We all need to be instructed in the truths of the gospel, because that is the way that we grow spiritually. But both preachers and hearers can be busy around the truth without really getting to the heart of the truth. John Carstares was a ministerial colleague of James Durham and wrote an extended endorsement of Durham’s book, The Great Gain of Contenting Godliness. Carstares picks up on Durham’s theme of “exercising yourself unto godliness” and points out that there are various ways in which we can be active and energetic – full of zeal – but it’s misdirected even though we have flickers and flashes of truth in our view. In the following updated extract, Carstares picks out some ways in which – whether as preachers or hearers – people miss the point and truth and godliness slip away from them.
We should exercise ourselves to godliness knowingly and solidly, having a right understanding of its nature, and a thorough grasp of what it consists of, so that we do not make a mistake about it, as many do who claim to have it, to the great harm of their souls, if not their utter ruin.
There is a “zeal that is not according to knowledge,” and zeal about what is not good (Romans 10:2). Then the more zealous and exercised someone is, and the faster they run, the further they go wrong and out of the way. The greatest zealots in unwarrantable things readily become the most dangerous. “My son,” said dying David to Solomon, “know thou the God of thy fathers,” while to Israel he said, “Keep and seek for the commandments of the Lord your God.” Remarkable words, keep and seek, plainly implying that there can be no keeping of God’s commandments without seeking to know and understand them well. Little knowledge of God, of the nature of godliness, and of the principles of religion, with this wrong kind of zeal, have produced much damage to the gospel, and brought it under great contempt.
Since it is those, and only those, who keep His commandments that have a good understanding (Psalm 111:10), we should by all means strive to have our practice marching side by side with our light, and not to have any of our light detained in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18), made a prisoner under a guard of corruptions to keep it from shining out and influencing our practice.
Seeking knowledge for its own sake
There are many who seek to know only or mainly so that they would know, and make others know that they know. In religion they are all notion without motion, having a head full of light and a heart void of all life. They talk all their religion and do not walk it. Their knowledge aggravates their guilt and heightens their damnation.
Avoiding knowledge of the most important things
There are some on the other hand who become weary and almost sick of things that are preached or written with the aim of familiarising them with the form of sound words and the principles of religion. They would prefer only and always to have something spoken to some case of conscience, or some doubt or some spiritual exercise. Of course Christians should covet to have their souls’ cases and their present spiritual exercise spoken to, and their doubts cleared. I do not deny this, but willingly and readily grant it. Our blessed Lord Jesus by His learned tongue loves to speak words in season to weary and seriously exercised souls.
Yet these people should also like having their judgment well informed in the principles of the religion which they profess. Otherwise, by their ignorance in these matters, they risk keeping themselves in an inextricable labyrinth of puzzling and perplexing scruples, doubts and difficulties about their own soul’s state and condition. Not only so, but they also expose themselves as a ready prey to be caught up by seducers and erroneous persons, especially those who claim to have more than ordinary victory over sin, more than ordinary spiritual insight, and special strictness in their walk. At the same time these puzzled and vulnerable souls, because of their great ignorance, expose the practice of godliness to reproach and obloquy.
Prioritising peripheral points
There is a third sort that have a liking only to hear of something controversial. Even if it is only debated amongst truly godly churchmen, and even if it is the kind of topic where both sides may retain their different opinions to their dying day without the least risk to their salvation — or for that matter, something which doesn’t in any way prevent God accepting and blessing their service. By comparison with these disputed points, these people loathe the great and substantial truths of the gospel. For them it’s as if all religion is rooted in these debatable and peripheral things, so that they are drawn out from the heart and vitals of religion to the extremities and outskirts. These souls greatly endanger the power of godliness, and its very soul and substance of godliness, both to themselves and others also.
I do not for all this (God forbid I should) condemn seriously and soberly manifested dislike of sinful silence as to anything that is indeed contrary to sound doctrine and the power of godliness (anything that is certainly displeasing to God and that may be a reason why He has a controversy with us, even if it is found in those who are truly godly and otherwise faithful). Nor do I mean that we should in the least involve ourselves in so much as the constructive approbation of anything we judge to be sinful; or that we should behave lukewarmly and unconcernedly in even the lowest concerns of Jesus Christ and of religion. In all of this, both preachers and professing believers are not a little blameworthy. Only I do not want all religion and serious godliness swallowed up in the gulf of endless debates and disputes about more remote and less momentous things, when they are points of difference amongst those who are truly godly.
While some hearers like this kind of preaching too much, it may also be the case that some preachers preach like this too much. Their sermons are at best jejune and lean, when compared with the great and substantial truths of the gospel. Maybe in a whole sabbath, or in a whole sermon, the poor people have got little or nothing to feed on but bare, barren and dry debates, or invectives against owning the authority of lawful civil rulers, or declamations directly or indirectly against hearing faithful ministers of the gospel because of some lesser differences, whether in judgment or practice. Some are so taken with these discourses that they say, “O! such a blessed day of the gospel! We never saw such a day of the gospel!” Yet in fact very little of the gospel was preached. Little was spoken to commend Christ and serious godliness — little to provoke us to the exercise of repentance, mortification of sin, humility, self-denial, heavenly mindedness, tenderness, and other graces and Christian duties. Instead the things that were only or mainly emphasised had little genuine and native tendency either to the conversion or building of souls. That is after all the great end of preaching. “Whom we preach,” says the apostle, and, “I determined to know nothing amongst you, but Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Correlating our zeal with spiritual value
As it is good to be always zealously affected towards things that are right, so the zeal of ministers and individual Christians ought to be suited and proportioned to the nature of things. Then the whole or greatest part of their zeal would not be permitted to be spent on things more debatable (especially amongst the knowledgeable and godly), and things that are further removed from the heart, soul, life and power of religion, while in the meantime little zeal is reserved for the most necessary momentous and substantial things.
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