The Inspiration and Work of the Christian Ministry

William Greenleaf Eliot                                                                         

Berry Street Lecture, 1880                                                                                                                                                                                               Read before the Ministerial Conference
Boston, Massachusetts
July, 1880

 

Whereupon, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision;
but showed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all
the coasts of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn unto
God, and do works meet for repentance.—Acts xxvi., 19, 20.

 

My subject, brethren, from these words, is the Inspiration and Work of the Christian Ministry. It is one in which we are all deeply, vitally interested. Upon our right under­standing of it as presented in the New Testament depends the question whether our office as Christian ministers is one of the highest dignity, or only a sham and pretence. It may be either one or the other, according to the spirit in which it is held.

 

What was the peculiar experience of the Apostle Paul as given in the narrative, we are not able exactly to tell. Whether or not the light shining and the voice speaking were also seen and heard by those with him, the accounts differ. They may have been manifest to him alone. Both in the material and the spiritual world, we see and hear only that to which our senses and spiritual nature have been ad­justed. Angel voices and heavenly music may be all around us now, and we not able to hear them; the light of God's nearer presence may be of dazzling brightness here, and we not conscious of its glory; — even as the undulatory move­ment of the ether and the air may be too quick or too slowto meet the limited range of our faculties. We live in a world of mystery, of unknown forces and developments; and our ignorance is so great that nothing but equal arrogance would attempt to define the boundaries of knowledge. The incredible miracle of today may be the scientific fact of to­morrow. When we come to a more perfect understanding of the laws of mind and matter, we may perhaps speak more confidently.

 

One thing is certain, beyond dispute. Some real and gen­uine experience the persecutor, Saul, passed through to be­come Paul, the apostle of Jesus Christ. There was no sham nor pretension there. As certainly as the child born into the world is a new life, so certainly was that a new, regen­erated life to him. The same divine power must be recog­nized as the causa operans in both.

 

From the hour when the witnesses, at the death of the martyred Stephen, brought their clothes and "laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul,” that young man, though doing "what he verily thought” was right, couldnever drive out the memory of patience and sublime cour­age of the heroic sufferer. For a time he struggled against his convictions, persuading himself that in the service of God cruelty to man is justified, multiplying his zeal in per­secution to stifle self-reproach. "Breathing out threaten­ings and slaughter,” he came near Damascus, armed in all the majesty of law, when at last the divine elements of his nature overcame the selfish and carnal, his eyes were opened to see the glory of the crucified man and his ears to hear the gentle voice; "WHY persecutest thou me ?”

 

You may call it a miraculous conversion or not, as you please: a real conversion it certainly was. It was in viola­tion of no law of God, but in strict accordance with thelaws of our spiritual nature. But it changed the whole cur­rent and meaning of the man's life. It changed to him all values, it inspired new ambitions and hopes, it gave breadth to all his ideas, it prepared him for an absoluteness of self-consecration such as the world has seldom seen. Henceforth he was "ready not only to be bound, but to die for the Lord Jesus.” Henceforth he counted all things but loss for the life that Jesus lived. Whatever form his preaching took, itwas always substantially the same: "Now then we are am­bassadors FOR Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God.”

 

Was it an exceptional experience, which he needed, but we modern ministers of the gospel do not need? Was it an inspiration that he required to fit him for the Christian work of leading men from sin to righteousness, but for which we can find a substitute in secular learning or in self-seeking wisdom?

 

I think not. I believe that a like experience, as to its spiritual significance, is not only possible, but essential to us all. I believe that a like inspiration, filling our hearts with a pervading and controlling purpose of self-consecration for God and for Christ's sake, for truth and goodness, is as need­ful now as it was then, and that without it the most elo­quent preaching of the most stately pulpit will be of little or no effect.

 

I hold no controversy about words. I enter into no dis­cussion about methods of divine action, or the channels, nat­ural or supernatural (who knows the limits of one or the other?), by which truth and spiritual life come into the soul. I only say that they must be there, with a transforming and consecrating power, before we are prepared to make success­ful use of whatever natural ability and acquired attainments we may possess, in the gospel ministry. Lecturers we may be, in science or philosophy or political economy, or in the­ological disputation and verbal criticism, or in controversial attack and defense. But to bring peace to the troubled soul, to rebuke the sin and save the sinner, to make the love of God seem beautiful to the worldly mind, to make the life of Christ so attractive that belief in him will need no argu­ment,— in a word, to stand, as Paul stood, as the ambassa­dor for Christ to persuade men, both by precept and example, "Be ye reconciled to God,”— we must ourselves have first learned by experience all that we teach. We can make Jesus known to others only as we know him ourselves. We can reveal God not in the least degree beyond what the rev­elation is in our own souls. Talk there may be, about God and about Jesus, both attributes and virtues; but God and Jesus are brought near to human souls only by those to whom God and Jesus have been near.

