THE SMALL SUCCESS OF THE GOSPEL MINISTRY CONSIDERED
A Sermon preached at Olney by John Newton
At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Matt. 11.25.
Our blessed Lord perfectly knew beforehand the persons who would profit by His ministry: but His observations, conduct, and discourses, were intended as a pattern and instruction to His followers. He is said to have marvelled at the unbelief of some, and at the fate of others; not as though either was strange to Him, who was acquainted with all hearts, and always knew what He himself would do; but it is spoken of Him as a man, and to shew how His ministers and people should be affected upon the like occasions. In the preceding verses He had been speaking of Capernaum, and other places, where His mighty works had been performed in vain. He had denounced a sentence against them; and foretold that their punishment would be heavier in proportion to the greatness of the privileges they had abused. But this was not His pleasing work. Mercy and grace were His delight, and He usually expressed sorrow and pain for the obstinacy of sinners. He wept for His avowed enemies, and prayed for the murderers who nailed Him to the cross. It was not without grief that He declared the approaching doom of these cities; yet, raising His thoughts from earth to heaven, He acquiesced in the will of His heavenly Father, and expressed the highest satisfaction in His appointment. He knew that, however some would harden themselves, there was a remnant who would receive the truth, and that the riches and glory of the Divine sovereignty and grace would be magnified. Before I enter upon the particulars, this connection of the words will afford us ground for some observations.
I. That the small success and efficacy of the preached Gospel upon multitudes who hear it, is a subject of wonder and grief to the ministers and people of God. It was so to our Lord Jesus, considered as a Preacher and Messenger; and they, so far as they have received His Spirit, judge and act as He did.
1. Those who have indeed tasted that the Lord is gracious, have had such powerful experience in their own souls of the necessity and value of the Gospel, that in their first warmth, and till painful experience has convinced them of the contrary, they can hardly think it possible that sinners should stand out against its evidence. They are ready to say, “Surely it is because they are ignorant: they have not had opportunity of considering the evil of sin, the curse of he law, and the immense goodness of God manifested in his Son;
but when these things shall be plainly and faithfully set before them, surely they will submit, and thankfully receive the glad tidings.” With such sanguine hopes Melancthon entered the ministry, at the dawn of the Reformation: he thought he had only to speak, and to be heard, in order to convince; but he soon found himself mistaken, and that the love of sin, the power of prejudice, and the devices of satan, were such obstacles in his way, as nothing less than the mighty operations of the Spirit of God could break through. And all who preach upon his principles, and with his views, have known something of his disappointment. Speaking from the feelings of a full heart, they are ready to expect that others should be no less affected than ourselves. But when they find that they are heard with indifference, perhaps with contempt; that those whose salvation hey long for are enraged against them for their labour of love; that hey cannot prevail upon their dearest friends, and nearest relatives; this grieves and wounds them to the heart.
2. They have been convinced themselves, that unbelief was the worst of all their sins: and, therefore, though they pity all who live in he practice of sin, yet they have a double grief to see them reject the only means of salvation; and that this contempt will lie more heavily upon them, than any thing they can be charged with besides. It ;saddens the heart of a minister to see a large and attentive assembly; but how is this joy damped by a just fear, lest any, lest many of them should receive this grace of God in vain, and have cause at last to bewail the day when the name of Jesus was first sounded in their ears.
It seems plain, then, that those who are indifferent about the ‘vent of the GospelÂ—who satisfy themselves with this thought, that he elect shall be saved, and feel no concern for unawakened sinnersÂ—make a wrong inference from a true doctrine, and know not what spirit they are of. Jesus wept for those who perished in
their sins. Paul had great grief and sorrow of heart for the Jews, though he gives them this character; “They please not God, and are contrary to all men.” It well becomes us, while we admire distinguishing grace to ourselves, to mourn over others: and, inasmuch as secret things belong to the Lord, and we know not but some of whom we have at present but little hopes may at last be brought to the knowledge of the truth, we should be patient and forbearing, after the pattern of our heavenly Father, and endeavour, by every probable and prudent means, to stir them up to repentance, remembering that they cannot be more distant from God, than by nature we were ourselves.
