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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
Joseph Walker, of Hampton
From the book, The Baptist Preacher, Volume III, 1844, Henry Keeling, Ed.
"For after that in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God, by the foolishness of preaching, to save them that believe." 1 Cor. 1: 2
The salvation of the soul is of infinitely more importance than a cultivated intellect. While I would not neglect the latter, I would by all means secure the former. Life, eternal life, is the united wish of our race; but the receiving of it, is suspended on the condition, that they gain a knowledge of God and of his Son Jesus Christ. To this truth, he who spake as never yet man spake, testifies, in the following words: "This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent." John 17:3
From the text, we deduce the following proposition as the theme of the present discourse:
I. The preached Gospel is the only medium by which to obtain a saving knowledge of God.
This proposition, we conceive, comprises the real doctrine in the passage. From it we ascertain that human wisdom cannot trace fully, in the works of nature, the character and requisitions of God. The phrase, "in the wisdom of God," stands for external nature. The effect is put for the cause. From every object above, beneath, and around us, shines conspicuously the wisdom of God.
Hence a sanctified heart may still exclaim, "O Lord how manifold are thy works, in wisdom host thou made them all." But as the world by their wisdom, could not arrive at a saving knowledge of God, by contemplating his wisdom, or the works of creation, (for this is the sense of the text) he ordained the preaching of the Gospel as the medium of that knowledge.
By the Gospel, we mean that system of principles, precepts, moral duties, and heavenly promises, which were originated by Jesus Christ, and are recorded in the sacred oracles.
By preaching, we understand the means of communicating this system of truth to man, whether through the press, by signs, or by oral proclamation and exposition. To make known the Gospel in any way is to preach it. This, as our proposition imports, is the only way of imparting and receiving that knowledge of God, which induces salvation. If it be not, then there is some other medium.
But where shall we find it? Shall we copy the example of the ancients, and more recently, of enlightened France, and depend on the magic power of reason to unfold the way of life? If the Gospel be not the medium of saving knowledge, then indeed, we have no supposable alternative in the universe, save the endowments of the mind. We shall therefore inquire whether the mind is able, by the exertion of its powers, to make one wise unto salvation.
Solomon says, "that which is to be, hath already been," and as it regards the ability of human reason, as connected with the present state of existence, to discover the true character of God, I think it may be said, that which bath not been will never be. Reason is uniform in her operations. She draws her conclusions from impressions made on the mind by external objects. Hence under similar circumstances, we may expect her decisions to be the same now as formerly. She contemplates the material universe.
The millions of creatures, subsisting in the world, of various shapes, and different habits of life, are subjects for her research. The geological structure of the earth from its surface to its centre (if man could reach that) furnishes ground for unending speculations. The mountains, piercing the clouds, and the rivers which sweep over the plains, till lost in the soundless deep, interest and astonish the mind.
The architecture of the heavens, and other phenomena which might be named, force from it, by involuntary constraint, the admission that there is a God - Yea, a God omnipotent, and beholding in all things the adaptation of means to ends, a God omniscient. Moreover, if the mind marks the successions of the seasons, seed time and harvest, and the careful provision made for both man and beast, it must allow also a God of providence.
These are some of the data, from the consideration of which, reason is to make her deductions concerning the moral nature of God, and man's obligation to hint as a holy Being.
But all this testimony has existed from the beginning of time. What has it done in the way of guiding lost sinners to a haven of rest? Has it left on the soul a correct impression of the moral perfections of Jehovah? The super-excellence of his character? His untarnished purity matchless holiness? Consummate goodness? No, never since the fall have these sublime qualities been evolved by reasoning skill. Although the heavens have always declared the glory of God, and the firmament hath shadowed forth his handiwork, man by this light alone has never admired the holy nature of God, nor contracted a love for his laws.
The wisest of men, giants in ancient lore, have practiced cruelty, indulged in revelry, and entertained the most absurd notions of the Divine nature. Isolated reason, that "celestial lamp," as some enthusiasts were wont to call it, never taught Greek, Roman, nor Carthagenian a correct knowledge of the true God. Those profound thinkers whom Paul addressed from Mars Hill, were in total darkness touching the real condition of their souls.
