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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
J. A. James
From The Baptist Manual, 1849 – (Part 1 of 3)
I. The first, and that which indeed seems to include every other, is Love.
The stress which is laid on this in the Word of God, both as it respects the manner in which It is stated, and the frequency with which it is enjoined, sufficiently proves its vast importance in the Christian temper, and its powerful influence on the communion of believers. It is enforced by our Lord as the identifying law of his kingdom. "This is my commandment, that ye love one another as I have loved you." (John 15:12)
By this we learn that the subjects of Christ are to be known and distinguished amongst men, by their mutual affection. This injunction is denominated the new commandment of the Christian economy; not that love was no duty before the coming of Christ; but it is now placed more prominently amongst the duties of believers is urged on fresh grounds, enforced by a more perfect example, and constrained by stronger motives.
The dispensation of Jesus Christ is a system of most wonderful, most mysterious grace; it is the manifestation, commendation, and perfection of divine love. It originated in the love of the Father, and is accomplished by the love of the Son. Jesus Christ was an incarnation of love in our world. He was love living, breathing, speaking, acting, amongst men. His birth was the nativity of love, his sermons the words of love, his miracles the wonders of love, his tears the meltings of love, his crucifixion the agonies of love, his resurrection the triumph of love. Hence it was natural, that love should be the cardinal virtue in the character of his saints, and that it should be the law which regulates their conduct towards each other.
And it is worthy of remark, that he has made his love to us, not only the motives but the pattern of our love to each other. “This is my commandment, that ye love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:17) Let us for our instruction dwell upon the properties of his love, that we may know what should be the characteristics of our own. His was real and great affection, and not a mere nominal one. “My little children, so let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:18)
His was free and disinterested, without any regard to our deserts: so ours should be independent of any regard to our own advantage. His was fruitful unto tears, and agonies, and blood, and death, so should ours in everything that can establish the comfort of each other. His was a love of forbearance and forgiveness; so should ours be. His was purely a spiritual flame; not loving them as rational creatures merely, but as objects of divine affection, and subjects of divine likeness. His was unchangeable notwithstanding our weaknesses and unkindnesses. Thus we are bound to love one another, and continue unalterable in our affection to each other, in opposition to all those little infirmities of temper and conduct which we daily discover in our fellow Christians.
The Apostles echoed the language of their Master, and continually enjoined the churches which they had planted, to love one another, and to let brotherly love abound and increase. It is a grace so important that, like holiness, no measure of it is sufficient to satisfy the requirement of the Word of God. It is the basis, and cement, and beauty of the Christian union. The church where love is wanting, whatever may be the number or gifts of its members, is nothing better than a heap of stones, which, however polished, lacks the coherence and similitude of a palace.
In the best and purest ages of the church, this virtue shone so brightly in the character of its members, was so conspicuous in all their conduct, was expressed in actions so replete with noble, disinterested, and heroic affection, as to become a proverb with surrounding pagans, and call forth the well-known exclamation, "See how these Christians love one another!" A finer eulogium was never pronounced on the Christian church; a more valuable tribute was never deposited on the altar of Christianity. Alas! That it should so soon have ceased to be just, and that the church as it grew older should have lost its loveliness by losing its love.
But it will be necessary to point out the manner in which brotherly love wherever it exists will operate:
1. In a peculiar complacency in our fellow members, viewed as the objects of divine love.
Complacency is the very essence of love; and the ground of all proper complacency in the saints, is their relation and likeness to God. We should feel peculiar delight in each other as fellow heirs of the grace of God; partakers of like precious faith, and joint sharers of the common salvation. We must be dear to each other as the objects of the Father's mercy, of the Son's dying grace, and of the Spirit's sanctifying influence. The love of Christians is of a very sacred nature, and is quite peculiar. It is not the love of consanguinity, or friendship, or interest, or general esteem, but it is an affection cherished for Christ's sake.
They may see many things in each other to admire, such as an amiable temper, public spirit, tender sympathy, but Christian love does not rest on these things, although they may increase it, but on the ground of a common relationship to Christ. On this account they are to take peculiar delight in each other as being one in Christ. “These,” should a believer exclaim, as he looks on the church, “are the objects of the Redeemer's living and dying love, whom he regards with complacency, and out of affection to him, I feel an inexpressible delight in them. I love to associate with them, to talk with them, to look upon them because they are Christ's."
2. Love to our brethren will lead us to bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. (Gal. 6:2)
When we see them oppressed with a weight of anxious care, instead of carrying ourselves with cold indifference and unfeeling distance towards them, we should cherish a tender solicitude to know and relieve their anxieties. How touching would such a salutation as the following be, from one Christian to another:
“Brother, I have observed, with considerable pain, that your countenance has been covered with gloom, as if you were sinking under some inward solicitude. I would not be unpleasantly officious, nor wish to obtrude myself upon your attention, farther than is agreeable, but I offer you the expressions of Christian sympathy and the assistance of Christian counsel. Can I in any way assist to mitigate your care, and restore your tranquillity?"
