that of framing, which is chiefly done by putting things together; 2, so putting them together that they may fit in well with each other; 3, so fitting together that, with this original framing and neat junction of the various parts, there may be a gradual growth and development of the whole into such perfection as it is susceptible of. To gather suitable materials; to put these materials neatly and nicely together; and to keep adding stone to stone and layer to layer, until the whole building be complete in all its parts—to do these three things thoroughly and well is "the perfecting of the saints."
Let us consider those three things somewhat more closely, as it may throw light upon the ends for which the ministry of the gospel was established.
1. The first step is the gathering of suitable materials. These are already prepared in the mind of God, yes, prepared before the foundation of the world. Paul, therefore, says, "And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory." (Rom. 9:23.) But they are to be gathered, and usually one by one. (Isa. 27:12.) The stones are still in the quarry of nature, and have to be gathered out thence that they may be "as corner-stones polished after the similitude of a palace." The ministry of the gospel is God's appointed means of gathering these stones out. What a wonderful proof of this was afforded on the day of Pentecost, when under one sermon three thousand were not merely pierced, but pierced (as the word literally means, and should have been translated) in their heart, and thus quickened into life, and called out of darkness into God's marvelous light. How clearly also this part of the work of the ministry was given to Paul in that memorable commission spoken to his inmost soul by the Lord himself, when he appeared to him in majesty and glory at Damascus gate—"But rise, and stand upon your feet; for I have appeared unto you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness, both of these things which you have seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto you; delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send you, to open their eyes and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me." (Acts 26:16-18.)
If proof were needed of the fulfillment of this commission to the very letter, and of the power of the ministry of the gospel to call sinners to repentance, we need only follow Paul from city to city, and from country to country, and see how almost everywhere the vilest and worst of sinners, sinners such as he so graphically describes 1 Cor. 6:9, 10, were by the words of his lips turned from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven. God, indeed, may work upon a sinner's conscience without the direct application of the word; (1 Pet. 3:1;) but his usual way is to call sinners by it, and especially by it as preached by his servants. Peter, therefore, says—"Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which lives and abides forever." (1 Pet. 1:23.) And similar is the testimony of James—"Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures." (James 1:18.)
We have, indeed, to lament that in our day there is so little of this conversion work going on, so few striking instances of the power of the preached word on the hearts of sinners, as we read of in the days of Bunyan, Whitefield, Huntington, etc. Nothing, indeed, more plainly shows the poverty and barrenness of the ministry of our day than the feebleness of its effects. We do not altogether lack men of truth, though from deaths and infirmities their number seems sadly diminishing; the gospel is preached with greater or less degree of clearness and faithfulness in various parts of the land; there is a spirit of hearing in many places, and a manifest hungering for a more powerful gospel, and more richly and ably furnished ministers; and yet, alas! judging from the effects, how rarely does it seem, as in days of old, preached with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven.
2. But now comes the second meaning, which we have pointed out as a part of "the perfecting of the saints." This we said was the fitting or joining of the stones, when gathered, neatly and nicely together. How then is this accomplished by the ministry of the gospel? Thus. As the Lord the Spirit makes it the power of God unto salvation; as by it faith is given, for "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God;" as Christ is revealed unto and embraced by faith thus given, and this faith works by love, a union is produced in the soul of the hearer thus blessed to the dear family of God. Thus, as the ministry first gathers out the stones, and, as we shall presently show, hacks and hews them into right form and shape, so it also brings together the living stones thus gathered and thus prepared, and unites them to the other living stones, and thus, as Peter speaks, they "are built up a spiritual house."
This is a very essential part of the ministry of the word, and is intimately connected with the spiritual blessings which the gospel holds out and instrumentally communicates. The two works are distinct, as distinct in the ministry as calling and deliverance in the soul of the hearer. Some of God's servants are more blessed in the first work, the calling of sinners, the quickening of them into divine life, the first gathering of the stones. Others are more blessed to the deliverance of souls in guilt and bondage. But both are parts of the ministry of the gospel. Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. And yet he who planted and he who watered were one; for both were laborers together with God. (1 Cor. 3:6-9.) So in the building of the spiritual house. Before the stones can be nicely fitted into the building, they have not only to be hewed out of the quarry, but cut and squared, the rough corners and angles chipped off, so as not to be mere rubble, or like the stones that we see in the rough stone walls of some of our counties, thrust in anyhow just as they are picked up out of the pit, the work of a farm laborer, not of a mason. There is, therefore, often a long interval between the first gathering and the nicely fitting; for these stones are not fit to be put into the spiritual building in their rough, unhewn state.
But besides all this hacking and hewing, ("I have hewed them by the prophets," (Hos. 6:5,) squaring and paring, leveling and beveling, something else is needed of special and divine communication to make the stones neatly and nicely fit; for without this there will be rents in the building, unsightly gaps, and anything but that which shows the master's hand. A man may be gathered for some considerable time, many are so for years, before he is so far humbled and broken inspirit, his pride, prejudice, and self-righteousness, these rough corners, chipped off, or his soul so fully blessed and delivered as to be fully united in heart and spirit to the living family of God. He may love their company, and esteem them the excellent of the earth; but through doubt and fear, darkness, guilt, and bondage, not be united to them in the full feelings of his soul, or in church fellowship, as in the case of our gospel churches. He feels himself, perhaps, to be a poor isolated being, spoiled for the world, yet unfit for the Church; a kind of spiritual nondescript, with sufficient light in his mind and life in his conscience to bring and keep him out of the world, to make him sit at Zion's gates, listen, eagerly listen, to the preached word, but not blessed with that sweet assurance of faith whereby he can take hold of the blessings of the gospel as his own, or unite himself to the family of God without fear or bondage.
Now a large and important end of the ministry of the gospel is for the very purpose of delivering, comforting, and blessing such tried and exercised souls. "Comfort, comfort my people;" "Strengthen the weak hands and confirm the feeble knees; say to those who are of a fearful heart, be strong, fear not;" "Cast up, cast up the highway, gather out the stones, lift up a standard for the people;" those are some of the special charges given to the servants of God for the perfecting of the saints. But there is "a set time to favor Zion;" and when this set time comes to favor a poor soul in guilt and bondage, when the word is blessed to his deliverance, and pardon and peace are revealed and sealed on his conscience, he is then not only gathered, hacked, hewed, chipped, squared, and leveled, but so molded into a felt sense of the love of God and his dear people, so beautifully and blessedly fitted for the fellowship of the saints, that he is constrained by every sweet constraint to be visibly and openly one with them and of them. He feels he cannot be happy unless he unites himself to the living family of God; and they, when they hear the good news, are as glad to receive him as he is to be received.
To this part of the ministry, therefore, belongs the uniting of the living stones into church fellowship. This was the invariable practice of the Apostles. They did not leave the stones gathered by their preaching to lie about by themselves anywhere and everywhere, as must be the case where there is no church formed, and the ordinances of God's house are neglected. In such a congregation there may be a living ministry, and living stones gathered by that ministry; but where is the spiritual house, where the Church as in the days of the Apostles? Where is there church discipline and gospel order, or any visible fellowship of the saints? It is true there may be the visible form of a church without spiritual fellowship among the members; and seeing this has sometimes repelled godly people from joining any church, and made them prefer their present state of isolation. But the abuse of a thing does not overthrow its use, nor are we to reject church fellowship because in many cases it is but a fellowship in name and appearance. One thing is undeniable, that the Apostles instituted churches, and that the same day of Pentecost which witnessed the gathering of the stones, the three thousand first converts, witnessed also the ordinance of baptism and the formation of a gospel church—"Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers." (Acts 2:41, 42.) Here we have, most undeniably, a gospel church; for we read—"And the Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved." (Acts 2:47.) We have thus presented to our view, set up by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, a gospel Church, in which were administered the two standing ordinances of baptism and the Lord's supper, the latter called the "breaking of bread." With this Church the Apostles had fellowship and communion, both with each other and the members; for we read that those who were thus called and baptized "continued steadfastly in the Apostle's doctrine and fellowship." Blessed doctrine! for Christ, a crucified and a risen Christ, was its sum and substance; and blessed fellowship when "the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul." How beautifully and how blessedly were the living stones then fitted together; for they were all baptized into one body by the power and indwelling of the Holy Spirit, as they were united in church fellowship by the ordinances of God's house. No error then tainted the purity of their doctrine, no division marred the closeness of their fellowship; and for a short space the Church "looked forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners." (Song 6:10.) Here, under the preaching of the Apostles and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, we have the brightest example and clearest pattern of what the ministry of the gospel can do for "the perfecting of the saints," both in effectually calling or gathering, and in building them together in spiritual union and communion inwardly, and in church fellowship outwardly.