In science they were adepts. The specimens of art strewed lavishly throughout their cities, bore witness to their claims. They could boast also of philosophers, of poets, and of orators. But, proud of their high distinction, they despised the simplicity of the Gospel. Speaking of Paul, its advocate, in language of the keenest sarcasm—they asked, "What will this babbler say ?" To them, those cultivated, boastful Greeks, Paul answered: " Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious: for as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD…Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you." Acts 17:22-23
Go to the most refined nation on the globe, and if the Bible be wanting, you shall find the people in the ignorance and slavery of sin. Nor has a saving acquaintance with God ever been formed where the word of life has not first been held forth. Judging then of the future by the past, human reason is incompetent to lead us to the Rock whence saving comforts flow. If left to her teachings only, man must grope his way in the dark, and, in the end, lose himself amid the mazes of his own speculations. Instead of consecrated temples, on whose altars are offered the affections of contrite hearts, this happy country might be studded with pedestals, and images, at which would be practiced the miserable service of idolatry.
II. In the second place we sustain the proposition, that the Gospel is the only medium of a saving knowledge of God.
This will appear, if we notice:
1. The design of its doctrines. There are certain principles which form the groundwork of Christianity. They teach man what he is, his danger, and what has been done for his soul. By the development of these, the soul is roused from its stupor, wooed from earth to heaven, and finally made happy in the Lord.
Firstly, the Gospel defines clearly the relation man sustains to God and a future state. If, through the Old Testament, we look by faith, on the green fields of Eden, with its rivers and fountains, its pleasant groves and delicious fruits;—if in that Paradise, man appears the noblest of creation's works; the offspring of a just, holy, and glorious God, loving righteousness, and obeying the edicts of his Maker with delight;—in the New especially, the picture is reversed.
In it he is called the child of the devil, rebellious, obstinate, and hostile to purity and holy worship. His present relation to God is that of an enemy. The future threatens him with interminable death! To be assured of his real condition, his darkened understanding, perverted affections, and the soul's tendency to irrevocable ruin, is the first element of saving knowledge. Till quickened by the Gospel, man seems unconscious of the turpitude of his guilt.
Charmed perpetually by the old serpent, the devil, he is in danger of sinking hoodwinked down to hell. Hence, to save, is first to convince him of his peril. And not only to convince, but also to arrest him in his course, that he may survey the path along which he is rushing blindly into the "bottomless pit." The faithful exhibition of the divine Word has often proved competent to this result. Nor need we wonder, if we consider the momentous truths it discloses in which we are so fearfully interested.
The sentence, "except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God," is enough in itself to make one tremble for his safety. While, as if waked from the torpor of death, he asks, "How can these things be?" He may well suspect that all is not right. Strange things, indeed, have sounded in his ears, to which the understanding cannot well be indifferent. It is more than half convinced that the statement just made, implying. depravity of heart, and, by consequence, alienation from God, is a solemn reality.
If, in connection with the affirmation made by the Savior to Nicodemus, the Gospel thunder,—"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. " and this again be followed by the ominous announcement, "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad "—why, the relation man holds to God and a future state, is clearly developed. Either by implication or direct teaching, he is everywhere in the Gospel exhibited as a wretched, condemned, lost any moment to be struck down and sunk to endless woe!
Here then the sinner is brought into a sad strait. Above, is the sword of Divine vengeance, gleaming ethereal fire; from underneath, are heard the mutterings of that lake which burneth with fire and brimstone; while all around him, there arises an impervious wall of sin. This is the light in which the sinner must see, and, to some extent feel himself, in order to salvation. Like Isaiah, he must become willing to confess, "that he is a man of unclean lips;" or like Job, that he is "vile;" for such is his exact relation to the "Lord of hosts. "
Secondly, through the Gospel we learn the ground of deliverance from guilt. By the first item of saving knowledge, the sinner's fears become excited. It cannot be otherwise. Though the convictions, which distress his soul are essential to his acceptance, yet he can see in them naught but threatening evil. Behind him is a polluted life; above, he sees a holy God; in front, all is darkness!
