It is the character of the real christian we are now considering, as drawn by our Saviour in the parable of the sower. Some seeds fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundred fold, some sixty fold, and some thirty fold (Matt. 13: 8). Now by the good ground, our Lord tells us, he means those who in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience (Luke 8: 15). Having briefly explained these words we have proposedóto shew the necessity of menís hearts being made honest and good, in order to their profiting by the word they hearóto describe the kind of fruit which persons of this character bearóto consider the variety there is in regard of degrees of fruitfulness, and the reasons of itóand to represent the blessedness of such persons, which though not expressed is yet implied in the general purport of the parable. We have discoursed on the two first heads, and proceed now,
III. To consider the great variety there is among Christians in regard of degrees of fruitfulness, and the reasons of it.
Seed sown on good ground brings forth fruitósome an hundred, some sixty, and some thirty fold. Very astonishing instances of fertility we meet with in natural history. But though such instances occur not in the ordinary course of things, it is yet certain that in all ages and in all countries the produce of the earth is various. And this variety is commonly imputed to difference of soil or difference in the mode of cultivation, or difference of climates and seasons. In like manner it is a fact, that the fruits which Christians bring forth, though in the general of the same good quality, are very different in quantity: some abound more in good works than others. And if the reasons of this are enquired into, we shall find them somewhat similar to those just mentioned respecting the produce of the earth. Let us first establish the fact, and then examine the reasons of it.
FIRST, as to the fact, that there are degrees of fruitfulness, a little observation will sufficiently prove it.
Fruitfulness may be considered in regard both of the devout affections of the heart, and the external actions of life; in each of which views it will admit of degrees. As to the former, that is piety, it is certain it may be in a more flourishing state in one man than in another. But comparisons here are dangerous, if indeed they may be allowed of at all. Religion is a personal thin, a matter that lies between God and a manís own soul. And as we should not dare to pronounce definitely upon any oneís state towards God, so we should be careful how we give the preference to one religious character before another. In these matters we may be, and often are, very much mistaken. And I have no doubt but that at the great day many will be first, who in the opinion of their fellow-mortals were last; and many will be last, who were first. And, however we may be at liberty to judge more freely of actions; yet to infer certainly from them to the state of menís hearts is going beyond our line, since the comparative difference between the good works of one Christian and another, may be owing to causes very distinct from that of the inward temper of the mind, as we shall have occasion hereafter to shew. All this to say, to check that forward and wanton speculation which too much prevails among professing Christians, and is a disgrace to religion. Judge not, says our Saviour, lest ye be judged (Matt. 7:1). When we see any rich in good works, we are justified in pronouncing that religion is in a prosperous state in their hearts. And where we see any less fruitful, charity should teach us to impute the difference to any other possible cause, rather than that of a declension in vital godliness.
But to return. It is with good works themselves that we are here concerned. And it will be readily admitted that some abound more in the fruits of holiness than others. So it is in our time, and so it has been in every age of the world. The variety is prodigious. What multitudes are there among those who call themselves Christians, of whom we can collect little more from our observation of them than that they live harmless, sober, and regular lives. Their obedience is rather negative than positive. They bring no dishonour on their profession, nor yet are they very ornamental and exemplary. Others are strictly conscientious and circumspect in their walk, far removed from all appearance of gaiety and dissipation, and remarkably serious and constant in their attendance upon religious duties: but, for want of sweetness of temper, or of that sprightliness and freedom which a lively faith inspires, the fruit they bear is but slender and of an unpleasant flavour. There are those, further, in whom seriousness and cheerfulness are happily united, and whose conduct is amiable in the view of all around them; but then moving in a narrow sphere, and possessing no great zeal or resolution, their lives are distinguished by few remarkable exertions for the glory of God and the good of others. And again there are a number whose bosoms glowing with flaming zeal and ardent love, are rich in good works, never weary in well-doing, and full of the fruits of righteousness to the praise and glory of God.
