THE SINCERE MILK OF THE WORD
A sermon by Daniel Rowland
“As newborn babes, desire the sincere* milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby ”
1 Peter 2.2
This scripture contains an earnest and an affectionate address to the believing Jews in which the apostle exhorts them to grow in faith and in every divine and holy temper. And as the means by which this growth is promoted and perfected is the lively preaching the word of truth, he stirs them up to hunger and long for that word of God which is the food and nourishment of the soul, in the same manner as babes thirst and cry for that milk of their mothers which is ordained to nourish and keep them alive. The words allude to two sorts of birth: one birth is earthly and carnal and implies being born of the first Adam, through whom original sin, like the poison of an asp, has overspread and defiled our whole mass: the other birth is heavenly and spiritual and implies our being born of the second Adam, who is Jesus Christ; through whom grace and holiness are
ingrafted and grow in us. In this last birth God is a Father to beget us, and the church is a mother to bring us forth: the seed with which we are begotten again is the word of God; the nurses who foster and need us are the ministers of Jesus Christ; and the breasts at which we suck are those breasts of the gospel which yield sincere milk, as the next suggests. We shall, with God’s assistance, take notice of five remarkable points which flow naturally from the separate branches of this passage. And let us consider,
1. A Vital Qualification.
I begin with the qualification that must be implanted in all who would be improved and edified by God’s word, which is, that they must be “as newborn babes.” We know that babes are commendable for their simplicity and harmlessness. This should be our distinguishing character, whoever we are, if we would be instructed and benefited in the school of Christ or would derive light and comfort from the preaching of the word. “Suffer little children,” says our blessed Saviour, “to come unto me” (Mark 0.14). None are fit to be taught by Him till they are converted and become as a little child. “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him” (Psalm 25.14), which intimates that God does not admit that any unregenerate soul even knows that it is a secret. They therefore who would have the Lord Jesus for their teacher, to reveal in them His mind and will, must be divested of their sins and cleansed from all impurity. For wisdom will not rest in a profane soul, or make its abode in a heart that is tarnished with guilt. As satan will not dwell in a house where religion has any footing so the spirit of God will not long abide in any habitation that is not swept clean from all impiety and unrighteousness. God will not put new vine into old bottles (Matt. 9.17). If we desire not to have new hearts, let us not look for new blessings. It is Jeremiah’s counsel to “break up the fallow ground, and not to sow among thorns,” that is, among those worldly cares, which spring up, and choke the plants of salutary instructions (Jer. 4.3). And Solomon says, “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God” (Eccles. 5.1). By comparing the behaviour of the world in general with these and the like scriptures, a man of sense and consideration will see sufficient reason to be grieved in his inmost soul. Alas! alas! what shall we think of ourselves, when we consider what a bustle and noise about the world there are among some; what foolish wishing there is among others, and what jeering and scoffing are in the mouths of the generality? Surely the eye of faith may see all these going into churches with the devil in their hearts, and many of them coming out of it with the curse of God upon their heads. Most people change their clothes on the Sabbath-day, and would deem it hard to be
denied this necessary refreshment: but they do not mind bringing the same heart that they had all the week, to the service of the Sabbath. Their sons and their daughters, for the most part, spend more time at their looking glasses to deck their bodies to appear before men, than they employ in prayer to sanctify and prepare their souls to come before God. Alas! poor souls, what can you say to these things? Your inattention to them will not excuse you. Your levity and sneers at me for reproving you, aggravate, instead of lessening your guilt. I only discharge the commission which I have received from the Lord. And if any of His people do hear me let me beseech them, in Christ’s stead, to abhor the sinful maxims and the corrupt conversation of a wicked world. Long to be as little children, and not only as little children, but as new born babes, having new hearts, new members, a new life, and new desires ingrafted in you. Be converted, not from one sin only, but from all your iniquities so as to become altogether other men or new creatures. The old heart, the old hand, and the old eye will not serve your turn but they must all be moulded and formed anew (2 Cor. 5.17).
