I begin with the best of these ordinances.
The word . . . which effectually worketh in you that believe.' 1 Thess 2:13.
What is meant by the word's working effectually?
The word of God is said to work effectually when it has the good effect upon us for which it was appointed by God; when it works powerful illumination and thorough reformation. To open their eyes, and turn them from the power of Satan unto God.' Acts 26: 18. The opening of their eyes denotes illumination; and turning them from Satan to God denotes reformation.
How is the word to be read and heard that it may become effectual to salvation.
This question consists of two branches.
How may the word be read effectually?
That we may so read the word that it may conduce effectually to our salvation,
(1) Let us have a reverend esteem of every part of canonical Scripture. More to be desired are they than gold.' Psa 19: 10. Value the book of God above all other books. It is a golden epistle, indited by the Holy Ghost, and sent us from heaven. More particularly to raise our esteem, the Scripture is a spiritual glass, to dress our souls by. It shows us more than we can see by the light of natural conscience. This may discover gross sins; but the glass of the word shows us heart-sins, vain thoughts, unbelief, &c. It not only shows us our spots, but washes them away. The Scripture is a magazine out of which we may fetch spiritual artillery to fight against Satan. When our Saviour was tempted by the devil, he fetched armour and weapons from Scripture; it is written.' Matt 4: 4, 7. The holy Scripture is a panacea, or universal medicine for the soul; it gives a recipe to cure deadness of heart, Psa 119: 50; pride, 1 Pet 5: 5; and infidelity, John 3: 36. It is a physic garden where we may gather a herb or antidote to expel the poison of sin. The leaves of Scripture, like the leaves of the tree of life, are for the healing of the nations.' Rev 22: 2. Should not this cause a reverential esteem of the word?
(2) If we would have the written word effectual to our souls, let us peruse it with intenseness of mind.' Search the Scriptures.' John 5: 39. The Greek word, ereunate, signifies to search as for a vein of silver.' The Bereans 'searched the Scriptures daily.' Acts 17: 11. The word anakrinontes signifies to make a curious and critical search. Apollo was mighty in the Scriptures. Acts 18: 24. Some gallop over a chapter in haste and get no good by it. If we would have the word effectual and saving, we must mind and observe every passage of Scripture. That we may be diligent in the perusal of Scripture, consider that the word written is norma cultus [the only standard of conduct], the rule and platform by which we are to square our lives. It contains in it all things needful to salvation; what duties we are to do, and what sins we are to avoid. Psa 19: 7. God gave Moses a pattern how he would have the tabernacle made; and he was to go exactly according to the pattern. Exod 25: 9. The word is the pattern God has given us in writing, for modelling our lives. How careful, therefore, should we be in pursuing and looking over this pattern!
As the written word is our pattern, so it will be our judge. The word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him at the last day.' John 12: 48. We read of the opening of the books. Rev 20: 12. One book which God will open is the book of the Scripture, and will judge men out of it. He will say, Have you lived according to the rule of this word?' The word has a double work -- to teach, and to judge.
(3) If we would have the written word effectual, we must bring faith to the reading of it; believe it to be the word of the eternal Jehovah. It comes with authority, and shows its commission from heaven. Thus saith the Lord.' It is of divine inspiration.2 Tim 3: 16. The oracles of Scripture must be surer to us than a voice from heaven.2 Pet 1: 18, 19. Unbelief enervates the virtue of Scripture, and renders it ineffectual. First men question the truth of the Scripture, and then fall away from it.
(4) If we would have the written word effectual to salvation, we must delight in it as our spiritual cordial. Thy words were found, and I did eat them, and thy word was the joy and rejoicing of my heart.' Jer 15: 16. All true solid comfort is fetched out of the word. The word, as Chrysostom says, is a spiritual garden, and the promises are the fragrant flowers or spices in this garden. How should we delight to walk among these beds of spices! Is it not a comfort, in all dubious perplexed cases, to have a counsellor to advise us? Thy testimonies are my counsellors.' Psa 119: 24, is it not a comfort to find our evidences for heaven? And where should we find them but in the word? 1 Thess 1: 4, 5. The word written is a sovereign elixir, or comfort, in an hour of distress. This is my comfort in my affliction, for thy word has quickened me.' Psa 119: 50. It can turn all our water into wine.' How should we take a great complacence and delight in the word! They only who come to the word with delight, go from it with success.