II. The best relief against those discouragements we meet with from men, is to raise our thoughts to God and heaven. For this, the Lord Jesus is our precedent here. He said, “I thank thee, O Father.” The word signifies to confess, to promise or consent, and to praise. As if it had been said, “I glorify Thy wisdom in this respect, I acknowledge and declare it is Thy will, and I express My own consent and approbation.” Our Lord’s views of the Divine counsels were perfect, and therefore His satisfaction was complete. It is said, “He rejoiced in spirit,” Luke 10.21 when He uttered these words. And the more we increase in faith and in the knowledge of God, the more we shall be satisfied in His appointments, and shall see and say, “He hath done all things well.” It is needful for our comfort, to be well established in the truth suggested in my text, that the Lord hath provided for the accomplishment of His own purposes, and that His counsels shall surely stand. From this doctrine we may infer,
1. That where the faithful labours and endeavours of ministers, and others, to promote the knowledge of grace and the practice of tidiness, fail of success, yet they shall be accepted. The servants of Christ may in their humble measure adopt the words of their Lord and Master, in the Prophet, “Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God shall be my strength.” Isa. 49.5. When He sent forth His first disciples, He directed them wherever they entered to say, “Peace be to this house. And if a son of peace be there,” if there be any who thankfully accept your salutation and message, “your peace shall rest upon it: if not, it shall turn to you again,” Luke 10.6: that is, your good wishes and endeavours shall not be lost for want of proper objects, but when they seem without effect on others, shall recieve productive of the happiest consequences to yourselves. You shall receive all you were desirous to communicate. Thus His ministers are to declare His whole will, whether men will hear, or whether they shall forbear. And if they do thus with a single eye to His glory,
and in humble dependence upon His blessing, they are not answerable for the event, they shall in no wise lose their reward.
2. Faithful endeavours in the service of the Gospel shall not wholly fail. Though all will not hear, some certainly shall both hear and obey. Though all are by nature equally averse and incapable, yet there shall be “a willing people in the day of God’s power.” Psal. 110.3. If the wise and prudent turn away from the truth, there are babes to whom it shall be revealed. The Lord renews unto us a pledge of His faithfulness in this concern every time the rain descends. For thus He has promised, “As the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth; it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” Isa. 55.10.
3. The Divine Sovereignty is the best thought we can retreat to for composing and strengthening our minds under the difficulties, discouragements, and disappointments, which attend the publication of the Gospel. The more we give way to reasonings and curious inquiries, the more we shall be perplexed and baffled. When Jeremiah (Jer. 18.6) had been complaining of some things which were too hard for him, the Lord sent him to the potter’s house, and taught him to infer, from the potter’s power over the clay, the just right which the Lord of all hath to do what He will with His own. It is only the pride of our own hearts that prevents this consideration from being perfectly conclusive and satisfactory. How many schemes derogatory from the free grace of God, tending to darken the glory of the Gospel, and to depreciate the righteousness of the Redeemer, have taken their rise from vain unnecessary attempts to vindicate the ways of God; or rather to limit the actings of Infinite Wisdom to the bounds of our narrow understandings, to sound the depths of the Divine counsels with our feeble plummets, and to say to Omnipotence, “Hitherto shalt thou go, and no farther.” But upon the ground of the Divine Sovereignty we may rest satisfied and stable: for if God appoints and overrules all, according to the purpose of His own will, we have sufficient security, both for the present and the future.
First, for the present. We may firmly expect, what Scripture and reason concur to assure us, that “the Judge of all the earth will do right.” Whatever to us appears otherwise in His proceedings, should be charged to the darkness and weakness of our minds. We k;now, that in every point of science difficulties and objections occur to young beginners, which at first view may seem almost unanswer-
able; but as knowledge increases, the difficulties gradually subside, and at last we perceive they were chiefly owing to the defects of our apprehension. In divinity it is wholly so: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all:” His revealed will is, like Himself, just, holy, pure in the whole, and perfectly consistent in every part. We may safely rest upon this general maxim, that “the Judge of all the earth shall do right.” Though He does not give us a particular account of His dealings, and we are not fully able to comprehend them; yet we ought, against all appearances and proud reasonings, to settle it firmly in our minds, that every thing is conducted worthy the views which God has given us of Himself in His holy word, as a being of infinite justice, wisdom, goodness, and truth.
Secondly, For the future. He has appointed a day when He will make it appear that He has done right. Though clouds and darkness are now upon His proceedings, they shall ere long be removed. When all His designs in providence and grace are completed; when the present imperfect state of things shall be finished; when the dead, small and great, are summoned to stand before Him; then the great Judge will condescend to unfold the whole train of His dispensations, and will justify His proceedings before angels and men; then every presumptuous cavil shall be silenced, every difficulty solved. His people shall admire His wisdom, His enemies shall confess His justice. The destruction of those who perish shall be acknowledged deserved, and of themselves; and the redeemed of the Lord shall ascribe all the glory of their salvation to Him alone. What we shall then see, it is now our duty and our comfort assuredly to believe.