3. And now comes the third meaning which we attached to the expression, "the perfecting of the saints"—the contributing to the growth, increase, and development of the people of God when thus brought together. We shall not dwell long upon this point, though one of great importance, for two reasons—1. Because we will not encroach at present too much on our pages; 2. Because this peculiar feature of the ministry will come more fully under our consideration when we have to open the verses which immediately follow the passage which we are now attempting to explain.
"Perfection," as used in the New Testament, is often misunderstood. Wesley's doctrine of perfection has much obscured its scriptural meaning, and that in two almost opposite ways—1. By persuading his ignorant followers that there is such an attainment as perfection in the flesh; and, 2. By prejudicing his opponents against the word itself, as being by him so grossly perverted. There is a remarkable tendency to ignore or quietly drop words which have been perverted to false meanings, and this from a jealous fear lest we should be suspected of holding erroneous sentiments if we made use of them. Thus the words "holy" and "holiness," as applied to a Christian walk, have been almost dropped in many pulpits, for fear lest their use should be suspected of encouraging progressive or fleshly sanctification. So the words "perfect" and "perfection" have dropped out of the established Calvinistic pulpit vocabulary, much through Wesley's perversion of their meaning. But it is a scriptural term, and, therefore, has a sense fully harmonizing with the analogy of faith and the grand doctrines of the gospel. We have often thought that there is one passage in particular which clearly explains what the New Testament means by perfection. It occurs Heb. 5:14—"But strong meat belongs to them that are of full age," (margin, perfect.") Perfection, then, according to the Scripture, does not mean absolute moral perfection, a freedom from the corruption of our nature; a thorough purity of heart, lip, and life; but as distinguished from a state of spiritual childhood, a Christian ripeness, a full maturity of judgment, a capability of feeding upon and digesting strong meat; a having the senses, by reason of use and experience, exercised to discern both good and evil. A man fully grown, a mind well matured, a house completely built, a tree arrived to its full size and fruitfulness, are not perfect absolutely, but they are perfect relatively. The man will be no stronger, the mind no riper, the house not more finished, the tree not larger or more productive. This is the scriptural idea of perfection, implying, not a freedom from sin or infirmity—but a freedom from childish ignorance, weakness, indecision, and instability.
As, then, the ministry is for "the perfecting of the saints," it is the appointed instrument of communicating that sound instruction, that ripened and matured wisdom, that firm stability, that clear judgment, that steadiness of mind, that decision in general character and action which distinguishes the man from the child. To produce this perfection, to be an instrument in the hands of the blessed Spirit thus to mature, ripen, and establish the saints of God, and build them up on their most holy faith, is a most important end of the ministry. What a blessing to a church, and especially to the older and more experienced members, is a sound, faithful, experimental ministry, a ministry of exercised, solid, weighty, established men, not of youths and novices. A church preached to by youths and ruled by women falls under that sentence—"As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them." And what is the consequence? "O my people, they which lead you cause you to err, and destroy the way of your paths." (Isa. 3:12.)
But what with the prevalent system of supplies, what with the lack of able, experienced, and faithful pastors, and what with the low state of things generally in the churches, we have lost almost the very idea of a sound, experienced, weighty, established ministry; and can now only faintly realize it by reading the writings of such men as Bunyan, Owen, Huntington, Bourne's Letters, etc.; and thus finding and feeling, from the weight and power of the words of such men, what a blessing it would be to sit under such a ministry; of course, not so gifted, for that would be desiring too much; but approaching it in its stability, and the weight of its instruction, guidance, consolation, and general edification.
Our readers will perhaps remember that the point at which we have now arrived in our present Meditations, is the ends for which the Ministry of the Gospel was established, and that we divided these ends into two—ultimate and proximate; the ultimate being the glory of God in the exaltation of his dear Son; the proximate, the benefit and blessing of the Church. They will also call to mind that in examining the latter point—the proximate ends, we expressed our opinion that in no part of the New Testament were these ends so fully and clearly laid down as by the Apostle Paul in Eph. 4:8-16; and that we therefore purposed to confine ourselves to the opening of that portion of the word of truth, as the best and simplest way of elucidating the subject now before us.
In pursuance of that plan—for some degree of order is requisite in examining every important subject, we attempted to unfold the meaning of Eph. 4:12, in which the Apostle intimates that there were three special ends to be accomplished by the ministry of "the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers," whom the Lord sends, and whom he endues with power from on high. These three ends were "the perfecting of the saints, the work of the ministry, and the edifying of the body of Christ." One of these ends, "the perfecting of the saints," we have already examined.
2. We come now, therefore, to the second end laid down by the Apostle—"For the work of the ministry," which we shall endeavor in a similar way to unfold.
The expression is of a more general character than the preceding, and seems to be purposely employed so by the Apostle, that it might take a more capacious grasp, and more fully embrace the whole of that wide and extensive service which is rendered to the Church by the ministry of the servants of God. Whatever ministerial work, therefore, is done by any or all of the servants of Christ for the benefit and blessing of the Church, whether much or little, whether performed by an apostle, or a prophet, or an evangelist, or a pastor, or a teacher, falls under this head, "the work of the ministry."
Its two leading ideas are ministry and work, and these two combined in effective and sustained operation; not work simply, which might be uncalled for or misdirected, and therefore useless, if not positively mischievous, nor ministry simply, which might be office without service, a mere sinecure dignity without labor; but that union of proper qualification and actual work which makes a servant acceptable to his master and useful to all within the compass of his services. The idea is simple and easily intelligible, and yet an illustration may set it in a clearer light. In a large establishment, say a wealthy nobleman's, there may be 50 or 60 servants, differing among themselves in rank, qualification, and situation; but each has his fixed place and appointed work. None has intruded himself into the situation which he occupies; all serve one master, who appoints each his work, and pairs each his wages; and not one is there but for the honor or service of his master, and the advantage, comfort, and well-being of the whole family. The figure, of course, is imperfect, as all figures necessarily must be; but it may serve as an illustration of what is intended by the expression, "the work of the ministry."
The first idea is that of "work," and that sound, honest, often hard, and usually efficient work. We have no idea of a lazy, slothful, indolent minister, and are very sure that such men, and it is to be feared there is an abundance of them in every sect and denomination, find no sanction for their laziness in the word of truth, and no approbation in the conscience or affections of the people of God. It is true that health, opportunities, spheres of activity and usefulness, gifts, abilities, and acceptance, and other both internal and external circumstances widely differ, even among the true servants of God, and therefore preclude the application of a fixed or rigid standard. We cannot, therefore, measure the work for the man, as we cannot measure the man for the work; but work there must be done by every professing servant of God, if he would not fall under the terrible sentence pronounced by the Lord of the house against the slothful and unprofitable servant, Matt. 25:26-30. In this busy hive, work is the appointed lot of most; and work, when honest and not too fatiguing to body or mind, has its enjoyments as well as its profits. But no work is so honorable, so useful, so lasting, and so fruitful in consequences for time and eternity, as the work of the ministry. All other, however useful, excellent, or honorable, begins and ends with time; this alone, though it begins and is carried on in time, reaches into eternity.
The second idea is that of "ministry." This we have already explained as a service for men, but not of men. Let no sent servant of God so degrade himself, let no churches or deacons so degrade a real minister of Christ as to make him or consider him their servant. Let the wealthy deacons and rich members of churches have their men-servants and their maid-servants, their grooms and gardeners; and let their business men have their clerks, assistants, porters, and errand-boys, whom they may take on or take off, whom they may hire and dismiss as they choose. The work of these is time-work, and their service time-service; but their minister, if he be a man of God, is neither their time-servant nor a time-server. He watches for their souls as one that must give account, and labors not for the food which perishes, but that which endures unto everlasting life. If a church be so highly favored as to have for its minister a man of God, let it esteem him very highly in love for his work's sake; and let him, on his side, not presume on his position, or attempt any other rule than the rule of love. To be a lord over God's heritage is as much out of place in him as to degrade him into their servant is out of place in them. Both are equally unscriptural; both will cause strife and division, and probably end in separation.
The work to be done is both great and various. It requires, therefore, corresponding laborers. No one man can do equally well every part of the work.
Each has his own work to do, and each man will do his own work best. These are simple truths—truths which in theory almost every one will assent to, and yet in practice how continually are they forgotten or departed from. What a monopoly of gifts, usefulness, and acceptability some men seem disposed to claim to themselves; how prone to surround themselves with a little knot of friends and admirers; how jealous or suspicious of other ministers; how ready to speak against them, especially if any of their people are disposed to favor them; and how they will treat, almost as personal enemies, the very best people if they cannot or do not receive their ministry. Such conduct surely manifests great pride or great ignorance. Look at the greatness and variety of the work to be done, and then see whether any one man, or ten men, can arrogate to themselves such exclusive pretensions. Consider the wisdom, grace, love, and power of the great Head of the Church; view the wide extent and scattered character of his kingdom; think of the variety of cases which his people present; bear in mind their trials, temptations, afflictions, and varied circumstances, and then ask, Who or what must that man be who can minister to all these people, meet all these cases, and do all the work of the ministry?
