The Character of a Faithful Minister of Christ

by Ebenezer Erskine

A Sermon, preached immediately after the foresaid Ordination, by James Fisher, Minister of the Gospel in the Associate Congregation at Glasgow.

Col. 1:7.—Epaphras, who is for you a faithful minister of Christ. 

IT tends much to the interest of religion that people love and esteem their pastors, and entertain honourable sentiments of them; for, if once a minister comes to be despised by his flock, his usefulness among them is over, and his doctrine, however agreeable to the form of sound words, will not be edifying to them; it is therefore the apostle's design, in the words of our reading, to cultivate the regard of the Colossians to Epaphras, their ordinary pastor, by giving him the just commendation and favourable character which he deserved, As ye have learned of Epaphras our dear fellow-servant, who is for you a faithful minister of Christ. 

Passing that part of the character of Epaphras, which respects his relation to the apostle, as a dear fellow-servant; in the branch of the verse which we have read, as the subject of discourse, namely, Who is for you a faithful minister of Christ, you have a threefold commendation of him. 1. From his office or calling, a minister of Christ, 2. From his fidelity in the discharge of that office, a faithful minister of Christ. 3. From the scope and end of his ministry among the Colossians, it is for you, that is, for your good, for your salvation. The design of the whole of this commendation is, that the Colossians might honour and esteem Epaphras for his work's sake; so that we take up the scope of the words in the following

DOCT. "That faithful ministers of Christ, who aim at the edification and salvation of the people among whom they labour in the work of the ministry, ought to be honoured and esteemed by them." 1 Thess. 5:12, 13. "We beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake."

In discoursing this subject; we shall essay,

I. To inquire into the scripture-account of the character and duty of a faithful minister of Christ. 

II. Give the reasons why such ministers ought to be honoured and esteemed by the people among whom they labour. 

III. Deduce a few inferences for application.

I. The first thing is, to inquire into the scripture-account of the character and duty of a faithful minister of Christ. 

1. He is one who speaks the things which become sound doctrine, as the apostle exhorts Titus, chap. 2:1. "But speak thou the things which become sound doctrine." That doctrine is sound, which is a link of that chain of truth, revealed in the holy scriptures; for there is such a close concatenation or linking together of the truths of God, and such a beautiful harmony among them all, that no error whatsoever can at any rate be soldered with them, any more than clay can be incorporated with gold. We speak then the words which become sound doctrine, when we make all the divine perfections to harmonizo in the contrivance of our redemption, when we give unto Christ in all the things the pre-eminence, and when we lay the pride of sinful men in the dust. And in order to our thus speaking the things which become sound doctrine, it is necessary that we be well acquainted with the holy scriptures, with approven systems of divinity, and particularly with our own standards, our excellent Confession of Faith, and catechisms, which may well be called forms of sound words. 

2. A faithful minister of Christ is one, who is set for the defence of the gospel, as Paul was Phil. 1:17. "I am set (says he) for the defence of the gospel." There is nothing more warmly inculcate in scripture, than the defence of gospel-truths, Prov. 23:23. "Buy the truth, and sell it not." Phil. 1:27. "Stand fast in one spirit, with one mind, striving together for the faith of the gospel." Heb. 10:23. "Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering." Jude, ver. 3. "It was needful for me to exhort you (says that apostle), that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints." And in order to the defence of the gospel, it is necessary that we be established in the present truth, as the expression is, 2 Pet. 1:12.; that is, in the truths presently controverted, or which are the present subject of debate. And indeed, it is most lamentable, that in our day there are scarce any of the peculiar doctrines of Christianity, which are not impugned and called in question by men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth; such as, the divine authority of the scriptures; the imputation of Adam's first sin to his posterity; the universal corruption and depravation of our nature; the irresistible power and efficacy of the grace of God; the distinct personality and supreme deity of the Son and Holy Ghost; the reality of the incarnation of Christ, or his assuming a holy human nature to his divine person; the absolute perfection and infinite worth of his satisfaction in our room; the necessity of the imputation of his surety-righteousness for our justification; the free election of some to eternal life; the perseverance of the saints; and the eternity of hell torments; with many other important points which might be mentioned. There are others again, who profess to own all the above truths, who yet so blend the law and the gospel, that they make the covenant of grace little better than another edition of the covenant of works; confound the sinner's sanctification with his justification; cry up the necessity of previous good qualifications in order to coming to Christ; and are for leaning on something wrought in them, or done by them, as the ground in less or more of their acceptance before God. And with respect to the government of Christ's house, alas! the generality of the present age seem to be agreed, that it is a matter of mere indifferency and moonshine, whether a person be of the Episcopalian, Independent, or Presbyterial way of thinking about it; although it is the declared principle of this church, founded on the word of God, solemnly sworn unto and sealed by the blood of many of the Lord's witnesses, That the spiritual power and authority, derived from Christ the alone Head, for the edification of his church, is lodged, neither in the hand of the civil magistrate, nor in the community of the faithful, as they call them, but in church officers, ministers and elders acting in parity, and judicatories subordinate to one another. Now, we say that a faithful minister of Christ is set for the defence of the gospel, namely, both for the defence of gospel-truth, and likewise of the hedge of government, which the glorious Head hath set about it. 

