James Fraser of Alness (3)
This is the final section of a paper given at the Theological Conference of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in 2008. Its full title was, ‘James Fraser of Alness and the Preaching of the Gospel’. The previous two sections were: (1) James Fraser, the Man, and (2) James Fraser’s Magnum Opus.1
3. James Fraser as Preacher and on Preaching
James Fraser was primarily a preacher. Alan P F Sell, with justification, states in the Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology: ‘His preaching was noted for producing great heart-searching and the conviction of sinners’. In Some Noted Ministers of the Northern Highlands, Rev D Beaton states that ‘the solemn and searching truths he declared made careless sinners ill at ease. The claims of God’s law and its threatenings were set before them. Christ was held up to them as God’s provision for the lost after they had been driven out of all refuges of lies.’ The account of some of his hearers going to Kilmuir Easter to have their spiritual wounds healed has left the impression which Dr Sell puts in its most extreme form when he says: ‘Fraser, we are told, excelled in preaching “the law”, and in appealing for conversion he neglected the edification of his flock’.2
Given the fact that the exposition of Scripture found in the Treatise on Sanctification and in Fraser’s three published sermons is very much directed to the edification and comfort and counselling of the Lord’s people it seems rather strange that Dr Kennedy says that ‘his preaching, at least during a great part of his ministry, was mainly directed to the awakening and conversion of sinners, and was not so edifying and consoling to the Lord’s people’, especially as he has so accurately just described the only sermons that we do have as ‘full, clear and unctuous in their statements of gospel truth, close and searching in their practical uses of doctrine, tender and wise in the counsels and encouragements given to believers, and solemn and powerful in appeals to the unconverted’. In presenting an extract from the Treatise on Sanctification as a specimen ‘of Highland expository preaching in the eighteenth century’ in his Sermons by Noted Ministers of the Northern Highlands,3 Mr Beaton concludes that it shows that Mr Fraser ‘was accustomed to give substantial spiritual food to his hearers’.
In the Appendix to his Treatise, entitled ‘Concerning the True Evangelical Preaching’, Fraser warns against the kind of preaching common among the Moderates, which treated all the hearers as Christians and addressed them indiscriminately, ‘without any hint of the difference there may be as to their real spiritual state’. He says that
this way of preaching tends to keep persons in ignorance of their natural condition and of the sad disadvantage which they therein labour under with respect to true holiness; or to cause them to overlook it, and to imagine their powers amount to more than they do.
He goes on to say that
the first main intention, therefore, of the preacher with respect to such sinners should be to bring them truly to Christ, by the faith that would truly unite them to Him, and derive from Him peace and comfort, sanctifying influence and strength, that so, being married to Him, they might bring forth fruit unto God . . . Subservient to this main intention is the other; namely, to acquaint such sinners with the wretchedness of their condition, by the light of the law; to show them the evil of sin in itself, and the fearful judgement, curse and wrath, which by the law is due to it; to explain to them the holiness which the holy and spiritual law requires; and besides their actual sins, to mark out to them the contrariety to this holiness which they may observe in their own nature and heart, by comparing these with the perfect rule and the light of the Word of God; and to convince them by the Word of God, and what they may find in their own experience, how impossible it is for them (being slaves of sin, and it having invested all their faculties and powers), to reform or sanctify their own hearts, or to practise holiness in a manner truly sincere and acceptable to God . . .
At the same time, with a view to sinners becoming serious and earnest in the matter of salvation, it is fit that the preacher lay fully before them the abounding and exceeding riches of divine grace; the sufficiency of the Saviour; His love to sinners; the complacency He hath in their betaking themselves to Him; and the absolute freeness (without money and without price) with which Christ, and all grace, is offered in the gospel, even to the chief of sinners. This should be done in such a manner as to obviate the temptations of various sorts, which arise from their own ignorance and mistake, or from the device of the enemy; which by reason of the darkness and weakness of their minds they are commonly too ready to entertain to their great hurt. It was appointed anciently that the highways to the city of refuge should be open and clear, that nothing might impede the course of a man thither when he was fleeing from the avenger: So should the preacher labour, by the direction of the Word of God, to obviate and remove everything that might discourage or hinder the motion of a serious and humbled sinner towards Christ by faith for refuge and salvation.
