THE PROSPERITY OF A GOSPEL CHURCH
Ebenezer Chapel, Leeds.
Pastor of the Baptist Church, Bradford.
Jan 14th 1789.
“O LORD, I beseech thee, send now prosperity”. Ps. 118, 25.
What I intend and wish to keep in view, in the whole of my address to you on the present occasion, is the prosperity and. happiness of a church of Jesus Christ properly so called.
Should any of my hearers be disposed to ask what I mean by a church of Jesus Christ, I reply: By a church of Christ I do not mean any particular place appropriated to religious worship. Some such places, in vulgar language, are called churches, with what propriety I leave others to determine. Nor do I intend a whole nation of men, as the collective body of the Jews under the former dispensation is called the church in the wilderness. Nor do I here intend the whole of God’s elect, though these are often called His church. In this general sense of the term. God’s chosen in every period of time, and multitudes yet unborn, are included. But by a church of Christ, I would be understood to mean, when I speak of its prosperity, a select number of persons, called of God by grace, separated from the rest of mankind by sovereign power, professing repentance towards God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, maintaining the truths of the everlasting gospel, and walking under the influence thereof, conformable to the divine law; uniting together in Christian fellowship, and usually assembling in one place for mutual comfort and edification. This is a plain, but, I hope, just definition of a gospel church, according to the New Testament. Such churches there were at Jerusalem, at Corinth, in Galatia, and elsewhere. Such churches, I trust, there are now; and in favour of them we may and ought to pray, as in my text. O Lord, I beseech thee, send now prosperity. In treating of these words, perhaps the following
method may be adopted with some propriety.
I. To show you, that whatever degree of prosperity the church enjoys, it is the Lord that sends it.
II. What is requisite to the prosperity of a Christian church, and
wherein that prosperity consists.
III. What ought to be the conduct and practice of the individuals of such a society, in order to the enjoyment of this blessing. And,
IV. To close the whole with a few remarks by way of use.
We begin then by attempting to show you, that whatever degree of prosperity the church of Christ is favoured with, it is the Lord that
sends it. As this is a truth indisputable in itself, and evidently deducible from the words of our text, so for Christians to have their minds deeply impressed with a sense of it, is of great importance. Let it then be remembered,
1. That the Lord is the author, cause and fountain of all blessedness. He, and He only, is infinitely good. In goodness He is abundant, and from Him to fallen man, cometh every good, and every perfect gift. As the origin of all felicity, He is called, with striking propriety, the Father of mercy, and the God of all comfort. The grace which every believer receives, and which is shed on the church in general, is all derived from Him who has revealed Himself to us as the God of all grace. A Christian society may with humility, confidence and joy, look up to Him whose benignity is better than life, and who taketh pleasure in the prosperity of His servants, and
say, in the grateful language of the psalmist, all our springs are in Thee.
2. The Lord has promised prosperity to His church. The promises of God are suited to the various circumstances of His people in their passage through the wilderness of this world. We learn from these promises not only what the Lord is to those that love Him, but also what He is able and willing at all times to do for them. To His church He has promised, that in all places where He has recorded His name, He wilt come to them, and will bless them; and that though the number of His children met together be but two or three He will be in the midst of them. This encouragement we have from the lips of our gracious Redeemer, subjoined to the commission He gave to His disciples. Lo! I am with you alway, even to the end of the world. So dear is Zion to her King and Governor, that it is said, he loves her gates more than all the dwellings of men besides; that Zion is His rest for ever and ever, where He will dwell, and not only make provision for her inhabitants, but abundantly bless it to them, and satisfy the poor with bread. As He said to Moses, so He in effect, says to every regular and orderly Christian society, / will make all my goodness pass before thee. To such a society, the directing and consolatory message from heaven is. Live in peace, and the God of love and peace shall be with you.
