Why Gods power unto Conversion doth not alwaies go along with his Word though dispensed by a faith∣ful Ministry; and whether corrupt or prophane Ministers may be a means of Conversion.
JER. 23. 22.
A Faithful Ministry (as you have heard) following the counsel of the Lord, is the sure and ordinary way for conversion of men from their evil waies. This Doctrine hath been explained: Let us now Answer some material questions which will further clear this point.
And First, It may be demanded Whether that Ministry which doth indeed stand in Gods eouncel, may not for all that be without this spirituall successe? May not they * for all that see no good and comfortable issue of their labours? May not they com∣plain they have laboured in vain? Shall we argue such a Ministrie to be corrupt, and unfaithful, because they are not blessed with spiritual children, like Olive plants about them.
I Answer, That it doth too often fall out, that even those who stand in Gods cousel, that follow this star, do yet plough and sow upon the rocks, and see no * seed grow up. Therefore this Text or Doctrine is not such a general, but that it hath its exceptions; and if we will seek for instances, how plentiful are they to con∣firm this: Shall we think that this Jeremiah, who is so zealous against the false pro∣phets, that he did not take a true and faithful course in his Ministrie, yes, his whole prophesie doth manifest that. Yet how sad are his complaints that he had no suc∣cesse in his Ministrie, Jor. 6. 29. The bellows are burnt, the lead is consumed of the fire, the founder m•lteth in vain, the wicked are not pluckt away; where Jeremiah is com∣pared to a Refiner, or Founder, his mouth is the bellows: The prophesie he had from God, was the breath, or blast, the corrupt and impure mettle was the wicked Jews. Now all this blowing, and pains in refining, was in vain, for the drosse would not melt away. Thus also the Prophet Isai, he stood in Gods councel, yet he crieth out, Who hath believed our report? Isai. 53. 1. And again, All the day long have I stretched out my hands in vain. Ez•chiel also, a Prophet so frequently in communi∣on with God by spirituall visions, and therefore so often called the Son of man, that these revelations may not puffe him up: Yet God tels him, he goeth to a peo∣ple that will not hear: but whether they will hear, or forbear, they must have a Prophet sent to them, Ezek. 3. Yea, what need we go further for witnesse to confirm this, when Christ himself, in whom were all the treasures of wisedome and holinesse, and no man ever preached like him; yet the number of his converts were few, in respect of the multitude he preached unto, which made him so bewail Page 501 the Nation of the Jews, as a tree that had enjoyed much culture and dressing, but still continued unfruitfull, and so was to be cut down and cast into the fire.
But what are the reasons, Why Gods power should not alwaies go along with his in∣stitutions?* What hinders, if when all things requisite on the Ministers part are concurrent? Yet God withdraweth himself. Now there may be reasons, first on Gods part two waies.
First, From the freedome and arbitrarinesse in his works: He doth in heaven and earth whatsoever he pleaseth. The spirit bloweth where it listeth, John 3. Though therefore God hath tyed and bound us to wait on the Ministrie, we must frequent the Ordinances, yet he hath not bound himself to work at every time, to every Au∣ditory. God keeps this soveraignty to himself: one Ministrie shall be more success∣full then another, and at one time more then another, and to some people more then others: Yea, many times God makes the weakest, and most unlikely Mini∣strie to be more fruitfull then a learned able one: even as Leah, that was more deformed, had more Children then Rachell, who was more comely and beau∣tifull. So that as it is solely in Gods will, to whom he will to send a faithfull Mi∣nistry, he gives to some that make no use of it, yea that hate it and are weary of it; and again denieth it to others that long for it, or that would with the Ty∣rians and Sydonians manifest greater affections to it. Thus also when he hath be∣stowed this Ministrie upon a people, it is successeful no otherwise then he will ap∣point: And herein we are to advance Gods dispensations, which are wise and just, though the reasons be not alwaies visible to us. Even as although God gave the Apostles power to work miracles, yet they could not do these when and where they plesed, for then Paul would have recovered Epaphroditus; but they did them only when he vouchsafed power. So that it is not of us that plant or water, But of God that giveth encrease, 1 Cor. 3.
