Archibald G. Brown, May 9th, 1869, At Stepney Green Tabernacle
"We are bound to thank God always for you brethren, as it is fitting, because your faith grows exceedingly." 2 Thessalonians 1:3
Selfishness is prone to mingle not only with our prayers — but with our praises also. Just as in prayer we are liable to ask from our Lord only those things which touch and concern ourselves more especially, and to overlook the necessities of others; so in our praises we are apt to sing only about those mercies which we have ourselves received, "Bless the Lord, oh my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name," is most often our song at the dictation of gratitude, for mercies which have fallen at our own door.
But the child of God in his higher moments of communion will cheerfully acknowledge the obligation to render praise for mercies bestowed on others. He will sing not only for what his Lord has made him — but also for what grace has accomplished in the hearts of his fellows.
Now we venture to say that a more unselfish spirit than the apostle Paul's was never found on earth, an example of which is found in this morning's text. Here we have him rejoicing exceedingly, and using the strongest language to express that joy, not because of any particular mercy received by himself — but because the Lord had been pleased to bless the members of the church in Thessalonica in their own souls.
Paul's joy in this respect can be easily understood. That infant church at Thessalonica had been planted by his instrumentality, and the large majority of its members had been won to Christ through his ministry. He could look upon those young converts and say, "I have begotten you again unto the Lord; you are my joy and crown of rejoicing."
The sympathy and love that exist between the soul winner and the soul won, between the instrument of conversion and the one converted — are so close and dear that they can never be described by the lip — but only realized in the heart. The love of a father toward his children is not deeper than the love which a spiritual parent will ever feel toward those whom the Lord has given him; and a father's interest in his children's growth and prosperity is not greater than the longing solicitude felt, on the part of him who has been the means of leading souls to Christ; and on the part of the minister towards the seals of his ministry.
The spiritual growth of Paul's young converts in the church of Thessalonica was such that when he marked their course, joy overflowed his soul, and in the language of the text, he felt bound by an impulse which it was impossible to resist, to give thanks to God on their behalf. Chief among the causes of his gratitude was this: that he perceived the grace of faith to be growing exceedingly in them.
There are four prominent truths taught in the text. May the Holy Spirit help us in our meditation upon them.
The first is this — that it is the divine will that faith should grow.
Secondly — that growth of faith is God's work.
Thirdly — that growth of faith is cause for rejoicing.
Fourthly — that faith should not only grow — but grow exceedingly.
I. It is the divine will that faith should grow.Growth is one of the characteristics of God's work. From the moment when in the morning of creation he caused, obedient to his command, all things to spring into mature existence, from then down to the present time, successive stages of growth have marked his handiwork. Every tree in the garden of Eden was created bearing "fruit after their kind, with seed in them." Gen 1.11. And thus for ages seeds have been dropping in the earth, swelling, taking root, growing up, and gradually taking the place of the forests that fall before the woodsman, "Time."
The oak that brooks the storm, and fights in savage fury with the gale — the oak, that lives in the hurricane, and strikes its rugged roots deep downward through the soil, until at last it grips the rock with the clutch of a Samson — is after all only the outgrowth of the acorn, once carried in a child's pocket, and thrown with childish glee down the ravine.
The eagle, that looks with unblinking eye upon the sun — that steers his course in the teeth of the storm — that laughs at intervening mountains, as with its broad wings it sails majestically over them — was once the tiny eaglet in the nest, who feared to spread the wing.
The God of Nature and the God of Grace are one. As in two paintings drawn by the same hand — although the faces depicted may be dissimilar in almost every feature — yet you detect that the same pencil sketched both countenances; so when we look on the realms of Nature and of Grace, 'tis evident that the same God reigns in both.
Beloved, God's trees, the trees of his right hand planting, do not attain their full proportion in a moment. It is true, in the kingdom of Grace, that old heads are not found on young shoulders. The aged silver-haired veteran saint, matured, and ripened by years of long experience, is only the outgrowth of the once almost despairing sinner. Yonder man of God, so mighty in his faith, who Elijah-like, seems almost able to open or shut Heaven with his prayers, is simply the outgrowth of the trembling seeker, who once cried "Lord I believe, help my unbelief." Mar 9.24
God's saints, who now mount upward as with eagle wing, could not always look unblinkingly at the sun. God's eagles cannot from the first moment rise upon the hurricane, nor sport themselves in the storm. They were once the tiny, trembling, little eaglets in the nest, whose downy feathers quivered with every summer zephyr.
However much, believer, you may have grown, and however high your spiritual attainments may now be, do not forget your early weakness. It will lead to personal humility in your own soul and teach you tenderness towards others.
And to those of you present who have not long known the Lord, those of you "who are our crown of rejoicing," we would say to you — do not be too cast down by failures. Do not think that because you have not yet attained the faith and joy of so-and-so, that there has been no work of genuine grace in your heart. He who has commenced the work, will perfect it all by successive stages, for growth is our Lord's method of working.
