IMPORTANCE OF SERIOUSNESS TO THE CHRISTIAN MINISTER
Daniel Dana, D.D.
A minister, if he is not one of the most inconsistent and wretched of human beings, is a Christian. In other words, he is a professed follower, and humble representative, of the Son of God. And how shall this sublime character be maintained and exhibited? Not surely by a levity of spirit, nor by a trifling demeanour. Nothing could be more palpably the reverse of his divine Exemplar. The Saviour’s mind was invariably occupied with objects of infinite interest and moment; objects which, no doubt, diffused their own unearthly character over His countenance, his deportment, and every action of His life. Some portion of these characteristics will then be visible in all His real followers. A gay, solatile, trifling Christian is scarcely less a solecism, than a profane or prayerless Christian.
Every Christian was once a child of wrath; a borderer on the world of despair. And must not every recurrence of this thought bring with it a variety of humbling, heart-felt sensations? True, he is delivered from his condition; and well may this deliverance inspire a joy which no words can express. But this joy is a mingled and a chastened sensation. It is as far removed from gaiety, as from despondence itself. Especially when the Christian recollects who was his Deliverer, and through what seas of blood and suffering his redemption was reached; his gratitude, and even his grief, is everything but overwhelming. Nor should these ender thoughts be mere casual visitors. Is not the day, is not even the hour, from which they are wholly banished, a guilty day or hour?
A Christian is a servant of the living God. And he is more – a friend, a favourite, a son. He has daily and familiar access to the presence chamber of the King of kings. By the advocates of royalty it has been contended, that in a court the style of manners is altogether peculiar and superior; and that even in the aspect and mien of its frequenters, there is a dignity and grace which distinguish them from all others. This is a question which we need not discuss. But of this we are sure, that the requenters of a heavenly court cannot fail to acquire something of its sublime spirit and air. It cannot but impart to their sentiments and demeanour an exalting, hallowing influence – an influence placing them aloof from the vanities of the world, and destroying the relish for its follies and trifles.
In a word, the Christian is on earth a pilgrim and a stranger. His heart, his hopes, and his favourite enjoyments, are in heaven. In some bright and privileged moments, he dares anticipate the perfect, unmingled blessedness of that world. There are seasons, too, in which a sense of unworthiness and guilt comes over him like a cloud, veiling
every prospect, and almost extinguishing every hope. Here, then, let the question be asked, In which of these two widely different states can he find time or heart for levity? Must not even a momentary uncertainty on the subject of his immortal destiny burden his mind with solicitude inexpressibly painful? And must not every hope he entertains of the joys of heaven fill him with emotions as solemn as delightful, and thus render the follies of the present scene insipid and disgusting?
It appears, then, plain to demonstration, that the spirit of levity and the spirit of religion are opposites; that their habitual predominance in the same subject is impossible; that the true Christian is a truly serious man; and that the comforts and distresses of his spiritual course are equally fitted to increase his seriousness of mind, and to put the opposite dispositions to flight.
But with what superior force do these considerations apply to the minister of the gospel! If a vain, trifling Christian is a contradiction, a vain, trifling minister is a most disgusting absurdity.
To the private Christian are intrusted the concerns of a single soul. And when he reflects that his little moment of life will give complexion to his whole eternity, and that he is continually a borderer on unending joys or miseries; the thought must press upon his inmost spirit. But to the minister is committed the care of hundreds of souls. Indeed, thousands, and tens of thousands of immortal beings, either near or remote, either existing or unborn, may receive their stamp for eternity under his influence! What overwhelming considerations are these! How adapted to crush a tender spirit! Yet the minister from whose mind they are banished has not learned the first lesson of his vocation; while he to whose mind they are familiar cannot fail to find their resistless influence, putting to flight the spirit of worldliness and levity, and filling the heart with the deepest emotions and solicitudes.
It is a constantly recurring duty of the Christian minister to converse with the sublimities of the gospel; to meditate its profound and unsearchable mysteries. These are the subjects which occupied from eternity the mind of the Infinite God. These are themes in which angelic minds are lost. Here are embraced at once, the glories of the Deity and the everlasting destinies of millions on millions of created beings. And what is the spirit in which themes like these are to be approached? And what is the influence which their contemplation is fitted to exert on the mind? Reason and common sense give the answer. None but a mind deeply serious is prepared to enter this hallowed enclosure. Nor can any mind, not awfully insensible, retire from it without the profoundest awe and solemnity. The minister who converses much with the glories of the gospel, ascends to a superior region, and breathes in a purer atmosphere. To him the very gravest schemes and employments of earth are like the playthings of children. What then must be its amusements and frivolities?
