Monday, August 31, 2009
For a sound, consistent, scriptural exposition of the word of God, no commentary, we believe, in any language can be compared with Dr. Gill's. There may be commentaries on individual books of Scripture, which may surpass Dr. Gill's in depth of research and fullness of exposition: and the great work from which Poole compiled his Synopsis may be more suitable to scholars and divines, as bringing together into one focus all the learning of those eminent men who in the 16th century devoted days and nights to the study and interpretation of the word of God. But for English readers there is no commentary equal to Dr. Gill's. His alone of all we have seen is based upon consistent, harmonious views of divine truth, without turning aside to the right hand or the left. It is said of the late Mr. Simeon, of Cambridge, that his plan of preaching was, if he had what is called an Arminian text, to preach from it Arminianism, and if he took a Calvinistic text, to preach from it Calvinism. Not so Dr. Gill. He knew nothing about Arminian texts, or Arminian interpretations. He believed that the Scripture, as an inspired revelation from God, must be harmonious and consistent with itself, and that no two passages could so contradict each other as the doctrines of free will contradict the doctrines of grace. The exhortation of the apostle is, "Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith." (Rom. 12:6.) This apostolic rule was closely followed by Dr. Gill. "The proportion," or as the word literally means, "analogy of faith," was his rule and guide in interpreting the Scripture; and, therefore, as all his explanations were modeled according to the beautiful proportions of divine truth as received by faith, so every view disproportionate to the same harmonious plan was rejected by him as God-dishonoring, inconsistent, and contradictory. It is this sound, consistent, harmonious interpretation of divine truth which has stamped a peculiar weight and value on Dr. Gill's Commentary, such as no other exposition of the whole Scripture possesses.
But besides this indispensable qualification, it has other excellent qualities.
1. An interpreter of the word of God should have a deep and well-grounded knowledge of the languages in which the Scriptures were originally written. This Dr. Gill undoubtedly possessed. His knowledge of Hebrew, in particular, was deep and accurate, and his acquaintance with the Rabbinical writers, that is, the Jewish expositors of the Old Testament, was nearly unparalleled. Indeed, he has almost overlaid his Commentary too much with his vast and almost cumbrous Rabbinical learning, and seems to have given it more place and attached to it more value than it really deserves.
2. Another striking and admirable feature of this Commentary is, the condensation of thought and expression throughout. Dr. Gill possessed a rare and valuable gift,—that of packing. He will sometimes give four or five explanations of a difficult passage; but his words are so few and well chosen, and the meaning so condensed, that he will pack in three or four lines what most writers would swell to half a page, and then not be half so full, clear, or determinate. His Commentary has thus become full of ideas and germs of thought, which, by-the-bye, has made it such a storehouse for parsonic thieves; for the Doctor has in half a dozen lines furnished many a sermon with all the ideas it ever had worth a straw, and has given the two or three grains of gold which, under the pulpit hammer, have been beaten out to last an hour.
3. Another striking feature, in our judgment, of this admirable Commentary is the sound sense and great fairness of interpretation which pervade it. Dr. Gill possessed that priceless gift, a sound, sober mind. His judgment in divine things was not only clear and decisive, but eminently characterized by solidity and sobriety. This preserved him from all wild enthusiastic flights of imagination, as well as from that strong temptation of experimental writers and preachers,—fanciful interpretation. He never runs a figure out of breath, nor hunts a type to death; nor does he find deep mysteries in "nine and twenty knives," or Satan bestriding the old man of sin in Balaam and his donkey.
4. The fullness of the Commentary is another noticeable feature in Dr. Gill's Exposition. Most commentators skip over all the difficult passages. They bring you very nicely and comfortably over all the smooth ground; but just as you come to the marsh and the bog, where a few stepping stones and a friendly hand to help you over them would be acceptable, where is your companion? Gone. Lost himself, perhaps, in the bog; at any rate, not at hand to render any help. And where are the stepping stones he promised to put down? There is hardly one to be seen; or, if there be an attempt at any, they are too small, few, or wide apart to be of the least service. To one who has any insight into the word of truth, how empty, meager, and unsatisfactory are nearly all commentaries. The really difficult passages are skipped over, or by confused attempts at explanation made more difficult than before. Their views of doctrine are confused or contradictory. The sweet vein of experience in the word is never touched upon or brought to light; and even the letter of truth is garbled and mangled, or watered and diluted, until it is made to mean just nothing at all, or the very opposite of the sacred writer's meaning. As dry as a chip, and as hard, stale, and tasteless as a forgotten crust in a corner, these miserable and abortive attempts at opening up the sacred word of God, instead of feeding you with honey out of the rock, will drain away every drop of life and feeling out of your soul, and leave you as barren and empty as if you had been attending a banter's camp meeting, or hearing a trial sermon of a Cheshunt student as fresh from his theological tutor's hand as his new gown. With all their learning, and with all their labor, they are as destitute of dew as the mountains of Gilboa; of life, as the Dead Sea; of unction and savor, as the shoes of the Gibeonites; and of power and profit as the rocks of Sinai.
5. There is at times a savor and sweetness in the Commentary of Dr. Gill which forms a striking contrast to these heaps of dead leaves. And this gives the crowning value to his exposition of the Scriptures.
By J. C. Philpot
Thomas Hardy, in one of his excellent letters, makes the following remark, "The best Christians I meet with are generally Huntingtonians." This witness is true. There is, or as we must now say there was, for so few of them are left, a depth and clearness of experience, a savor and a sweetness, a rich, tender, feeling, unctuous utterance, a discrimination between law and gospel, letter and spirit, form and power, a separation from a lifeless profession, whether presumptuous or pharisaical, which distinguished them, in a most marked and decisive manner, as a peculiar and separate people. They had their failings and infirmities, as their justly admired and esteemed pastor and teacher had before them; and there were those, doubtless, in their ranks who had caught his faults without catching his grace, who were followers of his doctrine, but not followers of his Lord. Seeing all delusion but their own, taking hold of their teacher's skirt, as if he could thereby pull them into heaven, idolizing and extolling him, as if thereby a part of his grace were reflected upon themselves, and clinging to him as a servant of God, as if that were the sum and substance of Christian experience; if there were such among his hearers, it was only what he himself declared and denounced, and is but another proof of the desperate wickedness and deceitfulness of the heart of man.
His eminent gifts and grace, his great abilities as a preacher and writer, his separating, discriminating ministry, and the power of God so evidently resting upon him, not only gathered together a large congregation, but wherever there was a saint of God of any deep experience of the law in other congregations seeking rest and finding none under a letter ministry, he as it were instinctively crept in to hear the man who could and did describe the feelings of his heart. And when from the same lips the gospel was preached, with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven, and pardon and peace reached his conscience, the wanderer settled under his ministry, as fraught with a divine blessing, and loved and revered him as the mouth of God to his soul. When he went into different parts of the country it was still the same. In Kent and Sussex, in the Isle of Ely, in Lincolnshire at Grantham, in Nottinghamshire at Newark and Nottingham, wherever he went, his Master went with him, and accompanied the word with signs following. His ministry was especially blessed to the gathering together of the outcasts of Israel, those peculiar characters whom Hart so well describes:
"The poor dependents on his grace,
Whom men disturbers call;
By sinners and by saints withstood,
For these too bad, for those too good,
Condemned or shunned by all."
Like Simon Peter, he was made a fisher of men. He could throw the hook into deep waters, where his brethren of the rod and line knew not where or how to angle. His own deep experience of the law, of diverse temptations, of soul distress, of spiritual jealousy, of the hidings of God's face, enabled him to drop his line into the dark waters and gloomy sunken holes, where some spiritual fish hide and bury themselves out of sight and light; and his clear and blessed deliverance qualified him to angle also for those which leap and bask in the bright beams of the noon-day sun.
By his writings, occasional visits, and constant correspondence, he kept up the tie which knit him to his country friends. His liberal hospitality opened his house to them when they came to London, where he fed body and soul, entertaining them with his lively, witty, cheerful, yet spiritual conversation, reading at a glance their foibles and failings, and entering into their varied experience of sorrow and joy, with all the freedom and familiarity of an intimate friend, and all the authority of a revered and beloved teacher.
Though not ourselves Huntingtonians, in the usual sense of the word, yet, as lovers of good men, as admirers of the grace of God wherever seen, and as pressing forward to the experience and enjoyment of the same power of godliness, we venerate with the greatest esteem and affection the memory of Mr. Huntington and his immediate friends and followers.
It is impossible, we believe, for any person who knows anything of the power of vital godliness in his own soul to read half a dozen pages of Mr. Huntington's writings without feeling that there is a peculiar stamp upon them which none of his friends and followers, as they themselves would willingly and readily admit, have ever been able to reach. It is not merely the great and striking grasp of thought, the singular boldness and originality of expression, the wonderful aptness of scripture quotation, the firmness and decision of mind, the vigor and clearness of style, the lively wit and playful humor, the sparkling figures and pregnant comparisons, all which must ever characterize them as literary performances of a very high order to those who understand what mental ability and powerful writing are; but it is not, we repeat, these mere literary excellences (though even these have an unperceived weight and influence on the minds of many who from lack of education or mental cultivation can hardly appreciate them) that stamp Mr. Huntington's writings with such undying worth and value. It is the force of truth, the weight of deep and undeniable experience, the close and strict accordance with the testimony of God himself in the inspired word, and the life and power in them which so search the conscience and reach the inmost heart that make them acceptable to the family of God, and will always render them a priceless treasure to the Church of Christ.
The ministry of the preached word is such an express ordinance of God that he himself accompanies it with a peculiar blessing. No writings, therefore, of a servant of God, nor even his published sermons, however faithfully or accurately reported, can come up to what he is in the pulpit when his Master is with him. The sweetness and savor that fall with his words, the entrance they find into the conscience, the demonstration of the Spirit and of power that attend them to the heart, the blessing that they communicate as speaking peace, pardon, and salvation with the very voice of God himself, the softening influence that they spread to melt and dissolve the soul into humility, contrition, and love—these, and similar effects, cannot be reproduced by our holding in our hands the exact words which, as they fell from the lips of God's servant, were attended with these blessings.
At this distance of time, therefore, though we have Mr. Huntington's works, we have not Mr. Huntington. We have the sermons, but we have not the minister; we have the words, but we have not, at least not in the same measure, the power which accompanied them. It was himself, whom they saw and heard—the reality, the substance; we have but the shadow. When he stood up before them, he so spoke what he personally and experimentally knew, what he had tasted, felt, and handled of the word of life, what he had received by divine revelation from the Lord of life and glory, that his words fell with a weight and power upon their consciences which we who read his writings can hardly now realize; for his speech and his preaching were not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power; and thus the faith of his believing hearers stood not in the wisdom of man but in the power of God. From this power resting on his ministry Mr. Huntington gradually gathered round him not only a large body of hearers who warmly loved and deeply revered him for his work's sake, but a circle of attached friends who vied with one another in showing him sincere respect and affection.
The 'letter ministers' whom he exposed sometimes with such keen, caustic humor, and sometimes with such sharpness and severity, and the 'empty professors' whom he sent away stripped naked and bare of all their professed religion, naturally enough, in their spite and vexation, reviled and slandered him. He took away their gods, and what had they more? This was an unpardonable offence, and his unsparing mode of doing it made it worse. But their very outcry against him only made his real friends cleave more closely to him, as seeing in the very scorn and contempt manifested by them only the stronger proof that he was walking in the footsteps of his despised Lord, and that it was enough for the disciple to be as his Master.
Among the many striking features which distinguished the life and labors of Mr. Huntington, this was not the least conspicuous, that by the graces and gifts which the Lord bestowed so abundantly upon him he attached to himself so large a number of personal friends, some of whom became eminent ministers of the gospel. As a proof of this assertion we need only mention the names of Jenkins, Brook, Lock, Beeman, Chamberlain, Turner, Parsons, and, though last, not least, the late Mr. Vinall. The names of others may occur to our readers which have for the moment escaped our memory, or are unknown to us, but we have mentioned, we believe, the most conspicuous. Mr. Huntington, it is true, shone among them and above them all as the moon among the planets, or as David amid his mighty men of valor. In grace, in gifts, in experience, in light, life, and power, in originality and variety, in the knowledge and ready use of Scripture, in acquaintance with the human heart, in wielding the weapons of warfare on the right hand and on the left to defend truth and beat down error, none of his friends and followers approached him, if we may use the expression, within speaking distance. There was, therefore, no rivalry between them.