Some we see, in the early part of their profession, mounting up with wings as eagles: by and by, their ardour somewhat abating, they run in the ways of God: and after a while, yet further declining in their vigour, they can only walk in the path to heaven; they however do not turn back. Others, on the contrary, we see contending with the weakness and forwardness of childhood, then collecting the strength and vivacity of youth, so proceeding to the steadiness and judgment of riper years, and at length closing their days amidst all the rich fruits of wisdom and experience. In the garden of God there are trees of different growth. Some newly planted, of slender stature and feeble make, which yet bring forth good though but little fruit. And here and there you see one that out-tops all the rest, whose roots spread far and wide, and whose boughs are laden in autumn with rich and large fruit. Such variety is there among Christians. And variety there is too in the different species of good works. Some are eminent in this virtue, and some in that; while perhaps a few abound in every good word and work.
Whoever consults the history of religion in the bible, will see all that has been said exemplified in the characters and lives of a long scroll of pious men. Not to speak here of the particular excellencies that distinguished these men of God from each other, it is enough to observe that some vastly outshine others. The proportions of a hundred, sixty, and thirty fold, might be applied to patriarchs, prophets, judges, kings, apostles, and the Christians of the primitive church. Between, for instance, an Abraham that offered up his only son, and a righteous Lot that lingered at the call of an angel. A Moses that led the Israelites through all the perils of the red sea and the wilderness to the borders of Canaan, and a pious Aaron who yet on an occasion temporized with that perverse people. A Joshua who trampled on the necks of idolatrous princes, and a Sampson who betrayed his weakness amidst astonishing efforts of miraculous strength. A David who was the man after Godís own heart, and an Abijah in whom was found some good thing towards the Lord God of Israel. A Daniel who was greatly beloved of God, and a Jonah who though he feared God thought he did well to be angry. In a word, between the great apostle of the Gentiles, that flaming seraph in the christian hemisphere, and a timid unbelieving Thomas.óBut let us now,
SECONDLY, Enquire into the grounds and reasons of this disparity among Christians, respecting the fruits of holiness. These are of very different consideration. Many of them will be found to have no connection at all with the inward temper of the mind; a reflection, therefore, upon them will give energy to what has been said, in regard of the charity we ought to exercise in judging of others. Let us begin then,
1. With menís worldly circumstances.
Much wealth rarely falls to the lot of good people: it does however in some instances. Admitting then that the rich and the poor Christian possess an equal share of the grace of God, this difference in regard of their temporal affairs will create a difference in the number, variety, and splendour of their good works. The affluent Christian you will see pouring his bounty on all around him, hospitably throwing open his doors to the stranger, wiping away the falling tear of the widow, providing for the relief of her fatherless children, propping up a house sinking into poverty, contributing generously to charitable institutions, distributing useful books among his poor neighbours, assisting ministers in their labours, and forwarding in various ways the general cause of truth, liberty, and religion. These are good works which cannot fail, when known, of exciting admiration. When known, I say, because the modest piety of him who does them will labour to cast a veil over them, and induce him humbly to acknowledge when he has done all, that he is, in regard of God, an unprofitable servant.
But the poor Christian can render few if any of these services to his fellow-creatures. The utmost he can perhaps do is, by his daily labour to feed and clothe his family, and to provide things honest in the sight of all men. His works are of a different kind, the works of industry, contentment, submission, and patience. He moves in a narrow sphere, beyond which, however, he often looks with a compassionate and benevolent eye, oblished to substitute the will instead of the deed.