This would seem to describe the kind of preaching for which Mr Fraser was famed and which was blessed to so many.
But he does not think that this is all the preacher has to do.
The other class of whom the preacher ought to have much consideration are sincere believers, who are truly in a state of grace. The important intention with regard to them is the building them up in holiness and comfort – in comfort, particularly in what concerns their sanctification; as indeed their feelings and experience do often occasion more sorrow and discouragement with regard to this subject than with regard to any other. Yet it is of great importance that their comfort and joy should be maintained, as the joy of the Lord is their strength.
In this the preacher is to follow the Apostle, whose
special purpose is to exhort to the practice of holiness, to the avoiding and resisting of sin. But he brings forth every argument clothed, as it were, with consolation respecting the subject (concerning which Christians do commonly find such cause of discouragement) and respecting the certain and happy issue . . . the Apostle’s arguments against sin and for enforcing the practice of holiness are all along dipped in consolation, and this way ought the preacher of the gospel to follow in exhorting Christians to holiness.
The preaching must indeed take account of the fact that Christians sometimes need something other than consolation.
But it is still true in general that Christians, from their inward and outward condition in this evil world, do need that care should be taken by preachers and others, to labour in advancing and establishing their comfort, in the proper, seasonable, judicious and well warranted manner.
Acknowledging that it is not always the gospel that is preached from the pulpit and that there may be much truth consistent with the gospel in a discourse without the gospel being in it, he says that
of such a discourse, with all its advantage of sentiment and expression, it may be said, as the Apostle says of the law, that it is weak through the flesh. The corruption of nature, in which sin hath dominion, is too strong for philosophy, logic and rhetoric – too strong for refined speculation, strong arguments and the greatest oratory.
All revealed truth ought to be greatly valued, and received by faith; and if properly used may be subservient to the main subject and design of the gospel. But the special subject of the gospel is Christ; and preaching Christ, according to the light and direction of the Word of God, is preaching the gospel . . . To preach Christ the Saviour and the Lord is the sum of gospel-preaching.
He recognises that more is needful in preaching Christ than just mentioning His name and that
if it is fit and necessary to preach Christ and Him crucified and the special doctrine of the gospel concerning Him, it is also necessary to set forth and to inculcate earnestly the design of His death and of the grace manifested in the gospel through Him. If it was His gracious design to bring sinners to peace, grace and favour with God, and at last to a state of blessedness and glory, it was no less His design to sanctify them . . . They are particularly happy who have the skill to give free grace through Jesus Christ and holiness their proper place, in a proper connection the one with the other . . . When the truths of faith are effectually received into the heart, they of themselves dispose it to holiness; and the true faith of these truths works by that love which is the fulfilling of the law . . .
But still the practice of holiness and good works is of too much consequence not to be insisted on and urged in the most careful, direct and earnest manner. Some who insist only on the encouragements and consolations of grace are defective in this respect . . . The doctrine of Christ crucified and the consolations arising from the richness and freeness of divine grace through Him may be to many ‘as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument’ (Ezek. 28:32), when these doctrines have never been truly, and with proper effect, received into their hearts.
There is a description of sermons that do not urge the holiness which the hearts of too many professed Christians are not disposed to, that do not reprove their vices and unholy passions, or the false and foul steps in their walk, or their unfruitfulness in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ; and the preachers themselves may be greatly applauded whilst their preaching is very defective. Yea, as the children of God themselves have the remainders of the flesh in them, they sometimes have much of the fruit thereof in their disposition, temper and behaviour, that they do not choose should be touched or exposed in a proper light to their own view. Yet the health and purity of their souls require that these evils should not be cherished under any disguises.
He then goes on to outline some arguments, ‘consistent with the doctrine of grace, by which the preacher may excite Christians to watchfulness against sin and to the practice of holiness and of all kinds of good works’. Time prevents us from going into these.
He concludes that
it becomes ministers to labour in leading persons to know themselves and to know Christ, to mark out to them by the light of God’s Word the way in which they ought to walk, and to enforce holy practice by evangelical principles, arguments and motives, which alone will have effect.
