Why the apostle renews so soon the same exhortation; also, what truths ministers ought to preach.
Here observe the repetition of the same exhortation and that in so short a space. Sure it was not for want of matter, but rather out of abundance of zeal, that he harps the second time on the same string. Indeed he is a better workman, who drives one nail home with reiterated blows, than he which covets to enter many, but fastens none. Such preachers are not likely to reach the conscience, who hop from one truth to another, but dwell on none. Every hearer is not so quick as the preacher, to take a notion as it is first darted forth; neither can many carry away so much of that sermon which is made up all of varieties —where a point is no sooner named, but presently it pulls back its hand, and another makes a breach and comes forth; before the first hath been opened and hammered upon the conscience by a powerful application—as where the discourse is homogeneal, and some one necessary truth is cleared, insisted on, and urged home with blow upon blow. Here the whole matter of the discourse is akin, and one part remembered, brings the memory acquainted with the other; whereas in the former, one puts the other in a weak memory. Short hints and away may please a scholar, but [are] not so profitable for others. The one [way is] more fit for the schools, the other for the pulpit. Were I to buy a garment in a shop, I should like him better that lays one good piece or two before me that are for my turn, which I may fully peruse, than him who takes down all his shop, and heaps piece upon piece, merely to show his store, till at last for variety I can look wishly on none, they lie so one upon another. Again, as it is profitable thus to insist on truths, so it is not unbecoming a minister to preach the same truths again and again. Paul here goes over and over the same exhortation, ver. 11, 13, and elsewhere tells us this is ‘not grievous’ to him, but to them ‘it is safe,’ to hear the same things over and over, Php. 3:1. There are three sorts of truths must in our ministry be preached oft.
First Sort. Fundamental truths; or, as we call them, catechise-points, that contain truths necessary to be known and believed. The weight of the whole building lies on these ground-cells, more than on superstructory truths. In a kingdom there are some staple commodities and trades, without which the common weal could not subsist, as wool, corn, &c., in our country, and these ought to be encouraged above others, which though they be an ornament to the nation, yea, add to the riches of it, yet are not so necessary to the subsistence of it. Thus here. There is an excellent use of our other ministerial labours, as they tend to beautify and adorn, yea, enrich the Christian with the knowledge of spiritual mysteries, but that which is chiefly to be regarded is the constant faithful opening of those main truths of the gospel. These are the landmarks, and show us the bounds of truth; and as it is in towns that butt one upon another, if the inhabitants do not sometimes perambulate, and walk the bounds, to show the youth what they are, when the old studs are gone, the next generation may lose all their privileges by their encroaching neighbours, because not able to tell what is their own. There is no fundamental truth, but hath some evil neighbour, heresy I mean, butting on it; and the very reason why a spirit of error hath so encroached of late years upon truth is, because we have not walked the bounds with our people in acquainting them with, and establishing their judgments on, these fundamental points, so frequently and carefully as is requisite. And people are much in the fault, because they cast so much contempt upon this work, that they count a sermon on such points next to lost, and only child’s meat.
Second Sort. Those truths are oft to be preached, which ministers observe to be most undermined by Satan, or his instruments, in the judgments and lives of their people. The preacher must read and study his people as diligently as any book in his study, and, as he finds them, dispense like a faithful steward unto them. Paul takes notice that the Galatians had been in ill handling by false apostles, who had even bewitched them back to the law in that great point of justification, and see how he beats upon that one point. Our people complain, we are so much, so oft reproving the same error or sin, and the fault is their own, because they will not leave it. Who will blame the dog for continuing to bark, when the thief is all the while in the yard? Alas! alas! it is not once or twice rousing against sin will do it. When the people think the minister shows his laziness, because he preacheth the same things, he may then be exercising his patience in continuing to exhort and reprove those who oppose, waiting, if at last, God will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth. We are bid to lift up our voice like a trumpet, and would you have us cease while the battle lasts, or sound a retreat when it should be a battle?
Third Sort. Truths of daily use and practice. These are like bread and salt; whatever else is on, these must be on the board at every meal. Saint Peter was of this mind: ‘I will not be negligent to put you always in remembrance of these things, though ye know them,’ II Peter 1:12. He had, you may see, been speaking of such graces and duties, that they could not pass a day without the exercise of them, and therefore will be ever their monitor, to stir up their pure minds about them. All is not well, when a man is weary of his ordinary food, and nothing will go down but rarities. The stomach is sickly, when a man delights rather to pick some sallet, than eat of solid meat; and how far this dainty age is gone in this spiritual disease, I think few are so far come to themselves, as yet to consider and lament. O sirs, be not weary, as in doing, so not in hearing those savoury truths preached you have daily use of, because you know them and have heard them often. Faith and repentance will be good doctrine to preach and hear to the end of the world; you may as well quarrel with God, because he hath made but one heaven, and one way to it, as with the preacher, for preaching these over and over. If thy heart were humble, and thy palate spiritual, old truths would be new to thee every time thou hearest them. In heaven the saints draw all their wine of joy, as I may so say, at one tap, and shall to all eternity, and yet it never tastes flat. God is that one object their souls are filled with, and never weary of; and can anything of God and his love be wearisome to thee in the hearing here? I am not all this while an advocate for any loiterer in our Lord’s vineyard, for any slothful servant in the work of the gospel, who wraps up his talent in idleness, or buries it in the earth, where, may be, he is digging and playing the worldling all the week, and then hath nothing to set before his people on the Lord’s-day, but one or two old mouldy loaves, which were kneaded many years before. This is not the good steward. Here are the old, but where are the new things which he should bring out of his treasure? If the minister labours not to increase his stock, he is the worst thief in the parish. It is wicked for a man trusted with the improving of orphans’ estates, to let them lie dead by him; much more for a minister not to improve his gifts, which I may call the town-stock, given for the good of the souls of both rich and poor. If that preacher was wise, Ecc. 12:9, who ‘still taught the people knowledge,’ that is, was ever going on, endeavouring to build them higher in knowledge, and that he might, did give ‘good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs;’ then surely he will be proved a foolish preacher at last, that wastes his time in sloth, or spends more of it in studying how to add to his estate out of his people’s, than how to add to their gifts and graces, by a conscionable endeavour to increase his own.