2. Opportunity is another ground of distinction among Christians in regard of fruitfulness.
By opportunity I mean occasions of usefulness, which arise under the particular and immediate direction of divine Providence. A man shall sometimes be so situated, and such unexpected events take place, as that by a seasonable exertion of his abilities, he shall be capable of doing great service to the cause of virtue and religion. The stations assigned by Providence to some christians are particularly favourable to the idea of glorifying God and promoting the good of society. Moving in elevated spheres, they have numerous and powerful connections, and of consequence great weight and influence. A Daniel shall have such easy access to the presence of a mighty tyrant, as shall enable him to whisper the most beneficial counsels in his ear: and an apostle, by being brought in chains before a no less powerful prince, shall have an opportunity of defending the cause of his divine Master in the most essential manner. Christians, if such there be, that are admitted at any time into the courts of sovereigns, into the circles of the great, or into the counsels of the wise; may do eminent service to religion by their reasonings, admonitions, and examples. Nor is there any station of life wherein a good man is not now and then called, by some extraordinary circumstance in providence, to special offices of piety and charity; such as instructing the ignorant, reproving the profane, guiding the doubtful, reclaiming the vicious, edifying the weak, and comforting the distressed. But these opportunities of usefulness occur more frequently in some situations than others, and of consequence the fruitfulness of some Christians is greater than that of others.
3. Mental abilities have a considerable influence in this matter.
What shining talents do some good men possess! They have extensive learning, great knowledge of mankind, much sagacity and penetration, singular fortitude, a happy manner of address, flowing language and a remarkable sweetness of temper. These and other amiable qualities of a natural kind, uniting with a deep sense of religion and a warm zeal for the glory of God, give them the advantage in point of general usefulness in society above most around them. They can detect error and defend the truth, frown upon vice and allure men to virtue, assert the cause of religion and repel the calumnies of infidels, after a manner not to be attempted by others, who yet possess the same piety and zeal with themselves. Their singular talents open a large field of usefulness to them, draw the attention of the public, give them a commanding authority over popular prejudices, and with the blessing of God secure to them no small success in the arduous business of reforming mankind.
The apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, endowed with the gifts of knowledge and utterance, went abroad into all the earth, and brought forth fruit an hundred fold: while private Christians, whom they exhorted to covet earnestly better gifts than these, could do little more, destitute of popular talents, than recommend the holy religion they professed by their unblameable lives. And since their time, there have been men possessed of extraordinary gifts who have laboured with uncommon success in the vineyard; while their brethren of inferior abilities, but equal piety, have complained in the language of the prophet, Who hath believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed (Isaiah 53:1)? To some the great householder gives ten talents, and to others five; nor does he expect the like returns from the latter as from the former. He is not a hard master, whatever the slothful servant might pretend, reaping where he has not sowed, and gathering where he has not strawed (Matt. 25:16).
4. The different means of religion that good men enjoy, are another occasion of their different degrees of fruitfulness.
If the gospel is adapted, as we have shewn it is, to promote holiness and animate men to generous and noble actions, it follows that the more clearly it is dispensed, the greater abundance of these good effects of it is to be expected. Upon this principle Christians have the advantage of those who flourished under the Patriachal and Jewish dispensations, the present being far preferable in point of light and glory to the former. But it is the difference among Christians themselves we have here chiefly in view. And the difference is considerable, for though the gospel is very where on and the same thing, yet the manner in which it is administered is various. Some seasons and climates, and some modes of cultivation, are more favourable to the fruits of the earth than others. So it is here. God bestows different gifts on different ministers; it seems natural, therefore to expect in the ordinary course of things, that they who sit under a singularly edifying and animating ministry, should be more exemplary and ornamental in their lives than others. They have the truths of religion set in a more clear and convincing light and the motives to obedience urged on them in a more lively and forcible manner than some others; and therefore ought to excel in the fruits of holiness.
The like also may be observed of peculiarly striking evens of providence which happen to some Christians. These with the blessing of God become the happy means of their growth in grace. What a rapid progress do they make in the divine life, amidst these extraordinary cultivations! How do they abound in love and good works! While their fellow Christians who go on in a smooth path, seldom or ever tried in the furnace of affliction or emptied from vessel to vessel; give few distinguishing proofs of flaming zeal for the glory of God, and disinterested benevolence towards mankind. Hence our Lord says, speaking of himself as the vine and of his Father as husbandman, Every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit (John 15:2): plainly imitating that as there are degrees of fruitfulness among Christians, so the increase remarkable in some instances is owing to the extraordinary measures divine Providence is pleased to take with them.óFrom hence we are led to observe,
5. That the comparative different state of religion in one Christian and another, is the more immediate and direct cause of their different fruitfulness.
