Heart Talks

By Elmer Ellsworth Shelhamer

Chapter 27


By Thomas Coke


     The man who engages in the work of the ministry is not merely accountable to God for his own soul, but becomes responsible also for the souls of those who have been committed to his care. The sacred writings have guarded his office with the most awful sanctions. Both promises and threatenings conspire to keep alive his hopes and fears, by holding out in the most pointed. language, the rewards or punishments which await him in a future world. On the one hand, we are assured that "they who turn many to righteousness, shall shine as the stars forever and ever;" while, on the other hand, we are clearly informed that "those watchmen who see the sword coming and neglect to give the people warning shall have their blood required at their hands."

     The purity of Christianity, wherever it has flourished, never has begun to decay but with the fall of the ministry, and disorder has generally begun at the house of God. Thus it is in a considerable measure we who decide, if I may so speak, on the salvation or damnation of the people. We are so situated that we can neither stand nor fall alone: the destiny of those souls over whom we are set is, in a considerable degree, awfully attached to ours! Certainly, my brethren, a bad minister is the greatest plague which the wrath of God can suffer to spring up among any people The corruption of the ministry has always been the grand source of the corruption of a people.

     We have had our Wesleys, our Fletchers, our Grinshaws, and our Walshes. Everything was borne down by their holy eloquence, and by the power of the Spirit of God who spoke through them. The villages, the towns, the cities could not resist the impetuosity of their zeal and the eminent sanctity of their lives; the tears, the sighs, and the deep compunction of those who heard them were the commendations which accompanied their ministry. The strictness of their manners left nothing for the world to say against the truths which they delivered. The simplicity of their spirit and the gentleness of their conversation and conduct toward others, but severity toward themselves, belied not the gospel of which they were ministers. Their examples instructed, persuaded and struck the people almost as much as their sermons, and the Spirit of God, who inflamed their hearts, the divine fire with which they themselves were filled, spread through the coldest and most insensible souls and enabled them almost everywhere to raise chapels -- temples to God, where the penitents and believers might assemble to hear them and each return inflamed like themselves and filled with the abundance of the Spirit of God. Oh, what good is one apostolic man capable of working upon earth!

     "Nothing is more opposed," says St. Chrysostom, "to the spirit of the ministry to which the Church of Christ has joined us than a quiet and retired life, which many erroneously regard as the kind of life the most sublime and perfect." No sooner does everything commodious in the present life offer its tempting baits, but with too many, that fire of zeal, that flame of lore for the salvation of souls, vanishes away like the morning dew, to the astonishment of the discerning beholder. No, my brethren, let us not deceive ourselves; for, as I have already said and must repeat again, however well regulated the life of such a minister may seem, he has but the appearance of piety; he has not the foundation and truth of it; he seems to live, but he is dead in the sight of God: men perhaps may praise him, but God curses him: the regularity of his life now lulls him to sleep; but a terrible sound and the clamors of the souls which he suffered to perish shall one day awaken him thoroughly.

     "You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work; go always not only to those that want, but to those that want you most. Observe! It is not your business only to preach so many times and 10 take care of this or that study, but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance, and with all your power to build them up in that holiness without which they cannot see the Lord."


     I. Reproof a Christian Duty

     Depend on it, my brethren, it alway costs us something of the dignity and holy gravity of our office to purchase the friendship and suffrages of men of the world: it is not they who will abate of their prejudices and false maxims to unite themselves to us: it is we only, who must abate the holy rules of the gospel to be admitted to their societies.

     And need I here remind you, brethren, of that peculiar characteristic of the Methodists, that they are a race of reprovers. It is their reproach, it is their honor, it is the glory of the cross they bear, that every Christian of every sect and party who dares become a reprover of vice is immediately stigmatized with the name of Methodist. May we never lose that cross, that glory, till vice is banished from the world and "the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea!"