A variety of gifts is as needful as a certain number of laborers. Some are more qualified for the first work—calling sinners to repentance. Their work lies chiefly in pulling down the strongholds of sin and Satan, showing man's state by nature before God, declaring the insufficiency of all creature worth or works, and proclaiming the necessity and nature of the new birth. Others are more qualified to build up the saints on their most holy faith by preaching clearly and experimentally the glorious doctrines of grace. Others can enter more fully and deeply into the experience of God's poor, tried, and afflicted family. Some are more searching and discriminating, and take forth in a bold, faithful, and separating ministry the precious from the vile; others are more for comforting the cast-down, and speaking a word in season to the soul that is weary. Some can enforce the precept without legality, others preach doctrines without dryness, and others handle experience without sameness. Each has his peculiar work to do, an appointed place to occupy, a people for whom he is specially adapted, and a field in which he alone can effectually labor.
We are apt to judge too much by outward appearances. Because this man has not the gifts or the abilities, or the experience or the peculiar line of that man, or even almost because he has not the manner, or the delivery, or the mode of our favorite minister, are we to cast him aside, and slight him and his communication? If we have good reason to believe that he is a partaker of the grace of God, preaches what he knows and has experienced, has a sufficient gift to lead us to believe that the Lord has opened his mouth, manifests by his life, conduct, and conversation that his eye is single to God's glory, and is in any measure owned and blessed in the work, we are bound to receive him as a servant of Christ, even if in many points his ministry may seem in our view defective, or not specially profitable or acceptable to ourselves. This exercise of Christian judgment, this willingness to lay aside narrow, prejudiced, and contracted views, this rising above party spirit, this free acting of that charity which hopes all things and believes all things, by no means implies that false charity which thinks well of every minister, or that superstitious credulity which believes every spirit. Nor does it preclude the exercise of our judgment as to the grace, gifts, abilities, and usefulness of the true servants of God.
There is a middle, though a narrow, path between prejudiced, bigoted exclusiveness and false charity, between party spirit and wide-armed reception, between the shutting up of ears and heart against all but two or three, and that foolish simplicity which believes every word that drops from the pulpit. (Prov. 14:15.) "The ear tries words, as the mouth tastes food." (Job 34:3.) We are bidden to "try the spirits whether they are of God, because many false prophets are gone out into the world;" (1 John 4:1;) and yet we are "to know them which labor among us, and are over us in the Lord, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake." (1 Thess. 5:12, 13.) We, therefore, need special grace in this matter to receive none whom the Lord rejects, and reject none whom the Lord receives, but be so guided by wisdom, and so influenced by love, that we may walk before God with the answer of a good conscience, and walk before men with meekness of wisdom.
3. The third end is, "the edifying of the body of Christ." "To edify," we need scarcely remark, means to build up—"the body of Christ" is the Church which he has purchased with his own blood. The Holy Spirit here has united two figures to convey one idea. The Church of Christ is sometimes compared to a building, as in that beautiful passage—"So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God's holy people. You are members of God's family. We are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We who believe are carefully joined together, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. Through him you Gentiles are also joined together as part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit." (Eph. 2:19-22.) Peter uses the same figure, "To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, you also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house." (1 Pet. 2:4, 5.)
We have already shown in our remarks upon "the perfecting of the saints," that the work of hewing the stones out of the quarry and squaring them into shape, and fitting them together into the spiritual house was an especial end of the ministry of the gospel. This, therefore, we need not repeat.
The figure of a human body, as descriptive of the Church of Christ, is no less common than that of a house or temple. We shall see more of its beauty and propriety presently, but for the present, let us quote the Apostle's words—"For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member but many." (1 Cor. 12:12-14.) Now this body of Christ—his mystical, as distinguished from his actual and personal, body, has to be built up, that is, the various members are to be brought together, united to each other, and thus grow up in harmonious concord. Christ is the ever-living Head, (Eph. 5:23; Col. 2:19,) who supplies out of his own fullness all the needs of the various members; but they have first to be brought together and then to grow together. It is for this reason that the two figures are blended into one. The natural figure of a body with its various members would not convey a right conception of the way in which the saints become partakers of the benefits and blessings of Christ as a covenant Head, because in the human body all the members are at once and at the same time in union with the head and each other. This indeed is true as regards the eternal union between Christ and his people, for they were all chosen in him before the foundation of the world, and united to him by an act of the Father's sovereign good pleasure. But as they are brought into being successively in time, so they can only be vitally and spiritually united to him in their time state. For this reason, therefore, the figure of a building is chosen as indicative of the successive addition of stones to a temple. But as stones in a natural building, when brought together, do not grow as the members of a body grow from childhood to manhood, the Holy Spirit has blended the two figures—building implying successive additions of stones, a body implying a living growth, which members have, but stones have not. This short but perhaps not very clear explanation will perhaps throw light upon the expression, "the edifying of the body of Christ," as an end accomplished by the ministry of the word.
The work of the ministry generally may be divided into two great branches—the calling of sinners, and the building up of saints. It is chiefly, though not exclusively, the latter which is intended by the expression, "the edifying of the body of Christ." But how is the body built up by the ministry?
1. These young converts have first to be INSTRUCTED. They are usually very ignorant, even of the first elements of our most holy faith; but if they are of the right stamp, and the work of conviction in their souls is genuine, they are generally very teachable. They are brought as it were into a new world. The word of truth may have been known by them in the letter, but its hidden spiritual and experimental meaning was altogether hidden from their eyes. Much self-righteousness and legality of spirit often cleave very closely to their skirts, and the very freeness of gospel grace, until the law has done its work upon their consciences, and burned up their wood, hay, and stubble, hinders its cordial reception. Now to souls thus exercised and distressed, full of guilt, bondage, and misery, and yet entangled in a legal, self-righteous spirit which only makes their chains heavier, what a blessing is a living, experimental, clear, enlightened ministry! What good hearers such burdened souls usually are; with what eagerness do they listen, with what an appetite do they feed, with what a memory do they retain the word of life as it falls from the pulpit. These are not like many old hearers, too proud to be taught, and though they have not the judgment and discernment of more established believers, yet they may well by their life, zeal, warmth, and earnestness put their elders to shame.
Every minister, therefore, who seeks to approve himself to God, and be made a blessing to his people, should consider instruction a very important part of his ministry, and should endeavor to put before the people the truths of the gospel in the clearest, plainest, and most consistent possible manner. He should, therefore, be continually reading and studying the Scriptures, mingling his reading with prayer and supplication for divine teaching, and be satisfied with nothing short of a gracious, feeling, experimental knowledge of the truth in his own soul, as he can then speak with authority and power; and where there is a clearness of views, there will generally be a corresponding clearness of statement. A minister of truth should also seek to have very clear ideas upon the grand doctrines of our most holy faith, based upon a living experience of them, such as the Trinity, the Deity and Sonship of the blessed Lord, the Deity and personality of the Holy Spirit, the Person of Christ as God-man, his holy and sacred humanity, his blood shedding, obedience, and death, his resurrection, ascension, present intercession, and future coming—in a word, every point connected with the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. Unless he himself has clear, consistent views of the grand fundamental principles of truth, how can he either preach it clearly or defend it successfully? Under his confused, cloudy, perplexed and perplexing ministry, error will lie snug and undisturbed, even gracious living hearers be tossed about and unestablished, and little union felt or known with him or each other.
2. Secondly, the living family have to be FED.
We have remarked that there is a growth of the members of the mystical body of Christ, and that to conduce to and promote this growth is to edify or build up the body of Christ. As in the natural, so in the spiritual body, this growth much depends on the nature and quality of the food supplied to it. Let the food given to the natural body be thin, watery, deficient in those peculiar elements of nutrition which supply the continual wasting of the bodily tissues, and in consequence, will be emaciation of the whole frame. This is especially the case in childhood and youth, when the growth of the whole body and of its various members is going on, and the future man or woman is being built up. The difference at that period of life between scanty, insufficient, unnutritious food, and an ample supply of sound, wholesome, nourishing diet is a matter of illness or health, debility or vigor, and, in their consequences, of death and life.
