THE CHARACTER AND COMMENDATION OF A FAITHFUL MINISTER
PREACHED JANUARY 8, 1808
AT THE CHURCH OF THE UNITED PARAISHES OF
ST AMRY WOOLNOTH AND ST MARY WOOLCHURCH HAW
On the death of their late Rector
THE REV JOHN NEWTON
WHO DEPARTED DECEMBER 21
IN THE EIGHT-THIRD YEAR OF HIS AGE
AND THE LORD SAID, WHO THEN IS THAT FAITHFUL AND WISE STEWARD, WHOM HIS LORD SHALL MAKE RULER OVER HIS HOUSEHOLD, TO GIVE THEM THEIR PORTION OF MEAT IN DUE SEASON? BLESSED IS THAT SERVANT, WHOM HIS LORD, WHEN HE COMETH, SHALL FIND SO DOING.
I should not have ventured to appear this day in this place, and on this solemn occasion, but at the express desire of your departed minister: nor can I think of any scripture which more suitably applies to his past character and present state, than the passage before us. May a divine blessing accompany our meditations on it; that we may not only mark the perfect man, and behold the upright, but that our end also, like his, may be peace!
Our Lord had said, v. 35, Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning; and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their Lord, when he will return from the wedding: that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants, whom the Lord, when he cometh, shall find watching. Be ye therefore ready also: for the Son of Man cometh at an hour when ye think not.
Then Peter said unto him, Lord, speakest thou this parable unto us, or even to all?
And the Lord said, Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his Lord shall make ruler over his household to give them their portion of meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his Lord, when he cometh, shall find so doing.
As if Jesus had said, "Though all have a general concern in the words which I have spoken YOU, my disciples and ministers, have a special interest in them, and a particular obligation laid upon you by them. You are not only servants in general; but servants also of a particular description: you are placed as stewards over my household; having a peculiar and specific charge to execute. And blessed are you, if your Lord, when he cometh, shall find you executing it faithfully and wisely."
In the words of the text, taken in connection with those which lead to it, we have our Lord's view of the CHARACTER AND COMMENDATION of a faithful minister. He is represented in the text both as a steward and a servant: as a SERVANT he is before described as vigilant and prepared; as a STEWARD, he is faithful and wise. Let us attend to both descriptions in this account of:
1. HIS CHARACTER
The faithful minister's character resembles that of a trusty servant watching the coming of his Lord. For, even among men, such a servant will not only consider his wages, but also the obligations which he is under. If his Master be from home, especially at a late hour, he will stand prepared to receive him on his return. If (as in the east) long garments are in use, he will have them girded about, that no impediment may prevent his activity. If the night requires a lamp or torch, it will be kept burning. He even watches his master's tread: he knows his knock: he springs to open the door: his very face welcomes him; and, whether his master comes at the second or third watch, such a servant complains not, he sleeps not, but steadily remains on his post. "I know not," says he, "at what hour my Lord may come; but I well know in what position he ought to find me." It is nothing to him, that other servants in the same house may be off their watch. Some may be absent, some gaming, some wasting their master's substance, some stealing his property, some abusing his character, and some quarrelling and fighting. But what is all this to him? His thoughts are on his Lord.
Thus the vigilant and prepared servant who is now called off his post, saw indeed and lamented the state of the household in which he had long kept watch; and faithfully protested against the neglect, carnality, and contention which he observed therein: but while he thus warned the unruly, his own heart was continually fixed on the coming of his Master. His own heart spake its real feelings, when he wrote that hymn which you have often sung:
"Fix my heart and eyes on thine,
What are other objects worth?
But to see thy glories shine
Is a heav'n begun on earth."
[Olney Hymns, Book 3, Hymn 66: True Happiness]
Thus, I say, with his loins girded, with his lights burning, and looking for the coming of his Lord, departed JOHN NEWTON, servant of the Most High God.