Before they were drawn within his circle, the Lord had set him on high as a burning and a shining light. They had, therefore, nothing to give, or teach him, though he had much to give and teach them. Thus naturally, necessarily, he took his position, and they theirs; and his friends no more thought of rivaling him than the friends of a prince strive to be greater than he. This was not on their part servility, or on his undue assumption. The bond which knit them together was a spiritual, not a natural tie. A poor despised coalheaver as he had been, though now, by the providence and grace of God, raised up to an eminent position in the church of Christ, had no places of honor or of emolument at his disposal. If he were in their eyes the King's prime minister, he had no preferment to bestow but that of hatred from the world and scorn from the professing church.
Those, therefore, who boldly stood forth as his followers and friends had to bear their share of ridicule and shame. Competition being precluded, there was little room for envy and jealousy, for these exist chiefly among equals. Mr. Huntington was raised above rivalry, for none so fully admitted his superiority as his immediate friends. He fully repaid their respect and kindness. He gave them wise counsel in their difficulties, sympathized with them in their troubles, and was always ready to help them with his purse in their necessities. We are not setting up Mr. Huntington, for, like other great men, he had great infirmities; but merely describing what is plain to all who have read his correspondence with his friends, or have ever heard them speak of him since his decease.
To have known him, to have had the privilege of his friendship, was to the latest period of their lives regarded by them as one of their choice mercies. As flesh mixes with everything, we do not deny that on his side there might have been the gratification of pride in being so looked up to and almost revered, and on theirs the pleasure of being received by him as saints and servants of God. We think that we have seen traces of both these feelings in their communion; and as unchecked authority is apt to degenerate into tyranny, and unresisting obedience into submissiveness, so in some cases Mr. Huntington might have condemned too severely, and his friends acquiesced in his authority too implicitly.
Let us also bear in mind that, like other great men, Mr. Huntington had his flatterers who often spread their net for his feet, and many admirers who walked in the light of his knowledge and gifts without any share of his grace. It could not be expected, therefore, that he would never be entangled by fair speeches, or always see through the mask of profession. But with all these deductions, which a sense of duty compels us to make, we must still bear in mind that, amid the storm of ridicule and contempt which assailed him from every quarter, it must have been a solace to Mr. Huntington that he had for his personal friends some of the excellent of the earth, and for them that they had the fullest persuasion in their own consciences that he was an eminently favored servant of God.
Few men have had to encounter such a storm of contempt, slander, enmity, and opposition as that eminent servant of God. The only doubt among those who despised and hated him was whether he were a fanatic or an impostor; and some very quietly and curtly settled the doubt to their own full satisfaction by pronouncing him both.
Reproach and calumny which were heaped upon him from all quarters, reaching him even after his death, and spread all over the world. But in his case there was this peculiar feature, that his greatest opponents and most violent calumniators were the preachers and professors of his day. There were, no doubt, peculiar reasons which drew forth an enmity against him and a storm of contempt and scorn by which few have been assailed as he was.
His views of the Law, at that time novel, his bold declaration that it was not a rule of life to believers, his strong and stern denunciation of the legal preachers of his day, the keen way in which he ripped up their arguments in his controversial writings, and the uncompromising language in which he laid bare their erroneous views, unmasking at the same time their profession and showing how ignorant they were not only of the truth of God but of any saving light in their own souls, provoked their wrath, and goaded them almost to madness. Knowing nothing for themselves of the sweet liberty of the Gospel, of a revelation of Christ, of a living faith in his Person and work, or of any union or communion with him, and resting all their hopes, if not professedly, yet really on a broken Law, or at the utmost on the bare letter of the word, they were naturally stung to the quick to see all their religion brushed away by him as a spider's web. He took away their gods, and what had they more? He broke up their idol, and with it fell both their countenance and their hope.
What course was then left to them? If they wrote against him, he was as a controversialist so unrivaled in his knowledge of Scripture and the use of it, so acute to discern the whole state of the argument, so keen in his dissection of their legal views, so fearless in his attack, and so thoroughly persuaded that God was with him and would stand by him, that none of his opponents could stand before him. We are free to admit that he did sometimes mingle his own spirit in his controversial writings with that Spirit of grace and truth by which he was undoubtedly led; but he himself, who knew best his own spirit, would not allow this, and we shall, therefore, leave the point.
He tells us that "God gave him so uncommon a spirit of meekness, at his first setting off to preach that he found himself rather too tender to declare the whole counsel of God." "I was more fit," he says, "for the character of a nurse than for that of a soldier. But when these Arians came to tear up the very foundation of my hope, that spirit of meekness gave way to a fiery zeal. When I came in private before God, my soul was overwhelmed with contrition; but when I got into my pulpit, I was clad with zeal as with a cloak."
As, then, his opponents could not overthrow his testimony on grounds of Scripture and truth, and as they had nothing to say against his life and conduct, for that was most circumspect and exemplary, they turned all the current of their reproach against his views upon the Law, as if by them he had removed the very foundations of morality. Not knowing in and for themselves the constraining love of Christ, the sweet and sacred influences of the Holy Spirit, the springing up of godly fear as a fountain of life, or anything of that sacred power whereby the child of God is led into all holy obedience to God's will and word, and kept from evil that it may not grieve him, they set up an image as a mark for their arrows, which was nothing but the imagination of their own mind. Every 'young theological sprig'—as he speaks, had a word against 'the Antinomian'—against his horrid doctrine, his dreadful views, his licentious sentiments, and what a wide door his preaching and writing opened for all ungodliness.
It was impossible to convince these men of their mistake. They were honest, many of them, as far as they went, but in leveling their arrows against his doctrines it was not so much the doctrines themselves as the consequences which they in their ignorance drew from them that they attacked. They did not see that the Law for which they so zealously contended was a ministration unto death and not unto life, of condemnation not unto justification, of bondage not unto liberty, and that its fruits and effects were not to produce obedience unto holiness, but to provoke and irritate the carnal mind and thus stir up and put power into sin, so as to deceive and slay the soul under it. Now, Mr. Huntington, on the contrary, held that the Gospel, in its truths, promises, and precepts, was the rule of life in the hands of the Spirit; and that from it—and not from the Law—flowed not only pardon and peace but holiness in heart, in lip, in life.
We are great admirers of Mr. Huntington's writings. From his works and those of Dr. Owen we have derived more instruction, edification, encouragement, consolation, and we may add conviction, counsel, reproof, and rebuke, than from any other source, except the word of God; and indeed it is because the writings of these two eminent men are so in harmony with the Scriptures, so breathe the same spirit, and are so impregnated with the same heavenly wisdom, that they are so profitable to those who know and love the truth. The Spirit of God speaks in and through them, because what they wrote they wrote under his special influences, and out of the treasure of a good heart brought forth those good things which make them so weighty and so valuable.
Mr. Huntington's greatest work is probably his "Contemplations on the God of Israel;" but for our own private reading we prefer his "Posthumous Letters" to any of his other writings. In them we see the man just as he was in his private moments before God; in them he pours forth to his various correspondents the treasures of wisdom and grace with which he was so largely endowed and blessed. There we see him not as a warm controversialist, nor a keen disputant provoked and irritated, as he sometimes unduly was, by the slanders of his enemies, or the errors of the day, against which he contended with such earnest zeal; but we see in them the breathings of a tender, kind, and affectionate spirit, mingled with such openings of the Scripture and the various branches of living experience as made them full of instruction and edification. As a letter writer he strikes us as unrivaled. Even apart from the subject of his letters, the ease, flexibility, originality, strength, and variety of his language is something marvelous. You never find in them anything dry, dull, and prosy; you are never wearied with long, obscure phrases and periods from which it is hard to extract sense or meaning; but his language flows from his pen with all the freshness and clearness of a summer brook, so transparent that you can see at once to the bottom, and as free from mud and mire as when it first gushed out of the hillside.
As his correspondents were very numerous, and as they were in different stages of the divine life, his Letters, taken as a whole, touch upon and unfold every branch of living experience, from its first movements in conviction to its fullest joys in deliverance and consolation. Some of his correspondents were very young, both in age and experience. Some, like Mr. Charles Martin, for instance, had only just begun to set their faces Zionward; some had been long and deeply exercised with trials and afflictions; some were contending with sharp and powerful temptations; and some, like himself, after having been much favored and blessed, were engaged in a perpetual conflict with a body of sin and death, had to labor under the weight of a daily cross, and to endure hardness as good soldiers of Jesus Christ.
Now, as he had traveled all these paths, and knew for himself more deeply than they did the various exercises, desires, sensations, feelings, sorrows, and joys of a believing heart, and was favored with a most wonderful gift in unfolding from the Scriptures and his own experience every feature of the divine life, he could suit his letters so as to meet the case and state of every correspondent. There is, therefore, we believe, scarcely a feeling, a sensation, or a movement of divine life in the heart which he has not touched upon or described as no other but he could do, and this with a life and power, a clearness, decision, certainty, and authority which carry with them an indescribable influence that seems to penetrate into the inmost soul. We read them again and again, and ever find something in them to instruct and edify the soul, strengthen faith, confirm hope, or draw forth love. He seems to have been singularly fond of writing to his friends, and would sometimes spend nearly a whole day in his little cabin in this use of his pen. Where he felt union, it was strong. There were few, perhaps, comparatively speaking, who had crept into his heart; but if once there, they were there forever. Those who spoke of him as harsh, austere, and stern, only knew him as opposed to errors and evil doings. They knew nothing of the man as spending hours and days in prayer and meditation, on his bended knees, before his dear Lord and Master, with flowing eyes and a broken heart. They knew nothing of his confessions in secret, his earnest wrestlings, or of the sweet union and communion with which, in answer to them, he was blessed and favored.
But if he were despised and hated by his enemies, who in truth were the enemies of God, he was proportionately loved and esteemed by his hearers and friends. Indeed, the feeling entertained toward him by many of his hearers was almost idolatry. We remember hearing a good woman say, to whom he had been much blessed, that when she looked at his house, she almost worshiped the smoke that came from the chimney of his study. This she confessed was but idolatry, yet it showed the strength of her feeling. And, indeed, there was much in the man, independent of the grace that rested upon him and his wonderful gifts in the ministry, to make him the center and object of the greatest esteem and affection. He was gifted with a noble, liberal mind, abhorring covetousness, and giving away his money with a most profuse liberality. Though born and bred in so low a state, yet he was one of nature's gentlemen; and we have heard from those who intimately knew him that there was a dignity in his person, manners, and appearance which commanded respect.
He was also naturally of a warm, affectionate spirit, and in his conversation there was a playfulness, though no levity, and a humour without jesting, which made his company very pleasant. That he was most hospitable in his own house, we can see from his letters, in the invitations which he gives to his friends to come and make themselves at home with him; and when he saw and felt the grace of God in them, and he would have no other company or other companions, he would converse upon the things of God with such wisdom, tenderness, contrition, knowledge of the Scriptures, and so open up every point from his own experience, that it was most blessed to hear him converse. Not but that he had his angry, peevish fits; not but that his natural temper was not one of the sweetest and most equable; but at these seasons he kept much to himself, and fought the battle alone with his own spirit, with many prayers and tears before God.
We have had the pleasure and privilege of knowing at various times some of his friends and hearers, and what we have thus written about him has not been at a mere uncertainty, but been gathered both from what we have read in his writings and from what we have heard from those who knew him. And we are free to confess that we have generally found in his hearers and friends a savor, a life, a feeling after, where not full enjoyment of those divine realities, in which the power of vital godliness so much consists, that we have not found in others.
by J.C. Philpot
When the Lord called to Himself the soul of our dear friend, William Gadsby, with truth it might be said, "There is a great man fallen this day in Israel" (2 Sam. 3:38). We believe we are but speaking in full unison with the feelings and sentiments of the living family of God in this country when we say that, taking him all in all, we have lost in Mr. Gadsby the greatest minister that God has raised up since the days of Huntington.
