CHAPTER III: Application
Section 2: The duty of personal catechizing and instructing the flock particularly recommended
Having disclosed and lamented our miscarriages and neglects, our duty for the future lies plain before us. God forbid that we should now go on in the sins which we have confessed, as carelessly as we did before. Leaving these things, therefore, I shall now proceed to exhort you to the faithful discharge of the great duty which you have undertaken, namely, personal catechizing and instructing every one in your parishes or congregations that will submit thereto.
First, I shall state to you some motives to persuade you to this duty.
Secondly, I shall answer some objections which may be made to this duty.
Lastly, I shall give you some directions for performing this duty.
PART I: Motives to this duty
Agreeably to this plan, I shall proceed to state to you some motives to persuade you to this duty. The first reasons by which I shall persuade you to this duty, are taken from the benefits of it: The second, from its difficulty: And the third, from its necessity, and the many obligations that are upon us for the performance of it.
ARTICLE I: Motives from the benefits of the work
When I look before me, and consider what, through the blessing of God, this work, if well managed, is like to effect, it makes my heart leap for joy. Truly, brethren, you have begun a most blessed work, and such as your own consciences may rejoice in, and your parishes rejoice in, and the nation rejoice in, and the child that is yet unborn rejoice in. Yea, thousands and millions, for aught we know, may have cause to bless God for it, when we shall have finished our course. And though it is our business this day to humble ourselves for the neglect of it so long, as we have very great cause to do, yet the hopes of a blessed success are so great in me, that they are ready to turn it into a day of rejoicing.
I bless the Lord that I have lived to see such a day as this, and to be present at so solemn an engagement of so many servants of Christ to such a work. I bless the Lord, that hath honoured you of this county to be the beginners and awakeners of the nation to this duty. It is not a controverted point, as to which the exasperated minds of men might pick quarrels with us, nor is it a new invention, as to which envy might charge you as innovators, or pride might scorn to follow, because you had led the way. No; it is a well-known duty. It is but the more diligent and effectual management of the ministerial work. It is not a new invention, but simply the restoration of the ancient ministerial work. And because it is so pregnant with advantages to the Church, I will enumerate some of the particular benefits which we may hope to result from it, that when you see the excellency of it, you may be the more set upon it, and the more loath, by any negligence or failing of yours, to frustrate or destroy it. For certainly he who hath the true intentions of a minister of Christ will rejoice in the appearance of any further hope of attaining the ends of his ministry; and nothing will be more welcome to him than that which will further the very business of his life. That this work is calculated to accomplish this, I shall now show you more particularly.
1. It will be a most hopeful mean of the conversion of souls; for it unites those great things which most further such an end.
(1) As to the matter of it; it is about the most necessary things, the principles or essentials of the Christian faith.
(2) As to the manner of it: it will be by private conference, when we may have an opportunity to set all home to the conscience and the heart.
The work of conversion consisteth of two parts: First, the informing of the judgment in the essential principles of religion; Second, The change of the will by the efficacy of the truth. Now in this work we have the most excellent advantages for both. For the informing of their understandings, it must needs be an excellent help to have the sum of Christianity fixed in their memory. And though bare words, not understood, will make no change, yet, when the words are plain English, he that hath the words is far more likely to understand the meaning and matter than another. For what have we by which to make known things which are themselves invisible, but words or other signs? Those, therefore, who deride all catechisms as unprofitable forms, may better deride themselves for talking and using the form of their own words to make known their minds to others. Why may not written words, which are constantly before their eyes, and in their memories, instruct them, as well as the transient words of a preacher? These ‘forms of sound words’ are, therefore, so far from being unprofitable, as some persons imagine, that they are of admirable use to all.
Besides, we shall have the opportunity, by personal conference, to try how far they understand the catechism, and to explain it to them as we go along; and to insist on those particulars which the persons we speak to have most need to hear. These two conjoined--a form of sound words, with a plain explication--may do more than either of them could do alone.
