The character of enthusiastic hearers considered.
Matt. xiii. 5, 6
Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth. And when the sun was up, they were scorched, and because they had not root, they withered away.
Our Saviour’s view in this parable is, to lay open the principles, motives, and conduct of the various sorts of persons who hear the gospel. The characters he draws are four—the INATTENTIVE—the ENTHUSIASTIC—the WORLDLY-MINDED—the SINCERE. The first of these we have considered, and proceed now,
SECONDLY, to the ENTHUSIASTIC, or those upon whom to appearance the word has an instantaneous and mighty effect, but who yet reap no real advantage from it. The temper and conduct of these persons are strikingly represented in the text, which our Saviour thus expounds (v. 20, 21) : He that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it: yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended. Here are four things to be distinctly considered,
I. The character of these hearers, previous to their hearing the word:
II. The effect it instantly produces on their minds:
III. Their failure afterwards: and,
Iv. The cause of their apostasy. We begin,
I. With the character of these hearers previous to their hearing the word.
They are compared to stony or rocky ground (Luke viii. 6), which is unfavourable to cultivation; but yet has a little mould or earth cast over it, suited to receive seed, in which it may lodge a while and disseminate itself. So that this ground is partly bad and partly good. And thus are very aptly described the miserably perverse and depraved state of the will, on the one hand, and the warmth and liveliness of the natural passions, on the other. These qualities often meet in one and the same person, and bear a different aspect to religion, the one beign unfavourable and the other favourable to it.
1. It is true of these hearers that their will is wretchedly depraved.
Stone is a figure used in scripture to signify the obstinate aversion of the mind to what is holy and good. So Ezekiel speaks of a stony heart, in opposition to a heart of flesh (Ezek. xxxvi. 25); and Paul of the living epistles of Christ being written not on tables of stone, but fleshy tables of the heart (2 Cor. iii. 3) . There is in persons of this character a certain prejudice against serious religion, which perversely resists all reasonings, expostulations and persuasions respecting it. Their carnal minds are enmity against God, for they are not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. (Rom. viii. 7). Their words are stout against God (Mal. iii. 13). They say, Who is the Lord that we should obey his voice (Exod. v.2)? What is the Almighty that we should serve him (Job xxi. 15). We will not have God to reign over us (Luke xix. 14). We will walk after our own devices, and we will every one do the imagination of his evil heart (Jer. xviii. 12). Thus they make their faces harder than a rock (Jer. v. 3), and their hearts as an adamant stone lest they should hear the law (Zech. vii. 12). They are stiff-hearted, rebellious, and impudent (Ezek. ii. 3, 4); not only alienated from the life of God, but in some instances, past feeling (Eph. Iv. 18, 19).
What a miserable state of the human mind is this! Hearts thus set on iniquity, and thus unyielding to the dictates of conscience, providence, and the scriptures; may well be compared to stony, flinty, or rocky ground. There are indeed degrees of depravity, and some men through sinful indulgence become more stupid than others; so that their consciences are said to be seared with a hot iron (1 Tim. iv. 2). But it is true of all, while in a natural state, that their will is averse to that which is good. They do not with their mind serve God, and they will not come unto Christ that they might have life. Wherefore the figurative language of the text applies to the sort of hearers we are now discoursing of, in common with all others in an unrenewed state.—And yet, with all this depravity of the will, they have,
2. Warm and lively passions: a circumstance not a little favourable to religion.
This is admirably expressed by the earth or mould said to be cast over the rock, which was of a nature so rich and luxuriant that the seed instantly mingled with it, and expanding sprung up, and created a beautiful verdure which promised great fruitfulness. Nothing was wanting to produce the desired effect, but a sufficient depth of earth. Had the ground at the bottom been properly cultivated, this fine mould cast upon it would have assisted and forwarded vegetation: but that remaining hard and rocky, this had only a temporary effect, and served little other purpose than to deceive the expectation of the husbandman.
