THE CHARACTER OF A COMPLETE EVANGELICAL PASTOR DRAWN BY CHRIST
Notes of a sermon delivered to an assembly of ministers by John Flavel, on the occasion of the restoration of their liberty to preach, following the nation’s deliverance from Popery in 1688.
Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. Verily, I say unto you. That he shall make him ruler over all his goods.Â—Matt. 24.45-47.
We are met this day to review and consider the cases of our respective congregations; which I doubt we shall find too like that description, Prov. 24.31, all over-grown with thorns and nettles, and the stone-wall broken down. Thus ignorance and error have overspread the people, and the wall of discipline greatly decayed. Our business is to cleanse our churches, and repair their walls; that so they may become gardens of delight, and beds of spices, for Christ to walk and take pleasure in.
Not to spend much time about the order and relation of the text;
Christ had been solemnly warning the disciples, and all the Christian world, of his most certain coming to judgment; and therefore to beware of luxury, idleness, and security, the sins of the world; and that all be found at His coming, watchful and diligent in their proper places of duty. This exhortation he infers, from what common prudence would teach any servant, especially any steward of an house to do, to whom his lord hath committed the care of his family. It is agreed by all, that the words have a special and immediate respect to gospel-ministers, the stewards of Christ’s house, or church, to whom Christ hath trusted the care and dispensation of the affairs thereof. So speaks the apostle, ‘Let a man account of us, as the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God’ 1 Cor. 4.1. To them He hath committed the dispensation of the word and sacraments.
Every private person, who hath received any talent from God, is a steward, and will be called to account for the employment, or non-employment of that talent in the audit-day. But ministers are stewards in the strict and special sense: Christ distinguishes them from the others, as porters from the rest of the servants, Mark 13.34. Nor may any assume that office, but by order from Christ the Master of the Family.
In these words we find, 1. An evangelical pastor described. 2. The reward of such as answer that description, propounded, ‘Blessed is that servant.
1. Christ’s description of an evangelical pastor, ver. 45, which he doth by two excellent and essential properties, or qualifications, faithful and wise; both which make up the character of a complete gospel-minister: for if he be faithful, he deceives not others; and if wise, or prudent, he is not apt to be deceived himself. His prudence will enable him to discern, and his faithfulness oblige him to distribute wholesome good to his flock. These two therefore meeting together, make a pastor .after God’s own heart, according to Jer. 3.15.
Faithfulness is an essential requisite to a steward, 1 Cor. 4.2. What ground is there for trust, where there is no truth? Hence is that solemn charge, 2 Tim. 2.2, to commit that great trust of the ministry to faithful men. This faithfulness, as it respects God, ourselves, and the flocks committed to us, includes, (1) Pure and spiritual aims and intentions for God. A servant must aim at his master’s honour, and interest, not his own. Fidelity will not endure self-ends, disguised with a pretence of zeal for Christ. Pure ends in our service, will give abundant comfort at the end of our service. Have a care, brethren, of all designs to accommodate carnal interests, under a shew of devotion to God. (2). Personal sincerity. It is said of Abraham, that God found his heart faithful; that is, sincere before him. Neh. 9.8. Let this be our ‘rejoicing, that in all sincerity, and godly simplicity, we have had our conversation in this world,’ 2 Cor, 1.12. We of all men, are most in danger to be deceived by hypocrisy: For our employment lying in, and about spiritual things, we are, on that account, styled spiritual men, Hos. 9.7. But it is plain, from that very place, that a man may be objectively a spiritual, and all the while subjectively a carnal man. Brethren, it is easier to declaim against a thousand sins of others, than to mortify one sin in ourselves; to be more industrious in our pulpits, than in our closets. Believe it, sirs, all our reading, studying, and preaching, is but trifling hypocrisy, till the things read, studied, and preached, be felt in some degree upon our own heart. (3). Diligence. A slothful cannot be a faithful servant. Matt. 25.26, ‘His lord answered, and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant,’ etc. The labours of the ministry are fitly compared to the toil of men in harvest, to the labours of a woman in travail, and to the agonies of soldiers in the extremity of a battle. We must watch when others sleep. And indeed it is not so much the expense of our labours, as the loss of them, that kills us. It is not with us, as with other labourers: They find their work as they leave it, so do not we. Sin and Satan unravel almost all we do, the impressions we make on our people’s souls in one sermon, vanish before the next. How many truths have we to study! How many wiles of Satan, and mysteries of corruption, to detect! How many cases of conscience to resolve! Yea, we must fight in defence of the truths we preach, as well as study them to paleness, and preach them unto faintness. (4) Impartiality in all the administrations of Christ’s house. He that is partial, cannot be faithful.
