An Earnest Ministry—the Need of the Times

John Angell James, 1847


The "power of example" is proverbial. We are constituted to be moved, as well as directed, by 'example'. It teaches us how to act, and impels us to action. Hence the excellence of Scripture; it is a book of models—as well as of maxims. Towering above all the rest, standing out in bold relief beyond all the others, is the character of
CHRIST. He is an example of all excellence, and an example to all people. To the ministers of the gospel, his beautiful and perfect embodiment of all that is holy and lovely commends itself with peculiar energy. He was himself a minister of the gospel, sent by the Father in the same manner as he has sent others. He is the great model, the Divine archetype as a preacher and a teacher, which they are to copy. He is to be imitated in the manner as well as in the matter of his preaching; he is to be closely and constantly followed in his liveliness, his tenderness, his fidelity, his solemnity. We of all men are under the most solemn obligations to tread in his steps and do as he did.

But I now select from all his qualities, his earnestness. In this, as well as in everything else, he surpassingly excelled all his most devoted servants. When he came into the world, he said, "Lo, I come, in the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do your will, O God." When he emerged from his obscurity at Nazareth, and entered on his public ministry, he commenced a career of increasing and untiring activity. His eye, his heart, his tongue, embraced one object, and one only—the salvation of souls. We see him always in action, never in repose. Follow him where we will, we find him always working, preaching, praying, or weeping—but never loitering. He gathered up the very fragments of his time, when waiting in the house of Martha for his food, and when waiting at the well of Samaria while his disciples had gone into the city to purchase provisions, and employed those brief intervals in doing good. He was the compassionate Savior—and not the cold and heartless philosopher. His preaching was the breathing of a soul replete with love—his common conversation was the overflowing of mercy. He was not a mere 'personification of reason'—but an 'incarnation of love'; and sent forth not the moon-beams of a cold and clear intellectualism—but the sun-rays of a fervid and fructifying benevolence.

To save souls he scrupled not to go, where but for this object we would have never seen him—to feasts and weddings, as well as funerals. From the hour when he thus addressed his mother, "Know you not I must be about my Father's business," his food and his drink were to do the will of his Father. He denied himself all that was of an indulgent and self-gratifying nature; his only relaxation was devotion, which, after laboring all day in the city, he sought by prayer upon the mountains, and in the midnight air.

As a scene of earnestness, never surpassed until he ascended the hill of Calvary—behold him bathed in tears over the guilty city, and choked in his utterance by the sobs with which the foresight of the approaching destruction of Jerusalem convulsed his bosom! O, that was a spectacle which was enough to draw into a sympathy of grief, the whole universe! What a heart that must have been, which on such a spot, and at such a time, could find relief for its intense emotions only in tears! Truly has it been said, that melting scene is inferior in pathos, in tender and solemn grandeur, only to Calvary itself. But this was only a prelude to what followed. In prospect of the hour of the solemn and mysterious scenes of Gethsemane and Golgotha, he exclaimed, "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened until it is accomplished." His eagerness for man's salvation was such that the guilty heart of the traitor was too slow in its purpose for his love, and he quickened the movements of Judas by those memorable words, "What you do, do quickly!" He made haste to the cross. He was almost impatient for the hour of sacrifice. He could brook no delay in love's redeeming work.

Here, ministers of the gospel, here is your pattern. This earnestness is your model. You are to be something like this. The work of Christ in saving souls is to be regarded in a double aspect by you, both as the means of your personal salvation, and the example for your official character. We have too much forgotten the latter. Even though as Christians we may have looked on his conduct as our exemplar, we have too much neglected to do so as ministers. As servants we have not kept our eyes fixed as we ought to have done, upon our Great Master. Shame upon us, that we have been so little careful to catch the fire of intense and ardent devotedness from this glowing and Divine example.

We have seen the sun, let us now turn to the stars—we have beheld the Master, let us now contemplate the servants. Perhaps the former is so high above you that you are discouraged by its loftiness and perfection—well, look now at some nearer your own level. First of all, observe the apostle PAUL; and where shall we find anything so nearly approaching to the earnestness of his Divine Lord, as the conduct of that wondrous man! From the moment of his conversion on his way to Damascus, he had but one object in existence, and that was the glory of God in the salvation of souls; and but one way of seeking it, and that was the preaching of the cross. Wherever he went, whatever he did, to whomsoever he addressed himself, he was ever watching for souls. Whether reasoning with the Jews in their synagogues; or discoursing with the philosophers on Mars' Hill; or preaching to the voluptuous inhabitants of Corinth; or appealing to the Ephesian elders at Miletus; or pleading in chains the cause of Christianity before the tribunal of Festus, in the presence of Agrippa; or writing letters from prison to the churches he had planted—we find him every where and always the earnest minister of Jesus Christ.

