Some seeds, our Saviour tells us in the text, fell among thorns: and the thorns sprung up and choked them (Matt. xiii. 7). This figurative account of the WORLDLY-MINDED HEARER we have explained, assisted by our Lord’s own exposition of it in the following words, He that received seed among the thorns, is he that heareth the word: and the care of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful (Verse 22). The man of this character receives the word, professes it, and for some considerable time, if not to the end of his life, perseveres in his profession. He is, however, unfruitful. The causes of this unfruitfulness are now under consideration. These our Lord hath particularly mentioned, namely, the cares, riches, and pleasures of the world.—Of each of these we have proposed therefore to give some general account—to shew you how an undue attention to them obstructs the operation of God’s word on the heart—and to represent to you the sad event of such intimate commerce with the world. The first was the subject of the former sermon: and we go on,
II. To enquire how the cares, riches, and pleasures of the world operate to prevent the salutary effect of God’s word on the hearts of men.
There is no profiting by the word we hear without duly weighing and considering it. Now there are three things necessary to our practicing the great duty of consideration with effect—Leisure—Composure—and Inclination to business. But the cares, riches, and pleasures of the world deprive men of all these, or at least make considerable encroachments on them.
Ground choked with briers and thorns affords not room for the seed cast upon it to expand and grow. In like manner, he whose attention is wholly taken up with secular affairs, has not leisure for consideration. He can scarce find time for hearing the word, much less for reading the bible, meditating on divine truths, and examining his heart. And however good men, when employed about their worldly business, can every now and then advert to the concerns of their souls, and frequently in the course of the day, dart an affectionate prayer to heaven; it is quite otherwise with the unhappy man whose case we are describing. Each avenue of his heart is so closely occupied by the world, that not a serious thought can enter, except by stealth or surprise.
Say, you who are oppressed with the cares, or absorbed in the pleasures of life, whether this is not the fact? What is it first catches your imagination when you awake in the morning? What is it engrosses your attention all the day/ What is it goes with you to your bed, and follows you through the restless hours of night? What is it you are constantly thinking of at home, abroad, and in the house of God? It is the world. Oh sad! Not a day, not an hour, scarce a moment in reserve for a meditation on God, your soul, and an eternal world! And can religion exist where it is never thought of, or gain ground in a heart where it is but now and then adverted to? AS well might a man expect to live without sustenance, or get strong without digesting his food. That then which deprives men of time for consideration is essentially injurious to religion. And such is the charge our Saviour exhibits against the cares, riches, and pleasures of the world: for the truth of which we appeal not only to the bulk of mankind, but to multitudes who profess religion, and flatter themselves with a notion that they are in the fair way to heaven.
Time is the gift of God, a boon of inestimable value: what pity it should be abused or trifled with! I say not that it is to be wholly employed in meditation and devotion. That man mistakes religion who, under a notion of exalted piety, turns his back on the world, and retires into obscurity. There is a time for every thing under the sun. A time for prudent consideration about our temporal interests. A time for honest labour, to procure a subsistence, and to acquire a competence. A time for food and sleep. And a time for recreation and amusement. We may enjoy what God has given us as well as labour for it.
But upon what principle is religion to be deprived of its just claims? If it is the most important of all concerns, and if it cannot be forwarded without consideration and prayer, it has a just title to a convenient share of our time for those purposes. God has appointed one day in seven for our repose and his worship, and shall worldly anxieties and pleasures defraud both him and us of our right/ He hath required us to allot a portion of each day for the devotion of the family and closet, and shall this portion though small be avariciously engrossed by secular affairs? It is the voice of reason, that our thoughts should every now and then advert to the concerns of our souls; and shall the perplexing cares and vain amusements of life cruelly exact of us every moment that passes? What are such horrid depredations as these on time better than sacrilege? And what the tamely submitting to them than suicide?—But to proceed. The world not only deprives men of time and opportunity for consideration but also,
SECONDLY, Of Composure.
By composure I mean that calmness or self-possession, whereby we are enabled to attend soberly and without interruption to the business we are about. Consideration implies this in it: for how is it possible that a man should duly consider a subject, whether civil or religious, coolly reason upon it, and thoroughly enter into the spirit of it; if his mind is all the while occupied with a thousand other things foreign to the matter before him? In order therefore to our doing justice to any question of importance, we must rid our minds of all impertinent thoughts, be self-collected, and fix our attention steadily to the pint. How difficult this is I need not say. Studious people feel the difficulty; and in regard of religion the best of men are sensible of their weakness in this respect, and deeply lament it. But where the world gains the ascendant this difficulty is increased, and in some instances becomes almost insuperable. Let me here describe to you, in a few words, the almost incessant hurry and confusion of their minds, who answer to the three characters in our text of the careful, the covetous, and the voluptuous. So you will clearly see how impossible it is for persons thus circumstanced, to pay that attention to religious subjects which is necessary in order to their being profited by them.