Our remarks we may conveniently throw under two heads—what he was viewed NATURALLY—and what he was viewed spiritually.
His natural intellect seems to us to have been singularly clear, sound, penetrating, and sagacious. We have in our day met with men of more capacious mind, greater reasoning powers, and more varied and versatile talents—but with few or none so quick-sighted and ready-witted. He seemed at once intuitively to penetrate through the folds of delusion and error, and with a glance of his eye to look into the very heart of everything that he turned his attention to. We venture to say that few people ever spoke to Mr. Gadsby without his knowing pretty well the end of the sentence before they had got halfway through it, or before his quick and humorous eye had not already deciphered the character of the speaker. His quick, ready witted replies, embodying so much in a few words, will be long remembered by those who heard them from the pulpit or in the parlour.
Though not possessed of much education (an advantage, by the way, much overrated), he was a man of much reflection, and may be said in this way to have educated his own mind far better than school or college could have done for him. His mind was of that class which rises according to the emergency. Some minds sink and fail when unusual circumstances and pressing difficulties arise. ... But there are other minds (and Mr. Gadsby's was one of that class) which rise with, and are called out by difficulties and emergencies, and shine most conspicuously when weaker minds give way.
The Lord had appointed Mr. Gadsby to be a leader, and to stand for half a century in the front rank of His spiritual army. He therefore bestowed upon him a mind not to be daunted with difficulties and dangers, but to rise with and to be ready for every new emergency. He was to occupy a post also in keen-witted and energetic Manchester—where, perhaps, of all places in the kingdom, strength, decision, and soundness of mind are most required; and to labor much in the North, where brains or the lack of them are quickly perceived by its sagacious inhabitants. The Lord therefore gave him a mind eminently adapted for his post. Classics and mathematics, grammar and history, and all the lumber of academic learning were not needed; but an acute, sagacious, clear, and sound understanding was required for such a commanding post, as Mr. Gadsby was to occupy. We only knew him when his mental faculties were guided by grace, and made to glorify God; but, viewed in that light, we consider that his mental endowments were admirably fitted for his post.
Benevolence and sympathy with suffering, in every shape and form, we believe to have been natural to Mr. Gadsby; and though it may be hard to define to what extent and in what direction grace enlarged and guided his natural disposition, we do not doubt that, even had he lived and died in a state of nature, the character of humanity, kindness and affection, would have been stamped upon his memory.
But we pass on to view him SPIRITUALLY, and here we freely confess our inability to do him justice. We shall briefly mention first what strikes us as the prominent features of his ministry, and then what we have observed in him as connected with his Christian profession.
Thorough soundness in every point seems to have been peculiarly stamped upon his ministry. Whether he handled doctrine, experience, or precept—his speech and his preaching were sound, clear and scriptural. We know no preacher who was so equally great in these three leading branches of the Christian ministry. Some may have excelled him in clearness and fullness of doctrinal statement; others may have entered more deeply and fully into a Christian's diversified experience; and others may have more powerfully enforced the precepts of the gospel. But we never heard anyone who was so uniformly great in all—and so clearly, ably and scripturally gave to each their place, and yet blended their distinct colors into one harmonious gospel tint. In doctrine he was not dry, in experience he was not visionary, and in precept he was not legal—but, in a way peculiarly his own, he so worked them up together that they were distinct and yet united, relieving each other without confusion, and like the three strands of a rope, strengthening each other without cumbrous knot or loose tangle.
In handling DOCTRINE he showed "integrity" (Titus 2:7), and was singularly free from fanciful interpretations, strained and mystical views upon dark texts, and that false spiritualization which passes with many for wondrous depth, but which he valued at its due worth. In reading his published sermons we have been much struck with the soundness, clearness, simplicity and sobriety of his interpretations. He saw too clearly that his doctrine was the doctrine of the Scriptures to wrest any part of the Word from its connection, or to rest a truth upon a text which did not clearly declare it, when there were so many passages in which the Holy Spirit had plainly revealed it.
His object was not that William Gadsby should be admired for his ingenuity, learning, depth of eloquence—but that the God of all grace should be glorified. He did not dare to make the pulpit a stage for 'creature display', still less a platform from which he might keep up a perpetual excitement by some new view of a passage, some startling paradox, some dazzling array of figures and illustrations—the whole sermon being to illustrate this text—"Who so great a man as I?"
In doctrine his favorite topic was the union of the Church with her covenant Head, and all the spiritual blessings that spring out of that union. Nor did he ever keep back the grand truths which are usually denominated Calvinistic, but which should rather be called 'Bible truths'.
Election, in particular, was a point he much dwelt upon, and it usually occupied a prominent place in all his discourses. No man was less afraid of the doctrine frightening and alarming people, or being a stumbling-block in the way of the enquirer. He had no idea of smuggling people into religion, and insinuating Calvinism so gently that they were made Calvinists almost before they knew it. He knew that the doctrine was of God—and, as the servant of God, he proclaimed it on the walls of Zion.
The doctrine of the Trinity too was a darling topic with him. He well knew that it was the grand foundation stone of revealed truth, and that out of a Triune God flowed all the mercies and blessings that are bestowed upon the Church of Christ.
In a word, he held "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." No novelty in doctrine allured him from the old path. For nearly fifty years he stood upon the battlements of Zion, holding forth the word of life; and from the beginning to the end of his ministry maintained, with undeviating consistency, the same glorious truths, and sealed them at last with his dying breath.
"Among innumerable false, unmoved,
Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified,
His loyalty he kept, his love and zeal;
Nor number, nor example, with him wrought,
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind,
In handling EXPERIENCE, into which he seemed more particularly led during the latter years of his life, he neither set up a very high—nor a very low standard. But he always insisted strongly upon such an experimental knowledge of the spirituality of God's law as should completely throw down and cut to pieces all creature righteousness, and always contended for such an experimental knowledge of Christ as should bring pardon and peace. No man ever, we believe, expressed himself more strongly upon the deep corruption of the heart, its deceitfulness, horrible filthiness, and thorough helplessness.
One point we have often admired in his ministry; he would touch upon such spots as no other minister that we know ever dared approach. And this he did in a way peculiar to himself. He did not give glowing descriptions of human depravity; but sometimes in a way of warning, and sometimes with self-abhorrence, and sometimes as a word of encouragement to poor backsliders—he would touch upon sins which would make pious professors lift up their eyes with mock horror. But he hit the right nail on the head, as many of God's children know to their soul's joy. Of sin he never spoke but with the greatest abhorrence; but he was not one of those who are all holiness in the pulpit, and all filthiness out of it.
Another point which we have thought he handled in a way peculiarly his own, and with great sweetness and power, was, to use his favorite expression, "the riches of matchless grace." Were we to mention a text which seems to sum up his preaching, it would be Romans 5:20-21, "Moreover the law entered that sin might abound"—(these were his views upon the law) "but where sin abounded" (what a field for opening up, as he would sometimes do, the aboundings of inward sin and filth!) "grace did much more abound"—here he was at home in tracing out the glories of sovereign, distinguishing grace. The glory of God's grace, from its first rise in the eternal covenant, to its full consummation in future blessedness, was indeed his darling theme. When speaking of the heights of super-angelic glory to which the blessed Redeemer had raised the Church, he was sometimes carried, as it were, beyond himself. A grandeur and dignity clothed his ideas, and he spoke with such power and authority, that it seemed almost as if he had been in the third heaven, and was come back to tell us what he had seen and heard there!
Great originality, all must admit, was stamped upon his ministry. His ideas and expressions were borrowed from none. His figures and comparisons were singularly original and pertinent, and generally conveyed his meaning in a striking manner. Few men's reported sermons bear reading so well as his—that great test whether there is any sterling stuff in them. Very simple, and yet very clear, very full of matter, and that of the choicest kind, with the text thoroughly worked out, and that in the most experimental manner.
A friend of ours and his well characterized, we think, in one sentence Mr. Gadsby's ministry. "It contains," said he, "the cream of all the preachers I ever heard." We think this is an appropriate expression. His sermons were not 'skimmed milk'—but were rich in unction savor, and power—and possessed a fullness and depth such as we find in no other reported sermons that we have seen.
But our limits remind us that we must not dwell too long upon his ministry, and therefore we proceed to drop a few hints on his CHRISTIAN CHARACTER, more especially as it came under our personal observation.
1. One feature we have often admired in Mr. Gadsby's character—his singular HUMILITY. Who ever heard him angle for praise? Who ever heard him boasting of, or even alluding to—his popularity as a preacher—his large congregation—his gifts for the ministry—his acceptance with the people of God—his numerous invitations to preach at different places, and the blessing that generally rested upon his pulpit labors? Who ever perceived him, in the most indirect manner, fishing to learn who had heard him well, and dabbling in that wretched love of flattery—which, disgusting in all, is doubly so in the ministers of the gospel?
We have seen him, after some of the grandest sermons we have ever heard in our lives, sitting with no self-approving smile upon his countenance—no mock-bashful looks, as if waiting to receive the incense of flattery—no self-enthroned dignity of state as king of the pulpit and lord of the vestry—but like a little child, simple and humble, the chief of sinners, and less than the least of all saints. Great as he was as a minister, and deservedly esteemed and loved, there was nothing in him of 'the great master'. No man was ever more free from priestly dignity or fleshly holiness. It was not with him, "I am the great man to be listened to by my knot of admirers—what I say is law—and all you have to do is to approve." Such parlour priest-craft the honest soul of William Gadsby abhorred!
2. His conduct out of the pulpit, as far as our observation goes, was singularly consistent with all his profession in it. We do not speak here of mere outward consistency. What but a lying tongue, ever found a visible blemish in his fifty years ministry? But in the little courtesies of life, who ever entertained a more courteous visitor than he? Who of the numerous friends who at different places received him into their houses ever saw in him an overbearing, fretful, covetous, selfish, proud disposition? Kindness and friendship, and courtesy to all, sometimes even to a fault, shone forth in him.
3. And who ever heard him slander and backbite, or peddle gossip from house to house? Admitted as he was into the bosom of so many families, who ever knew him to talk of what he must have seen and witnessed in so many places? Naturally disposed to humour, what a fund there would have been for his quick and ready-witted tongue! But who ever heard him make any allusion, except to the kindness of his entertainers, or who ever knew him carry tales from one end of England to the other?
4. How singularly free, too, was our departed friend from running down and depreciating brother ministers! We never once heard him drop an unkind allusion or say a disparaging word against a minister of truth. His hand never carried a secret dagger to stab his brethren with. On the contrary, we have thought him too open hearted and long-armed, and too ready to receive as men of God ministers whose only recommendation was a sound Calvinistic creed. If he erred, it was that he thought and spoke too well of some professing godliness—from whom the mask has since dropped. But of this a minister might be sure, that if Mr. Gadsby received him as a brother, he treated him as such behind his back as well as before his face. He never sought to exalt himself by depreciating them, and was the last to say a word to their discredit, or which, if repeated, would wound their minds.
5. And to this we may add, that, as he was the last to depreciate, so was he the last to flatter. His kindness and brotherly love kept him from the one, and his sincerity preserved him from the other. He neither said crude things to wound—nor smooth things to please. He did not tyrannize with violent temper—nor fawn with canting servility. He neither took liberties nor allowed them; he knew his place and kept it; and while, by a calm, courteous demeanor, he preserved the respect due to him as a Christian man and minister, he was frank, free, and obliging. In fact, he rather erred, now and then, as we have hinted, on the side of courtesy. He was desirous of making himself agreeable, and sometimes this led him to repeat the thrice-told tale, and tell the well-known anecdote, sometimes humourous, but usually profitable in its intention, and almost always to depreciate himself.
But we feel we must stop. Our limits do not allow us to dwell upon his extensive labors in the ministry, his frequent and long journeyings to preach the gospel—his self-denying and temperate habits of life—his prudence in domestic and monetary matters—his kindness and liberality to the poor—the noble manliness of his character—and his entire freedom from cant, hypocrisy, and whine. We highly esteemed and loved him, and revere his memory with growing affection. We consider it a privilege to have known him, and would not be in the ranks of those who despised or slandered him for a thousand worlds.