         

"He alone within whom truth is a living, substantial pres­ence,” says Dr. Channing, "can give it forth in fresh, genial, natural, quickening tones.” "Truth, when seen as a reality, always breathes faith and trust. Doubt and despondence belong to error or superficial views. Truth is of God, and is bright with promise of that infinite good which all his perfections make sure.”

 

I am persuaded, dear brothers, that herein we find the chief reason for the inefficiency of the church and thepulpit, in modern times, not only of our communion, but of all others. It is the want of deep convictions. It is feeble and hesitating faith. It is the want of that personal experi­ence of religion which comes from living sympathy with thecharacter, and sincere belief in the words and promises of Jesus Christ.

 

They tell us that the age of pulpit influence has passed away; that the newspaper and scientific journal take itsplace; that science has so far advanced that the childlike faith of former days and its resultant earnestness are no longer possible.

 

We do not believe it. The infinite truths of God, of the human soul, of universal brotherhood, of right and wrong, of responsibility and retribution, of spiritual life and spirit­ual death, are the same now as they ever were. Human needs and cares and sorrows are the same. "Come unto me, ye that are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest,” are words as precious now as eighteen hundred years ago. The mysteries of sin and of death yet remain. The glories of creation yet abide. The redemption of the soul from sin and its victory over death are yet the great work given us to do. If we could but speak of these things with the earnestness that personal knowledge and experience create, the common people would hear us gladly; and the science-taught generations of the nineteenth century would be led, as I believe they will be, to accomplish greater things in the service of God and humanity than the world has ever yet seen. Science and philosophy may drive out superstitious fears: they cannot and do not seek to drive out Faith and Hope and Charity, without which the soul itself would die.

 

But skepticism cannot inspire life. Abstruse speculations of those who are seeking after God, if haply they may findhim, are not what the hungering and thirsting soul desires. Not many months ago, I heard an eloquent preacher discourse upon the existence and nature of God. He stoutlymaintained that there is a God, because that is the easier of two logically impossible alternatives. But he said science forbids us from ascribing to him personality or causative power or will or design, or the attributes of wisdom or love,or the offices of providential care; that all of these are fan­cies of anthropomorphistic superstition; that perhaps force was a better word to describe him by than power; and that his (or its) life is simply immutable law, under the operation of which the efficacy of prayer can have no scientific place. Then, at the close, instead of saying stat morainic umbra, he said, "Let us pray,” and repeated the Lord's prayer,— "Our Father, who art in heaven, ... forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” As I came out, one near me said, "I thought I was an atheist, but that's what I believe, only I do not see where the prayer comes in.”

 

Of the thousand hearers who listened to that discourse, how many hearts went away comforted, how many of that crowd of young men were better prepared for the trials and temptations of the next week?

 

"But surely he was right to speak his real opinions,” one may say. "You would not have him parrot words of belief in which he does not share?” Certainly not. But I wouldsay to such an inquirer and doubter, with all the earnestness and tenderness of a brother, that the Christian pulpit is as yet no place for him. Let him tarry in Jericho until his spiritual beard is grown.

 

"I believe, and therefore have I spoken,” is the gospel-given and indispensable license to preach.

 

It is a question of common honesty, not one of ecclesias­tical or denominational discipline, whether a man is justifia­ble in occupying a Christian pulpit to preach agnosticism. It may be possible to believe all the truths that Jesus taughtwithout saying, "Lord, Lord”; but without believing these truths it is hardly possible either to know or do the "will of the Father who is in Heaven.” Faith in the living and ever-present God; faith in the human soul and its personal im­mortality; faith in the infinite difference between right and wrong, between righteousness and unrighteousness, between licentiousness and purity, and therefore between the soul lost and the soul saved; faith in the absolute obligation under which God has placed us to recognize the claims of human brotherhood throughout the whole, range of human­ity; faith in the excellence of virtue as infinitely above the rewards of virtue, and in the vileness of sin as infinitely worse than the punishment of sin,

 

This teach me more than hell to shun,

That more than heaven pursue,

 

in a word, faith in Christian truth, which embraces all spir­itual truth, from whatever source it may come, and in the life of Jesus, as the embodiment of the truths he taught,— for the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,—this FAITH, the source of hope and love, is the needful inspiration of the gospel ministry.

