CHAPTER 2 [contd]
THE OVERSIGHT OF THE FLOCK
SECTION 3 — MOTIVES TO THE OVERSIGHT OF THE FLOCK
Having considered the manner in which we are to take heed to the flock, I shall now proceed to lay before you some motives to this oversight; and here I shall confine myself to those contained in my text.
1. The first consideration which the text suggesteth to us, is drawn from our relation to the flock: We are overseers of it.
(1) The nature of our office requireth us to ‘take heed to the flock.’ What else are we overseers for "Bishop" is a title which intimates more of’ labor than of honor,’ says Polydore Virgil.’ To be a bishop, or pastor, is not to be set up as an idol for the people to bow to, or as idle ‘slow bellies,’ to live to our fleshly delight and ease; but it is to be the guide of sinners to heaven. It is a sad case that men should be of a calling of which they know not the nature, and undertake they know not what. Do these men consider what they have undertaken, that live in ease and pleasure, and have time to take their superfluous recreations and to spend an hour and more at once, in loitering, or in vain discourse, when so much work doth lie upon their hands? Brethren, do you consider what you have taken upon you? Why, you have undertaken the conduct, under Christ, of a band of his soldiers ‘against principalities and powers, and spiritual wickedness in high places.’ You must lead them on to the sharpest conflicts; you must acquaint them with the enemies’ stratagems and assaults; you must watch yourselves, and keep them watching. If you miscarry, they and you may perish. You have a subtle enemy, and therefore you must be wise. You have a vigilant enemy, and therefore you must be vigilant. You have a malicious and violent and unwearied enemy, and therefore you must be resolute, courageous and indefatigable. You are in a crowd of enemies, encompassed by them on every side, and if you heed one and not all, you will quickly fall. And oh, what a world of work have you to do! Had you but one ignorant old man or woman to teach, what a hard task would it be, even though they should be willing to learn! But if they be as unwilling as they are ignorant, how much more difficult will it prove! But to have such a multitude of ignorant persons, as most of us have, what work will it find us! What a pitiful life is it to have to reason with men that have almost lost the use of reason, and to argue with them that neither understand themselves nor you! O brethren, what a world of wickedness have we to contend against in one soul; and what a number of these worlds! And when you think you have done something, you leave the seed among the fowls of the air; wicked men are at their elbows to rise up and contradict all you have said. You speak but once to a sinner, for ten or twenty times that the emissaries of Satan speak to them.
Moreover, how easily do the business and cares of the world choke the seed which you have sown. And if the truth had no enemy but what is in themselves, how easily will a frozen carnal heart extinguish those sparks which you have been long in kindling! yea, for want of fuel, and further help, they will go out of themselves. And when you think your work doth happily succeed, and have seen men confessing their sins, and promising reformation, and living as new creatures and zealous converts, alas! they may, after all this, prove unsound and false at the heart, and such as were but superficially changed and took up new opinions and new company, without a new heart. O how many, after some considerable change, are deceived by the profits and honors of the world, and are again entangled by their former lusts! How many do but change a disgraceful way of flesh-pleasing, for a way that is less dishonorable, and maketh not so great a noise in their consciences! How many grow proud before they acquire a thorough knowledge of religion; and, confident in the strength of their unfurnished intellects, greedily snatch at every error that is presented to them under the name of truth; and, like chickens that straggle from the hen, are carried away by that infernal kite, while they proudly despise the guidance and advice of those that Christ hath set over them for their safety! O brethren, what a field of work is there before us! Not a person that you see but may find you work. In the saints themselves, how soon do the Christian graces languish if you neglect them; and how easily are they drawn into sinful ways, to the dishonor of the gospel, and to their own loss and sorrow! If this be the work of a minister, you may see what a life he hath to lead. Let us, then, be up and doing, with all our might; difficulties must quicken, not discourage us in so necessary a work. If we cannot do all, let us do what we can; for, if we neglect it, woe to us, and to the souls committed to our care! Should we pass over all these other duties, and, by a plausible sermon only, think to prove ourselves faithful ministers, and to put off God and man with such a shell and vizor, our reward will prove as superficial as our work.
(2) Consider that it is by your own voluntary undertaking and engagement that all this work is laid upon you. No man forced you to be overseers of the Church. And doth not common honesty bind you to be true to your trust?