O with what extraordinary solemnity doth Paul set on this exhortation upon Timothy! 1 Tim. 5.21. Brethren, you will shortly appear before an impartial God, see that ye be impartial stewards. Remember all souls are rated at one value in your Master’s book, and your Redeemer paid as much for the one as for the other. Take the same care, manifest the same love, attend with the same diligence, the poorest and weakest souls that are committed to your care, as you do the rich, the great, and honourable. (5) Stedfastness. Ministerial faithfulness includes constancy: Not a backsliding, or flinching servant, Rev. 2.10. ‘Be thou faithful (i.e. fixed and constant), to the death, and I will give thee a crown of life.’ Many of us have cause to bless the Lord, who enabled us to be stedfast and unmovable in the trials that have passed over us. But our warfare is not yet ended. Our faithfulness is not yet faithfulness to the death; we hope it will shortly be called so, whilst it thus involves our self-denial, sincerity, diligence, impartiality, and constancy.
The second qualification in the text is ministerial prudence. The Lord’s servant must not only be faithful, but prudent, discreet, and wise. Faithfulness will fix the eye upon the right end; but it is prudence that must direct to the proper means of attaining it. The use of prudence to a minister of Christ is unspeakably great; it not only gives clearness to the mind, by freeing it from passions, enabling it thereby to apprehend what is best to be done; but enables it in its deliberations, about the means, to make choice of the season, without precipitation, by too much haste; or hazard, by too tedious delay.
I know there is a carnal policy, an unworthy pusillanimity, that often show themselves under the name of prudence; I have nothing to do with mock graces here: My business is to shew you, in what particulars true ministerial prudence is highly serviceable to the affairs of Christ’s house or kingdom.
(1) Prudence will direct us, to lay a good foundation of knowledge in our people’s souls, by catechizing and instructing them in the principles of Christianity, without which we labour in vain. Except you have a knowing people, you are not like to have a gracious people. St. Paul’s prudentials lay much in this, 1 Cor. 3.10, ‘As a wise master-builder, I have laid the foundation.’ You can never pitch upon a better project, to promote and secure the success of your labours, than catechizing. What age of Christianity ever produced more lively and stedfast Christians, than the first ages? And then the care of this duty most eminently flourished in the churches. We that live in this age, have as much obligation as they, and God hath furnished to our hands the best help for it, that ever any age since Christ enjoyed. Our venerable assembly (lately sitting at Westminster, now in glory) composed for us the most judicious and compendious system.
(2) Prudence discovers itself in the choice of such subjects, as the needs of our people’s souls do most require and call for. A prudent
minister will study the souls of his people, more than the best human books in his library; and not choose what is easiest for him, but what is most necessary for them. Ministers that are acquainted with the state of their flocks, as they ought to be, will be seldom at a loss in the choice of the next subject: Their people’s wants will choose their text, from time to time, for them. The greatest part of our congregations are poor, ignorant, and unregenerated people. This will direct us to the great doctrines of conviction, regeneration, and faith. Others are withering and decaying in their affections, or staggering and floating in their judgments: Prudence will enable the man of God to give to every one his proper food, or medicine, in due season. This will make us spend more hours in our studies, and set to it with all our might and skill, that thereby we may both save ourselves, and them that hear us.
(3) Ministerial prudence will shew us, of what great use our own affections are, for moving of others; and therefore advise us, that, as ever we expect the truths we preach shall operate upon the hearts of others, we first labour to work them in upon our own hearts. Such a preacher was St. Paul; he preached with tears accompanying his words, Phil. 3.18. A hot iron, though blunt, will pierce sooner than a cold one; though sharper.
(4) Prudence will direct the servants of Christ (who highly value, and earnestly long for the success of their labours) to be careful, by the strictness and gravity of their deportment, to maintain their esteem in the consciences of their people. In your pulpits, you are carrying on a treaty of peace betwixt God and them; and therefore it will not allow you to do anything out of your pulpits, to make the breach wider, or hinder the happy close between him and them. Remember that of Solomon, Prov. 11.30. ‘He that winneth souls is wise.’ Prudence will not allow the ministers of Christ to intermix themselves with vain company, and take the same liberty they do in vain jests, and idle stories. To you that are juniors and candidates for the ministry, I will assume the boldness to address you with one seasonable word of advice; and it is this: Have a care of that light and airy spirit, which so much obtains everywhere in this unserious age. It was the charge of God against some ministers of old, that they were light persons, and yet I cannot but think, comparatively speaking, with some of our times, they might pass for grave and serious. The people have eyes to see how we walk, as well as ears to hear what we say. It will be our wisdom and great advantage, to be able to say, as St. Paul did, Phil. 4.9, The things which you have both heard and seen in me do.’