So in the building up of the mystical body of Christ, the difference between a thin and watery, unnutritious ministry and one full of sound, solid, wholesome, nourishing food is immense. The word of God speaks of "milk" and "strong meat"—milk for babes, (Heb. 5:14; 1 Pet. 2:2,) and strong meat for men. (1 Cor. 3:2.) Both these kinds of diet contain the largest portion of the elements of nutrition, and severally suit the digestive organs of infancy and manhood. Such, then, should be the ministry of the gospel, milk and meat; not London milk, weak and watery, but good, rich, new country milk, as it comes from the cow, full of cream and cheese, and meat sound and healthy, well bred and well fed; not Whitechapel beef, snatched by the butcher's knife from pleuro-pneumonia or the cattle plague. We do not want eloquence in the pulpit, but we do want food. Jael brought forth her milk and butter "in a lordly dish," for she was feeding the proud lord and master of 900 chariots of iron; but we can well dispense with "the lordly dish," if the bowl at one end of the table be filled with good milk for the babes, and the dish at the other, where the men sit, has on it a sound and juicy joint. But London milk in a porcelain bowl will starve the babe, and Whitechapel meat in a china dish will poison the man. Do we not love to see our children grow up stout and strong? But they need for this good food, and a good supply of it. O brother ministers, do you think sometimes about the food that you supply the children of God with? Has it nourished, is it nourishing your own soul? Can you say of what you preach, "These truths have fed, and do still feed my soul? Christ, his Person, his work, his blood, his righteousness, his dying love, his beauty, blessedness, and suitability; his mercy, pity, and compassion; what I have seen, felt, and known of him in his presence and power, as all my salvation and all my desire; this is all my life, all my hope, and all my happiness. I must, therefore, speak well of his name, exalt him to the utmost of my power, and commend him to every poor sensible sinner who is pining after him as the child after the bosom, or the starving man for food. 'Honey and milk are under his tongue; his flesh is food indeed, and his blood is drink indeed.' And having drunk his milk and wine, and eaten his meat, I can speak well of them both, and never wish to set any other provision before the dear family of God." This is the preaching which God will own and bless; and though it may be despised by the great bulk of professors, it will be prized by the poor and needy, hungering and thirsting children of God.
3. Another thing desirable, if not absolutely necessary, to edify the body of Christ is a suitable and seasonable VARIETY in the food supplied. The natural body requires for its due nourishment variety of food. The constituent elements of what is eaten remain the same, or it would not be nutritious; but, without some degree of variety, food, after a time, becomes rather loathed than loved. Our poor soldiers, under that red tape system which ties men up like a lawyer's brief, when not on foreign service, had boiled beef served to them at their mess day by day until their very stomachs loathed the sight and smell. The children of Israel ate quail in the wilderness until the meat came out of their nostrils and became loathsome unto them. (Num. 11:20.)
Should there not be some corresponding variety in the ministry of the word? What a variety there is in the Bible! Take the whole range from Genesis to Revelation. How consistent, how uniform in doctrine, but how varied in detail. It is thus uniform in conception, but multiform in expression. Without unity of thought there would be confusion, if not contradiction; without variety of expression there would be not only a wearisome sameness, but a deficiency of instruction. The amazing variety of the Bible is not only charming, as ever presenting some new feature of heavenly truth, but most instructive and edifying. So in the approved works of our most esteemed Christian writers, such as Bunyan, Owen, Huntington—what a fullness of abounding variety. Should not the ministry have a good measure of this? The food that it supplies may be varied, and yet be good food still. Milk can be given to children in more ways than one; meat for men need not be always mutton, and least of all the same piece and the same exact mode of cooking. So in the ministry of the word, there may be, and should be, variety—not a variety of truth but a variety in truth.
Prayer is a part of the ministry; but how wearisome to hear the same prayer over and over and over again. We condemn forms of prayer; yet how does the same prayer repeated again and again differ from a mere printed form? The chief value of extemporaneous prayer is that it enables the minister to pour forth his whole soul before God, as the blessed Spirit helps his infirmities and gives him utterance. He thus, as mouth for his gracious hearers, expresses the desires of their souls, and they can silently and sweetly unite with him as he presents his own and their mutual supplications before the throne. But when they know beforehand almost every word of his prayer; when there is no enlargement of heart and mouth, no entering into the numerous and varied needs, feelings, exercises, and desires of their souls, his prayer becomes at length but a wearisome, burdensome, unprofitable formula—words, and nothing but words. And as this is true of the prayer, so is it true and more than true of the preaching. We want no novelty in doctrine or experience; we are well satisfied with the good old beaten way. We want no startling, still less no sensational preaching. We want no juggler with his cup and balls to astonish our weak minds with the wonderful interpretations which he can put upon God's word, and no clown to entertain us with jests and anecdotes. Nor do we want the eloquent orator, who perhaps may break down in one of his finest passages which he has well conned over and learned by heart; nor do we require a dry doctrinalist, or contentious disputer, or a personal railer. But we greatly want the sound, sober, well-taught man of God, whose grace we see in his heart and life, and whose gift we feel in the power and savor of his ministry.
Our own belief is that whenever God sends a man to preach his word, he always furnishes him with a suitable gift; and that one mark of this gift is such a seasonable measure of variety as shall make his ministry from time to time a living word, springing out of and kept up by a living inward experience of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We are never so safe as when we are on strict Scripture ground; indeed, off that ground we are never safe at all. It is for this reason that in our Meditations on the Ministry of the Gospel we have adhered so closely to the word of truth, and preferred bringing forward select passages in which the Holy Spirit has clearly unfolded its true nature and character, and opening, to the best of our ability, their spiritual meaning, to dealing with the subject in a wider and looser way by general observations of our own. But the letter of Scripture is one thing, and the interpretation of it is another. We might quote right passages, and yet give them a wrong interpretation. We believe, however, that we have not so erred. At least, we can declare with all holy boldness the inmost conviction of our conscience that, with the exception of such infirmities and defects of knowledge or expression as all are subject to, we have interpreted the word of the Spirit according to the mind of the Spirit. This may seem to some a bold assertion; but we will make a still bolder one in the expression of our conviction that whoever undertakes to instruct the Church of God must have the fullest certainty in his own mind that what he brings forward is in harmony with the mind of the Spirit, or he is utterly unfit either to stand up in a pulpit or to handle a pen in the cause of God and truth.
Carrying out, then, this plan, we are now engaged in opening the mind of the Spirit as expressed by the Apostle, Eph. 4:11-16, and have advanced in our explanation as far as the end of verse 12—"For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." In the verses which immediately follow, and which we shall presently quote, the fruits and effects of the ministry are unfolded with equal clearness and beauty, as we hope to show by our exposition of them—"Until we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ; from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplies, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, makes increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love." (Eph. 4:13-16.)
Several points here are worthy of our closest attention, and especially two as FRUITS OF THE MINISTRY—1. What peculiar evils we are instrumentally to be preserved from by it; 2. What eminent advantages we are to reap from it.
We will consider these two points separately.
1. Observe then, first, what we may call the negative side, the peculiar EVILS from which the gospel is intended to preserve or deliver us.
The ministry of the gospel is intended to be our main safeguard against error—"That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive." (ver. 14.)
Many, if not most, in a profession of religion are children all their days—not children in the best sense of the word, but children in the worst. In the Scripture we find the figure of a child used in two different senses, each being drawn from its natural character. In a child, as a child, there are two main, leading, salient features—what we may call its good side, and its bad side. Its docility, simplicity, sincerity, humility, artlessness, and what is usually termed its innocence, form its good side. This part of its character our Lord noticed when "he called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of the disciples, and said, Verily I say unto you, except you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whoever, therefore, shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 18:3, 4.) But the child is also ignorant, unstable, undecided, pettish, soon moved to passion or to tears, caught by baubles and gewgaws, credulous, open to deception, fickle, and changeable. This forms its bad, or at least its weak side. The Apostle has beautifully hit off the difference between these two senses of the word in one verse—"Brethren, be not children in understanding; howbeit in malice be you children, but in understanding be men." (1 Cor. 14:20.) To be a child in understanding is to be weak, ignorant, vacillating, undecided, ever halting between two opinions, deficient in every manly grace and gift; ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. To be a child in spirit is to be simple, sincere, teachable, peaceable, affectionate, open; free from craft, hypocrisy, and deceit. To be the first is to be the least, to be the last is to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
In grace as in nature, there is a period when we are children; and such a state has its beauty in one as well as in the other. To be born a full-grown man would be a monster or a prodigy, as Hercules is fabled to have strangled two serpents in his cradle sent by the goddess Juno to kill him; or as King Richard III is said to have come into the world not only with a hump on his back, but with teeth in his head. Jerusalem, the mother of us all, bears no such prodigies as infant giants, able when yet in arms to overcome the wicked one, or well toothed babes who cry out for strong meat instead of milk. The Scripture most plainly lays it down that the Church of God is made up of babes, children, young men, and fathers; and to hear a child talk like a father is almost worse than to hear a father talk like a child.
In this sense we are to be "no more children." To have been a child once is enough. We are to "grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." We are to grow up, as we shall by-and-by show, "unto him in all things, who is the Head, even Christ." There is a coming unto "a perfect," or adult man, "unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." Wherever there is life there is growth, and the more healthy the life, the more vigorous, the more marked is the growth. A lack of growth is, therefore, a sure mark of sickliness, or at least of a weak, unhealthy constitution. The Apostle, therefore, sharply reproves the Hebrew disciples as being always children—"In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness." (Heb. 5:12, 13.)