(5) If we would have the Scripture effectual and saving, we must be sure, when we have read the word, to hide it in our hearts. Thy word have I hid in my heart.' Psa 119: 11. The word, locked up in the heart, is a preservative against sin. Why did David hide the word in his heart? That I might not sin against thee.' As one would carry an antidote about him when he comes near a place infected, so David carried the word in his heart as a sacred antidote to preserve him from the infection of sin. When the sap is hid in the root, it makes the branches fruitful; when the seed is hid in the ground, the corn springs up; so, when the word is hid in the heart, it brings forth good fruit.
(6) If we would have the written word effectual, let us labour not only to have the light of it in our heads, but its power in our hearts. Let us endeavour to have it copied out, and written a second time in our hearts. The law of his God is in his heart.' Psa 37: 31. The word says, Be clothed with humility.' 1 Pet 5: 5. Let us be low and humble in our own eyes. The word calls for sanctity. Let us labour to partake of the divine nature, and to have something conceived in us which is of the Holy Ghost.2 Pet 1: 4. When the word is thus copied out into our hearts, and we are changed into its similitude, it is made effectual to us, and becomes a savour of life.
(7) When we read the holy Scriptures let us look up to God for a blessing. Let us beg the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, that we may see the deep things of God.' Eph 1: 17, 1 Cor 2: 10. Pray God that the same Spirit that wrote the Scripture would enable us to understand it. Pray that God would give us the savour of his knowledge,' that we may relish a sweetness in the word we read.2 Cor 2: 14. David tasted it as sweeter than the honeycomb.' Psa 19: 10. Let us pray that God would not only give us his word as a rule of holiness, but his grace as a principle of holiness
How may we hear the word that it may be effectual and saving to our souls?
(1) Give great attention to the word preached. Let nothing pass without taking special notice of it. All the people were very attentive to hear him.' Luke 19: 48. They hung upon his lips. Lydia, a seller of purple, which worshipped God, heard us, whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.' Acts 16: 14. Give attention to the word, as to a matter of life and death. For this purpose have a care to banish vain impertinent thoughts, which will distract yell, and take you off from the work in hand. These fowls will be coming to the sacrifice, therefore we must drive them away. Gen 15: 2. An archer may take a right aim; but if one stand at his elbow, and jog him when he is going to shoot, he will not hit the mark. Christians may have good aims in hearing; but take heed of impertinent thoughts which will jog and hinder you in God's service. Banish dullness. The devil gives many hearers a sleepy sop, so that they cannot keep their eyes open at a sermon. They eat so much on the Lord's-day that they are more fit for the pillow and couch than the temple. Frequent and customary sleeping at a sermon shows high contempt and irreverence of the ordinance. It gives a bad example to others; it makes your sincerity to be called in question; it is the devil's seedtime. While men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares.' Matt 13: 25 O shake off drowsiness, as Paul shook off the viper! Be serious and attentive in hearing the word. For it is not a vain thing for you, it is your life.' Deut 32: 47. When people do not mind what God speaks to them in his word, God as little minds what they say to him in prayer.
(2) If you would have the word preached effectual, come with a holy appetite to the word.1 Pet 2: 2. The thirsting soul is the thriving soul. In nature one may have an appetite and no digestion; but it is not so in religion. Where there is a great appetite for the word, there is for the most part good digestion. Come with hungering of soul after the word, and desire it, that it may not only please you but profit you. Look not at the garnishing of the dish more than at the meat -- at eloquence and rhetoric more than solid matter. It argues both a wanton palate and surfeited stomach to feed on salads and dainties rather than on wholesome food.
(3) If you would have the preaching of the word effectual, come to it with tenderness upon your heart. Because thy heart was tender.' 1 Chron 22: 5. If we preach to hard hearts, it is like shooting against a brazen wall, the word does not enter. It is like setting a gold seal upon marble, which takes no impression. O come to the word preached with a melting frame of heart! It is the melting wax that receives the stamp of the seal; so, when the heart is in a melting frame, it will better receive the stamp of the preached word. When Paul's heart was melted and broken for sin, he cried, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?' Acts 9: 6. Come not hither with hard hearts. Who can expect a crop when the seed is grown UPON stony ground?
(4) If you would have the word effectual, receive it with meekness. Receive with meekness the ingrafted word.' James 1: 21. Meekness is a submissive frame of heart to the word -- a willingness to hear the counsels and reproofs of the word. Contrary to this meekness is fierceness of spirit, whereby men are ready to rise up in rage against the sword. Proud men, and guilty, cannot endure to hear of their faults. Proud Herod put John in prison. Mark 6: 17. The guilty Jews, being told of their crucifying Christ, stoned Stephen. Acts 7: 59. To tell men of sin, is to hold a glass to one that is deformed, who cannot endure to see his own face. Contrary to meekness is stubbornness of heart, whereby men are resolved to hold fast their sins, let the word say what it will. We will burn incense unto the queen of heaven.' Jer 44: 17. O take heed of this! If you would have the word preached effectually, lay aside fierceness and stubbornness, receive the word with meekness. By meekness the word preached comes to be ingrafted. As a good scion that is grafted in a bad stock changes the nature of the fruit and makes it taste sweet, so, when the word is ingrafted into the soul, it sanctifies it, and makes it bring forth the sweet fruit of righteousness.