By J. C. Philpot, 1844
Who that knows anything of the wondrous doings and dealings of the Lord in providence and grace can say that miracles have ceased? It is true that the croaking raven no longer brings bread and flesh, morning and evening to an Elijah by the brook Cherith; nor does the palsied leave his bed, or the dead come out of his grave, as in the days when Jesus walked here below. But wonders as great, though less visible to the eye of sense, are daily and hourly wrought by the same Jesus, now sitting at the right hand of God.
The life and death of our dear and esteemed friend, the late Mr. Warburton, proclaim this truth as with trumpet tongue to those who have ears to hear, and write it up, as with a ray of light, to those who have eyes to see how great are the signs of the Lord, and how mighty His wonders to those who fear and love His great Name. He was indeed a special instance of those miracles of providence and grace which testify to the power and presence, the mercy and love of a Covenant Jehovah.
But most Christians have a history of their own, a wondrous tale to tell of the providence of God, as displayed in their past life—dull, indeed, and trivial to carnal men, unimportant and uninteresting, if not a scoff and a jest, to such as would push God out of the government of His own world—but precious beyond all price to themselves, as affording them, through its intimate connection with the work of grace, blessed evidences of their present sonship and future inheritance. When faith is in living exercise, and can roll out and read the long, and, it may be, intricate scroll of bygone years—sweet is it to see the providence of God in well near every line.
However long may be the chain, it is all linked together from beginning to end, nor can one link be severed without breaking asunder the connection of the whole.
Why born of such and such parents? Why so, in earliest infancy, brought up? Why so circumstanced in childhood? Why so situated in this or that locality? Why exposed at this or that period, to such trials and difficulties? Why directed to such a spot as years grew on? Why, in tender youth, cast into this or that deep trouble, and heart-breaking sorrow? Why these fair prospects blighted, those warm affections withered, these airy castles shattered—when least expecting, and least able to bear the shock? Why this sudden and unexpected turn of events, bringing on the hour when grace first visited their souls?
All who have any living experience of the 'path of the just' have their individual life-history in which they can at times trace the wonder-working hand of God holding the marvelous chain—and winding out link by link all these varied circumstances.
All, it is true, cannot tell the moving history recorded in Mr. Warburton's "Mercies of a Covenant God." They have neither had the deep troubles nor the blessed deliverances of the Lancashire weaver. Their goods have not been marked for rent, nor they and their children trundled off to the workhouse. They have not had the heavy trials in their families, in their churches, or in their own souls, which Infinite Wisdom had assigned to our departed friend. Still less have they had his great blessings and powerful manifestations of the love and goodness of God in providence and grace. Nor has their tongue, if ministers, been clothed with that rich savor and divine unction which so marked his words in the pulpit, and in the parlour.
God designed him for a great work in the Church of Christ, and therefore abundantly and eminently qualified him for it. However at the time hidden from his eyes—his heavy trials in providence—his deep and long poverty—the sinkings of his own desponding mind—the continual debt into which he was plunged—his dismal and gloomy forebodings of a still worse future—his fears of bringing a reproach on the cause of God—the temptations of Satan with which he was assailed—the hidings of the Lord's face—his quakings and tremblings lest he had run unsent—and the whole series of anxieties and distresses through which he was called to pass—all, connected as they were with the manifestations of God's love and mercy to his soul—were mysteriously tending to make him what he eventually was—a minister to the suffering Church of Christ, a feeder of the 'flock of slaughter', a feeling experimental man of God to the mourners in Zion, the broken in heart, and the contrite in spirit. As in Paul, God chose an instrument wherein "to show forth all patience to those who would hereafter believe on Him to everlasting life," so in John Warburton the Lord chose a vessel of mercy to show the power of His grace above all the wisdom of the creature.
But it has been well and wisely said that though God saves by "the foolishness of preaching"—He does not send fools to preach. This is eminently true in the instance before us. Mr. Warburton was not a man of learning, or even much education—but he was naturally possessed of a sound, vigorous understanding, without which original gift, mere school-cram is nearly useless. Great mistakes prevail on this subject. Education is one of the grand idols of the present day, and is continually spoken of and cried up as the one thing needful, not only to root out of the land all immorality and vice—but to convert the rising generation into a race of philosophers, lawyers, statesmen and divines. It is quietly assumed almost as a first principle—a mere matter of course, that the mind of man is naturally like a peach tree or a vine, which has only to be trained in a certain way and laid in to a certain length, and it is sure then to produce unceasing crop of fruit; or that it resembles a bale of cotton, which may be folded, doubled and drawn, twisted and spun, woven and printed into any length, shape size, and pattern that the manufacturer chooses.
Just as if the original force, and feebleness of the mind, its natural quality and staple, were of no account—and just as if education could convert weak intellect into a strong one—and schools and colleges turn out Miltons and Bacons by contract, at so much a pupil. The school and the academy cannot turn a 'noodle' into a Newton, nor educate a blockhead into a genius. We do not deny that education will, according to the literal meaning of the word, draw out what is in the mind—but it must first be in the mind. You may draw and draw, but your thread will never have any strength or length, unless there be at the bottom the needful staple and the requisite supply.
What Mr. Warburton might have been, had his naturally strong and vigorous intellect been cultivated by a sound education in early boyhood and youth, cannot now be said. But most probably, we might rather say most certainly—it would have ruined him. We might have had Warburton the acute lawyer, or Warburton the learned divine—but we would not have had Warburton the preacher, Warburton the feeling and experimental minister, the tried and exercised man of God. That he might not be thus spoiled, God Himself took charge of his education, by placing him in early youth, not in an academy for young gentlemen, nor in a classical and commercial establishment—but in the school of Christ.
'Moses' was made his schoolmaster, and first caught hold of him in Bolton Church, where, instead of charming his ears with the melodious tones of the new organ—he sounded in them such a terrible peal of death, hell, and judgment to come—that his pupil dropped down half dead at his feet. Here he learned his A B C in experimental religion—here Moses shook over him for the first time the rod—here the first lesson given to him, amid many sighs and tears, was to learn to spell the first letter of that dreadful sentence—"Cursed is everyone that continues not in all things written in the book of the law to do them."
What school or college could have experimentally taught him what he first learned in Bolton Church—that he was a sinner, under the curse of God's righteous law? What labored course of lectures, free library, or institute of learning, could have made him cry out, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" all the way home, until his breast-bone was sore?
Education is admirable in its way, excellent for a time state—but no education—classical, theological, moral, or religious—could have made, though it might have marred, a John Warburton—either as a Christian or a minister, or brought him with sighs and groans to the Redeemer's feet. And when peace and pardon first reached his heart—when rich, free, sovereign, and superabounding grace poured salvation into his soul, as he sat in Mr. Roby's chapel—he learned more in one moment what the love of God was—whence it came, and where it led, what it could do, and what bliss and blessedness it could create—than all the doctors and proctors, pastors and masters, schoolmasters or scholars, lecturers or libraries, teachers or tutors, could have taught him in half a century!
When fierce temptations assailed his soul, when hell rose up in arms, and Satan—enraged to see so useful a tool lost to his service and enlisted in God's—hurled his fiery darts thick and fast against him—he was still at school, still learning better and wiser lessons than the Academy or the University could have taught him.
When dark clouds rested upon him in providence—when poverty and need knocked hard at his door—when little work and scanty wages, hard times and an increasing family plunged him into a sea of debt and distress—he was still learning deep and blessed lessons, never taught at college or learned at the university. When the clouds of darkness broke in showers upon his head—when the Sun of righteousness gleamed upon his path, in providence and grace—when he could set up an Ebenezer here and a hill Mizar there—when he could "look from the top of Shenir and Hermon, from the lions' dens, from the mountains of the leopards," and see the valley beneath all flowing with milk and wine—what books or book-makers could have taught him there was such a God in Israel—or have raised up in his heart such faith, hope, and love towards Him?
So with all his long experience of the ups and downs, ins and outs, joys and sorrows, risings and sinkings, feastings and fastings, smiles and tears, songs and sighs, mercies and miseries, heavens and hells of a living experience—what substitute could be found in human genius, or human learning, for this course of heavenly instruction?
We are not setting up Mr. Warburton—but the grace of God in him. We are not daubing his memory with oily eulogy—extolling and idolizing a worm of earth—or dressing out his poor cold remains with carnal flattery and empty praise. Could he speak out of the graveyard, he would bid us, with that voice which has struck awe into whole congregations—to be silent. And would admonish us in tones that would make us tremble, to ascribe the glory first and last to God. By the grace of God alone he was what he was. Grace began, grace carried on, and grace completed the whole work, from first to last, upon his soul.
Great, especially in his early days, were his afflictions, and proportionately great were his consolations. But the Lord was with him in all his troubles and sorrows, temporal and spiritual—and brought him triumphant through them all. His debts which had lain so heavy a burden upon him for many years, he was enabled honorably and fully to discharge, mainly through the blessing of the Lord resting on his little work, "The Mercies of a Covenant God." Thus his very providential trials proved providential blessings, and his debts were paid by his experience of their burden.
Yet if many his miseries—many were his mercies. He was blessed with a large measure of health and strength for many years—was favored with an affectionate wife and family, some of whom he had the happiness of seeing called by grace—was much loved and esteemed by the church of Christ, to which he was made so signal a blessing—was spared to a good old age, without many of its usual infirmities—was sweetly supported on his bed of sickness and languishing by the presence and love of his dear Lord—and, after many longings to be gone, yielded up his spirit into His bosom with "Hallelujah" upon his lips.
He was not, indeed, without his faults and failings; but these much sprang from, and were closely connected with, the warmth of his natural feelings. If at times he was irritable, it arose, not from moroseness and sullenness of temper—but from that same depth and warmth of feeling which, flowing in another channel, made him so fond of his wife, children and grandchildren—and so opened his heart to sympathize with their afflictions and trials, and take such a lively interest in all their concerns. He was also often considered overbearing with his church and congregation. But Scripture and experience alike show that in a church, as in every other group, there must be order and government. If then the pastor does not exercise his legitimate influence and authority, there are those in every church who will rule the rest if they can—and as the other members will not quietly submit to this, the necessary consequence is strife and confusion.
If Mr. Warburton held the reins with a firm hand, and sometimes sharply lashed the unruly, it was, in most cases, for the general good of the whole. He viewed himself as the father of the church and congregation, as indeed he was—for the former church was chiefly made up of his spiritual children—and the latter church was gathered and kept together by his gifts and grace. If then, as a father, he fed them—as a father he thought it right to govern them. His post was to lead, not to follow—to rule and govern—not to yield and obey. If sometimes he stretched his power beyond the usual limits of a pastor, and used the rod as well as the crook in ruling the church and congregation committed to his charge—it was not to exalt himself, make divisions, or introduce error—but for the good of the cause and the glory of God.
He was naturally gifted with much sound good sense, knew the weakness and wickedness of the human heart, and seeing how soon divisions arise in a church, and what havoc they make of its prosperity and peace, he at once, with his broad, weighty foot, trampled upon the rising flame which other ministers, of weaker and less determined minds, would let smoulder on—lest, in putting it out, they should burn their own fingers. Lack of order and discipline is a prevailing evil in our churches—and when a pastor uses the authority which the Lord has given him to rule as well as feed the church, a cry is soon raised by those who are opposed to all order and discipline—that he is tyrannical and arbitrary.
He might sometimes, when thwarted and opposed, speak sharply, and look angry—and there was something in his fine, portly person, commanding look, and loud voice, that struck terror into the timid and silenced the talkative—but a tenderer heart never beat before the throne of grace and at the footstool of mercy. There indeed he was a little child—a babe, a humble, broken-hearted sinner. Much has been said of his temper and obstinacy, especially of late years, when painful divisions broke out in his church. But we challenge all his opponents and detractors to name a minister more broken and humble than he was before God. We have known many ministers, many good and gracious servants of God, but we never knew a man more tender in real soul feeling, more broken, and simple, and child-like, when the hand of God was upon him. His temper was naturally stubborn and obstinate, but this made the contrast all the greater to what he was by grace.