Henceforth, if you desire to be retentive hearers, you will not dare to have any communication with sin. You will neither entertain nor welcome it. But as the snake casts her skin, so you will put away from you your lusts and passions and come, as little children, to hear the word of God. The iron must be heated before it can be wrought:
so the soul must be warmed at the fire of divine contemplation before it can be meet to handle the word of life. You must not touch the unclean thing even with a finger’s end (2 Cor. 6.17). For one little thief harboured in the house will open the doors for many more: one unclean spirit, you know, took with him seven others and each of them was more wicked than himself (Matt. 12.45). Behold, in short this is the temper that ought to be in you, when you go to hear the word of God: you should be simple, divested of prejudices, and wholly separated from sin. Such of you as are thus renewed in the spirit of your minds answer the description given in the text, and are like newborn babes.
2. The Desire of Babes.
Such newborn babes have a desire. Yet we are not to be like wavering, unsteady children, “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4.14), staggering from faith to faith and from religion to religion as a drunken man reels from side to side. Nor are we to be children in knowledge and understanding. Â•’Brethren,” says Paul, “be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children but in understanding be men” (1 Cor. 14.20).It is in neither of these respects that we are to be children.
But we are, as newborn babes, to desire the sincere milk of the word. “Blessed are they, which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matt. 5.6). God satisfies the hungry with good things, and the rich He sends empty away. Indeed, when our hearts are inflamed with an ardent longing after the word and we have an eager appetite to hear it, that is the time in which the word operates most powerfully on us. Our hearts are then like melted wax, ready to receive any impression. The Shunamite’s son whom Elisha raised to life, after his flesh waxed warm, sneezed, opened his eyes, and revived. So when we are fervent in spirit and feel a vehement desire and thirst after the word, we may certainly conclude that we are born again, that there is life and breath in us, and that we are not utterly dead or devoid of every spark of grace. On the contrary they who have no keen stomachs which want to be fed and satiated with the milk of the word, are but so many dead carcases or skins stuffed with rotten bones; and it would be the same thing to desire the naturally dead to quit their graves, as to desire such to leave their sins.
Well may our land be compared to Golgotha, a place full of dead men’s skulls. It is melancholy to think that there are in it many thousands of miserable souls dead in sins, and dead in affections:
who have no spiritual taste for God’s word, or the least hankering after it. If they have a mealy-mouthed priest to read a little to them now and then, they count themselves very fortunate: as if Elisha’s staff was sufficient to raise the dead child to life without Elisha himself. They imagine that the word is able to give life of itself, and hence they seek not the Spirit of the Lord. If they had even Judas for their teacher they would be satisfied with him and would not go a step farther to hear Paul. Woe is me! that I am obliged to declare that the ministers who reprove them the least for their sins, and detain them for the shortest while in the churches, are held in the highest estimation by them. Their sentiments are very different from the sentiments of those worthies of old, who “delighted in the law of the Lord, and in his law meditated day and night” (Psalm 1.2), who “departed not from the temple, but served God with fasting and prayers, night and day” (Luke 2.37). They plainly shew that they do not desire the milk of the word as newborn babes.
But why are we exhorted, as newborn babes to desire the sincere milk of the word? I answer, because as newborn babes cry for their mother’s milk, as soon as they are born into the world; so should the Christian hunger and thirst for the milk of the word, as soon as he finds himself regenerated by the grace of God. If the nurse were to neglect supplying the child with milk it would not be able to live for three days. Much less can our faith subsist without being fed and nourished by the bread of life. Our Lord commanded that
something should be given to Jairus’s daughter to eat, as soon as he raised her from the dead (Mark 5.43); as if it was in vain for us to be revived by God’s finger, if we be not fed with the word of His grace. It is a great fault among us that we do not, when God quickens us by His Spirit, and we experience His grace implanted and flourishing in us – that we do not, I say, then apply for juice and moisture to water it, and prevent its being scorched up like the seed which fell on the rocky ground, or the grass that grows on the house top. We deem it a great miracle that Elijah lived forty days without food: but it is a matter of much greater astonishment, if we reflected upon it, that hundreds of souls should exist for forty years and longer perhaps, without a morsel of soul-nutriment.
