The character of ENTHUSIASTIC hearers is now under consideration. Their temper and conduct are described with remarkable clearness and precision in the text (Matth. xiii. 5, 6). Some seeds 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 exposition of this part of the parable runs thus (ver. 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. Now here we have proposed to consider—the character of these persons pervious to their hearing the word—the effect it instantly produces on their minds—their failure afterwards—and the causes of it. The two first of these enquiries were the subjects of the preceding sermon, and we go on now,
III. To consider the lamentable apostasy of these deluded men.
The seed that fell upon stony places and forthwith sprung up, in a little time withered away. It did not rise into the stalk and ear, and so bear fruit; but the verdure passed off almost as soon as it was beheld, and the seed itself totally perished. This our Lord explains of the unhappy man’s enduring for a while, and then being offended; or, as Luke has it (chapter viii. 13), his believing for a while, and then falling away. Here two things will deserve our notice—the term of his profession—and the manner in which it is renounced.
1. The term of his profession is short.
Between the sowing of seed in the decline of the year and the reaping at the following harvest, there is a considerable intervening space: but the seed the text speaks of springs up and is gone in a few days or weeks. So here. It is by degrees, and for a course of years, the genuine Christian is advancing towards perfection. But alas! the poor vain unprincipled professor is instantly at the zenith of all his glory. Some, indeed, hold it out longer than others: and the reason may be, because nothing remarkable arises from without to try their constancy, and to bring forward their real characters to view. But, for the most part, a short course of time shews what are men’s principles and motives of conduct. Enthusiastic zeal, like inflammable air, quickly evaporates. The sources of that pleasure which gives existence to a spurious religion and an equivocal devotion, are soon exhausted. The imagination tires, the senses are pulled, and the passions, for want of novelty and variety to keep them alive, sink away into a languid unfeeling torpid state. Or if the man is still the same restless being he ever was, some new object catches his attention, and puts an end to his former connections and pursuits. His goodness, as the morning cloud and the early dew passeth away (Hosea vi. 4). Like a flaming meteor, having awhile drawn the attention of all around him, he disappears and vanishes into eternal oblivion. Of him we may say in the language of the psalmist, How is he brought into desolation as in a moment! As a dream when one awaketh, so, O Lord, when thou awakest, thou shalt despise his image Psalm lxxiii. 19, 20). But, to be a little more particular,
2. In what manner does he renounce his profession?
He either silently quits it, or publicly disavows it. He is offended, stumbles, falls, falls away. He no longer maintains and defends the truth, no longer frequents the house of God, no longer associates with his fellow-Christians, no longer pays any attention to the duties of the family or the closet, if indeed he ever regarded them at all. The name by which he was called is obliterated, the place that knew him knows him no more, his religious connections are dissolved, from the view of those with whom he had joined in Christian fellowship he withdraws, and bidding adieu to all that is serious and good, he mingles with the world, enters into their spirit and views, and in the general crowd of vain unthinking men is forgotten and lost.
Or else, which is sometimes the case, he as openly and contumeliously casts off his profession, as he had hastily and passionately assumed it. The faith he once swore to defend with the last drop of his blood, he now laughs at as an old wife’s fable. The people with whom he had associated he stigmatizes with the name of fools or imposters, the institution of religion he treats with sovereign contempt, the reins he throws on the neck of his brutal appetites, treads under foot the Son of God, counts the blood of the covenant wherewith he was sanctified an unholy thing, and does despite to the Spirit of grace (Heb x. 29). He falls, and falls away so as not to be recovered again. For sinning thus willfully after he had received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment, and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries (Heb. x. 26, 27).
How lamentable a case this! What pious heart can think of it, without feeling for the honour of religion, and trembling for the wretched apostate! Ah foolish, unhappy, disingenuous man! Is this the result of all they boasted joys, thy flaming zeal, they confident vows, they solemn professions? Thou didst run well, in thine own apprehension and that of multitudes about thee; what hath hindered? Who hath bewitched thee, that thou shouldst renounce the truth, after having had Jesus Christ evidently set forth crucified before thine eyes! Would to God, that our remonstrances, expostulations, and entreaties might even yet make some impression on thy heart! But if that is past feeling, let however thy baseness and perfidy secure the sentence of divine justice forever from the charge of severity.—It remains that we now consider,
IV. The cause of these men’s apostasy.
This our Saviour explains with admirable precision, by teaching us that it is partly owing to the want of something within essentially important to religion, and partly to a concurrence of circumstances from without unfavorable to the profession of it.