3. A faithful minister of Christ is one who does not shun to declare to his hearers all the counsel of God, as Paul testifies of himself to the elders of Ephesus, Acts 20:27, "I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God." He does not say that he actually declared unto them the counsel of God, but only that he did not shun to declare it all. For as we know only in part, and prophecy but in part, it is not to be supposed, that all the truths of God, which are comprehended in the unfathomable depth of divine revelation, could be brought forth by any, or even by all that ever preached the gospel; for if the world itself could not contain the books that might be written of Christ, as the apostle John asserts, then all that ever were in the world (the Son of God only excepted) could never exhaust all that might be said, upon what is contained within the volume of God's book; as may appear in some measure from the vast number of commentaries, treatises, and sermons, published and unpublished, these seventeen hundred and fifty years bygone, besides all the lectures of the Old Testament prophets; and yet the half of what might be said has not been told. Well, then, not to shun to declare all the counsel of God, is to keep back no truth which we know from our hearers; it is, to the utmost of our capacity and knowledge, to bring forth, what, we think, as before God, will be most for their spiritual profiting, in the proper season of it, either for instructing the ignorant, and awakening the secure, strengthening of the weak, recovering of these that are gone astray; or for comforting the mourners in Zion, and raising up these that are bowed down under spiritual distress of any kind; and thus studying rightly to divide the Word of God, and give every one their portion of meat in due season, so as that none may be soothed or flattered in their sin upon the one hand, or that any get occasion for desponding fears on the other. 

4. A faithful minister of Christ is one that gives attendance to reading and meditation on what he delivers, according to the Apostle's advice to Timothy, 1 Epist. 4:13, 15, "Give attendance to reading; meditate upon these things;" that is, study them before hand. The Apostle had advised him, in another place, to stir up the gift that was in him, which could not be done without reading and meditation; and if close application to study was enjoined to an Evangelist of uncommon endowments, it must be much more our duty now, when the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit are ceased, to digest into order and method what we are to deliver in public, and not to entertain our people with that which costs us nothing. 

5. A faithful minister of Christ is one who seeks to find out acceptable words. This was Solomon's study, Eccl. 12:10, "The preacher sought to find out acceptable words;" on the margin, words of delight. We should endeavour to deliver the truths of God in such a plain and easy manner, as that the weak and ignorant may understand them, shunning all crabbed and bombastic expressions on the one hand, and course and clumsy ones on the other. The Scripture style is by far the smoothest, and at the same time the most elegant for the pulpit; and the more fully we understand any doctrine, the more able will we be to deliver it plainly unto others. 

6. A faithful minister of Christ is one who takes heed to himself, as well as to his doctrine, lest, when he preach Christ to others he himself be a cast-away. It is given as one of the characters and qualifications of a minister, that he be holy, Tit. 1:8. For a minister may have both gifts and learning, and likewise some measure of success, and yet want grace, as is plain enough in these who preached Christ out of envy and strife, Phil. 1:15. And yet grace is a very material branch of the ministerial character; for without this we can have no experience on our own souls of the truths we preach to others, nor can we have true sympathy with these who are in any spiritual distress; without grace we can never be in case to say with the Apostle, 2 Cor. 1:3, 4, "Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who comforteth us in all our tribulations, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. Again, as a minister is to take heed to himself by inquiring into the state of his own soul, so likewise is he to take heed to his outward walk, to be "an example to believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity." as the Apostle exhorts Timothy, 1 Epist. 4:12. Examples sometimes do good, where precepts are of little force. It were good for us who are ministers, if we could say in some measure with the Apostle, Phil. 4:9, "Those things which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do." As we are to beseech others, that they receive not the grace of God in vain, so we should take special care to give no offence in anything, that the ministry be not blamed, but essay to practise ourselves what we preach unto others, and thus in some degree make proof of our ministry. 

