Church’s Danger

The meat offering and the drink offering is cut off from the house of the LORD; the priests, the LORD’S ministers, mourn.
~ Joel 1:9

Gird yourselves, and lament, ye priests: howl, ye ministers of the altar: come, lie all night in sackcloth, ye ministers of my God: for the meat offering and the drink offering is withholden from the house of your God.
~ Joel 1:13

Take with you words, and turn to the LORD: say unto him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips.
~ Hosea 14:2

And he said, If now I have found grace in thy sight, O Lord, let my Lord, I pray thee, go among us; for it is a stiffnecked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for thine inheritance.
~ Exodus 34:9

O my God, incline thine ear, and hear; open thine eyes, and behold our desolations, and the city which is called by thy name: for we do not present our supplications before thee for our righteousnesses, but for thy great mercies. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, hearken and do; defer not, for thine own sake, O my God: for thy city and thy people are called by thy name.
~ Daniel 9:18-19

Wherewith thine enemies have reproached, O LORD; wherewith they have reproached the footsteps of thine anointed.
~ Psalm 89:51

Behold, we are servants this day, and for the land that thou gavest unto our fathers to eat the fruit thereof and the good thereof, behold, we are servants in it:
~ Nehemiah 9:36

Thou makest us a byword among the heathen, a shaking of the head among the people.
~ Psalm 44:14

Were it not that I feared the wrath of the enemy, lest their adversaries should behave themselves strangely, and lest they should say, Our hand is high, and the LORD hath not done all this.
~ Deuteronomy 32:27

As with a sword in my bones, mine enemies reproach me; while they say daily unto me, Where is thy God?
~ Psalm 42:10

Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is their God? let him be known among the heathen in our sight by the revenging of the blood of thy servants which is shed.
~ Psalm 79:10

But I wrought for my name’s sake, that it should not be polluted before the heathen, among whom they were, in whose sight I made myself known unto them, in bringing them forth out of the land of Egypt.
~ Ezekiel 20:9

Then she that is mine enemy shall see it, and shame shall cover her which said unto me, Where is the LORD thy God? mine eyes shall behold her: now shall she be trodden down as the mire of the streets.
~ Micah 7:10

Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.
~ 1 Corinthians 10:11

The Church’s Danger, and the Minister’s Duty, by John Willison. The following contains an excerpt from his work.

Sermon On Joel ii. 17.

Let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, Spare thy people, O LORD, and give not thine heritage to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them: wherefore should they say among the people, Where is their God?

At this time twenty one years ago, (viz. October 1712.) I opened the Synod, by a sermon on I Sam. iv. 13. concerning Eli’s heart trembling for the ark of God.’ Many of the members of the Synod are removed by death since that time, but those who survive may remember it was a very threatening time to that church; yet it pleased our gracious God to save us from the storm then impending, and allow her many halcyon days since, though, alas badly improven: Wherefore the clouds seem to gather again, and look very black; and a new storm from another quarter (if God prevent not) is ready to blow. I have chosen therefore this text, which calls us for more than trembling hearts for the ark, even weeping eyes, and praying lips also; and O that all these might meet in us at this time!

In Joel’s time, the church and people of God were threatened with a desolating judgement: to prevent it, he calls them to public national fasting and humiliation; duties most proper for a people exposed to public national calamities. In the text, we have directions given to ministers for carrying on this work; in which let us—

Observe, I The persons addressed, the priests or ministers of God; Why? because they, who were the people’s mouth to God, upon other occasions, were e. specially called at this time, to stand in the open, to turn away God’s wrath from the church. Though others are not exempted from his duty, yet it is the business of ministers, in a special manner, Joel i. 13. ‘ Lie all night in sackcloth, ye ministers of my God. When others mourn in the day, it is your duty to mourn both night and day.

Observe the place where they are to mourn and wrestle; ‘betwixt the porch and the altar;’ that is, the stately porch built by Solomon, and the great brazen altar, the public place where they used to attend the offering of sacrifices, there they are to pour out their tears and prayers in view of all the people, that, by the minister’s example, the people may be affected and wrought into the like pious disposition.