A second reason on Gods part is his justice: For when a people have by their for∣mer * obstinacy, and unfruitfulnesse under the means of Grace, provoked him to anger, he doth inflict that just judgement of a blinde mind, and an hard heart, never to understand or be converted: and this is very wofull, but very ordinary. Thus John 12. This is the reason why the Jews, notwithstanding the daily preaching they had heard with their ears, and the miracles they had seen with their eyes, yet it is said, They could not believe, because of that spirituall judgement which was upon their souls. And thus it was also with Esaias, Cap. 6. He is sent, not to turn them from their evil waies, but accidentally through their corruption, to make them more obdurate, Oh then if we see where much faithfull preaching is, yet little Conversion, let us fear and tremble at the wrath of God upon such a people. If God hath given them up to their own lusts? If he hath smitten them with blindenesse of minde, and wilfull rebellion against his word, then they are under the judgement of all judgements? And is not this anger of God visibly gone out against all our Congregations? Was it not a plain demonstration that God had for∣saken Saul, when he would neither answer him by Prophet, or Urim and Thum∣min, or any other way? So it is thy case; Neither prayer for thee, or preaching to thee is made powerfull to convince thy Conscience, to change thy heart: Oh men in the state of Gall and Worm-wood, though they think not, or believe not so of themselves. Thou shouldst after every Sermon say, Oh Lord why is it that this word hath not yet turned me from my sins? Oh what is the matter that it hath not such power upon me? Oh what shall I do? Have pitty upon me, O God, and soften my heart. Have pitty upon me, O ye Ministers, and pray for me, that God would give me a soft heart.
Another reason why the Minister, though faithful, may not yet rejoyce to see * the good fruit of his labours, is from the Ministry it self, and that two wayes allso.
First, The Ministry doth not work like a natural cause to the Conversion of men,*Page 502 as fire burneth, and the stone falleth down, but as a meer instituted, and Morall cause, as they call it, that is by the Councell and power of God accompanying it. If it did work as a natural Cause, from an inbred power, in it self, then it would work alwaies alike; then it would never be frustrated of its operation without a miracle: as that the fire did not burn the three Worthies, it was a miracle. If the Word of God preached should turn men from sin this way, it would be a miracle that every Sermon, did not convert every sinner: but it works onely as an in∣stituted cause. And thus as the pool of Bethesda did not at any time vouchsafe healing, but when the Angel descended into it: so neither do our Sermons upon every person, and at any time work upon those that hear; but as Gods power shall come in; and therefore as was said at the Sacrament, should be also at preaching, Sursum Corda, lift up your hearts to him that is a Teacher in hea∣ven: as he Baptiseth not with water, but with fire; so he teacheth by fire also. And this should direct people by earnest prayer to look up to him: say, Lord, if thou goest not along with me in hearing; if thou speakest not to my dead heart to live, to my hard heart to become soft, it cannot be. Lord if thou hadst been here, saith she, my Brother had not dyed And so may we say, Lord, if thou hadst gone along with this Sermon, with this truth, it had not perished without profit.
Secondly, The Ministry, though faithfully discharged, yet is in a subservient way to Gods election. Now many are called that are not chosen: the Ministry is sent where election hath not to do sometimes: But then to such it is like an excel∣lent Medicine that is onely proffered, and not received to work any good: where therefore the Word of God doth convert and make these admirable changes, it is but the execution of Gods Election from eternity. Thus it is said, As many believed, as were ordained to eternall life, Acts 13. 48. And Paul was to preach at one place, because God had many people there; so that Election is sure to obtain, Rom. 11. 21. Wonder not then that the Ministry doth not Convert all, no more then that God doth not Elect all. For on whom God hath fixed this purpose of Love, there he will take away the Heart of stone, make plain the highest moun∣tain, and change a most ravening Wolfe into a Lamb.