Thousands can testify to what he was in the pulpit. No one who knows what spiritual tenderness, divine sensations, and heavenly blessings are, could hear him pray or preach, when the Lord was with him—without feeling there was a peculiar savor and power in his words. This dew and unction, with which he was favored above any living minister, made him so acceptable to the tried and experienced family of God. It was not his gifts of eloquence, or powers of thought and expression—it was not the beauty of his language, or the force of his arguments—for in these external things he did not shine—that drew such crowds to hear him in London and the country—but the peculiar savor and sweetness that dropped from his lips.
He was truly and peculiarly an experimental minister of God's truth. He preached what he knew in his own soul by the power of God—what he had tasted, felt, and handled of the word of life for himself—what had been wrought in his heart and conscience by the operations and influences of the Holy Spirit. For him it was eminently true, that "the heart of the wise teaches his mouth and adds learning to his lips" (Proverbs 16:23). He was, therefore, "a minister of the Spirit, not of the letter," "a workman who needed not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." He honored God—and God honored him.
No minister in these last fifty years, excepting Mr. Huntington and Mr. Gadsby, has been so blessed to the church of God, or had so many seals to his ministry. Let those men or ministers who, for years, have been snarling at him and secretly whispering their slanders, produce as many witnesses on their behalf. Let them search and see whether God has blessed them as He blessed Mr. Warburton. Can they preach with his savor and power? Can they describe the trials and afflictions of the people of God as he could? or the feelings of the soul under His smiles, as he was enabled to?
By J. C. Philpot, 1857
"And Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, Oh that thou wouldest bless me indeed, and enlarge my coast, and that thine hand might be with me, and that thou wouldest keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me! And God granted him that which he requested."
(1 Chronicles 4:10)
Here, in the prayer of Jabez, should the Lord the Spirit lead us into the sweet and rich experience of the passage, we may find in it some green pastures to feed in, and some still waters to lay down by. All the family of God may, more or less distinctly, read their experience in the prayer of Jabez, and see clearly portrayed in it the desires and breathings of their own souls.
But who was Jabez? We read nothing of him beyond these two features, which the Holy Spirit has stamped his name with: first, that he was "more honorable than his brethren;" secondly, that "his mother called his name Jabez which means "sorrowful", because "she bore him with sorrow." As names were generally prophetical in those times, it would seem to imply that he was the sorrowful child of a sorrowful mother. He was certainly cradled in affliction, and as an eminent follower of him who was a Man of sorrows, he doubtless was chosen in the furnace of affliction, and through much tribulation entered the kingdom of heaven. His very petition, "Keep me from evil that it may not grieve me," shows that he knew what grief and trouble of soul were.
"And Jabez called on the God of Israel." From this we gather that he had a spiritual, experimental knowledge of the God of Israel. He did not worship "an unknown God," like the Athenians; nor the God of creation, like the Deist; nor the God of his own fancy, like the Pharisee; nor the God of universal love and mercy, like the Arminian; but "the God of Israel," that is, God in covenant with a peculiar people--Israel being "his inheritance," Isa 19:25; the object of his eternal love, Mal 1:2; and "his peculiar treasure," Ps 135:4. This was the God before whom he bowed down to worship in spirit and in truth, and at whose mercy-seat he poured forth the desire of his soul in the prayer left here upon record.
But how came he to call upon the God of Israel? Before he could call upon him he must know him, and this could only be by some personal manifestation of him. To read of him in the Scriptures--to hear of him from the mouth of others--to have received a traditionary knowledge of him from parents or instructors--to have the natural conscience impressed with a sense of his being and universal presence, all fall very short of a personal, spiritual, supernatural manifestation of him to the soul. When a ray of divine light shines into the heart out of the fullness of the Godhead, then and then only do we know him aright, then and then only can we be said to know him at all. To know him thus, so as to see him in the light of his own countenance, to feel his gracious presence shed abroad, and to be drawn up into some secret and close communion with him, is a part of that eternal life, of which the Lord has said, "This is life eternal, that they might know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent," John 17:3.
Jabez, then, being brought into this spiritual knowledge of the God of Israel, comes into his gracious presence under the special anointings and teachings of the Holy Spirit, and bowing down with solemn prostration of spirit before the throne of majesty and mercy, pours forth the desires and breathings of his soul in such words as the blessed Spirit indited. Were it not so, this prayer would not have been left recorded in the pages of inspired truth. But if this be the case, then, if we live under the same heavenly teaching, if the same blessed inward Intercessor pray in us, the desire and breathings of our soul will correspond to the desires and breathings of the soul of Jabez. And this prayer seems to have been left upon record as a model, a pattern of spiritual breathings, a cast as it were from the inward mold, a putting into a tangible visible shape that which transpires in the secret chambers of the heart.
We will, then, without any formal divisions, simply endeavor to travel through the petitions offered up in this prayer of Jabez; and may the Lord enable us to see our faces reflected therein, for if our hearts are filled with the same desires, and we pray under the same heavenly operations, the same blessed answer is annexed to our petitions which was annexed to his.
I. What was his first request? "Oh, that you would bless me indeed!" There are many apparent blessings which are real curses; many apparent curses which are real blessings; and many blessings which are both apparent and real.
1. Thus HEALTH is apparently one of the greatest natural blessings, but it often proves a real curse. Its strong tendency is to remove far away all thoughts of death and eternity; to make a man more or less satisfied with the things of time and sense; to encourage building up earthly paradises and castles in the air; and to draw comfort and happiness from the creature instead of the Creator. He who lives in the enjoyment of uninterrupted health, through whose arteries the vigorous blood freely courses, has all his passions strong, all his animal spirits high, and this full tide of life brings with it a cheerfulness and happiness, which, unless he be well ballasted and weighted in other ways, makes him satisfied with life from the very hue that it wears. Strong health brings with it strong lusts, and feeds the old nature, which is to be mortified and crucified. Thus this great apparent blessing may prove a real curse.
2. So MONEY. How often is the poor distressed child of God longing for a large slice of this great apparent blessing, and perhaps envying this or that rich professor! But this is often a real curse. How continually do we see it shut up the heart, stiffen the pride, become a temptation and a snare, and draw aside even God's children into many foolish and hurtful lusts, feeding the love of the world and the desires of the flesh and of the mind. He felt this who asked for neither poverty nor riches, "lest he should become full and deny God."
3. So the good opinion and PRAISE OF MEN. This is eagerly sought for as a blessing, but often proves a real curse. Even God's children are often much tempted to seek the applause of the creature, and derive comfort and support from the good opinion of others, instead of seeking that testimony, which the Spirit bears in the conscience. But what is that religion worth which is built upon the good opinion of a man that shall die? One puff of the fiery furnace will burn all such props up. And yet we are often galled, fretted, and mortified by the harsh opinions and unkind speeches which are passed upon us and uttered against us.
4. But there are apparent curses which often are real blessings. A languishing, AFFLICTED STATE OF HEALTH, so trying and so painful to the flesh, often proves in God's hands a real blessing. It tends to make the world bitter, pulls down airy visions of happiness sought outside of God, brings solemn thoughts into the soul, and weans the heart from idols. Not that it can do any one of these things, but the Lord uses it as his instrument.
5. So POVERTY is often made a real blessing to a child of God, by being a means of keeping him dependent upon the God of providence as well as the God of grace, and thus leading him into that close waiting upon the Lord, and crying and sighing to him for deliverance, which none but the poor can know. And when the answer comes, he blesses and praises him with joyful lips, and feels a gratitude and love which is in proportion to his former trials.
6. So the scourge of the tongue shall drive a man nearer the Lord; the doubt cast upon his religion shall make him more earnest to make his calling and election sure; and the arrows of slander and calumny shall make him cautious and circumspect. Having all his family against him, perhaps opposing his religion as the source of all their troubles, and he having to stand a poor isolated being in the midst of children and relations--this apparent curse upon his family shall prove a real blessing to a child of God, and lead him from the creature to the Creator, from broken cisterns to the fountain of living waters, and from idols to the God and Father of the Lord Jesus.
But there are blessings which are both apparent and real. When I say apparent, I mean so only to those who have eyes to see them and hearts to desire them. These blessings Jabez desired, "blessings indeed:" not apparent blessings and real curses, not apparent curses and real blessings, but blessings stamped as such, and coming down into his soul as manifested blessings from the Lord of life and glory. No other could satisfy his soul. All but blessings indeed left him barren, naked, and empty. Let us look at some of these blessings indeed.
7. The fear of the Lord in the soul is a blessing indeed, as being the beginning of wisdom, and therefore the beginning of all other manifested blessings. But why should Jabez be panting after this blessing? Because he knew and felt that if he were wrong here, he was wrong everywhere. He had, doubtless, felt too that from lack of the exercise of this godly fear he had often gone astray. We live in a world where snares of every kind are spread for our feet, and into which we must fall, if left to ourselves. Feeling, then, his own helplessness and headlong proneness to all evil, Jabez was crying out for this as a real manifested blessing.
Some intimation of God's favor, some soft and gentle whisper of love, some token for good, some living sense of his blessed presence, some solemn dropping down of the dew of mercy, some witness of the Spirit to our spirit that we are born of God, is a blessing indeed. To have peace with God, and feel an inward sense of reconciliation, whereby we are spiritually assured that "fury is not in him," but that he is our Father and our friend, is a blessing indeed. To have our evidences brightened, doubts and fears removed, our hopes strengthened, and our longing expectation of future bliss encouraged and shone upon, is a blessing indeed.
And yet these seem, sweet though they be, all to fall short of that greatest and best of all blessings--a sweet manifestation and revelation of Christ to the soul. Those who are brought into bondage and guilt through the application of the law to their consciences, as the Holy Spirit leads them out in earnest desires and breathings, feel that the greatest blessing which God can bestow upon them would be to "reveal his Son in them," Ga 1:16, and form "Christ in their heart, as the hope of glory," Col 1:27. They at times are earnestly longing to feel his blood sprinkled on their conscience, and to have such a manifestation of his glorious and lovely person to their soul, that they may embrace him with every affection of their renewed spirit, cleave to him with purpose of heart, and enjoy him as eternally theirs.
It is by these holy and fervent longings of the renewed spirit after Christ, that the living convictions wrought in the souls of the elect by the Holy Spirit, are distinguished from the slavish fears and remorseful convictions that are in the reprobate. This blessed Teacher has in some measure held up Christ before the eyes of their mind, and kindled some degree of affection towards him; and thus they cannot be satisfied with Christ in the Bible, Christ in doctrine and speculation, Christ at a distance, unfelt, unseen, unenjoyed; but are, each according to their measure, at times earnestly suing and begging for him to come into their heart, and take full possession of their soul.
Now, in answer to these fervent cries, the Holy Spirit will sometimes bring the blessing just as it were within sight. Like a gallant ship, the soul seems sometimes just about to shoot into harbor, when just as she nears the pier-head, a gust off shore beats her back, and she must again struggle with the winds and waves. But all these disappointments serve only to quicken the desires of the longing spirit, and under these feelings by night and by day, at home and abroad, in the daily business and the solitary walk, there will be the earnest cry of the soul to have this best and greatest of manifested blessings.
But again, where this blessing is delayed, or seemingly denied, there will be such a sinking down of soul into doubt and fear that it will be crying after lower evidences of interest in Christ. Great poverty makes a small coin acceptable where a larger is denied. Thus in deep soul-poverty one word from God, one look, one smile would seem ample. The scales seem at times so evenly poised between life and death that a grain would decide the matter. When all is crooked one word would set matters straight. But, that such a wretch and filthy monster of iniquity should have a smile from the great and holy Jehovah seems a blessing too great, but would be "a blessing indeed."
Again to rest with confidence upon the Lord, and to believe that however dark matters are, he will appear; to trust when we cannot perceive him, to hope against hope and believe against unbelief, and thus through faith and patience become followers of those who inherit the promises, this is a blessing indeed. So to be weaned from idols, delivered from broken cisterns, separated in spirit and affection from the world, and have our heart fixed on things above, is a blessing indeed.
