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The Spiritual Condition of the Ministry and Its Influence on the People

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Category Articles
Date February 4, 2022

Later in 2022, the Banner will be re-issuing the Memoir of Alexander Moody Stuart by his son, Kenneth Moody Stuart. Principal John Macleod, in his Scottish Theology, commented that there were ‘few ministerial biographies that are better worth reading.’ Join the waitlist to be informed of when this inspiring title is released. This article is included in the book, and was originally delivered to a ministers’ conference in 1865.

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It is almost overwhelming for a minister to consider the likeness of the people to the priest, to see his own image reflected on them for good or for evil, himself multiplied a hundredfold. No doubt you may see a member, an elder, a deacon, a precentor, or door-keeper in a church, sitting for twenty years under a ministry of a very marked character, without a single feature transferred from the pulpit to the pew; and over many of his hearers, the most faithful pastor must often complain, ‘I have laboured in vain, and spent my strength for nought.’ But, on the other hand, the minister is very commonly reflected in many of his people, and his cast of thought is frequently exaggerated in its reappearance among them.

For example, in Brainerd’s converts among the native Americans, his doctrines and his own experience were brought out in a depth of humiliation beyond what he had himself preached; yet it was the natural fruit of his preaching, and still more of his spiritual experience. There is no reason to doubt that a similar process is taking place, to a greater or less extent, in all our congregations, and that our people are imbibing both our doctrine and our spirit; our earnestness, our humility, our love, our faith, our repentance, our joy, our prayerfulness; or our sloth, our self-sufficiency, our narrow­-mindedness, our worldliness; our heavenliness, our lively hope, our spiritual insight, or our blindness to the unseen and the future, to God, to Christ, to heaven, to hell, and the value of the souls of men.

Independently of preaching, and even of personal intercourse, our spiritual state tells continually upon our people. In our preaching it is often what is within us, in the hidden thought of our own hearts, that influences our hearers more than the mere words that are flowing from our lips.

Freshness of Spirit

But to be more specific, it is freshness of spirit that tells more on people than any other mental condition. Freshness of desire, of faith, of hope, of repentance, of love, seems to have far greater moving power than the amount of actual spiritual attainment. A minister’s attainment appears to produce no effect on his people in comparison with his progress. The greatest of all effects has sometimes been produced by a preacher awakened and inquiring; directing his people toward a Saviour still only sought for by himself, and at length finding him along with them. Freshness or reality is that which is most of all influential for good in the ministry.

Freshness of spirit has its origin and daily maintenance in personal intercourse with the Living God. To stand in Jehovah’s secret conclave or council, ‘to hear and mark his words,’ to get them there fresh for ourselves, and so to carry them fresh to the people, is the great condition of ministerial success. Other things we may have, or lacking them we may be losers by the want; but this is essential to life, and for it everything else must give place. Whatever time it takes, we must have this intercourse with our Master. ‘Behold, I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that steal my words everyone from his neighbour. I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran. I sent them not, nor commanded them: therefore they shall not profit this people at all’ (Jer. 23:30-32). No doubt this prompt running seems to save time and labour. We have not found God, Christ, the Spirit, for ourselves; but we have the words of the Lord, and we may run with these at once to the people. But our Lord brands these as ‘stolen’ words, even when they are his own, but heard only at second hand by us; and denounces the hasty self-sent messenger as wholly profitless to the people.

The Incalculable Power of Faith

Immediately connected with freshness of spirit or the ‘dew of youth,’ there is another spiritual element of incalculable power in preaching; that is, faith. There is no gift more valuable for the ministry than faith in God that he will not let his word return to him void. But besides that faith in the promise of God, which we should all cherish habitually in preaching the gospel, there is another development of faith of a subtler and rarer character, yet undoubtedly the mightiest element of all in the success of the word. This faith is most rare and precious, hard to find, not easy to retain, and difficult to describe; yet wonderfully simple to the soul to which it is given, and marvellously communicative in its effect on the souls of others. Under any powerful work of the Spirit in a neighbourhood it is often habitual or abiding in the heart, and the man who is thus ‘full of faith and of the Holy Ghost’ seems to be enabled to carry this faith with him to other places, and to be used to kindle the fire of Divine love where all was dark and frozen before.