7. As a faithful minister of Christ will take heed to himself, so likewise to the particular flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made him an overseer. For, although every minister has a relation to the Church universal, yet he has a more special concern in that particular flock among whom he is called to labour in the work of the ministry. He is to be instant among them, in season and out of season, sparing no pains nor labour in the discharge of his ministerial duty, being glad to spend and be spent, watching for their souls, as one that must give an account; for a faithful minister studies to give a daily account of the state of his flock to the Lord Jesus: if they are flourishing and thriving, he gives an account of them in a way of rejoicing, and blessing him for the outlettings of his grace unto them: if they are languishing or decaying, or guilty of any miscarriages, he gives an account thereof in a way of mourning and sorrowing before the Lord. In a word, a faithful minister of Christ is one who endeavours singly to eye the glory of his Lord and Master in all his ministrations, to be wholly devoted to his service, and the good of the souls committed to his trust; he carries his people upon his breast before the Lord, and has an inward heart concern for their spiritual and eternal welfare. He is one who preaches not himself, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and who determines to know nothing among his people, but Christ, and him crucified. He is one who sees himself to be an unprofitable servant, and that his sufficiency stands only in the Lord; for indeed "who is sufficient for these things?"

II. The second thing proposed was, to give the reasons why faithful ministers of Christ ought to be honoured and esteemed by the people among whom they labour. 

1. They ought to be esteemed for the sake of him whose message they bear. They are ambassadors for Christ, 2 Cor. 5:20. They receive their commission and authority from him, John 20:21, "As my father hath sent me, even so send I you." Matth. 28:18, 19, "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations—and lo, I am with you always." Ambassadors have their honour and respect according to the rank of their masters who send them; the greater the prince be, the more honourable his messenger. Ministers of the gospel are the ambassadors of the King of kings, and Lord of lords, who has a name given him above every name; and you cannot despise the messenger if you honour the Master that sends him, Matth. 10:40, says Christ, "He that receiveth you receiveth me." 

2. Faithful ministers of Christ ought to be esteemed for their work's sake, or for the sake of the message itself which they bear. It is a message of peace, Rom. 10:15, "How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!" And how wonderful is it, that the God against whom we have sinned should proclaim peace on earth, and good will towards men! A minister's message is a treaty of marriage with the King's Son; and how amazing is it, that our Maker should be our Husband, that he should say to such guilty rebels as we are, "I will betrothe thee unto me for ever!" It is a message for a free commerce and trade with heaven; and surely that must be a gainful trade, which brings in the richest treasure at no expense; for here all the riches of heaven are to be had, and yet no money required for the purchase, Isa. 55:1, "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters," &c. So that faithful ministers are to be honoured, both on Christ's account who sends them, and on account of the message which they bring from him, which, as it is a treaty of peace, marriage, and traffic, you heard at large explained in the preceding discourse; and therefore I insist not further upon it, but proceed to deduce a few inferences from what has been said. 

1, then. Hence, see that a gospel ministry is of divine institution. Epaphras is here called a minister of Christ, which plainly says that he had his commission from him. That a gospel ministry is of divine institution is plain from the express designation of some to that office by our Lord Jesus; he ordained twelve, and afterwards appointed other seventy also, to labour in his harvest; and though it should be said that these were extraordinary officers, yet the same glorious Lord, who gave some to be apostles, prophets, and evangelists, gave some also to be pastors and teachers, with an express order to "commit the Word to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also." 

2. Hence, see that the office of the ministry is perpetually useful and necessary. What Epaphras was to the Colosssians, other ministers will, through grace, be unto other churches, till the end of time; he was a faithful minister for them, that is, for their profit, for their good. Ordinances are perpetually necessary in the church, and therefore there must be a ministry to dispense them, as is evident from the promise of Christ's presence with his ministers, in teaching and baptizing to the end of the world. The ends for which a gospel ministry is appointed are perpetually necessary; the elect are to be gathered, the mouths of the gainsayers are to be stopped, the saints are to be edified and established till they all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ. 

