A SINGLE AIM
Extracts from The Christian Ministry by Rev. Charles Bridges
‘The ministerial work must be managed purely for God and the salvation of the people, and not for any private ends of our own. This is our sincerity in it. A wrong end makes all the work bad from us, however good in itself. Self-denial is of absolute necessity in every Christian; but of a double necessity in a minister, as he hath a double sanctification and dedication to God. And without self-denial he cannot ‘do God an hour’s faithful service. Hard studies, much knowledge, and excellent preaching, is but more glorious hypocritical sinning, if the ends be not right.’ The main end of the ministry is the glory of God. It is ‘the single eyeing’ of this end, that ‘makes all things sweet and holy.’ This was the purpose, that filled the heart, and directed the course, of our Great Exemplar. This was also the spirit of the Apostle; the true
spirit of the minister – the result of serious self-scrutiny, and often of severe spiritual conflict. Experience (for it must plainly be more a matter of experience than of observation) assures us of the extreme difficulty of preaching with singleness of heart. How much of our study in the very composition of our sermons, flows from a selfish principle, and rolls on in the same corrupt channel! Even while Christ is the text, self may be the spirit and substance of our sermon, as if we were lifting up the cross of Christ, to hang our own glory upon it. In the pulpit itself – in our Master’s immediate presence – what is it, that sometimes gives animation to our delivery, tone to our voice, and emphasis to our words? Are we never “preaching ourselves” in the very form and act of preaching “Christ Jesus the Lord?” If in the impulse of the moment, any forcible matter falls from us; how seldom is it unaccompanied with .self-complacency, expectation of present effect, or disappointment in its failure! How hard it is to preach without undue regard to the approbation of the Christian or intelligent part of our congregation! What a struggle often to repress the fear of being considered common-place, or the desire to be original and powerful! How difficult thus to sink our gifts in the grace of humility, and to suppress what might recommend us to men of taste and talent, in order to clothe the same sentiment in a less imposing, but more useful garb! How natural the desire rather to know whether the sermon has been approved, than whether it has been profitably applied! And when we feel that we have made but an indifferent figure, it is as if we had missed the prize of the day. Thus is the desire of usefulness selfishly connected with the honour of our own name; when we cannot bear that “our God should humble us among” our flock, and that they should think of us as vessels of inferior value – of “wood and earth” – rather than “of gold and of silver.”
Baxter’s serious remarks are equally applicable to our own day, as to his – ‘Consider, I beseech you, brethren, what baits there are in the work of the ministry to entice a man to be selfish, that is, to be carnal and impious, even in the highest works of piety. The fame of a godly man is as great a snare as the fame of a learned man. And woe to him that takes up with the fame of godliness instead of godliness! “Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.” When the times were all for learning and empty formalities, then the temptation of the proud did lie that way. But now, through the unspeakable mercy of God, the most lively practical preaching is in credit, and godliness itself is in credit: and now the temptation to proud men is here, even to pretend to be zealous preachers and godly men. O what a fine thing doth it seem, to have the people crowd to hear us, and to be affected with what we say, and that we can command their judgments and affections! To have the people call you “the chariots and horsemen of Israel” – to have them depend upon you, and be ruled by you, though this may be no more than their duty, yet a little grace may serve to make you seem zealous men for them. Nay, pride may do it without any special grace.’
Perhaps indeed the character of the present age is peculiarly adverse to this singleness of spirit. The love of novelty, and the idolatry of intellect, are besetting snares, by which the subtle enemy “corrupts” the church “from the simplicity that is in Christ.” It is difficult for ministers to preserve the tone of their instructions wholly uninfluenced by these temptations. There is great danger, lest we provide more food for the understanding than for the heart; and lest the important opportunities of close application to the conscience be frittered away in prurient fancies, ingenious theories, and elaborate compositions; than which nothing is more hurtful to the spirituality of our ministration, in occupying our secret retirement with men-pleasing contrivances, rather than with diligent waiting upon God, for an enlarged spiritual unction upon our work. This danger of making our office a stepping-stone to selfish indulgence, is acknowledged by the most eminent ministers. The following exercises from the diary of a late excellent minister, strike a chord of sympathy with many of us – I have to observe in my mind a sinful anxiety to preach well, rather than a holy anxiety to preach usefully. I fear I rather seek my own honour than God’s. I confess this sin; I trust I repent of it from my heart: I hope for its forgiveness, and its removal from my breast.’ Again – ‘The evening spoiled with wretched pride and self-complacency – a mischievous weed, deep-rooted, which all my winter seasons have not yet killed. 0 may it at length be rooted out!’ It was therefore seasonable advice of Bishop Taylor to his clergy – ‘Let no man preach for the praise of men. But if you meet it, instantly watch and stand upon your guard, and pray against your own vanity; and by an express act of acknowledgment and adoration return the praise to God. Remember, that Herod was, for the omission of this, smitten by an angel; and do thou tremble, fearing lest the judgment of God be otherwise than the sentence of the people.’