3. Observe the words the ministers are directed to use and enlarge upon in their prayers to God; ‘ Spare thy people, O Lord, and give not thine heritage to reproach, &c. In which there are several strong arguments used to prevail with God for the church: They are to cry, ‘Spare, O Lord;’ q. d. We confess our guilt and ill deservings; we acknowledge the justice of thy proceedings, though we should be cut off; all our relief is in thy sparing mercy, and this we humbly look up to, and plead for, with a merciful God.’

2dly, Another plea is taken from the relation they stood in unto God;: We are thy people, thine heritage:’ We are the people thou hast set thy love upon, se rated from thy church, taken into covenant with thee, ransomed from Egyptian bondage, delivered from many enemies and dangers, and preserved from ruin by a train of miraculous providences; Lord, spare the inheritances thou hast purchased for thyself at so dear a rate.’

3dly, They are to plead the reproach and contempt which would fall upon the church and people of God, if God give up with them; ‘Give not up thine heritage to reproach;’ If thou send a famine upon us, (which was the judgment immediately threatened) then the fruitful land of Canaan, the glory of all lands, shall be reproached as a poor beggarly and barren land, insufficient to afford sacrifices for the temple; yea, we shall soon fall under the reproach of servitude to our Heathen neighbours, who will make an easy prey of us, if once we be famished, and deprive us both of our civil and spiritual liberties, and especially of God’s ordinances, the symbols of his presence, and means of communion with him; which we value as our great honour and happiness above other nations.’

Lastly, They are to plead in prayer, that the reproach of the church will some way reflect upon her God and protector; Wherefore should they say among the people, where is their God? These barbarous people, who watched for our halting, will not consider our sins and ill-deservings at God’s hand, but will talk reproachfully of God, saying, Where is the God they trusted in, the God of whole power, mercy, and faithfulness, they boasted so much? They will say, He is either weak, and could not help them in their extremity, or unkind, and would not: Lord, spare and pity the church, for thy name, thy glory’s fake. The master of our reproach is not so great; but, Lord, What wilt thou do for thy great name?’

Doct. In time of the church’s danger, ministers are especially called to mourn plead, and wrestle with God for her, that he may not be abandoned or given up to reproach.

In prosecuting this subject, I proposed to shew,

1, When it may be laid, that a church is left or given up to reproach.

2dly, Why ministers should be so earnest with God! to prevent this calamity.

3dly, Make improvement suitable to the case of the church.

1. The first head is, to shew when a church may be said to be left or given up to reproach and contempt.

And here I shall mention several reproachful and church exposing evils, which ministers ought mournfully and fervently to deprecate, especially when a church is threatened with them. As,

11, When a church falls into a backsliding condition, religion in her is under a visible decay; her members leave their first love, degenerate from their predecessors piety and zeal, turn loose and indifferent about God’s truths, their former declared principles, and the solemn engagements they lie under to maintain them; and not only so, but turn careless also about the practice and duties of religion, such as family.worship, secret prayer, sabbath-sanctification, and gospel holiness: when people lose their former spirituality and liveliness in God’s service, and their duties dwindle away into a dead formality: when they content themselves with external ordinances and communions, without communion with God in them: when they turn carnal in their conversation; Christian love declines, malice, hatred and envy do increase: then it is, that a church is left and given up to reproach; these are church disgracing evils, which ministers should earnestly deprecate, and cry, Spare,’

2dly, When destructive schisms and divisions invade a church, so that good men, both ministers and professors of religion, entertain rough thoughts, and break out into uncharitable reflections, and severe censures one against another, and will not use lenity or forbearance to them who differ from them in some lesser things. These are evils we should earnestly pray against, seeing they manifest, tend to expose and ruin a church; for they put a stop to the progress of the gospel, the conversion of souls, and in bringing of strangers to Christ: they hinder the sweet fellowship of Christians together, and their mutual prayers with and for one another; and open a flood-gate for innumerable other evils: as, for instance, they take us off from the vitals and essentials of of religion, the life and power of godliness; and, in the room thereof, engage and employ us into many needless disputes, passionate strivings, envious whispers, unchristian backbitings, and revengeful actions. How sadly verified do we find that word of the Apostle James 1.16 ” Where envying and strife is, there is confusion, and every evil work! We have reason to plead and cry against this woful spirit of strife and contention; for, where it doth take place, the church’s best friend is highly provoked, the Prince of peace;’ and she herself is sadly exposed to the scorn and derision of her enemies.