(3) Consider that you have the honor to encourage you to the labor. And a great honor it is to be the ambassadors of God, and the instruments of men’s conversion, to ‘save their souls from death, and to cover a multitude of sins.’ The honor, indeed, is but the attendant of the work. To do, therefore, as the prelates of the Church in all ages have done, to strive for precedency, and fill the world with contentions about the dignity and superiority of their seats, doth show that we much forget the nature of that office which we have undertaken. I seldom see ministers strive so furiously, who shall go first to a poor man’s cottage to teach him and his family the way to heaven; or who shall first endeavor the conversion of a sinner, or first become the servant of all. Strange, that notwithstanding all the plain expressions of Christ, men will not understand the nature of their office! If they did, would they strive who would be the pastor of a whole county and more, when there are so many thousand poor sinners in it that cry for help, and they are neither able nor willing to engage for their relief? Nay, when they can patiently live in the house with profane persons, and not follow them seriously and incessantly for their conversion? And that they would have the name and honor of the work of a county, who are unable to do all the work of a parish, when the honor is but the appendage of the work Is it names and honor, or the work and end, that they desire? Oh! if they would faithfully, humbly, and self-denyingly lay out themselves for Christ and his Church, and never think of titles and reputation, they should then have honor whether they would or not; but by gaping after it, they lose it: for, this is the case of virtue’s shadow, ‘What follows I fly; what flies, the same I follow.’
(4) Consider that you have many other excellent privileges of the ministerial office to encourage you to the work. If therefore you will not do the work, you have nothing to do with the privileges. It is something that you are maintained by other men’s labors. This is for your work, that you may not be taken off from it, but, as Paul requireth, may ‘give yourselves wholly to these things,’ and not be forced to neglect men’s souls, whilst you are providing for your own bodies. Either do the work, then, or take not the maintenance. But you have far greater privileges than this. Is it nothing to be brought up to learning, when others are brought up to the cart and plough? and to be furnished with so much delightful knowledge, when the world lieth in ignorance? Is it nothing to converse with learned men, and to talk of high and glorious things, when others must converse with almost none but the most vulgar and illiterate But especially, what an excellent privilege is it, to live in studying and preaching Christ! to be continually searching into his mysteries, or feeding on them! to be daily employed in the consideration of he blessed nature, works, and ways of God! Others are glad of the leisure of the Lord’s day, and now and then of an hour besides, when they can lay hold upon it. But we may keep a continual Sabbath. We may do almost nothing else, but study and talk of God and glory, and engage in acts of prayer and praise, and drink in his sacred, saving truths. Our employment is all high and spiritual. Whether we be alone, or in company, our business is for another world. O that our hearts were but more tuned to this work! What a blessed, joyful life should we then live! How sweet would our study be to us! How pleasant the pulpit! And what delight would our conference about spiritual and eternal things afford us! To live among such excellent helps as our libraries afford, to have so many silent wise companions whenever we please – all these, and many other similar privileges of the ministry, bespeak our unwearied diligence in the work.
(5) By your work you are related to Christ, as well as to the flock. You are the stewards of his mysteries, and rulers of his household; and he that entrusted you, will maintain you in his work. But then, ‘it is required of a steward that a man be found faithful.’ Be true to him, and never doubt but he will be true to you. Do you feed his flock, and he will sooner feed you as he did Elijah, than leave you to want. If you be in prison, he will open the doors; but then you must relieve imprisoned souls. He will give you "a tongue and wisdom that no enemy shall be able to resist," but then you must use it faithfully for him. If you will put forth your hand to relieve the distressed, he will wither the hand that is stretched out against you. The ministers of England, I am sure, may know this by large experience. Many a time hath God rescued them from the jaws of the devourer. Oh, the admirable preservations and deliverances that they have had from cruel Papists, from tyrannical persecutors, and from misguided, passionate men! Consider, brethren, why it is that God hath done all this. Is it for your persons, or for his Church? What are you to him more than other men, but for his work and people’s sakes? Are you angels? Is your flesh formed of better clay than your neighbors? Are you not of the same generation of sinners, that need his grace as much as they? Up then, and work as the redeemed of the Lord, as those that are purposely rescued from ruin for his service. If you believe that God hath rescued you for himself, live to him, as being unreservedly his who hath delivered you.
2. The second motive in the text is drawn from the efficient cause of this relation. It is the Holy Ghost that hath made us overseers of his Church, and, therefore, it behoveth us to take heed to it. The Holy Ghost makes men bishops or overseers of the Church in three several respects: By qualifying them for the office; by directing the ordainers to discern their qualifications, and know the fittest men; and by directing them, the people and themselves, for the affixing them to a particular charge. All these things were then done in an extraordinary way, by inspiration, or at least very often. The same are done now by the ordinary way of the Spirit’s assistance. But it is the same Spirit still; and men are made overseers of the Church (when they are rightly called) by the Holy Ghost, now as well as then. It is a strange conceit, therefore, of the Papists, that ordination by the hands of man is of more absolute necessity in the ministerial office, than the calling of the Holy Ghost. God hath determined in his Word, that there shall be such an office, and what the work and power of that office shall be, and what sort of men, as to their qualifications, shall receive it. None of these can be undone by man, or made unnecessary. God also giveth men the qualifications which he requireth; so that, all that the Church hath to do, whether pastors or people, ordainers or electors, is but to discern and determine which are the men that God hath thus qualified, and to accept of them that are so provided, and, upon consent, to install them solemnly in this office. What an obligation, then, is laid upon us, by our call to the work! If our commission be sent from heaven, it is not to be disobeyed. When the apostles were called by Christ from their secular employments, they immediately left friends, and house, and trade, and all, and followed him. When Paul was called by the voice of Christ, he ‘was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.’ Though our call is not so immediate or extraordinary, yet it is from the same Spirit. It is no safe course to imitate Jonah, in turning our back upon the commands of God. If we neglect our work, he hath a spur to quicken us; if we run away from it, he hath messengers enough to overtake us, and bring us back, and make us do it; and it is better to do it at first than at last.