To feel an appetite after God's word, to receive the truth in the love of it, to have sweet and holy communion with the three-one Jehovah, and to live under the solemn anointings of the blessed Spirit is a blessing indeed. In a word every spiritual blessing that God has blessed his church with in Christ, is such a blessing as Jabez panted after--every blessing that God can give or the soul receive--everything that comes down from heaven and leads to heaven--everything that fits the soul for trials here and bliss hereafter--everything upon which God has put his own stamp and set his own seal, is "a blessing indeed."
II. But we must proceed to the second petition of Jabez: "And enlarge my coast." What coast was this? I believe it was the limit of his experience, the line of life drawn out by the Holy Spirit on his heart and conscience. A coast means a boundary line, such as divides one territory from another, or terminates a country, as the sea coast is the boundary of our island. Every quickened soul, then, has a coast; that is a territory of inward experience, which is limited and bounded by the line that the Holy Spirit has drawn in his conscience.
Some, for instance, have a narrow experience--a slip, as it were, of spiritual territory. They cannot get much beyond doubts and fears, and guilt and convictions, with, at times, earnest desires for mercy and pardon. Others have their coast a little more extended. The blessed Spirit has moved the line a little farther, and taken in a somewhat larger territory. These are enabled to hope in God's mercy, and anchor in his promises. Others can through faith rest in Christ's blood and righteousness, having received some intimation of favor, but not brought out into the liberty of the gospel. In these the coast has been carried out farther still, and the line embraces a larger space. Others are brought into the light, life, liberty, joy, and peace of the glorious gospel of the Son of God. In these the coast of spiritual experience is still more widely allotted, and they can say, "The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yes, I have a goodly heritage," Ps 16:6.
As the Lord divided the tribes, to cast their inheritance by line, Ps 78:55, so has he cast the lot for every vessel of mercy, and his hand has divided it unto them by line. Isa 34:17. This is as it were the tether which fastens down every quickened soul to his own appointed portion of inward experience. Within this tether he may walk, feed, and lie down. It is "the food convenient for him," the strip of pasture allotted him. He cannot, he dare not break this tether, which is fastened round a tender conscience, and every stretching forth beyond his measure to boast in another man's line of things, cuts into and galls this tender conscience. He may indeed, and often will, wear this pasture bare by treading so much and so long within the narrow circle, and may reach forth his neck sometimes to nibble a few blades of grass a little beyond his strip, yet will he not break his tether to rush uninvited into the green pastures.
A child of God is not like the wild donkey, of which we read that "the range of the mountains is his pasture, and he searches after every green thing," Job 39:8. A living soul cannot thus "snuff up the wilderness at his pleasure," Jer 2:24, "regarding not the crying of the driver;" nor run loose into the field of doctrine, rolling himself amid the thick grass and flowers of promises and gospel truths, and "feeding himself without fear." No; he must have the stake pulled up, and the tether lengthened, and be led by his master into just such a portion as he sees good to give him.
Nor, again, will a living soul be satisfied with a narrow, circumscribed experience. Some seem well contented to be as they are, and have no wish to have a better or more enlarged experience than they think they possess. The old strip round which they have walked twenty years until it is threadbare, amply suffices them. But it is a different thing to break through the tether from presumption, and lie still on the bare ground through sloth. The living soul cannot but earnestly desire to have his coast enlarged. More light, more life, more feeling, more liberty, more knowledge of God in Christ, more faith, hope, and love. To have his narrow, contracted, shut up heart, enlarged in prayer, in meditation, in communion, in affection to the people of God. He is not satisfied with the scanty pasture allotted him, but desires a larger measure of heavenly teaching, to be indulged with more filial confidence in, and access unto God, and to be more delivered from that fear which has torment. "God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem," Ge 9:27.
"I will run the way of your commandments, when you shall enlarge my heart," Ps 119:32. This enlargement of their border the Lord had sworn to Israel, and to give them all the land which he had promised unto their fathers, De 19:8; and therefore when he had said, "Sing, O barren, you that did not bear," he adds, "enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of your habitation; spare not, lengthen your cords, and strengthen your stakes," Isa 54:1,2.
Have you any of these fervent desires after light, love, and liberty, that the world, pride, lust, unbelief, covetousness, and carnality may not shut up your heart, but that you may know the love of Christ that passes knowledge, so as to be filled with all the fullness of God? These are good desires, and very different from rushing presumptuously forward, and chattering about liberty, while you are slaves of corruption. It is one thing to look through the fence, and another to enjoy the estate; but it is far better to look through the fences with wishful desires, than to break down the fence as a trespasser. To look upon the coffer is not to be put into possession of the writings, but it is better to wait and cry for the key of David, than break it open, and steal the deeds. And he that is kept in that narrow, narrow path between sloth and presumption will be at solemn seasons crying out with Jabez: "Oh, that you would enlarge my coast!"
III. "And that your hand might be with me." This is the third petition of this heard and answered prayer. Jabez was not for rushing presumptuously on in his temporal concerns more than in his spiritual. Without some divine leading or intimation of God's will he was afraid to step forward. But why this holy caution and anxious desire for the hand of God to go out before him, and be with him? Because he had proved by painful experience, that where the beginning of a thing is not from God, he could not expect the middle to be from God, nor the end. What, indeed, we undertake from carnal motives and selfish ends, God may, and doubtless will, overrule to his own glory and our good, but we shall have small comfort from it by the way. Having smarted, then, from his carnality and self-seeking for by painful experience is this lesson learned, Jabez now wanted to see the Lord's hand stretched out to show him the way, and keep him in it.
The burnt child dreads the fire; and thus feeling all to be wrong, and to go wrong where the Lord's hand is not, the living soul fears to be left to itself. It is not the bare, dry, letter-truth of God's special providence that will satisfy one jealous over himself with godly jealousy. This will do for a professor; but a living child desires to see and feel a fatherly hand with him and over him, going before him temporally, holding him up spiritually, clearing his path, removing all difficulties, and giving him testimonies that what is done in his fear shall terminate in his approbation. If this hand be with us, all is well; if not with us, or against us, all is ill.
Our enemies cannot hurt us if the Lord be on our side; our difficulties, however great, shall not ruin us if his hand be with us; our lusts and temptations shall not prevail, if he stretch forth his hand; and our base and filthy hearts shall not sink us into eternal dismay, if the everlasting arms are underneath. He, then, that can wait and watch the Lord's hand, and only moves when that hand leads forward, will not go astray. But it is the self-loathing and condemnation, the smart and wound of having so rashly and obstinately followed our own ways, that will make us cry feelingly and frequently, "that your hand may be with me."
IV. The last petition of Jabez is, "And that you would keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me." It is indeed a base misrepresentation of the doctrines of grace to say that they lead to licentiousness. However ungodly men abuse and pervert them, such is not their effect or tendency in a living soul. I believe that every child of God will be more or less frequently offering up this prayer of Jabez, "That you would keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me." He is not one of those who say, "never mind; sin cannot damn me, nor cut me out of the covenant;" but having his heart tender before God and his conscience alive in his fear, knowing something of the terrors of the Lord, and something too of his goodness, he desires to be kept from evil as being hateful to God, and grievous to his own soul. Sin indulged had brought pain and grief into his heart, had cut deep wounds in his conscience, and burdened him sorely; and remembering the wormwood and the gall, he cried to be kept from it for the future.
Shun as you would a pestilence any one who makes light of sin. Be assured such have never seen or known God, nor Jesus Christ whom he has sent. Had they seen light in God's light, had their secret sins been set in the light of his countenance, or had they ever seen by faith a crucified Lord, they would not, they dare not, speak lightly of that which has been so signally stamped with the wrath of the Father, and suffering of the Son. He who has not been brought to abhor himself in dust and ashes has never seen God, and has only heard of him by the hearing of the ear, Job 42:5,6. Sin is a grief, a burden to every living soul, and when fallen into, cuts his tender conscience, and wounds his mind.
But the expression, "And that you would keep me from evil," implies that Jabez was a poor burdened sinner who could not keep himself. If he could keep himself, this petition would be an idle mockery. He need not to have fallen outwardly to teach him this. There are inward falls, slips of the tongue, glances of the eye, filthy desires, roving imaginations, covetous projects, proud desires, idolatrous lustings, secret backslidings into carnality and worldliness. Jabez does not pray, keep me from evil that it may not disgrace me or expose me, lest it wound my fair fame or gratify my enemies, but that it may not grieve me--that it may not prove an inward source of trouble, may not intercept communion, bar access, bring a cloud before the mercy-seat, rankle in me so as to produce guilt and terror, may not bring down heavy chastisements, and make me a limping cripple all my days. He was not one of those who can be very pious openly, and very impious secretly, a whited sepulcher fair without, and within full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness.
"And God granted him that which he requested." That was the best of all. It is not prayer, but the answer to prayer that brings the blessing. "A man has joy by the answer of his mouth," Pr 15:23. And it was Jabez's mercy not merely to pray for spiritual blessings, but to have them richly bestowed. The Lord did bless him indeed, did enlarge his coast, guided him with his hand, and kept him from evil.
In drawing this feeble portrait of Jabez, I have also described, however faintly and imperfectly, the desires and breathings of the people of God. But remember that I have not said that they are always in this state. Had I said so, if I know any of these things by experience, I should have told a lie, and the very worst of all lies a pulpit lie. It is only at certain seasons, rare and solemn moments, under the special visitations and overshadowings of the blessed Spirit, that the people of God thus pour out their hearts before him.
There are many times when it seems as if this present world could satisfy us, when we build up our earthly paradises, and seek as it were ease and rest here below. But the voice soon comes, "Arise and depart, for this is not your rest." As the Holy Spirit brooded over the dark waters of chaos, so will he sometimes brood over the soul, infusing life and feeling, and drawing forth earnest desires such as passed through the soul of Jabez; and then it seems as if nothing would or could satisfy us but a blessed answer.
Let me, then, ask you a few questions. Do you know the God of Israel by his own manifestations? Do you call upon him in solemn moments of secret supplication, when every thought lies open to his eye, and your whole soul seems prostrate before him, as if he and you were alone on the earth? Are you seeking real blessings at his hand, blessings indeed! Are you crying to him to enlarge your coast? Or are you well satisfied with your present attainments, looking down upon others as babes, while you know all that is to be known. If you are sitting in the easy chair of the sluggard, or roaming over the 'mountains of presumption', you desire no spiritual enlargement of heart.
But if you are a poor burdened cripple, that would gladly enjoy light, love, and liberty, I well know you are sometimes pouring out your soul, if not in the words in the meaning of them, "Oh, that you would enlarge my coast!" Can you rush headlong into every scheme without seeking the Lord's sanction and guiding hand? Then you have not the heart nor cry of Jabez. And can you go to the very borders of evil, or even dally with sin, sheltering yourself under the falls of saints, without any groans for the past or cries for the future? Can you without piercing pangs of conscience indulge bosom sins, and go recklessly on in base lusts? Then you give little evidence that you are under such teachings as Jabez was favored with.
I know by painful experience what man's base heart is, but I believe I know also something of the desires and breathings of Jabez, to be delivered from the dominion of evil, and if I did not, I should conclude that I was dead in sin. One word more and I have done. If the Lord the Spirit has breathed into our souls the same hungerings and thirstings, longings and desires that he communicated to the soul of Jabez, a similar answer is annexed in the secret counsels of God to them, and when that answer comes with power, it will make us willing to crown Jesus Lord of all.
By Joseph Philpot, 1841
Preached at Zoar Chapel, London, on July 30, 1843, by J. C. Philpot
"For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would."
If I loved, or courted popularity, I might feel some pleasure in seeing so crowded an assembly this evening. But, on the contrary, it rather raises questions in my mind. The first question that arises is, "What can I say to profit or edify this body of people?" And the second, "Am I faithful? Do I speak to men's consciences? Do I rightly divide the word of truth? Do I draw a separating line of distinction between the living and the dead?" If so, would not my hearers be fewer?