3. Hence, see that a corrupt erroneous ministry is one of the worst of plagues; for in this case people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. The Apostle Peter tells us, 2 Epist. 2:1, that "there were false prophets among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, and many shall follow their pernicious ways." This is sadly verified at the present day, in this poor church and land, which is now crammed with a lax and corrupt ministry, intruded upon the heritage of God; and, alas! the generality of the people are, like Issachar, "couching under the burden." 

4. Hence, see that the removal of the gospel is a sore judgment: "Wo unto you (saith God) if I depart from you. Where there is no vision, the people perish." A famine of hearing the Word of the Lord is unspeakably worse than a famine of natural bread, Amos 8:11. 

4. If ministers are faithful in the discharge of their office, people will have much to account for those who despise their message, for they who despise them despise him that sent them; and "how shall we escape, if we neglect this great salvation?" 

Any further application of this subject shall be in a word of Exhortation, first to the minister presently ordained, and then to the people over whom he has the charge; this task having been laid on me by your aged pastor, who, if his strength had permitted him, should have done it, it being an usual branch of an ordination sermon. 

1st, then, I shall essay to speak a word unto the brother presently ordained. 

R. D. B. 

You are now ordained a minister of Christ, and it is your duty and mine to study that we be faithful ones. 

1. Be faithful, in the first place, to your Lord and Master, whose message you bear; see that you keep close to the instructions which he has given you in his Word, that you may be in case to say to your people, what Paul did to the Corinthians, "I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you." For you are to hear the Word at his mouth, and to give warning from him. 

2. Let these you labour among see that you are in earnest about your Master's business, that your heart is so intent upon it, that nothing will give you satisfaction, unless they deal kindly with your Master, by believing the gospel report concerning him, as the gift of God for salvation to all the ends of the earth. 

3. Let nothing bribe or scare you from the faithful discharge of your trust; let neither the fear nor favour, frowns nor flatteries of people hinder you from declaring the counsel of God unto them. See if you can attain to say, in some measure, as it is, 1 Thess. 2:4–5, "As we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God, who trieth our hearts. For neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloak of covetousness. God is witness, nor of men sought we glory." 

4. If you be a faithful minister of Christ, you must lay your account with much opposition in your work; you must not imagine that you will always sail before the wind; you will meet with storms from Satan, from wicked men, and even perhaps from good men themselves. Satan will be at your right hand to disturb you, both in your closet, and in the pulpit; at one time striving to blow you up with self-estimation, and at another, to sink you in the depth of discouragement. As for wicked men, the more faithful you are, the more of their wrath and fury will you draw upon yourself. And even good men may have sometimes unreasonable schemes, which they want to pursue to unwarrantable heights, and which if you oppose, as you are bound in faithfulness to do, you may meet with abundance of resentment from them likewise. So that, if you are a faithful minister, you must lay your account with opposition on all hands. "Behold (says Christ) I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves," Matth. 10:16. 

5. Remember that the faithful discharge of your ministry is a most laborious work, such labour as frequently makes old age and youth to meet together. The Jews took Christ to be fifty years old (John 8:57) when he was little above thirty. The most other callings are only an exercise to nature, but a minister's work spends his vital spirits, and makes him like the candle, to waste, while he is shining; hence are ministers compared to soldiers, and watchmen, who are exposed both to hard labour and great danger. 

6. As you would desire to be a faithful minister of Christ, be sure to look for furniture, for the whole of your work, from the hands of the glorious Head, who has received gifts for men. As the Apostle says to Timothy (2 Epistle 2:1) so say I to you, "Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus." Though your work be laborious and difficult, yet he sends none a warfare upon their own charges. In the use of appointed means, trust that his grace shall be sufficient for you, and that his strength shall be made perfect in weakness. Fasten therefore upon the promises of his presence, for your support and through-bearing, under all difficulties, "Lo, I am with you always. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will go down with thee, and I will also surely bring thee up again," Gen. 46:4. 

7. Lastly. Next unto the promised presence and aid of the glorious Head, it may be a considerable encouragement unto you, that you are called to take part of this ministry, with an aged and experienced servant of Jesus Christ, who will always be ready to give you his best advice; and to be sure your entire harmony, mutual love, and joint counsels will contribute much to strengthen your hands, as colleagues, in this part of the Lord's vineyard. 