We sometimes see children that never seem to grow, or able to run alone, or learn to talk. What a grief is this to their parents, who fear that they may turn out idiots. Should it not be a matter of equal grief to ministers to see their spiritual children showing, year after year, little else but the weakness, ignorance, and instability of childhood, and so little of the strength and firmness of youth or manhood? But there is something even worse than lack of growth. There is an old Latin proverb, "Not to go forward is to go backward." In the divine life there is no standing still. Not to go on is to go back; not to grow is to decay; not to fight is to flee; not to resist is to yield.
But there are worse consequences of continual childhood even than this. There is a "being tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine." This is just the state of many in our churches. In the controversy about the true, proper, and eternal Sonship of our gracious Lord, how many, not merely members of the congregation, but members of the Church in various places of professed truth, were ever tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine. Just as the wind blew, they were driven. If they read a book or an article in its favor, then they thought that right; if the next day they met with a book or article against it, then they thought that right. Like the chameleon, they changed their color according to their book or their company—not so much from wickedness as from weakness, not so much from hypocrisy as from indecision, not so much from craft as from cowardice, not so much from willfulness in error as from instability in truth. But what was the consequence of all this childish weakness, ignorance, and instability? That they laid themselves open to, and became a prey of, "the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lay in wait to deceive." The real heretics, the erroneous men, saw at a glance with whom they could, and with whom they could not succeed. It was these unstable ones whom they juggled by their sleight of hand, whom they cheated with their loaded dice. (The word translated "sleight" is literally "dicing," that is, cheating with loaded dice.)
It was these dwarfed, sickly, rickety children that they laid their crafty plans to deceive and entangle in error. These are their prey, whom they find out as instinctively as the London sharpers smell out a country bumpkin, with whom they are so willing to share a part of the large fortune which has just been left him by a dead uncle. Now to deliver the family of God from these sharpers is an important part of the gospel ministry. As the ministry is "for the perfecting of the saints," it is to bring them out of this childish state of ignorance and instability, through which, as carried about with every wind of doctrine, they fall a prey to the arts of these designing men. Did you ever read any of their books or see any of their pieces? With what craft they write! How they commence with a show of truth as if they believed just the same doctrines as the Church of God has always held; but by little and little they bring forth their error, yet still so wrapped up in Scripture language that it almost requires an eagle's eye to see into their real meaning. We see the necessity, therefore, that the man of God should be well armed at all points against such errors and such men; should be thoroughly instructed himself into a clear experimental knowledge of the truth; should be furnished with a sufficient gift of utterance to unfold and enforce it clearly, and courage to defend it firmly, boldly, and faithfully.
A main part of the ministry is instruction. The character of the babe is that he is "unskillful in the word of righteousness." He, therefore, needs instruction—instruction from the word of truth, called "the word of righteousness," as unfolding and manifesting "the righteousness of God," that is, not God's intrinsic and eternal righteousness as a just and holy Jehovah, but his wondrous plan of saving sinners by the incarnation and mediation of his dear Son, so that "he might be just and yet the justifier of him who believes in Jesus." (Rom. 3:21-26.) Now if these weak and vacillating members had been but well instructed in "the word of righteousness;" if they had been favored with clear views of the Trinity, and seen how intimately and closely it was connected with the divine Sonship of Jesus; if they had been well grounded and established in an experimental knowledge of the Son of God by some gracious discovery of his glorious Person to their soul—would they have been tossed to and fro and carried about with these winds of erroneous doctrine?
We are not advocates for dry doctrine—far from it; but we are advocates, and warm ones too, for laying before the people the grand verities, the vital truths of our most holy faith, with every doctrine according to godliness, which we have ourselves tasted, felt, and handled as the food of our soul. We never loved so much, never more highly valued, never saw more beauty in, never felt the sweetness more of the grand doctrines of grace which we have professed so many years; and were never more fully, if so much, persuaded of the importance and indeed necessity that they should be the main staple of the ministry as setting forth the person and work of the Son of God. To be well established in the truth is a great blessing both for minister and people. It gives a firmness to the ministry and a satisfaction to the church and congregation. They feel that they can trust their man. He has fully proved, and therefore well knows his ground. He has felt the truth and power of what he preaches in his own soul. He is resting all the weight of his own personal salvation on the grand and glorious truths of the everlasting gospel, as all centering in the person of Christ. He has his sharp exercises, and may have his doubts and fears; but those touch not the foundation, do not affect the truths themselves, but only how far he may be deceived as to his personal interest in them. But his very exercises make him hold truth with a firmer hand. Lies, he well knows, cannot save him; errors, he is fully confident, cannot sanctify him. All his hope is in the truth; all his dependence is on Christ and his finished work. The enemies of the Son of God, of salvation by grace, of a living experience of the power of truth, are therefore his enemies, because they would dig up the foundations of the everlasting gospel, destroy his faith, and root out his very hope. He contends, therefore, for the truth in its purity and its power, not only from a sense of its sweetness, but from a sense of its necessity. It is with him not a mere Sunday sermon, the subject of a text neatly spun out into a discourse, but the one grand matter, the one thing needful, by which he must live and die. He therefore digs more and more deeply into its hidden treasures, that his own soul and the souls of his hearers may be enriched thereby; and he guards it with more holy zeal and indignant warmth against the thieves and robbers who would plunder himself and them of their very hope of salvation.
2. But we now come to the positive side—the ADVANTAGES which we are to reap from the ministry of the gospel. These are contained in verse 13, of which 15 and 16 are but a fuller explanation—"Until we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." (Eph. 4:13.) We shall have to open and work out several points of truth here.
1. The leading idea is that of "coming unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." The means of its attainment are "unity of faith and a knowledge of the Son of God."
We have already shown that growth is the grand mark of life. But this growth has both its object and its term. It is not a rapid, loose, shooting up, like that of a tall, lanky, over-grown boy, or of a tree which spindles with its one shoot on high, without thickening its stem or throwing out its side branches. The object or intention of the growth is "to grow up in all things into Christ;" the term or end of the growth is that of "a perfect" or adult man, or, as more fully expressed, "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." Strictly speaking, as is evident from verse 16, the growth intended by the Apostle is that of the whole Church, as the mystical body of Christ; but the expression, "Until we all come," allows us to apply it to individuals. As this last is the simpler meaning, we shall consider it first.
Christ is the Head of every member individually, as he is the Head of the whole body collectively. Growth of the body, from babyhood to manhood, is the growth of individual members in the body. If, then, I am a member of the mystical body of Christ Jesus, I shall grow. My growth may be so slow and gradual as to be scarcely perceptible; but it will be growth still. If I have union with Christ, I shall be supplied, at least in some measure, out of his fullness. He is my life, and he has promised, because he lives, I shall live also; and if I live by him, I shall live upon and unto him. Paul could say, "The life which I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God;" and tells us, "And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again." (2 Cor. 5:15.)
But this life and this growth are maintained by means, and the chief among them is the ministry of the gospel. By a sound gospel ministry our souls are fed. Christ is set before us in all the glories of his divine Person, in his Deity and Sonship, and in all the graces of his suffering humanity. His covenant characters and gracious relationships, his blood and righteousness, his death and resurrection, his ascension and glorification at the right hand of the Father, his present mediation and intercession, his sympathy as a once suffering but now exalted high Priest, and his ability to save to the uttermost all who come to God by him—are brought before us as the food of our faith; and as we taste that he is gracious, and feed upon him as the bread of life, there is a growth into him. We grow out of self, and it is to be hoped, in some measure, out of the love of the world and of sin; and we love and admire him all the more that we taste of his grace and see of his glory. The term or end of this growth is "perfection"—that is, not moral, legal, or fleshly perfection, but that adult state, that ripeness of judgment, that maturity of Christian stature, that establishment in the truth which distinguishes the grown-up man from the weak, ignorant, vacillating child. Paul's "perfect man" means an adult, a grown-up man, not perfect as free from sin, defect, or infirmity, but as arrived at fullness of strength and stature. The word is therefore well translated, "of full age," (Heb. 5:14,) it being precisely the same word as is rendered "perfect" in the passage now before us.
But this maturity, which it is the end of the ministry to accomplish, mainly depends on two things, which mark and test the soundness of the ministry and of the food furnished by it.
1. First it is "in the unity of the faith." There is, there can be but "one faith," as there is but "one God and one Lord." This faith is "the faith of God's elect," as opposed to the faith which is common to all men; "the gift of God," as opposed to the work of man; a fruit of the Spirit, as opposed to a fruit of the flesh. There is a unity or oneness of this faith in all the living members of the mystical body of Christ, so that, with all their seeming differences, their faith is really one and the same, and they the sole possessors of it. The object of their faith is one and the same—the Son of God; the ground of their faith is one and the same—the word of his grace; the author and finisher of their faith is one and the same—the Lord Jesus Christ; and the end of their faith is one and the same—the salvation of their soul. This faith has to grow, (2 Thess. 1:3,) and it grows as fed by the word of truth. Here then we see the benefit and blessing of the gospel ministry. It is intended to feed the faith of the Church by holding forth to it the word of life. (Phil. 2:16.) This therefore demands not only a truthful but a living ministry—not only soundness in the faith itself, not only life in the minister's own soul, two indispensable requisites, but life in the word which drops from his lips.