3. The third motive in the text is drawn from the dignity of the object which is committed to our charge. It is the Church of God which we must oversee – that Church for which the world is chiefly upheld, which is sanctified by the Holy Ghost, which is the mystical body of Christ, that Church with which angels are present, and on which they attend as ministering spirits, whose little ones have their angels beholding the face of God in heaven. Oh what a charge is it that we have undertaken! And shall we be unfaithful to it? Have we the stewardship of God’s own family, and shall we neglect it? Have we the conduct of those saints that shall live for ever with God in glory, and shall we neglect them? God forbid! I beseech you, brethren, let this thought awaken the negligent. You that draw back from painful, displeasing, suffering duties, and put off men’s souls with ineffectual formalities, do you think this is honorable treatment of Christ’s spouse? Are the souls of men thought meet by God to see his face, and live for ever in heaven, and are they not worthy of your utmost cost and labor on earth? Do you think so basely of the Church of God, as if it deserved not the best of your care and help? Were you the keepers of sheep or swine, you would scarcely let them go, and say, They are not worth the looking after; especially if they were your own. And dare you say so of the souls of men, of the Church of God? Christ walketh among them: remember his presence, and see that you are diligent in your work. They are ‘a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people, to show forth the praises of him that hath called them.’ And yet will you neglect them? What a high honor is it to be but one of them, yea, but a door-keeper in the house of God’! But to be the priest of these priests, and the ruler of these kings – this is such an honor as multiplieth your obligations to diligence and fidelity in so noble an employment.
4. The last motive that is mentioned in my text, is drawn from the price that was paid for the Church which we oversee: ‘Which God,’ says the apostle, ‘hath purchased with his own blood.’ Oh what an argument is this to quicken the negligent, and to condemn those who will not be quickened to their duty by it! ‘Oh,’ saith one of the ancient doctors, ‘If Christ had but committed to my keeping one spoonful of his blood in a fragile glass, how curiously would I preserve it, and how tender would I be of that glass! If then he have committed to me the purchase of his blood, should I not as carefully look to my charge ‘ What! sirs, shall we despise the blood of Christ? Shall we think it was shed for them who are not worthy of our utmost care? You may see here, it is not a little fault that negligent pastors are guilty of. As much as in them lieth, the blood of Christ would be shed in vain. They would lose him those souls which he hath so dearly purchased. Oh, then, let us hear these arguments of Christ, whenever we feel ourselves grow dull and careless: ‘Did I die for these souls, and wilt not thou look after them? Were they worth my blood, and are they not worth thy labor? Did I come down from heaven to earth, "to seek and to save that which was lost;" and wilt thou not go to the next door, or street, or village, to seek them? How small is thy condescension and labor compared to mine! I debased myself to this, but it is thy honor to be so employed. Have I done and suffered so much for their salvation, and was I willing to make thee a fellow-worker with me, and wilt thou refuse to do that little which lieth upon thy hands? ’ Every time we look upon our congregations, let us believingly remember that they are the purchase of Christ’s blood, and therefore should be regarded by us with the deepest interest and the most tender affection. Oh, think what a confusion it will be to a negligent minister, at the last day, to have this blood of the Son of God pleaded against him; and for Christ to say, ‘It was the purchase of my blood of which thou didst make so light, and dost thou think to be saved by it thyself? ’ O brethren, seeing Christ will bring his blood to plead with us, let it plead us to our duty, lest it plead us to damnation.
I have now done with the motives which I find in the text itself. There are many more that might be gathered from the rest of this exhortation of the apostle, but we must not stay to take in all. If the Lord set home but these few upon our hearts, I doubt not we shall see reason to mend our pace; and the change will be such on our hearts and in our ministry, that ourselves and our congregations will have cause to bless God for it. I know myself to be unworthy to be your monitor; but a monitor you must have; and it is better for us to hear of our sin and duty from anybody than from nobody. Receive the admonition, and you will see no cause in the monitor’s unworthiness to repent of it. But if you reject it, the unworthiest messenger may bear that witness against you another day which will then confound you.