But in the sacred volume other themes present themselves. It portrays the guilt, the ruin, and the wretchedness of man. It reveals the .errors of the Holy One, and the awful doom of the wicked. It uncovers the pit of despair. It imparts vivid views of the ever-enduring, ever-increasing woes of the rejectors of gospel mercy. And these are themes from which, however painful, the minister may not turn away. He must even be familiar with them; or how can he, with due solemnity and feeling, dispense the warnings of the gospel? Nor is it possible that, with a mind and heart occupied with these things, he should not be habitually and deeply serious.
It is one of the first duties of the minister to bring his people daily to the throne of God; to pour their sins, their sorrows, their wants, their dangers, into the ear of the Eternal. It is his duty to plead, to wrestle, to agonize, for their salvation. Will not such duties, thus performed, leave an influence behind them? Must not the minister who daily bears his people to the throne of grace, habitually bear them on his heart? Will not the great concern of their salvation, while it fills his mind with tender solicitudes and fears, effectually exclude every species of levity?
It is a fine remark ofThomsom,
‘Ah, little think the gay, licentious crowd,
How many feel this very moment death,
And all the sad variety of pain.’
The implication is that habitual gaiety is a species of moral delinquency, a wrong to suffering humanity. It is not fit that while one portion of the human family is plunged in the depths of distress, the other portion should be sporting in thoughtless merriment. And the sentiment is supported by more than poetical truth. Who, then, is more deeply dipped in this offence than the light-minded minister? For who is more frequently summoned to scenes of distress; and who can be more strongly bound to sympathise with the sufferers? And shall this sympathy be a mere thing of the moment? Shall he hasten from the sick bed, or from the dying bed, to participate, perhaps to increase, the merriment of a convivial circle?
But the miseries of the present scene are short-lived and evanescent. The true minister looks beyond. He is surrounded by immortal beings, who forget their immortality; with dying creatures, who live only for this world; with sinners who, unconscious of their depravity and guilt, neglect their souls and their Saviour . . . The true minister lives less for the present than the future. He has eternity in his eye. The celebrated
remark of an ancient painter, “I paint for eternity,” has more of the shadow than the substance. But on the lips of a Christian minister, a similar sentiment has all the beauty and grace of simple truth. He lives and acts, he preaches and prays, for eternity. And millions of ages hence, his life and actions, his sermons and his prayers, may be
remembered by millions of beings beside himself, with unutterable joy
or grief. This is enough. The minister who forgets this may be a trifler, and will be a trifler. The minister to whom this single vast idea is habitually present, and present as a reality, may trifle if he can. But it is impossible. He will be serious, engaged, devoted, absorbed – absorbed in the great object of meeting with joy his final Judge, and meeting with joy the favoured happy beings whom his fidelity has instrumentally saved.
Such are some of the considerations which show that the Christian minister, if worthy of the name, will be a man distinguished for seriousness. Let us now spend a few thoughts on the happy influence and effect of this spirit, both on himself and on others.
It will exert a most salutary influence on his studies. One of the first and most important duties of a gospel minister, is the investigation of truth. If he fails here he fails everywhere. And truth, gospel truth, is of a very peculiar character. It is not the result of cold and heartless speculation. It is not discovered by the mere power of intellect. It mocks the pride of the philosopher. But to the meek, humble, subdued mind of the sincere Christian, it spontaneously unveils its charms, and imparts its treasures. In a word, to the discovery of gospel truth, the chief requisite, the grand desideratum, is seriousness. It is itself the surest, safest guide. And it has the promise of divine, infallible teaching. “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him; and he will show them his covenant.”