The true servant of God is at a point in all that he advances. He can say therefore with Paul, "We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak." (2 Cor. 4:13.) This faith in his heart meets and unites with the faith in the heart of his gracious hearers. They are sure that he believes what he preaches, because his "speech and his preaching is in demonstration of the Spirit and of power." And what is the effect? That both his faith and their faith stand not in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Cor. 2:4, 5.) This is the unity or oneness of faith which, as working by love, knits and unites the heart of the people to the minister and of the minister to the people. They thus grow together, for as his faith becomes strengthened and enlarged, fresh fields of green pasturage are opened to him, and into these he leads his willing flock. But a wretched time-server, who has crept into the ministry to eat a piece of bread; or a puffed-up novice, who has a little smattering of doctrine in his head and a set of wheels to his tongue; or a crafty hypocrite, who is watching every turn of the wind nicely to shift his sails; or an erroneous man, who hides his error under the pulpit cushion until he can safely bring it forth; or a vacillating character, who, either from ignorance of the power of truth, or from false charity, or from a soft, pliant disposition, holds with all sides and is faithful to none—how can any such men as these feed the Church of God which he has purchased with his own blood? If I have a living faith in the Son of God, what union can there be between my faith and the faith of such men? It is not merely oneness of doctrine but oneness of faith, and that too neither dead nor drooping—but living, acting, and growing in minister and people—which binds them together.
2. But with that there is "the knowledge of the Son of God." If you will read the passage carefully, you will perceive the little word "of" before "the knowledge of the Son of God." This little word "of" refers to the unity just mentioned. Thus there is not only the unity or oneness of faith, but the unity or oneness of the knowledge of the Son of God.
Our readers will bear in mind that the point now before us is the growth of the whole body generally, and of each individual member particularly, through the instrumentality of the ministry of the word. There is a oneness, therefore, of this knowledge both in the minister and in the people. He knows the Son of God for himself. He has had that view, discovery, manifestation, or revelation of the Son of God, whereby he spiritually knows him as the Son of God. He can therefore preach him, and testify of him to the people. They, we of course mean the spiritual part of them, also know, or at least are panting to know the same eve-blessed Son of the Father in truth and love. Here they meet, not only in the unity of faith, but in the unity of knowledge—a sweet, experimental knowledge of the Son of God in his Person and work, beauty and blessedness, grace and glory. Directly that Paul's mouth was opened he "preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God." (Acts 9:20.) And how came he to know that he is the Son of God? Because God was pleased to "reveal his Son in him, that he might preach him among the heathen." (Gal. 1:16.) As, then, the heaven-taught minister sets forth the Person and work of the Son of God, from a gracious, experimental knowledge of him, the blessed Spirit takes of the things of Christ and shows them to the people through the ministry of the word. They receive Christ under the word of the truth of the gospel, which testifies of him, for it brings forth fruit in them; (Col. 1:5, 6; 2:6;) and they thus receive the love of the truth, and are saved thereby. (2 Thess. 2:10.) Now minister and hearer are as one—knit together in a oneness of knowledge, as well as a unity or oneness of faith.
But this knowledge, both in him and them, is, for the most part, but weak, scanty, and imperfect. It is true, real, gracious, experimental, but necessarily imperfect, and will be so to the end of our life, for "now we see through a glass darkly." It therefore admits of growth. Even blessed Paul, who could say, "Yes doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but rubbish, that I may win Christ," (Phil. 3:8,) was obliged to add, "that I may know him," as if he did not yet know him. So great and glorious was his Person, so complete his finished work, so broad, and long, and deep, and high was his love, so sympathizing his heart, so strong his hand, so sweet his mouth, so superabounding his grace, that all that Paul knew of him was but as a drop—compared to the boundless ocean! There is, then, a growth in this knowledge, both in minister and people. As he advances in this knowledge, they advance with him. Every fresh trial, temptation, and affliction which befalls him, leads him into a deeper and further knowledge of the Son of God. As this is brought forth before the people, it feeds their knowledge, and by it their faith, for "Faith is by knowledge fed;" and as the same Spirit teaches both minister and people, for as there is "one body," so there is "one Spirit," they move on together in this blessed path of an experimental knowledge of the Son of God.
This is God's plan, as laid down in the word of his grace; this the fruit of the ministry of the gospel, as traced by the hand of the Holy Spirit. We are not yet done with our subject, as we have still to open verses 15 and 16; but, for the present, let this suffice.
And now what are those voices which we hear in the distance? "You are cutting us off. You are setting up a fixed, arbitrary standard for the ministry, and if we cannot reach your standard you are at once cutting off our heads; or if you spare us as Christians, you cut us off as ministers." Not so, dear friends and brethren in the ministry—to you we speak who have any faith in, any knowledge of the Son of God, and testify to the people of that faith and of that knowledge as far as you possess it. It is not the strength of your faith, nor the depth of your knowledge, nor your gifts and ability in testifying of it that is the question. It is the reality of it. What we write, we write from the word of truth and our own experience as a Christian and as a minister. If we set up a high standard, we must cut ourselves off; but believing that we have a living faith, and a gracious knowledge of the Son of God, and this faith and this knowledge forming, as the Lord enables, the basis of our own ministry by tongue and pen, can we admit anything else, whomever it may touch? Would you have us allow that an unbeliever in, or a denier of the Son of God is a true servant of Christ? Shall we set up unbelief in the place of faith, and ignorance or denial of the Son of God instead of a knowledge of him? "O dear, no!" you say; "we mean no such thing. God forbid that any one who desires to fear his name and preach his word faithfully should set forth any other way of salvation than faith in the Son of God. But, but"—well, what "but?" "Why, we do not like, and, indeed, we do not at all approve of your setting up a certain standard of faith and knowledge, and cutting off all ministers who do not exactly come up to your standard."
But where have we done this, here or elsewhere? We have shown you, from the word of God, what the ministry of the gospel is, or should be. We have moved carefully and cautiously, step by step, with the express language of the Holy Spirit in the word of truth; and, we may add, with our own experience of the truth of God. If we preach faith, it is because we have some testimony that we possess it; if we preach the knowledge of the Son of God, it is because we have seen and known him in the light of his own gracious revelation. Our writings and sermons, such as they are, have been for years before the Church of God. Let them be our judge, whether we have ever set up any other way of salvation than a living faith in, a living knowledge of the Son of God. But we do not set up a fixed standard of this faith and this knowledge, still less a fixed standard of grace and gifts for the ministry of the gospel. If we cut off any, it is the hypocrites in Zion, the false preachers, the erroneous men, the deniers of the Son of God. But we never have touched (God forbid we should ever touch) the weakest of his saints, or the least of his servants.
Would to God there were more ministers of the everlasting gospel. It would truly rejoice our heart to see men raised up, humble, simple, sincere, sound in faith, blessed with an experimental knowledge of the Son of God, and furnished with sufficient gifts of utterance as well as inward life and power to feed the Church of God. We much need them. The Lord is taking home, or laying aside by sickness or infirmity very many of his servants. And where shall we look to find their successors? It seems to us, at present, a gloomy prospect. We have plenty of preachers, whose worst feature is that, puffed up by a vain idea of their own gifts and abilities, and fawned upon by a tribe of admirers and flatterers, they have not light enough to see their own deficiencies, or life enough to feel their own shortcomings. How can men grow, or even desire to grow, who think themselves already arrived at full stature, and wonder that all do not admire them as much as they admire themselves? How can they approve themselves to the family of God, when they evidently are pushing themselves forward, as if they were qualified to stand in any pulpit, to preach to any congregation, and to take first and foremost rank among the servants of God? They will have to learn a different lesson before they find an abiding place in the confidence, the esteem, and the affections of the discerning family, however well they may stand in their own. "Before honor is humility." "God resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble." The Lord bless you, you humble servant of the living God, who in simplicity and godly sincerity preach what God has taught you, and feed the people with the food with which he has fed you. We would not say a word to cast down or discourage your tried, exercised soul, weaken your hands, or cast a slight on your ministry. But you will not think our sword too sharp or words too cutting, for if our heart can read yours, you love all that is good, and hate every false way.
God has set before our eyes in his holy word—a model Church and a model ministry, and by so doing has displayed both his wisdom and his grace. From not seeing and from not following this inspired pattern have arisen almost all the errors and all the evils which have made havoc of both Church and ministry, and perverted some of God's choicest gifts to the vilest purposes. As this point has an important bearing on our present subject, and has not met with the attention which it deserves, we will devote to it a few moments' consideration.
