The minister is to declare the gospel with boldness.
The manner how the gospel minister is to perform his work—‘that I may open my mouth boldly.’ We must inquire:—First. What this boldness is the apostle desires prayers for. Second. Wherein the minister is to express the boldness in preaching the gospel. Third. What kind of boldness it is that he must show. Fourth. Some helps to procure boldness.
First. What this boldness is the apostle desires prayers for:
1. To speak all that he hath in command from God to deliver. Thus Paul kept nothing back of God’s counsel, Acts 20:27. He ‘concealed not the words of the holy One,’ as Job’s phrase is.
2. To speak with liberty and freedom of spirit—without fear or bondage to any, be they many or mighty. Now this is seen, (1.)By speaking openly, and not in corners; the trick of heretics and false teachers, who ‘privily bring in their damnable heresies.’ It is said Christ ‘spake them openly’ Mark 8:32. (2.) By speaking plainly. It shows some fear in the heart, when our words are dark and shady—that the preachers’ judgment or opinion cannot easily be spelled from his words or they are ambiguous. The minister is to speak truth freely and plainly. This was the apostle’s boldness, ‘Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech,’ —‘we use great boldness;’ so in II Cor. 3:12.
Second. Wherein the minister is to show this boldness in preaching the gospel.
1. In asserting the truths of the gospel. He is not to smother truth for the face or fear of any. Ministers are called witnesses. A witness is to speak what he knows, though it be in open court before the greatest of men. Paul had a free tongue to speak the truth, even in prison, though he was in bonds, yet he tells us ‘the word of God is not bound,’ II Tim. 2:9. Some truths will go down easily; to preach these requires no boldness. The worst in the congregation will give the preacher thanks for his pains upon some subject; but there are displeasing truths, truths that cross the opinion, may be, of some in the assembly; to preach these requires a free and bold spirit. When Christ was to preach before the Pharisees, he was not afraid to preach against their errors. Had some wary preacher been to have stood in his place, he would have pitched upon such a subject as should not have offended their tender ears. There are truths that expose the preacher to scorn and derision, yet not to be concealed. Paul preached the resurrection, though some in the assembly mocked him for his pains. There are truths that sometimes may expose the minister to danger—truths that carry the cross at their back. Such was that truth that Isaiah delivered concerning the rejection of the Jews. ‘But Esaias is very bold, and saith, I was found of them that sought me not,’ Rom. 10:20. This was like to enrage his countrymen, and bring their fists about his ears. We read of a ‘word of patience’ which we are to keep, Rev. 3.10. Such a word as the preacher had need have good store of patience that delivers it, and Christians that profess it, because it may bring them into trouble, and draw the persecutor’s sword against them. This is not always the same. The word of patience in the apostle’s time was truths levelled against Judaism and heathenism; under the Arian emperors, it was the deity of Christ; in Luther’s time the doctrine of justification, and others asserted by him against the Romish church.
2. Boldness in reproving sin, and denouncing judgment against impenitent sinners. They are commanded ‘to lift up their voice like a trumpet, and tell Jerusalem her sins.’ ‘Preach the word,’ saith Paul; ‘be instant in season, and out of season; reprove, rebuke with all long-suffering.’ He must reprove, and continue therein while they continue to sin. The dog ceaseth not to bark so long as the thief is in the yard. A minister without this boldness is like a smooth file, a knife without an edge, a sentinel that is afraid to let off his gun when he should alarm the city upon a danger approaching. Nothing more unworthy to see a people bold to sin and the minister afraid to reprove. It is said of Tacitus that he took the same liberty to write the emperor’s lives that they took in leading them. So should the minister in reproving sin, be they who they will. Not the beggar’s sin, and spare the gentleman’s; not the profane, and skip over the professor’s sin. It was all one to Christ; whoever sinned should hear of it. The scribes and Pharisees, them he paid to purpose; neither connives he at his own disciples, but rebukes them sharply. ‘Get thee behind me, Satan,’ saith he to Peter; ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ to his own mother for her unseasonable importunity.