I conclude what I have to say to you with repeating a few of the advices the Apostle gives to Timothy. Well then, "Refuse profane and old wives' fables, and exercise thyself to godliness.—I charge thee (says the Apostle) before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things, without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality.—Follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called.—Be not ashamed of the testimony of our Lord.—Hold fast the form of sound words.—Endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.—Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.—Flee also youthful lusts, but follow after righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart,—Be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves.—Preach the Word. be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine—Watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, make full proof of thy. ministry." And, finally.—"Give thyself wholly to these things that thy profiting may appear unto all.—Continue in them, for, in doing this, thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee." These and several other instructions, necessary to ministers, both for teaching and ruling their flocks, are to be found in the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, which you and I, and every other minister, ought to be frequently perusing, as we would be found faithful ministers of Christ, I come now, in the 

Second place, To speak a word to you of this congregation. 

My dear friends,—Your eyes do this day see your teachers, and I trust that God has, according to his promise, given you pastors according to his heart, who shall feed you with knowledge and understanding. You are at present privileged with two of them, when some corners have not so much as one: and, to be sure, of them to whom much is given much will be required. 

One of your pastors is stooping under the infirmities of old age, having laboured about fifty years in the Lord's vineyard, and about twenty years thereof among you. O beware of bringing his gray hairs with sorrow to the grave, by rejecting the counsel of God against yourselves, and refusing to receive the message which he brings you from the mouth of God. If in Christ Jesus he has begotten any of you, through the gospel (as I hope has been the case with not a few), then he will have "no greater joy than to hear that his children walk in truth," as the expression is, 3 John 4; and if he can say with Paul (1 Thess. 2 at the close), "What is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, at His coming? For ye are our glory and joy." 

Your other pastor as to years is but a youth; and with reference to him I would say unto you, as Paul said with reference to Timothy, "Let no man despise his youth." Remember that David was but a youth or stripling (as Saul calls him) when he encountered Goliah the Philistine; yet because he went out against him in the name of the Lord of hosts, "the God of the armies of Israel," he came off the field a conqueror. Jeremiah was called to be a prophet or teacher in his youth, as appears from the first chapter of his prophecy, and yet the Lord fitted that young prophet for the difficult task that was put into his hand. 

There are only a few things I would say to you with respect to your duty towards both your ministers. 

1. If your ministers should be faithful in declaring the Lord's mind, then you ought to be ready and willing to believe and practise it. It is a sad charge which the Lord lays against Ezekiel's hearers, chap. 33:31, "They sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they do them not, for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness." If you remain barren and unfruitful under such means of grace as you enjoy, it will be more tolerable for hundreds of congregations than for you, in regard they are not so highly privileged. 

2. The more faithful your ministers are in point of sin and duty, the welcomer ought their message to be unto you. Some cannot endure to be touched upon the sore heel, or to have the sinfulness of their practices laid in broad-band before them; but if matters be right with you, the closer your ministers come to your consciences by the word, the more searching and trying their sermons be, the more will you love both their persons and doctrine: "Search me, O God (says the Psalmist), and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me," Ps. 139 at the close. 

3. Pray much for your ministers, that utterance may be given them, that they may open their mouth boldly, and make known the mystery of the gospel. The more you pray for them, the more profit you may expect under their ministry. If you have any spiritual wants to supply, or soul-perplexing doubts to solve; if you be under the prevalency of any temptation, from which you want to be delivered; in a word, if you be desiring the sincere milk of the word, that you may live thereby, then you will certainly be employed in prayer, that your ministers may be directed to speak a word in season unto you, and that the power of the Lord may come along therewith, for conviction or consolation, as your need requires. 

4. If you would desire the faithfulness of your ministers to be useful unto you, be sure to keep them in their own room; do not expect from them what you are to receive only from the Lord himself. Remember that the "treasure is in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us," as you were hearing by the former speaker. But, at the same time, though you are not to idolize your ministers, yet a more peculiar love is due from you to them than to any else. Though you ought to love all the faithful ministers of Christ, yet a more special love is due to your own pastors, who labour in word and doctrine among you, as is clear from the forecited, 1 Thess. 5:12, "Know them that labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake." And, Heb. 13:17, "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give an account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief. 

I conclude with that prayer of the Apostles, 2 Cor. 9:10, "Now he that ministereth seed to the sower, both minister bread for your food, and multiply your seed sown, and increase the fruits of your righteousness." Which is founded upon that promise, Isaiah 55:10, 11, For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater; so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth; it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please (or which is well pleasing unto me), and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it."


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