For the first time in his life he is overtaken by the storm of God's wrath. The tempest increases in fury and blackness! God's fiery indignation flashes deep into his soul. His first inquiry is how he shall be rescued. Surround a man with danger and he attempts escape. Release from peril is the desire universal. When calamity threatens, the mind seeks to avert the catastrophe.
But poor wretch! What shall he do? Whither flee? His own righteousness can no longer shield him from the pelting storm. Every step of his way has been stained with guilt. To his astonishment he has found that in him there dwelleth no good thing. Nor can he forget his convictions. As easily could the dying man forget the fever which drinks up his blood. Where shall he obtain relief?
Blessed be God! The remedy is at hand. The Gospel, if it kills, can also make alive. If it wound, it can cure. God has "laid help upon one who is mighty to save." Even on Jesus, "the mediator of the new covenant." The cross, suspending the Savior, as an offering for sin, a ransom for ruined man, has all this time been overlooked. The troubled soul, in its agony, has not looked out of itself.
As soon, however, as it turns to Calvary, where Jesus groaned, bled, and yielded up the ghost—an event in which were concentrated the patience, obedience, compassion and love of Christ, it must relent. In that stupendous scene the sinner sees justice satisfied! He learns that God in Christ can be just, and, at the same time, justify the transgressor. That all God requires is the hearty belief of this great truth. Unwavering confidence in the atonement as God's method of salvation will make the moral thunder cease, the clouds of despair to scatter, and the cross of salvation to loom out of the thick darkness!
In no system of philosophy can such help be found. Man, incased in depravity, dreamed not of assistance from any source.
This provision for lost souls had its origin in the Divine compassion. "When there was no eye to pity and no arm to save," "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself." Hear testimony on this point. "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life." "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me." "He was delivered for our offences and raised again for our justification."
Surely, here is news for the weeping sinner! "As cold water to a thirsty soul," so must this be to his troubled spirit! Here, at the cross, he may sit, wonder, admire, and adore that Love, which made so merciful a provision for his poor soul. But,
Thirdly, it is in the Gospel that Divine aid is promised to promote our return to God. Its necessity comports both with reason and revelation. If needless, it had not been tendered. God has never revealed a superfluous doctrine. To appreciate the importance of the Spirit in the work of conversion, we may only consider our degradation and helplessness. Who that views man, steeped in pollution—waging war against all good, but must see the necessity of Divine interposition to turn him from the error of his ways?
The reclaiming a soul from a life of the deepest corruption to uprightness of heart, is an inexplicable enigma, unless we ascribe the change to the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. This passage, however, "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it corneal and whither it goeth, so is every one that is born of the Spirit," unfolds the mystery. God, the Spirit is the author of the change.
With a resurrection voice does he call the corrupting Lazarus from the tomb of spiritual death. Loose him, he says, from the integuments of sin, and let him go. By this power only does the soul lift itself from the earth and "arise to newness of life."
"Not of blood, is one born, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of man, but of God." It is this supernatural agency, operating through the preached word, which discovers to a man his true relation to eternal things; enables him to repose confidence in Jesus; sanctifies, and so prepares him for heaven. It is the Spirit who communicates a spiritual taste, enlightens our darkened understandings, and gives simplicity to many passages in the Scriptures, which, without his influence, might appear dark and perplexing.
Show me a man, then, whose once ferocious temper is subdued into mildness; who, instead of clanning with the wicked, fills his place in the Lord's house; who, by every act of his life, exhibits humility, and a sense of unworthiness in the sight of his Divine Father; and in him you have an individual, renovated by the saving influences of the Holy Spirit. The word was rendered effectual by his sealing power, and so a soul was taken from the "miry clay," and established firmly on the rock Christ Jesus.
Man's exact relation to God and the future—the ground of his deliverance from " the wrath to come "—and the power by which he is quickened into holiness, are items of knowledge, essential to his happiness and ultimate redemption.
2. That the Gospel is the only medium of saving knowledge, is plain from the intention of its ordinances. Connected with the new dispensation are too positive institutions. Baptism, the first, is a rite, denoting a change of heart, supposed to have taken place in the individual submitting to it. A change by reason of which, the understanding is made to acquiesce in, and the affections to harmonize with, the revealed will of God.
