The character of sincere hearers considered.
Matt. xiii. 8.
But other seeds fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundred fold, some sixty fold, and some thirty fold.
It is one among many other striking proofs of the divinity of our Saviour’s mission, that the treatment his gospel meets with in the world, exactly corresponds with his own predictions. In the parable under our consideration, he tells his apostles, that some would pay little or no attention to it; that others, receiving it with great appearance of zeal, would after a while, upon some offence taken, renounce it; and that a third sort of persons, having more dispassionately professed the christian nature, would in a course of time, through a too intimate connection with the world, grow indifferent to their profession, and fail of attaining the great object of it, eternal life.
These three distinct characters we have considered under the several denominations of—the INATTENTIVE—the ENTHUSIASTIC—the WORLDLY-MINDED. And I presume the view we have taken of the disingenuous temper, criminal conduct, and final punishment of these unhappy persons, hath deeply affected our hearts. But a scene of a different kind now opens to our view. Although the ministers of this gospel are a savour of death unto death to the multitudes who heart i, yet they are to many others a savour of life unto life (2 Cor. ii. 16) And we may depend upon it, that God will not forget his gracious promise: My word that goeth forth out of my mouth, shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it (Isai. lv. 11).
Many there are then who hear the word of the kingdom, and are thereby made wise unto salvation. The character of these happy persons we are now to consider, and shall style them, by way of distinction from the former, the sincere, that is, genuine Christians. The text says, Other seeds fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundred fold, some sixty fold, and some thirty fold.
Ground within an enclosure, and properly manured, is better fitted to receive seed than that on the way side, in stony places, or in the hedges. Seed sown here at the proper season, and by a skillful hand, will be likely to mingle with the soil, and, under the genial influence of the sun and the falling dew and rain, to spring up and bring forth fruit. But the produce, through a variety of circumstances too numerous to be mentioned, will on some lands and in some countries be more considerable than others. Such is the figure in our text.
Our Saviour’s exposition of this part of the parable you have in the twenty-third verse—he that received seed into the ground, is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it, which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth some an hundred fold, some sixty, some thirty. Luke expresses it somewhat differently—That on the good ground, are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience (Chap. viii. 15). The first thing that strikes us here is,
1. That these hearers have honest and good hearts. The ground must be properly manured and prepared, before the seed can so mingle with it as to produce fruit. In like manner, the powers of the soul must be renewed by divine grace, before the instructions of God’s word can so incorporate with them as to become fruitful. The heart which was prone to deceive, flatter, and impose upon itself; must be made sincere and honest. And the heart which was hard, conceited, and self-willed; must become soft, humble, and teachable. Now the metaphor, thus explained, gives us a two-fold view of the word of God, as the mean or instrument of men’s conversion, and as the seed implanted in their hearts from whence the fruits of obedience proceed. And this account of the matter very well agrees with what we meet with in other passages of scripture, as particularly in the epistle of James (i. 18, 21), where God is said of his own will to beget us with the word of truth; and in a few verses afterwards, we are represented as receiving with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save our souls. And it agrees too with the fact, for it frequently so happens that men, who come to the house of God unprepared, and with hearts neither honest nor good; are yet by the preaching of the word, accompanied with a divine energy, convinced and converted. Their understanding is illuminated, and a new bent is given to their will.—So,
2. They hear the word after a different manner, and to a very different purpose from what others do, and from what they themselves formerly did. They hear it with attention, candor, meekness, and simplicity.—And then—to go on with our Saviour’s account of these hearers—they
3. Understand the word.
This is not expressly said, as I remember, of either of the former characters. They indeed who are destitute of the grace of God, may have a speculative acquaintance with the gospel; but mingling their own vain conceits with it, and not being sensible of its importance nor imbibing its true spirit, they are to all valuable purposes ignorant of it. This however is not the case with real Christians. They have a right understanding of the gospel. It is in their idea the most simple, and at the same time the most interesting thing in the world; easy to be apprehended, and yet full of infinite majesty and glory. Their knowledge is, in short, experimental and practical.