Third. What kind of boldness must the minister’s be.
1. A convincing boldness. ‘How forcible are right words?’ saith Job; and how feeble are empty words, though shot with a thundering voice? Great words in reproving an error or sin, but weak arguments, produce laughter oftener than tears. Festus thought it ‘unreasonable to send a prisoner, and not withal to signify the crimes laid against him,’ Acts 25:27. Much more unreasonable is it in the pulpit to condemn an error and not prove it so; a practice and not convince of the evil of it. The apostle saith of some, ‘Their mouths must be stopped,’ Titus 1:11. They are convincing arguments that must stop the mouth. Empty reproofs will soon open the mouths of those that are reproved, wider, than shut them. The Spirit of God reproves by convincing, ‘And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin,’ John 16:8, he will convince; and so should the minister. This is to preach in the evidence and demonstration of the Spirit.
2. A wise boldness. The minister is to reprove the sins of all, but to personate none. Paul, being to preach before a lascivious and unrighteous prince, touched him to the quick, but did not name him in his sermon. Felix’s conscience would save Paul that labour; he ‘trembled,’ though Paul did not say he meant him.
3. A meek boldness. ‘The words of wise men are heard in quiet,’ Eccl. 9:17. Let the reproof be as sharp as thou wilt, but thy spirit must be meek. Passion raiseth the blood of him that is reproved, but compassion turns his bowels. The oil in which the nail is dipped makes it drive the easier, which otherwise have riven the board. We must not denounce wrath in wrath, lest sinners think we wish their misery; but rather with such tenderness, that they may see it is no pleasing work to us to rake in their wounds, but do it, that we might not by a cruel silence and foolish pity be accessory to their ruin, which we cordially desire to prevent. Jeremiah sounds the alarm of judgment, and tells them of a dismal calamity approaching; yet at the same time appeals to God, and clears himself of all cruelty towards them: ‘I have not hastened from being a pastor to follow thee: neither have I desired the woeful day; thou knowest: that which came out of my lips was right before thee,’ Jer. 17:16. As if he had said, I have delivered my message in denouncing judgment (for I durst do no other), but it was with a merciful heart; I threatened ruin, but wished for peace. Thus Daniel, he dealt plainly and roundly with the king, but ushers in his hard message with an affectionate expression of his love and loyalty to him: ‘My lord, the dream be to them that hate thee, and the interpretation thereof to thine enemies,’ Dan. 4:19.
4. A humble boldness; such a boldness as is raised from a confidence in God, not from ourselves, or our own parts and ability, courage or stoutness. Paul is bold, and yet can tremble and be in fear; bold, in confidence of his God: ‘We were bold in our God to speak unto you the gospel of God with much contention,’ I Thess. 2:2; but full of fear in the sense of his own weakness: ‘I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling,’ I Cor. 2:3.
5. A zealous boldness. Our reproofs of sin must come from a warm heart. Paul’s spirit was stirred within him when he saw the city given to idolatry. Jeremiah tells us ‘the word of God was as fire in his bones;’ it broke out of his mouth as the flame out of a furnace. The word is a hammer, but it breaks not the flinty heart when lightly laid on. King James said of a minister in his time, he preached as if death was at his back. Ministers should set forth judgment as if it were at the sinner’s back, ready to take hold of him. Cold reproofs or threatenings, they are like the rumblings of thunder afar off, which affright not as a clap over our head doth. I told you the minister’s boldness must be meek and merciful, but not to prejudice zeal. The physician may sweeten his pill to make his patient to swallow it better; but not to such a degree as will weaken the force of its operation.
Fourth. We promised to propound some helps to procure this boldness.