1. The case of him who is swallowed up with the anxious cares of life is truly lamentable.
It is not riches the unhappy man aims at, but a competence, or perhaps a mere subsistence. The dread of being reduced with his family to extreme poverty, harrows up his very soul. The horrid specters of contempt, famine, and a prison, haunt his imagination. He fancies himself turned out of his dwelling, his substance torn from him by merciless creditors, his children crying for bread, and he and they just on the point of starving. To escape these miseries, or to hold them at a distance, he racks his invention, exerts all his powers, and allows himself scarce time to eat or sleep. These sad thoughts, engendered by gloominess and timidity, strengthened by a sinful distrust of providence, and promoted by the artful suggestions of satan, follow him day and night, embarrass his mind, prey upon his spirits, and make him wretched to the last degree. Like a distracted man now he is looking this way, and then that; now making a fruitless effort, and then on the point of giving up all for lost. How deplorable this state of the mind!
And how incapable is a man, thus circumstanced, of coolly thinking on the great things of religion! Does he attempt in his retirement to fix his attention to some divine subject? He instantly fails in the attempt, cares like a wild deluge rush in upon his soul, and break all the measures he had taken to obtain a little respite from his trouble. Does he go down upon his knees to pray? He has scarce uttered a sentence, before he is thrown into confusion by disordered thoughts and wandering imaginations; so that the dread of affronting God by offering the sacrifice of fools, obliges him to desist. Does he go to the house of God? Thither his anxieties follow him, stand like so many sentinels at each avenue of his soul, to shut out all instruction from his ear and all comfort from his heart; so that he goes from thence as uninformed and unhappy as he came thither. Thus do the cares of the world choke the word, and choke the man himself, as Luke expresses it (Luke viii. 41): like thorns and briers, they pierce and suffocate him, at once torment his heart and enfeeble his powers. And though they may not, in every instance, proceed to the lengths we have represented, yet it is easy to imagine from what has been said how they prove, in cases less distressing, mighty obstructions to the salutary effect of the word on the heart.
2. The like effect hath an eager desire after riches to disqualify men for consideration.
Avaricious desires may not indeed be attended with the anguish just described, yet they no less effectually disable the powers of the soul for the right discharge of religious duties. Wealth becoming a man’s object, and its deceitful charms getting fast hold on his heart, the prize will be continually in his eye, and the means of acquiring it engross all his thoughts. His speculations, reasonings, deliberations, and efforts, will all be directed to this point. Now he is laying his plan, adjusting each circumstance, considering their various and united effect, and providing for all contingencies that may arise and thwart his views. And then you see him carrying his plans into execution, with unremitting ardour, setting each engine at work, and looking forward with eager expectation to the event. If he succeeds, his passion for wealth collects fresh strength, and without allowing him to pause a while to enjoy the fruit of his labour, pushes him on to some further exertion. If he fails, the failure stimulates him to some bolder enterprise. And thus he is employed from day to day; his thoughts incessantly wandering from one object of sense to another, his invention perpetually on the rack, and his passions, like the raging sea, in a continual agitation.
Now, amidst this tumult of the mind, how can a man think soberly of the great truths and duties of religion, of the state of his soul and the concerns of another world? If we could suppose him in the least degree well affected to religion (which indeed is scarce imaginable) it were yet almost impossible for him to pay proper attention to it. Perhaps the form is not wholly laid aside: but what is it more than a form? He draweth night to God with his mouth and honoureth him with his lips, but his heart is far from him (Matt. xv. 8). When on his knees he is still in the world: when he is worshipping God in his family he is still pursuing his gain. His closet is an accompting house, and his church an exchange. Surely then our Lord knew what he said, when to the astonishment of his disciples he affirmed, that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God (Mark x. 25).—From what has been said it is easy to see also,
3. How an eager attention to worldly pleasures must have the like effect, to render the mind incapable fo serious consideration.