At such sounds, the loaded heart would feel as if half its load were gone. It may be, the kind inquirer, could yield no effectual relief, but there is balm in his sympathy. The indifference of some professing Christians to the burthens of their brethren is shocking; they would see them crushed to the very earth with cares and sorrows, and never make one kind inquiry into their situation, nor lend a helping hand to lift them from the dust. Love requires that we should take the deepest interest in each other's case, that we should patiently listen to the tale of woe which a brother brings us, that we should mingle our tears with his, that we should offer him our advice that we should suggest to him the consolations of the gospel. In short, we should let him see that his troubles reach not only our ear, but our heart. Sympathy is one of the finest, most natural, and easiest expressions of love.
3. Love requires that we should visit our brethren in their affliction.
“I was sick and ye visited me, I was in prison and ye came unto me; (Matt. 25:36) “Inasmuch as ye have it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me;" (Matt. 25:40) Such is the language of Jesus Christ to his people by which he teaches us how important and incumbent a duty it is for church members to visit each other in their afflictions. Probably there is no duty more neglected than this.
Christians often lie on beds of sickness for weeks and months successively, without seeing a fellow member cross the threshold of their chamber door. How often have I been shocked, when upon inquiring of the sufferer whether such and such an individual residing in their neighbourhood had been to visit them, it had been said in reply,
"Oh, no, Sir, I have now been stretched on this bed for days and weeks. My pain and weakness have been so great that I have scarcely been able to collect my thoughts for meditation and prayer. The sight of a dear Christian friend would indeed have relieved the dull monotony of this gloomy scene, and the voice of .piety would have been as music to blunt my sense of pain, and lull my troubled heart to short repose, but such a sight and such a sound have been denied me.
“No friend has been near me, and it has aggravated sorrows, already heavy, to be thus neglected and forgotten by a church, which I joined with the hope of finding amongst them the comfort of sympathy. But alas! Alas! I find them too much occupied with the things seen and temporal to think of a suffering brother to whom wearisome nights and months of vanity are appointed."
How could I help exclaiming, "O, Christian love, bright image of the Saviour's heart! Whither hast thou fled that thou so rarely visitest the church on earth to shed thine influence and manifest thy beauties there?"
There have been ages of Christianity, so historians inform us, in which brotherly love prevailed amongst Christians to such a degree, that, fearless of the infection diffused by the most malignant and contagious disorders, they have ventured to the bedside of their brethren expiring in the last stages of the plague to administer the consolations of a hope full of immortality.
This was love; love stronger than death, and which many waters could not quench. It was no doubt imprudent, but it was heroic, and circulated far and wide the praises of that dear name which was the secret of the wonder. How many are there, now bearing the Christian name, who scarcely ever yet paid one visit to the bedside of a suffering brother. Shame and disgrace upon such professors! Let them not expect to hear the Saviour say, “I was sick, and ye visited me."
That this branch of Christian love may be performed with greater diligence, it would be a good plan for the pastor at every church meeting to mention the names of the afflicted members, and stir up the brethren to visit them. It would be particularly desirable for Christians to go to the scene of suffering on a Sunday, and read the Bible and sermons to the afflicted at that time as they are then peculiarly apt to feel their sorrows, in consequence of being cut off from the enjoyments of public worship.
4. "Pray one for another." (James 5:16)
Not only “with” but “for” one another. A Christian should take the interests of his brethren into the closet. Private devotion is not to be selfish devotion. It would much increase our affection did we devote more of our private prayers to each other's welfare.
5. Pecuniary relief should be administered to those who need it.
"Distributing to the necessities of the saints," (Rom. 12:13) is mentioned amongst the incumbent duties of professing Christians. How just, how forcible is the interrogation of the Apostle, 1 John 3:17, "But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?"
Nothing can be more absurd than those pretensions to love, which are not supported by exertions to relieve the wants of the object beloved. It must be a singular affection which is destitute of mercy. So powerfully did this holy passion operate in the first ages of the church that many rich Christians sold their estates, and shared their affluence with the poor. What rendered this act the more remarkable is that it was purely voluntary. It is not our duty any more than it was theirs to go this length.
Still, however, it is evident both from general principles as well as from particular precepts that we are under obligation to make some provision for the comfort of the poor. This duty must be left in the statement of general terms as it is impossible to define its precise limits. It does not appear to me to be at all incumbent to make regular periodical distributions to the poor, whether in circumstances of distress or not.