1. A holy fear of God. We fear man so much because we fear God so little. One fear cures another as one fire draws out another. When your finger is burned you hold it to the fire; when man’s terror scares you, turn your thoughts to meditate on the wrath of God. This is the plaster God lays to Jeremiah’s wrists to cure his anguish distemper of man’s fear. ‘Be not dismayed at their faces, lest I confound thee before them,’ Jer. 1:17. If we must be broken in pieces—so is the original—better man do it than God. What man breaks in pieces God can make whole again. ‘He that loseth his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it,’ Mark 8:35. But if God break us in pieces, it is beyond the skill of man to gather the sherds, and remake what God hath marred.
2. Castle thyself within the power and promise of God for thy assistance and protection. He that is a coward in the open field grows valiant and fearless when got within strong walls and bulwarks. Jeremiah was even laying down is arms, and fleeing from the face of those dangers which his ministry to a rebellious and enraged people exposed him. Hear what course he had in his thoughts to take, because the word of the Lord was made a reproach to him, and a derision daily: ‘Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name,’ Jer. 20:9. Now what kept him from this cowardly flight? ‘But the Lord is with me as a mighty terrible one,’ ver. 11. Now he takes heart, and goes on with his work undauntedly. Our eye, alas! is on our danger, but not on the invisible walls and bulwarks which God hath promised to set about us. The prophet’s servant, that saw the enemy’s army approaching, was in a panic fright; but the prophet, that saw the heavenly host for his lifeguard about him, cared not a rush for them all. If God be not able to protect thee, why dost thou go on his errand at all? If thou believest he is, why art thou afraid to deliver it when he is able to deliver thee?
3. Keep a clear conscience. He cannot be a bold reprover that is not a conscientious liver. Such a one must speak softly for fear of waking his own guilty conscience. He is like one that shoots in a rusty foul piece, his reproofs recoil upon himself. Unholiness in the preacher’s life either will stop his mouth from reproving, or the people’s ears from receiving what he saith. O how harsh a sound does such a cracked bell make in the ears of its auditors! Every one desires, if he must be smitten, that it may be by the hand of ‘the righteous,’ Psalm 141:5. Good counsel from a wicked man is spoiled by his stinking breath that delivers it. Our Saviour was fain to bid them hear the Pharisees, because their persons were a scandal to their doctrine, Matt. 23:2, 3. Even those that are good are too prone to turn their back off the ordinance for the scandal of him that officiates. This is their weakness and sin; but woe be to them at whose wickedness they stumble upon this temptation. It shows the man hath a very good stomach, that can eat his dinner out of a slovenly cook’s hands; and a very sound judgment and quick appetite to the word, that can fall to and make a hearty meal of it without any squeamish scrupulosity or prejudice from the miscarriages of the preacher.
4. Consider that which thou most fearest is best prevented by thy freedom and holy boldness in thy ministry. Is it danger to thy life thou fearest? No such way to secure it as by being faithful to him that hath the sole dispose of it. In whose hands thinkest thou are thy times? Surely in God’s. Then it is thy best policy to keep him thy friend; for, ‘when thy ways please him, he can make thy enemies to be at peace with thee.’ Man-pleasing is both endless and needless. If thou wouldst, thou couldst not please all; and if thou couldst, there is no need, so thou pleasest one that can turn all their hearts or bind their hands. They speed best that dare be faithful. Jonah was afraid of his work. O he durst not go to such a great city with so sad a message! To tell them they should be destroyed was to set them awork to destroy him that brought the news. But how near was he losing his life by running away to save it? Jeremiah seemed the only man like to lose his life by his bold preaching, yet had fairer quarter at last than the smooth preachers of the times. However, it is better to die honourably than live shamefully. Is it thy name thou art tender of? If thou art free and bold, the word thou deliverest will be a reproach and daily derision to thee, as once to Jeremiah. Thou mayest, indeed, be mocked by some, but thou wilt be reverenced by more; yea, even they that wag their heads at thee carry that in their conscience which will make them fear thee. They are the flattering preachers—who are ‘partial in the law’—that become ‘base’ among the people, Mal. 2:9.
