An Example in Word by J. C. Ryle
"Be an example of the believers in word." 1 Timothy 4:12.
Brethren, the subject on which I am requested to address you today, is entitled- "The minister, an example to believers in word." I open it under a deep sense of my own inability to do it justice, and with deep regret that it has not fallen into better hands. The text on which the subject is founded, contains an expression which requires, an explanatory remark. I consider the expression, "word," in this sentence, to mean, not "the word of God," but "talking," "speech," or to use a common phrase, "conversation." I believe that the expression, "Logos," is never applied to the Scriptures, or to, the gospel-message, in the New Testament without the accompaniment of the article. "Word " must, therefore, be taken here in the same sense as in Coloss. iii. 17, "Whatever you do in word or deed." It means simply speech, in contradistinction to action. I need hardly point out to my brethren the extreme delicacy and difficulty of the subject in this point of view. I can only assure them, that if I speak of faults, it is not because I feel myself free from them, and if I direct their attention to excellencies of speech, it is not because I feel I have attained to them.
I. Something I would first say about THE IMMENSE IMPORTANCE OF THE SUBJECT. I need hardly remind you of the testimony of Scripture on this point. The Apostle James, in the third chapter of his Epistle, says, "If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man." He calls the tongue- "a fire, a world of iniquity, an unruly evil full of deadly poison." He says, that "no man can tame" it. The Lord Jesus Christ tells us that "for every idle word men speak they shall give account in the day of judgment"- and that "by our words we shall be justified, and by our words we shall be condemned." (Matt. xii. 36.) By conversation and speech, sin first came into the world. It began by the passage of words between Satan and Eve. By the tongue the Gospel was first proclaimed to the world. It was preached by living men, and heard long before it was read. The wisest of men might well say, "death and life are in the power of the tongue." (Prov. xviii. 21.) These are important considerations for all professing Christians. All ought to take heed to their ways, that they offend not in their tongues. But there are none, surely, to whom carefulness about words is so seriously important as the ministers of the Gospel. Ministers are men watched by the world. The higher their standard of godliness, the more narrowly they will be watched. They are like a city set upon a hill. It behooves them to be doubly watchful over their tongues, and doubly careful not to injure the cause they have to defend, by erring in word. In word, as well as in deed, they must strive to be examples.
II. Something I would say, in the next place, about A MINISTER'S DANGERS IN THE MATTER OF HIS SPEECH OR WORDS. Once for all I beg to say, I am not now referring to the public use of the gift of speech, to preaching, lecturing, or expounding. These are not matters in which the minister is to be an example to the believer. The use of the tongue on which I am now dwelling, is that use which is common both to the minister and the layman- the use of the tongue in private conversation. There are great dangers into which we are all liable to fall, and I crave permission to point out two or three to my brethren, against which all ought to be on their guard, if they desire to be an example to believers.
We are all in danger of being "unspiritual" in our tone of speech and conversation. We are apt to leave the impression on the minds of company, that we have left our religion in our pulpits, and are ashamed to speak of our Master outside the walls of our churches. I do not allude to pastoral visitation, but to the tone of our conversation in social communion with our neighbors, friends, and relatives. I do not mean to say we ought to be always preaching in every room we enter; but I do think we are often in danger of forgetting whose we specially are, and whom we specially serve, and of talking of nothing but temporal things. Surely a minister ought not to spend a whole evening in speaking only of politics, literature, arts, and sciences. These may be innocent, harmless, and useful subjects, but they are not the minister's special subject. The very ardor with which these subjects are taken up in this day, increases the danger of our being absorbed by them. The desire not to seem ignorant, has seduced many a minister into talking too much about them. This is one danger.
We are, many of us, in danger of giving way to levity in conversation. I pray my brethren not to mistake my meaning in saying this. I am very far from asserting that all mirth is sinful, or that it is wicked to laugh. But I do think that high spirits and excessive cheerfulness are sometimes a snare to a minister. They sometimes carry him away, and lead him to say things for which he is afterwards sorry. It is doubtless a good thing "to rejoice always." But it is well to "rejoice with trembling." It is a happy thing for a man to be of a lively, sanguine temperament, and to be able to shake off care for a season, and say with the famous statesman, when he took off his official robe, "Lie there, Lord Chancellor." But I earnestly entreat my brethren to bear with me, when I suggest to their consideration, that excessive jocoseness and love of merriment, are not becoming in an ambassador of Christ, and a watchman for souls. Some, no doubt, are naturally far graver than others. But all would do well to remember the inconvenience of levity, and watch against it.
Another danger to which we are exposed, in the present day especially, is bitterness and uncharitableness of speech. We live in controversial times. Distrust and party spirit abound. Diverse and strange doctrines are constantly springing up, which the minister of the Gospel is obliged, from the nature of his office, to notice, and about which he is frequently questioned in society. May it not be feared, that in the heat of the moment, we sometimes use language, and apply epithets for which in calmer hours we are sorry? Do we never detect in ourselves a disposition to make extreme and unqualified statements in describing an adversary's opinions? Do we never discover in ourselves a readiness to impute motives and intentions to an opponent, of which, perhaps, he is innocent? Are we never guilty of slight misrepresentation and extravagance in describing the views of the other side? Let no brother mistake me. I am entirely in favor of bold, and outspoken, and unmistakable language. But I think in the heat of controversy, we are sometimes tempted to forget to "speak the truth in love."
III. Something I would say, in the next place, as to THE MARK AT WHICH MINISTERS SHOULD AIM IN THEIR WORDS. I approach this point with a solemn sense of my own shortcomings and defects. I would simply tell you what I, for one, would desire always to set before myself, in order to be an example to believers in word.