 

Its direct and necessary consequence is self-consecration to the work given us to do,— at first perhaps imperfect, with infant feebleness of purpose, but with sincere and earnest desire for growth and diligent devotion to the spiritual in­terests of those whom we would serve. Self-consecration: the grandest word in the English language; the key to all heroism; the first condition of all great attainment, whether in art or knowledge or philanthropy or spiritual life, lead­ing to self-denial and self-sacrifice, but carrying us far be­yond them by making the will of God our will, and the service of God our chief delight. This it is to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” to take up the cross and follow him, to find our life in losing it. Such is the spirit of working that the gospel ministry demands.

 

Do you say that this is the language of enthusiasm, and not of sober, practical good sense? No: rather will you say that my words are tame and inadequate, when we rightly consider the grandeur of the work we have to do.

 

"If there be any office worthy of angels, it is that of teaching Christian truth. The Son of God hallowed it, by sustaining it in his own person. All other labors sink be­fore it. Royalty is impotence and a vulgar show, compared with the deep and quickening power which the Christian teacher may exert on the human soul.” Those are Dr. Channing's words.

 

Very different indeed it is from the flippancy with which young men, perhaps poorly trained for any vocation, some­times enter the pulpit, without any personal religious ex­perience of their own, to ventilate their half-ideas, to reject freely what they have half-examined, to talk of whatever comes uppermost, having no definite object in view, no grand end to attain.

 

Have they no thought of the divine work they have in hand,— that they are addressing living men and women onthe subjects that lie deepest in their nature, that spread themselves widest over their destiny?

 

All the earnestness of which we are capable, all the consecrated energy we can command, are not too much for the reasonably faithful discharge of the duties which we daily undertake.

 

Pardon me, dear brothers, if I seem to lose myself, and to speak with unbecoming directness and simplicity. I have now been many years out of the pulpit, although, thank God! not out of the Christian ministry, and have learned to look at things from the point of view held by the pewsrather than the desk. What laymen want is greater evi­dence of reality. They crave words of power, laying hold of the heart's best affections, rebuking the heart's besetting sins, awakening the heart's best ambition and hopes. Theyneed to be addressed as individuals, as having a living, per­sonal relationship to God, as being not our own, but belonging to him, and him alone. They want, they need, words of searching power to reach the centre of life, so that, rising from their places, they will say, in their silent hearts: "God be merciful to me a sinner. . . . I will live a better life and do better work from this time forward, God helping me.” To meet that demand, the preacher needs some little of that fire from the altar of God with which the Apostle Paul was touched, when he reasoned of "righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come,” until Felix trembled. It requires no exceptional strength nor eloquence nor learning to do this. It does require earnestness and faith.

 

I heard such a sermon two Sundays ago from my own pastor in St. Louis, and shall be the better for it as long as I live. It brought strength and encouragement to every heart.

 

From what I have said of the inspiration of the gospel ministry, the nature and quality of its work perhaps suffi­ciently appear. But I add a few words to bring into distinct view the ideal of that work, as presented by the apostle him­self; for I am very much impressed by its simplicity of state­ment. Remember that he was a convert, full of zeal, earnest in the new service of one whom he had persecuted, standing before those to whom he would most magnify his office. Yet he used no startling words, he propounded no mysteries of doctrine, but in language which one of the old prophets might have used,— nay, which they had often used,—he proclaimed his mission: "Whereupon, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision,” but preachedboth to Jew and Gentile, "that they should repent and turn unto God, and do works meet for repentance.”

 

That is the great humanizing gospel we have to preach, that is the practical work we have to do. It is the law of righteousness, the gospel of filial love and divine care, the golden rule of good works,— the same gospel to rich andpoor, to the high and low, to the learned and ignorant, to men of the first century and of the nineteenth.

 

How shall that gospel be declared?

 

1. By direct precept, by the word of exhortation and Bible-preaching, by whatever can make the beauty and excellence of Christ's life and his doctrines of righteousness known.

                                                                                                                       

2. By becoming and reverential regard for the institutions of Christianity, baptism and the Lord's supper. Free them from superstitious regard, but hold them as symbols of faith, the time-honored bond of Christian brotherhood. Their neg­lect in our churches is a frequent cause of disintegration and often of spiritual decay.

 

3. By lives of righteousness, of purity, of self-denial, of temperance, of active usefulness,— by humbly striving to make ourselves an example of what we would persuade other men to be.