3. We learn from the sacred scriptures, that the church’s dependence is, and ought to be, on the Lord for prosperity and every needed blessing. Those who are the subjects of Bible Christianity, are taught to know their own weakness, emptiness and insufficiency; that they are without strength, that in their flesh dwells no good thing, that they are insufficient in themselves to relieve themselves, or to do anything spiritually good and acceptable in the sight of God. As such, they are fully convinced not only that they live, move, and have their being in Him, as creatures, but as Christians also. Hence their resolution is, to look up to the hills from whence their help cometh, as well knowing, that their help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. They see, they feel in the course of their daily experience, that without Christ, they have nothing, nor can do anything. When they speak of doing or suffering anything according to the will of God, they are careful to ascribe all,
not to themselves but to His grace which is with them, and which worketh in them to will and to do of His good pleasure; saying with the blessed apostle Paul, I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. In humble confidence therefore, they trust in the name of the Lord for mercy and grace to help in times of need; they stay themselves on the God of truth and faithfulness, they lean on the beloved as they come up from the wilderness towards their Father’s house above.
4. The earnest cries and requests of the Lord’s people at the throne of grace indicate the truth of our proposition, that prosperity is from above. From the petitions of holy men recorded in the scriptures, we may easily learn their sentiments on the point in question. We find one wrestling with the angel of the covenant, and saying, I will not let thee go except thou bless me; another crying, Lord, lift up the light of Thy countenance upon us; others pleading with all the energy of faith and fervour. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Thy name; Turn us again, O Lord of hosts, cause Thy face to shine, and we shall be saved;…look down from heaven, behold and visit this vine, and the vineyard which Thy right hand has planted, the branch which Thou madest strong for Thyself;
so will not we go back from Thee; quicken us, and we will call upon Thy name; save now O Lord, I beseech Thee, O Lord, I beseech Thee, send now prosperity.
5. That prosperity is from God, is likewise evident from the mournful complaints which the church makes to Him, when He hides His face, suspends His gracious influence, and withdraws His comforting presence. It has often been said that the worth of mercies is best learned by the want and loss of them. When the Comforter that should relieve the soul is far from her, the complaint is, For these things I weep, mine eye, mine eye runneth down with water; O Lord, behold my affliction; like a crane or a swallow so did I chatter; I did mourn as a dove; mine eyes fail with looking upward:
O Lord, I am oppressed, undertake for me. The church in the Song of Solomon is represented as in this disconsolate condition. I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had withdrawn Himself, and was gone; I sought Him, but I could not find Him, I called Him, but He gave me no answer. The watchmen that go about the city found me; to whom I said, saw ye Him whom my soul loveth? . . . Thou hidest Thy face, says the royal psalmist, and I am troubled. Such is the distress of gracious souls, such are their complaints to God when denied the blessing requested in the text. They well know, it seems then, from whom it proceeds. On the other hand,
6. The praises and thanksgiving offered up to God by good men for any degree of prosperity with which they are favoured, serve further to illustrate the point in question. As they mourn and complain before God in seasons of darkness and adversity, so they pay their grateful acknowledgements to Him when He heals their breaches, binds up their wounds, and crowns them with the blessings of His goodness. When He comes down upon them in His
gracious influences as rain on the mown grass, when they are caused under the bedewings of His grace, to revive as the corn, to grow as the vine, and to cast forth their roots as the cedars in Lebanon; then, by the love and gratitude that inspires their hearts and the songs of praise which flow from their lips, they show the deep sense they have of their unworthiness of these favours, and that all their prosperity is of the Lord. Not unto us, not unto us O Lord, but to Thy name give glory, for Thy mercy, and for Thy truth’s sake. O Lord, I will praise Thee; though Thou wast angry with me, thine anger is turned away, and Thou comfortest me. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid; for the Lord Jehovah is my strength, and my song; He also is become my salvation. The Lord hath done great things for us whereof we are glad.
Wherein the prosperity of the church of Christ consists and what is requisite in order to it.
I would just beg leave to observe, that the prosperity of a church does not consist in the largeness of her number. It is true, a church may be numerous and yet very prosperous. The church of Jerusalem had a multitude of disciples in her communion and yet they were of one heart and of one soul. And the increase of a church, in many being added to the Lord, such as shall be saved, is an object greatly to be desired and longed for. Yet a church may be very small and still very happy. This may be concluded from our Lord’s own words, where He has promised to afford His gracious presence to two or three. The number of communicants in a church, therefore, is no certain rule whereby to judge either of their prosperity or the contrary.