On seeing so many assembled together, I feel that the Lord must give me strength in body, soul, and spirit for the work; that he must supply me with thoughts and words and set before me a door of utterance, that I may speak a word for his glory and for your profit. And I am sure, if the Lord be not in our midst, you will go away disappointed, and I shall leave this pulpit pained and mortified.
When the Lord takes his people in hand, he gives them all to know and feel the evil of sin. He lays an effectual blow by his own unerring axe at the root of sin in us. But though this is the case, yet we generally find that when the Lord first begins his work on the heart, the fountains of the great deep are not at once broken up, the recesses of our hearts are not immediately laid bare, the awful secrets of the charnel-house we carry about with us are not opened up at first to our astonished view. When God is pleased first to indulge the soul with some manifestations of his mercy, gives to feel his presence, and draws up the heart into some communion with himself, sin receives a stunning blow, and lies for awhile dead and torpid in the carnal mind.
But oftentimes when the Lord withdraws his gracious presence, those hidden evils which lay at first concealed from view, which had been seemingly torpid and asleep, rise up once more with redoubled power, and make us painfully feel what enemies we carry in our bosom. Thus the people of God, instead of getting (as they are told by men ignorant of divine truth) gradually holier, purer, and better in themselves, by having their hearts more anatomized and dissected by the keen knife of the Spirit, sink more and more deeply into the conviction of their nature's vileness; and thus they learn to abhor themselves "in dust and ashes" before God, and to be clothed with that becoming robe of which the Apostle speaks, "Be clothed with humility." (1 Pet. 5:5)
An inward and experimental conflict now commences, which is known, in a greater or less degree, by all the people of God, and is in fact that of which the Apostle speaks in the text– "The flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary the one to the other, so that you cannot do the things that you would."
In speaking upon these words, it will be desirable, before we enter into their experimental meaning, to DEFINE, with some degree of accuracy, the terms of the sentence, and to explain, as clearly as the Lord may enable use, the words of the text before we proceed to the experience contained in it.
The first word, then, that meets our eye, is, "the flesh." What does the Holy Spirit intend by this expression? He means, I believe, that corrupt nature which we derive from Adam, the whole natural man, our mind with all its faculties, the whole of our intellect, passions, and propensities; in a word, everything that we are and have as fallen children of a fallen parent. Thus the Lord said to Nicodemus, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh." (John 3:6.)
The next thing that demands a little explanation, is, the word "spirit." What is to be understood by the expression? Are we to understand thereby God the Holy Spirit, who is one in essence, power, and glory with the Father and the Son? I believe not; but that by spirit in the text is meant that new nature which is breathed into the people of God when the Lord quickens their souls into spiritual life; according to the following passages of Scripture– "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit." (John 3:6.) "The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit." (Rom. 8:16.) "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit." (Gal. 6:13.) "The very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of the Jesus Lord Christ." (1 Thess. 5:23.)
In all these passages, the word spirit signifies the "divine nature," the "new man," the "heart of flesh;" in a word, that "new creature," or "new creation," which is given to us when the soul is quickened by God the Spirit; according to those words, "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature (or "new creation"), old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (2 Cor. 5:17.)
The last term that demands a little explanation is the word, "lusts." We must not take this expression in the gross idea usually attached to it. The word means simply, to desire, to covet; in fact, we have the identical word in Romans 7:7, where we read, "I had not known lust, except the law had said, you shall not covet." The word translated "covet," is precisely the same expression as is rendered in our text, "lusts;" and it means simply an intense desire, an ardent thirsting or longing after the attainment of any wished-for object.
Having seen then the scriptural explanation, as I believe, and definition of these three words, we shall be the better prepared, if the Lord shall be pleased to lead us, to enter upon the experimental meaning of the text:
I. The first grand truth, then, which the Apostle lays down in it is, that "the flesh lusts against the SPIRIT." The whole bent of "the flesh" is earthward; the whole bias of "the spirit" is heavenward. The entire affection, the exclusive desire, and intense coveting of "the flesh" is after the things of time and sense; the whole bent, the ardent desire, and internal panting of "the spirit" is after the things of eternity. These two dispositions then being so opposite; the one tending earthward, the other heavenward; the one fixed on time, the other on eternity; the one on God, the other on self; the one formed for heaven, the other fitted for hell– the disposition of these two principles, being so directly contrary, an opposition necessarily takes place. "The flesh" within us does not lie torpid, neither does "the spirit" within us lie torpid– but both are active principles in a man's bosom; they have each their desires, and each thirsts with intensity after its peculiar objects. Being so diametrically opposed, they of course, contradict and fight against each other; and thus there is a perpetual and mutual clashing, collision, and conflict going on between them.
But, with God's blessing, we will go a little into particulars; for truth is apt to be lost in generalities. What God's people want is something that comes into their heart, and touches their conscience– something that points out the hidden workings of nature on the one hand, and the secret operations of grace on the other. It is not, therefore, sufficient to state in general terms, that "the flesh lusts against the spirit" unless we enter, more or less minutely, into the particulars of this opposition.
The whole bent of "the flesh," as I have before observed, is earthward; it never can rise beyond itself, however high it may mount; self being the only object of all its pursuit. "The spirit," on the other hand, being born of God, created by the hand of God in the soul, and being the very image of Christ in the heart, soars, as the Holy Spirit operates upon it, heavenwards– hence flows the opposition.
1. "The spirit," for instance, is prayerful, seeking from time to time, as the Holy Spirit works upon it, the Lord's face, and pouring itself out in secret into the bosom of a prayer-hearing and prayer-answering God. Being born from above, it covets the presence of God as its heaven, and the favor of God, as its true happiness, mounting up in pantings, longings, and aspirations towards the holy fountain whence it originally came. "The flesh," being earthly in all its lusts and covetings, hates and opposes this soaring and mounting upward of the spirit. When the spirit, for instance, would lead a man to seek the Lord in prayer, the flesh counteracts and works against it, suggests excuses, raises up carnal and sensual thoughts, and damps, as far as it can, the holy fire that is burning on the altar of a broken heart.
2. Again. "The spirit" is watchful. Its eyes are illuminated to observe sin in things considered by most people harmless and innocent. Like a watchful sentry, it observes, under God's teaching, the first approach of an enemy. It watches the secret movements of the heart, and observes the snares set for the feet. The spirit is alive to see and feel the secret workings of sin, in sleeping or waking, in eating or drinking, in the daily business of life, or in the worship of God. "The flesh," on the other hand, being altogether earthly and sensual, lusts against this watchfulness. The flesh loves sin. Sin, in one shape or another, is its natural element, and it never can love any thing else. As the fish lives only in the water, so the flesh lives only in the element of sin; as the element of a bird is the air, so the flesh lives in an atmosphere of evil. And as we only live by drawing the air by which we are surrounded into our lungs, so the flesh only lives by drawing in to itself the air of sin.
As the spirit therefore loves watchfulness, the flesh on the other hand hates it– and in this, as in all other cases, whatever the spirit desires, that the flesh opposes. The flesh would walk not merely on the brink of temptation; but, if God did not hold us in with a powerful hand, it would plunge headlong into it; it would swim in sin, like an active swimmer amid the waves of the sea; yes it would dive down into iniquity, and wallow in all its filthy and vile abominations. All its tendencies, all its desires are towards sin; and what God loves, it hates with intense abhorrence.
3. "The spirit" is meek and lowly; it has "the mind of Christ," the image and likeness of Christ. And having the mind, image, and likeness of Christ, it is in its measure, meek, lowly, and gentle as Christ was. Pride, on the other hand, is the very being of the flesh; it lives in pride, for to exalt itself is all that the flesh loves and lives for. As the spirit then breathes forth, and suggests humility, the flesh rises up in pride against everything that tends to humble it. Does the spirit seek to be humbled down at God's footstool? The flesh, with daring rebellion, spurns at all self-abasement, and will approve of nothing but what gratifies that pride which is its very being.
4. "The spirit" bears injuries, submits to ill-treatment, puts its mouth in the dust, "endures all things for the elect's sake." But the flesh cannot bear that a straw should lie in its path– it cannot endure a look, or the least thing which mortifies it; and rises up full of wrath against every person or thing that vexes it, thwarts its inclination, or hinders its desires.
5. "The spirit" seeks the glory of God as its grand object. It desires to live to God's glory, and to walk in the light of his countenance. "That God in all things may be glorified through Christ Jesus," is its desire and aim, under the influences of the Holy Spirit. But the flesh, in all things, seeks its own exaltation and glory. Instead of aiming at God's glory, it would rather pull him down from his throne, if it could stand an inch higher thereby; and would be willing that God should be nothing, if it could be everything. The flesh, in its awful presumption and horrible arrogance, would rise up against Jehovah, and sit on his seat enthroned as God. This was the original temptation, when the devil said to Eve, "You shall be as gods, knowing good and evil;" and this imaginary godship has ever been in the heart of man since the fatal day when that poisonous speech was drunk in by Eve's ear, and brought into the world sin and death.
6. "The spirit" is for crucifixion and mortification, and for being conformed to the image of a suffering Jesus. The flesh is ever for the gratification of self– in some persons, for the gratification of the basest lusts; in others, of intellect; in others, of covetousness; in others, of worldly respectability; but, whatever form it takes, it is that self may be gratified in some shape or another. As to being conformed to the image of the meek and lowly Jesus, to "know him and the power of his resurrection," to walk in his footsteps– the flesh spurns at the idea, and will have nothing but the gratification and indulgence of self.
7. "The spirit," as God the Holy Spirit is pleased to work upon it, seeks communion with God, to delight in his smiles, and to enjoy the manifestations of his presence and love. The flesh has no conception of, and no relish for heavenly visitations, divine comforts, or spiritual manifestations. It loves only an outside, formal, hypocritical, and pharisaical religion, and is abundantly content with "a name to live." It can never rise beyond the mere form; this is amply sufficient to gratify its pride, and feed its self-righteousness.
8. "The spirit" is sincere, honest and upright before God and man. It knows it has to deal with a God who cannot be mocked; it is deeply impressed with the conviction, that "the eyes of God are in every place, beholding the evil and the good." The flesh loves hypocrisy; it is a part of its "deceitfulness above all things." It will therefore assume any shape, wear any mask, or put on any disguise, so long as it can play the hypocrite.
Now, in all these instances, (and if time would suffice, I might mention others,) "the flesh lusts against the spirit." It does not lie broken and shattered in our hearts as a conquered enemy, but it fights and struggles for victory. And when it cannot obtain what it thirsts for with intense longings, it is filled with rebellion at the disappointment.
II. But the Apostle has also said (and it is our mercy that he has said it), "the spirit lusts against the FLESH."
The word lust, as I have before hinted, must not be taken in any gross sense of the word; for who would dare to impute anything impure to the Holy Spirit of God? But it means, as I have already explained, to covet or intensely desire. Now, as the spirit covets, or desires against the flesh, it thwarts, mortifies, and works against it, in all its secret and subtle actings.
1. Does "the flesh" then lay some subtle scheme to glorify, honor, or exalt itself? "The spirit" breathes out its solemn protest against such God-dishonoring conduct. As a secret monitor, whose voice though gentle will be heard, it whispers its condemnation against every step the flesh takes to gratify itself. It is no silent spectator of the awful enormities going on within; it is no blind, deaf, or dumb judge, who has no eyes to see, no ears to hear, no tongue to speak against the criminal. It cannot be bribed or muzzled– it is God's viceregent; and, therefore, it stands up for the honor of God, and testifies for him in a tone of authority that must be heard. Bunyan sweetly sets this forth in his "Holy War," where he says, "that when the judge spoke, he made the whole city tremble." And I believe, when "the spirit" speaks, as the Holy Spirit dictates, he makes the soul bow down beneath it, for he speaks with a voice clothed with authority and power.
2. Does "the flesh" make excuses, and carnalize, so to speak, the whole man? When we would seek the Lord's face, does the flesh make a thousand pretexts why it should not be done there and then? "The spirit," wrought upon from above, desires communion with God, and to seek his presence; and as these desires work, from time to time, against the flesh, it will often sweetly overcome the opposition. And thus the Lord's face is sought after, whatever excuses the flesh may make.