Without a proper pattern to instruct his eye and guide his hand, no artist, no artisan, can properly execute any work. It is not supposed that he will ever come up to his model, for that is assumed to be perfect; but it is expected that he will do his best to imitate it. If he be so ignorant as not to understand, or so conceited as not to follow the pattern set before him, he will be all his days a poor bungling workman, the plague of his employer, and the spoiler of everything put into his hand which demands skill and execution. We see, therefore, a divine pattern laid down both in the Old Testament and the New. When God said to Moses, "Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them," he added, "according to all that I show you, after the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the instruments thereof, even so shall you make it." (Exod. 25:9.) Not a pin of the tabernacle nor a vessel of service was left to the choice of Moses. Binding upon him and on the artificers employed by him was the injunction—"And look that you make them after their pattern which was showed you in the mount."
Similarly, the Lord has given in the New Testament a perfect pattern of the ministry of the word and a perfect pattern of a gospel Church. The pattern of the ministry may be found chiefly in the ministerial Epistles of Paul to Timothy and Titus; but there is no one passage where it is more clearly yet concisely laid down than in that which we have been unfolding and have not yet succeeded in finishing, that is, Eph. 4:8-16.
The perfect pattern of a gospel Church is given in 1 Cor. 12:4-31. But we find very beautiful and concise descriptions of what the Church at large is as the mystical body of Christ, Col. 2:19, Eph. 4:16, and 5:25-32, all which demand much prayerful attention and consideration. As one of these passages, Eph. 4:16, is in connection with our subject—the ministry of the gospel, we shall direct special attention to it. We have shown hitherto that one of the main objects of the ministry of the gospel is the edifying or building up, as the word means, of the body of Christ. By "the body of Christ," as applicable to the Church, we may understand two things—1, the Church of Christ as a whole; (Eph. 1:22, 23; 5:29, 30;) 2, the Church of Christ, as represented visibly on earth by a gospel church. (1 Cor. 12:12, 13, 27.) The difference between these two bodies is that the one is invisible, the other visible; the one perfect, the other imperfect; one the reality, the other the representation. But from their close connection and their resemblance, the Scripture often speaks of them as one, and transfers to the visible Church what is true in its fullest sense only in the invisible. Unless we see and understand this, we cannot enter into the spiritual meaning of such a chapter as 1 Cor. 12. Now, God's idea, so to speak, and we may add, intention, are that this body is to "grow into a perfect" or matured "man;" and when this is attained unto, it is "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ."
In the eye of him who sees all things from the beginning, the Church is already complete; but it is not so in present realization or visible manifestation. It has, therefore, to grow; and this growth has a measure or appointed standard, which is "the stature of the fullness of Christ." By turning to Eph. 1:22, 23, we shall see what this "fullness of Christ" is—"And has put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him that fills all in all." This fullness is not his fullness as God, (Col. 2:9,) nor his fullness as God-man Mediator, (Col. 1:19,) but the completeness of the mystical body of which he is the Head.
The subject is somewhat difficult to understand; but as it contains much deep and precious truth, and is closely connected with the ministry, we trust that our readers will give us their attention as we attempt to unfold it.
Growth is of three kinds—1. Growth in the whole body of Christ; 2. Growth in a church as a representation of this body; 3. Growth in each individual as a member of the body. And to each of these kinds of growth the term or limit is "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." But of course this differs according to that which has to grow. We will view it in each of these three senses.
1. View first, then, the growth of the whole body. The body of Christ is ever growing. In this sense "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" will only be attained when the whole body is complete, and all his mystical members glorified in eternal union with the glorified Head. But it cannot be said that this body is yet complete, except in the mind of God, for many of his elect are yet unborn, many born who are not as yet born again. As, then, each member is quickened into divine life, the body grows by the continual development and accession of these living members, which will go on until the last elect is gathered in, and the body is complete.
But now see the bearing which the ministry of the gospel has on this growth of the body of Christ. By the preached word the members of this body are quickened into spiritual life. Accessions are thus made continually to the body, for every soul quickened by the word becomes a manifested living member of Christ. What a permanent blessing is, then, couched in the ministry of the gospel, as the means appointed and owned of God to build up the body of Christ; and in this sense every sent servant of God is a laborer together with God. (1 Cor. 3.) As, then, the ministry of the word is the appointed means of thus edifying or building up the body of Christ, it will be maintained until this body is complete, and it has attained to the appointed "measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ."
2. But, besides this growth of the body as a whole by the accession of successive members, there is also a growth of the visible body of Christ as represented in a gospel church. Does a gospel church always remain at the same stand? Is there no difference between a newly-formed church and one that has been established for many years? It is true that when we come to examine their actual, internal condition, many old established churches are sadly disappointing to a spiritual eye. They have lost the vigor of youth, without attaining to the wisdom and stability of old age. But most churches resemble the human body in its three periods—youth, manhood, and old age. When first formed, there is usually with them a period of warmth, activity, and zeal. To this succeeds the church's best period, when its young members have become matured and ripened into steady, solid, well established believers. And then follows the third and worst stage, when it sinks into old age and all its attendant infirmities, when it has neither the active vigor of youth nor the solid strength of manhood; but the deadness, sloth, peevishness, and fretfulness of decrepitude.
Such was the Laodicean church, and such are many of our gospel churches now. Their best members, the pillars of the church, have died off; none of the younger members, taken in perhaps on a very slight experience, have succeeded to their place; peevishness and fretfulness, often issuing in strife and contention, mar all love and union; the old members are too self-willed and obstinate to heed counsel or admonition; the pastor, to whom all once looked, is removed by death, and the pulpit filled by a succession of ministers. Supplies, however, cannot have his authority or influence, and gradually the church sinks into senility and death. Such is the history of many a gospel church, as too many can testify. The church itself, thus stricken with old age, may not see its own condition, and like some old men naturally, who cannot bear the thought of old age, and still affect to be young, may stoutly resist any imputation of decline. Ephraim had grey hairs here and there upon him—yet he knew it not. (Hos. 7:9.)
But leaving this point, let us see what is God's idea, in the word of growth in a Christian Church. It is beautifully described by the Apostle—"But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ; from whom the whole body, fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplies, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, makes increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love." (Eph. 4:15, 16.) There is also a very sweet and concise description of the same growth and by the same means in an almost parallel passage—"And not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increases with the increase of God." (Col. 2:19.) By putting these two passages together, we may, the Lord teaching and enabling us to understand them, arrive at a right conception of growth in a Christian Church. We may observe that it is dependent on two things as means and instruments of this growth; 1, the ministry of the word; 2, the mutual communion of the members with the Head and each other.
1. It is in the mystical body of Christ as in the human body. All the members are dependent on the head for life and growth, but much more in the mystical than in the natural body. Only as we are supplied out of his fullness, can there be any sensible life or manifest growth. By "holding the Head," that is, holding union and communion with the Head, "all the body, through its joints and bands, having nourishment ministered and knit together, increases with the increase of God;" that is, according to the will, purpose, and power of God. And as in the human body, the members grow together. Now, here comes in the benefit and blessedness of a sound and experimental gospel ministry. It feeds each separate member; at least, that is what it does or should do, according to the mind of God. Now, as each is thus fed, each grows. The eye grows clearer, stronger, and more discerning; the ear becomes more fine, delicate, and discriminating; the taste more refined and yet more sound, less fond of sugar-plums, and more relishing savory food; the hand stronger and more open and enlarged; and the foot more active and willing to run on errands of kindness and love.
And as they grow together, so are they more firmly knit together. How well knit are the bones and joints of a man compared with those of a child. How compacted they become by use and exercise and advancing manhood. How strong their union, and how almost indissoluble they become. So in the mystical body of Christ. Indissolubly united to their living Head, the members are indissolubly united to each other; and, as thus united, they minister to each other's growth and edification. The whole body is "fitly joined together," for all the members "are baptized into one body," and "all have been made to drink into one Spirit." (1 Cor. 12:13.) God has thus mingled and tempered together the strong and the feeble, the lovely and the unlovely, the honorable and the less honorable, so that each contributes to the nourishment and growth of the other.
The figure of the vine and the branches may help us to understand this. The sleeping, dormant bud in the stem may represent the members of the body of Christ before divine quickening. It is in the vine, but not developed into manifest life and growth. But at a certain period a power is put forth, which may be called manifest life; (for the bud in nature never was really dead;) sap flows into it from the stem; it shoots, it grows, it blooms, it bears fruit. Nor is it alone in life, growth and fruitfulness. Its fellow-buds grow with it into fellow branches, and the life of the one keeps pace with the life and growth of the other. So in the mystical body of Christ. The members grow together. The strong arm has a fellow in the strong leg, and the health and strength of each member are the health and strength of all. As this growth is being carried on, there is a "growing up into him in all things, who is the head, even Christ;" for it is out of his fullness and the supplies of his grace that all this growth comes.