This is a sore famine which is very common among us. But shameful it is, that any should thus famish in a land where plenty of provisions is freely offered without money, and without price (Isaiah 55.1). Many think that it is too soon to begin when they ought to be finishing their religious course. As our Lord was sent for to heal the ruler’s daughter when she was at the point of death: so many will not desire the prayers or company of God’s ministers till they are arrested by death. Then they wish to die the death of the righteous, though they have lived the lives of devils. Then they will seek for repentance, perhaps with tears, though before they slighted the gift of it. They will not set about building the ark till they see the deluge, or seriously be concerned till the devils are about their beds waiting to receive their souls. Thus they delay the time from day to day and are like a wicked and lazy lawyer who puts off his client from term to term till the suit is lost. Lot tarried in Sodom till the angel was obliged to use force, and to thrust him out, as it were against his will. And in truth if God doth not pluck us, as brands out of the burning fire, by His free grace, and remove by His Spirit the vail of darkness and ignorance from our minds, none can be saved.
Wherefore, my dear brethren, if Paul has planted you in the true faith; beg to be watered by Apollos: if you have been made partakers of one grace, attend the means of grace, that you may grow thereby. For the best gifts will soon wither and decay, if they be not moistened with the dew of heaven. Children are so eager for food when they are hungry, that they will neither regard the necessities, nor consult the conveniency or leisure of their nurses, but deaf to all excuses, they will have the breast when they want it:
in like manner, it is not enough for us to desire the word, but we must be loud, earnest, and importunate in our requests for it. Much to our purpose is that parable in Luke 11.5, where we are told that when one asked for bread in the night, the other answered that he was in bed. Some may be apt to think that such a reasonable answer would have justified his denial; but it was not satisfactory upon such
an occasion. So my beloved people, though we may have long cried without success for the bread of life, yet ought we not to be disheartened, but to continue instant in prayer, and rather redouble, than slacken our importunity, knocking at the door, like Peter, till it be opened.
We must ask and take no refusal, if we would receive the blessing. Jacob wrestled with the angel, and would not let him go till he blessed him (Gen. 32.26).
This doctrine is a reproof to many of us, who pretend to walk in the paths of the Lord, and yet are languid and very slow in our advances. We may have a little love for the truth but we will not boldly stand up in its defence. We are like a merchant who is fond of gain but cannot venture on the seas for fear of being drowned. There are some among us who will profess an attachment to God and his cause, so far as the goddess Diana will permit them, but no farther. Some would rather stay at home among their cattle than serve God in the church. Others would sooner let the devil rend and tear their souls at their own fireside, than suffer a shower of rain to touch their clothes in going to the house of God. And a third sort, of greater knowledge, as you would imagine, and whom, to outward appearance, even a gnat would choke, make no scruple to swallow a camel, will utter abundance of falsehoods to disguise their hypocrisy, and though their faces are bedewed with tears in a church, can hardly be distinguished from pagans in a market. In these the words of the apostle are exactly fulfilled, Â“they have a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof; from such turn awayÂ” (2 Tim. 3.5). Children, after they have been well fed, have recourse in a short time to the breast again, and must have a whet, as we may say, between meal and meal. So should our diet be the same as ElijahÂ’s – Â“bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the eveningÂ” (1 Kings 17.6).
Our souls should be fed early and late. Â“The word of Christ should dwell in us richly,Â” (Col. 3.16). It is not enough that it should lodge with us for a night, and, like a traveller, be gone in the morning: but it must abide daily, and continually in our hearts. Though the ground may be good, yet it must have the former and the latter rain, before it can be fruitful. Alas! alas! some fancy that me shower will complete the business, and that by hearing one sermon, or by once gabbling over hastily, Â‘Lord, have mercy upon us!Â’ they shall make sure of heaven. But if this were true, vain would have been our SaviourÂ’s exhortation, to Â“strive to enter in at the strait gateÂ” (Luke 13.24). Not so, not so, my dear souls! But we mist, as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, .immediately, without delay or loss of time; incessantly, without weariness; cheerfully, without murmuring; constantly, without
falling away; and perseveringly, unto the end.