It is not our province, as I said before, to enter into menís hearts, to examine what passes there, and comparing their supposed inward tempers and feelings, to pronounce upon their respective characters. But this plain general truth we may affirm, leaving every one to apply it to himself, that in proportion as religion is on the advance or decline in a manís heart, so will his external conduct be more or less exemplary. If faith, love, and joy are in lively exercise, there will be correspondent expressions of these tempers in his life. Deeply impressed with the reality of future and eternal things, warmed at his very heart with the love of God in Christ, and sweetly refreshed with a sense of the divine savour; he will be strictly conscientious in all his intercourses with others, temperate in the use of worldly enjoyments, patient under his afflictions, ready to distribute to the wants of others, and vigorous in his endeavours to advance the glory of God, and promote the best interests of mankind.
But if these divine principles are in a weak sickly declining state, the torpor that has seized on his mind will affect his external conduct. He will be listless, slothful, and neutral, and though he does not absolutely cease to bring forth fruit, yet the fruit he does bear will be inconsiderable in quantity, and of no very pleasing flavour. This matter is so clear that I need take no further pains either to explain or prove it. But while we apply this reasoning with all wholesome severity to ourselves, I must again caution you against the great evil of too hastily judging of others from external appearances. The good works of some Christians are concealed by an impenetrable veil from our view. But supposing they really are few, yet if their fewness may be imputed to either of the causes before-mentioned, let us not be fond of setting it down to this cause, the most unfavourable of all, namely an essential defect in the spirit and power of religion.óTo what has been said I have only to add one other reason of this variety among Christians, and that is,
6. And lastly, the greater or less effusion of divine influences.
In regard of husbandry, how much the largeness of the crop depends upon the favourableness of the season, we have had occasion to shew: indeed without the aid of the sun and dew, and the blessing of God, though the ground were ever so well manured and sown, there would be no crop at all. The Lord blessed Isaac; and so having sowed in the land of the Philistines, he received in the same year an hundred-fold (Gen. 26:18). In like manner, clear as it is that every Christian ought to bring forth fruit, it is also evident that his endeavours will be vain without the divine assistance and blessing. But where more than ordinary fruits are brought forth, as in the instances of some eminent men that might be mentioned; it would be strange if we did not acknowledge, that a more than ordinary measure of the Holy Spirit is poured upon such persons. The noble exploits of an illustrious army of confessors and martyrs, who have contended with principalities and powers, and gained a complete victory over them, are only to be accounted for on this principle. And if their good works are more numerous and brilliant than those of the common class of Christians, if they have brought forth fruit a hundred fold, and these only sixty; the former gratefully ascribe their superiority to the grace of God, while both the one and the other humbly acknowledge, they have not improved their talents to the degree that might be expected.
Thus have we stated the fact respecting the different degrees of fruitfulness remarkable among Christians, and considered the true grounds and reasons of it.óIt now remains that we represent,
IV. The blessedness of those who, hearing the word, and keeping it in honest and good hearts, bring forth the fruits of holiness. This, as we have observed, is implied, though not expressed in the parable. And if we consider the pleasure that accompanies ingenuous obedienceóthe evidence which thence arises to the uprightness of the heartóthe respect in which a man of this character is held among his fellow-christiansóand the rewards he shall hereafter receive at the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ, we shall readily pronounce him a happy man.
1. As to the pleasure that accompanies ingenuous obedience.
Great peace have they, says David, who love they law, and nothing shall offend them (Psal. 119:165) And Solomon assures us that the ways of wisdom, that is of holiness, are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace (Prov. 3:17). Much might be said here of the pleasures of inward religion, the comforts which arise from communion with God, a sense of his favour, and the hope of eternal life. But I have my eye at present not so much on the contemplative and devotional, as the practical part of religion. And can any one doubt that a regular attention to duty upon right principles is accompanied with pleasure? Multitudes indeed shrink back from it. They account time spent in the worship of God long and tedious; acts of compassion and benevolence, if not of justice, a severe tax upon pleasure and property; and all restraints laid upon their exorbitant passions and appetites a most intolerable burden. But if they had a taste for communion with the greatest and best of Beings, if they had hearts susceptible of humane and generous feelings, and if they knew the value of temperance and moderation; how would they love the habitation of Godís house, and the place where his honor dwelleth! How would they rejoice in doing good to the souls and bodies of their fellow-creatures! And with what satisfaction and cheerfulness would they daily partake of the bounties of Providence!