But this servant is also described as a faithful and wise STEWARD; one set over the household of God, and expressly appointed to his office of administering therein. Let a man, saith the apostle, so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful. But the steward is not faithful, if he does not give the due portion to each: not putting them off with half a meal. He is not faithful, if he regards the quantity, but pays no attention to the quality: it must be their portion of MEAT: it must be that which will support and nourish them. A steward needs also to be not only faithful, but wise, that he may be able to discern both the portion of meat and the due season for delivering it. He must be wise, to mark the wants, complaints, and infirmities of the household: and he must be wise, to discriminate and patiently to bear the false charges and unkind remarks which he often hears while he thus acts faithfully and wisely. A minister is sometimes called to exercise a solitary faith and an invincible patience, in order steadily to proceed for the good of his Master's household, in the midst of the various cabals and impositions which he sees continually forming in it.
Thus acted your late minister, as a good steward of the manifold grace of God. He faithfully, as well as rightly divided the word of truth among you; giving their portion to each in due season. He dispensed the word of God, and that only. He employed it as profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness. Whatever men may plead for elaborate discourses on moral goodness and the rewards of virtue, he determined to advance the doctrine of a crucified Saviour, as the only hope and strength of fallen man; whose flesh is meat indeed, and whose blood is drink indeed. And he dispensed this, as one that had felt the power of it in his own soul, and tasted the savour of the meat which he delivered to others. A few of his hearers might, at times, come rather to find fault than to be fed; but he regarded not the person of men: he went on with his work, seeming to say with holy Herbert,
"Thou shalt answer, Lord, for me."
I think I may assert, without fear of contradiction from such as knew the character of your late minister, that no man ever executed his office with a more single eye, or a more disinterested heart. Unlike that unjust steward in the parable, who, throughout all his management, merely considered how to keep himself from sinking under his delinquency, your late minister considered simply the interest of his Master and his household. He might truly say, "God is witness, that, instead of being burdensome, we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children: so, being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you not the Gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us. Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily, and justly, and unblameably we behaved ourselves among you that believe. As ye know how we exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children, that ye would walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto his kingdom and glory." [selected from 1 Thessalonians 2:5-12]
Ill nature, indeed, might term this statement a flattery of the dead. But I confidently reply, No; in no wise. It is too late now to question the fact. Most of your know that I have stated but the simple truth, and that the truth itself demands this of me. This thing was not done in a corner, or in the presence of two or three interested witnesses; but it was done in the centre of the largest city in the world, amidst a multitude of disaffected witnesses, and before the eyes of the Church of God, to the members of which he might justly have appealed, Ye know, from the first day that I came among you, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons: serving the Lord with all humility of mind and with many tears and temptations: and how 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. Wherefore 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. [seected from Acts 20:18-27]
But the character and commendation of your late faithful and wise steward must be referred to a higher bar of decision than yours or mine. The Judge of the world, who describes his character, pronounces what we proceed to consider –
2. HIS COMMENDATION
Blessed is that servant, whom his Lord when he cometh shall find so doing.
BLESSED, indeed, if he received no other commendation than the APPROBATION OF HIS LORD.
He, when he cometh, shall bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and then shall every man, thus found faithful, have praise of God. Sin has made such a bedlam of this world, that it is full of false associations. Precious~ Sons of Zion, comparable to fine gold, how are they esteemed as earthen pitchers, the work of the hands of the potter! But, when the Master comes, he will say (and it is enough if he says it), Well done, thou good and faithful servant! Thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord [Matthew 25:21]. To set forth the special honour which Christ will put upon those servants who wait for his second coming, he employs, in the 37th and 44th verses, allusions to those ancient customs, where the master, at certain festivals, attended upon the servants, and afforded peculiar tokens of his respect and confidence to the faithful individuals among them. It is as if he had said, in other words, Blessed are they which are called to the marriage-supper of the Lamb. Where there shall be no more curse; but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall serve him: they shall see his face, and his name shall be in their foreheads. There shall be no night there, and they shall need no candle, neither the light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light, and they shall reign for ever and ever.
BLESSED is such a servant, also, in THE TESTIMONY OF THE HOUSEHOLD, over which his Lord had placed him as a steward.