Perhaps some will ask the question, "Why?" To such a caviler we answer, it should be sufficient reason that it is his will, and in the language of Paul's retort, "O man, who are you to reply against God?" Romans 9.20.
But though we ourselves are perfectly satisfied with this answer — we venture to suggest that the growth of a believer is part of God's joy. There is a pleasure in watching growth. I appeal to those of you who are parents if it is not so. Is it not your greatest joy to mark the tender growth of the body, and the gradual development of the mind, of the little light of the home? Shall he who implanted that parental joy, lack it himself? Surely it is not too much to say that our Heavenly Father takes an infinite interest, and finds an infinite joy in the growth of His redeemed children.
In Solomon's Song, that holy of holies, in scripture, we find Christ walking in His garden, to see how the myrrh, aloes, and spices grew, and to eat his pleasant fruits. Moreover, it is by this process of gradual growth, that we best learn our Lord. Were we to attain maturity at once, we would lose many a sweet experience; we would have but little knowledge of his loving kindness, and know but little of his long-suffering tenderness. It is better, therefore, for our own hearts and for his glory, that sanctification should be marked by growth.
Let us now notice in the second place,
II. That growth in faith is God's work.This we gather from the form of expression used in our text, "we are bound to thank God." Paul recognized the growth of faith in the Church at Thessalonica, as God's doing. That it is so — I think we can show you in a single sentence: growth after all is but the development of life, and life is the breath of God. Man has never yet been able to place that secret thing into any of his works which will cause them to grow. The sculptor may chisel the marble block into a form of loveliness until it almost seems to breathe, but it has no inherent power of development — a century of time will find it, as his hand left it. The artist may fashion in wax, flowers that deceive the sight — but to impart that power which will cause the bud to open into a flower is beyond his skill. Just so, the prerogative to cause growth is God's alone, and that growth is as much his work, as the first implanting of the principle of life.
Is it not the deepest desire of every believer to grow in conformity to his Lord? And yet has he not learned by painful experience, his own inability to do so? He knows that it is his God who must work within him, to will and to do his good pleasure.
"Faith; 'tis a precious grace
Whenever it is bestowed,
It boasts of a celestial birth,
And is the gift of God.
Lord, 'tis your work alone,
And that divinely free;
Send down the Spirit of your Son
To work this faith in me."
And here let me give utterance to a thought, I pray you may be enabled to carry it to your homes and carry it out in your future life. Sanctification comes by the same means as justification — with the same faith you find trusted Christ to save you. You must trust to him to make you holy, the language of your heart must be, "Lord Jesus, I trust to you to subdue my sins, I trust to you to fashion me to your image, I trust to you to breathe your Spirit within me."
The tree does not grow by violent efforts of its own — but simply by living in the sunshine. Just so, God's children do not grow by their own vows and resolves — but by dwelling in the light of his countenance, who is the "Sun of Righteousness." It is the Sun that mellows, both the fruit of nature and of grace.
Do you ask how he makes our faith to grow? I answer in three ways.
First, by placing in faith itself, a principle that compels its growth. As in the infant, so in faith there is that which naturally develops itself, a still-born faith such as a devil may have can never grow. But a living faith, living because it's God-given, must grow.
Perhaps some will object. "If that is true, how do you reconcile it with your previous statement that growth in faith is God's work alone?" This is a very old objection. Every infidel has harped upon this string, and declared that everything is governed by eternal laws — but who made the laws, and who gave faith the principle to grow?
This principle of growth in faith forbids faith remaining the same. But growth requires nourishment — and by nourishment God increases faith. The child grows by food; and the tree grows not unless it draws its nourishment from earth and sun; and the author of our faith, has provided that faith has a continual banquet. I mean the promises. Am I addressing one this morning with weak and timid faith? Then let it feast on such a promise as this: "My grace is sufficient for you." 2 Cor 12.9. Is there one here in distress about the future looking forward with apprehension to coming days? Then let your faith strengthen itself on this promise, "As your days, so shall your strength be." Deut 33.25. Right throughout the whole of his blessed Book, the Lord has provided that on which our faith may and must grow stronger. Faith lives in the atmosphere of the promises.
Now a child will not grow by nourishment alone; it needs exercise. Growth in bulk is not always growth in strength. The very exertion that brings weariness and makes the little one long for rest, brings with it also strength. It is not sitting at the dinner table — but running outdoors in healthy exercise that makes the child grow.
The tree grows not alone through sunshine and soft summer breezes — but by the wintry gales. It is the storm that gives it stability, and it sucks its strength from the breast of the tempest. A week's campaign in the battlefield will make a better soldier, than a year of classes. Just so, God makes his children's faith grow strong, by exercise. To Abraham's, faith he gives a Mount Moriah; to Jacob's faith, the loss of a Benjamin. To Daniel's faith, a den of lions; and to Job's faith, a succession of messengers of evil.
