A call to preach is frequently just what Jeremiah describes it to be. Although he was tempted to say, “I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name,” yet when he held his peace, he tells us the word of the Lord was in his heart as a burning fire shut up in his bones: “And I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.” Jer. 20:9. The following verse shows, that when he ceased to be the aggressor against the devil and his children, they united to injure his character and influence: “I heard the defaming of many,” says he, “fear on every side. Report, say they, and we will report it. All my familiars watched for my halting, saying, peradventure he will be enticed, and we shall prevail against him, and we shall take our revenge on him.”
The minister of Christ should ever be the assailant, — the invader of the devil’s territories. He is always the safest in a revival of religion. This is his proper sphere; and if called of God to preach the Gospel, in this he will be in his congenial element, — more happy in such active warfare than in any other part of his ministerial office.
A call to preach may be buried in the heart, as live embers on the hearth are frequently covered with ashes; there is no flame, nor perhaps scarcely a glow. What is to be done? Clear away the incumbent ashes; stir up the coals, add fuel, and you may have a blaze; a glorious revival!
“Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire,
To work, and speak, and think, for thee;
Still let me guard the holy fire,
And still stir up thy gift in me.”
I think you will find an answer to your inquiries in those striking sentiments of Mr. Wesley. I have not his works at hand, but I shall give the substance, as correctly as I can, from memory. “I have often been musing why the generality of Christians, even those who are really such, are less active for God when middle-aged than when they were young. May we not find an answer in those remarkable words of our Lord repeated no less than eight times by the evangelists: ‘For whosoever hath, that is, improveth what be hath, ‘to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance; but whosoever hath not,’ hath not improved the gift of God, ‘from him shall be taken away even that he hath.’ A measure of zeal and activity is given to every man when he is born of God; but if he cease or intermit to do good, he will insensibly lose both the will and the power.” This I consider directly to the point. To every man, when called of God to preach, there is a measure of zeal and activity given; zeal for the glory of God, and vigorous, constant efforts for the salvation of lost sinners. I also as firmly believe, that those who have entered the ministry without any such feelings, and from other motives, have miserably mistaken their calling; nor have learning and theological reading in general, nor the exercise of their ministerial functions, called into exercise any such feelings in the heart of such men. But a man may backslide from first principles; he may lose that burning and consuming desire for the conversion of sinners, he may cease or intermit to put forth active exertions for their salvation, so as insensibly to decline from his usual “zeal and activity,” until he totally lose out of his soul “the will and the power” to do good, and thus become weak and feeble as another man. Thus, that which he had has been taken away; and, not infrequently, he loses his ability (in whatever sense you please), until he become the veriest drone, and a burden to the church of God.
Let, therefore, the minister of Jesus continually improve upon what was given him when first called to preach the Gospel, and he shall gradually and rapidly increase in zeal activity — in power to do good, and success in doing it. But, if he “cease or intermit” his revival efforts, unless in case of ill health, or uncontrollable circumstances, he will insensibly lose his revival power, and become like another man.
It is not necessary, perhaps, that a minister should backslide in heart or life, “popularly speaking,” to lose revival zeal, activity and ability. Let him change or soften down the matter and method of his sermons, and adopt a corresponding mode of operation, differing from what characterized him when he was as a flame of fire, and continually encompassed with penitent sinners and new converts; let him be content with his pulpit exhibitions, to the neglect of “those varieties of means,” — prayer-meetings, exhortations, select meetings for penitents, personal conversation with sinners, joyful reception of and cooperation with local preachers and leaders, in prayer-meetings before and after sermon; and very soon “the gift of God” will not only be taken from him, but he will most likely be found speaking against those things which were once his glory.
It is a dangerous state of mind, when a minister begins to suffer himself to change plans, etc., which have been hitherto successful in the conversion of sinners. Not a few cases, during the last twenty years, have presented such glaring and fearful contrasts. A minister may still be popular, though he has backslidden from soul-saving. Secularities are hazardous. They may, indeed, be nothing more than church usages, which custom has thrown within the range of the duties of the preacher. He may become secular, “an active business man,” without going out of the ministry; but it is often at the expense of his spirituality and usefulness. He may, it is true, doing all these things “for the good of the church,” and her institutions; still he may become secular in his spirit, and be more concerned for pounds, shillings, and pence, than for the number of sinners likely to be awakened and converted under his ministry. When “the collection” has been made and counted, he is satisfied (if it has been a good one), and will go home, and let poor sinners do the same, without staying to see whether the “good sermon,” or powerful and stirring truths, he has uttered, have taken effect upon the ranks of wickedness; whether there is not some poor wounded penitent who may want healing, and for whose conversion faithful prayer should be offered.