Such is truly the case in the matter before us. The heart, like the stony ground, is indisposed to what is good; and the affections, like the earth cast over it, are warm and lively: wherefore the word not entering into the former, and yet mingling with the latter, produces no real fruit, but only the gay and splendid appearance of an external profession. And here it is further to be remarked, that however the passions are of excellent use in religion, if the heart be right with God; yet, this not being the case, their influence is rather pernicious than salutary: indeed the more eager and impetuous the natural temper, the greater evil is in this case to be apprehended from it, both to the man himself, and to those with whom he is connected. As to himself, mistaking the warm efforts of mere passion for real religion, he instantly concludes that he is without doubt a real Christian, and so is essentially injured by the imposition he puts upon himself. And then his extravagant expressions of rapturous zeal, which having the colour of exalted piety strike the eyes of observers with admiration, like the pleasing verdure on the stony ground; these in the end, through his apostasy, bring a foul reproach upon religion, and so deeply wound the hearts of all the real friends of it. And from this view of the subject we see what it is distinguishes these hearers from those considered in the former discourse: it is the different temperature of their animal spirits and passions. They are both alike indisposed to real religion, but those are cool and reserved, these eager and violent. And it often happens that the former have a good deal of natural understanding and sagacity, whilst the latter are remarkable for their weakness and credulity.
But it will be proper, before we pass on, to examine more particularly the character of the enthusiast. He has a lively imagination, but no judgment to correct it; and warm feelings, but neither wisdom nor resolution to control them. Struck with appearances, he instantly admits the reality of things without allowing himself time to enquire into their nature, evidence, and tendency. And impressions thus received, whether from objects presented to the senses or representation made to the fancy, produce a mighty and instantaneous effect on his passions. These agitate his whole frame, and precipitate him into action, without any intervening consideration, reflection, or prospect. And his actions, under the impulse of a heated imagination, are either right or wrong, useful or pernicious, just as the notions he has thus hastily adopted happen to be conformable to truth or error. So we shall see the countenance of a man of this complexion kindling into rapture and ecstasy at the idea of something new and marvelous; a flood of tears streaming down his cheeks at the representation of some moving scene of distress; his face turning pale and his limbs trembling at the apprehension of some impending danger; his whole frame distorted with rage at the hearing of some instance of cruelty; and his eye sparkling with joy in the prospect of some fancied bliss. Nor is it to be wondered that one who is wholly at the mercy of these passions, without the guidance of a sober understanding and the control of a well-disposed heart; should, as is often the case, break out into loud and clamorous language, assume the most frantic gestures and be guilty of the most strange and extravagant actions.
Such then is the character of the persons described in our text previous to their hearing the word. Their hearts, like the stony ground, are hard, uncultivated, and indisposed to what is truly good; and yet they possess lively imaginations and warm passions, which, like the find mould upon the rock, would be of excellent sue in the great business of religion, if it were not for this other essential defect. We proceed therefore,
II. To consider the effect which the word instantly produces on the minds of these persons, as our Saviour has admirably described it.
The seed that fell on the stony ground forthwith sprung up, that is, as our Lord expounds it, he heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it. Here, keeping in our eye the character just drawn, there are three things to be considered—his receiving the word—and his receiving it immediately, as Mark has it,--and his receiving it with joy. From this account one would be apt at first view to conclude, that this man is without doubt a real Christian; but the event proves the contrary. Wherefore it will be necessary to examine very attentively these three particulars.
1. He receives the word.
Receiving is a figurative term, and may here be explained of what is the consequence of admitting any doctrine to be true, that is, the professing it. It is indeed used in scripture to signify faith itself. As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name (John i. 12). As ye have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him (Col. ii. 6). Nor is there any inconvenience in understanding it here of faith. For the hearers our Lord here speaks of do believe, and indeed Luke says so expressly (Luke viii. 1, 6). In like manner Simon and many others in scripture are said to believe, who yet were not real Christians.
