by John Owen
PREACHED SEPTEMBER 6, 1678.
"But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love."—EPH. 4:15, 16.
A GATHERED church comes from Christ, and all of the church are from Christ. From him they flow, and they grow up again in him from whom they flow. It is compacted together by officers and ordinances. On both of them the apostle had discoursed before: "Compacted by that which every joint supplieth." Officers and ordinances are by virtue derived from Christ, and they tend unto Christ. They are compacted and fitly joined by officers and ordinances. How shall they proceed and go on? "According to the effectual working in the measure of every part, making increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love." The great business of the church is not our number by addition, but by grace, by growing up in Christ. And the way whereby it doth it, is the working of every part, according to every one's measure, for the edification of itself in love. What is, then, the church watch? It is the work of every member, according to its measure, to the increase of grace in itself and others, according to the principle of love. This we all know; but we are slow in the improvement of it. This is the work of every member, according to the measure of the grace of Christ received, to the increase of grace in ourselves and others, through a principle of love. Every one is not required to be a preacher, but every one hath a measure; and where there is any measure, there is some work. If this be not found in us, our church-order, as the apostle calls it, will not avail us. And, truly, methinks churches in these days do not abide this test. They are not "fitly joined together by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part," which should grow and increase in love. That is lost. I desire to know of all the brethren and sisters what they have done to answer this rule and duty,—what they have done to increase the body in every part. Some I can tell what they have done to destroy and pull down, contrary to this principle of watch. None of us but have our measure. Wherever there are gifts and graces, they will work.
To come nearer, I will show you where the rule of this church watch is. It is the mutual work and care of all the members of the church for the temporal, and spiritual, and eternal good of the whole and every member, proceeding from union and love,—the mutual operative care of all the members of the church. This is that watch I would speak unto.
It proceeds originally from union; they are united in love. Of this the apostle discourses at large, 1 Cor. 12, by comparing the members of the church with the members of a man, whose mutual care and assistance are for the unity of the same body. There is none of us but knows the concern of all the members in every member, and the care of every member of all the members of the body. You believe yourselves to be the church of God? Yes. Then, saith the Scripture, we are members, and are to have the same spiritual care of every other member as the members of the natural body have. But is it so? How unacquainted is one hand with another, one member with another! I lay this principle, that ye are all members one of another throughout the congregation. None so great or so wise but is a member; none so poor and abject but is a member. And if we have not care of the whole body, according as we have opportunity and seasons, we are wonderfully to seek. Indeed, there is no watch without love. The apostle tells us that it is "the bond of perfection," Col. 3:14. This is perfect church-order. Take a company of sticks, some long and some short, some great and some little, some straight and some crooked. As long as there is a good firm band about them, you may carry them where you please, and dispose of them as you will; break this band, and everything will appear crooked that is so. If this band,—that is, our perfection,—be loosed, every one's crookedness will appear, one to be too long, one to be too short; one too big, one too little; one crooked, and one straight; there is no keeping them together. All the order in the world will never keep a church together if the band of love be loosed.
There be two things I shall speak unto,—what I have found in my ministry by experience. I have found when church-order was the greatest ease, the greatest relief, that a man could certainly desire or attain. I have known it. And I have lived to see church-order burdensome, that many have complained of it as the most in-supportable burden. Nothing else is the reason but the decay of love. So that any person that will discharge his duty hath an in-supportable burden on him. I tell you freely, my fears are, that if we were to gather churches again, as we did thirty years ago, we should have but a small harvest. That which should bring us together and keep us up in love is all lost. Read 1 Cor. 13. I beg of you believe that scripture to be the word of God. We can love them who, as far as we know, are lovely; but that love that "beareth all things and believeth all things," I am afraid not six of us believe that it is a duty. If we hear any thing of a brother or a sister, it is forty to one but we aggravate it unto the next body we meet. Is this love?
This watch, what is it for? It is for the temporal, and spiritual, and eternal good of all believers.
Their temporal good is first to advise about the poor; which I think is well attended to, being put into the way of God.
Their spiritual good, whereby we may keep up this watch, is to be sought two ways;—by the prevention of evil, on the one hand; and by recovery from evil, promotion of grace, and confirming in it, on the other hand.
We are to prevent evil in others. There are two ways whereby we may do it,—by example, and by exhortation.
If a considerable number of the church would engage to endeavour after an exemplary holiness and usefulness in all things, it would prevent much evil in others. Some things are troublesome in the church; but still, exemplary holiness and usefulness in believers are great means to prevent evil in others.
Exhortation will be so too. Exhort one another to edification. We are pitiful creatures as to this duty.
We want three things: we want love; we want ability; we want holy consciousness to ourselves of unbelief. Nothing can conquer these things but the grace of God; and unless we have these things, we cannot do it. Our recovery from any of these evils is a great part of this watch.
I will tell you of two defects:—
1. If we do come unto it, to admonish others, we do not do it with that meekness, that evidence of love, that tenderness, that are required in us. I would have no man come to admonish another but that he should carry it as the offender, and the other as the offended person,—with that profession of love.
2. We want wisdom; for this is very certain, ill management hath spoiled many things in this congregation,—talking, reflecting, complaining, even among carnal people. It is the constant exercise of the mind renewed by the Holy Ghost, and furnished with the principles of spiritual light and life, in thoughts and meditations upon spiritual things, proceeding from the cleaving of the affections unto them, with a sense of a spiritual gust, relish, and savour in them, that must enable us to this duty.