There is one expression in his address to the Ephesian elders which reveals in a short compass the whole spirit and marrow of his preaching; "Remember that by the space of three years, I ceased not to warn every one of you, night and day, with tears." The terrors of the Roman government could not extract from his firmness a single groan—but the sight of an immortal soul perishing in iniquity, and amid fatal delusions, altogether unmanned him, and suffused his face with tears, which in other cases would have been the sign of weakness. O those tears, those tears, how they reprove us for our insensibility, and how they prove to us our deficiencies!

Every view we can take of this illustrious servant of the cross fills us with astonishment and admiration. His life and history seem designed to teach us how much energy may be compressed into one human heart, to be developed in one single life; what sufferings may be endured, what power exerted, what results produced, by one man who is constrained by the love of Christ, and filled with all the fullness of God; and what God can accomplish in fulfilling the purposes of his wisdom and love, by the instrumentality of an individual of our species. There is a short sentence in his epistle to the Philippians, which in a few words sums up his whole life and labors, "For me to live is Christ." What profundity of meaning, what development of soul, what comprehension of purpose and plan, do those few monosyllables convey! "Christ is my life—apart from him and his work I have no separate existence. I have grown into that one object, and it absorbs me."

This is earnestness—and what obligation to cultivate it rested on Paul which does not rest on us? What was Christ to him, which he ought not to be to us? Why should he thus labor for souls—and not we? Is there a single reason which governed him, that ought not to constrain us? Ministers of Christ, read this great man's life with a view to know what you ought to be—and how you ought to live and labor. In view of what this blessed apostle was, and how he labored—will you be satisfied with cold intellectuality, flowery orations, subtle philosophy—with thinking you have answered the end of your calling when you have composed two sermons a week, and kept your people tolerably well satisfied with your labors? Will you think it enough to be a good student and reader—though all this while souls are not converted to God, nor the cause of godliness advanced in the world?

Do you talk of your hard labor, severe trials, scanty incomes, ungrateful congregations, and fickle friends? Listen to Paul's tale, and be silent. "In labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths often. Five times I received thirty-nine stripes from the Jews. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day have I been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by my own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which comes upon me daily, the care of all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?" Is there to be found in human composition or history such a passage as this? In reading it who can help asking, "after this, what have I done or suffered for Christ, which can give me a title to be ranked as a minister of Christ?"

But perhaps this also is too lofty an example to have much weight with you; then take an instance next from the Nonconformist's Memorial. It appears from the diary of that eminent servant of Christ, Oliver Heywood, that in one year, besides his stated work on the Lord's-day, he preached one hundred and fifty times, kept fifty days of fasting and prayer, and nine of thanksgiving, and traveled fourteen hundred miles on horseback, in the service of Christ and immortal souls. And then think of Baxter, that wondrous man, who though hunted and imprisoned by the demon of persecution, and tortured with severe bodily pain, was always preaching and writing, until he had composed and published those hundred and twenty volumes, the very writing of which, as to the mechanical labor alone, seemed enough to occupy a whole life, and as to which the celebrated Dr. Barrow said, that "his practical works were never mended, nor his controversial ones ever confuted."

Now turn to those extraordinary men, Wesley and Whitfield; and who can read the account of their amazing labors, and equally amazing success; without something of a self-reproachful and desponding feeling, as if we were living almost in vain? When we see them dividing their whole lives between the pulpit, the closet, and the class room; sacrificing all domestic enjoyment and personal ease; encountering savage mobs, and addressing congregated thousands; traveling backward and forward the whole length of the kingdom, and crossing the ocean many times; moving the populations of cities, and filling nations with the fame and the fruit of their evangelical labors; breathing little else than the atmosphere of crowded chapels and preaching rooms, except when they lifted up their voice under the canopy of heaven; regaling themselves, not with the dainties of the table, nor the repose of the soft luxurious couch—but with the tears of the penitent, and the songs of the rejoicing believer; making it their one and only business to seek the salvation of souls, and their one and only happiness to rejoice in the number of their conversions; indifferent alike to the savage fury of their persecutors, and the fond flatteries of their followers; sometimes rising from a bed of sickness to address the multitude in circumstances which rendered it probable they would exchange the pulpit for the tomb; to sum up all in one short sentence—wearing out life in labor so great that it looked as if they were in haste to die! When we see this, how can we endure to think of the way in which we are living, or how can we imagine we are living at all? How can we read their lives, and not blush for ourselves? How can we witness their earnestness, and not feel as if we knew nothing of the passion for saving souls?