3. Again. Does the flesh say, "Away with all watchfulness and carefulness! If you are a child of God, you cannot perish; if you are of the election of grace, you cannot be lost. What harm is there in this thing or that? It is not a great sin; and, if God has pardoned your sins, he has pardoned this among the rest." When the flesh comes with these hellish suggestions, the spirit will bear a secret testimony against such vile reasoning, as it did in the case of Joseph, when he said, "How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?" (Gen. 39:9.) You will say, when these thoughts arise, "Shall I take occasion from pardoning love to sin against it? Shall I be so base as to trample the blood of the Redeemer under foot, and crucify to myself the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame? Far, far be it from me!"
4. Again. Does "the flesh" lust after sin? Does it wallow in imagination in the vilest iniquities? Does it lay plots and plans how its desires may be gratified? Does it, in its filthy cravings, bury itself in those sinks and mud-holes where it loves to grovel? "The spirit" speaks for the honor of God; "the spirit," armed with authority from God himself, pure as he is pure, and holy as he is holy, bears a secret testimony against all the plots and plans the flesh may lay down to indulge itself; it accuses the traitor, arrests him in the very council-chamber, and denounces his meditated crimes.
5. Does the flesh want to resent injuries; to draw the sword that hangs at its side, and smite down the first that insults it? Does it say, even when a Christian brother is the offender, "I will never forgive this injury; I will never overlook that offence; I will die rather than not satisfy my revenge for that wrong?" There is a gentle monitor within, speaking not in accents of anger, but in soft and mild tones, yet with a voice that makes itself heard amid the thunders of the flesh, "Is this as a Christian should act? Is this as the Lord would have his people walk? Has he not forgiven you your sins, and will not you forgive your brother his?" The spirit speaks in these soft and gentle remonstrances, and thus overcomes all the fiercest workings of the flesh, when it would madly rend asunder the dearest and nearest ties rather than be reconciled. It calmly takes the sword out of the hands of the flesh, and brings us once more to peace and union with those to whom a moment before perhaps we were resolved never to speak again.
6. Does "the flesh" seek to lift itself up against the authority of God? Does it, like Antichrist, "oppose and exalt itself against all that is called God, or that is worshiped?" (2 Thess. 2:4.) The spirit, "clothed with humility," bears a secret witness against this self-exaltation and arrogance of the flesh, and points the eye of the soul to a suffering Christ.
Thus these two principles are in continual collision; and scarcely a day passes without the quickened family of God knowing and feeling the conflict of these two distinct principles within them.
My friends, what does true religion consist in? Is it in coming to chapel, reading the Bible, having family prayer, and kneeling down night and morning with due regularity? Is it in being called a Calvinist, a Baptist, or an Independent? This is but the shell; and he who has nothing but the shell is destitute of vital godliness. True religion consists in the blessed teachings of God's Spirit in the conscience, in the work and witness of the Holy Spirit in the soul. If, then, you have a religion worth a straw, if yours is a religion that will stand by and save you when you need it most; when you are stretched upon a dying bed, and are passing into an opening eternity; if you have such an internal, experimental religion, as God has described in his word; you know something of the conflict I have been attempting to describe, "the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh;" and you feel what it is, by personal and painful experience, to have in you the "company of two armies."
III. But the Apostle has added, "So that you cannot do the things that you would;" and a blessed addition it is. Now, as "the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh," we must apply this last clause of the text to both sides of the question. To make my meaning clear, you have two opposing principles, and therefore two distinct wills in your bosom– the will of the flesh and the will of the spirit. Because then "the flesh lusts against the spirit," you cannot do the things that you would spiritually; and because "the spirit lusts against the flesh," you cannot do the things that you would naturally.
A. We cannot do the things that we would SPIRITUALLY.
1. We would, for instance, spiritually believe on the Lord of life and glory, and feel, from time to time, the actings of faith upon his blood and righteousness. That is a branch of our spiritual will; but "we cannot do the thing that we would." Why not? Because "the flesh lusts against the spirit." Lusting against the spirit, it lusts to unbelief, unbelief being the very element in which it lives. We cannot therefore believe, and by believing do the thing that we would, because "the flesh lusts against the spirit," and works unbelief against it.
2. Again. Spiritually we would love the Lord. We would have our whole affections fixed on him; we would have our hearts so given to him, and so entirely his, that there should be no room for a rival. But "the flesh lusts against the spirit;" the flesh can only love itself; it cannot love God, nor the things of God. All it can do is to go after idols; to "hew out cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water," (Jer. 2:13); to seek its own gratification. When, therefore, we would, according to our spiritual will, love God, we find a rival come forward; the flesh claims its share of our hearts; the wife, the husband, the children, the world, the things of time and sense around us, all creep in, and steal away our affections from God.
3. Again. We would, according to our spiritual will, be heavenly-minded; we would have our thoughts fixed on eternal things; we would sweetly meditate, comfortably read, powerfully and unctuously pray; we would have our hearts where Jesus sits at the right hand of God, and feel the world under our feet– but we cannot do the things that we would. The world within us will intrude, which is ten thousand times worse than the world without. We may shut and bar our doors, and exclude the world without, but the world within cannot be so shut out. No, we might go and bury ourselves in a hermit's cave, and never see the face of man again; but even there we would be as carnal and worldly as if we lived in Vanity Fair. We cannot shut out the world; it will come in at every chink and crevice. When, therefore, we would be heavenly-minded, think only on God, and enjoy some spiritual meditation, this wretched world will intrude itself into every thought and every imagination, so that spiritually we cannot do the things that we would.
4. We would, according to our spiritual will, walk as becomes the gospel. We would "make a covenant with our eyes" that we would not lust after forbidden things; we would walk before God as conscious of his presence; we would never wish to do a single thing that has not the approbation of God; and we would have the testimony of God in our conscience that our hearts are right before him. But we cannot spiritually do the things which we would. We cannot walk through the street, but Satan tempts; we cannot look or speak, but sin intrudes; no, let us shut our eyes, and close our lips, evil will still come in. I don't know how it may be with you, but I have no more power to keep out the workings of sin in my heart, than I have power by holding up my hand to stop the rain from coming down to the earth; sin will come in at every crack and crevice, and manifest itself in the wretched workings of an evil heart.
B. But, in the second place, we must not forget to look at the blessed converse. If we cannot do the things that we would spiritually, we cannot do the things that we would NATURALLY. To have this, as well as the other side of the question, is our great mercy.
1. What would we, then, do naturally? We would cast aside all true religion; at least we would have nothing to do with experimental and vital religion. The flesh hates what is vital and spiritual; it may and does love the form; but the power and reality of vital godliness the flesh hates. Thus, if we could have had our natural will, we would long ago have cast away our profession. Have you not been often tempted to do this? Have you not sometimes felt the way so rough, and found so many contradictions and obstacles, that you have said, "I cannot go on any longer in it;" and have felt sorry you ever made a profession at all? And would you not at times gladly throw it all aside if you could? You have, perhaps, made the attempt to do so; and have said, "I can go to Chapel no more." But when the Lord's day came, you have found a secret cord within you that drew you there. You might have secretly said, "I will read the word of God no more; I will never pray again; I will not speak with the people of God." But there has been a secret compulsion in your heart that has made you do the very things which you wished to abandon. Thus naturally we cannot do the things that we would; and it is our mercy that we cannot.
2. Again. Could you do the things that you would naturally, you would wallow in sin; not merely take a drop or sip of sin; but, were your hearts unrestrained by God's grace and your carnal mind left to do what it would, you would lie down and roll in it! But it is our mercy that we cannot "do the things that we would;" for, thanks be to God, there are spiritual checks in the conscience; there is the fear of God springing up in the soul, as a "fountain of life to depart from the way of death;" and these inward flashes of the Spirit, producing convictions of the dreadful evil of sin, keep a man from doing those horrible things which he would do, if God did not thus powerfully restrain him.
3. Again. Could you "do the things that you would naturally," you would be the most accomplished hypocrite that ever entered the doors of either Church or Chapel! If you could be just what your flesh would wish to be, you would have all the form of godliness, but not a grain of its power; and thus would be the most varnished hypocrite that ever stood up to disgrace a profession. But you cannot do or be what you would. A spiritual sincerity and godly simplicity is wrought in your soul, so that you cannot put into action that which your hypocritical flesh would live in; the workings of sincerity in your heart oppose it. It is in the thorough hypocrite only that the flesh can have its full swing.
4. But again. Could you "do the things that you would" naturally, there would not be a more proud, presumptuous, arrogant, self-exalting, and self-conceited wretch than you would be!
Now, my friends, if I have painted you in very black colors, remember that I have dipped the brush in my own heart. I have not gone from Zoar pulpit into the sinful haunts of London to find out and describe the flesh. I feel all the workings that I have been describing. Do not think that I stand up in the pulpit as some holy being, who knows nothing of the workings of sin; that I have been imagining what evil might be in others, and then painting it out in the blackest colors I could devise. Be assured that every line in the picture I have been tracing of human wickedness is taken from myself. Not that God permits me, thanks to his blessed name, to do those evils that I know and feel by painful experience daily working in my heart. The seeds of every crime are in our nature; and therefore, could your flesh have its full swing, there would not be a viler wretch in London than you, or one that puts into practice more evil than you imagine. But God's blessed Spirit works in your heart to counteract these evils, so that you cannot be what you would, nor do the things that you would.
Let us look, then, at both sides of the question. You "cannot do the things that you would" spiritually, and that is your misery; and you "cannot do the things that you would" naturally, and that is your mercy. If you cannot be altogether holy, you cannot be altogether vile. If you cannot be wholly swallowed up in the love of God, you cannot be wholly swallowed up in the love of the world. If you cannot be entirely spiritual, you cannot be entirely carnal. If you cannot be daily and hourly prayerful, heavenly-minded, meditative, and have your affections fixed on God, you cannot go on day after day in carnality, without a single lash of conscience, or without the secret remonstrance of the Spirit bearing its witness in your spirit.
Let us take the question, then, in all its bearings. If we cannot do the things that we would spiritually, neither can we do the things that we would naturally; so that we are preserved, as the Lord manages it, by the action and reaction of these two principles. For, as in nature so in grace, action and reaction are mutual. By action and reaction, the world and all things in it stand in their place– and so spiritually, by action and reaction, contradiction and opposition, working and counter-working, we are kept in an even path. God has so wisely ordered things, and so tempered matters, that we are preserved in that place which is most for our good and his glory.
Thus, we learn two important LESSONS. First to ascribe to the grace of God and to his unmerited mercy everything in us that is spiritual; hence springs matter of thankfulness and praise. And, we learn on the other hand, to ascribe to our wretched selves all the sinfulness, vileness, and evil that is working in our bosom; and hence spring humility, self-abhorrence, and godly sorrow. Thus, by watching the movements of "the flesh," we learn to hate ourselves; and by watching the movements of "the spirit," we learn whence come our help, hope, and strength. So that, while on the one hand, we have sufficient to thank, praise, and bless God for; on the other, we have sufficient to condemn and loathe ourselves for. And on the one side, if we cannot do spiritually the things that we would, through the opposition of our flesh, we are kept on the other walking humbly before God, and avoid those shoals on which many gallant barks have made shipwreck.
There are two sandbanks on one or other of which all but God's people run– licentiousness, and pharisaism. We are kept instrumentally from pharisaism by having our vile and wicked hearts laid bare by the Spirit, and thus painfully learning the opposition of the flesh. And we are preserved from licentiousness by the work of the Spirit leading the soul up to Jesus' blood and righteousness, and thus opposing the flesh. And thus, in a strange, mysterious, and often to us inexplicable way, we are preserved in a right path, and are kept from error on the right hand and on the left. O may we be enabled ever to trust in God's mercy, and hope in his grace, that he will guide us every step of our life, until ultimately he shall bring us to the eternal enjoyment of himself, in that blessed kingdom where tears shall be wiped away from all faces, and the only employment known, shall be to ascribe eternal honor, power, salvation, and glory unto God and the Lamb!