1. Something is wanting within.
The parable says, the seed forthwith sprung up away because it had no root, as Mark has it (Chap. iv. 6); and because it had no deepness of earth; and it withered lacked moisture, as it is expressed in Luke (Chap. viii. 5). For want of sufficient quantity of earth the seed did not sink deep enough into the ground, and through the luxuriance of the mould it too quickly disseminated and sprung up. So that having taken root, there was no source whence the tender grass might be supplied with nourishment; and of consequence it must necessarily in a little time wither and die. Agreeably therefore to the figure, our Lord, in his explanation of the parable, speaks of these hearers as having no root in themselves.
And such precisely is the case of the sort of professors we are discoursing of. They have no principle of religion in their hearts. Their notions are not properly digested, they do not disseminate themselves in the mind, take fast hold on the conscience, and incorporate, if I may so express myself, with the practical powers of the soul. The word preached does not profit them, not being mixed with faith, or, as perhaps it might be rendered, because they are not united by faith to the word (Heb. iv. 2). They hear the word, affix some general idea to it, admit it all to be true without either consideration or reflection, feel a confused tumultuous agitation of the passions, and so are instantly precipitate into action. But their understanding is not duly enlightened, their judgment is not rightly informed, their conscience is not thoroughly awakened, their will not subdued, nor their affections sanctified. In short, their religion is little else than an airy phantom, a wile reverie, an idle passing dream. Now this being the case, is it to be wondered that in a very little time they fall away?—But this sad even is owing likewise,
2. To a concurrence of circumstances from without unfavorable to the profession of religion. These in the parable, are all comprehended under the idea of the sun’s scorching the springing grass; and, in our Saviour’s exposition of it, are described by the terms tribulation, persecution, affliction, and temptation, all which arise because of the word, or are occasioned by it.
In the early age of Christianity, it was scarce possible for a man to profess the religion of Jesus without exposing himself thereby to great temporal inconvenience and distress. Of this our Saviour frequently warned his disciples, telling them that if they would follow him, they must be content for his sake to part with house, lands, goods, wives, children, and their dearest enjoyments; yea that they must be willing to suffer reproach, imprisonment, and death. And what he foretold came to pass. Through much tribulation they entered into the kingdom of God (Acts xiv. 22) And this tribulation arose because of the word. The doctrine of the cross was to the Jews a stumbling block, and to the Greeks foolishness: its simplicity and purity created an aversion to it, which nothing short of a divine power could subdue. So that the implacable resentments of the former urged them to every possible exertion, in order to extirpate the Christian name; and the insufferable pride of the latter begat in their breasts a sovereign contempt for all who assumed it. Wherefore the professors of this new religion, as it was called, were sure to meet with more or less obloquy and persecution. And such treatment, not failing to bring their sincerity and constancy to the test, soon produced a revolution in those, whose profession had nothing to support it but a mere passion for novelty. Their confessions and vows, fair and promising as they might seem, quickly withered beneath the scorching beams of persecution.
The like event hath happened in regard of an infinite number of pretended Christians since those times. And few, even of those whose enthusiasm has risen to the highest pitch, have had firmness enough, merely for the sake of acquiring a splendid name, to renounce all that was dear to them in this world. But the profession of the gospel now flourishes under the mild auspices of liberty, and men may avow their religious principles, not only without danger of being called to account by the magistrate, but with little hazard of suffering any material reproach and abuse from their neighbours. Yet, fashionable as it may be in some periods and countries to assume the appearance of religion, it is still true that he who will live godly in Christ Jesus must suffer persecution. A firm attachment to the simplicity of divine truth, and a conscientious observance of its precepts, expose a man of the ill-natured censures of some, and the cold shy indifference of others.