Thirdly, Therefore a Godly Ministry following Gods Councel, may yet bring forth none, or very little fruit, because of considerations on the Ministers part also: For * as in the Old Testament, though encrease of Children were promised as a bles∣sing; yet many good women were much afflicted with barrennesse, as Sarah, Ra∣chel, Hannah, and others: So it may be here in the dispensations of Gods word. Those that have received five, or ten, may be diligent in employing of it, and yet have no more encrease then he that hid his Talent in a Napkin, though with lesse guilt: For successe is Gods work, not the Ministers duty. And this may be
First, To humble Godly and faithful Ministers. Had they a multitude of Con∣verts? Did they see God so visibly go along with them? this might stirr up pride * and vanity in them, as multitude of revelations was in danger to puff up Paul. The Disciples when they returned from their spiritual progress to Christ, were carnally rejoycing that the Divels were subject to them; and they could work miracles in his Name, our Saviour to humble them saith, Rejoyce not in this, but that your names are written in heaven, Luke 10. 20. God therefore may say not in anger, as he to S•alum, but in mercy, Write this man childlesse.
Secondly, God may give no more successe, to draw out their Grace, and their love to him the more: For this is a great testimony of it, when we can rejoyce * that Gods work goeth on, though he will not use us as instruments. Wee see Johns Disciples had some envious thoughts to Christ, and his; and therefore told John, That all went after him whom he Baptized; now see how graciously John answers them, I told you I was not the Messias, but I must decrease, and he must encrease, John 3. 30. The Pharisees envy against Christ, because the multitude ran after him, did work the clean contrary to that in John, even to the killing of him. It Page 503 much that affection in Sarah, to be willing Abraham should have children, though it was not by her: There is this corruption in us, that we onely would be the in∣struments God should use. As he said in vain glory, This is the Babylon I have built; so we, This is the Jerusalem I have built.
Thirdly, Hereby God would teach even faithful Ministers, that he needs no mans*parts, no mans gifts or abilities: Christ took three of his Disciples up into the trans∣figuration; this was a great favour, for it was the glimpse of glory. Now he did this to them, and not to other of the Disciples: Christ hath some special favours which he will dispense as he pleaseth; for as the fountain heedeth not the stream, nor the sun its beam, but they are wholly from them; thus God needeth not the graces, the gifts, the enlargements of istruments; but many times (as the Apostle in another case) puts the greatest glory upon the most uncomely parts.
Lastly, A Ministry following Gods Counsel, may yet finde no successe, because of*the froward, and indisposed temper of the people. Thus Christ weeps over Jeru∣salem; How often would I have gathered thee, and thou wouldst not? Thus the Word also did not profit the Israelites, because it was not mingled with Faith: and if our Gospel be hid (saith the Apostle) It is to those that perish, whose eyes the God of this world hath blinded, 2 Cor. 4. 3. O words worthy of all observati∣on. If it be hid, that is, if men do not understand it, do not feel the power of it, it is because thou art one to perish, one to be damned: It is because the Divel hath shut thine eyes. Oh then lay the fault where it is: Thou art apt to to blame the Ministry, to cavil at him, or to blame his preaching. But see what the Apostle saith, If our Gospel, if our preaching be hid to you, it is because you are to perish: For as the husbandman, though he should be never so laborious in ploughing, sowing, and fitting the ground; though he be never so careful to provide precious and choyce seed, yet if the nature of the ground be so barren, as it will bear no seed, or cause it to degenerate into Cockle, all the labour is in vain: Or as the Gardener, though he water and dresse never so carefully, yet if the tree be dead at the root, it is all to no purpose: So though the Ministers of God are very earnest in praying, preaching, informing, rebuking, yet where the Tree is dead at the root, What hope is there!
The second grand quaere may be, Whether a corrupt Ministry that neglects the*counsel of God, may not yet be a means of Conversion? Whether an ungodly Mini∣stry may not be used by God to convert others? This was a question discussed of old, between the Orthodox, and the Donatists; for the Donatists thought, that if any Minister fell into grosse sinnes, neither the preaching of the word, nor his administration of Sacraments could do any good to others; for how, said they, can death be a means to beget life? How can darknesse produce light? How can a Mem∣ber of the Divel make a Member of Christ?
