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ON HEARING THE WORD.
BY J. P. DOBSON.
LUKE viii. 18.- Take heed, therefore, how ye hear.
When God created the universe, he spake, and it was done ; he commanded, and it stood fast. He chose the stupendous fabric to be reared without the intervention of secondary causes ; and every time we feel the sun's invigorating warmth, every time we contemplate the moon walking in her brightness, every time we look abroad into the wide field of nature, we should be reminded of the fact, that he who made us, can, if it pleases him, accomplish his designs in the total absence of all finite agency. But, though in producing the first creation, it was his pleasure to act independently, and to furnish no employment to those high intelligences who shouted for joy on beholding it completed, it is not his pleasure to act thus in bringing about the new creation ; and one of the first ideas to strike a reflecting mind relative to the gospel, is, the idea of its being a system of means, or a plan for effecting the restoration and happiness of human-kind, by the use of various species of instrumentality. These are kept under the regulation of a spiritual providence, and are rendered conducive by the Head of the Church, in ways innumerably diversified, to the conversion and salvation of sinners. Some of them are more closely connected with the attainment of the final object, and others more remotely. Thus, for instance, faith is the immediate instrument of our becoming interested in the benefits which accrue from the Redeemer's obedience, sacrifice, and intercession. The volume of inspiration is the instrument of our becoming the subjects of faith ; and the means by which the
word of God is brought home to our understandings and our consciences, are almost as numerous and as varied as the circumstances in which we can be placed. One, however, of the most direct, and one which has, in all ages, proved the most extensively efficient, is the public exercise of the ministerial function. This has been appointed by our merciful Redeemer for the express purpose of converting ungodly men to the faith of the gospel, and saving them that believe ; and while other means are only occasional, and, in a sense, fortuitous, such as afflictive events, or the conversation of pious individuals, this is a standing ordinance, and is to be continued in regular administration until the end of time ; and while an expectation of beneficial results from them is only authorized by the import of general promises, the gracious assurances referring to this are most particular and explicit.
It is, therefore, the obvious duty of every person desirous of salvation, to attend as often as he can upon the ministry of the word, and to embrace all the opportunities put within his reach of obtaining christian instruction; and to neglect doing so, is virtually equivalent to saying that we are regardless of the interests of the soul, and indifferent to the things of eternity. And while it is incumbent upon us to make a point of being statedly present where the Scriptures are explained, and the truths of revelation are unfolded, it is of essential moment, according to the direction of Christ in the passage before us, that we be particularly careful as to the way in which we attend ; for there are, unquestionably, certain modes of hearing from which no beneficial results are at all likely to accrue; whereas, there doubtless are others which eventually prove useful, and in which the gospel becomes “the power of God unto salvation." That this is not an erroneous sentiment may
be demonstrated, we apprehend, by facts connected with every congregation. Amongst those whom I am now addressing, there are probably many who have been accustomed to attend the preaching of the gospel for twenty years past. Upon the most moderate calculation, you have heard, during that period, two thousand sermons. Truth has thus frequently been presented to your consideration in all its native excellence ; "the whole counsel of God” has been stated with clearness and solemnity; the threatenings of divine justice have been denounced, and the attractions of divine grace have been pourtrayed; warnings, and expostulations, and intreaties, have been severally tried, and, in short, every effort has been made for securing your eternal welfare which faithful men could make; and yet, we may venture to affirm it as a matter of certainty, that, with regard to some of you, no advantage whatever has been realized. Your consciences testify that you have not become in any respect altered characters, that is to say, not in any respect altered for the better; not in any respect improved as to your spiritual condition; not in any respect matured for a world of purity; and, if honest with yourselves, you will be obliged to acknowledge, that, with regard to any thing like moral fitness, you are as far from the kingdom of heaven now, as you were when first brought under the sound of the gospel.
Now there must be a reason for this, and that reason must be the fact of deficiency somewhere ; one party or another must have been culpable ; since effects have not been produced in your experience which it is the direct tendency of the statements which have been laid before you to produce. We have supposed the ambassadors of Christ, on whose ministry you have attended, to be faithful, and sincere, and devoted; consequently, the fault is not in them ; cannot be in God, for in whatever case he refuses to bless his word, the circumstance of his doing so is attributable to the conduct of his creatures; it must, therefore, be in yourselves, and in yourselves alone. You have heard in vain, and you have heard in vain because you have not heard aright; and a moment's reflection will suffice to produce a conviction in your minds, that, had you been thoughtful, instead of careless ; solemn, instead of trifling; in earnest to obtain benefit, instead of merely curious or critical ; and deeply solicitous to have the word fastened, like a nail in a sure place, by the great Master of our assemblies, instead of worldly and forgetful, the results could not have failed of being widely different from what they are. Brethren, it cannot be too thoroughly wrought into our consideration, that there is a particular way in which divine instructions are to be received ; and whenever about to assemble where such instructions are administered, you should see to it that you do so with a deep impression of this fact upon your minds. You are beings endowed with intelligence, and invested with solemn responsibility; and the developments of inspired truth, and the lessons of practical virtue brought before you at these hallowed seasons, are the most momentous that can possibly be imagined. Your mode of hearing, therefore, should correspond, on the one hand, to the character you sustain as rational and accountable creatures; and, on the other, to the unspeakable importance of divine realities. we remark,