In 1785 three Sermons on Sacramental Occasions were published, one on Hebrews 9:14: ‘How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?’ and two on James 1:22: ‘But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves’. These sermons, as seems to have been typical of Highland Evangelical preaching in the first half of the eighteenth century, follow the Puritan pattern. The text is set in its context. As far as is necessary an explanation is given of the words and clauses in the text. Then the doctrine to be drawn from the text is stated and this is broken down into several points which the bulk of the sermon expounds. Finally there is what he calls ‘the improvement of this subject’ in which the teaching is applied to the hearers in a way which brings out its doctrinal, experimental and practical implications for them. These sermons illustrate the principles which James Fraser commended to others: that preaching should centre upon Christ and should urge the practice of holiness from gospel motives.In his writings, James Fraser takes up, by the way, questions which are of concern to awakened souls.
(1) Speaking of the call addressed to sinners to seek grace from God, he asks:
By what good reason, or to what good purpose, can such sinners be urged and exhorted to do as hath now been said, if the truth of the case is, indeed, that a sinner in his natural condition, in the flesh and under the law, cannot do anything pleasing to God, or acceptable; and that no assurance can be given him of any spiritual mercy or blessing to be certainly connected with the utmost exertion of his natural powers, which in this state he is capable of, in seeking God and His mercy?
He does not encourage sinners to think that ‘if they do what they can by their natural powers, grace will not be wanting to connect certain spiritual blessings with their earnest endeavours’. But he does maintain that
the command to seek God, and to believe in Jesus Christ – to believe the testimony and record of God concerning Him – lays obligation to these duties on everyone to whom such command is directed, as it is to everyone who hears the gospel. It therefore becomes every such sinner to be very careful that his conscience and heart be duly affected with the authority and encouragement of such command, and with the obligation it lays upon him, so as to exert himself in the duties required, and that with the most earnest endeavour . . .
Christ is offered to the sinner – he should attempt to lay hold of Him. His hand is withered; but he should, without hesitation, stretch forth his withered hand at Christ’s command, which is a command of grace, and often conveys the strength needful for the obedience required . . . Nor should he for this require any other internal call than that of his needy condition. Neither should he require to have his faith warranted by having the secrets of the divine counsels displayed to him; nor needs he to entertain notions, not sufficiently warranted in the Scripture, as that Christ gave Himself alike a ransom for all and every one of mankind. He hath most sufficient warrant for his faith in Jesus Christ by the full and free offer and call of the gospel and by God’s testimony and command.
(2) He discusses whether repentance or faith comes first in the conversion of a sinner and what degree of law-work is necessary.
(3) He discusses the relative place of fear and love in promoting holiness.
(4) He discusses how a moral agent acts freely, though his will is in bondage to the sin of his nature.
(5) In his ‘great sermon’ on Hebrews 9:14, he deals with the objection of a soul who says that he would willingly receive Christ but that in the light of the unchangeable counsel of God he sees no evidence that Christ was intended for him. Among other answers to this objection he points out that ‘the counsel of God concerning the extent of Christ’s death hath no relation at all to our warrant for laying hold of Christ by faith’. A man standing in front of a gun about to be fired and asked to step aside would not stand there until he could be assured that God had determined his safety.
All the eternal decrees and purposes of heaven may perish, change or come to nothing, as soon as this declaration and rule of grace, He that believeth shall be saved, and he that cometh unto Me will I in no wise cast off, fail or come short in truth and accomplishment.’
In publishing the Sermons, John Russell wrote: ‘I know not how to render a more important and essential service to my Christian friends, and particularly to my younger brethren in the ministry, than to be happily instrumental in putting them into their hands’. The reading or rereading of the Treatise and the Sermons is recommended, as they really bring one into contact with the ‘pure river of water of life’. They make the preacher wonder if he has ever preached, which is not always a bad thing, however humbling, and they are full of satisfying provision for the hungry soul.
- Reproduced with kind permission from The Free Presbyterian Magazine, July 2010.
- Records of the Scottish Church History Society, vol 23, part 1, 1987.
- Both this title and Some Noted Ministers of the Northern Highlands have been reprinted by Free Presbyterian Publications.
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