To answer this case, First, We must distinguish of the corruption of a Minister:* For either it is Doctrinal, in respect of that matter which he preacheth; or else pra∣ctical in regard of his life and Conversation: if the Corruption be Doctrinal, then it is either totall, or partial: Total, when he doth wholly forsake the Truth, and preach nothing but damnable Heresies, and the vain lies and imaginations of his heart: and he that is thus corrupted universally, can never convert others: The reason is, because the word and Truth of God is that immortal seed, by which we are begotten: Sanctifie them by thy truth, thy word is truth, John 17. So that Divine truths are the only instrument of life spiritual, as good food and not poyson is of natural; but if it be onely partiall, not in fundamentals, but superstitious additions; that ministry in some respects may be profitable: and hereupon our Saviour bid them hear the Scribes and Pharisees, While thy sate in Moses chair, i. e. as long as they preached the Doctrine of Moses, but then those that live under such a corrupt Ministry, had need be very judicious to distinguish between good and bad, There∣fore our Saviour, who allowed the people to hear the Scribes and Pha∣risees, Page 504 did also at the same time bid them take heed, and beware of their Doctrine.
But in the next place, suppose they be Orthodox, and sound in their judge∣ments, *yet ungodly and prophane in their lives, Can we think God will honour such? Can salt if it hath lost his savour season others? Can light, not put under a Bushell, but under a noysome dunghill, Can that enlighten others? Yet such unsavourie salt, such obscured light is every prophane Minister. To Answer this, Consider,
First, That if that Holy and good discipline which Christ hath appointed in his Church were observed, no such ungodly Ministers were to be endured in publick of∣fice.* Hence Paul commands Timothy, That he ordaine no man a Minister that is of an ungodly and prophane life; and certainly if Christ would have every parti∣cular person, that is an obstinate wicked person, cast out of the Church, how much rather an ungodly officer in the Church?
Secondly, Yet suppose that a corrupt Minister is continued for want of good Discipline, it cannot be denied but an ungodly life is a great occasion to pull down as much as the word builds up. Examples do work more then precepts. The lives of Spiritual Shepheards are like those rods Iacob laid in the way for the sheep to look on, that they might bring such coloured lambs; and therefore if ever they are instru∣ments to convert others, it is a strange, a rare and wonderfull thing. Hence in Da∣niel, those that convert others to righteousnesse, are said to shine like the stars in the firmament, Dan. 12. 3. which wicked men cannot do.
Thirdly, But for all this we cannot say absolutely and universally, That no ungod∣ly Minister is used at any time an instrument to convert others, no more then their un∣godlinesse may hinder the good effect of the Sacraments they administer, for these two reasons. First of Example in Scripture, That makes no distinction between Judas and the other Disciples in the successe of the Ministry; They all twelve were sent out, they all did miracles, they all casted out Divels, they all returned to Christ and gave him an account of their successe. To them all Christ said, He had ordained that they should go out, viz. in their preaching, and bear much fruit, viz. in their Ministry, John 15. 16. And our Saviour expresly saith of some, That they should prophesie in his name, yet he would bid them depart, because workers of iniquity: and Phil. 3. There were false Apostles who preached Christ out of envy, supposing to adde more afflicti∣on and persecution to Paul, which must needs be an high degree of wickedness and malice, yet Paul said, He rejoyced that Christ was preached howsoever, which could not be if their preaching did no good. Although indeed to these examples of Ju∣aas, and the false Apostles, it may be answered, That they were not at that time grosse and scandalous sinners for ought can appear, but unregenerate and spiritually wicked, not corporally.
2. They may be used by God for conversion, because the Ministry is gratia gratis data, not gratia gratum faciens; It is appointed for the publick good of others, not for the Ministers good so much; and therefore God may work that end of the pub∣lick good, though the instrument be sinful: As saith Austin, The seed that is sown by a foul diseased hand, may bring forth fruit as well as that which is sown by a clean hand.
Use of Admonition, take heed that the Word of God have no effect upon thee because of thy sins. Oh how terrible will it be when it shall appear, God hath done for thy conversion what a gracious God might do; The Minister hath done what a faithful Minister should do, but thou hast not done what a good hearer should do: What is that? 1. Thou art not swift to hear, thou art carelesse, neg∣ligent, thou dost not diligently wait on the gates of wisdom, as sick men do at the Physitians doors. 2. Thou dost not lay aside all superfluity of naughtinesse, as the same Text requireth; and so the word is like rain falling on dirty ground that makes it more dirty. 3. Thou dost not retain it and hide it in thy heart as David, thou dost not cover it with warmth, as the fowl doth her eggs; thou art but almost per∣swaded to leave thysins.