Some churches have a registered list of pensioners, who come as regularly for their pay, as if they were hired servants. If they are old, infirm, or unprovided for this is very well, but for those to receive relief, who are getting a comfortable subsistence by their labour is an abuse of the charity of the church. The money collected at the Lord's Supper should be reserved for times of sickness and peculiar necessity.
It should be recollected also that public contributions do not release the members from the exercise of private liberality. The shilling a month which is given at the Lord's Supper seems in the opinion of many to discharge them from all further obligation to provide for the comfort of their poorer brethren, and to be a sort of composition for the full exercise of religious charity. This is a great mistake; it ought rather to be considered as a mere earnest, or pledge of all that more effective and abundant liberality which they should exercise in secret.
Every Christian who is indulged with a considerable share of the bounties of providence ought to consider the poorer members of the church, who may happen to live in his neighbourhood, as the objects of his peculiar care, interest, and relief.
6. Forbearance is a great part of love.
"Forbearing one another in love." (Eph. 4: 2) In a Christian church, especially where it is of considerable magnitude, we must expect to find a very great diversity of character. There are all the gradations of intellect, and all the varieties of temper. In such cases great forbearance is absolutely essential to the preservation of harmony and peace. The strong must bear with the infirmities of the weak.
Christians of great attainments in knowledge should not in their hearts despise, nor in their conduct ridicule, the feeble conceptions of those who are babes in Christ; but must meekly correct their errors, and most kindly instruct their ignorance. This is love. In very many persons, there will unhappily be found some things, which although they by no means affect the reality and sincerity of their religion, considerably diminish its lustre and have a tendency, without the caution of love, to disturb our communion with them.
Some have a forward and obtrusive manner; others are talkative; others indulge a complaining, whining, begging disposition; others are abrupt, almost to rudeness, in their address. These, and many more, are the spots of God's children—with which we are sometimes so much displeased as to feel an alienation of heart from the subjects of them, although we have no doubt of their real piety. Now here is room for the exercise of love. These are the cases in which we are to employ that charity which covereth all things. Are we to love only amiable Christians?
Perhaps, after all, in the substantial parts of religion, these rough characters far excel others, whom courtesy and amiableness have carried to the highest degree of polish. I do not say we are to love these individuals for their peculiarities, but in spite of them. Not on their own account, but for Christ's sake, to whom they belong. And what can be a greater proof of our affection for him than to love an unlovely individual on his account?
If you had the picture of a valued friend, would you withdraw from it your affection, and throw it away, because there was a spot upon the canvass, which in some degree disfigured the painting? No; you would say, “It is a likeness of my friend still, and I love it, notwithstanding its imperfection.” The believer is a picture of your best friend; and will you discard him, neglect him, because there is a speck upon the painting?
7. Love should induce us to watch over one another.
“Am I my brother's keeper?” (Gen. 4:9) was an inquiry suitable enough in the lips of a murderer, but most unsuitable and inconsistent from a Christian. We are brought into fellowship for the very purpose of being keepers of each other. We are to watch over our brethren, and admonish and, reprove them as circumstances may require. I do not mean that church members should pry into each other's secrets, or be busy bodies in other men's matters, for that is forbidden by God and abominable in the sight of man. (1 Thess. 3:11; 1 Pet. 4:15)
Much less are they to assume authority over each other, and act the part of proud and tyrannical inquisitors. But still we are to "exhort one another daily…lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin." (Heb. 3:13) We are not to suffer sin to be committed, or duty to be omitted by a brother, without affectionately admonishing him. What can be more incumbent, more obligatory, than this? Can we indeed love anyone, and at the same time see him do that which we know will injure him without entreating him to desist? "Brethren, if any man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness." (Gal. 6:1)
Let us then take heed against that Cain-like spirit which is too prevalent in our churches, and which leads many to act as if their fellow members were no more to them than the stranger at the ends of the earth. Striking are the words of God to the Jews, "Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him." (Lev. 19:17) Not to rebuke him then when he sins is, instead of loving him, to hate him. This neglect is what the apostle means by being partakers of other men's sins. The admonition to "warn the unruly," (1 Thess. 5:14) was delivered not merely to ministers, but to private Christians.
I know no duty more neglected than this. It is one of the most prevalent defects of Christians. Many a backslider would have been prevented from going far astray, if in the very first stages of his declension some brother, who had observed his critical state, had faith-fully and affectionately warned and admonished him. What shame, and anguish, and disgrace, would the offender himself have been spared, and what dishonour and scandal would have been averted from the church by this one act of faithful love!
I am aware it is a difficult and self-denying duty; but that cannot excuse its neglect. Love will enable us to perform it, and the neglect of it violates the law of Christ.