2. Nor does a church’s prosperity consist in worldly riches. It is true, the members of a church may be very opulent, abounding in all the good things of this life, and yet be rich towards God and fruitful in experience and good works. But on the other hand, the individuals of a Christian community may be very poor in this world, and yet flourish, be fruitful and comfortable in a spiritual view. It is well known that great riches are incentives to pride, and those who possess them are frequently too sensible of their own importance. They are too apt to overvalue themselves on account of their wealth, and can hardly be prevailed upon to submit to rule. There are indeed many persons of worth and eminence, who are as much distinguished by their humility, condescension and benevolence, as they are by the rank in life in which divine providence has placed them. Their characters are amiable, and their generous exertions for the Redeemer’s interests entitle them to a high degree of regard. But these instances in our churches are not very numerous. There are among us, not many mighty. Jesus Christ was very poor in this world; and many of His followers, and those who constitute the societies of His saints, have, amongst others, this mark of conformity to Him. However, neither riches nor poverty are certain evidences of a church’s prosperity.
3. Nor yet, does it consist in outward pomp and splendour. These,
it is true, are captivating to vulgar minds. The church of Rome seems to be formed on a plan quite suited to the corrupt prejudices of such minds, and entirely opposite to the amiable simplicity of primitive times. To what lengths of outward show and parade they have proceeded, needs not to be told. Men are very apt to forget the maxim established and constantly adhered to by our Divine Leader;
My kingdom is not of this world. It needs not the gaudy trappings of superstitious pomp. The Redeemer of mankind assumed no worldly splendour; nor did His immediate disciples and followers assume any. Let us beware lest we be perverted from the simplicity that is in Christ. The church is in a militant state. Her glory and happiness consist not in outward adornings. Let it be her aim to be glorious within, and to have on the ornaments which are in the sight of God of great price. The grandeur of the house where divine worship is performed, the ornaments wherewith it may be decorated, and the external dress, either of ministers or hearers, are things which stand entirely unconnected with a church’s prosperity; nor are they at all conducive to it.
Having given these hints by way of caution to prevent mistakes I proceed to observe in the affirmative, that,
1. To the prosperity of a gospel church it is requisite, that the persons who compose it be separated from the world by converting grace. That they be not dead in sin, but alive to God through Jesus Christ. These are the persons to whom spiritual prosperity is promised.
The goodness of a house depends much on the quality of the materials of which it is built. The dignity, glory and happiness of a church depend no less on the quality of those who constitute it. They must be the subjects of divine grace called out of darkness into marvellous light; filled with the knowledge and renewed after the image of God; adorned with the fruits of the spirit; love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance; against which there is no law. They who are united together in gospel fellowship, must be of those whom God has formed for Himself, to show forth His praise. They must be lively stones, fit materials to be built up a spiritual house. They must be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. They must be new creatures, created unto good works. To a prosperous church it may in truth be said. Ye were sometimes darkness, but now ye are light in the Lord; ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God, ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building, growing up to a holy temple in the Lord. To none but such a church as this can belong that prosperity of which we speak.