4. They keep the word. The seed once lodged in the heart remains there. It is not caught away by the wicked one, it is not destroyed by the scorching beams of persecution, nor is it choked by the thorns of worldly cares and pleasures. It is laid up in the understanding, memory, and affections; and guarded with attention and care, as the most invaluable treasure. And indeed how is it imaginable that the man who has received the truth in the love of it, has ventured his everlasting all on it, and has no other ground of hope whatever, should be willing to part with this good word of the grace of God! Sooner would he renounce his dearest temporal enjoyments, yea even life itself. Nor does our Saviour by keeping the word mean only an attachment to the leading truths of Christianity, and which may therefore with emphasis be called the word; he intends also a due regard to all the instructions and precepts of the bible, the whole revealed will of God. O that my ways, says David, were directed to keep thy statutes (Psalm cxix. 5)! And our Lord frequently exhorts his disciples to express their love to him, by keeping his commandments (John xiv. 15), and observing his sayings (ver. 24).—Again,
5. They bring forth fruit. The seed springs up, looks green, and promises a fair harvest. They profess the christian name, and live answerable to it. Their external conduct is sober, useful, and honourable; and their temper is pious, benevolent, and holy. The fruit they bear is of the same nature with the seed whence it springs. Their obedience is regulated by the word of God, as its rule; and flows from divine principles, such as faith, hope, and love, implanted in their hearts. But of these things we shall treat more largely hereafter.
6. They bring forth fruit with patience. It is a considerable time before the seed disseminates, rises into the stalk and the ear, and ripens into fruit. It usually meets with many checks in its progress, through inclement weather and other unfavourable circumstances. So that the husbandman, as the apostle James says, waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain (James v. 7). And thus is aptly signified the gradual progress of religion in the heart, the opposition it meets with from various quarters, and the resolution, self-denial, and perseverance necessary to the christian character.—In one word,
7. And lastly. They bring forth fruit in different degrees, some thirty, some sixty, and some an hundred fold. They are none of them unfruitful, but the produce is more or less, agreeable to the kind of soil, the means of cultivation, and the difference of the seasons.
The amount of the whole is this: Those hearers who are sincere, will derive real profit from the word; and give clear proof they do so, by bringing forth fruit, in various degrees, to the glory of God and their own everlasting advantage. And now in order to the fully discussing this argument, we shall,
I. Shew the necessity of men’s hearts being made honest and good, in order to their profiting by the word they hear:
II. Describe the kind of fruit which persons of this character bear, and which furnishes incontestable proof that they are benefited by the word:
III. Consider the variety there is in regard of degrees of fruitfulness, and the reasons of it: and,
IV. Represent the blessedness of such persons, which, though not directly expressed, is yet implied in the general purport of the parable.
I. As to the necessity of the heart’s being made honest and good, in order to men’s duly receiving the word and keeping it, this will clearly appear on a little reflection.
I suppose it will scarce be denied, that the will and affections have a considerable influence on the operations of the understanding and judgment. To a mind, therefore, under the tyranny of pride and pleasure, positions that are hostile to these passions will not easily gain admission. Their first appearance will create prejudice. And if that prejudice does not instantly preclude all consideration, it will yet throw insuperable obstructions in the way of impartial enquiry. If it does not absolutely put out the eye of reason, it will yet raise such dust before it as will effectually prevent its perceiving the object. What men do not care to believe they will take pains to persuade themselves is not true. They will employ all their ingenuity to find out objections, and having cast them with great eagerness into the opposite scale to positive unexamined evidence, will at length pronounce confidently against the truth, and in favour of error. Such is the manner of the world, and thus do men impose upon themselves in a thousand questions, civil and religions, which thwart their inclinations.
Now the gospel (if the account we have given of it be true) is most humiliating to the pride of the human heart, and most disgusting to that inordinate passion for worldly pleasure which prevails there. Why then should it be thought strange, that men of this character should be violently precipitated by their prejudices into false and dangerous reasonings? To these causes we may, without breach of charity, impute a great deal if not the whole of that opposition the gospel meets with in the world. Hence the cross of Christ became to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness. And hence multitudes in our time, upon their first hearing the gospel are offended, and with the men of Capernaum say, "These are hard sayings, Who can hear them?"
If then the word of the kingdom be received and kept in the manner it ought, the heart must be first made honest and good. When once a new bias is given to the will and affections, and a man from a proud becomes a humble man, from a lover of this world a lover of God, his prejudices against the gospel will instantly subside. The thick vapours exhaled from a sensual heart, which had obscured his understanding, will disperse; and the light of divine truth shine in upon him with commanding evidence. He will receive the truth in the love of it. The method of salvation by a crucified Jesus, will become highly pleasing to him; and all the little objections which originated, not in sound reason but in disaffection and perverseness, will vanish. And so that divine saying of our Saviour’s will be found to be true. If any man will do the will of God, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God (John vii. 17).
