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THE CHARACTER OF A FAITHFUL MINISTER OF CHRIST.*
Epaphras—who is for you a faithful minister of Christ. Col. 1. 7.
Ir tends much to the interest of religion, that people love and esteem their pastors, and entertain honourable sentiments of them; for, if once a minister comes to be despised by his flock, his usefulness among them is over, and his doctrine, however agreeable to the form of sound words, will not be edifying to them: it is therefore the apostle's design, in the words of our reading, to cultivate the regard of the Colossians to Epaphras, their ordinary pastor, by giving him the just commendation and favourable character which he deserved, As ye have learned of Epaphras, our dear fellow-servant, who is for you a faithful minister of Christ.
Passing that part of the character of Epaphras, which respects his relation to the apostle, as a deur fellow-servant ; in the branch of the verse which we have read, as the subject of discourse, namely, Who is for you a faithful minister of Christ, you have a threefold commendation of him. 1. From his office or calling, a minister of Christ. 2. From his fidelity in the discharge of that office, a faithful minister of Christ. 3. From the scope and end of his ministry among the Colossians, it is for you; that is, for your good, for your salvation. ;
. The design of the whole of this commendation is, that the Colossians might honour and esteem Epaphras for his work's sake; so that we take
of the words in the following
Doct. That faithful ministers of Christ, who aim at the edification and salvation of the people among whom they labour in the work of the ministry, ought to be honoured and esteemed by them. 1 Thess. v. 12, 13: “We beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake.”
* A Sermon preached immediately after the foresaid Ordination, by JAMES FISHER, Minister of the Gospel in the Associate Congregation at Glasgow.
In discoursing on this subject, we shall essay,
I. To inquire into the scripture-account of the character and duty of a faithful minister of Christ.
II. Give the reasons why such ministers ought to be honoured and esteemed by the people among whom they labour.
III. Deduce a few inferences for application.
1. The first thing is, to inquire into the scripture account of the character and duty of a faithful minister of Christ.
1. He is one who speaks the things which become sound doctrine, as the apostle exhorts Titus, chap. ij. 1: “But speak thou the things which become sound doctrine.” That 'doctrine is sound, which is a link of that chain of truth, revealed in the holy scriptures; for there is such a close concatenation or linking together of the truths of God, and such a beautiful harmony among them all, that no error whatever can possibly be soldered with them, any more than clay can be incorporated with gold. We speak then the words which become sound doctrine, when we make all the divine perfections to harmonize in the contrivance of our redemption, when we give to Christ in all things the pre-eminence, and when we lay the pride of sinful men in the dust. And, in order to our thus speaking the things which become sound doctrine, it is necessary that we be well acquainted with the holy scriptures, with approved systems of divinity, and particularly. with our own standards, our excellent Confession of Faith, and catechisms, which may well be called “ forms of sound words.":
2. A faithful minister of Christ is one, who is set for the defence of the gospel, as Paul was, Phil. i. 17: “I am set," says he, “ for the defence of the gospel." Nothing is more warmly inculcated in scripture, than the defence of gospeltruths, Prov. xxiii. 23 : - Buy the truth, and sell it not." Phil. i. 27: “Stand fast in one spirit, with one mind, striving together for the faith of the gospel.” Heb. x. 23: “ Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering." Jude, .ver. 3:
" It was needful for me to exhort you,” says that apostle, “that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” And, in order to the defence of the gospel, it is necessary that we be “established in the present truth,” as the expression is, 2 Pet. i. 12; that is, in the truths presently controverted, or which are the present subject of debate. And, indeed, it is most lamentable, that in our day there are scarcely any of the peculiar doc trines of Christianity, which are not impugned and called in question by men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth;
such as, the divine authority of the scriptures; the imputation of Adam's first sin to his posterity; the universal corruption and depravation of our nature; the irresistible power and efficacy of the grace of God; the distinct personality and supreme deity of the Son and Holy Ghost; the reality of the incarnation of Christ, or his assuming a holy human nature to his divine person; the absolute perfection and infinite worth of his satisfaction in our room; the necessity of the imputation of his surety-righteousness for our justification; the free election of some to eternal life; the perseverance of the saints; and the eternity of hell torments; with many other important points which might be mentioned. There are others, again, who profess to own all the above truths, who yet so blend the law and the gospel, that they make the covenant of grace little better than another edition (or reexhibition] of the covenant of works; confound the sinner's sanctification with his justification ; cry up the necessity of previous good qualifications in order to coming to Christ; and are for leaning on something wrought in them, or done by them, as the ground in less or more of their acceptance before God. And, with respect to the government of Christ's house, alas! the generality of the present age seem to be agreed, that it is a matter of the merest indifference, whether a person be of the Episcopalian, Independent, or Presbyterial way of thinking about it; although it is the declared principle of this church, founded on the word of God, solemnly sworn to and sealed by the blood of many of the Lord's witnesses, That the spiritual power and authority, derived from Christ the alone Head, for the edification of his church, is lodged, neither in the hand of the civil magistrate, nor in the community of the faithful, as they call them, but in churchofficers, ministers and elders acting in parity, and judicatories subordinate to one another. Now, we say, that a faithful minister of Christ is set for the defence of the gospel, namely, both for the defence of gospel-truth, and likewise of the hedge of government, which the glorious Head has set about it.