2. To the prosperity of a church it is likewise requisite, that it be founded on the precious truth of God revealed in His word. The truth meets with a cordial reception only in the church and among the people of God who know it and are made free by it. They can do nothing against, but for the truth. They receive the truth in the love of
it. They are of the truth, and they walk in the truth. They are therefore said to be built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. The words of our Saviour, deserve particular attention here. “Whosoever cometh to me and heareth my sayings, and doeth them, I will show you to whom he is like. He is like a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock; and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon the house, and could not shake it; for it was founded on a rock. But he that heareth not, is like a man that, without a foundation, built an house upon the earth; against which the stream beat vehemently, and immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”
3. That it be properly organised, and furnished with suitable officers according to the new Testament. The ordinary officers in a gospel church, which are of divine appointment, are the pastor, and the deacons. It is true, these are not essential to the existence, or constitution of the church; since they are to be chosen to their office by the church, from among themselves; yet they are without dispute necessary to the comfort, the honour and well-being of a church. The work of the one is to preach the Word and administer the ordinances; to feed, watch over, and take care of the flock committed to his charge. The business of deacons is to take care of the poor, to receive and to distribute the church’s bounty, and, in a word, to have the management of the temporal affairs of the society. The prosperity of a church is closely connected with the reputable and faithful discharge of these several trusts. Which leads me more particularly to remark,
4. That the church’s prosperity depends as a means, on the piety, spirituality, diligence and fidelity of her minister. A carnal, licentious, time-serving minister, never was nor ever will be owned of God for the promotion of the interests of Christ. We cannot expect such a one to be successful, either in conversion of sinners or in edifying the souls of the faithful. But when the minister is a burning and shining light, when he is a good man full of faith, and of the gifts and graces of the Holy Ghost, we may hope for prosperity to attend the people among whom he labours. When the minister is clothed with righteousness and salvation, then is the time for the saints to shout aloud for joy, and, to rejoice in goodness. Those who bear the vessels of the Lord in the sanctuary, ought to be clean in doctrine, in government, and in conversation. They should be able to say, in respect to their fidelity in preaching the truth, with the apostle Paul, “I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you; but have showed you and have taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ. I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you, all the counsel of God.”
The popular mode so much in use at this day of allegorizing the sacred scriptures, or amusing the people with a loose, inaccurate harangue, without entering into the life and spirit of the subject chosen, I am verily persuaded is not calculated to promote Christian edification. Such a plan of preaching may gain the applause of the
ignorant, and please the gazing multitude, but cannot afford substantial nourishment to the hungry soul. A sound, savoury, idifying gospel ministry is of very great importance indeed. The gospel in its purity is the glory of the church. It is the joyful sound. What glad tidings, what a pleasing variety of the most important, interesting and entertaining subjects it contains! How delightful, low improving to sit under such a ministry, and at the same time, to be favoured with a spiritual relish for the bread of heaven! What a blessing to a church when the Lord gives her a pastor after His own heart, to feed her with knowledge and understanding! Your eyes shall see your teachers, and your ears shall hear a voice behind you, saying. This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, or to the left. The faithful watchman gives the warning, and the time of the night. The truths of the gospel constitute a feast of fat things For the hungry poor. God’s ancient love; the choice of men to everlasting salvation; complete redemption through the blood of Jesus; the covenant of peace, ordered in all things and sure;
efficacious grace in conversion; free justification by the righteousness of Christ; the fulness of the Mediator; and the final security of the saints in the hand of the Divine Redeemer; these are subjects on which judicious ministers will enlarge with energy, freedom and pleasure; deducing from them the most powerful incitements to love, humility, zeal, and holiness. At the same time, they will show the efficacy of these on their hearts and lives and be, in their measure, able to say to the people of their charge, Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly, and unblamably we behaved ourselves among you that believe. Happy is the church that is favoured with such a minister; it may be expected that a degree of prosperity will attend her.
5. This blessing stands connected with a diligent attention to the order and discipline of the house of God. Prosperity cannot rationally be expected in a religious community where the divine laws are trifled with or neglected. If no regard be had to discipline, let no one think it strange should error, superstition, confusion and folly prevail, like the briars and thorns that overspread the field of the slothful. A little leaven, in the process of time, will leaven the whole lump. A church without discipline is like a vineyard without walls, or a field without a fence. In the house of the Lord, there are set thrones of judgment, and if these are not assumed in proper time, and with due care and faithfulness, the most disagreeable consequences will soon appear. Due order is the beauty of any society, whether civil or religious. To attend to this in a Christian community is the direct way to promote peace, holiness and happiness. This is to walk worthy the vocation wherewith we are called, to ensure the blessing of the Lord, and to possess tranquility among ourselves.