Moreover, we shall have the best opportunity to impress the truth upon their hearts, when we can speak to each individual’s particular necessity, and say to the sinner, ‘Thou art the man;’ and plainly mention his particular case; and set home the truth with familiar importunity. If any thing in the world is likely to do them good, it is this. They will understand a familiar speech, who understand not a sermon; and they will have far greater help for the application of it to themselves. Besides, you will hear their objections, and know where it is that Satan hath most advantage of them, and so may be able to show them their errors, and confute their objections, and more effectually convince them. We can better bring them to the point, and urge them to discover their resolutions for the future, and to promise the use of means and reformation, than otherwise we could do. What more proof need we of this, than our own experience? I seldom deal with men purposely on this great business, in private, serious conference, but they go away with some seeming convictions, and promises of new obedience, if not some deeper remorse, and sense of their condition.
O brethren, what a blow may we give to the kingdom of darkness, by the faithful and skilful managing of this work! If then, the saving of souls, of your neighbours’ souls, of many souls, from everlasting misery, be worth your labour, up and be doing! If you would be the fathers of many that are born again, and would ‘see of the travail of your souls,’ and would be able to say at last, ‘Here am I, and the children whom thou hast given me’-- up and ply this blessed work! If it would do your heart good to see your converts among the saints in glory, and praising the Lamb before the throne; if it would rejoice you to present them blameless and spotless to Christ, prosecute with diligence and ardour this singular opportunity that is offered you. If you are ministers of Christ indeed, you will long for the perfecting of his body, and the gathering in of his elect; and you will ‘travail as in birth’ till Christ be formed in the souls of your people. You will embrace such opportunities as your harvest-time affords, and as the sunshine days in a rainy harvest, in which it is unreasonable and inexcusable to be idle. If you have a spark of Christian compassion in you, it will surely seem worth your utmost labour to save so many ‘souls from death, and to cover’ so great ‘a multitude of sins.’ If, then, you are indeed fellow-workers with Christ, set to his work, and neglect not the souls for whom he died. O remember, when you are talking with the unconverted, that now you have an opportunity to save a soul, and to rejoice the angels of heaven, and to rejoice Christ himself, to cast Satan out of a sinner, and to increase the family of God! And what is your ‘hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing?’ Is it not your saved people ‘in the presence of Christ Jesus at his coming?’ Yes, doubtless ‘they are your glory and your joy.’
2. It will essentially promote the orderly building up of those who are converted, and the establishment of them in the faith. It hazardeth our whole work, or at least much hindereth it, if we do it not in the proper order. How can you build, if you first not lay a good foundation? or how can you set on the top-stone, while the middle parts are neglected? ‘Grace makes no leaps,’ any more than nature. The second order of Christian truths have such a dependence upon the first, that they can never be well learned till the first are learned. This makes many labour so much in vain; they are ‘ever learning, but never come to the knowledge of the truth,’ because they would read before they learn to spell, or to know their letters. This makes so many fall away: they are shaken with every wind of temptation, because they were not well settled in the fundamental principles of religion. It is these fundamentals that must lead men to further truths; it is these they must build all upon; it is these that must actuate all their graces, and animate all their duties; it is these that must fortify them against temptations. He that knows not these, knows nothing; he that knows them well, doth know so much as will make him happy; and he that knows them best, is the best and most understanding Christian. The most godly people, therefore, in your congregations, will find it worth their labour to learn the very words of a catechism. If, then, you would safely edify them, and firmly establish them, be diligent in this work.
3. It will make our public preaching better understood and regarded. When you have instructed them in the principles, they will the better understand all you say. They will perceive what you drive at, when they are once acquainted with the main points. This prepareth their minds, and openeth a way to their hearts; whereas, without this, you may lose the most of your labour; and the more pains you take in accurate preparation, the less good you may do. As you would not, therefore, lose your public labour, see that you be faithful in this private work.