Speak, ye, who have been the seals of his ministry - begotten again to a lively hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead! Can ye refrain from pronouncing him blessed, who was the happy instrument of making you feel your ruin and your relief! Will not many of you, who have been warned, instructed, encouraged, and tenderly conducted as by a nursing father - meet him in the great day with heart-felt gratitude? You feel what you owe to his labours; and what peculiar act of grace it was that placed you where the bread of life was dispensed in season, with integrity, wisdom, and affection. It maters not what others thought of your privileges; but it is impossible for you to think of them, and not to say, Blessed is that servant.
BLESSED is that servant, likewise, in THE TESTIMONY OF HIS OWN CONSCIENCE.
I remember, on hearing a pious minister, under depression, express some doubts of his own conversion, Mr. Newton replied, "Whatever I may doubt on other points, I cannot doubt whether there has been a certain gracious transaction between God and my soul. I cannot doubt whenever I look at my former and present objects, whether I ought not to cry, What hath God wrought!" It was not the peculiar privilege of Paul to say, I have fought the good fight: I have finished my course: I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the Righteous Judge, shall give me at that day [2 Timothy 4:7,8]: for, observe the words following, where he adds, not to me ONLY, but unto all them that love his appearing. Such a witness will not detract from the glory of God: he rather magnifies the power of his grace: he stands, like Legion, as a monument of it: and he will cry, after his boldest efforts to display it, Yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me [1 Corinthians 15:10]. In the testimony of his own conscience, therefore, Blessed is that servant.
One cannot help here contrasting the real state of such a servant with his reception among men. A real Christian, and much more a Christian minister, is a character utterly unknown in the world. He reminds us of that scripture, He, that is spiritual, judgeth (avaKpivei, discerneth) all things, yet he himself is judged (or discerned) of no man [1 Corinthians 2:15]: that is, he knows them, but they do not know him. It is, therefore, no matter of surprise, with the real servant of God, if he be scouted as a fanatic, by the profane; if he be scorned, by the proud; if his character be misunderstood, by the ignorant; or if his doctrine be wilfully misrepresented, by the malicious. All this he is taught to expect; this, he is willing patiently to bear. For, as that faithful witness in heaven, the moon, appears steadily to pursue its course among opposing clouds, cheering the pilgrim through the horrors of the night, while owls hoot and dogs bark at its splendour; so the faithful witness on earth above mentioned; while he illuminates his particular station, - hailed by the children of light, but neglected, if not hated, by others, - will recollect how his master was received, and that he testified, This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil.
Consider such a minister coming to bring men from their state of apostacy back to God. If we regard the standard of truth on this point, and see the end of men, we shall learn, that many of them that sleep in the dust shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt [Daniel 12:2]. But, where are their instructors? And what is said of them? It is added, and they that be wise (or instructors, as the word signifies) shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they, that turn many to righteousness, as the stars for ever and ever [Daniel 12:3].
One cannot help viewing with grief the reception which such an instructor meets with, when placed in the centre of a great city. In such a station he may present (as your late instructor did) the inestimable treasure of the gospel, not only on the Sunday, but in the course of the week.
What then did you see?
The merchant rushes to the exchange, heedless of his privilege: some friend points to the church as he passes, but he replies,
"I have no time now: I pray thee have me excused. [Luke 14:18]"
The banker, engrossed with the gold that perisheth, forgets that gold tried in the fire which would make him really rich; and he also prays to be excused.
The stock-broker hastens to his one object,
and enquires of the first man he meets, "How are things now?"
Would to God he knew!
Would to God he had asked your late minister as to the real state of things!
Things that infinitely more belong to his peace, than those which he seeks.
The lady drives hastily by the church to purchase a toy, totally unmindful of that pearl of great price now offered to her without money.
In the mean time we are deafened with the clamour.
Commerce, with its ten thousand voices, seems to cry aloud, "Money is the one thing needful."
Crowds passing to the temple of Mammon, are ready to trample you under foot, as you endeavour to approach the temple of God.
Besotted men! To pursue business, is your duty; but to pursue that ONLY, is your crime. What! Has wisdom so long cried aloud among you for this? Has she uttered her voice in the chief place of concourse, that scorners should still delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge? — What shall it profit you, cries her preacher, if ye gain the whole world, and at length lose your own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? [Matthew 16:26] Some, with a death-like apathy, pass the church, and say, He seems a good man: others say, Nay, but he deceiveth the people [John 7:12]; when will he die and his name perish [Psalm 41:5]? We reply, NEVER. For, at length, the JUDGE HIMSELF rises up, and pronounces, Blessed is that servant - yea, blessed are those servants, whom the Lord when he cometh shall find watching!