6. This prosperity consists in unity of spirit and harmony of judgment. Oneness of mind is desirable in every community, but most of all in the societies of which we speak. If two cannot comfortably walk together except they be agreed, much less can twenty, or any larger number. The bond of peace cannot be maintained where the unity of the Spirit is wanting. Hence the
apostle Paul strenuously exhorts the Corinthians, that they would all speak the same thing, that there might be no divisions among them; but that they might be perfectly joined together, in the same mind and in the same judgment.
7. It consists in the stedfastness of each member in that relation which they bear to one another in the Lord. Do you ask in what instances this should appear? I answer. They should be stedfast in their profession of the truth; in filling up their places in the house of God upon all occasions, stated or otherwise; in avoiding everything which has a tendency to disturb the peace of the brotherhood; as whispering, backbiting, defaming and evil speaking. Some men have a violent inclination to reproach everyone’s character but their own, and such mighty talents for the purpose, as render them very unfit for Christian, I had almost said, civil society. They sow discord among brethren. Such persons in fact are a pest to any community, a nuisance to any church; and at the same time, they are a perpetual torment to themselves. The members of churches should be steady in their endeavours to promote peace; steady in their love to one another. Charity is the bond of perfectness: and brotherly love should continue. They should be steady in supporting the Redeemer’s interest in all things, and at all times…. When this is the case in a Christian community, we may pronounce it prosperous.
8. Above all the rest, the prosperity of a church consists in the enjoyment of the presence and the blessing of the Lord. If this is wanting, the things before named will not, cannot constitute a church happy. But if the Lord be with His people, and grant them the tokens of His approbation and favour whether they be many or few in number, whether they be rich or poor in this world, whether their abilities be feeble or large; they must be happy, they will prosper. If His face shine upon them, if He make provision for them and sanctify it to them, if He take up His residence among them, if He watch over and feed His flock like a shepherd; if He maintain their cause, support them under their trials, and fight their battles; if He sit at His table, bless His ordinances, arm His word with power, and crown it with success, it must be well with them; it cannot be otherwise. They will, in such a case, flourish in the courts of our God, and bring forth fruit even in old age; they will be like a well watered garden, or like a field which the Lord hath blessed.
We now come, to consider what ought to be the conduct and practice of the individuals of a church of Christ, in order to the enjoyment of the blessing requested in the text.
1. It is necessary that they continue in the truth received. Not only is it needful to the well-being of a religious society that the minister be sound and orthodox, but also, that the individuals of such a society put a just value on the precious doctrines of divine grace revealed in the sacred scriptures. It is their incumbent duty, on proper occasions, to strive together for the faith once delivered to the saints, and to contend earnestly for it. The truth is a precious treasure:
buy it you may, at any rate; but you are not to dispose of it under any
consideration. To trifle with the gospel, and make light of it, must be displeasing to its Divine Author. He loves to see His people valiant for the truth and it grieves His Holy Spirit to see them otherwise. If, says He to them, ye continue in My word, then ye are My disciples indeed. And one of His most faithful servants gives this charge in His name; As ye have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in Him, rooted and built up in Him, and established in the faith as ye have been taught. Without this, we can neither bring glory to God nor enjoy prosperity.
2. Order and regularity should be regarded by every member in the management of church affairs. This is not to be the concern of the minister only. The whole community should unite in a steady and vigilant endeavour to do all things decently and in order. And though I have had occasion to mention this under a former head, yet the great importance, and too general neglect of it, I hope will apologise for my introducing it again. The church at Corinth was highly blamed by the apostle Paul for the inattention to order in several particulars. The King of Zion is jealous for His honour, and will not see His authority slighted. His laws neglected, and the decorum of His house disregarded, without giving some token of His disapprobation. He is not the author of confusion, nor will He give countenance to it; but the contrary. Prosperity cannot be had without order. It is vain to expect it, and inconsistent to pray for it.