The importance of the same seriousness of spirit may be eminently seen as it regards prayer. Without it, neither will the necessity of this precious exercise be felt, nor its sweetness tasted, nor its advantages enjoyed. Where is the Christian, and where the Christian minister, who has not found that much in proportion to the spirituality of his frame, has been his nearness to God in prayer, and the satisfying sense of a real communion with the Father of his spirit? The minister who has feeble impressions of eternal things, and of the greatness of his charge, will find many temptations to estrange himself from the mercy seat. And while he is there, his supplications will be comparatively formal and heartless. While to the serious minister, the duty of prayer will be full of attraction, of delight and profit.
It scarcely needs be stated, that that style of preaching which is most strongly marked with seriousness, has a vast advantage over every other. Who expects an unimpressed preacher to make a deep impression on an audience? Who expects to find a seriousness in the pew, of which there is no example in the pulpit? It was said by Calamy of Baxter, that “he talked in the pulpit about another world, like one who had been there, and was come as a sort of express to make a report concerning it.” It was remarked by James the Sixth of a certain minister, that he always preached before him as if death stood at his elbow. These are but samples of the very style in which every minister should aim to
preach. If preaching of this stamp were more common, can it be doubted, whether correspondent effects would attend it? It may be propounded as a general fact, to which there are few exceptions, that the success of ministers in converting and saving souls, has been far less in proportion to their genius, or eloquence, than to their seriousness and piety.
Most men, it is certain, see their religion chiefly through the medium of its ministers, and form their judgment accordingly. True, they are apt to be blind to what is excellent. But their eyes are wide open to all that is inconsistent and defective. Let ministers, then, beware. Let them dread, as death, the thought of dishonouring religion, or of exhibiting it before their fellow men in a false aspect. We plead not for needless austerities, nor for affected singularities. We ask only that the ministers of Christ be true to their Master, and true to the religion they preach -a religion which bears inscribed on its front, “Be not conformed to this world” – a religion not more irreconcilably hostile to the world’s vices, than to its thoughtlessness and gaiety. What shall repress this thoughtlessness and gaiety, if ministers themselves, instead of stemming the torrent, are carried away with it?
This is an affair of immense consequence. There are thousands at the present day – and the number is rapidly increasing – who have settled it with themselves, that the religion of former times is a fictitious and needless thing. They view it as superstition, or gross hypocrisy; at best, as mere enthusiasm and delusion. And they are confirmed in these pernicious views by what they see, or think they see, in the professors of religion, and even its ministers. “These preachers,” they are ready to say, “are very solemn and starched in the pulpit; but out of it, they are very free and easy. Their discourses are sometimes very alarming; but it is evident they are not greatly disquieted themselves. Why should we be much disturbed with that which gives them so little trouble, and which they appear scarcely to believe?”
Is it not a matter of the deepest regret that such things should be said;
and still more, that they should be said with any shadow of reason? And is it not time for ministers to ponder the serious, mortifying question, how far they themselves may have given occasion and countenance to the wide spread and still extending infidelity of the day? It is an undeniable fact, that the lives of ministers preach even more loudly than their sermons, and that if their sermons find a contradiction in their lives, they lose all their force and efficiency. It was said of one of the ancient fathers, that he thundered in his preaching, and lightened in his life. Something like this should be the aim of every minister. And he may be assured that if the lightning be absent, the thunder will pass over the heads of his hearers, harmless and useless.
In every view, then, it appears important that ministers should be eminently serious, spiritual, and holy. It is the just expectation of
heaven and earth concerning them. An indiscreet, light-minded minister is the opprobium of religion, the grief of the pious, the scorn even of the ungodly, and the stumbling-block of thousands around him. While the devout, engaged minister is a “living epistle of Christ, known and read of all men.” His life at once explains, defends, enforces, and adorns the religion of the gospel. Ministers of this description have been, for a long series of years, the glory of our land. If, in this grand point, we shall continue to be favoured of Heaven, the brightest hopes may be indulged. Our churches will be purified and replenished. Religion will rise from the dust; will shed her countless blessings on the present age, and will be transmitted, a fair and unpolluted inheritance, to distant posterity. Should there be, in this regard, a degeneracy;
should the clergy of the present and the coming age lose that spirit of exalted and serious piety, which distinguished their predecessors, the prospect will be dark and mournful indeed. Infidelity and scepticism, now but too prevalent, will increase their ravages, and multiply their victims. Error, irreligion, and false religion, will gather strength, and advance to new triumphs. The church will languish and decay; and all the great interests of our country will suffer vital and irreparable injury.