I have conversed about it with some of the most thoughtful and successful Irish ministers after their Great Revival was past. They said that during that whole period, as compared with the previous years of their ministry, the chief and most characteristic difference consisted in a faith which they had never known before, and which they could not command or recall afterwards, but which was then simple and abiding in their own hearts, and in their daily ministrations to the souls of others. They believed, and therefore spoke; they spoke and believed that God would own their words, and that their preaching would by the Spirit work conviction, enlightenment and salvation; and they were not disappointed. Daily believing thus, daily they were not put to shame; for the Lord himself confirmed the word daily with signs following.

The soul of every child of the kingdom ought always to be in some right state towards God; if not of joy for his presence, yet of grief for his absence; if not of victory, yet of true conflict; if not of cleaving to the Lord with purpose of heart, yet of distress for cleaving to the dust. Our hearts ought always to be right towards God. Adequate time given to the word of God and prayer will usually suffice for the righting of the heart. It may not soon effect its restoration, but it will commonly obtain at least this blessed issue, ‘My desire is toward thee, and to the remembrance of thy holiness.’ A passing desire will not suffice, for the sluggard desireth and hath not; a brief effort may bring only a transient amendment; the ordinary exercises of devotion may end, and leave the spirit as lifeless as when they began. In that case we cannot always resolve with Robert M‘Cheyne, on a particular occasion, ‘I cannot begin my work, for I have not yet seen the face of my God’; for the work may be such that we must enter upon it, however ill prepared. But we may often follow his example; our work may often lie over till we have seen the face of our God, and be both faster and better done through the holy delay and the Divine help; and to a spirit resolved to ‘seek first his kingdom and righteousness’ the delay occasioned by the search will commonly be very brief. In a minister’s daily walk with God one unwatchful hour may involve great loss to himself, which, if not soon repaired, may entail a serious injury to his people.

The Key to a Long and Fruitful Ministry

There must for a lengthened ministry be spiritual growth, and therefore spiritual variety. If there is the same man in the pulpit, with the same people in the pews for many years, there is a great risk of his rehearsing the same thoughts to unimpressed listeners. Now, while reading and study and other means are necessary to variety, and largely conducive to it, there is nothing so helpful as personal spiritual growth, because there is no such sameness as the sameness of death. Life is variety; death is sameness.

A minister should also seek indefatigably to be an example to his people, and ought therefore to aim at being the holiest man in his congregation; the meekest, the lowliest, the kindest, the most joyful, most watchful, most prayerful, the strongest in faith, the liveliest in hope, the highest above self, the nearest to God and to heaven, the purest or the least spotted image of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our falling almost infinitely short of this standard, is no reason why it should not be our earnest and constant aim. The sight of many members of our flock before us in the race will not fill us with grief, but with joy; yet we ought to grieve deeply for our own lagging behind them. Perhaps ministers, while far from being the least, are not commonly the most spiritual in their churches. Now, certainly, on every account a minister ought to be the holiest man in his congregation. His spiritual life is of ten times more importance than that of any other member in his church; and his calling and position are far more favourable to holiness than any other vocation. His calling shuts him up, more than any other, to the daily and weekly need of Divine help, and grace is promised and given according to need; given, that is, to faith apprehending both the need and the promise. He is tempted by Satan as no other member of his church is tempted, and stronger temptation, if resisted, ensures more abundant grace; he is prayed for by his people as no other member is prayed for; and above all, he who walks amid the golden candlesticks holds him more than any other as a star in his own right hand.

Blessed be God the highest specimens of saints have been ministers of the gospel in all ages of the Church, and it was their being great among the saints that rendered them great in the ministry. Moses and Elijah, John and Paul, were quite as eminent among the saints of God as among the ministers of his word. But so amongst intellectual and studious men were Augustine, Owen, Edwards, and hundreds of others, higher as saints in the kingdom than as preachers of the gospel; and probably nearer to God and liker to Christ than any of their hearers. So likewise with working pastors of parishes, with Newtons and Venns in England, with Calders in the Highlands and Bostons in the Lowlands of Scotland, and with men like M‘Cheyne in our own day; they were eminent in the ministry, chiefly because they were eminent in grace; and they could, with Paul, say truly to their people, ‘Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.’

Clearly this is not the exceptional, but the normal state of the gospel ministry; yet we seem to be too often contented with a sadly lower state. The Father is glorified by our bearing much fruit; but there is light never to be neglected thrown on the nature of the fruit and the manner of the fruit-bearing by the accompanying words, ‘He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit.’

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