Now as faith has the promise of salvation annexed to it, and as some believe who yet are not saved, a distinction becomes necessary: and the common one of an historical and a divine faith is easy and natural. It respects, as we have shewn at large in a former sermon, the degree of assent which the mind gives to the truth, the grounds of it, the temper with which it is accompanied, the effects it produces, and the influence which brings it into existence. The man whose faith is merely historical, gives only a feeble assent to the truth: his faith is little more than opinion: he believes what is told him, just as I should believe a story of some trifling matter that had happened at a distance wherein I am no way concerned. Or if he will insist, that his assent to what he calls the gospel, is firm and genuine; yet his notion of the gospel has perhaps a great of error mingled with it. And then, he receives it not upon the divine testimony, or a clear perception of the internal and external evidence of it; but upon the confident assertions of others, whose eagerness and zeal, expressed by their loud voice and violent gesture, have a mighty effect upon that credulity we spoke of under the former head. Further, his faith is not cordial: it has not the hearty approbation of his judgment and will. Nor does is produce the kindly and acceptable fruits of love and obedience. Yet it is not without its effects, for being of that enthusiastic turn of mind before described, his imagination and passions have a great influence on his profession. Whence those strong appearances of sincerity, earnestness, and zeal whereby he imposes upon himself and others. Now he loudly affirms he believes, scarcely admitting that man to be a Christian who at all hesitates. Then he treats cool reasoning and calm reflection as inimical to religion. And so goes on to pronounce the charge of hypocrisy upon all who fall not in exactly with his notions, and are not as eager in the defense of them as himself. Come see, says he with Jehu, my zeal for the Lord of hosts (2 Kings x. 16).—In such sense do these HEARERS of whom our Saviour speaks in the text, receive the word. And if we reverse the character thus drawn, we shall have a clear idea of him who receives the truth in the love of it, and who believes to the saving of his soul: remembering at the same time, that as saving faith has divine truth for its object, so it rises into existence through the influence of divine grace.
2. He receives the word immediately.
The seed is said in the text to spring up forthwith, and so the idea may respect the quickness of the vegetation. But Mark applies the term immediately to the reception of the word. And indeed it is true both of the reception and the operation of it. He receives it not obliquely or circuitously but straitly or directly, as the word signifies (Eutheos). It is no sooner spoken than it is admitted to be true. A certain predilection in favour of the speaker, his eagerness and positivity, and many other accidental circumstances beget assent—immediate assent to what he has no clear conception of, and the evidence of which he gives himself no time to consider. He is not embarrassed, as we said before, with any the least doubt,, nor does he feel himself disposed to hesitate, reflect, or compare what he thus hastily and confusedly hears with the scriptures of truth. So, without either his judgment being informed or his will renewed, he is impetuously carried away with a mere sound; his affections are set afloat, and his passions are wrought up, he knows not how, into a wild ferment, the effect of which as instantly appears in his countenance, gesture, and conduct. He professes the truth, becomes a flaming defender of it, and out-strips all around him in acts of intemperate zeal, as hastily and inconsiderately done as the word was hastily and inconsiderately received. So his conversion is considered by himself and some other weak people as instantaneous, and on that account not only extraordinary but the more sure and genuine.—But what deserves our more particular attention is,
3. His receiving the word with joy.
Joy is a pleasing elevation of the spirits excited by the possession of some present or the expectation of some future good. Now the gospel is good news, and so adapted to give pleasure to the mind. He therefore who receives it with joy receives it as it ought to be received. But the man our Saviour here describes is not a real Christian, his joy therefore must have something in it, or in the circumstances accompanying it distinguishable from that of a genuine believer. Of Herod it is said that he heard John gladly (Mark vi. 20): and from the story it clearly appears Herod remained notwithstanding the same profligate man he was before. How then is the joy of the one to be distinguished from that of the other? I answer, by what precedes it—by what excites it—and by the effects of it.
1. Let us consider what precedes it.
The real Christian, previous to his enjoying solid peace, is usually much depressed and cast down. Nor is his dejection the effect of bodily disorder, or an ill-temperature of the animal spirits, or of something he can give no rational account of. It is an anxiety occasioned by a sense of sin, an apprehension of God’s displeasure, and a fear that he may be denied those spiritual pleasures he earnestly thirst after. The cause of his trouble is not a chimera, it has a real existence in his breast, it has a painful and regular operation there, and he can reason in a plain and sensible manner about it. Now as the gospel is adapted to relieve the mind of those complaints, and is on that account stiled the gospel or glad-tidings, so there are many passages wherein it is directly addressed to persons of this description. And many historical instances we meet with in the bible, of those who have been comforted and made happy by its encouraging reasoning and gracious promises. From the testimony therefore of scripture, and the nature of the gospel itself, it may be rationally concluded it cannot afford true joy to a heart that is not thus prepared to receive it. The degree indeed of affliction necessary to be endured, in order to prepare men for the cheerful reception of divine truth, it may not be easy for us to determine. God however knows: and some he leads on to the enjoyment of religious pleasures in a more gentle and gradual manner than others. But it stands to reason, that the joy the heart feels must bear some proportion to the anxiety it has suffered.