Now, whatever the affliction or temptation may be which arises because of the word, the mere nominal professor, who has not ballast enough in himself to keep him steady, will be quickly overpowered, sunk, and destroyed. Instances of this sort are too numerous to be particularly recited. How often has the sneer of a profane acquaintance, a trifling affront from a fellow Christian, or a sudden resistance to a mere fancy or humour, become the occasion of a man’s rending himself from his religious connections, and in the end totally renouncing his profession! Puffed up with pride and conceit, and unprincipled by the grace of God, he stumbles at every stone or pivot he meets, till at length he falls, and falls to rise no more again. And if little offences shall produce this effect, it is not to be thought strange that the might storms of adversity, arising now from this and then from that quarter, should dash to pieces the shallow bark of an empty profession on the rock of infidelity; or that the brisk gales of prosperity should sink it in the quicksands of worldly dissipation and pleasure.
Examples of such miserable apostates there are many: we will instance only a few during our Saviour’s personal ministry here on earth, and a little after his ascension into heaven. There was an occasion on which he benevolently fed five thousand people, with a few barley loaves and fishes. The splendour of this miracle so sensibly struck the passions of the multitude, that in an ecstasy of admiration and wonder they cried out, "This surely is the Messiah, the prophet that should come. Let us take him by force and make him a king." Thus instantly and loudly do they profess their faith in Christ; nor would they have hesitated a moment to pronounce the severest censure upon any one of their number, who should have dissented from the proposal. But no moral change having passed on their hearts, what is the result? The next temptation that arises shakes their faith in Christ, dissolves their attachment to him, and puts an end to their profession. On the morrow, piqued at our Lord’s freedom in reproving them for their worldliness, and offended at the purity and sublimity of his doctrine; they murmur at him, complain of his sayings as hard and unintelligible, deny that he came down from heaven, and in a word, go back and walk no more with him (John vi).
Of the same character were the men of Nazareth. When our Lord entered their synagogue, and discoursed to them upon a passage from the old testament, they fastened their eyes upon him, bore witness to what he said, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. They were all attention, and seemed deeply affected with is mild and persuasive reasoning. But alas! the scene is soon changed. They urge him to work a miracle among them. He refuses to gratify their curiosity, representing to them their real character, which was like that of their perverse and iniquitous ancestors. Upon which filled with wrath they seize him, lead him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, and would have cast him down headlong from thence, had he not passed through the midst of them and so escaped (Luke iv. 16-30).
No less extraordinary was the wretched enthusiasm of the people of Jerusalem (Matt. xxi. 1-11). One day we see them leading our Saviour in triumph into the city, crying, "Hosanna to the son of David, blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord!" and the next, at the persuasion of the chief priests and elders, with unexampled cruelty demanding of Pilate his crucifixion. Who could have supposed a change so marvelous should take place in so short a time? The truth is, the real character of the people was the same the one day as the other: but objects striking their imagination now differently from what they did then, these very extraordinary effects ensued.
In fine, the Laodiceans, at least many of them, were notoriously of the character we have been describing. It is not to be doubted, when the gospel was first preached among them, they received it with joy. The ground was stony, but having a little earth upon it, the seed met with a favourable reception. It forthwith sprung up, and produced a verdure pleasing to the eye, and likely to be followed with a fair harvest. But alas! having no root, and the son of worldly prosperity arising upon it, it quickly withered. It is easy to imagine the rapturous pleasure these people felt at the first hearing of this new and marvelous doctrine: and probably for a time it continued, and they brought forth some fruits answerable to it. But it was not long ere they relapsed into their former state. Their hearts not being established with grace, and the world with its flattering pleasures wantonly caressing them; their joy declined, their zeal abated, and they became neither cold nor hot. What a strange reverse! How is the gold become dim and the fine gold changed! Thou sayest, such is the language of him who searched their hearts, I am rich, and increased with good and have need of nothing: and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked (Rev. iii. 16, 17).