The immersion of a believer in water represents the soul cleansed of its guilt—raised from a death of sin, to a life of purity. It is in figure what the burial and resurrection of Christ were literally. It also points to the general resurrection. Human redemption will not be completed till the dead shall be raised at the last day. Though the soul soars to realms of bliss, and is present with the Lord the moment after death, yet till the body glorified shall be united to it, the great end of Christ's mission into the world will not be consummated.
The general resurrection, however, will as certainly come to pass as that Christ himself was raised from the sepulchre. "For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality." When that glorious period shall have arrived, then shall it be said, “Death is swallowed up in victory." His sting extracted, the grave conquered, man will stand disenthralled from the results of the transgression.
How accurately, how consolingly, and how beautifully, does the immersion of a believer delineate death and victory in their several fowls! Speak we of the burial and resurrection of Christ? The immersion in and the raising a proper subject out of the water represents them. Or of a death to sin and a resurrection unto holiness? This same ordinance declares them. Or of that day "when all that are in their graves, shall hear the voice of the Son of God and come forth?" In this sublime institution, we have it in figure.
The Lord's Supper is both commemorative and prophetic. It looks back to the cross, and forward "to the glorious appearing of the great God, and our Savior Jesus Christ." It stands, at the same time, for the cause and the fruition of our hope. As oft conducted, "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God." “As ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show forth the Lord's death till he come."
These rites present the professor before the world, as "a new creature." They imply a death to sin, a resurrection unto life, and point to Christ as "the author and finisher" of the Christian faith. Therefore being connected only with the Gospel, and drawing the line between the Church and the world, they testify to the Gospel as the only medium by which to obtain a saving knowledge of God.
3. Our proposition is sustained in the unparalleled success of the Gospel. God honors truth with the seal of his approbation. Error, except when aided by persecution, progresses slowly. Mohamed toiled a long time before the sentiments of the Koran took root. Nor, till enforced by the threat of arms, did the Arabians receive them. The "Romish Church," by bribery, intimidation, and torture, sought to subvert the truth as it is in Jesus. But his words, “Fear not little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom," had gone forth. Therefore her machinations against his cause proved fruitless.
Consult history, sacred and profane, for the effects resulting from the proclamation of the Gospel. No carnal weapons, no parade of wealth and lordly equipage;—no artifice and cunning craftiness were employed: no Mohameds, Charlemagnes, nor mitred Pontiffs were needed to compel acquiescence.
The plain, pathetic story of Christ crucified, and Christ raised from the dead, was enough to win thousands over to the Christian Faith. The simple preaching of unpretending men, could heave the bosoms and start the tear, and extort the cry: “What shall we do?" "What must I do to be saved?"
In a short while Jerusalem was filled with their doctrine. First three thousand, then five thousand, and daily such as should be saved, were added to the Church. By this amazing process, by men called foolishness, the Divine Message was sent towards all parts of the earth. Like a fructuous vine, whose roots fasten in a rich soil, its tendrils took hold on Asia, Africa, Europe, and finally, America. To this day, as in Samaria of old, the people, "believing the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, are baptized both men and women." Every week do we hear of revivals and large ingatherings, from different parts of the world.
What conclusion shall we draw from hence? What other can we than that a knowledge and power are communicated through the Gospel, procurable from no other source. It is emphatically, though mysteriously, "the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.”
The only reasons given, for the adoption of this method in preference to any other, arc the pleasure of God, and the ignorance of the human race. The text supposes the energy and acuteness of human intellect to have been fully tested. "For after that, in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe."
In whatever aspect we regard the Gospel, whether in the light of its doctrines, ordinances, or success, it plainly exhibits itself, as the only medium by which to obtain a saving knowledge of God.
III. Having established our proposition, we, in the last place, proceed to some inferences.
If the Gospel be the only medium of salvation, then it should be preached. Though it contains all the principles needed to reconcile man to his God, still he must be informed of them, and become interested in them.