Such is the character of the real Christian: how happy a man therefore must he be! I mean when he acts in character: for it must not be denied, that his heart is sometimes out of tune for devotional exercises, that he is not always alike disposed to benevolent exertions, and that his appetites and passions too often rebel against his prevailing inclinations, though they gain not the absolute mastery over them. And hence all that pain he feels at his heart, and all that sadness which appears on his countenance. It is not his bringing forth fruit that makes him unhappy, but his bringing forth no more fruit, and, in his own modest apprehension, scarce any at all. Holiness and happiness are intimately connected: were that perfect and unmixed, this would be so too. But though the best obedience the Christian can render hath no merit in it, and he would reprobate the most distant idea of pleading it at the tribunal of justice; yet surely it hath its pleasures. Make trial of it, Christian. You have made trial. Tell me then, you who rank among the most unfruitful of Christís real disciples, whether you have not tasted a sweetness in holy duties, a satisfaction in acts of brotherly-kindness, and a pleasure in the moderate use of worldly enjoyments, that infinitely exceeds all the boasted joys of profane and wicked men? Would you then be happy, go and bring forth fruit, do all the good you can, and give God the glory.
2. Fruitfulness affords a noble proof of a manís uprightness, and so tends indirectly as well as directly to promote his happiness.
With what anxiety does the sincere but timorous Christian often put the following questions to himself!ó"Am I renewed by the grace of God? Have I ingenuously repented of my sins? Do I truly believe in the Lord Jesus Christ? Is there a spark of real love in my breast to the divine Saviour? And may I venture to reckon myself among the number of his disciples?" Important questions! Our comfort is much concerned in obtaining satisfactory answers to them. But how do we expect to have them answered? There is such a thing as Godís spirit bearing witness with our spirits that we are the children of God (Rom 8:16). But the asking in a right manner the testimony of Godís Spirit, implies the paying a due regard to the testimony of our own spirit. And by what evidence are we to judge of the truth or falsity of this testimony, but that which is laid down in the word of God? And what is that?óIt is our bearing fruit. Herein is my Father glorified, says Christ, that ye bear much fruit, so shall ye be my disciples, or so shall ye give proof that ye are my disciples (John 15:8). Hereby we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments, that is, if we aim to keep his commandments (1 John 2:3). Again, every one that doeth righteousness is born of God (I John 2:29).
And now if, from a regard to the authority of God and a sense of our infinite obligations to his grace, we make it our aim to bring forth the fruits of holiness; though these fruits may not be a hundred, or sixty, but only thirty fold; though through a combination of circumstances they may be very inconsiderable indeed: yet we possess an authentic testimony that we are the genuine disciples of Christ. And the knowledge of this tends directly to promote our peace and happiness. But what a further accession of strength does this evidence receive, from that abundance of fruitfulness which distinguishes some characters from others! An apostle who brought forth an hundred fold, conscious that he acted from the purest motives, and receiving the immediate testimony of Godís Spirit, could not fail of having every doubt respecting his state removed, and so enjoying a full assurance of faith. And how unspeakable must his happiness have been! Who that fears God does not envy him of the sweet peace, the abiding satisfaction, and triumphant joy he possessed?
Should not this then serve as one motive, among many others, to animate us to love and obedience? And if we are so happy as to arrive at an assurance of hope, that fruitfulness which may have contributed to clear up our evidence of interest in the favour of God, will not sooth our vanity, but be humbly and thankfully acknowledge to have originated from the seasonable influence and assistance of divine grace. View the Christian then walking in the light of Godís countenance, and having the joyful testimony of his own conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity he has his conversation in the world; and say, whether he is not of all men the most happy?