How important then is regeneration! How earnestly should we pray to God to renew our will! And what pains should we take with ourselves, to subdue our stubborn prejudices and passions! Thus laying apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receiving with meekness the engrafted word, we shall find it able to save our souls (James i. 21). The seed thus sown in the understanding, thus insinuating itself into the heart, and thus mingling with the affections; will not fail to spring up and in due time bring forth fruit.—This leads us,
II. To describe the kind of fruit which such persons will bear. It is good fruit—fruit of the same nature with the seed whence it grows, and the soil with which it is incorporated: of the same nature with the gospel itself which is received in faith, and with those holy principles which are infused by the blessed Spirit.
Here let us dwell a little more particularly on the nature and tendency of the gospel. God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses to them 2 Cor. v. 19). No less a person than his own Son he devotes to death for their sakes. This great sacrifice he exhibits to the view of the whole creation, as the most striking spectacle of his just resentment against sin, and the most sure pledge of his tender compassion to the guilty. The merit of this divine Saviour he accepts. The plea he admits in bar of the sentence that hung over the head of the devoted criminal. "Deliver him," says he, "from going down to the pit, for I have found a ransom." He absolves him, he justifies him, he makes him everlastingly happy. Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died (Rom. viii. 33, 34). So grace reigns through righteousness unto eternal life, by Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. v. 21). O how inflexible the justice, how venerable the holiness, and how boundless the goodness of God!
And if this be the gospel, who can hesitate a moment upon the question respecting its natural and proper tendency? Who will dare assert, that it is not a doctrine according to godliness? That it does not teach and enforce the purest and most sublime morality? What man who believes it can admit a doubt, with the divine character thus held up to his view, whether he ought supremely to revere, love, and obey the blessed God? How can piety languish and die amidst this scene of wonders? How can the heart, occupied with these sentiments, remain unsusceptible to the feelings of justice, truth, humanity, and benevolence? How can a man believe himself to be that guilty depraved and helpless wretch which this gospel supposes him to be, and not be humble? How can he behold the Creator of the world expiring in agonies on the cross, and follow him thence a pale breathless corpse to the tomb, and not feel a sovereign contempt for the pomps and vanities of this transitory state? How can he, in a word, see him rising from the dead, triumphing over the powers of darkness, and ascending amid the shouts of angels up into heaven; how can he, I say, be a spectator of all these scenes, and remain indifferent to his everlasting interest? We appeal then to the common sense of mankind, whether the scheme of salvation, thus exquisitely constructed, is not adapted to promote the interests of piety and holiness? It is as evident as that the sun was created to give light and heat to our world; and the earth made fruitful, to afford food and nourishment to those who inhabit it.
But to bring the matter more fully home to the point before us, What kind of a man is the real christian? Let us contemplate his character, and consider what is the general course of his life. Instructed in this divine doctrine, and having his heart made honest and good, he will be a man of piety, integrity, and purity. The grace of God, which bringeth salvation, will teach him to deny ungodliness, and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world (Tit. ii. 11, 12).
As to piety. A due regard to the authority of the blessed God, will have a commanding influence upon his temper and practice. With that great Being in his eye, he will aim to discharge the duties of religious worship, public and private, with sincerity, attention, and devotion. Remembering the allegiance he owes to his sovereign, he will tremble at the idea of offending him; and calling to mind the various expressions of his bounty, he will feel holy joy in every effort to please him. Relying on his pardoning mercy through Christ, he will ingenuously repent of his sins, and cordially return to his duty. When contemplating his excellencies, he will revere him. When enjoying the tokens of his favour, he will delight in him. When chastened by his afflicting hand, he will submit to him. When assaulted by temptation, he will confide in him. And when employed by him in any difficult and arduous service, he will rely on his gracious assistance.
As to social duties. His conduct will be governed by the rule his divine Master has laid down, of doing to others as he would have them do to him. He will be just in his dealings, faithful to his engagement, and sincere in his friendships. He will aim to live on terms of peace with all, be cautious of giving offence to any, and gladly interpose his best offices, when required, to extinguish the flames of contention wherever they are kindled. He will feel with the afflicted, and rejoice to have it in his power to smooth the brow of adversity, and to pour consolation into the bosom of the sorrowful. To a mean and base action he will be nobly superior, and in acts of generosity and kindness his heart will exult. A stranger to sullen reserve and corroding selfishness, his soul will mingle with kindred souls, and participate largely with others in their pleasures. In a word, by his influence and example he will endeavour to promote the civil, but more especially the spiritual and everlasting interests of mankind.—And then,
As to personal duties. He will use the comforts of life, which he enjoys as the fruits of divine benevolence, with temperance and moderation. The wealth and splendour of the world will not be his object: on the contrary he will hold them in sovereign contempt, when they dispute the preeminence with intellectual and divine joys. Of many gratifications he will deny himself, not only that he may have it in his power to do good to others, but may promote his own best interests, by bringing sense into subjection to reason, and the world into obedience to God. His pride he will endeavour to mortify, by severely studying and censuring his own temper and actions, and by candidly judging and excusing those of others. He will think soberly of himself as he ought to think. His angry passions he will restrain and soften, and a spirit of meekness, gentleness, and forbearance he will cultivate to the utmost of his power. In fine, the salvation of his soul will be his grand object, and the care of that will have the preference to every other concern whatever.