3dly. It is most reproachful to a church, when doctrinal errors creep into her, when her teachers begin to resile from the pure truths of God handed down to then, and vent doctrines which have a tendency to Arminianism, Arianism or Deism; when they extol natural reason more than revelation, the power of corrupt nature more than efficacious free grace, mens own moral performances more than impured righteousness, Jesus Christ as a pattern more than as a propitiation; or any other opinions which tend to sap the foundation of Christianity, or reproach the’ holy Spirit’s operations, and life of faith, with the name of enthusiasm: these are church-exposing evils, which we ought to be wail and pray against.

4thly, It is reproachful to a church, when she is smitten with barrenness and unfruitfulness, with respect to converting of souls, and bringing forth children to God: when the great doctrine of regeneration and the new-birth is little preached or experienced in her; or, when in judgment the hath given her a miscarrying womb and dry breasts. “Lord, spare thy people, and give not thine heritage to this reproach.

5thly, It is a church-disgracing evil, when God withdraws his holy Spirit and his gracious influences from her ministers and teachers, in any measure or degree: of which there are many, and each of them is to be dreaded and deprecated by us. As, 1st, When we are deprived of the gifts and qualifications we once had. 2dly, When the light and knowledge we retain, hath no influence on our consciences. 3dly, When we lose our spirituality and liveliness in the worship and service of God. 4thly, When we are straitened in our approaches to God. 5thly, When we begin to think duty a weariness, and our hearts are alienated from it. 6thly, When heart-plagues and indwelling corruptions prevail and increase, as heart-atheism, unbelief, carnality, &c. 7thly, When we incline towards the temptations of sin, and society of ungodly men.’ 8thly, When wonted restraints are taken off, and we turn loose and profane in our lives, so as (like Eli’s sons) to tempt men to abhor the offerings of the Lord. “ O Lord, spare thy people, and give not thy church to this reproach.”

6thly, It is reproachful to the Lord’s vineyard, when breaches are made in her walls and fences, so that her enemies, the foxes and wild beasts, break in, and spoil the vines: when strangers do devour her strength, those of a different persuasion and communion do spoil her of her ancient rights and liberties: when patrons and their abettors thrust in pastors upon Christian congregations against their will, whereby God’s ordinances are deserted, the ministry is contemned, the Lord’s day is profaned, the flock of Christ is scattered and exposed as à prey to seducers. These are evils we should bewail and pray against with tears, crying, “ Lord, spare thy church, and give her not up to this reproach.”

7thly, It is disgracing to a church, when God hides his face from her, when under oppression and distress, and covers himself with a cloud, that their prayers not pass through; so that enemies are ready to say, as in ” Where is their God? ” Where is the fruit of all your prayers? where is he in whom you trusted for help? where is your covenanted God, of whose promises to relieve you in trouble, you were wont to boast?’ This reproach is as a sword in his peoples bones, Psal. xlii 10. against which let us pray, Lord, spare thy people, and give not thine heritage to this fad reproach.

8thly, It doth sadly expose a church, when her pillars are removed; when those are discouraged or taken way, who were wont to weep and wrestle between the porch and the altar, and stood in the breach to keep off wrath from her; when her burning and shining lights are extinguished; the precious sons of Zion are thrown by as earthen pitchers; when faithful teachers are removed into corners or graves, and such put in their room, who are unexperienced in religion, harden people in their sins, or lull them asleep in a Christless and unregenerate state. It is distressing to a church, when her pillars are struck at, persecution is intended against the champions of Christ’s cause, whereby others are intimidated with fear to own it. How low was the church brought in Herod’s time, Acts xii. when James was killed with the sword, Peter in prison ready to be executed, and all the rest of the apostles were designed as a sacrifice? then the pillars shook, the disciples trembled, and the enemies triumphed. This was a time of reproach; and it becomes all the ministers of the Lord to weep between the porch and the altar, and cry, ‘Spare thy people, O Lord, give not thine heritage to this reproach, or any other church-disgracing evil.’