3. The esteem, too, in which he is held among his fellow-christians, must contribute not a little to his comfort.
To be honoured and loved by wise and good men is a great blessing. This blessing we may covet, and if we bring forth fruit we shall enjoy it. The world indeed, reproved by our good deeds, will hate us; slothful professors, not caring to imitate us, will disgustfully turn away their attention from us; but in the eye of those who truly fear God we shall be the excellent of the earth. They will be fond of associating with us, and feel an attachment of heart to us like that of David to Jonathan.
Whatever in the creation is beautiful and useful, and best answers the ends of its existence, will be admired by a sensible observer. When I go through a field covered with a golden crop, or walk in a garden laden with rich fruits, the sight pleases my eye: I praise the hand that cultivated the one and dressed the other, and give glory to the God of nature who crowned their labours with his blessing. In like manner, when I see a Christian acting under the influence of his principles, bridling his passions, cherishing every noble and generous sentiment, copying after the example of his divine Master, going about doing good, and giving the most undisguised proofs of meekness, benevolence and piety; O! how pleasing is the sight! I stand and gaze upon him, I feel I love him, I wish to have him for my most intimate friend, I pray God to bless him, and I rejoice in the hope of spending an eternal Sabbath in his company.
Good nature, learning, wit, and other shining talents have their attractions; but a man of the character I am describing, though of inferior mental abilities, is far more amiable in the eye of him whose senses are exercised to discern good and evil, than the most exalted genius that is destitute of the fear of God. There is no comparison between them. Angels hail the former, but despise the latter. These are held in detestation by God the Judge of all, those are greatly beloved by him; for their bosoms are the temples of the Holy Ghost.óOnce more,
4. How glorious will be the rewards which the fruitful Christian will receive, at the hands of the great husbandman, on the day of harvest!
That day is approaching. Mark the perfect man, behold the upright, for the end of that man is peace (Psalm 37:37). Going down to death like a shock of corn fully ripe, the precious grain shall lie secure in the bosom of the earth; angels shall keep their vigils about it; while the immortal spirit, acquiring its highest degree of perfection, shall join the company of the blessed above. These will hail the stranger, with loud acclamations of joy, to the mansions prepared for its residence in heaven: and these too, unused to censure and detraction, will applaud his works that follow him thither with heart-felt approbation and delight. Yea, the blessed Jesus himself, whose word was the seed whence all this fruit sprung, and whose Spirit gave life and energy to it; will say, Well done good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord (Matt. 25:21). Nor is this all. At the day of the resurrection, the body, whose members had been instruments of righteousness unto God (Rom. 6:13), shall be changed, and fashioned like unto the glorious body of Christ, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things to himself (Philip, 3:21). And thus, united to a pure and spiritual body, the Christian, amidst an infinite multitude of others who had heard the word, and kept it, and brought forth the fruits of it; shall be acknowledged, approved, and applauded by the sentence of Christ his righteous judge, pronounced in the presence of the whole world. So shall he and they be caught up with the ascending Saviour to the abodes of bliss above, and there be forever with the Lord.
And now, all these things laid together, how great is the blessedness of the fruitful Christian! What remains then, but that we take fire at these considerations, and resolve, in a humble dependence on divine grace, that we will endeavour to outdo each other in love and good works! Has our divine Master redeemed us with his precious blood, obtained the Holy Spirit to renew and sanctify us, blessed us with the means of grace, set before us his own perfect example, and given us such exceeding great and precious promises? And shall we content ourselves, after all this expense he has been at for our good, with making him the return of a few cold heartless services, for the promoting of his honour and interest in the world? No, Christian! Such conduct would be most ungrateful and disingenuous. Let me beseech you then, my beloved brethren, to be stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord; forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord (I Cor. 15:58) And as the word of the kingdom is the seed whence fruitfulness is to be expected, let us receive it with meekness, remembering that it is able to save our souls (James 1:21). And let our Saviourís own exhortation, with the explanation and improvement of which we shall close these discourses; have its due weight with us all, Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.