The great subject of our Saviour’s joy, and which, so far as it is apprehended, will bear up His servants above all their difficulties and disappointments; I mean, the consideration of the sovereign hand of God directing the success of His word when and where He pleases; we must defer speaking of till the next opportunity. And we shall close at present with a few inferences from what has been said thus far by way of introduction.
1. Take heed how you hear. The Gospel of salvation, which is sent to you, will be either a “saviour of life unto life, or of death unto death,” to every soul of you. There is no medium. Though, in a common and familiar way of speaking, we sometimes complain that the Gospel is preached without effect, there is in reality no possibility that it can be without effect. An effect it must and will have upon all who hear it. Happy they who receive and embrace it as a joyful sound, the unspeakable gift of God’s love. To these it will be “a saviour of life unto life.” It will communicate life to the soul at first, and maintain that life, in defiance of all opposition, till it
terminates in glory. But woe, woe to those who receive it not! It will be to them “a saviour of death unto death.” It will leave them under the sentence of death, already denounced against them by the law which they have transgressed; and it will consign them to eternal death, under the heaviest aggravations of guilt and misery. Remember the doom of Capernaum, and why it was denounced. Jesus preached amongst them the words of eternal life, and they “ejected Him. This was all. In other things, perhaps, they were no worse than their neighbours, and probably disdained to hear themselves judged worthy of a heavier punishment than Sodom, and those cities which for their abominations were consumed with fire from heaven. But our Lord assures us, it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for those who slight His word. For the guilt and condemnation is not confined to the Jews who rejected His person, but extended to all who should at any time treat His Gospel with contempt. However inconsiderable His ministers are in other respects, if they faithfully deliver His message, He has declared Himself closely interested in the reception they meet with: “He that receiveth you, receiveth me;
and he that despiseth you, despiseth both me and him that sent me.” Matt. 10.40. It is therefore at your peril to treat what we say with indifference (if we speak agreeably to the Scripture): the word of God which we preach will judge you at the last day.
2. Be afraid of being wise in your own eyes, lest you should approach to the characters of those from whom the righteous God sees fit to hide the knowledge of those truths, without which they cannot be saved. The Gospel is not proposed to you to ask your opinion of it, that it may stand or fall according to your decision; but it peremptorily demands your submission. If you think yourselves qualified to judge and examine it by that imperfect and depraved light which you call your reason, you will probably find reasons enough to refuse your assent. Reason is properly exercised in the ordinary concerns of life, and has so far a place in religious inquiries, that none can or do believe the Gospel, without having sufficient reasons for it. But you need a higher light, the light of God’s Spirit, without which the most glorious displays of His wisdom will appear foolishness to you. If you come simple, dependent, and teachable; if you pray from your heart, with David, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law,” Psalm 119.18 you will be heard and answered; you will grow in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: but if you neglect this, and trust in yourselves, as supposing this promised assistance of the Holy Spirit unnecessary, the glorious light of the Gospel will shine upon you in vain; for Satan will maintain such hold of you by this pride of your
hearts, as still to keep you in bondage and darkness, that you shall neither see it, nor desire to see it.
3. Those of you who have some spiritual apprehensions of these things, have reason to praise God that you see a little. You were once quite blind: you neither saw your disease nor your remedy. You could discern nothing of the excellence of Christ, or the beauties of holiness. But now the eyes of your understanding are in some measure enlightened. It is the grace of God has made you thus far to differ from what you once were, and from what multitudes around you still are. Be thankful. Accept it as a token for good. Be not discouraged that the beginnings are small; but wait on the Lord, and they shall be increased. Seek Him by prayer. Converse with your Bibles. Attend upon the public ordinances. In the humble use of these means (while you endeavour to act faithfully according to the light you have already received), you shall gradually advance in wisdom and comfort. The Christian growth is not instantaneous, but by degrees, as the early dawn increases in brightness till the perfect day, Prov. 4.18, and as the corn comes forward surely, though unperceived, Matt. 13.31-32. In this manner your views of Gospel truth shall increase in clearness, evidence, and influence, till you are removed from this land of shadows to the regions of perfect light, to behold the truth as it shines in the person of Jesus, without a veil, and without a cloud for ever.