(5) Ministerial prudence will send you often to your knees, to seek a blessing from God upon your studies and labours, as knowing all your ministerial success entirely depends thereupon, 1 Cor. 3.7. Those are the best sermons, that are obtained by prayer. Blessed Bradford studied upon his knees. Luther obtained more this way, than by all his studies.
If an honest husbandman could tell his neighbour, that the reason why his corn prospered better than his, was, because he steeped the seed in prayer, before he sowed it in the field; we may blush to think, how much more precious seed we have sown dry, and unsteeped in prayer, and by this neglect have frustrated our own expectations. Thus laying our foundations in the knowledge of principles, choosing our subjects by the people’s necessities; working them first upon our own affections, enforcing them by strict conversation, and steeping this holy seed in prayer; we shall approve ourselves the prudent ministers of Christ.
2. The reward of those that answer these characters, is propounded (1) In proper terms; Blessed is that servant, ver. 46, he is certainly blessed of God, whatever his usage be from men. If he be faithful, all his prudence will not secure him from the hatred and persecution of men, but it is enough that Christ calls and counts him blessed; and those whom he blesseth are truly and eternally blessed. (2) In metaphorical terms; ver. 47, ‘Verily, I say unto you, that he shall make him ruler over all his goods.’ In allusion to the custom of great kings and generals who used to prefer and advance faithful servants to places of eminent trust, profit, and honour. The sense thus cleared, runs naturally and easily into this doctrine, That our Lord Jesus Christ will amply reward the faithful and prudent stewards of His house, in the day of their account. The glory prepared for, and promised to such servants of Christ, is elegantly laid out, in shining terms, by the prophet Daniel, Dan. 12.3, ‘And they that be wise, shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness, as the stars for ever and ever.’ A promise which points directly to faithful and wise ministers. The question about degrees of glory in heaven is not necessary, but problematical. Nor is it questioned, among the orthodox, whether there be an equality of glory, as to the essentials; but only in respect to the accidentals, and concomitants: Amongst which, they place the additional glory and joy of such ministers. And of this the apostle speaks, 1 Thess. 2.19-20, ‘For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming? For ye are our glory and joy.’ Where we find a very remarkable gradation. He calls his Thessalonian converts, His hope, that is, the matter of his hope, that they should be saved. His joy, as they had already given him abundant cause of joy, in their conversion to Christ by his ministry. And the “crown of his rejoicing … at his coming.” This is an high strain indeed! The meaning, I suppose, is that the fruit and success of his ministry among them, would add to his crown, and redound to his glory in the day of Christ.
O brethren! who would not study and pray, spend and be spent, in the service of such a bountiful Master! Is it not worth all our labours and sufferings, to come with all those souls we instrumentally begat to
Christ: and all that we edified, confirmed, and comforted in the way to heaven; and say. Lord, here am I, and the children thou hast given me? O sirs! we serve a good Master. He keeps an exact account of all your fervent prayers, of all your instructive and persuasive sermons; and all your sighs, groans, and pantings, with every tear and drop of sweat, are placed like marginal notes against your labours in his book, in order to a full reward.
I consider to whom I speak, and shall be the shorter in the application; which I shall dispatch apace, in three uses.
Use 1. First for our information. By this it appears, Christ hath established an order and government in His house, which none must violate. The church is a well ordered family, or household, whereof Christ is the Head, Christians members, ministers stewards, the ordinances food to be dispensed by them in season. Every one is to keep his own place and station. Pastors must faithfully feed and govern the flocks of Christ, Acts 20.28. People must know, honour, and obey those that are over them in the Lord, 1 Thess. 5.12. Heb. 13.17, the one must not impose, nor the other usurp! but each walk according to the rule of Christ, with a right foot, ordinately and comely. This order is the Church’s beauty, Col. 2.5, and truly we may expect so much of Christ’s presence, as we have of His rule and order amongst us, and no more. O that the rules and orders of His house were better known, and observed!