Scenes of splendour, gaiety, and sensual delight are ever before the eyes of men of this character. Their thoughts are incessantly employed about these objects, realizing the fancied bliss they have in prospect before it is actually enjoyed, devising the necessary means of acquiring it, pressing on to it with ardent desire, grudging every moment that holds them back from it, and reckoning no time too long for the possession of what they account the chief good.
And what is the effect in regard of religion? Do these sons of pleasure vouchsafe at any time to present themselves among the sons of God in the temple of devotion? One may easily imagine what kind of offering they bring with them; not that of a willing heart, but of an hour sequestered against the will from their extravagant pursuits. Do they ever retire for a few moments to read and pray? One may affirm, though not admitted into the secret counsels of their hearts, that they read without understanding and pray without devotion. For how is it possible that a mind thus hurried, thus dissipated, thus intoxicated with vain amusements, should be capable of thinking soberly of God and a future world, of death, judgment, and eternity? Communion with heaven amidst this riot of the mind, would be a greater solecism than philosophizing at a feast of Bacchus, or demonstrating a problem at a masquerade. But I forbear.—There remains one thing more to be considered, in order to shew how the cares, riches, and pleasures of this life operate, to prevent the salutary effect of the word on the heart. They not only deprive men of time and compsure for serious consideration, but,
THIRDLY, Of all Inclination to it.
Where indeed the love of the world prevails, let a man’s profession be ever so splendid, there is no real religion; so that such an one neither has nor ever had a disposition to serious consideration. But what I mean is to shew, that an eager attention to the things of this life confirms the habit of inconsideration, and tends, where there is an aptitude to mediation, to weaken and deprave it. A mind wholly occupied with the objects of sense, is not only estranged from the great realities of religion, but averse to them. As it has neither leisure nor calmness for sublime contemplations, so it has no taste or relish for them. The carnal mind is enmity against God (Romans viii. 7). And the more carnal it grows by incessant commerce with the world, the more does that prejudice and enmity increase. What violence are such men obliged to put upon themselves, if at any time, by some extraordinary circumstance, they are prevailed on to think of the concerns of their souls! The business is not only awkward, as they are unaccustomed to it, but it is exceeding irksome and painful. And something of this good men themselves feel, when captivated for a while by the cares and pursuits of the world. What a strange backwardness do they complain of to holy and devout exercises! In their slumbers, though not fallen into a deep sleep, they have little heart for those vigorous exercises of the mind which a rapid progress in religion demands. They have put off their coat, as the church expresses it in the Song of Solomon (Cant. v. 3), and how shall they put it on!
Now if a hearty inclination to any business is necessary to a man’s considering it, and so being in a capacity to pursue it with attention and success; whatever tends to abate that inclination, or to confirm the opposite aversion, is essentially injurious to such business. In like manner, with respect to the great concerns of religion, the cares, riches, and pleasures of the world, by wholly occupying the mind, indispose it to consideration, and so choke the word and render it unfruitful.—And now this leads us to consider,
III. The sad event of such undue commerce with the world. The unhappy man not having leisure, calmness, or inclination to attend to the word; neither understands it, believes it, or is obedient to it: and continuing in this wretched state of ignorance, impenitence, and unbelief, he is finally lost.
1. He understands not the word of the kingdom.
And indeed how should he, taken up as he almost constantly is with thinking, reasoning, and caring about other matters? Or if he ahs a speculative acquaintance with the truths of religion, it is not, it cannot be experimental and practical. Ah! how ignorant is he of God, his perfection, ways and works! Of himself, his capacities and interests, his true state and condition, the plague of his heart, and the danger to which he is exposed! Of Christ, the glories of his person, redemption, and kingdom! Of the beauty of holiness, the refined pleasures of religion, and the joys and triumphs of heaven! These are things which the objects of sense thrust far away from his view, so that he seldom if ever spends a thought about them. And however sagacious he is in the management of his temporal affairs, he is a perfect fool in his conceptions and reasonings about matters of infinitely greater moment. Like a wretch immured in a cell he contents himself with viewing by the help of a glimmering taper, the childish figures his fancy has chalked out around him; while the man of wisdom walks in the light of broad day, viewing the stupendous works of God, by the aid of that great luminary the sun of righteousness, to his infinite joy and emolument.—And as he understands not the word of the kingdom, so,