The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart; and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil to come. HE SHALL ENTER INTO PEACE [Isaiah 57:1,2]. The change of your late minister is but a change of preferment: it is but the call of his Master to come up higher - to take his harp, his palm, his crown, and bid eternal farewell to all his cares and sorrows. Blessed are those servants: for God shall wipe all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away [Revelation 21:4].
Having attempted to drop a few general hints on the CHARACTER and COMMENDATION of a faithful minister, and having shown their application to your late pastor, permit me to address a word,
1. To his stated CONGREGATION
Your vigilant and prepared servant is now called off his post: your faithful and wise steward is gone to deliver his account. He doubtless will do it with joy, having made it the grand object of his life. But let us consider, my dear hearers, the account which we also have to give. If special benefits involve special obligations, where are the people that have enjoyed your privileges? Some of you are his spiritual children, born and brought up in this house of prayer. Many of you have been nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine, as by a nursing-father. Others have been warned to flee from the wrath to come, as by a faithful monitor; and others cautioned by a guide who seemed in his experience to have explored the very depths of Satan. The afflicted have been comforted: the doubtful have been relieved; and ministers (among whom I stand as a witness) have been enlarged and confirmed, as by a father in Christ.
Let us admire and adore the grace, which plucked such a brand from the burning, and marvellously formed him afterwards to be that vessel of honour which he became. Let us recollect to WHOM we are indebted for such a Steward; who, with wisdom and faithfulness, apportioned our meat in due season. And, if the remark of one of our divine be just, that "a faithful minister being taken away before the age of threescore is taken in judgment", let us stand encouraged that the departed lived far beyond the age of man before he was removed; and let us earnestly pray to the Lord of the harvest, that this church, which has been favoured with eminent pastors long before the coming of your late minister, may enjoy a continuance of them till shall be no more.
But infallible authority lays a ground for the comfort of every mourner in Zion when it enjoins, Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of 'GOD; whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation [Hebrews 13:7], or as the word is, the blessed departure which they made; and more especially considering that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and for ever [Hebrews 13:8]. He ever lives! He, the great Shepherd and Bishop of souls, will still provide for his flock; that where he is they may be also.
Mr. Newton gradually sunk as the setting sun, shedding to the last those declining rays, which gilded and gladdened the dark valley. In the latter conversations which I had with him, he expressed an unshaken faith in eternal realities; and, when he could scarcely utter words, he remained a firm witness to the truths which he has preached. In so very gradual a declension, interesting particulars can scarcely be expected: should any be gathered, they will appear in the Memoirs of his Life, which I have collected under his direction; and which will further tend to prove the force of truth, the blessedness of its great service, and the greatness of its present as well as future reward.
My honoured brethren in the ministry -Servants, Stewards, Watchmen! How much have WE to learn on this occasion! What need to cry, My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof. Let a double portion of thy spirit rest upon us [2 Kings 2:12,9]! For our hour is also hastening: our account is soon to be given in: our Master is coming: our character will be proclaimed: our state will be fixed! Think on these momentous things. Think of your Lord's words, Be ye ready also; for the Son of Man cometh at an hour when ye think not [Luke 12:40].
2. To his PARISHIONERS, also,
I would address the feelings of my heart. I speak more especially to such as have not duly appreciated the ministry of their late worthy pastor. The worn-out body of him who long entreated you to be mindful of the day of your visitation, now is a mass of inanimate clay under that communion table - his lamp broken - his tongue silent –
Disarm'd, disabled, like a wretch that's gagg'd,
And cannot tell his ills to passers by.
[The Grave, Hugh Blair]
While he borrows my tongue to address you on the occasion.