Such are the fruits which they bring forth, who heart the word in the manner our Saviour describes, and who keep it in good and honest hearts. They walk worthy of the vocation wherewith they are called (Eph. Iv. 1): and their conversation is as it becometh the gospel of Christ (Philip. i. 27). The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance; against such there is no law (Gal. v. 22, 23). Of this description were the primitive Christians, and, I trust, there are some such to be met with in our lives.
But it is not meant by this description of the christian to raise him above the rank of humanity, or to give a colouring to the picture which it will not bear. He is still a man, not an angle. To fix the standard of real religion at a mark to which none can arrive, is to do an injury to religion itself, as well as to discourage the hearts of its best friends. Absolute perfection is unattainable in the present life. The best of men have failed in one or other, if not each, of those graces which have been described. Abraham was the father of the faithful, yet his faith was more than once shaken by the violent assaults of unbelief. Jacob had an honest heart, yet there was time when he dissembled. Job was a pattern of patience, yet in a paroxysm of grief he uttered words that bordered on rebellion. Moses was the meekest man on the earth, yet passion once got the mastery of him. And those might champions in the cause of Christianity, the apostles Peter and Paul, were not without their failings which the scriptures have faithfully recorded. In many things we all offend (James iii. 2). Nor is there a christian living, however exemplary, but is disposed with all humility to acknowledge, that he every day fails in his duty, and that his best services are disgraced with folly and sin.
But though perfection in the strict sense of the term is not to be admitted, yet the fruit which every real christian bears is good fruit. It is so denominated by Christ; and such it truly is, as it springs from right principles, and is conformable in general to the rule laid down in the word of God. And however the holiness of the best of men must appear infinitely defective to the eye of Omniscience, and therefore can have no merit in it; yet there is a real obvious difference between the character of a man of this world, and that of a genuine disciples of Christ; one who is renewed by the grace of God, and one who is under the power of unbelief and sin.
From this view of the kind of fruit which Christians bring forth, we are led to consider the great variety there is among them in regard of degrees of fruitfulness, and the reasons of it. But this we must refer to another opportunity, and add only a few remarks at present on what has been said.
1. How gracious is that influence which the blessed God exerts to make the heart honest and good, and so dispose it to receive the word and profit by it!
The corruption of human nature is universal, and, must greater than superficial reasoners, and those who are little acquainted with themselves, care to admit. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Men are set upon criminal indulgences, and are averse to the holy exercises and sublime pleasures of religion. Now how is a new turn to be given to the mind? How are men to be persuaded cordially to love that which they so much dislike? The reasonings of philosophy, however good, will go but little way in this business. Yea, the nobler reasonings of the gospel too often prove ineffectual. How gracious then that influence of the Holy Spirit by which a revolution is brought about in the mind! It was by virtue of this influence that Cornelius became a devout man, and was disposed to send for Peter to preach the gospel to him and his family (Acts x). It was the Lord that opened the heart of Lydia to attend to the things which were spoken to her by Paul (Acts xvi. 12). And it is God, who is rich in mercy, that quickens all those who were once dead in trespasses and sins, but are now alive to God and religion (Eph. ii. 1). To that grace then, by which we are regenerated and saved, let us cheerfully render our noblest tribute of gratitude and praise.
2. From the nature and tendency of the gospel, which has been just delineated, we derive a strong presumptive evidence of its truth.
The direct positive evidence of prophecy and miracle, must have its weight with every considerate person. But when this of the spirit and intent of the gospel is added, it cannot fail of bearing down all opposition before it. We appeal to the common sense of mankind, upon the question respecting the holy tendency of this divine institution. Let men admit or reject the gospel itself, let them enter into the spirit of it or harbour prejudices against it; still they cannot deny that we have here the purest system of morality, and that it is enforced by motives admirably adapted to touch the noblest feelings of the hearer’s heart.