Nor are characters of this description confined in the first age of Christianity; they have existed in every age and place where the gospel has been preached since that time; in Romish and reformed churches, in this and other countries, in the establishment and among dissenters. Indeed enthusiasm is not to be considered as the offspring of religion, or as peculiar to the religious of any denomination. It is the result of a particular cast of mind, or temperature of animal spirits; and to be met with among men of all professions of life. Nor is it, when held under seasonable restraints, without its use to society. The excessive ardor, for instance, of a brave general has on certain occasions produced efforts, which, though scarcely reconcilable with military skill, have been followed with the most beneficial consequences. And if Christians, whose religion holds up to their view the grandest objects and the most animating prospects, are sometimes transported almost beyond themselves; it ought not to be thought strange: nor will any evil accrue from it, but on the contrary much good, both to themselves and others. But when one of an unprincipled heart assumes, under the influence of a heated imagination, the character of a man of religion; every wild and dangerous extravagance is to be apprehended, nor can there remain a doubt that the event of his profession will be such as has been represented. Religion, however is not to be blamed for these evils, of which it is no way the cause thought it may be the occasion: they are to be set down to the account of a fatal but too frequent combination of a depraved heart with an impetuous natural temper.
Thus have we considered our Saviour’s striking description of the second class of hearers, namely, the ENTHUSIASTIC—their character previous to their hearing the word—the effect it instantly produces on their minds—their apostasy—and the causes of it. It remains that we now make a few reflections.
1. What a striking picture has our Saviour here given us of human nature!
The character of enthusiastic hearers is drawn in our text to the life, with the greatest simplicity, and free from all art or colouring; and it has been realized, as was just observed, in instances without number. Every age and country where the gospel has been preached, have furnished examples of persons who have treated it in the manner here described. And how natural to conclude from hence, that Jesus of Nazareth was a teacher that came from God! He taught with authority, not as the Scribes. He had an exact and comprehensive knowledge of all men and of all things. He needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man (John ii. 25). How devoutly should we revere his infinite wisdom and penetration! How diligently listen to his instructions! And how implicitly confide in his word and promises! And since he has thus exactly foretold what treatment his gospel would meet with in the world, how should this consideration fortify the minds of his faithful ministers, amidst all the discouragements they meet with from this quarter? Be it so that the enthusiasm, as well as infidelity, erects its standard against the gospel wherever it comes, our divine Master has told us that so it would be: we have therefore not reason to be unduly cast down at an appearance so sad and unpleasing.
2. Of what importance is it to study ourselves, and to keep a guard upon our passions!
Men differ, as we have seen, from one another in regard of their animal frame, as well as their moral disposition; and the former has no small influence, though not in so great a degree as the latter, on their speculations and feelings about matters of religion. To know therefore what is our natural cast, what the temperature of our animal spirits, how we are apt to be affected with external objects, whether we are lively or phlegmatic, gay or gloomy, cheerful or severe; to know this I say is a matter of great consequence. For hereby we shall be secured from mistaking our own proper character, and pronouncing too hastily either for or against ourselves. Some truly pious Christians have been apt to conclude from those painful feelings which are the mere effect of natural constitution, that they are utter strangers to the grace of God: while others, on the mere ground of their lively and elevated feelings, have as confidently insisted that they are Christians, and Christians too of a superior rank. In the former case, the mistake is not a little prejudicial to a man’s present comfort; in the latter, it is essentially dangerous to his everlasting interest.
Let us therefore study ourselves. It is manly to wish to know what our real character is. Self-knowledge will have an important influence on our general conduct. It will prevent many solecisms in our daily deportment, both as men and Christians. It will put us upon our guard against the arts of designing infidels, and the miserable delusions of enthusiasm. And it will assist us in our attention to those duties, which are wisely and graciously appointed for our furtherance in the divine life.
3. We see what kind of preaching is to be coveted, and what avoided.
Improvement in substantial knowledge and real holiness, will be the grand object with every wise man: to this he will readily sacrifice imagination and passion. These indeed are not to be treated with neglect. A dull, heavy, lifeless discourse, whatever useful instruction it may contain, will have little effect. A man who wishes to persuade, ought not doubt to feel his subject, and religious subjects are of all others the most sublime and animating. But if all the preacher’s aim is to amuse the fancy of his audience, without informing their judgment; and to rouse their passions, without getting at their hearts; little good is to be expected from his most ingenious essays, or his most strenuous exertions.