     A minister of the gospel is a public character, charged with the interests of the glory of God and the honor of religion among men; he ought, therefore, never to suffer men of the world, whoever they may be, to pass without a bold, though holy reproof, when the respect due to the majesty of God is wounded, when the precious and sublime doctrines of the gospel are treated with derision, when vice is justified, or holiness and virtue turned into ridicule; in short, when impiety in discourse dishonors the presence of God and the presence of His ministers. Ah! it is then that the piety and dignity of a minister should no more prescribe to him any other measure or bounds but that of zeal -- the zeal which is the flame of love mixed with the just indignation of a lover of God. It is then that, charged by his office with the interests of religion, he should know no one after the flesh: he should forget the names, the titles, the distinctions of those who forget themselves; he should remember that he is appointed of God a preacher of righteousness and endued with power from heaven to oppose all manner of sin, and especially to set himself with a sacred intrepidity against that impious and detestable pride which would exalt itself against the knowledge of God. Whatever persons they be who do not treat with respect in your presence that which is the most respectable of all things in the universe should not be respected by you. We ought to hear them with that kind of indignation with which we believe Christ Himself would have heard them. I am persuaded that the pointed strength of reproof is the only kind of propriety which our character then imposes upon us: we are not then required to use soft expressions, "Nay, my son, it is no good report that I hear." Whether they will hear or whether they will forbear, we should deliver our own souls.

     Oh, that I could impress these important truths with the fullest conviction upon all our hearts! What a flame would soon be kindled in the world! What could not a thousand traveling preachers in Europe and America do for their Master, if all were thoroughly filled with this spirit of holy zeal! But should we confine our observation to these alone? Certainly our local preachers, exhorters and even our leaders are, in their respective degrees, called to reprove, rebuke and exhort.

     There is nothing, therefore, my brethren, more deceitful than the idea of gaining the esteem and good opinion of the world by familiarizing ourselves and mixing often with it. The more the world sees us, except in our public duties, the more will it either hate or despise us. It hates us from the instant it feels that we will not put up with its manners. Let us very rarely have anything to do with it, and we shall appear in its eyes with greater dignity and be treated with greater respect. Let us attend to every due and proper call which the world may justly require of us as well as to all the demands of charity and good works; but let us always conduct ourselves as the ambassadors of Jesus Christ, as in some sense filling His place.

     We must die to the world or partake of its spirit. We cannot serve God and mammon. "The Methodist preachers," said the late Rev Charles Wesley to me once, "do not fully consider all the blessings of their situation; "one of the greatest of which," added he, "is that wall of contempt with which you are surrounded and which preserves you from a thousand temptations to which the clergy in general are exposed, by keeping the world at a distance from you.

     The cares, the solicitudes, the employments of the world, when you enter into them, will rob you of your unction, however your natural or improved talents may remain, and will not only profane, but in time entirely destroy all the genuine virtue of your vocation and bring you thoroughly under the yoke of the world. The vessels and ornaments which were used in the temple under the law were never appropriated to common use; it would have been a crime which would have defiled their consecration.

     O, thou holy doctrine of the cross, how little art thou known by those ministers who enter into the affairs, agitations and commotions of this miserable world! The apostle has warned them in vain, that "no man who warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier."

     Nothing, my brethren, so softens the firmness and fidelity of the ministerial spirit as the busy commerce of the world. We enter by little, and imperceptibly, into its prejudices, its excuses and all its vain reasonings. The more we meddle with it, the less we find it culpable. We can at last even plead for its softness, its idleness, its luxury and its ambition. We begin, like the world, to give soft names to all these passions and indulgences. It requires strength of grace to pardon an injury; to speak all the good we can of those who calumniate us; or to bide the defects of those who would destroy our reputation or usefulness. It requires strength of grace to fly from a world which allures us; to snatch ourselves from pleasures or to oppose inclinations which would draw us into evil; to resist customs to which the usage of the world has given the authority of laws or to use prosperity in a Christian spirit. It requires strength of grace to conquer ourselves; to repress the rising desire; to stifle the pleasing sentiments. In a word, the whole life of a true disciple of Jesus Christ hears the character of the cross; and if we lose for an instant this strength of grace, we fall. To say, then, that you cannot endure afflictions because you are weak, is to say that you are destitute of the spirit of the gospel.