Now vain light enthusiastic persons are in a great degree strangers to these painful exercises of mind we have been just describing. It is on a sudden, induced by some motive of curiosity, that they hear the word; as suddenly they receive it; and as suddenly they are elevated and transported by it. Their minds, previous to the joy they boast of, are wholly unoccupied with any serious substantial sentiments about divine things. Some person, indeed, who come within the description of the text, may have had general convictions of sin, and alarming apprehensions of the wrath of God. But these painful feelings are desultory and temporary, and capable of being quickly allayed, if not entirely removed, by the stupefying opiate of worldly pleasures. Wherefore a rapturous joy, which suddenly succeeds to a kind of dread that has no ingenuous disposition mingled with it, as well as a joy preceded by no anxiety at all; may be naturally suspected to originate in enthusiasm rather than religion.—But,
2. Let us enquire what it is that excites this joy.
The causes of that elevation of the spirits which we commonly call joy are various. Wine and other inebriating liquors give a brisk circulation to the blood and nervous fluids, and so exhilarate and gladden the heart. A sudden impression made on the sense by external objects will have the like effect. The reveries of the imagination, in a dream or delirium, will create a fascinating kinds of pleasure. Admiration, wonder, and astonishment have a great influence to produce it. Yea, the more tender passions of pity and commiseration are accompanied with a degree of complacency and delight. So that joy may owe its existence to the sense, the imagination, and the tumultuous or soothing operation of the other passions; as well as to sound reasoning, and a well-grounded persuasion of real truth and of our interest in the great blessings of it, which are the only legitimate sources of religious joy.
Now, this observed, it is easy to conceive how a man of the cast our Saviour here speaks of, may be said to receive the word with joy. In some instances it is the word itself, the mere sound without any idea affixed to it, that creates joy. The effect is instantly and mechanically produced by the tone and cadence of the voice, accompanied by an appearance, attitude and gesture that happen to please. The man is delighted, elevated, and surprised, and he knows not why. Facts might be mentioned directly in point. Some have been heard to say at the passing out of an assembly, in words to this effect, "What a heavenly preacher! He spoke like an angel—but I could not understand him." In other instances it is not the sound only, but the sense that affects. Here, however, it will be found, that the joy the man feels is purely the effect of his imagination being amused with objects new, great, and marvelous, or with scenes of as oft, tender, moving kind: and not of his heart’s being relieved of a burden with which it has been oppressed, or his being comforted with the hope of obtaining that spiritual good he had thirsted after; for he had neither groaned under the burden of sin, nor had he aspired to true holiness.
To exemplify what we mean, we will suppose the preacher to describe the joys of heaven by striking figures taken from sensible objects. He holds up to view a paradise exquisitely beautiful and enchanting: the trees, shrubs, and flowers all perfect in their kind, arranged in the loveliest order, and affording a fragrance most delightful to the smell, and fruits most delicious to the taste; verdant banks, purling streams, shady bowers, transporting prospects; and the joy heightened, now by the soft melody of the grove, then the rapturous symphony of human voices, and then the loud and swelling notes of angelic bands. This, this, he assures the listening multitude is heaven: here they shall enjoy increasing pleasures, without the least anxiety, pain, or disgust; and without the most distant apprehension of either interruption or end. Is it to be wondered that such a scene, painted in the liveliest colors, beheld by a glowing imagination, and realized by unsuspecting credulity, should give ecstatic joy to a carnal heart? It is not. But is there religion in all this? Ah! no.