4. By means of it, you will come to be familiar with your people, and may thereby win their affections. The want of this, with those who have very numerous congregations, is a great impediment to the success of our labours. By distance and unacquaintedness, abundance of mistakes between ministers and people are fomented; while, on the other hand, familiarity will tend to beget those affections which may open their ears to further instruction. Besides, when we are familiar with them, they will be encouraged to open their doubts to us and deal freely with us. But when a minister knows not his people, or is as strange to them as if he did not know them, it must be a great hindrance to his doing any good among them.
5. By means of it, we shall come to be better acquainted with each person’s spiritual state, and so the better know how to watch over them. We shall know better how to preach to them, and carry ourselves to them, when we know their temper, and their chief objections, and so what they have most need to hear. We shall know better wherein to be ‘jealous over them with a godly jealousy,’ and what temptations to guard them most against. We shall know better how to lament for them, and to rejoice with them, and to pray for them. For as he that will pray rightly for himself must know his own wants, and the diseases of his own heart, so he that will pray rightly for others, should know theirs as far as possible.
6. By means of this trial and acquaintance with our people’s state we shall be much assisted in the admission of them to the sacraments. Though I doubt not a minister may require his people to come to him at any convenient season, to give an account of their faith and proficiency, and to receive instruction, and therefore he may do it as a preparation for the Lord’s supper, yet because ministers have laid the stress of that examination upon the mere necessity of fitness for that ordinance, and not upon their common duty to see the state and proficiency of each member of their flock at all fit seasons, and upon the people’s duty to submit to the guidance and instruction of their pastors at all times, they have occasioned people ignorantly to quarrel with their examinations. Now, by this course we shall discover their fitness or unfitness, in a way that is unexceptionable; and in a way far more effectual than by some partial examination of them before they are admitted to the Lord’s table.
7. It will show men the true nature of the ministerial office, and awaken them to the better consideration of it, than is now usual. It is too common for men to think that the work of the ministry is nothing but to preach, and to baptize, and to administer the Lord’s supper, and to visit the sick. By this means the people will submit to no more; and too many ministers are such strangers to their own calling, that they will do no more. It hath oft grieved my heart to observe some eminent able preachers, how little they do for the saving of souls, save only in the pulpit; and to how little purpose much of their labour is, by this neglect. They have hundreds of people that they never spoke a word to personally for their salvation; and if we may judge by their practice, they consider it not as their duty; and the principal thing that hardeneth men in this oversight is the common neglect of the private part of the work by others. There are so few that do much in it, and the omission hath grown so common among pious, able men, that the disgrace of it is abated by their ability; and a man may now be guilty of it without any particular notice or dishonour. Never doth sin so reign in a church or state, as when it hath gained reputation, or, at least, is no disgrace to the sinner, nor a matter of offence to beholders. But I make no doubt, through the mercy of God, that the restoring of the practice of personal oversight will convince many ministers, that this is as truly their work as that which they now do, and may awaken them to see that the ministry is another kind of business than too many excellent preachers take it to be.
Brethren, do but set yourselves closely to this work, and follow it diligently; and though you do it silently, without any words to them that are negligent, I am in hope that most of you who are present may live to see the day, when the neglect of private personal oversight of all the flock shall be taken for a scandalous and odious omission, and shall be as disgraceful to them that are guilty of it, as preaching but once a day was heretofore. A schoolmaster must take a personal account of his scholars, or else he is like to do little good. If physicians should only read a public lecture on physic, their patients would not be much the better of them; nor would a lawyer secure your estate by reading a lecture on law. Now, the charge of a pastor requireth personal dealing, as well as any of these. Let us show the world this by our practice; for most men are grown regardless of bare words.