The church is frequently to blame; although the minister, from past associations and business habits, acquired before he entered the ministry, may have a bias for “arranging and transacting temporalities.” The apostles themselves were in danger of being ensnared by these very things. They took the alarm, however, called the “multitude of the disciples” together, and said, “It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among yourselves seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” Acts 6:1–5. It seems “the saying pleased the whole multitude,” and proper men were immediately appointed over the “temporalities of the church.” The results were just what might have been expected; we are told in the seventh verse of the same chapter, “And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly.”
But, you will say, “What is to be done, when, in many places, there are none to undertake the management of such matters; at least, with the proper spirit? They must, therefore, be left undone, unless the preacher throws his energies into them.” Well, then I suppose the minister must take hold of them, and when a necessity is thus laid upon him, God will give him grace according to his day; and I am happy to say there are ministers of God within the circle of my acquaintance in England who, though almost pressed to the earth by such cares, yet frequently rise above them, and preach the Gospel with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; and who enter into the revival as if they had not a single anxiety connected with the “secularities of the church.”
Your remarks upon the “splendor of pulpit talents, and absence of fruit; and on the inefficiency of such efforts in the awakening and conversion of sinners,” are very good. I have known ministers who have substituted “eloquent preaching and well-studied sermons” for prayer-meetings after preaching, frequent exhortations, personal conversations with sinners, vigorous efforts for the conversion of penitents, and the cooperation of local preachers and leaders in such meetings; nor have I ever yet observed splendor of talent, and blazonry of pulpit imagery, make up for the absence of these powerful auxiliaries to a Gospel ministry. Whereas, I have noticed men whose talents and learning were far inferior crowned with the most abundant success, by the employment of the helps to which I have just alluded.
It is, however, to be feared that some repose over-much confidence in prayer-meetings, etc., and too little in the preached word; as if more could get converted in these means than during the deliverance of the Gospel message. This is to be regretted; for surely, it would seem a most fit and proper time for God to save sinners, during the proclamation of the glad tidings of salvation. But let it be remembered that others run to the very opposite extreme; and, if they do not scout the idea of a prayer-meeting, are seldom, if ever, seen in one. So far from staying to manage such a service, they disappear from the congregation as soon as their work is finished in the pulpit. Now, I think those preachers are most successful who unite both means together; who do not put asunder what God hath joined, — faithful, pointed, searching preaching, preceded and followed by the effectual fervent prayers of many righteous men. We are to wield the tremendous truths of God upon the consciences of sinners, and to offer them salvation just then, through faith in the blood of the Lamb. But, should it be discovered (and an earnest preacher will leave no means untried to find this out) that sinners have been awakened and wounded, — not healed, not converted by the truth, what is his next duty? Let him have a prayer-meeting immediately: “Pray one for another that ye may be healed,” saith the apostle. And, after all, what is a faithful prayer, but a repetition of the Gospel message in the sermon? I have often listened to such prayers after I had finished my discourse, and have perceived in them ten-fold more point and energy than in anything I had said, and far more effectual. Penitents are called forward to the communion rail for prayer and instruction. Can there be anything wrong in this? The local preachers and leaders, and the minister himself, if you please, become acquainted with the feelings and hindrances of these individuals. The sight of their eyes affects their hearts, their sympathies are at once excited; and there is a close connection between sympathy and “the prayer of faith.” Is it to be wondered at, then, that the prayers are fervent and to the point, and full of that important declaration of Jesus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
Whatever others may do, my brother, consider not your work finished when the sermon is over. Enter into the prayer-meeting. But you need not kill yourself. Wield the talents of the church of God. You are surrounded with praying men, or will be very soon, if your plans are once known; men who will esteem it an honor and a privilege to cooperate with you in this blessed work.