So likewise we may easily conceive how a pleasing kind of sensation, excited in the breast by a pathetic description of misery, particularly the sufferings of Christ, may be mistaken for religion. Many a one has heard this sad tale told , and instantly concluded from his feelings, which partook partly of pain and pleasure, that he loved Christ. The sensation, in these instances, is precisely the same with that which a tender spectator feels at a tragical exhibition in the theater. And if I might be allowed to relate a little story I have some where met with, it would both illustrate and confirm what has been asserted. One of a compassionate disposition, but grossly ignorant, (perhaps an Indian) hearing for the first time in a Christian assembly a striking description of our Saviour’s last passion, melted into tears; and after the service was over, eagerly besought the preacher to be ingenuous with him, and tell him whether the fact he had related was true, for he hoped in God that such a cruel deed could never have been perpetrated.
But to bring the matter still nearer. We will suppose what is said to be divested of all imagery, and that men are told in plain words that Jesus Christ came to procure for them the pardon of their sins, salvation from the miseries of hell, and a right to future and eternal happiness: I see no reason why a general apprehension of these truths and a general assent to them, may not excite some pleasure, yea even joy in their breasts, without their hearts being made a whit the better. Can any one whose conscience tells him he has sinned, who feels remorse for it, and dreads the tremendous consequence of dying under the curse of Almighty God; can, I say, such person avoid being anxious? And if so, can he do otherwise than rejoice, when he apprehends, though the ground of the apprehension may be a mistaken one, that God has forgiven him?
What dread has the conscience of many an ignorant bigoted papist felt from a conviction of his having sinned! And how happy has he instantly felt himself upon his having confessed to the priest and received absolution, while alas! he has remained as wicked as ever! In this case truth is mixed with error, and the false joy he feels arises out of this corrupt mixture. He believes God is disposed to pardon sin for the sake of Christ. So, agreeable to the language of the text, he may be said to receive the word with joy. But then it is his mistaken notion about confession and the power of the priest to absolve him, thus mingled with his general assent to the Christian doctrine, that has the main influence to excite that pleasing sensation he feels and boasts of. And the case is much the same with many protestants as well as papists. The man’s conscience reproaches his for certain crimes, and he feels himself wretched. He is told God is merciful, and will forgive men their sins for Christ’s sake. The news gives him joy, for he flatters himself he shall escape the punishment he dreaded. But his joy is without foundation, for he has not just idea of the evil of sin itself, no ingenuous sorrow for it, and no sincere desire to be delivered from it.
In like manner we may easily conceive how a man of this character may be amused, entertained, and even transported with a hope of heaven. He is told and very truly too, that in heaven, there is a perfect freedom from all pain and sorrow, and an uninterrupted enjoyment of the most exquisite delights. These tidings he receives with joy. But the moment he is told, that this freedom from pain is accompanied with a freedom from sin, and that these positive pleasures result from communion with a holy God, and a participation of his purity and rectitude; the moment, I say, he is told this, his joy abates, languishes, and dies.—But I forbear. What has been said may suffice to enable us to distinguish on the important question, What it is that excites our joy.—We are next to consider,
3. What are the effects of it.
The joy a real Christian feels is sober, rational, well-grounded, and will admit of the most pleasing reflections. He possesses himself; he can calmly reason upon the state of his mind, and those great truths and objects the contemplation of which make him happy; and he can recollect the pleasures he has enjoyed on some special occasions with composure and satisfaction.—It humbles him. The higher he ascends the mount of communion with God, the less he appears in his own eyes. Those beams of the sun of righteousness which gladden his heart, throw a light upon his follies and sins. With Job he abhors himself, and repents in dust and ashes (Job xlii. 6) And, as the apostle expresses it, thinks soberly of himself as he ought to think (Rom. xii. 3) His joy inspires him with meekness, candor and benevolence. It allays, if not entirely extinguishes, the rage of violent passion, fans the flame of fervent charity, and puts the soul into a temper to unite cordially with all good men, to pity the bad and to forgive his bitterest enemies.—His joy, in a word, makes him watchful and holy. He rejoices with trembling, is upon his guard against every thing that may disturb the tranquility of his mind, holds sin at a distance as his greatest enemy, and aspires with growing ardor to the likeness of the ever-blessed God.