The Gospel has not intrinsically the power either of locomotion or speech. God has originated the plan of human redemption, taught the doctrines, precepts, and general duties growing out of it, but these will avail nothing unless they be published. Because of this, our Savior when on earth, not only died for the world but sent out preachers to proclaim salvation to all who should believe, to call home the wandering sheep to the Shepherd and Bishop of their souls. "How," asks Holy writ, "shall they hear without a preacher?" Preaching, (by which we here mean oral proclamation) is God's peculiar method, as explicitly set forth in the text.
It ought to be published in its native purity. If it be the word of inspiration, then is it perfect. It needs not embellishment, enlargement, nor simplicity. Coming from God who knows what is in man, it must be in all respects adapted to our wants. Its doctrines should be assented to, and its ordinances practiced, just as they are revealed, without hesitation or doubt. And so doubtless they would be, if the heralds of the cross would maintain uniformly, a pure speech.
It was the boast of Paul that he could say for himself and his coadjutors: “We are not as many who corrupt the word." Would that the same might be said now! But alas, the interests, ignorance, or prejudices of some, who cry from the watchtowers, influence them either to conceal a part of the message, or, which is the same thing, give it a wrong interpretation. Woe! to that minister who shall mislead immortal souls! Woe! Woe! to those blind guides who tamper with eternal things and cause the unwary to err. To perpetuate a pure Gospel among us, as Baptists, two things are required.
1. We want competent, dauntless teachers: "Faithful men who shall be able to teach others also." Men who shall possess, not only a stock of general literature, but also who can expound the doctrines and ordinances of the Gospel with clearness and eject. I object not to a cultivated fancy, a finished style, nor the graces of oratory: these are desirable accomplishments. But, above all, let the sense of the text be given.
If a man's imagination permits, let him explore the universe, and bring illustrations from her abundant treasure-house, but let him also be careful, lest, amid the flourish of rhetoric, he conceal the CROSS. "Sound speech that cannot be condemned," is the most efficient preaching. But in order to that apprehension of the truth, and the exercise of those dispositions of soul which qualify for the pulpit, the minister must be a constant, laborious, prayerful, Bible-student. In the law of the Lord, "must he meditate day and night." The chief concerns of his heart should be, to give the world an uncorrupted Gospel, and to rescue dying men from a threatening perdition. Therefore we remark,
2. That ministers must be supported. I mean not that they shall receive princely incomes. That, like the aristocratic prelates of England, they must have a seat in Parliament, and burden the people with taxes: but only, that they may be so far relieved from secular toil, as to give themselves wholly to the sacred ministry. I object not to minister farmers, or minister school-teachers, if necessity compel to these vocations; but certainly, it would promote the diffusion of an unadulterated Gospel and effective preaching, if the Churches would disencumber their pastors from the world.
Compel a minister to some temporal pursuit for the maintenance of his family, and you detract from his usefulness. The mind, to develop its powers, requires patient and vigorous exercise. It must first perceive truth and then study how it may impart its perception to others with perspicuity and force. These studies comprise its weekly employments for the pulpit.
How can tasks, so arduous, so responsible, be mastered in the broken intervals of labor and worldly care? Necessarily under such circumstances, "the man of God" often appears before his congregation, having for it no definite message. He says something and his audience hears it, but it is thrown off in such an unconnected, digressive manner, that the understanding, unable to comprehend him, grows weary and indifferent. Thus a Sabbath is lost; the people disperse unbenefited, and souls die unreconciled to Christ!
Moreover, compulsion to manual labor, or mercantile pursuits, subjects the pastor to censure. If he have to present bills, press accounts, and attend courts, his character will be assailed by the designing, and the dishonest. Though he were as pure as an angel, yet would the enemies of Christ impugn his motives, should his necessary transactions conflict with their interests.
Thus he would lose his influence, and the devil obtains a victory. Take away his influence, and you render him inefficient. As well might you wrest from the soldier his armor, and expect him to conquer in battle, as to expect that a preacher can benefit a community without influence. The way to perpetuate this moral power is to let his intercourse with the world arise mainly from his official duties.
Then, brethren, as ye love a pure Gospel, and yourselves have felt its power, look out men of honest report; educate and support them; and let them proclaim untrammelled the merits of a Savior's love.