3. Milk Desired.
We are to desire our food and sustenance in Christ Jesus which, in the text, is called “the milk of the word.” To this our Saviour invites us, as being far superior to our richest dainties. “Labour not for the meat which perisheth; but for that meat, which endureth unto everlasting life” (John 6.27). The word of God is an enduring food and an immortal food, which preserves those who feed upon it from famine and death (1 Pet. 1.23-25). But we desire many things in preference to the milk of the word. There is a desire of money, which is the root of all evil. There is a carnal desire, which wars against the soul. There is a desire of superiority, which inflates the proud. There is a desire of revenge, which springs from a rash and impetuous spirit. There is a desire of praise which is pharisaical and ostentatious: and there is a desire of the milk of the word, which a few only have, that is vehement and blessed.
Among all the blessings with which the land of Canaan abounded, the chief was this, “that it flowed with milk and honey”, and the prospect of this reconciled the Israelites to the wilderness in their journey to it. Well, the word of God abounds with far better milk and honey and we should spare no pains, or reckon no hardship too great, in order to obtain it. God hath honoured it with many renowned titles that He might recommend it in stronger terms to our regard. It is called a lamp to guide our feet, and a light unto our paths (Psalm 119.105). It is also called a leader to lead us, a medicine to heal us, a bridle to curb and check us, a sword to defend us, milk to nourish us, wine to cheer us, a treasure to enrich us, and a key to unlock, and open the gate of heaven for us. Thus is the word named in scripture, and all these names are given it that we might desire it above all things. Wherefore the word of God should not be held in small repute among us because we do not know what blessings it may bring down upon us. It is the word of salvation and it saves many a soul from perishing with hunger. As Elisha said unto Naaman concerning Jordan “wash in it and be clean”, so may we say to the hearer respecting the word, “feed on it, and live for ever.” It is styled the word of life because it enlivens the spirit. It is entitled the word of the covenant because it is the golden chain that binds God and man together. It is denominated a pearl of unspeakable worth because it brings a treasure to the soul acquainted with the Lord Jesus Christ. And hence, as David longed for the water of the well of Bethlehem, so should we long for the milk of the word.
Why is it called “milk”? Because it is the only food of the faithful;
and because it is strengthening and refreshing to the soul as milk is to babes. O then who can without regret observe how many Michals there are in the world who mock David for dancing before
the ark! Many, too many there are alas! among us, who deem us no better than mad men, because we press to hear the word. But as Jesus said, “Father, forgive them”, so may God forgive these, for they know not what they say. Did they feel that tranquility of conscience, that gladness of heart, that consolation of the Spirit, and that inexpressible joy in God, with which believers are often favoured under the preaching of the word, they would not count us fools: no, no, but they would rush in among us and neither pleasure nor gain, neither reproaches nor dangers would hinder them from being fellow hearers with us.
4. What Kind of Milk?
What is the nature and quality of that milk which we are to desire? It is described in the text by the epithet “sincere”. It is milk in its taste and operation: and as the natural body cannot be supplied with good blood without a wholesome diet, so neither will our hearts and affections, nor our words and works be good or savoury, unless the milk with which our souls are nurtured, be sincere. Wherefore as our Saviour admonishes us, to “take heed how we hear” (Matt. 4.2), so the apostle, in the same strain, warns us to “take heed what we hear,” or with what food we are fed. For there is a pure doctrine (Prov. 30.5), and there is a doctrine full of heaven (Matt. 16.6). There is the new wine of the gospel (Matt. 9.17), and there is the mixed wine in the great whore’s cup which is grossly adulterated (Rev. 17.2). There is a communication that ministers grace to the hearers (1 Tim. 4.6), and there is a communication that corrupts and defiles them (Eph. 4.9). There is God’s teaching (John 7.16), and there are the teachings of the devils (1 Tim. 4.1). There is a word that edifies (Eph. 4.12), and there is a word that eats as a canker (2 rim. 2.17). As the sons of the prophets cried out and said, “there is death in the pot” so may some lament that there is death in their food: and this is the reason, why we are so often enjoined in scripture to “beware of false prophets, who come to us in sheep’s clothing, but are inwardly no better than ravening wolves” (Matt. 7.15), and to take care that “no man spoil us through philosophy and vain deceit” (Col. 2.8), and that we “believe not every spirit, but that we try the spirits, whether they be of God” (1 John 4.1). Our Saviour, when He had tasted the vinegar, and found it mingled with gall, would not drink it: so should we reject every false doctrine that enters into our ears.
