Ministerial Fidelity and Prudence, by Wm. B. Sprague (1834)
Fidelity requires that the most humbling, and to the carnal mind, the most offensive doctrines of the Gospel, should be held up by every minister with great distinctness and prominence. I may specify particularly, the malignant nature of sin, the entire depravity of the unrenewed heart, and the absolute dependence of every sinner for salvation, on sovereign grace, through the atoning blood of Christ, and the sanctifying operations of the Holy Spirit. These truths are at war with the natural feelings of every unrenewed man. Men do not wish to be disturbed in their pleasures by having the danger of their condition set before them, or to be wounded in their pride, by being told of their inability to accomplish their own salvation; and hence, when these great truths have been presented even with the utmost affection, they have often been met with a spirit of malignant opposition; and the preacher has been publicly denounced, and his motives assailed with an unhallowed and bitter asperity. Nay, so deep is the enmity of the heart against these peculiar truths, that it has not unfrequently happened, that those who have exhibited a strong attachment to their minister during the season of their carelessness, have, under the influence of an awakened conscience, become so sensitive to the truths he has preached, that they have openly become his enemies, and in some instances, have even taken the lead in an attempt, not only to neutralize his influence, but to ruin his character. All this proves beyond debate, that while the minister who preaches faithfully, wields a weapon of tremendous power, it is one which will sometimes be mightily resisted, and will provoke a shower of reproaches upon himself. But no matter how high the spirit of opposition may rise—though it should mount up even to a malignant phrenzy—these offensive doctrines must be preached, and in the proportion in which they are exhibited in the word of God; and whoever substitutes any thing else in the place of them, is guilty of dealing deceitfully with his Master’s message, and must expect to bring upon himself the blood of souls.
But if you would be found faithful in preaching the Gospel, you must not only bring out its offensive truths, but you must do it with great plainness and simplicity. There is a way of mixing up the truth of God iwth the wisdom, or shall I say folly,–of man; of neutralizing the effect of the doctrines of the Bible, by burying them up amidst the speculations of human philosophy. In opposition to this, you are to hold up the truth just as it is, and to trust to that alone in the hands of God’s Spirit to do the work, unaided by any reasonings or speculations that are of mere human origin. What you have to do is to wield the naked sword of the Spirit; and if you attempt to improve it by any devices of your own, you will inevitably blunt its edge and prevent its efficacy.
Some ministers who preach the truth, fail nevertheless in fidelity, for the want of an honest and pungent application. Here again, you are to be on your guard. You are never to consider your work done when you have merely stated the truth; but you are distinctly to trace its relations to your hearers, to show them its bearings upon their characters and prospects, and to endeavor, if possible, to waken their consciences into lively exercise, so that they shall recognize it as the sword of the Spirit. When you spread before them the utterly ruined condition of the sinner, and the fearful scenes which must open upon him in the next world, if he enters that world unconcerned, you are to endeavour to carry home to them the conviction that they are the sinners described, and if they are in any degree awakened, instead of lulling them to sleep by mere general representations, you are still to hold up their true character as guilty rebels, and to show them that there is no way of escape except by the blood of the everlasting covenant. It is only in proportion as the preaching of the Gospel is discriminating, and is brought to bear directly upon the consciences and personal interests of men, that we have a right to calculate upon its legitimate effect: anything else will never be the fire and the hammer to break the flinty rock in pieces.
But along with fidelity in preaching the Gospel, you are also to exercise prudence. You will have occasion for this in the selection of your topics, with reference to the peculiar circumstances and needs of your congregation; for what at one time may be fitted to produce the most happy effect upon an audience, may, under different circumstances, be worse than a mere dead letter. While fidelity requires that you should preach the whole counsel of God, it is the dictate of prudence that you should rightly divide the word of truth; and that in selecting your subjects of discourse, you should give careful heed to the indications of divine Providence. On the same ground you should endeavour to avoid a tedious uniformity in your discourses, both as it respects the subjects and your manner of treating them; for unless the mind is relieved by some degree of variety in these particulars, it will inevitably, contract a habit of listlessness.
Again: While fidelity requires that the Gospel should be preached in its most offensive doctrines, with great plainness and simplicity, and honest application to the conscience, prudence forbids all offensive personalities, coarse allusions, and attacks on private character. Indeed, whoever commits these errors is more than imprudent: he sins against the dignity of his office, and exposes himself to the pity of the church, and the contempt of the world. You are indeed at liberty, nay, you are solemnly bound, to take off the covering from the carnal heart, and show it in the light of day, festering in its own depravity ; and you are to endeavour to make every unconcerned sinner feel that this is precisely his own case; but this is widely different from designedly holding an individual up to popular odium, and especially in the spirit of anger or retaliation. Cases may occur in which a minister may know facts in respect to individuals in his congregation, which have gained little or no publicity; and it may be his duty to select some topic of discourse which shall bring out a word in season for them; and there may be other cases in which he may be called upon publicly to testify against particular sins, in consequence of an individual having fallen into them, lest his silence should seem to indicate a wish to screen the offender; but the moment he makes a personal attack from the pulpit, especially on one of his hearers, he lets go the sheet anchor of prudence, and not only defeats the end he has in view, if it be a good end, but not improbably plunges into a sea of troubles, from which, to say the least, he is not soon extricated. Many a minister has, by one incautious attack, even by a single expression, fitted to give unnecessary provocation to an individual, thrown a cloud over his prospects of usefulness, and originated a spirit of division and turmoil which has spread through an extensive community.