2. Neither does he believe it.
It is not his professing it that proves he believes it. Nor does his admitting it all to be true, in the cold, lifeless manner of the generality of people, constitute him a believer in the sense of the new testament. No, he who believes the gospel to the salvation of his soul, must enter into the spirit of it. But how can that man be supposed to have entered into the spirit of the gospel, of whose heart the god of this world has taken quiet possession? To a mind, wherein this wretched demon lives, reigns, and domineers, the faith as well as the knowledge of divine truth is an utter stranger. And O how deplorable the character!—to profess the faith, and at the same time to be no better than an infidel!—to take pains to persuade himself and all about him that he believes, and yet to remain under the dominion of unbelief and sin!—Again,
3. Not rightly understanding or believing the word of the kingdom, he is not obedient to it.
Fruit is not to be expected from seed sown among thorns, at least not good fruit or much of it. The ears will be, like those in Pharaoh’s dream, thin, withered, and blasted with the east wind. So Luke expressly says (Chap. viii. 14), he brings no fruit to perfection. If you look for the fruit of the Spirit, such as love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance (Gal. v. 22, 23), you will be miserably disappointed. None of these divine graces live in his heart, and shine in his life: at best you will discover only the bare semblance of them, a kind of fruit unpleasing to the eye, and disgusting to the taste. Amidst the cares, riches, and pleasures of the world, the faint, dwindling, impotent efforts of something like religion are quickly suffocated and lost.—Here perhaps it will be expected, that we enter into a particular consideration of this beautiful and striking expression of our Saviour’s—they bring no fruit to perfection.—but as it will be the business of the next discourse, to give a particular account of the nature and quality of the fruit required of every genuine Christian, we shall enlarge no further here.—And now,
4. And lastly. What is the final issue of all? Why, the man himself, as well as the seed, is choked; for so Luke expresses it (Luke viii. 14).
And Oh! how sad, after a profession protracted to a considerable length, not renounced by avowed apostasy, or disgraced by any gross act of immorality; to miss of heaven and all its joys and triumphs, and to be turned into hell with the wicked, and all the nations that forget God (Psalm ix. 17)! O tremendous, to receive the curse of the barren fig-tree from his lips whose name you have professed! To be driven like chaff before the wind! And not having brought forth good fruit to be hewn down and cast into the fire!
Thus have we considered the cares, riches, and pleasures of the world; their operation on that class of hearers our Lord means here to describe; and the sad event of all. Let us now close the whole with some seasonable exhortations.
1. Let the professors of religion have no more to do with the world than duty clearly requires.
This is sound, wholesome, scriptural advice. The bible does not teach us to affect preciseness and singularity, to assume a severe, gloomy, ascetic countenance and manners, and peevishly to withdraw ourselves from society and the civil concerns of life: yet surely it does require more of us than escaping the gross pollutions of the world, and the preserving a good sober moral character. Otherwise I know not what tolerable rational account to give of the following precepts—If any man will be my disciples, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me—Whosoever will be a friend of the world, is the enemy of God—Be not conformed to this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind—Come out from among them, and be ye separate, and touch not the unclean thing—Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness—See that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise—Abstain from all appearance of evil (Matt. xvi. 24, James iv. 4, Rom. xii. 2, 2 Cor. vi. 17, Ephes, v. 11, Ver. 15, I Thess, v. 23).—A christian, especially if he be a good natured man, is in greater danger from compliances of a doubtful ill tendency, than from temptations to direct immoralities, The latter he will know how easily to resist, while the former may prove a snare to him before he is aware. Heaven is the good man’s object, and in order to imbibe a spirit suited to that state, he will find the discipline of the heart a necessary and painful business; but how that can be carried on amidst the drudgery of avaricious pursuits, or the levity of vain amusements, I am at a loss to say. Let us then endure hardness as good soldiers of Christ; and as we wish to please him who has chosen us to be soldiers, let us take heed how we entangle ourselves with the affairs of this life (2 Tim. ii. 3, 4).
2. If thorns before we are aware get in, let us instantly root them out.
The best of men are exposed to temptation, and too often foiled though not overcome by it. The christian like an eagle soars to heaven, yet his flight may on a sudden be impeded by the grossness of the atmosphere through which he passes; and though like that prince of birds, he has an eye that can look at the sun, yet his eye may for a moment be captivated by the false glare of terrestrial objects. But he will quickly, animated, by the grace of God, turn away his eye from beholding vanity, and with redoubled vigour renew his flight to heaven. He has a taste for sublime enjoyments, and that taste, though it may be in a degree vitiated, cannot be wholly lost.