But there is also growth of the whole body by the union and communion of the members with each other. This is beautifully opened up by the Apostle—"From whom the whole body, fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplies, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part; makes increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love." (Eph. 4:16.) Each member contributes to the welfare and benefit of the other. The eye does not see for itself, nor the ear hear for itself, nor the hand minister to itself, nor the foot walk for itself, but each individual member acts for the benefit of the others and the whole. We cannot enlarge on this subject, but it is set before us as God's pattern of a gospel church.
But now observe its connection with the ministry of the gospel. The ministry feeds and strengthens each individual member. As then each member is thus fed and strengthened, it feeds and strengthens its fellow-members. The whole body is first "fitly joined together;" it then becomes "compacted," that is, firmly knit and strengthened, "by that which every joint supplies; and by the effectual working in the measure of every part, the whole body edifies itself in love."
To open this subject, to explain how the members mutually contribute to each other's nourishment and growth, would not only take up too much space, but would divert us from the more immediate consideration of our subject. But it may easily be seen how the ministry of the gospel contributes to the mutual growth of the members. When, for instance, there is an addition to the church, and the candidates can speak of their being called or blessed under the ministry of the word, and give in a clear and sweet testimony to the work of grace on their soul—does not this kindle new life and feeling in the hearts of the members of the church? Or when any one member is signally favored and blessed, he does not eat his morsel alone; he is glad to communicate to others and share with them the blessing of God which has made him rich; and how this will often revive a drooping soul, and if it does no more, will draw forth prayer and desire for a similar blessing. No, if it even works jealousy, it does not work amiss, for these coals of fire which has a most vehement flame will often stir up the languid soul, and draw forth the wrestling cry, "I will not let you go except you bless me."
O what a blessing there is in a real, gracious, savory, experimental ministry. How a church flourishes under it, as member after member is by it edified and fed. How it promotes union and brotherly love; and as these are promoted, how the church edifies or builds itself up in love. But where there is a cold, barren, lifeless ministry, under it church and congregation sink into a dead, listless, lethargic state. No union or communion is felt among the members; they care little for each other's welfare, naturally or spiritually; they just meet, out of formality, on the Lord's day, and while a few poor, tried souls are secretly sighing and mourning their own carnal state and the dead state of the church generally, the talkative professors have it all their own way, insensible of their own death, and the death in the pulpit and pew; and strife and division, perhaps on the merest trifles, soon rend the already disunited members asunder.
We see, then, the connection between the ministry of the gospel and the growth and edification of the Church as the body of Christ. And what is true of the Church collectively is true of each member separately. The ministry of the word is God's appointed means to instruct, feed, and edify every member of the mystical body of Christ. Much, indeed, of this instruction and edification is conveyed so gradually as to be almost insensible. We are on the look-out for great signal blessings, and, indeed, we are right in so doing; but we should bear in mind that it is with the soul often as the body. The food that we daily take feeds and nourishes our frames, and yet we are not always sensible of the benefit thus derived from it. So, in sitting under a sound, gracious, experimental ministry, there is a being fed and nourished by the word of life, as distinct from special seasons of signal blessing, which are rare events, though so highly prized when they do come.
Perhaps at your first deliverance, or afterwards, under some special trial, deep affliction, or powerful temptation, you were signally favored under a sermon; but how rare these seasons are, and what bright spots do they form in a believer's experience. But distinct from these special and rare seasons there is a feeding under the word, a revival of faith and hope and love, a being renewed in the spirit of the mind. Sometimes instruction is communicated by it to inform and establish the judgment; sometimes a light is cast on a dark path in providence or grace, to show us that the Lord is with us in it; sometimes our evidences are brightened, and doubts and fears dispelled; sometimes temptations, which we have thought peculiar to ourselves, have been so touched on that we see the servant of God is tempted as we are; sometimes we get such views and discoveries of the blessed Lord, as he is set forth in his Person and work, as draw forth faith upon him and love towards him, and he is felt to be near, dear, and precious; sometimes we can so travel almost step by step with the minister as to fully believe we are in the footsteps of the flock; and as he opens up and proves, point after point, by the word of truth, the work of grace in the heart is so shone upon by the blessed Spirit that we have no doubt of its genuineness and reality. Sometimes, again, our cold, sluggish, dead, and backward hearts are stirred up to take fresh hold of the mercy of God in Christ, of the faithfulness of a covenant God, of the fullness and freeness of rich, free, and superabounding grace; and as faith embraces these divine realities, the soul is melted and softened into contrition, humility, and love. Sometimes the fear of God is sensibly strengthened, the evil of sin more clearly seen and felt; prayers and desires are kindled to be kept from it, that it may not grieve us, and sorrow of heart experienced, with many inward confessions on account of past backslidings. Sometimes peculiar strength is communicated under a special trial, resignation given to the will of God, the rod submitted to and embraced, and the mercy acknowledged that he does not leave us to go into evil unchecked, without repenting of or forsaking it. Sometimes keen reproof enters the soul; we see that we have been entangled in a snare of Satan; we may almost fear the wound is incurable; but blood and love form a balm that well suits the bleeding conscience. Sometimes we are led to see how worldly, covetous, and carnally-minded we have been; how carking cares and business anxieties have, like locusts, eaten up every green thing, and how little we have really thought of, or done for the Lord during the week. The contrast between all this worldly din and dust, and the calm, still, spiritual services and worship of the sanctuary, strikes the mind; and while it conveys secret reproof to the conscience, yet, mingled with it, there springs up an earnest longing for deliverance from the pressure of the body of sin and death, and for more enjoyment of that sweet spirituality of mind which we know is life and peace.
But now, in order to see how all this nutritious food, communicated to the soul by the ministry of the word, is connected with not only the growth of the individual members of the body, but how, by joints and bands, the nourishment is ministered, view the effects, such as we have just described, in connection with our fellow-members. Love to the Lord produces love to his people; union and communion with him create and cement union and communion with those who are manifestly his. As, then, one or another testifies to a blessing received under the word, there is a spreading of the blessing, a diffusion of the warmth, a running down of the precious ointment upon the head and beard, down to the skirts of the garments. Heart becomes more closely and firmly knitted to heart, and soul to soul; and as the joints and bands are thus more compacted together, the nourishment flows more fully into them, and through them becomes diffused over the body.
In every church there will be stiff joints, crooked fingers, lame legs, tender feet, arthritic shoulders and limbs, which, if not actually paralyzed, are full of old chronic complaints; and these are almost out of the reach of the nourishment spoken of, are little themselves benefited by it, and therefore cannot spread it on. But, in describing the mode in which the body has nourishment ministered by joints and bands, we are no more bound to set it all aside, or doubt and deny it on account of these crooked joints, than a lecturer on anatomy, in describing the human frame, is obliged to explain diseased structures or crippled limbs in the natural body. We do what the Scripture does—describe the body of Christ as it should be, not what it often is; we draw after God's model, not after man's; and for this simple reason, that God's pattern is inspired and perfect, but man's a perverted and base imitation.
All who have known and felt spiritual blessings, and have witnessed their effect upon the healthy members of a church, will bear witness to the truth of our description; and any exceptional case of a crooked or half-paralyzed member which neither receives nor communicates nourishment no more nullifies or impairs the accuracy of our statement than a diseased or defective joint in the human body sets aside a true representation of the natural frame. How blessed it is when the ministry of the word is thus owned of God, and answers the end of its divine institution. There is now no room for strife and contention, petty jealousies, evil surmises, unjust suspicions, cold looks, averted eyes, cutting expressions, harsh speeches to the face or behind the back, dwelling on past grievances, raking up buried injuries, and rubbing up old sores. The spirit now is that of love and union, humility, meekness, gentleness, and quietness; strife and division are shunned and abhorred by the soul thus favored and blessed; it would do anything or suffer anything rather than pain the feelings, grieve the mind, or wound the conscience of the dear children of God.
This is, if we may use the expression, God's idea of the ministry, and of the way in which it ministers nourishment to the members of the mystical body of Christ. He has set a pattern before our eyes, that we may know what his mind and will are. But this cuts both ways. As you read what we have thus feebly and imperfectly traced out, a secret sigh springs up in your bosom. "I wish that our minister fed our souls as you describe; I wish that our church was as flourishing, as fruitful, as united, as loving, as mutually ministering to each other's comfort and profit as you have drawn. But it is not so with us. We are rather starved than fed; and the members of the church, or at least some of them, instead of ministering to each other's comfort, seem more ready to tear each other to pieces."
Your complaint may or may not be just as regards your particular instance. The ministry may feed others, if it does not feed you; and you may yourself be one of those unpleasant, quarrelsome, disaffected members whose words and actions rather foment than allay strife. But this is a point on which we cannot now enter. We shall, therefore, conclude our present section with the expression of our belief that nearly all who fear God and have a right judgment in these matters will admit that Zion is low, in a low place, and will join with us in the expression of our desire and prayer that the Lord would graciously revive his work, and in justly-deserved wrath would remember mercy.
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