     He is like a skillful surgeon, who has pity indeed on the cries and sufferings of his patient, and yet cuts to the quick all that he finds corrupted in the wound; he is never more kind or beneficent to his servants than when he appears to be most severe; and it is indubitably evident that afflictions are necessary and useful to us, since a God so good and so kind can resolve to lay them upon us.

     If the sacred writings, by which we shall be judged, make every idle word a transgression; if the gospel exacts from every private Christian such circumspection, reserve and modesty in his conversation -- what does if not require from the immediate ministers of Jesus Christ! The lips of ministers are, next to the Word of God, the depositories of divine knowledge, which they are incessantly to administer to the people.


     II. Prayer a Mighty Force

     We are my brethren, divinely appointed to combat the vices and unruly passions of the world, to destroy the empire of the devil among men and to establish and to extend the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Our ministry snatches us from external repose and clothes us with armor, but our arms are only faith and prayer working by love. It is from these divine arms, under grace, that all our instructions, all our labors and all our efforts derive their whole strength and success. Without these, we are but weak, rash men. I appeal to you, my brethren, for the truth of my observation, that a holy minister, as a man of prayer, with only moderate talents, will be more successful, will leave his congregation more affected and influenced by his discourse, than many others whose talents are vastly superior, but who have not by prayer drawn down that unction, that tender taste of piety) which alone knows how to speak to the heart. Without the Divine Unction the whole is but as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. The preacher speaks only to the ears of his audience, or at best to their understandings, merely because the Spirit of God speaks not by his mouth. The spirit by which he speaks and which animates his tongue is not that spirit of unction, of force, of fire, which as it formerly moved on the face of the waters, so now moves upon the passions of the heart quiet in its sins, troubles it, agitates it, and then separates it and clears up the chaos. It is in vain for him to thunder or borrow his zeal from without -- throughout the whole, he only, as the Apostle speaks, "beats the air."

     No, my brethren! Take from a minister the spirit of prayer, and you take from him his soul, his strength, his life: he is no more than a dead carcass which quickly infects those who approach it. Though every genuine Christian is a king and priest to God and the Father, ministers especially are the public conduit pipes through which the divine grace and blessings run to the people.

     A minister who lives not in the spirit and exercise of prayer, who prays only in a formal manner at set seasons to satisfy a hardened conscience, is no pastor: he is a stranger who is nowise interested by the wants of his flock; the people who are intrusted to his care are not his children; they are poor orphans without a father; his heart, his bowels say nothing in their behalf. He fills the place of a holy Shepherd whose prayers would have drawn down a thousand blessings on the poor flock, and is absolutely guilty, in a great degree, of all the crimes which the prayers of a holy man would have prevented. Examine, therefore, if you be faithful in representing to God all the wants of your people; if you be solicitous, importunate to draw down upon them the gracious regard of a good God. Oh, brethren, the fervent prayers of a faithful pastor are rarely useless. That God who has charged us to pray for our people has also promised to hear us.

     Let us, my brethren, lay to heart these sacred truths. Let us never lose sight of them through the course of our lives. The spirit of prayer is the essential spirit of Christianity. But it is the SOUL, THE SUBSTANCE, the LIFE of a GOSPEL MINISTRY. In short, a real minister of the gospel is a man of prayer. Prayer is his grand employment, his safety, his first and perpetual duty; and I may add is, under grace, the grand source of his consolation. Our instructions will be always barren if they be not watered with our tears and prayers. Even if our gifts be small, but we support them by our prayers, our defects will be, in a great measure, supplied, and divine unction become the blessed substitute.