(5) Mingle the word preached with faith. The word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith.' Heb 4: 2. If you leave out the chief ingredient in a medicine, it hinders the operation; do not leave out the ingredient of faith. Believe the word, and so believe it as to apply it. When you hear Christ preached, apply him to yourselves. This is to put on the Lord Jesus. Rom 13: 14. When you hear a promise spoken, apply it. This is to suck the flower of the promise, and turn it to honey.
(6) Be not only attentive in hearing, but retentive after hearing. We ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip;' lest we should let them run out as water out of a sieve. Heb 2: 1. If the ground retain not the seed sown into it, there can be no good crop. Some have memories like leaking vessels: the sermons they hear are presently gone, and there is no good done. If meat does not stay and digest in the stomach, it will not nourish. Satan labours to steal the word out of the mind. When they have heard, Satan comes immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown.' Mark 4: 15. Our memories should be like the chest of the ark, where the law was put.
(7) Reduce your hearing to practice. Live on the sermons you hear. I have done thy commandments.' Psa 119: 166. Rachel was not content that she was beautiful, but her desire was to be fruitful. What is a knowing head without a fruitful heart? Filled with the fruits of righteousness.' Phil 1: 11. It is obedience that crowns hearing. That hearing will never save the soul which does not reform the life.
(8) Beg of God that he will accompany his word with his presence and blessing. The Spirit must make all effectual. Ministers may prescribe physic, but it is God's Spirit must make it work. He has his pulpit in heaven that converts souls.' Augustine. While Peter yet spake, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard.' Acts 10: 44. It is said, the alchemist can draw oil out of iron. God's Spirit can produce grace in the most obdurate heart.
(9) If you would have the word work effectually to your salvation, make it familiar to you. Discourse of what you have heard when you come home. My tongue shall speak of thy word.' Psa 119: 172. One reason why some people get no more good by what they hear, is that they never speak to one another of what they have heard; as if sermons were such secrets that they must not be spoken of again; or as if it were a shame to speak of matters of salvation. They that feared the Lord spake often one to another... and a book of remembrance was written.' Mal 3: 16.
Use one. Take heed, as you love your souls, that the word become not ineffectual to you. There are some to whom the word preached is ineffectual. (1) Such as censure the word; who, instead of judging themselves, judge the word. (2) Such as live in contradiction to the word. Isa 30: 9. (3) Such as are more hardened by the word. They made their hearts as an adamant stone.' Zech 7: 12. And when men harden their hearts wilfully, God hardens them judicially. Make their ears heavy.' Isa 6: 10. The word to these is ineffectual. Would it not be sad, if a man's meat did not nourish him; nay, if it should turn to poison? O take heed that the word preached be not ineffectual and to no purpose!
Use two. Consider three things: --
(1) If the word preached does us no good, there is no other way by which we can be saved. This is God's institution, and the main engine he uses to convert souls. If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead.' Luke 16: 31. If an angel should come to you out of heaven, and preach of the excellency of the glorified estate, and the joys of heaven, and that in the most pathetic manner -- if the word preached does not persuade, neither would you be wrought upon by such an oration from heaven. If a damned spirit should come from hell, and preach to you in flames, and tell you what a place hell is, and roar out the torments of the damned, it might make you tremble, but it would not convert, if the preaching of the word will not do it.
(2) To come to the word, and not be savingly wrought upon, is that which the devil is pleased with. He cares not though you hear frequently, if it be not effectually; he is not an enemy to hearing, but profiting. Though the minister holds out the breasts of the ordinances to you, he cares not as long as you do not suck the sincere milk of the word. The devil cares not how many sermon-pills you take, so long as they do not work upon your conscience.
(3) If the word preached be not effectual to men's conversion, it will be effectual to their condemnation. The word will be effectual one way or other; if it does not make your hearts better, it will make your chains heavier. We pity those who have not the word preached, but it will be worse with those who are not sanctified by it. Dreadful is their case who go loaded with sermons to hell. But I will conclude with the apostle, I am persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation.' Heb 6: 9.