3. A faithful minister of Christ is one who does not shun to declare to his hearers all the counsel of God, as Paul testifies of himself to the elders of Ephesus, Acts xx. 27: “I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God." He does not say that he actually declared to them all the counsel of God, but only that he did not shun to declare it all. For as we know only in part, and prophesy but in part, it is not to be supposed, that all the truths of God, which are comprehended in the unfathomable depth of divine revelation, could be brought forth by any, or even by all that ever
preached the gospel; for if " the world itself could not contain the books that might be written of Christ," as the apostle John asserts, then all that ever were in the world (the Son of God only excepted) could never exhaust all that might be said, upon what is contained within the volume of God's book; as may appear in some measure, from the vast number of commentaries, treatises, and sermons, published, and unpublished, these seventeen hundred and fifty years past, besides all the lectures of the Old Testament prophets; and yet the half of what might have been said has not been told. Well, then, not to shun to declare all the counsel of God, is to keep back no truth which we know from our hearers; it is, to the utmost of our capacity and knowledge, to bring forth, what, we think, as before God, will be most for their spiritual profiting, in the proper season of it, either for instructing the ignorant, awakening the secure, strengthening the weak, recovering those that are gone astray; or for comforting the mourners in Zion, and raising up those that are howed under spiritual distress of any kind; and thus studying.“ rightly to divide the word of truth, and give every one their portion of meat in due season,” so as that none may be soothed or flattered in their sin upon the one hand, nor that any get occasion for desponding fears on the other.
4. A faithful minister of Christ is one that gives attendance to reading and meditation on what he delivers, according to the apostle's advice to Timothy, 1 Tim. iv. 13, 15: “Give attendance to reading; meditate upon these things;" that is, study them beforehand. The apostle had advised him, in another place, to “ stir up the gift that was in him,” which v could not be done without reading and meditation ; and if close application to study was enjoined to an evangelist of uncommon endowments, it must be much more. our duty, now, when the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit are ceased, to digest into order and method what we are to deliver in public, and not to entertain our people with that which costs us nothing.
5. A faithful minister of Christ is one who seeks to 6 find out acceptable words.” This was Solomon's study, Eccl. xij. 10: “ The preacher sought to find out acceptable words ;" on the margin, words of delight. We should endeavour to deliver the truths of God in such a plain and easy manner, as that the weak and ignorant may understand them, shunning all [obscure] and bombastic expressions on the one hand, and coarse and (vulgar) ones on the other. The scripture style is by far the smoothest, and at the same time the most elegant for the pulpit; and the more fully we understand any doctrine, the more able will we be to deliver it plainly to others.
6. A faithful minister of Christ is one who takes heed to himself, as well as to his doctrine, lest, when he preach Christ to others, he himself be a cast away. It is given as one of the characters and qualifications of a minister, that he be holy, Tit. i. 8. For a minister may have both gifts and learning, and likewise some measure of success, and yet want grace, as is plain enough in those who preached Christ out of envy and strife, Phil. i. 15. And yet grace is a very material branch of the ministerial character; for without this we can have no experience on our own souls of the truths we preach to others, nor can we have true sympathy with those who are in any spiritual distress: without grace we can never be in [a condition to say with the apostle, 2 Cor. i. 3, 4: • Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who comforteth us in all our tribulations, that we may
be able 10 comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.” Again, as a minister is to take heed to himself by inquiring into the state of his own soul; so likewise he is to take heed to his outward walk, to be “an example to believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity;" as the apostle exhorts Timothy, 1 Tim. iv. 12. Examples sometimes do good, where precepts are of little force. It were good for us who are ministers, if we could say in some measure with the apostle, Phil. iv. 9: “ Those things which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do.” As we are to beseech others, that they receive not the grace of God in vain, so we should take special care 10 give no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed," but essay to practice ourselves what we preach to others, and thus, in some degree, make proof of our ministry.
7. As a faithful minister of Christ will take heed to himself, so likewise to the particular flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made him an overseer. For, although every minister has a relation to the church universal, yet he has a more special concern in that particular flock among whom he is called to labour in the work of the ministry. He is to be instant among them, in season, and out of season, sparing no pains nor labour in the discharge of his ministerial duty, being glad “to spend and be spent," " watching for their souls, as one that must give an account;" for a faithful minister studies to give a daily account of the state of his flockto the Lord Jesus: if they are fourishing and thriving, he gives an account of them in a way of rejoicing, and blessing him for the outpourings of his grace to them: if they are languishing or decaying, or guilty of any miscarriages, he gives an account of it in a way of mourning and sorrowing before