by RIchard Sibbes
CHRISTIAN READER, there are three ways by which a minister preaches: by doctrine, life, and writing. It may be questioned which is the hardest.
1. Truly for preaching,—the apostle's τίς ἰχανός, 2 Cor. 2:16, 'who is sufficient?' may correct the slight apprehensions of hearers, and the hasty intrusion of teachers. Luther was wont to say, If he were to choose his calling, he would dig with his hands rather than be a minister (a). The disposition both of speakers and hearers, saith Chrysostom, makes this work difficult (b). In regard of hearers, scarce any member groans under more moral diseases than the ear. We read of an 'uncircumcised ear,' Acts. 7:51; 'deaf ears,' Rom. 11:8, Micah. 7:16; 'itching ears,' 2 Tim. 4:2; 'ears that are dull of hearing,' Mat. 13:15. Most people come to hear as men do to a theatre, non utilitatem sed voluptatem percepturi, not so much to feed their faith as please their fancy. And for teachers, how many dangers do they lie open to! If they do not preach novelties, falsities, yet to preach sana, sanè, sound things soundly; to deliver the word, ὡς δεῖ με λαλῆσαι, Col. 4:4, 'as it ought to be spoken.' To 'speak a word in season,' Isa. 50:4; to 'approve' themselves to God workmen that need not be ashamed; ὀρθοτομοῦντα τόν λόγον τῆς ἀληθείας, rightly cutting the word into parts, giving every one his portion, 2 Tim. 2:15.* And when a man hath done God's work in God's strength, to go away, with a humble heart, hic labor:—such a one is an 'interpreter,' 'one among a thousand,' Job 33:23.
2. But then for the life. Alas! how many think the work is done when the glass is out (c); how many are good in the doctrine, bad in the application, especially to themselves; how hard is it to have life in doctrine, and doctrine in life! It is easier to preach twenty sermons than to mortify one lust. It was a harder task Paul set Timothy, 2 Tim. 4:12, when he bids him be an example to believers, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, &c., than when he bids him 'give attendance to reading, exhortation, doctrine,' ver. 13. Yet we shall often hear ministers say, They must study to preach, then study to practise. God would have the very snuffers in the tabernacle pure gold (d), to shew they that purge others must shine themselves. Surely they must needs be 'unclean,' that chew the cud by meditation, but divide not the hoof by practice. Lastly,
3. For writing—that hath more pre-eminency, though the two former have more vivacity. There is, saith a good man, as much difference between a sermon in the pulpit and printed in a book, as between milk in the warm breast and in the sucking bottle. Yet the convenience of it is very great. Good books are the baskets that preserve excellent lessons that they be not lost. This also wants not its difficulty; for what censures, impostures, contempt, wrestings, have the labours of the most eminent saints been exposed to, yea, the Scriptures themselves—the pandect of all truth, the testament of our Lord Jesus—how much have they suffered in all ages, besides the great difficulty, that is in other men's spirits to write truth. Yet let us bless God for the writings of his servants, for by these, 'being dead, they yet speak to us,' Heb. 11:4. We have the prophets and apostles, in their writings, preaching to us. Their sermons were like a running banquet, refreshed many; their writings were a standing dish. Sermons are like showers of rain, wet for the present. Books are like snow-banks, lie longer upon the earth, and keep it warm in winter. It might be a problem whether professors preaching and writing, or confessors dying, have most profited the church.
Some have thought it preposterous in times of reformation to shut the pulpit against erroneous persons, and leave the press open to them, that being so compendious a way to propagate and to multiply errors; and the liberty, used more to condemn truths received, than to debate in a friendly way things indifferent. Indeed, it must be acknowledged a very sad thing, the multitude not only of vain but blasphemous treatises this age hath produced, and the great mischief they have done. But blessed be God, the press is as open to truth as error, and truth has been as nimble heeled as error. God never yet suffered any Goliah to defy him, but he raised up a David to encounter him. Though error, like Esau, hath come out first, yet truth, like Jacob, hath caught it by the heel, and wrestled with it, Gen. 25:26. If God hath suffered any horn to push at his Israel, he hath presently raised a carpenter to knock it off. Let us bless God for the witnessing spirit that is abroad, though it go in sackcloth, Rev. 11:3. Think how great a mercy it is to keep ground, though we cannot gain ground.
Let none complain of the multitude of good books. Though one bad one be too many, yet many good ones are too few; or, as one saith, 'one useless or erroneous book is too many. Many useful orthodox books are but one.' All the prophets and apostles make but one Bible, upon which account we may say all the books that faithfully interpret that are but one book.
All these ways this reverend author was serviceable to the church of God while he lived; and, since his decease, the providence of God hath brought to light several tracts of his, some sooner, some later. And that in great wisdom; for our foolish nature doth many times prize the labours of those dead, whom we despised living, as the Jews, 'Their fathers killed the prophets, and their sons builded their tombs,' Matt. 23:29. We may have such in these days. The spirit of man hath a more reverent opinion of things past than present, of things ancient than modern, of things farther off than near at hand. Another thing wherein the wisdom of God appears in the multitude of books, is, not only a discovery of the manifold gifts of the Spirit, that he pours on his servants (which could not well be seen but in variety and diversity), but also to invite us to the farther study of them by change; for the best of us have some seeds of curiosity. Now God, by the variety of gifts and graces in his servants, invites us to pass from one to another.
We shall say no more, but entreat thee to consider this treatise as a posthume.* The notes were taken from his mouth by the pen of a ready writer, and a person of note and integrity, whose design is not to forge a piece under the author's name. The very style and matter is so like his other pieces, we hope the legitimacy of it will not be questioned. It is easier to counterfeit another man's name than another man's gifts. Had the author lived to supervise his own work, no question but it would have passed his hand with more authority and more politeness. Thou wilt sometimes meet with some repetitions, yet with the addition of new matter. When thou meetest with it, read it as an impression which may carry force, and work more upon thy heart. In a word, the 'earthen vessel' is broken, the 'heavenly treasure' is preserved for thy use, and here offered to thee.
Now that God hath caused light to shine out of darkness, cause the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ, to shine in thine and our hearts, more and more to the perfect day! So pray,
Thy souls' and thy faiths' servants in the Lord's work,