5. Consider, if thou art not now bold for Christ in thy ministry, thou canst not be bold before Christ at his judgment-bar. He that is afraid to speak for Christ will certainly be ashamed to look on his face then. ‘We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,’ II Cor. 5:10. Now what use doth Paul make of this solemn meditation? ‘Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men,’ ver. 11. It is no wisdom to provoke the judge by flattering the prisoner. A serious thought of that day, as we are going to preach, would make us shut all base fear out of the pulpit. It is a very small thing to be judged by man now for our boldness, but dismal to be condemned by Christ for our cowardice. This is man’s judgment-day, as Paul calls it, I Cor. 4:3. Every one dares tax the preacher, and pass his sentence upon him, if he please not his itching ear; but Christ will have his judgment-day also, to judge them that now take upon them to judge others, and his sentence will easily reverse theirs. Yea, even those that now condemn thy freedom thy freedom to reprove would be the first to accuse thee for thy sinful silence. The wicked servant, who likes the remissness of his master’s government—whereby he may play his ungodly pranks without control—cries out of him at the gallows, and is oft heard there to lay both his sin, and sad catastrophe of his life to which it brings him, at his master’s door; saying, ‘If he had reproved me, the magistrate had not condemned me; if he had done his duty, the hangman had not now been to do his office.’ Thus may some at the last day accuse their cowardly ministers, and say, ‘If they had told them their danger, they had not run into it; if they had been bold to reprove their sin, they had not been so impudent to live in the practice of it, which now hath brought them to everlasting shame and misery.’
6. Consider how bold Christ was in his ministry. His very enemies were forced to give him this testimony, ‘We know that thou sayest and teachest rightly, neither acceptest thou the person of any, but teachest the way of God truly,’ Luke 20:21. He spared not the proudest of them, but to their head reproved them, and denounced the judgment of God against them. When in the midst of his enemies, he was not daunted with their high looks or furious threats, but owned that very truth which they made his capital crime, Matt. 27:11; John 18:37. Hence Paul saith of him that ‘before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession,’ I Tim. 6:13; and useth this as the most powerful argument to conjure Timothy to be faithful in his ministry. What greater incentive to valour can the soldier have, than to see his general before him stand with undaunted courage where the bullets fly thickest? Such valiant captains do not use to breed white-livered soldiers. It is impossible we should be dastardly if instructed by him and acted with his spirit. When the high-priest and elders ‘saw the boldness of Peter and John’—who were convented before them —they soon knew where they had got this heroic resolved spirit; for it is said, ‘they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus,’ Acts 4:13.
7. Pray and beg prayers, for this holy boldness. Thus did the apostles come by it. Their natural boldness was not the product of any natural greatness of spirit they had above others. You see what stout soldiers they were in themselves by their poor-spirited behaviour at Christ’s attachment, when they all ran away in a fright, and left him to shift for himself. No; this boldness was the child of prayer; it was not bred in them, but granted from heaven unto them at their humble suit. See them praying hard for it: ‘Now, Lord, behold their threatenings: and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word,’ Acts 4:29. Mark, they do not pray against suffering, but for ‘boldness’ to preach, whatever it may cost them. They desire not to be excused the battle, but to be armed with courage to stand in it. They had rather be lift above the fear of suffering, than have an immunity from suffering. Let God but give them boldness to do their duty, and stand to their tackling, and they have enough. Now see how soon God sets his fiat to their prayers: ‘And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness,’ ver. 31. There is the grace they desired, dropped into their bosom, in a farther measure than ever they had it. If the soldier hath a desire to fight for his prince, no doubt he may have arms for asking. If this be thy sincere request, God will not deny it. See them also sending others to God upon this errand for them, Col. 4:3, and here in the text. Certainly people cannot desire that of God for their minister which both he and they need more. It is a difficult duty to them, but necessary for you. He cannot be a faithful minister that dares not deliver all his message. He that fears his people’s faces is the man that is most like to murder their souls; so that you pray for yourselves, while you endeavour to pray down this gift upon your minister.