J. C. Ryle
“Neglect not the gift that is in you, which was given you by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.” 1 Timothy 4:14
Brethren, the leading topics of the subject committed to me appear to be the ministerial office, and the imperative duty of not neglecting it. Paul speaks to Timothy of his office, as “a gift.” And he says of this gift, “neglect it not.” In opening the subject I trust I may be allowed to remind my brethren that the orders of Timothy and Titus ought to be specially interesting to them.
I consider that, strictly speaking, no minister of the Gospel of the present day, whatever may be his church or denomination, has any right to regard himself as a “successor of the apostles.” I believe that, in strict accuracy, the apostles had no successors at all. Their office was a peculiar office. Their order was a peculiar order. Both office and order ceased at their death. The apostles were specially called, and immediately set apart by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. They had the power of speaking with other languages. They were enabled to confirm the doctrines they preached by miracles and signs. They had the power of infallibly declaring God’s truth, and expounding His mind to the world. They were commissioned to bind and loose sins with authority. They could confer gifts upon others. In all these respects they stood alone. We are not their successors. They never had any successors! They were an order intended to continue until the Canon of Scripture was concluded, and no longer. The ministers of the present day are the successors of Timothy and Titus; but not of Paul, Peter, James, and John. I feel that this is a digression, but the importance of the subject must be my apology.
I. With regard to the ministerial office, the first thing that I would notice—is the importance of regarding it as an office which is built on plain warrant of holy scripture. It is “a gift,” solemnly and publicly conferred with “the laying on of hands.” There is great danger of forgetting this in the present day. On one side the reaction and rebound from Romish error, and the natural tendency of our minds to fly from one extreme to another, are calculated to make us underrate the value of a regular ministry. On the other side the bold assertion of the Plymouth Brethren, and others, that all forms, ministry, and systems are wrong, is likely to make us undervalue the importance of having an order of men specially called and set apart to preach the word, and attend to holy things. I abhor the idea of setting up ministers as mediators between Christ and the soul. I believe it was never intended that the outward government of Christian churches should be always one and the same. But notwithstanding all this, I firmly hold the opinion that the Christian ministry is of divine appointment. I am satisfied from examination of Scripture, that in every visible church there should be an order of men called and set apart for preaching and pastoral work. And with every feeling of respect for Christians who think otherwise, I must declare my own firm conviction, that the Christian ministry is plainly set forth in the epistles to Timothy and Titus, as an institution of God.
I would remark, in the next place, that although the Christian ministry is a Scriptural institution—we must be careful not to attach a superstitious value to what are commonly called “ordination,” and the ministerial office. There is always danger of doing this. The human mind is so weak, that it is constantly inclined to extremes. It is very common to see ministers taking an extravagant view of the benefits, powers, and privileges conferred on themselves by their ordination. Let it be a settled principle in our minds, that ordination is no magic charm. It does no one good automatically. It conveys no necessary accompaniments of grace or gifts. It endows a man with no infallibility. It does not invest him with any special capacity for expounding, explaining, and interpreting the Word of God without danger of mistake. It does not give him any power of conferring grace upon others. Above all, it does not make him a sacrificing priest, and a mediator between God and man.
All this should be well remembered. No doubt the man who offers himself for ordination with an honest and good heart, inwardly moved by the Holy Spirit, and sincerely desirous to preach not himself, but Christ—such an one may reasonably expect a special blessing on his ordination—a greater blessing than if he undertook to preach the Gospel of his own will, without any outward call. But the chief danger in the present day, is that of attaching an extravagant value to ordination. Let us be on our guard.
The next remark I will make, is one near akin to the last. We should beware of resting our claim to the people’s attention on our outward call only. It will never do to tell our people, “We are your ordained ministers, and therefore you must believe and follow whatever we tell you.” On the contrary, we must tell them to prove our teaching by Scripture, and not to receive it unless it is scriptural. That man has no right to expect the attention of his people, who does not preach the Gospel and live the Gospel. The rule of Paul is clear on this point. He told the Thessalonians to esteem their ministers very highly “for their work’s sake.” (1 Thess. 5:13.)