The truth is, we have been led to wrong the Church exceedingly in this respect, by the contrary extreme of the Papists, who bring all their people to auricular confession; for, in overthrowing this error of theirs, we have run into the opposite extreme, and have led our people much further into it than we have gone ourselves. It troubled me much to read, in an orthodox historian, that licentiousness, and a desire to be from under the strict inquiries of the priests in confession, did much further the entertainment of the reformed religion in Germany. And yet it is like enough to be true, that they who were against reformation in other respects, might, on this account, join with better men in crying down the Romish clergy. I have no doubt that the Popish auricular confession is a sinful novelty, which the ancient Church was unacquainted with. But, perhaps, some will think it strange that I should say, that our common neglect of personal instruction is much worse, if we consider their confessions in themselves, and not as they respect their linked doctrines of satisfaction and purgatory. If any among us should be guilty of so gross a mistake, as to think that, when he hath preached, he hath done all his work, let us show him, by our practice of the rest, that there is much more to be done; and that ‘taking heed to all the flock,’ is another business than careless, lazy ministers imagine. If a man have an apprehension that duty, and the chiefest duty, is no duty, he is like to neglect it, and to be impenitent in the neglect.
8. It will help our people better to understand the nature of their duty toward their overseers, and, consequently, to discharge it better. This, indeed, were a matter of no consequence, if it were only for our sakes; but their own salvation is much concerned in it. I am convinced, by sad experience, that it is none of the least impediments to their salvation, and to a true reformation of the Church, that the people understand not what the work of a minister is, and what is their own duty towards him. They commonly think, that a minister hath no more to do with them, but to preach to them, and administer the sacraments to them, and visit them in sickness; and that, if they hear him, and receive the sacraments from him, they owe him no further obedience, nor can he require any more at their hands. Little do they know that the minister is in the church, as the schoolmaster in his school, to teach, and take an account of every one in particular; and that all Christians, ordinarily, must be disciples or scholars in some such school. They think not that a minister is in the church, as a physician in a town, for all people to resort to, for personal advice for the curing of all their diseases; and ‘that the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and the people should ask the law at his mouth, because he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.’ They consider not, that all souls in the congregation are bound, for their own safety, to have personal recourse to him, for the resolving of their doubts, and for help against their sins, and for direction in duty, and for increase of knowledge and all saving grace; and that ministers are purposely settled in congregations to this end, to be still ready to advise and help the flock.
If our people did but know their duty, they would readily come to us, when they are desired, to be instructed, and to give an account of their knowledge, faith, and life; and they would come of their own accord, without being sent for; and knock oftener at our doors; and call for advice and help for their souls; and ask, ‘What shall we do to be saved?’ Whereas now the matter is come to that sad pass, that they think a minister hath nothing to do with them: and if he admonish them, or if he call them to be catechized and instructed; or if he would take an account of their faith and profiting, they would ask him by what authority he doth these things? and think that he is a busy, pragmatical fellow, who loves to be meddling where he hath nothing to do; or a proud fellow, who would bear rule over their consciences; whereas they may as well ask, by what authority he preacheth, or prayeth, or giveth them the sacrament? They consider not, that all our authority is but for our work; even a power to do our duty; and that our work is for them: so that it is but an authority to do them good. They talk not more wisely, than if they should quarrel with a man who would help to quench a fire in their houses, and ask him, by what authority he doth it? Or that would give money to relieve the poor, and they should ask him, By what authority do you require us to take this money? Or as if I offered my hand to one that is fallen, to help him up, or to one that is in the water, to save him from drowning, and he should ask me by what authority I do it?
And what is it that hath brought our people to this ignorance of their duty, but custom? It is we, brethren, to speak truly and plainly, who are to blame, that have not accustomed them and ourselves to any more than common public work. We see how much custom doth with the people. Where it is the custom, as among the Papists, they hesitate not to confess all their sins to the priest; but, among us, they disdain to be catechized or instructed, because it is not the custom. They wonder at it, as a strange thing, and say, Such things were never done before. And if we can but prevail to make this duty as common as other duties, they will much more easily submit to it than now. What a happy thing would it be, if you might live to see the day, that it should be as ordinary for people of all ages to come in course to their ministers for personal advice and help for their salvation, as it is now usual for them to come to the church to hear a sermon, or receive the sacrament! Our diligence in this work, is the way to bring this about.