And what shall be said of Brainerd, the first missionary of Christ among the Indians of North America? See him harassed by nervous and gloomy dejection, and wearing down by slow consumption; yet for the love of souls dwelling amid savages, helping to build his own comfortless and ill-furnished hut; living at times on parched corn; when traveling and benighted in the woods, sleeping, if sleep he could, wet and cold in a tree; throwing himself down on his return to his own solitary dwelling on his hard bed, with none to comfort him; and amid such privations, long tried and harassed by the lack of success in his apostolical labors; and all this for the love of souls, and the glory of Christ? Where, O where, even among modern missionaries, to say nothing of ministers at home, do we find this rigorous self-denial, this self-sacrificing disposition, this intense desire after the salvation of souls?

I may profitably refer to one more instance of devotedness, and that shall be of a pastor—Payson of America, whose biography should be read by every Christian minister. Many have read it, and I should hope with no small advantage. During his ministry his solicitude for the salvation of souls was so earnest, that he impaired his health by the frequency of his fastings and the importunity of his prayers. His whole life was spent in one constant series of efforts to produce revivals of godliness; and the anguish of his mind, when his labors failed, was so acute as to bring on bodily disease. It was said of him by his biographer, that his language, his conversation, and his whole deportment were such as brought home and fastened to the minds of his hearers the conviction, that he believed, and therefore spoke. So important did he regard such a conviction in the attendants on his ministry, that he made it the topic of one of his addresses to his clerical brethren, which he entitled, "The importance of convincing our hearers that we believe what we preach."

In the course of this address he remarks, that a minister who acted thus, "in delivering his message as an ambassador of Christ, would show that he felt deeply penetrated with a conviction of its truth and infinite importance. He would speak like one whose whole soul was filled with his subject. He would speak of Christ and his salvation, as a grateful, admiring people would speak of a great and generous deliverer, who had devoted his life for the welfare of his country. He would speak of eternity, as one whose eye had been wearied by attempting to penetrate its unfathomable recesses, and describe its solemn realities, like a man who stood on the verge of time, and had lifted the veil which conceals them from the view of mortals. Thoughts that glow and words that burn would compose his public addresses, and while a sense of the dignity of his official character, and the infinite importance of his subject, would lead him to speak as one having authority, with indescribable solemnity, weight, and energy, a full recollection that he was by nature a child of wrath, and that he was addressing fellow men and fellow sinners, mingled with compassion for their wretched state, and ardent desire after their salvation, would spread an air of tenderness over his discourses, and invest him with that affectionate, melting, persuasive earnestness of manner, which is best calculated to affect and penetrate the heart. To say all in one word, he would speak like an ambassador of Him who spoke as never any man spoke, and we would say—we speak of that which we know—and testify to that which we have seen."

When disabled by increasing disease from preaching, Payson carried with him into his sick chamber all his undiminished earnestness for the salvation of souls. Having come from, on one occasion, the administration of the Lord's Supper, he rose, and thus addressed his flock—"Ever since I became a minister, it has been my earnest wish that I might die from disease which would allow me to preach a farewell sermon to my people; but as it is not probable I shall ever be able to do this, I will attempt to say a few words now—it may be the last time I shall ever address you. This is not merely a presentiment—it is an opinion founded on facts, and maintained by physicians who know my case, that I shall never behold another spring.

"And now, standing on the borders of the eternal world, I look back upon my past ministry, and on the manner on which I have performed its duties; and oh, my hearers, if you have not performed your duties better than I have done, woe! woe! be to you, unless you have an Advocate and an Intercessor in heaven. We have lived together twenty years, and have spent more than a thousand Sabbaths together, and I have given you at least two thousand warnings. I am now going to give an account how they were given; and you, my hearers, will soon have to give an account how they were received. One more warning I will give you. Once more your shepherd, who will be yours no longer, entreats you to flee from the wrath to come. Oh, let me have the happiness of seeing my dear people attend to their eternal interests, that I may not have reason to say—I have labored in vain—I have spent my strength for nothing!"