Consider then, O men of God, your high character and noble birth. Walk worthy of the vocation wherewith you are called. Demean yourselves in a manner becoming your holy profession and glorious prospects. If the objects of sense, before you are aware, catch your attention and captivate your passions, disentangle yourselves as quickly as possible from the charm. Hesitate not a moment. Exert all the power of christian resolution. Tear up by the roots the briers and thorns of worldly cares, and the poisonous weeds of fascinating pleasures. They are of luxuriant growth, and if not instantly checked and by severe discipline destroyed, they will overspread the heart, choke every pious sentiment and virtuous affection and in the end create you infinite trouble and anguish. No time is to be lost. The further you advance in a course of life, which though not directly criminal yet tends to embarrass your mind, weaken your graces, and indispose you to the duties of religion; the more difficult will be your retreat. Oh! how have some good men, in the close of life, lamented in the bitterness of their spirit the advantage which the world has gained over them; and warned those about them to beware of the encroachments, which this insidious enemy imperceptibly makes upon the human heart!
3. Receive the good seed.
It is not enough that the ground is cleared of noxious weeds, if it be not sown with the proper grain, neither is it sufficient to guard against the corrupt maxims, customs, and manners of the world, if our hearts are not impregnated with divine truth. What that is we have already shewn you. It is the word of the kingdom, the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. We exhort you therefore to hear the word diligently, to take pains to understand it, to yield a cordial assent to it, to lay it up in your memories, and to revolve it frequently in your minds. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom (Col. iii. 16). Receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls (James 1. 21). And be assured it will build you up, and give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified (Acts xx. 32).
An experimental acquaintance with the gospel is the best means to fortify the heart against the assaults of the world. Reason and observation every now and then extort from our lips a cold feeble acknowledgement, that the riches, honours, and pleasures of this life are uncertain and unsatisfying: yet alas! they still cling about our hearts, disturb the peace of our minds, and obstruct our progress towards heaven. But a believing contemplation on divine truth, fixes such a deep conviction in our bosoms of the vanity of the world, as fails not to interest our warmest passions, and so to have a commanding influence on our conduct. In those happy moments the world appears very little indeed, just such a trifling object as it is in the eye of him, who apprehends himself passing out of time into eternity.
Go then, christian, to the cross of Christ, fix your eye on the suffering Saviour, contemplate his character, and well consider the infinitely benevolent intent of what he endured: and sure I am you will cry out in the language of the great apostle, God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world (Gal. vi. 14). It is not imaginable how the thorns and briers of worldly cares and pleasures, should get ground in a heart where the word of the kingdom thus takes deep root, spreads on every side, and gains new strength and vigour every day. The reasonings of mere philosophy will have little effect to combat the stubborn propensities of the heart to the world, and to elevate the soul to God. But the sublime truths of Christianity, accompanied with a divine energy, will not fail to compass these great objects.
Let me then beseech you, Christians, beseech all that hear me, to listen to the voice of divine wisdom, to hang attentively on her lips, to receive her doctrine, and accept her gracious invitations. She bids us to an entertainment the most free, expensive, and delicious; an entertainment that will not fail to please our taste, cheer our spirits, and strengthen our hearts. Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money, come ye, buy and eat, yea come, buy wine and milk without money, and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? And your labour for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness. Incline your ear and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live, and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David (Isa. lv. 1-3)
4. And lastly, look to God for his blessing.
Paul may plant, and Apollos water; but it is God that giveth the increase (I Cor. iii. 6). We may hear, read, meditate, reflect, watch, and use many good endeavours; but if no regard be had to a superior influence, all will be fain. The world hath so many ways of insinuating itself into our affections, the great enemy of mankind is so insidious and malevolent, and our hearts are so vain and treacherous; that if God be not with us we shall be quickly foiled and overcome.
Trust not, then, christian, your own sagacity, resolution, and strength. Many have done so and been made ashamed. Prayer is your refuge. Oh! pray without ceasing. Implore the gracious influences of the Holy Spirit; weep and make supplication, as did Jacob, to the angel of the covenant; resolve with him, that you will not leave him except he bless you. Such importunity, accompanied as it always is with circumspection and obedience, will succeed: and how glorious the success! He is faithful that hath promised. My grace is sufficient for thee (2 Cor. xii. 9). The youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall. But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength: they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint (Isa. xl. 30, 31) Those that be planted in the house of the Lord, shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing: to shew that the Lord is upright: he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him (Ps. xci. 12, 14, 15).