As to “the sudden grievous pause” in that revival, I cannot say whether the affair of which you speak was the cause; but I do not think you have cause to write bitter things against yourself. Joshua, by his faith, could arrest the sun over Gideon during the space of an entire day, so that he had two days in one in which to pursue his victory over the enemies of his God; and by the same faith was the moon stayed in the valley of Ajalon; but he could not stop a wicked Achan from coveting a wedge of gold, and a goodly Babylonish garment. He could not prevent the sinner hiding them beneath his tent, nor could he rally his dispirited troops to battle. For wickedness was in the camp; his mighty men of war fled and fell before their enemies, and the hearts of the people became as water. “O Lord God,” cried Joshua, “what shall I say, when Israel turneth their backs before their enemies!”
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to lay down rules as to how the Spirit of God may allow himself to be influenced by such cases of “backsliding or treachery,” during a revival. A great work of God was advancing in majesty and power, in an American city, some years ago. But, in the very midst of it, the minister of that church committed a horrible sin, and fled from the city, with the companion of his guilt. The servants of God, however, remained at their post, humbled themselves before God, held fast their confidence and stood forth before the public the undaunted champions for Christ and his truth. Other ministers came to the assistance of the weeping but fighting church: and, notwithstanding the sneering contempt of the ungodly, the revival continued to spread on the right hand and on the left, and many souls were added to the afflicted people of God.
“If the teacher,” says Cecil, “whom this man (a mere proselyte to truth) has chosen for his oracle, disgrace religion, by irreligious conduct, he stumbles. He stumbles, because he is not fixed upon the sole immovable basis of the religion of the Bible. The mind well instructed in the Scriptures can bear to see even its spiritual father make shipwreck of faith, and scandalize the Gospel: but will remain itself unmoved. The man is in the possession of a treasure, which, if others are foolish enough to abandon, yet they cannot detract anything from the value attached to it in his esteem.”
I knew a case, but not similar in all respects, which happened on my circuit several years ago during a remarkable outpouring of the Holy Spirit. At a certain period of the revival an individual came to me, and confessed he had fallen from God. I was, as it were, thunderstruck. He had been one of my most zealous men, praying and exhorting every night. Again and again, it appeared, he had left the house of God, and allowed himself to be carried captive by the devil at his will. He was now, however, enduring the agonies of a remorse which showed how deep and sincere was his repentance. But, during the times of these occurrences, the work never ceased, and the vilest sinners were converted to God.
I believe, supposing penitents are sincere, that the Spirit of the Lord would come down and convert them, though surrounded by devils, or the most abominable of our race. Ordinarily, however, we may suppose that defection, or positive wickedness, among professors of religion, will retard or extinguish a revival.
What you mention, I consider trying indeed. But, “What is that to thee, — follow thou me,” says your Lord. Whatever other preachers may do, your duty and mine is plain:– to bring as many sinners to God as we can. Who is accounted the best soldier on the field of battle? Surely, the man who uses his weapons in the most effective manner: he who makes the bloodiest work among the enemies of his country. Who is the ablest minister, the best soldier of Jesus Christ? He, surely, who wields to the best advantage “the weapons of his warfare,” and who makes the greatest havoc among the servants of the devil, — the widest inroads upon the ranks of wickedness. In other words, he who obtains most seals to his ministry, — the most numerous company of souls for his hire.
For an officer to recline in the shade, when the troops of Immanuel are in the field of battle, is both mortifying and discouraging to the other officers and soldiers of Jesus Christ. Were a British officer to do the like, under such circumstances, the rigors of martial law would disgrace him forever. There is a discipline quite as strict and severe in Immanuel’s army: with this exception, that cowards, traitors, and deserters, are not, perhaps, so speedily dealt with. “Sentence against an evil work is not speedily executed,” says an inspired writer. But to trifle with a revival, and turn into ridicule the efforts of the faithful and laborious servants of Christ, is a species of wickedness which is difficult to be tolerated, — quite as difficult, perhaps, as to touch the case with a soft and lenient hand. I have read of a philosopher, who, in a great tempest at sea, endeavored to amuse the passengers with many trifling and impertinent questions, and was thus answered, according to his folly: “Are we perishing, and dost thou trifle?” Are sinners grieving the Holy Spirit, wearying the patience of God, disappointing the expectations of all heaven, and affording malignant triumph to all hell? Are believers and God’s precious ministers weeping between the porch and the altar crying, “Spare them, oh good Lord”? Are they casting themselves into the breach, and wrestling in mighty prayer, lifting up their voices like trumpets, at the risk of health and life, crying, –
“Come, oh my guilty brethren, come,
Groaning beneath your load of sin:
His bleeding heart shall make you room
His open side shall take you in:
He calls you now, invites you home:
Come, oh my guilty brethren, come!”