The generality, alas! feed upon the dragon’s milk and take pains to learn the language of Egypt instead of the language of Canaan. Hear they do, but to no purpose. At church in the morning, at the public house in the evening, gadding abroad for their pleasure, or engaged in vain, unmeaning conversation are they to be found. Oh! what an abuse of precious time is this! May the Lord look in mercy
upon it! may He give us to know that it is not His will that any ground should receive two sorts of seed or that one heart should admit two kinds of doctrine. Dagon cannot stand in the same house with the ark: much less can the truth, as it is in Jesus, have fellowship with iniquity and error. Wherefore as ministers ought to be careful, that they make no gain or merchandise of God’s word; so ought their flocks to see that they drink no milk but that which is sincere. Take heed then, my beloved people, how you conduct yourselves:
‘or as much as you know how eager Satan is to way-lay you and, under pretences of reformation, to introduce unscriptural worship into the temple of God. Now brethren, I forewarn you again, as I have often forewarned you already, that you go not to hear the word where it is mixed with heresy; and that you believe not those who would pervert the gospel of Christ (Gal. 1.8-9).
5 Growing by the Word.
The design of our hearing is that we may grow in grace, in faith, and righteousness. Believers are called “the trees of righteousness,” to intimate to us that they grow; lively stones which further the building of the spiritual edifice (1 Peter 2.5); faithful servants who trade with their Lord’s talents, that they may receive their own with usury (Matt. 25.16); living branches which must be dressed and pruned by the hand of the heavenly husbandman. And all these metaphors are calculated to represent to us their growth. We are not always to be children, but we must henceforth “increase in stature, till we come unto the fullness of Christ.” As the star pursued its course till it came, and stood over the place where the young child was, so should we walk forward in the path of duty, and never rest till we come to the full fruition of God. We must advance from grace to grace (1 Thess 3.12). What kind of men are we, who read and hear the word without deriving any saving benefit from it? We are like Pharaoh’s lean kine, which did eat the well favoured and fat .kine, and yet were no fatter themselves (Gen. 41.4). So are many of us lean fleshed and as lank in the knowledge of God, as if we had lever sucked the milk of the word. There are hardly any of us who are more zealous, more faithful, more active for the truth, more holy, or more fervent in religion, than we were some years ago. Scarcely have we one person less ungodly, than he was before he lad heard the last hundred sermons. Like the raven, we have no thoughts of returning to Noah in the ark.
Though we have often heard, and are still inclined to hear the word; yet we do not profit by our hearing. Still we are but babes in Christ and scarcely able to creep about. We are little in faith, little in love, little in patience, little in humility and zeal; yea so little in stature that, with Zaccheus, we cannot see Christ. This is an unerring testimony, that we have hearts of stone and not hearts of
flesh within us. The showers of the word make no impression upon them. And hence it is that we have everywhere among us as much covetousness, bribery, deceit, fraud, lasciviousness and envy, as we had before the light of the gospel dawned upon us. Several are as dishonest in their dealings, as negligent in the service of God, as proud in their dress, as hypocritical at the church, and as sinful at home, as they ever were. Oh! how many prayerless families have we in the midst of us though it has been often proved that the devil hovers about the tents of those who worship not God in their household and that they live, as it were, without God in the world. And what is the cause of this impious neglect, but that we attend church ordinances more for the sake of hearing than of being improved. Nay, while we are under the preaching of the word, some of us, as Eutychus, fall asleep (Acts 20.9), others forget all that they have heard as Nebuchadnezzar forgot his dream, and others do remember it but they make no use of it. But know and be assured, my friends, that it would have been better for you not to have heard than not to profit by it. For our Lord has declared, that if He had not come and spoken unto us, we should have had no sin, in comparison with what we now have; but that now, we have no cloak for our sin (John 15.22). Alas! alas! if the servant who wrapped up his talent in a napkin and hid it in the earth, was cast into outer darkness, of what punishment shall they be counted worthy who idly squander their talents! Each of us therefore should mind what we hear, lest we should receive the grace of God in vain. We should attend the ministry, not out of curiosity or for any bye-end but that we may grow and be better thereby.