And do not think, believer present, that you will be an exception. Your faith will have to grow by being strained and tried. Your arm of faith like the blacksmith's, will have its muscles strong, by wielding many a hammer. Thus we have tried to show that faith grows by . . .
an inward principle,
and daily exercise.
III. This verse teaches us that growth in faith is a cause for rejoicing."We are bound to thank God, brethren, because your faith grows exceedingly." Why do you think the Apostle Paul rejoiced in the growth of their faith? I think mainly for two reasons.
First, because he knew that in proportion as their faith grew — so also would their happiness. Faith and happiness always walk hand in hand. Little faith is of just the same nature as great faith, and saves as certainly; but little faith is always crying and wiping its eyes — while great faith occupies the livelong day in singing. Little faith says, "I am sure I don't know after all whether I am his; I hope I am." And if it manages to get over this difficulty, it only tumbles into another and says, "I very much question whether I will stay his." When it gets into the stream of trouble it begins to cry out "I feel no bottom, all your waves and your billows go over me!" Psalm 42.7. But strong faith is gloriously conscious of its saving interest in Christ, with cheerful voice it says, "I know in whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed to him until that day." When in mid-stream its head is above water, and it sees dry land ahead, while it hears in anticipation the Savior's welcome, "Come in, you who are blessed of the Lord." Mat 25.34. Both walk the same road, and will assuredly reach the same place — but their experiences in the journey are widely different. I need not dwell at any length on this point, for your heart tells you that when your faith is strongest, your joy is greatest.
I think also Paul rejoiced because he knew that in proportion as their faith increased, so would their capacity for labor. A great work is too much for the hands of weak faith — and a heavy burden would break its back. Weak faith walks in the rear of the army — strong faith walks in the vanguard. We do not say there is no work that weak faith can accomplish; it can give the cooling draught of water to the wounded on the field, and do a thousand little acts of kindness to its fellow soldiers. But it is only strong faith that can make one in the forlorn hope, to carry by assault the strongholds of Hell, tearing down the black flag from the frowning battlement, and planting in its stead the blood-red banner of its captain.
Little faith can do a useful work in hoeing and raking and watering the plants of the garden; but only strong faith is qualified to go out as a pioneer into the backwoods of sin, and with lusty blows clear the forest.
The sword of the spirit is too heavy for weak faith to wield with much effect; but put that same sword into the hands of strong faith, and see how it makes it swing with lightning speed, leaving gaps in the foeman's ranks at every stroke. Yes, friends, workers for God must have strong faith, or they will soon have their hearts broken, and be ready twenty times a day to throw down their weapons and cry "I give up."
IV. Faith should not only grow — but grow exceedingly.I do not think the Apostle Paul so much thanks God in this text for the growth of faith in the Church at Thessalonica, as for the fact that it grew exceedingly. It was not a small increase of faith which he saw in them.
Alas! with what small increase we are satisfied; and if sometimes we do manage to trust our God a little more than usual, how prone we are to grow self-righteous about it! I fear the race of giants in faith has degenerated. There was once a generation of men who seemed as if they could trust their God for anything and everything. In their muster-roll we find the names of Abraham, Daniel, David, Luther, Knox, and others. God's Church has lost its faith, more than anything else. Would that it were revived. Zion wants a faith that walks unshackled by probabilities, and does not depend on circumstances.
Bonaparte once said, "Other men are made by circumstances. I make circumstances." What he said boastfully — faith can say truthfully. We want faith that will make us do what the world will term outrageous things. Faith that will shock the nerves of prudent unbelief. Faith that only takes into consideration that its God is "the same yesterday, today, and forever," Heb 13.8 and that all his promises are "Yes, and Amen in Christ Jesus." 2 Cor 1.20. Do not be content with a mere canoe faith, only meant for fine weather, and swamped through a capful of wind; but pray for a leviathan faith that sports itself in the deep when lashed in wildest fury. Pant for an Elijah-like faith, with hand strong enough to turn the lock of Heaven and bring the showers down.
And now, poor seeker, a word to you — it is, "let your faith grow."
You believe that Christ is able to save you. Go a step further, and believe that he is willing. You are saying this morning, "Lord, I almost think I can trust you for my salvation," go further and say, "Lord, I do trust you." Take him as your only hope, with the hand of faith lay hold of him, and resolve, "sink or swim, win or lose, from this moment I trust you."
And then when you have heard his loving voice say to you "your faith has saved you," then pray that that faith may daily grow. The Lord grant that it may be said concerning all his children in this tabernacle this morning "Your faith grows exceedingly!"
Lord, increase our faith, for Jesus' sake. Amen.