The most pernicious and debasing evil of all is, a converting our sacred office into a medium for setting forth our own excellence -prostituting the glories of the cross for the indulgence of our own pride – drawing a veil over the glories of our adorable Master – and committing a robbery against Him, even in the professed business to exalt Him. This is to lose sight of the great end of the ministry -commending ourselves, instead of our Master, to the regard of our people; rather conciliating ourselves to their good-will, than our message to their consciences. This lays the foundation for a gradual departure from the truth, and proportionably deteriorates the power of our work. ‘Our business is to make men think, not of our eloquence, but of their own souls; to attend, not to our fine language, but to their own everlasting interest.’ Our duty is, ‘not to please but to feel’; (as one of the old writers expressed it) ‘not to stroke the ear, but to strike the heart.’ Mr. Richmond well said – ‘I have no wish to be a popular preacher in any sense but one, viz. a preacher to the hearts of the people.’ Indeed the Gospel was never meant as an occasion of display, but as a treasure to dispense for the benefit of the world. And as far as we are imbued with the spirit of our office, we shall esteem the enriching of one soul with the unsearchable riches of Christ a more durable recompense than an investiture with the dignity and honour of an earthly crown.
Without this singleness of spirit there is no warranted expectation of success. The matter indeed is from God; but the manner and the dress, the principle and the exhibition, may be but ‘incense thrown upon the altar of vanity.’ We may preach clearly in statement, and forcibly in matter; but habitual defect in “doing all” with a single eye “to the glory of God,” brings upon us the awful “woe to the idol-shepherd” (his own idol, and wishing to be the idol of his people), whose ministry is blasted, and his judgment blinded. However diligently we may be employed in His service, yet nothing is really done, done to any purpose, or with any acceptance, that is done for self- not for God. So that a painstaking minister, who has been engaged in the service of God for selfish ends, may at last sink into the grave with Grotius’s affecting amentation – ‘Alas! I have lost my life in laboriously doing nothing.’ Or should he be used as an instrument in the work of God, it will be only as the servant, who never tastes the provision which he dispenses to his Master’s guests; or as the physician, who heals others, but is unhealed himself. Godly simplicity is the alchemy that converts everything it touches into gold. The paramount desire that Christ “in all things may have the pre-eminence;” and the corresponding expression of the heart – “He must increase, but I must decrease” – will compensate for a deficiency in talent and judgment. This is the true character of the “friends of the bridegroom;” to woo for Him, not for ourselves; to seek His honour, not our own; and to adopt an earnest tone of preaching, not as gaining more regard to ourselves, but as bringing sinners to Him. Our privilege is to wait upon the gospel, and to reflect our Master’s glory through the transparent medium of Christian simplicity. This usefulness is quite distinct from popularity. But how poor a thing is the admiration of man, compared with this success in winning souls to Christ!
‘He that intends truly to preach the Gospel, and not himself; he that is more concerned to do good to others, than to raise his own fame, or to procure a following to himself; and that makes this the measure of all his meditations and sermons, that he may put things in the best light, and recommend them with the most advantage to his people – this man so made and so moulded, cannot miscarry in his work: – he will certainly succeed to some degree. The word spoken by him shall not return again. He shall have his crown, and his reward from his labours. And to say all that can be said, in one word with St. Paul; he “shall both save himself, and them that hear him.” ‘