Behold this, oh _____, and wilt thou trifle? I rejoice that your spirit, my brother, is stirred within you. One of the fathers felt something similar when he exclaimed, “O that there were given unto me, from the altar above, not one coal, but a fiery globe, — a heap of coals to scorch the abuses of the times, and burn out the inveterate rust of vicious customs.” This state of mind requires to be carefully guarded, lest it should degenerate into a fiery zeal. See to it that your own soul is a flame of love to God and man. Cry earnestly unto God for a baptism of fire, and of the Holy Ghost. Without this, you may preach “hell and damnation” as you please, but you will have little success among sinners. It is not by the terrors of the law of God, but by offers of mercy through the atonement, we are to win men. Not that you are to neglect the law: it has its use, but beyond a certain point it cannot go. “As the flame in the bush,” says a writer, “made the thorns visible without consuming them, so the fiery law discovers men’s sins, but does not abolish them.” “The whole,” remember, “need not a physician, but they that are sick.” Let sinners be wounded first, before you attempt to heal. Inattention to this is the great cause of inefficient preaching. Some men are all honey, all kindness and mercy: they expatiate most eloquently and ingeniously upon the nature and extent of the atonement, and the willingness of God to save sinners: yet you hear of very few souls converted under their ministry. The Gospel, as they preach it, needs a Boanerges, or a John the Baptist, going before to prepare the way, crying, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth, therefore, fruits meet for repentance.” When such a messenger has aroused the careless to a concern for their souls, or broken them down into repentance, and inflicted deep wounds in their bleeding consciences, then these “kind and winning preachers may have good success in the free and full declaration of the redeeming plan. He is, however, the ablest minister of the New Testament, who has that combination of talent within himself necessary for “breaking down and building up;” such as was manifest in our Saviour’s preaching, — “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” “Wherefore, if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.” “Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Preach, therefore, plainly and pointedly: call things by their scriptural names. Be not afraid of the faces of the wicked: make heavy thrusts at the conscience, — wield the terrors of hell, and lay around the sword of the law, and hew on all sides with a giant arm: but preach Christ crucified, — lift him up upon the cross, bleeding, groaning, dying for sinners: cry,
“Jesus drinks the bitter cup,
The wine-press treads alone:
Tears the graves and mountains up
By his expiring groan.
“O, my God, he dies for me:
I feel the mortal smart!
See him hanging on the tree,
A sight that breaks my heart!
“O, that all to thee might turn!
Sinners, ye may love him too;
Look on him, ye pierced, and mourn
For one who bled for you!”
Preach thus, and sinners will not flee from you: but they will be drawn towards and around you, as by an influence from heaven; and Jesus shall see of the travail of his soul, and be satisfied. What saith your Lord? “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”
But repeat the blow, again and again, night after night, week after week; till the wicked stagger and fall, because they can hold out no longer. “Sinners get the pores of their souls opened by an awakening sermon,” said a good man, “but, going into the cold atmosphere of the world, they get a cold, which shuts all up again, and this frequently proves fatal.” If you wish to avoid this, don’t give them time to cool: not a whole week, not two days, if you can help it. Come upon them again as soon as possible: follow the blow. They cannot stand up under such a Gospel hammer, when wielded systematically, uninterruptedly, and vigorously. Let your heart all the time be right with God. Have one single steady aim, to glorify God and save sinners. “When we want an arrow to go right home,” says old Humphrey, “there is nothing like taking a single aim.” This is what a good friend of mine calls “using a rifle-barrel instead of a scattering blunder-buss.” Lay siege to the sinner, to every sinner, in this series of sermons. Thunder at the door of his heart: but offer him mercy, through the blood of the Lamb.
“When Popilius,” says a writer, “by order of the Roman senate, required Antiochus to withdraw his army from the King of Egypt, and he desired time to deliberate, the haughty Roman drew a circle about him with his wand, and said, “In hoc stans delibera,” — “Give a present answer before you move.” This is the kind of preaching we want in the nineteenth century.