Now whence could this doctrine so infinitely beneficial to mankind come, if not from God? Is it imaginable that satan would or could change his nature and views, and adopt a plan to emancipate men from his cruel dominion, bring them back to their allegiance to God, and secure to them greater felicity than that of which he had in the beginning deprived them? Is it imaginable that any of his emissaries should have ingenuity enough to devise a scheme so noble, generous, and god-like as this? Or if they had, that they would with mighty zeal forward a design so repugnant to their own character and views? In short, would any man living, at the hazard of his temporal not to say his eternal interests, take pains to palm on his fellow-creatures a known falsehood; in order to persuade them to be the very opposite to himself, holy, just and good? Whoever answers these questions in the affirmative, must have a stronger faith than that required to make a man a christian. But if we could for a moment suppose the gospel to be a cunningly devised fable, it were yet worth our while, for the sake of the present advantages which result from the belief of it, to embrace it.
3. Of what importance is it that we converse intimately with the gospel, in order to our bringing forth the fruits of holiness!
Admitting the gospel to be true, the holding back its peculiar glories from our view, under the pretence of their being too mysterious to be apprehended, or too bright to be beheld by the feeble eye of human reason; is not only absurd, but greatly injurious to the cause of real piety and genuine morality. If there be a display of consummate wisdom, transcendent goodness, and immense power, in the contrivance and execution of the plan of redemption; it was no doubt brought forward to our view in the scriptures, that it might be considered by us. And the contemplation of it, if no other end was to be answered, must afford divine entertainment to a mind rightly disposed. Are the perfections of Deity more strikingly delineated in the volume of the gospel than in that of nature and providence, and may we not reasonably expect a more sublime pleasure in the study of the former than of the latter? But the main thing is, that there are stronger incentives to be met with here to love and obedience than any where else. And since the arguments to be drawn from natural religion will go but a little way to dispose and animate us to our duty, ought we not to have recourse to those which are of such higher and nobler consideration?
If then we would have our hearts elevated to God by a devotion the most sublime and ecstatic, if we would have our bosoms warmed with affections the most animating and generous, if we would have our wonder, reverence, confidence, gratitude, and delight kindle in to a flame, if we would, in a word, be imitators of God as dear children; let us with open face behold in the mirror of the gospel the glory of the Lord; so shall we be changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. iii. 18). Let us dwell in our meditations on this divine doctrine, and cordially embrace those exceeding great and precious promises which are here made us; so shall we be partakers of the divine nature (2. Pet. i. 4). The soft and tender emotions of ingenuous sorrow, for sin, are both pleasant and salutary. If then we would keep alive in our breasts a penitential sense of sin, and a prevailing aversion to it; and if we would enjoy the heartfelt comfort arising from the hope of forgiveness; let us often ascend mount Calvary, and survey the bleeding cross of the son of God. Contemplating by faith on his sufferings, our eyes will stream with sorrow and sparkle with joy; we shall at once tremble and rejoice. Would we, again, excel in the social virtues of justice, truth, compassion, benevolence, and friendship; let us sit at the feet of Jesus, listen to his instructions, bind his gospel to our hearts, and make it the man of our counsel. Would we, in fine, be humble, meek, patient, and temperate, be crucified to the world, and have the appetites of sense subjected to the dictates of reason; let us make this divine science our chief study, and glory in nothing save Jesus Christ and him crucified. The life I live in the flesh, says the apostle (Gal. ii. 20), I live by the faith of the Son of God. And if Christians should thus live, ministers should no doubt thus preach as well as live. Would they convert sinners to God, spread the savour of genuine piety, and promote the interests of substantial morality; the gospel must be their daily study, their continual theme of discourse.
4. And, lastly, How vain a thing is mere speculation in religion!
The great end of preaching the gospel is to make men holy and good; nor has God afforded us any discovery of his will, but is adapted some way or other to this end. We are to judge therefore of the importance of a doctrine by its practical tendency. To this standard every truth is to be brought, and by it our zeal is to be regulated. If this idea were duly attended to, we should escape the extremes of bigotry and neutrality: we should neither be indifferent to the faith, nor value ourselves on our profound speculations.
Ah, my brethren, to what purpose is it that we are skilled in controversy, can decide on nice questions, and draw the line to a hair between points on which the best of men have differed; if we are without that unction from the Holy One which diffuses a divine savour through the soul, and adds a grateful perfume to our words and actions? Though I have all knowledge, if I have not charity, I am nothing (I Cor. xiii. 20). Let us therefore be persuaded, having received the word of the kingdom, to be anxious above all things to maintain a character and conduct agreeable to our holy profession. Herein is my Father glorified, says our divine Saviour, that ye bear much fruit, so shall ye be my disciples (John xv. 8).