Now, whoever thou art, O man, who hears this, search your conscience, and examine whether you are in any measure reformed, since the last sermon that you heard. See whether you had a sin on the last sabbath day which you have not on this sabbath: and if you find no alteration in yourself but that you are the same as ever you were, be convinced that you have not been benefited by the food which you received. Woe is me! woe is me! nothing breaks my heart more than to think how attentive to my words many of you are this day, who yet, before to-morrow’s sun has illuminated the earth, may suffer the greedy worm of covetousness, or the little foxes of some lusts, to spoil your vines and root up and devour the seed which has been sown today on the tablets of your hearts, even as Jonah’s “gourd withered, when the morning rose the next day.” As some of you however may be differently disposed, I shall conclude the whole with a few directions suited to your state, as being desirous of a blessing on the word of God, that you may grow thereby.
First, Be sure in the morning to look up unto the Lord, and to
direct a private, serious prayer unto Him for your preservation in the spiritual conflict in which you are going to engage.
Secondly, Separate yourselves from the company of the profane while you are on the road. If you do converse with any, remember to commune together in the same gracious strain as the two disciples, who were going to Emmaus; and you may then hope that the Lord Jesus will not disdain to make one of the company, and to go with you. It is grievous to see some men, while they approach God’s house, burdening their memories and disturbing their hearts with fruitless or silly talk. These, when they come under the word, can reap no advantage from it: for no vessel can contain more than what will fill it.
Thirdly, When you are assembled together before God, follow the example of Zaccheus who, when he had come into the way through which Jesus was to pass and could not see him, because the press was so great and he was so little of stature (Luke 19.2, 3, 4), was loath to return home disappointed: so because a sight of the crowd would not content him, he ran and climbed up into a sycamore tree. But alas! how few are actuated by such motives in our land; or will take so much pains in coming at a view of the Saviour! Most men think themselves very safe and good Christians if they are found within the walls of the church though they never meet Jesus there or have any thoughts of meeting Him; but probably fall asleep there or spend the greatest part of the time in staring and yawning. After this they return home as merry and joyful, as if they had gotten their errand and had seen the Lord Jesus Christ. But we may well say to those, who thus appear before God, and tread His courts, “Who hath required this at your hands? Bring no more such vain oblations; such incense is abomination unto the Lord. The new moons, the sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies he cannot away with; it is iniquity, even your solemn meeting,” when performed in such a manner as this (Isaiah 1.12,13).
Finally, after you have received the good seed from the mouth of ministers, abstain from the society of lukewarm formalists lest they quench the sacred flame which has been kindled in your breasts by their lifeless example, and have no fellowship with the children of the devil, lest they sow tares among the wheat by their corrupt communications. And when you return to your respective houses, call your families together, and implore God’s blessing on what you have heard. It is customary, you know, for people to enquire of their children and servants, when they come home from a fair or market, what news they have heard. Now do you turn this custom to a more sacred use and ask of them what they can recollect of the great business in which they have been employed, and whether they have received any benefit from it. Be a terror to such of them as have
been careless or drowsy, and tender to those who remember the word, and are impressed with it. This course, strictly adhered to, may, with the blessing of the Almighty, make you and your household wise unto salvation. And may God, of His infinite mercy, multiply your graces through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen.
*Sincere – pure and without mixture