I. That it becomes you to hear ATTENTIVELY, and with DISCRIMINATION AND JUDGMENT.
The object at which we are aiming in these public exercises, or at which we always ought to aim, is your individual improvement in knowledge and in holiness. We are anxious, under the blessing of God, to convey to your minds enlarged views of the moral circumstances of every apostate creature; to make you more fully acquainted with the plan of salvation ; to get your affections increasingly abstracted from what is perishable and unsatisfying, and to augment the influence of motives calculated to impel you forward in a course of spiritual and heavenly attainment; and we accomplish nothing if we are not the means of sending you to your homes, at the close of every sabbath, better informed as to the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and the way to an enjoyment of eternal life, and with more of“ that mind in you which was in Christ.” It were absurd to expect that these ends should be answered, where the subjects we bring forward are manifestly disregarded; where our trains of thought are unobserved, and where any person can command attention but the person who is preaching, and any sound excite interest but the voice of the messenger from God; or where the characteristics of those whom we address, are vacancy and drowsiness. In order to derive benefit, there must be a fixedness of thought, there must be a withdrawment of the mind from all other concerns, and, if possible, there must be for the time a complete absorption of the faculties in what is going forward. Your mental posture, while in the sanctuary, must be that of David, when he said, “ I will hear what God the Lord will speak;” and every time you come to the house of prayer, you should come with a determination to watch, as closely and as particularly as you are able, not the manner in which we deliver ourselves, but the topics of which we treat; not the language we employ, but the ideas which that language is the medium of communicating; and, brethren, it stands to reason, that the more attentive you are, the more likely you are to profit; the more likely you are to feel the power which the Spirit of God puts into his word ; the more likely you are to have that glow kindled in your bosoms which the Saviour frequently causes to be experienced when the Scriptures are opened.
But it is not attention alone that we solicit; we also desire the exercise of a power which every one of you possesses, to discriminate and judge for himself. The doctrine which maintains ignorance to be the mother of devotion, is one that has long been exploded from our system ; the claims to infallibility are such as we most willingly leave in the recesses of the Vatican ; the blind faith of superstition is what we have no anxiety to encourage. We can do nothing more than state what we believe and feel to be the truth ; we can only place before you the results of a conviction wrought in
us, we trust, by the power of the Divine Spirit, accompanying serious and impartial investigation ; but it is possible we may be deceived, and, if so, you are liable to be led into error, unless accustomed to think and decide for yourselves. Do not, therefore, take any of our statements upon trust, but cultivate the habit of bringing every thing we say “to the law and to the testimony;" for if we speak not according to this rule, there is no light in us. Let it be your endeavour to hear, on all occasions, with the understanding as well as with the heart, and make it a point to follow us through the several topics of discourse, in the exercise of a clear discernment, and with a constant reference in your minds to scriptural authority, so that you may be fully satisfied as to whether or not our representations of things are correct, and if they are correct, may feel that they are so, not because we make them, but because you know them to be so.
The advantage calculated to accrue from adhering to such a method as this, is obviously most important and valuable. Our business is to produce impression: but it is comparatively of no avail for us to impress the heart, unless we do it through the medium of the judgment. A theatrical performer may excite the passions, and so may a writer of fictitious poetry, and so may a pleader at the bar, without any idea ever entering the mind of the auditor relative to the truth or falsehood of what he is stating; and, doubtless, it is not to be questioned, that, in innumerable instances, effects are produced upon the feelings by the preaching of the gospel, which are altogether unconnected with the nature of the gospel, and merely result from the peculiar style or manner in which it is proclaimed. And hence there are so many in our congregations, who, on the sabbath, and during the time of service, appear to be deeply interested, but who live throughout the week in a total disregard of holy requirements. We observe them all attention, we see them often melted into tears, and we fondly hope that good is doing; but on following them from the sanctuary, we find, perhaps, in the course of a few hours, that every emotion of seriousness has left them, and that they have become as thoughtless and as trifling as ever. This arises from the circumstance of their having been affected as sensitive beings, and not as intelligent beings. Their feelings have been wrought upon, but their understandings have not been awakened; and, my fellowimmortals, so long as any of you hear only to have your imaginations pleased, and your sensibilities gratified, there is but little hope of your being essentially benefited; but, on the contrary, if we can place our subjects fully and fairly before your intellectual perception;