9. It will give the governors of the nation more correct views about the nature and burden of the ministry, and so may procure from them further assistance. It is a lamentable impediment to the reformation of the Church, and the saving of souls, that, in most populous towns, there are but one or two men to oversee many thousand souls, and so there are not labourers in any degree equal to the work; but it becomes an impossible thing for them to do any considerable measure of that personal duty which should be done by faithful pastors to all the flock. I have often said it, and still must say it, that this is a great part of England’s misery, that a great degree of spiritual famine reigns in most cities and large towns throughout the land, even where they are insensible of it, and think themselves well provided. Alas! we see multitudes of ignorant, carnal, sensual sinners around us--here a family, and there a family, and there almost a whole street or village of them--and our hearts pity them, and we see that their necessities cry loud for our speedy and diligent relief so that ‘he that hath ears to hear’ must needs hear. Yet if we were never so fain, we cannot help them: and that not merely through their obstinacy, but also through our want of opportunity. We have found by experience, that if we could but have leisure to speak to them, and to open plainly to them their sin and danger, there were great hopes of doing good to many of them, that receive little by our public teaching. But we cannot come at them; more necessary work prohibits us: we cannot do both at once; and our public work must be preferred, because there we deal with many at once. And it is as much as we are able to do, to perform the public work, or some little more; and if we do take the time when we should eat or sleep, (besides the ruining of weakened bodies by it,) we shall not be able, after all, to speak to one of very many of them. So that we must stand by and see poor people perish, and can but be sorry for them, and cannot so much as speak to them to endeavour their recovery. Is not this a sad case in a nation that glorieth of the fulness of the gospel? An infidel will say, No: but, methinks, no man that believes an everlasting joy or torment should give such an answer.
I will give you the instance of my own case. We are together two ministers, and a third at a chapel, willing to spend every hour of our time in Christ’s work. Before we undertook this work, our hands were full, and now we are engaged to set apart two days every week, from morning to night, for private catechizing and instruction; so that any man may see that we must leave undone all that other work that we were wont to do at that time: and we are necessitated to run upon the public work of preaching with small preparation, and so must deliver the message of God so rawly and confusedly, and unanswerably to its dignity and the need of men’s souls, that it is a great trouble to our minds to consider it, and a greater trouble to us when we are doing it. And yet it must be so; there is no remedy: unless we will omit this personal instruction, we must needs run thus unpreparedly into the pulpit. And to omit this we dare not--it is so great and necessary a work. And when we have incurred all the forementioned inconveniences, and have set apart two whole days a week for this work, it will be as much as we shall be able to do, to go over the parish once in a year, (being about 8oo families,) and which is worse than that, we shall be forced to cut it short, and do it less effectually to those that we do it, having above fifteen families a week to deal with. And, alas! how small a matter is it to speak to a man only once in a year, and that so cursorily as we must be forced to do, in comparison of what their necessities require. Yet are we in hope of some fruit of this much; but how much more might it be, if we could but speak to them once a quarter, and do the work more fully and deliberately, as you that are in smaller parishes may do. And many ministers in England have ten times the number of parishioners which I have: so that if they should undertake the work which we have undertaken, they can go over the parish but once in ten years. So that while we are hoping for opportunities to speak to them, we hear of one dying after another, and to the grief of our souls, are forced to go with them to their graves, before we could ever speak a word to them personally to prepare them for their change. And what is the cause of all this misery? Why, our rulers have not seen the necessity of any more than one or two ministers in such parishes; and so they have not allowed any maintenance to that end. Some have alienated much from the Church, (the Lord humble all them that consented to it, lest it prove the consumption of the nation at last,) while they have left this famine in the chief parts of the land. It is easy to separate from the multitude, and to gather distinct churches, and to let the rest sink or swim; and if they will not be saved by public preaching, to let them be damned: but whether this be the most charitable and Christian course, one would think should be no hard question.