In the light of this truth, we may also read our duty, how we ought to govern ourselves in the ordination of men to the ministerial office. This office is to be committed unto faithful and able men, 2 Tim. 2.2, not to novices, 1 Tim. 3.6.1 know the necessities of the churches are great, but no more haste (I beseech you) to supply their wants, than good speed. It is a less hazard, to put an ignorant rustic into a chemist’s shop, to compound and prepare medicines for men’s bodies, than to trust a man, destitute both of faithfulness and prudence, with the dispensation of Christ’s ordinances to men’s souls. Some men are moved by pitiful low ends. 1 Sam. 2.36, ‘Put me into the priest’s office, that I may eat a piece of bread.’ Some by ambition, conceiting themselves as able and holy as the best, Numb. 16.3. What men’s secret ends are, we cannot know; but their qualifications for that work we may, and ought to know. We are solemnly charged, to ‘lay hands suddenly upon no man,’ 1 Tim. 5.22.
Use 2. This point casts an ireful countenance upon all unfaithful and imprudent ministers, who give their people the chaff for the wheat, and stones for bread. They preach, they pray, because they must do so;
but none are the better for their prayers, or preaching. They seem to labour an hour or two in a week, but their labours turn to no account. I came not hither to deal with this sort of men; and therefore shall leave them to consider the words immediately following my text, which like a thunder-clap from the mouth of Christ, discharge woes and threatenings upon them; ver. 48, to the end: ‘The Lord of that servant
shall come in a day that he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of; and shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with hypocrites. There shall be weeping, and gnashing of teeth.’
Use 3. I am principally concerned at this time about our own defects, both in faithfulness, and in prudence. Our vain expense of much precious time, our shuffling haste in so weighty a study as the salvation of our people is; our sinful silence, when conscience saith, reprove; our coldness and dead-heartedness; our unserious and unprofitable converses; our pride and ostentation of gifts; our neglect in personal conferences: all these evidently discover that both our brains and hearts need more strength and tenderness.
Are faithfulness and prudence the essential requisites of the servants and stewards of Christ’s house? And will he so amply reward them in whomsoever he finds them? Then let it be our care and study to approve ourselves to him, such as he here describes and encourages.
But who am I, to manage such a work as this, among men every way above me! However, you have called me to this service, and Christ hath directed me to this subject. I despair of ever having such another opportunity; I see many faces in this assembly, whom I shall never see any more in this world. I speak to the ministers of Christ, the guides and pastors of so many flocks. My brethren, this is the day I have often wished for, when in the sad and silent years that are past, I have been searching my own heart, and enquiring into the causes of God’s indignation. And now I am where my soul hath long desired to be, and the vows of God are upon me; suffer therefore (dear brethren) this word of exhortation: Take heed to your ministry that you fulfil it: Take heed to yourselves, and to the flocks over which the Holy Ghost hath made YOU overseers. Let us so study and preach, let us so pray and converse among our people, that we may both save ourselves, and them that hear us; let us frugally and industriously husband our time and talents for Christ; let us prudently contrive, zealously and unanimously execute our holy contrivances for the advancement of His kingdom. Let us redeem our many silent Sabbaths, by double and triple improvements if those we enjoy: Let none of us dare to bring our old sins into our new pulpits. I suspect our greatest danger will be in the sunshine of liberty.
We have a solemn charge given us by Christ, 2 Tim. 4.1-2, I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing, and his kingdom; preach the word, be instant in season, and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine.’ It must be a powerful opiate indeed, that can so benumb and stupefy the conscience of a minister, as that he shall not feel the awful authority of such a charge. The precious and immortal souls of men are committed to us; souls, about which God hath concerned His thoughts from eternity; for the purchase of which Christ hath shed His own blood; for the winning of which He hath put
you into this office; at whose hands He will also require an account of them in the great day. ‘We watch for your souls, as they that must give account,’ Heb. 13.17. And what can more powerfully excite to faithful diligence in the discharge of duty, than the consideration of that day! When the apostle had mentioned, in 2 Cor. 5.10, this awful appearance before the judgment-seat of Christ; he immediately infers, ver. 11, Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.’ O brethren! let us beware of committing, or of neglecting anything, that may bring us within the compass of the terrors of that day. Let our painfulness and faithfulness, our constancy and seriousness, compel a testimony from our congregations, as the apostle did from his, Acts 20.26 ‘That we are pure from the blood of all men.’ We have a great opportunity to improve for Christ; which if we do, we shall fulfil His charge, and escape the terrors of His judgment in that great day. We have now the fairest season we ever enjoyed, since we first preached Christ; if this be lost, I question whether we may ever expect the like.