Religion is a serious thing, and so miserably ignorant and perverse are the generality of hearers, that they need be closely reasoned and faithfully dealt with upon this most important matter. What prospect is there then of a sinner’s being converted to God by rhetorical flourishes, well-turned periods, or an artful laboured display of splendid abilities! And how much less prospect of his becoming either wise or good by the violent impulse of loud vociferation, unmeaning tones, and frantic gestures! Will the exciting an ignorant hearer’s wonder by a few empty jejune criticisms, convince him of the evil of sin and his danger of suffering the wrath of almighty God? Will the playing upon his imagination with a plenty of ill-managed tropes and figures, and a succession of idle trifling stories, persuade him to break off his vices and become a sound substantial Christian? Will the grimace of a distorted countenance, the thunder of an unnaturally elevated voice, or the terror of uplifted hands, compel him to rank among the followers of the Lamb? Ah! no. Effects indeed, and very important ones, have been produced by these expedients; but alas! they are such as have rather injured than served the real interests of mankind. This has sufficiently appeared from the preceding discourse.
Let us, therefore, if we would rightly understand the word of the kingdom and be savingly benefited by it, choose those for our instructors who clearly state it, ably defend it, and with all the seriousness, affection and earnestness which its infinite importance demands address our hearts and consciences upon it. It is not wild enthusiasm but a divine faith that must bring us to heaven.
4. Our Lord, by the instruction given us in our text, has enabled us to reply to an objection often urged against the doctrine of the saints final perseverance.
We are frequently reminded of persons whose profession for a short time was fair and splendid, but who in the end renounced it. And no doubt this has been the fact in too many sad instances. But what does it prove? No more than that these men were either designing hypocrites, or else hastily took upon them a profession of what they did not rightly understand, truly believe, and cordially approve. And will any one say that the event of such a profession is at all to be wondered at? Or that it does in the least clash with the assurances our Saviour has given us, of his attention to the final interests of his faithful people? It might naturally be expected the at the man who received the word in the manner the text describes, should by and by be offended. No real change had ever passed on his heart, no living principle of religion was ever implanted in his breast, and no promise was ever given him of such support and assistance, as should secure him from apostasy in the hour of temptation and danger.
But where the understanding has been duly enlightened, and the heart really impregnated with a principle of religion, as it is not likely that what is in a manner interwoven with a man’s nature should be easily parted with; so likewise the scriptures assure us, that divine grace will watch over it, defend, cherish, and bring it to perfection. The former idea is authorized by our Lord’s commendation of the water of life, in his discourse with the woman of Samaria: it shall be, says he, in him to whom I give it, a well of water springing up into everlasting life (John iv. 14). And the latter idea, I mean the attention which the blessed God pays to this vital principle of religion in the hearts of his people, is strikingly expressed by our Saviour in those remarkable words (John x. 28, 29): I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand—and no man is able to pluck them out of my father’s hand.—Once more,
5. And lastly. Let not the mournful subject we have been considering create any discouragement in the breast of the truly humble but weak Christian.
Methinks I hear him, in the sadness of his heart, say, "I have received the word, and, as I thought, with joy. But what if my joy should prove a mere illusion of the fancy? And what if my profession should issue in apostasy?" This be assured, Christian, and I think I speak upon the authority of scripture, will not be the case. Recollect what has been said respecting the temper of your mind previous to the comfort you enjoyed, the considerations that excited it, and the effects it produced.
You were in earnest about the salvation of your soul. You clearly saw you had offended God, and lost his image; that you were in danger of suffering his wrath, and that there was no help in you. What relieved you of your fear was a firm persuasion, upon the testimony of scripture, that God is merciful for Christ’s sake to the chiefest of sinners. On the merit of this divine Saviour you wholly reposed yourself for pardon, justification, and eternal life. So you were humbled before God under a sense of your own vileness; you regretted the offences you had committed against him; you felt your obligations to his mercy; you resolved upon taking the proper measures for mortifying your lusts, and resisting temptation; and though you have not yet attained nor are yet perfect, it is however your daily concern to avoid sin, and to please God.
And now, I ask, is there not a clear distinction between your character, and the characters of the self-deceiving hypocrite and the wild enthusiast? Why then should you be thus cast down? Put your trust in God. Go on diligently hearing the word of the kingdom, comforting yourself with its many gracious promises, cherishing in your breast its divine temper, and practicing its sacred precepts. So you may rest assured the event will be to your infinite joy. God is faithful who has promised.