II. The Second head I proposed, was, to shew why ministers should be so earnest with God, to avert these church-exposing evils. Reasons for it.

1. Because God expressly requires this at their hand, as in the text; and also in Ifa. lxii. 6, 73 “I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, Ye that make mention of the Lord, keep not silence. And give him no rest, till he establish Jerusalem.’ Where see the great end for which God sets ministers in such public posts, it is not to keep silence in an evil time, as other prudent men may do, but to speak aloud in Zion’s behalf, and to intercede and wrestle with God for her. And we see God requires faithfulness in this we may matter.

2. This hath been the approven practice of the Lord’s prophets and ministers in all ages. How earnest was Moses, in wrestling and pleading for the church in his day! Exod. xxvii. 11, 12, 13. And Moses besought the Lord his God, and said, Lord, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt, with great power and a mighty hand? Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and consume them from the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath and repent of this evil against thy people. Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel thy servants, to whom thou swearest, &c. Here is an intercessory prayer for Israel, full of the most powerful arguments, worthy of our imitation. In like manner was the Prophet Samuel employed for the church in his time, 1 Sam. xii. 23 As for me (faith he) God forbid that I should sin against the Lord, in ceasing to pray for you So the prophet David wrestled for the church, Psal. xiv. 7 O that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion!’ Psal. xxv 22. “Redeem Israel, o God, out of all His troubles. Psal. li. 18. Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion, build thou the walls of Jerusalem.’ So Asaph, Psal. Ixxx. 14. ‘Return, we beseech thee, O God of ‘holts: look down from heaven, and visit this vine,’ &c. Likewise the prophet Isaiah was thus concerned, Ifa. Ixii. I. · For Zion’s fake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem’s fake will I not reft, until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth.’ And so the prophet Daniel wrestled fervently for the church, Dan. ix. 16. 17, 18, 19. So did Nehemiah, Neh. i. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, &c. And so did the apostle Paul, Rom. i. 9. and x. 1. Eph. i. 16, 17. But I have a greater pattern to lay before you than all these, even that of the Angel of the Covenant, the great Prophet and Teacher of the church, Zech. i. 12. How earnestly doth be plead for the church in distress? O Lord of hosts, how long wilt thou not have mercy on Jerusalem, and the cities of Judah, against which thou hast had indignation these seventy years?’ Let us imitate him.

3. Because God is exceedingly delighted with such pleadings, and allows great familiarity to those who intercede for his church, Isa. xlv. 11. and promiseth prosperity to them, Psal. cxxii. 6.

4. Ministers should be more earnest for the church in trouble than other men, because they are Christ’s principal servants, who should be more zealous for their glorious master than others, and know best the near relation the church stands in to him, that she is his city, his house, his heritage, his spouse, his body, and the purchase of his blood. And therefore ministers, for their Master’s take, should interpose with the greatest earnestness for the church.

6. Because ministers are, by their office, bound to have more compassion than others to precious souls, which cannot miss to be in a miserable situation, when the church is distressed with spiritual judgments, as the withdrawing of the Spirit from ordinances, and the plague of dry breasts.

7. Because at such a time the souls of ministers are like to suffer, as well as others; for the church, being the mother of us all; if it be ill with her, and her condition fickly and pining, our souls must languish with other men.

7. Because ministers should best know the hazard of being silent and unconcerned about the church’s danger and trouble; seeing there is a heavy woe denounced as gainst them, who are at ease in Zion, and are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph, Amos vi. 1. 6. And they know what wrath was threatened against Esther, if she did keep silence when the church was in danger, Esther iv. 14. For if thou altogether hold thy peace at this time, then shall enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed.

Head III.-The Improvement.