But what is the matter that wise and godly rulers should be thus guilty of our misery, and that none of our cries will awaken them to compassion? What! are they so ignorant as not to know these things? Or are they grown cruel to the souls of men? Or are they false-hearted to the interest of Christ, and have a design to undermine his kingdom? No, I hope it is none of these; but, for aught I can find, it is we who are to blame, even we, the ministers of the gospel, whom they should thus maintain. For those ministers that have small parishes, and might do all this private part of the work, yet do it not, or at least few of them. And those in great towns and cities, that might do somewhat, though they cannot do all, will do just nothing but what accidentally falls in their way, or next to nothing; so that the magistrate is not awakened to the observance or consideration of the weight of our work. Or if they do apprehend the usefulness of it, yet if they see that ministers are so careless and lazy, that they will not do it, they think it in vain to provide them a maintenance for it--it would be but to cherish idle drones--and so they think, that if they maintain ministers enough to preach in the pulpit, they have done their part. And thus are they involved in heinous sin, and we are the occasion of it. Whereas, if we do but all heartily set ourselves to this work, and show the magistrate to his face, that it is a most weighty and necessary part of our business; and that we would do it thoroughly if we could; and that if there were hands enough, the work might go on: and, withal, when he shall see the happy success of our labours, then, no doubt, if the fear of God be in them, and they have any love to his truth and men’s souls, they will set to their helping hand, and not let men perish because there is no man to speak to them to prevent it. They will one way or other raise maintenance in such populous places for labourers, proportioned to the number of souls, and greatness of the work. Let them but see us fall to the work, and behold it prosper in our hands; as, if it be well managed, there is no doubt it will, through God’s blessing, and then their hearts will be drawn out to the promoting of it: and, instead of laying parishes together to diminish the number of teachers, they will either divide them, or allow more teachers to a parish. But when they see that many carnal ministers do make a greater stir to have more maintenance to themselves, than to have more help in the work of God, they are tempted by such worldlings to wrong the Church, that particular ministers may have ease and fulness.
10. It will exceedingly facilitate the ministerial work in succeeding generations. Custom, as I said before, is the thing that sways much with the multitude; and they who first break a destructive custom, must bear the brunt of their indignation. Now, somebody must do this. If we do it not, it will lie upon our successors; and how can we expect that they will be more hardy, and resolute, and faithful than we? It is we that have seen the heavy judgments of the Lord, and heard him pleading by fire and sword with the land. It is we that have been ourselves in the furnace, and should be the most refined. It is we that are most deeply obliged by oaths and covenants, by wonderful deliverances, experiences, and mercies of all sorts. And if we yet flinch and turn our backs, and prove false-hearted, why should we expect better from them, that have not been driven by such scourges as we, nor drawn by such cords? But, if they do prove better than we, the same odium and opposition must befall them which we avoid, and that with some increase, because of our neglect; for the people will tell them that we, their predecessors did no such things. But if we would now break the ice for them that follow us, their souls will bless us, and our names will be dear to them, and they will feel the happy fruits of our labour every day of their ministry; when the people shall willingly submit to their private instructions and examinations, yea, and to discipline too, because we have acquainted them with it, and removed the prejudice, and broken the evil custom which our predecessors had been the cause of. Thus we may do much to the saving of many thousand souls, in all ages to come, as well as in the present age in which we live.
11. It will much conduce to the better ordering of families, and the better spending of the Sabbath. When we have once got the masters of families to undertake that they will, every Lord’s day, examine their children and servants, and make them repeat some catechism and passages of Scripture, this will find them most profitable employment; whereas many of them would otherwise be idle or ill-employed. Many masters, who know little themselves, may yet be brought to do this for others, and in this way they may even teach themselves.