When there is no “work” done, it is vain to expect the people’s esteem. It should never be forgotten, that men have often received the outward call, and been regularly set apart and ordained—and yet been rather a curse to the Church of Christ than a blessing! Hophni and Phineas were in the regular succession from Aaron, and yet they made men abhor the offering of the Lord. (1 Sam. 2:17.) Annas and Caiaphas were in the right line from Aaron, and yet delivered our Lord to Pontius Pilate. Councils of regularly ordained and consecrated bishops have frequently sanctioned and decreed great heresies!
At the same time it is notorious that God has frequently granted large blessings to the labors of men who were never ordained at all. I need hardly remind you of the Quakers, of Howell Harris, of Robert Haldane, and many others. After all, I will take leave to remind my brethren, that the servant’s message is of far more importance than his ordination; and the physician’s skill in using medicines more valued by the patient, than his diploma. It is honorable to be sent as an ambassador from the King of kings on so important a matter as that of offering the peace of God to a sinful world. But the title of ‘ambassador’ is of no value at all, if we carry no message of peace, and have no tidings to tell about the King.
II. With regard to the other main part of my subject, that is, the imperative duty of “not neglecting the gift given to us,” I deeply feel my own need of exhortation from others. I trust that in speaking of it, you will believe I am addressing myself as well as others. Let Paul’s words ring in our ears this day: “neglect not the gift.” All ministers of the Gospel are in danger of neglecting their duty. There is a risk of getting into a state of melancholy and depression, when the first excitement and novelty of our office are worn off. Many, perhaps, expect what they have no right to expect, and then relapse into despondency, under the idea that they can do nothing, when they see sin and unbelief abounding around them. Against this desponding frame of mind all ministers need to be on their guard.
Above all men they need patience. He who cannot “wait” for fruit, as well as “work,” never ought to be ordained. But I may be allowed to say, that of all ministers, none are in such peculiar danger of “neglecting their gift,” as the ministers of the Established Church of England. Their position, no doubt, has its special advantages. But it has also its special perils. About the nature of these perils I beg leave to offer a few suggestions.
I would suggest, for one thing, to my brethren, that we all need to beware of ministerial indolence. It is painful to observe how easy it is for a watchman of souls to go back from his “first love,” and subside into a cold, apathetic, torpid frame of mind. No one is more liable to this, perhaps, than the rector of a parish in a rural district. I speak feelingly on this point. It is my own position. I am persuaded that we have certain peculiar temptations, from which our brethren in towns are very much exempt. The rector of a rural parish has frequently a sufficient income, a good house, and a small population. Very often he has no neighbors to hold communion with. His parishioners are probably farmers and laborers—people of little or no reading, or mental cultivation. The field for exercising his talents is naturally excessively small. It is difficult to fill up his time with ministerial work. The range of subjects he can handle in the pulpit is necessarily confined. I describe a common case, I believe. I declare my own conviction, that no state of things can be conceived more likely to bring over a man’s mind, insensibly almost to himself, stagnation and rust.
In fact, I firmly believe, that many a young minister, who at college distinguished himself, and took a good degree, has been lost, engulfed, and buried—so far as usefulness goes—by unhappily giving way to the habits of indolence, which such a position is calculated to engender. Many a clergyman who, at one time, did run well and bade fair to be an ornament to the Church of Christ, winds up with the ignominious label, of being nothing more than a clerical farmer, gardener, musician, or painter. I implore my rural brethren to remember this. I feel the approach of this plague often myself I am sure we have special need to beware of indolence.