On the contrary, who that contemplates the character of the credulous self-deceived enthusiast, but must see what has been said of the real Christian awfully reversed in his temper and conduct? Is he sober, prudent and self-collected? Ah! no. He is little better than a madman, or one drunk with wine wherein is excess. His heaven is a fool’s paradise, and his account of it as unintelligible as the frantic talk of one in a delirium. Is he humble? Far from it. The pride of religious frenzy swells him into importance. Imagining himself a favorite of heaven, he looks down upon his fellow mortals with an air of indifference if not contempt—"Stand at a distance, I am holier than thou." Is he meek, candid, and benevolent? So much the reverse, that the very names of these virtues sound harshly in his ear, and stand for little else in his opinion than pusillanimity, formality, and hypocrisy. Is he conscientious and circumspect in his deportment? No. Boasting of his freedom he can take liberties that border on immorality, and treat the scruples of a weak believer as indicated a legal spirit. Superior to the drudgery of duties he walks at large, in no danger of being thrown into suspense about his state towards God by what he calls human frailties, and not doubting but that his zeal, which, like the Persian scythes mows down without mercy all before him, will open his way to a triumphant crown in heaven.
Now all these things considered—what precedes—what excites—and what follows the joy our Saviour here speaks of, we shall be at no loss to distinguish clearly between the joy of an enthusiast and that of a real Christian. To proceed.
Having thus received the word with joy, he professes himself a Christian. And thus much must be said in his favor, that being sure he is right he is not ashamed of his faith. This ingenuity and frankness of temper secures him from all imputation of hypocrisy, and induces his friends to hope that with all his frailties he may possibly be a good man. So he is admitted to the participation of divine ordinances, is enrolled among the number of professing Christians, and for a while, allowing for the extravagancies of intemperate zeal, behaves himself in a manner not to be materially censured. But—What is the event? Sad to say?—Apostasy. But the consideration of this, with what follows, we shall refer to the next sermon.
In the mean while, let me beseech those who answer to the character we have been describing, to consider seriously their state towards God. Consideration is, I am sensible, what you, sirs, are not accustomed to: but in a matter of such consequence as this, I would hope you will, at least for this once, yield to our request. Let me ask you then, can you sincerely believe that a religion which consists wholly in a rapturous elevation of the passions, independent of the clear dictates of the judgment, and the governing dispositions of the heart, can be acceptable to God? Surely if there be such a thing as religion, it must originate in the understanding and conscience, and so diffuse its influence over the passions. It must consist in an affectionate regard to the divine authority, springing from a clear idea of the difference between good and evil, and an ardent desire to escape the latter, and enjoy the former. And oh! how deplorable will your condition be, should you in the great day of account, after all your flaming pretensions to religion, be found utterly destitute of it!
Nothing has, I hope, dropped in the course of this sermon which may convey an idea to any mind unfavorable to religion, as if it had no concern with the passions, and were not adapted to afford joy to the heart. It is indeed most interesting to the passions, and has been found, by the experience of the wisest and best of men, to be the pleasantest thing in the whole world. Let a man speculate as long as he will upon the great truths of religion, if he does not feel them, if they neither warm his heart nor influence his life, what is he the better? Neither his profound knowledge nor the contempt in which he holds those of the opposite character for their ignorance and credulity, will do him any real good. The Apostle Paul, with all his accurate and superior understanding of the great things of God, was a warm, lively, passionate Christian. He knew what it was to be transported on occasions almost beyond himself. Whether, says he to the Corinthians, we be besides ourselves, it is to God; or whether we be sober, it is for your cause. For the love of Christ constraineth us (2. Cor. v. 13, 14). May we be such Christians as he was!
To conclude. What has been said will, I hope, have an effect to relieve the humble but afflicted Christian, of some uncomfortable doubts with which he may have been oppressed respecting his state towards God. You, my friends, who are of a timorous make, and through various causes of a sorrowful spirit; are strangers to the rapturous feelings of which these confident people we have been describing so much boast. But it does not from thence follow, that you are utterly unacquainted with the pleasures of religion, and that your hearts are not right towards God. You have seen the difference between good and evil; you have deeply lamented your sins, and hungered and thirsted after righteousness; you have cordially approved of that method of salvation divine grace has appointed, and have entrusted your immortal all to the hands of Christ. Why then should you fear? Be of good courage. The blessed Jesus is your friend, and he will keep what you have committed to him against the great day.