12. It will do good to many ministers, who are too apt to be idle, and to misspend their time in unnecessary discourse, business, journeys, or recreations. It will let them see that they have no time to spare for such things; and thus, when they are engaged in so much pressing employment of so high a nature, it will be the best cure for all that idleness, and loss of time. Besides, it will cut off that scandal, which usually followeth thereupon; for people are apt to say, Such a minister can spend his time at bowls, or other sports, or vain discourse; and why may not we do so as well as he? Let us all set diligently to this part of our work, and then see what time we can find to spare to live idly, or in a way of voluptuousness, or worldliness, if we can.
13. It will be productive of many personal benefits to ourselves. It will do much to subdue our own corruptions, and to exercise and increase our own graces. It will afford much peace to our consciences, and comfort us when our past lives come to be reviewed.
To be much in provoking others to repentance and heavenly-mindedness may do much to excite them in ourselves. To cry down the sin of others, and engage them against it, and direct them to overcome it, will do much to shame us out of our own; and conscience will scarcely suffer us to live in that which we make so much ado to draw others from. Even our constant employment for God, and busying our minds and tongues against sin, and for Christ and holiness, will do much to overcome our fleshly inclinations, both by direct mortification, and by diversion, leaving our fancies no room nor time for their old employment. All the austerities of monks and hermits, who addict themselves to unprofitable solitude, and who think to save themselves by neglecting to show compassion to others, will not do near so much in the true work of mortification, as this fruitful diligence for Christ.
14. It will be some benefit, that by this means we shall take off ourselves and our people from vain controversies, and from expending our care and zeal on the lesser matters of religion, which least tend to their spiritual edification. While we are taken up in teaching, and they in learning the fundamental truths of the gospel, we shall divert our minds and tongues, and have less room for lower things; and so it will cure much wranglings and contentions between ministers and people. For we do that which we need not and should not, because we will not fall diligently to do that which we need and should.
15. And then for the extent of the aforesaid benefits: The design of this work is, the reforming and saving of all the people in our several parishes. For we shall not leave out any man that will submit to be instructed; and though we can scarcely hope that every individual will be reformed and saved by it, yet have we reason to hope, that as the attempt is universal, so the success will be more general and extensive than we have hitherto seen of our other labours. Sure I am, it is most like to the spirit, and precept, and offers of the gospel, which requireth us to preach Christ to every creature, and promiseth life to every man, if he will accept it by believing. If God would have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth, (that is, as Rector and Benefactor of the world, he hath manifested himself willing to save all men, if they be willing themselves, though his elect he will also make willing,) then surely it beseems us to offer salvation unto all men, and to endeavour to bring them to the knowledge of the truth. And, if Christ ‘tasted death for every man,’ it is meet we should preach his death to every man. This work hath a more excellent design, than our accidental conferences with now and then a particular person. And I have observed, that in such occasional discourses men satisfy themselves with having spoken some good words, but seldom set plainly and closely home the matter, to convince men of sin and misery and mercy; as in this purposely appointed work we are more like to do.
16. It is like to be a work that will reach over the whole land, and not stop with us that have now engaged in it For though it be at present neglected, I suppose the cause is the same with our brethren as it hath been with us, namely, that inconsiderateness and laziness, which we are here bewailing this day, but especially, despair of the submission of the people to it. But when they shall be reminded of so clear and great a duty, and shall see the practicability of it, in a good measure, when it is done by common consent, they will, no doubt, universally take it up, and gladly concur with us in so blessed a work; for they are the servants of the same God, as sensible of the interests of Christ, and as compassionate to men’s souls; as conscientious, and as self-denying, and ready to do or suffer for such excellent ends as we are. Seeing, therefore, they have the same spirit, rule, and Lord, I will not be so uncharitable as to doubt, whether all that are godly throughout the land (or at least the generality of them,) will gladly join with us. And oh, what a happy thing it will be to see such a general combination for Christ; and to see all England so seriously called upon, and importuned for Christ, and set in so fair a way to heaven! Methinks the consideration of it should make our hearts rejoice within us, to see so many faithful servants of Christ all over the land, addressing every particular sinner with such importunity, as men that will hardly take a denial. Methinks I even see all the godly ministers of England commencing the work already, and resolving to embrace the present opportunity, that unanimity may facilitate it.