After this he entered his chapel but once more. Confined now to his house and to his room, he still carried out his intense desires to be useful in saving souls, by dictating letters and addresses to individuals and bodies of men. People under anxious concern for their salvation, young converts entering on the Christian life, ministers just commencing the arduous duties of their office, and various bodies and classes of individuals, were sent for to visit him in his sick chamber, and receive his dying counsels and admonitions. What messages also went forth from that scene of agony and of glory to ministers and friends! His "ruling passion was strong in death." His love for preaching was as invincible as that of the miser, who dies grasping his treasure. Payson directed a label to be attached to his bosom when dead, with the words, "Remember the words which I have spoken unto you, while I was yet present with you," that they might be read by all who came to look at his corpse, and by them, he being dead, yet spoke. The same words at the request of his people, were engraved on the plate of his coffin, and read by thousands on the day of his interment.

Here was a beautiful instance of pastoral earnestness; and if I have dwelt longer on this than on some of the still more illustrious ones which have preceded it, the reason may be found in the fact, that it is the example of a minister of our own times, and placed in nearly the same circumstances as ourselves; and also in the wish that many who have not read that most instructive piece of pastoral biography, may be induced by these extracts to peruse the volume. That man's heart must be in a bad state indeed, both as a Christian and a minister, who is not made the holier and more earnest by contemplating that bright and lovely example.

Leaving the ministry, and turning towards the laity, for some rare examples of unquenchable earnestness, I find two deserving above most of honorable mention, and assiduous imitation, Lady Huntingdon, and the late Thomas Wilson of Highbury. In the former we see a peeress, related of course to many noble families, to whom the honors of the court and the elegancies of fashion were accessible, relinquishing from the hour of her conversion to God, all those pomps and gaieties of the world—and consecrating her rank, her influence, and her wealth, to His glory and the salvation of souls; leaving the festivities of the gay—for the conventicles of the godly; and the society of nobles, statesmen, orators and academics—to hold converse with itinerant preachers; selling her jewels to enable her to purchase chapels; opening her drawing room for religious worship; and undiverted and unmoved by the amazement, reproach, and sneers of a proud and scoffing aristocracy—pursuing with an intensity which they could comprehend as little as they could the objects to which it was directed, the spread of evangelical truth, and the salvation of immortal souls, both among the rich and the poor. In this one object her whole life was bound up, apart from it she had neither occupation nor enjoyment.

Pretty much the same in substance may be said of Thomas Wilson—the late Treasurer of Highbury College. We needed not the very valuable and interesting memoir of this inestimable man, with which his son has favored the world, to convince us of this; much as the conviction is deepened, and the impression perpetuated, by the complete view of his life and character there presented to our view—those who knew Mr. Wilson, (and who of every party in the religious world did not know him?) always considered him as a person of extraordinary zeal and great benevolence, and a most useful specimen of an earnest man. This character will be assigned to him even by those who differed from him in some views of the object on which he lavished the energies of his active mind, and the resources of his ample fortune. But now that the whole outward career of this indefatigable man is laid before us, and the mechanism of his heart, as the spring of his energy, is disclosed to us in this seasonable and instructive biography, we learn the important lesson, how much one man, whose heart is given to the work, may accomplish in the way of evangelizing our dark and wretched world.

Perhaps modern times have produced and presented few more striking instances of that quality of character which it is the design of this volume to illustrate and to enforce. He selected his one object of life, and that was the support and spread of evangelical religion by building chapels, and educating and supporting ministers, in connection with the denomination to which he belonged. For this he retired from business, and consecrated to it his time, his fortune, his influence, and his piety. His journeys from home, and his occupation at home, were in a great measure devoted to this. He had his office, his clerk, his house of business, his correspondence, all in reference to this, just as the merchant has for his commercial affairs. To this were directed his conversation in company, and his musing and letters when alone. The consummation of one scheme of usefulness in his line of effort was but the commencement of another. While others talked, he worked. We knew where to find him, and how he was employed. If a voice from heaven had commanded him to build chapels and educate ministers, he could not have pursued that object with more fixedness of aim, unity of action, and steadiness of perseverance, than he manifested. He knew his object, and therefore needed no counsel; he loved it, and allowed nothing to divert his mind from it—he saw its practicability and hearkened to no objections. If others would act with him, well; if not, he would go alone. It was not brilliant talents, nor a princely fortune, nor a commanding eloquence; though he had good abilities, a handsome income, and an easy utterance; but it was earnestness that made him what he was, and enabled him to do what he did. Yes, Thomas Wilson was an earnest man—and would to God that all whom he helped to introduce into the ministry, partook, in the still more sacred duties of their calling, of his intensity of action!