I think, for one thing, that a minister should take his Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, for his example. "Know you not," said he, "that I must be about my Father's business." (Luke ii. 49.) Let that be the frame of mind in which every minister lives and speaks, and he will do well.
I think, for another thing, that a minister should aim to be the "minister of Christ everywhere." We are often tempted to forget that. We are tempted to lay aside the minister in private. That should not be. Once a minister, always and everywhere a minister of Jesus, should be our mark!
I think, for another thing, we should aim to have our conversation "always seasoned with grace." We should strive to have a vein of pure and undefiled religion running through our daily talk.
I think, for another thing, we should aim at "edification." If we cannot profit others, we should be always endeavoring to turn the stream in that direction.
I think, for another thing, we should aim at "faithfulness and boldness" in conversation. Like David, we should be willing to "speak of God's testimonies before kings," if need be. We should not be afraid to rebuke sin, and testify for God, if occasion requires.
I think, for another thing, we should aim at "wisdom" in speech. There is a right way of doing every thing. Discretion should be used in the choice of subjects, and the manner of introducing them. At the same time I must confess I almost regret that I have said anything on this point. We are far more likely to err on the side of excessive prudence, than on that of excessive rashness. We are more likely to remember the "keep silence," than the "time to speak."
Last, but not least, I think we should aim at "gentleness and meekness" in our words. Arguments, accompanied by anything like harshness and severity of manner seldom win hearts, though they may convince heads. Men would hear more, if they thought by our manner we really loved them. There is a mine of wisdom in Solomon's words, "a soft tongue breaks the bone." (Prow. xxv. 15.)
IV. Something I would say, in the last place, about THE MEANS WHICH A MINISTER OUGHT TO USE, in order to attain the mark at which he aims, in the matter of his words. He that would be an example in word, must look well to the state of his heart. "Keep your heart above all keeping." (Prow. iv. 23.) The tone of conversation will seldom rise above the level of our hearts. "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." (Matt. xii. 34.) When our hearts are full of the things of God, we shall seldom be long in company without speaking of them.
He that would be an example in word, must exercise a prayerful diligence, and watch for opportunities of introducing the " one thing needful." May there not be an allusion to this in the words of the Apostle- "Walk in wisdom toward those who are without, redeeming the time," or opportunity? (Coloss. iv. 5.) That great man, Wilberforce, was in the habit of storing his mind with suitable subjects for conversation, before going into company. To use his own expression, he would "prepare launchers," in order to lead the company to profitable things. There is much that deserves consideration in this practice.
He that would be an example in word, must endeavor to realize God's presence. Let a minister do everything as unto the Lord. Let him so speak, as well as act, as if Christ were at his right hand; and he will not be likely to offend with his tongue.
He that would be an example to believers in word, should keep in remembrance the Lord Jesus Christ's second coming. "What manner of people ought you to be," (2 Peter iii. 11), says Peter, in anticipation of this solemn event.
I need not tell my brethren that each of these brief hints might easily be expanded. I merely throw them out for private consideration, and desire to conclude all I have said by TWO PRACTICAL REMARKS.
I believe it is difficult to calculate the harm done by a careless tongue, in any one professing godliness. I am sure that the careless tongue of a minister of the Gospel on a week-day, will pull down faster than he can build on a Sunday. To some it may appear a trifling thing. I may seem to attach an excessive importance to a minister's manner of talking in private. I trust however you will bear with me, if I mention an anecdote, which has made a deep impression on my own mind. An eminent preacher in a town was once sent for by a dying man. On entering the room, he saw one whose face he did not recognize. "You do not remember me," said the dying man. The minister confessed that he did not. "Well," said the man, "I heard of you as a famous preacher some years ago, and I resolved to go to your church and judge for myself. I went, and was exceedingly struck by your sermon. It produced a powerful effect on my conscience. I never rested until I got an opportunity of being in your company. I desired to have some communion with one whose sermon bad so much impressed me. I met you at a house where many others were assembled, and hoped to have derived some good from your society. But, to my surprise, you hardly ever spoke of God, or Christ, or the Bible, or the soul, or eternal things, all the night long. You laughed, you joked, you told good stories, you were very courteous, you were very agreeable. But you were not like the preacher I had heard. I went away convinced that you did not believe what you preached, and that religion was all a delusion. I shook off my feelings, I stifled my conscience, I went back to the world. And now I have sent for you to say, that I believe I have lost my soul."
I have given you, of course, the substance, and no more, of this story. It is one which I have never forgotten, since I first read it, though I am unable to recollect where I first met with it. I have often thought to myself, "how easily this might have happened to me, as well as to this minister! How often I have been in company, and not been a witness for Christ!
I believe, on the other hand, that it is very difficult to overrate the good that might be done, if ministers in private society would speak boldly and faithfully about the things of God. A word spoken in social communion is often worth hundreds spoken from the pulpit. It is honoring God, and God honors it. I have heard of signal instances of good done by Christian brethren, by speaking out faithfully and plainly about God to all whom they met. No doubt men's gifts are widely different. Some can more easily preach in one place, and some in another. But I believe that Cecil was quite right when he said, that the rarest and yet most useful preacher was "the parlour preacher." My own observation leads me to precisely the same conclusion. I know some ministers with whom you could not be in company five minutes hardly, without hearing them speak of their Master. My own soul feels warmed and cheered by such men, and my own heart is drawn towards them. I cannot but think how much more might be done for Christ, if all Christ's ministers were men of this sort. "A word spoken in season how good is it!" You will remember, many of you, that one remark let drop by Robert M'Cheyne in conversation with a stranger, was the conversion of that stranger's soul. He was sheltering from a storm in the entrance to an iron-furnace. He said to the man who was tending the fire, pointing at the same time to the fire, "What does that fire remind you of?" The question brought the man ultimately to Christ.