17. Lastly, Of so great weight and excellency is the duty which we are now recommending, that the chief part of Church reformation that is behind as to means consisteth in it; and it must be the chief means to answer the judgments, the mercies, the prayers, the promises, the cost, the endeavours, and the blood of the nation; and without this it will not be done; the ends of all these will never be well attained; a reformation to purpose will never be wrought; the Church will be still low; the interest of Christ will be much neglected; and God will still have a controversy with the land, and, above all, with the ministry that have been deepest in the guilt.
How long have we talked of reformation, how much have we said and done for it in general, and how deeply and devoutly have we vowed it for our own parts; and, after all this, how shamefully have we neglected it, and neglect it to this day! We carry ourselves as if we had not known or considered what that reformation was which we vowed. As carnal men will take on them to be Christians, and profess with confidence that they believe in Christ, and accept of his salvation, and may contend for Christ, and fight for him, and yet, for all this, will have none of him, but perish for refusing him, who little dreamed that ever they had been refusers of him; and all because they understood not what his salvation is, and how it is carried on, but dream of a salvation without flesh-displeasing, and without self-denial and renouncing the world, and parting with their sins, and without any holiness, or any great pains and labour of their own in subserviency to Christ and the Spirit: even so did too many ministers and private men talk and write, and pray, and fight, and long for reformation, and would little have believed that man who should have presumed to tell them, that, notwithstanding all this, their very hearts were against reformation; and that they who were praying for it, and fasting for it, and wading through blood for it, would never accept it, but would themselves be the rejectors and destroyers of it. And yet so it is, and so it hath too plainly proved: and whence is all this strange deceit of heart, that good men should no better know themselves? Why, the case is plain; they thought of a reformation to be given by God, but not of a reformation to be wrought on and by themselves. They considered the blessing, but never thought of the means of accomplishing it. But as if they had expected that all things besides themselves should be mended without them, or that the Holy Ghost should again descend miraculously, or every sermon should convert its thousands, or that some angel from heaven or some Elias should be sent to restore all things, or that the law of the parliament, and the sword of the magistrate, would have converted or constrained all, and have done the deed; and little did they think of a reformation that must be wrought by their own diligence and unwearied labours, by earnest preaching and catechizing, and personal instructions, and taking heed to all the flock, whatever pains or reproaches it should cost them. They thought not that a thorough reformation would multiply their own work; but we had all of us too carnal thoughts, that when we had ungodly men at our mercy, all would be done, and conquering them was converting them, or such a means as would have frightened them to heaven. But the business is far otherwise, and had we then known how a reformation must be attained, perhaps some would have been colder in the prosecution of it. And yet I know that even foreseen labours seem small matters at a distance, while we do but hear and talk of them; but when we come nearer them, and must lay our hands to the work, and put on our armour, and charge through the thickest of opposing difficulties, then is the sincerity and the strength of men’s hearts brought to trial, and it will appear how they purposed and promised before.
Reformation is to many of us, as the Messiah was to the Jews. Before he came, they looked and longed for him, and boasted of him, and rejoiced in hope of him; but when he came they could not abide him, but hated him, and would not believe that he was indeed the person, and therefore persecuted and put him to death, to the curse and confusion of the main body of their nation. ‘The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller s soap: and he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.’ And the reason was, because it was another manner of Christ that the Jews expected; it was one who would bring them riches and liberty, and to this day they profess that they will never believe in any but such. So it is with too many about reformation. They hoped for a reformation, that would bring them more wealth and honour with the people, and power to force men to do what they would have them: and now they see a reformation, that must put them to more condescension and pains than they were ever at before. They thought of having the opposers of godliness under their feet, but now they see they must go to them with humble entreaties, and put their hands under their feet, if they would do them good, and meekly beseech even those that sometime sought their lives, and make it now their daily business to overcome them by kindness, and win them with love. O how many carnal expectations are here crossed!