I suggest, for another thing, that we ought to beware of neglecting the habit of reading. I do not wish to make an idol of learning and book knowledge; but I am satisfied that an unlearned ministry, in these days of progress and wide-spread education, will never command a people’s respect. Men must read, if their ministry is not to become threadbare, thin, and a mere repetition of hackneyed commonplaces. Always taking out of their minds, and never putting in—they must naturally come to the bottom. Reading will alone make a full man. And here I will just remark, that to meet the evils of the day, ministers must read books they do not agree with. They must show that they know the false doctrines they have to combat. Just as a doctor must be familiar with morbid anatomy and poisons, so must a minister be acquainted with the false doctrines of the present day.
I would suggest, for another thing, that we must beware of neglecting the preparation of our sermons. I am sorry to say there seems to me great need for this caution. I fear that many are apt to spend their whole time in their schools, in visiting their people, in attending to the sick, or in contriving and working “church machinery”, and so to leave themselves little or no time for preparation fo their sermons. I deeply regret this. It is a great mistake. No possible labor of a practical kind can ever compensate for inadequate preparation for the pulpit. A minister’s sermons should be incomparably the first and chief thing in his thoughts, every week that he lives. He must ever recollect that he is not ordained to be a schoolmaster, a relieving officer, or a doctor—but to preach the Word of God. The minister who slurs over his preaching under the excuse of other work, has no right to expect God’s blessing.
Men talk of “the foolishness of preaching,” as if that was a reason for neglecting their sermons. It should be remembered, that the foolishness of preaching is one thing, and foolish preaching quite another. It is impossible that a sermon which costs neither time nor thought, can, as a general rule, be good. What costs nothing—is generally worth nothing.
As to the idea of some, that preaching is not of so much importance now as formerly, I believe it to be wholly fallacious. On the contrary, I believe there never was a time when the pulpit had such power as it has now. Education has not made sermons useless. On the contrary, education has made men better judges of what sermons ought to be, and less likely to be satisfied with a weak and ill-digested sermon, than they were fifty years ago.
I cannot help remarking before I leave this part of my subject, how much it is to be regretted that the preparation of young men for the ministerial office, is so thoroughly inadequate as it is at present. Is there a single theological college at this day, to which anyone could, with entire satisfaction, recommend a young man to go? I believe in my conscience, that there is none. I regard this as one of the gloomiest points in the position of the Church of England. The sources from which the ministry is supplied are not trustworthy. I consider one of the great needs of the day to be a new theological college, in some central position, for training young men for the ministry, at a moderate expense, on a thoroughly sound Protestant and evangelical basis. I earnestly hope the day may come when such a college may be called into being.
I would suggest, in the next place, that we must beware of conformity to the world. The ministers of the Church of England are in special danger of this. Their position in society lays them open to many temptations. Their families are often occasions of shortcoming. Worldliness is destructive to usefulness. The clergyman whose own life and family are worldly, will find exhortations against worldliness go for very little with his people.
I would suggest, in the last place, that we must beware of formality. Familiarity with sacred things is very dangerous. Unless a minister watches his own spirit, he may get into the habit of doing the most spiritual acts in a mere perfunctory way. It is possible to preach the truth forcibly—to read the service solemnly—and visit a parish regularly—and yet to have a heart wandering away into the ends of the earth. This is a point on which the utmost vigilance is needed.
I will conclude all I have said, by reminding you, that the secret of our strength, must be daily communion with the Lord Jesus. To be safe, we must be watchful, humble, self-denying, prayerful, and given to much private meditation.
I am satisfied that the happiest minister is the man who most diligently discharges the office committed to him. None, I am sure, is so miserable as the minister, who, from indolence, or any other motive, lives below his light, and neglects his work. After all, no work is so satisfactory, and so lasting—as the work of a faithful preacher of the Gospel. None have so good a Master. None will receive such wages. A missionary who had labored for the Wesleyan Society, and died at the age of ninety-five, heard his friends round his death-bed saying one to another, “What would our old friend do, if he had to live his life over again?” He rose on his pillow, and said, “The very best thing that a man can do, is to preach the Gospel!”
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