3. Humility and lowliness of mind are necessary to prosperity. They are greatly mistaken who call the proud happy. Pride is the root of much evil in society. It is one of the abominations which God hates. He resists the proud, and beholds them afar off; but He gives grace to the humble; He dwells with them; affords them the special tokens of His favour, and beautifies them with salvation. If we wish to prosper, let us learn of our Divine Master, to be meek and lowly in heart; so shall we find rest unto our souls; so shall we be guarded against the evils of strife and contention, the natural off-shoot of pride, and the bane of prosperity. The apostle’s advice deserves our most serious attention; Let nothing be done through strife or vain glory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.
This will lead us to mutual submission and condescension. When men are wise in their own conceits; when a haughty over-bearing spirit prevails, the comfort of the society will be frequently disturbed. There are in almost every church some who like Diotrephes, love to have the pre-eminence. With men of this disposition, their word must be law, and their humour the rule of all the church’s proceedings. We are therefore exhorted not to be wise in our own conceits, but to submit one to another in the fear of God. . . . Seest thou a man, says Solomon, wise in his own conceit, there is more hope of a fool than of him.
4. If we wish for the prosperity of the religious societies to which we belong, we must study to be quiet, and labour to promote peace. The connection between peace and prosperity is so close, that the latter cannot be enjoyed without the former. The sons of strife, the angry, the litigious and contentious, are the greatest enemies to the
church’s happiness. Ever restless and uneasy in themselves, they are most of all in their element when sowing discord, raising disputes, making mischief and promoting contention. And though this is frequently done under a pretence of zeal for truth, and regard for holiness, yet the baseness of it may easily be discerned. The sacred scriptures teach us to tear off the mask, and to trace this conduct to its vile original. For whereas there are among you, envying and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men under the government of unsanctified principles. The wisdom with which such men pretend to be inspired, is not from above, says the apostle James, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and very evil work; the very reverse of prosperity. The God whom we serve, is not the Author of such confusion, but of peace. We profess to be the disciples and subjects of the Prince of Peace; and to be under the guidance of the Spirit of peace and love; let us therefore follow after the things that make for peace, and things whereby one may edify another. Let us, commanded of God, mark them which cause divisions and offences, contrary to the doctrine which we have learned, and avoid them. Let us study to be quiet, and to be at peace among ourselves, if we wish to have the smiles, the blessing and presence of the God of love and peace.
The Spirit, like a peaceful dove,
Flies from the realms of noise and strife;
Why should we vex and grieve His love,
Who seals our souls to heavenly life?
To suppose that there should be, in any church, no difference of opinion in lesser matters, is to suppose either that all the individuals of which it consists, are equally wise and equally divested of pre-conceived prejudices; which cannot at all be expected; or it is to suppose, that the understanding of one part is submitted to that of another. Were this latter to be the case, we could not call it uniformity of sentiment, but only of profession. This would at once be contrary to that sincerity which truth requires, and an infringement on that liberty of private judgment which is every man’s unalienable right. But charity, humility and moderation should induce those to live in peace, who have different views in circumstantial matters. And if the importance of every duty is to be estimated by the frequency with which it is inculcated in the scriptures, there is scarcely one that we ought more attentively to regard.
5. If we desire to have prosperity in the community to which we belong, let us in imitation of the psalmist in our text earnestly pray for it. O Lord, 1 beseech Thee, send now prosperity. It is God, we have seen, that gives it; and He bestows it in answer to the fervent requests of His people. All human efforts to obtain it without His benediction, will certainly be unsuccessful. But on the other hand, it has seldom, perhaps never been known, that a church has been unprosperous, while a spirit of prayer has been experienced. The Lord loves to dwell where such sacrifices as prayer and praise are
constantly offered up on His altar. Spiritual prayer and thanksgiving, from the pious hearts and hallowed lips of His dear people, are offerings of a sweet smell in His nostrils. Do we not hear Him thus address His church? O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let Me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely. Great prayer, and great prosperity frequently accompany each other, as well in societies as in individuals. The weakest members of a Christian community, who are incapacitated for doing anything towards the welfare of the body any other way, may do much in the way of intercession with the Father of mercies; for the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. From many passages of scripture it might be proved that God will not grant His gracious presence to a prayerless and ungrateful people; and with equal clearness it might be demonstrated, that,
“It shan’t be said,