And what can I say to you that he has not said a thousand times? I can only say, Lay the day of your visitation to heart, for God has spoken to you again and again by the mouth of his servant. If he were to return from the dead, he could only repeat the same message; and then sigh and say with one of old, Oh, that they were wise! That they understood this! That they would consider their latter end [Moses in Deuteronomy 32:29]!
Some of his parishioners have, I hope, felt the truth of his character; and are now convinced that he was that very man who kept his eye on his sacred rule, inquiring what sort of man the minister of a parish ought to be. Since his death, perhaps, you have been ready to say, Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his [Numbers 23:10]: for the true minister is seldom fully known till he is gone. But let us allow something imagination - Let us suppose your late minister to rise like SAMUEL from the dead. Suppose him to learn that some of you, his parishioners, had begun to recollect yourselves; had resolved to pray, to turn to God, to embrace his Son, and to obey the gospel; - nay, that some of you were supposing that you even do serve God, because you begin to pay a formal attention to the externals of religion, and admit the general truths which he preached.
I ask, would he not say to such, like SAMUEL, on another occasion, "Ye serve God! What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and this lowing of the oxen that I hear [1 Samuel 15:14]?" What meaneth this frequent breaking of the sabbath, by business or pleasure? What meaneth this chosen friendship with the enemies of truth? This idolatry of the world? This strangeness to the active servants of your Lord's house? This slighting of his children? This neglect of his only begotten Son? Ye serve God! How is it possible to serve God through such days of vanity and nights of carnal amusement? Can this be the service of God, who loathes a mere lip service? Who cries, My son, give me thy heart [Proverbs 23:26]? Oh that thou, even thou, at least in this thy day, knewest the things that belong to thy peace [Luke 19:42]."
But I should apologise for the bare supposition of such a return from the grave; for there the weary are at rest: as it is said in the book of wisdom, "The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God" [Ecclesiastes 9:1]. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die, but they are in peace. Then shall the righteous stand in great boldness before the face of such as have afflicted him, and made no account of his labours. When they see it, they shall be troubled with great fear; and shall be amazed at the strangeness of his salvation; so far beyond all that they looked for; and, in anguish of spirit shall say, This was he whom we had sometimes in derision, and a proverb of reproach. We fools accounted his life madness, and his end to be without honour; how is he numbered among the children of God, and his lot is among the saints.
Such a recall, therefore, of your late minister to future labour on earth, is purely imaginary. But, away with the phantoms of imagination, while certain realities demand our attention! I am bound to enounce a truth firmer than heaven or earth: I am bound to assert, that your late minister SHALL return from the dust: not as a preacher, but as a witness: not as a warning voice, but as an unquestionable evidence. For the day cometh that shall burn as an oven, when all the proud and all that do wickedly shall be as stubble [Malachi 4:1] - When these massy pillars shall give way! When this temple shall be crushed in dust! When these tombs shall be opened! When these dead shall awake! Marvel not at this, for the hour is coming, in which all that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and come forth: they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation [John 5:28,19].
Then will your late faithful minister present his testimony to his Lord and judge, respecting the impenitent of his charge. He will declare, 'Near thirty years I stood on my appointed watch in the parish of St Mary Woolnoth. I knew no rule, but thy word, and declared the message which thou gavest me. I hearkened and heard, but they spake not aright: no man repented of his wickedness, saying, What have I done [Jeremiah 8:6]! Every one turned to his course, as the horse rusheth into the battle. I called unto them from my pulpit; I sent warnings and invitations to their houses; I exhorted them as a friend; I cried as a watchman; I entreated them as a father, Turn ye, turn ye, for why will ye die [Ezekiel 33:11]? O my God, thou, that searchest the heart and triest the reins, THOU knowest this!' May his parish also know it before THEY also follow him to the silent grave.
My dear fellow-citizens and fellow-sinners, standing on the brink of an awful precipice; you must know, that tomorrow your cares, your sorrows, and your joys will be recollected but as a dream; and that the grand objects long presented to you from this pulpit will be then your only anxious concern. Remember, that the admonition before us respects not ministers only. The conscience of every man before me is also addressed. The happiness or misery of every man is at stake. May God, of his infinite mercy, fix these considerations with a lasting impression on our hearts, for Jesus Christ's sake! To whom, with the father and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
3 January 1808