 

Undoubtedly, this is the great power. It is the irresistible argument for the truth as it is in Jesus. A church with a hundred ministers thus devoted and consistent would in a few years' time turn the whole world to it. Even in the Great Teacher himself, this is the chief power of persuasion, the source of abiding authority. The Christian religion would have died out long ago, under the load of corruptions and abuses, if the life of Jesus had not been its continued salvation.

 

A stain upon the preacher's life, no matter how eloquent he may be, neutralizes his influence. He may be sustained by church authority, whitewashed by ecclesiastical courts, acquitted by juries with verdict of "not proven”; but, if a reasonable doubt is left of his purity or honesty, his advo­cacy of any cause only weakens it, and, whatever strength of denominational success he may attain, he is doing nothing for the cause of Christ.

 

And not only so. It is one of the startling truths that we are compelled to face, that the pastor and preacher will find his own character reflected in that of his people. A ten years' ministry seldom fails to reveal it. It is not easy for them to keep above the average character of one whom they love and respect and hear as their gospel teacher every Sunday. His standard of self-denial will be theirs, or standard of self-indulgence, with this difference,—that their exposures are greater than his, and tendencies carefully guarded from excess by him lead them to more serious harm.

 

Brothers, our opponents tell us sometimes, their wish being father of the thought, that the Unitarian movement has lost its power, is practically dead, "played out,” effete. Unfortunately, in comparison with what we ought to be, the charge is too near the truth. We are not doing half, nor quarter, nor one-tenth what we ought to do. Some of our churches are sickly, some asleep, some dying, some dead. But we have, as I verily believe, the word of mightiest power, the true gospel of the coming time, the gospel of science, of universal religion, of spiritual freedom and life, if we could but thoroughly receive it ourselves, and with hearty faith sound it abroad. There never was a time nor place in which better opportunity was given for genuine influence in Christ's cause than is offered now to the teachers of liberal Christianity.

 

I almost envy the young man who stands at this day in a Unitarian Christian pulpit, himself baptized in the Christian spirit, to give the message of love and fraternity and filialobedience to a free people. Only let him keep, in his own life, as close as possible to the life of Jesus, who went about doing good, "who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth.” Let him not be afraid of the words Authority, Allegiance, Discipleship. The authority is that of truth; the allegiance is to the eternal law of right; the discipleship is the willing surrender of our souls to God. That is what Jesus desired. "I speak as unto wise men. Judge ye what I say.”

 

But in proportion to the simplicity of doctrines preached, being only the truths which Jesus taught and lived, must be the earnestness of our faith in them. If we had "schemes of salvation” to present; if we could resort to the tricks and delusions of the confessional; if the trappings and paraphernalia of ecclesiasticism were sacred in our eyes,— then we might build up churches and get crowds of con­verts by perfunctory service. But they to whom the father­hood of God and the brotherhood of men, enforced by the two "great commandments of the law,” are the sum and substance of religion, must make the truth a part of their soul's own life, to awaken life in the souls of others.

 

It is easy enough to teach a creed by acceptance of which salvation is secured. But what mightiness of faith is re­quired to make the worldly and selfish and corrupt man believe the word which Jesus spoke: "The kingdom of God is within you”; or those of the Apostle Paul: "Whosoever defileth the temple of God, him shall God destroy. For the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.”

 

Brethren, there is no need for despondency, no excuse for it. The young men now coming forward will more than make our places good. There has been something too much of the: "everlasting no” in times past, but we are coming into the better light of the "everlasting yea.” The gospel of the future will be affirmative. The task of pulling down iswell-nigh finished. The command now given is that we, "as living stones, may be built up, a spiritual house, a holy
priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”

 

See to it then, my young brothers, that ye be not disobe­dient to the heavenly vision; but wherever you go, whether north or south, east or west, preach the same doctrine of salvation, with all the saving power of your own faith and practice, that men "should repent and turn unto God, and do works meet for repentance.”

 

Lay aside all doubt, all self-distrust, all timidity. You are bearers of a message. A dispensation has been com­mitted unto you. Believe in the great gospel truths you preach, so confidently that, without pretension or arrogance, you may say, as every true prophet of righteousness must, "Thus saith the Lord”; and they who hear you will forget the messenger in the grandeur of the message given.

O Lord our God, may grace be given to every one of usthus to speak, thus to make proof of our ministry. May we have the inspiration of truth and righteousness. May we have strength to consecrate our lives to thee as earnest fol­lowers of thy Son Jesus Christ. And, when life comes to its close, may each one of us be able honestly to say, with him, "I havefinished the work thou gavest me to do.” Amen.