First Use may be of Lamentation, upon the account of our silence and unconcernedness who are ministers about the church of God when in danger and distress. Ah! how few are there among us of Eli’s disposition this day, whose hearts are trembling for the ark of God! How weeping between the porch and the altar, and crying, Spare thy people, O Lord, and give not thine inheritance to reproach! Witness the unfrequency of fast days, and the cold entertainment given to motions for observing them. What! is it a time for silence and easiness, when the affairs of Zion are in such a melancholy situation both at home and abroad? Is it time for us to dwell at ease in our ceiled houses, when the Lord’s house is threatened to be laid waste by our woful backslidings, and destructive divisions? Is it becoming the character of Christ’s ambassadors, to shew an indifferency anent his church’s danger, and to act the part of a Heathen Gallio, to care for none of these things? O what cause have we to bewail the case of those, who can be easy about the public interest of the church, if it go well with their own private affairs; who care not, if they can swim in prosperity, though the church be drowned in tears and blood! What is this! but to be like the king and Hamon, who sat down to drink when the city Shushan was perplexed, Esther iii. 15. For Christian minister to mind his private concerns, and neglect the public, is as great folly, as if a sailor in a storm should notice only his private chest, and neglect the vessel in which he and his effects are embarked: It is recorded, as a praise-worthy action, and a noble evidence of a public spirit in one Terentius, a captain under the emperor Valens, who, having done some special service to the emperor, for which he judged him worthy of an eminent reward, he bid him ask what he would have, and it should be granted. Whereupon, after an advisement, he wrote a petition to the emperor, That the Orthodox Christians might have liberty of a church by themselves, where they might worship God separately from the Arians. The emperor being Arian himself, was much offended with the petition, tore it in pieces, and threw it away, bidding the captain ask something for himself: but he carefully gathering up the pieces of his torn petition, said, If he could not be heard in Christ’s cause, he would ask nothing for himself. Alas! that we, who are Christ’s ministers, should fall so much short of this soldier in concern for Christ’s interest!

But the best improvement we can make of this doctrine is for amendment; and therefore I shall proceed to a—

Second Use of Exhortation. And here, my dear brethren, suffer me to be your humble remembrancer, and my own monitor: and the duty exhorted to, is, that I have been insisting upon from the text, weep and pray for all the churches of God that are in distress, and especially the church of Scotland, our mother church, which at this day is in danger of being torn in pieces and destroyed, if God in his mercy do not prevent it. O let us cry with all our might, Lord, spare thy people, and give not thine heritage (in Scotland) to reproach: wherefore shall they say among the people, where is their God?’ And, for your encouragement to wrestle and plead with God in her behalf, let me offer these considerations;

1. Such pleadings are most acceptable to God, and prevalent with him. Who are they but the wrestlers that deliver the church, and preserve the island?

2. Those who are most concerned for the church in danger, shall have the greatest share ‘in her comforts when God rescues her. They who fow most of the feed of tears for Zion, shall reap most of her joys, when the harvest comes.

3. We have noble arguments to make use of in pleading with God for this poor church, as well as they had of old, for Israel.

As, (1.) The compassion of his nature, which hath often interposed for this church, when he seemed to have given her up. So was it in the case of Israel, Judg. x. 14. where God appeared to reject them, and bid them, Go cry to the gods they had chosen, and let these deliver them in the time of their trouble;’ yet when Israel persisted in crying for pity, it is said, v. 16. His soul was grieved for the misery of Israel, and he delivered them.’,

(2.) We may plead the glory of his name, as of old, Jer, xiv. 21. ‘ Lord, do not disgrace the throne of thy glory,’ viz. the temple where thy glory is displayed: 9.d.’ Lord, we deserve to have disgrace put upon us; but let O it be in such a way, that the disgrace may not reflect upon thyself, upon thy worship, thy ordinances, thy attributes, thy promises. Let not our enemies have occasion to reproach thy name, or to say, where is now their God? Where is the God they always boasted of, as superior to all the gods of the nations? So may we say, “Lord, do for thy own name’s sake; it is no great matter what become of the ministers or professors of Scotland; but what wilt thou do for thy great name, that may come some way suffer with them? Lord, what will the Egyptians say?” Exod. xxxii.

(3.) We may plead his covenant with us, as they did, Jer. xiv. 21. Lord, remember and break not covenant with us. Though we have broke to thee, Lord, do not thou break to us. We are a people in covenant with thee more explicitly than other nations; we are a land peculiarly given to Christ by the father’s donation, as being amongst the ends and uttermost parts of the earth, and among the isles, which have seen his salvation, and waited for his law; we are a land most solemnly devoted to God by our reforming ancestors, who, in a national way, avouched the Lord to be their God; and at the same time gave up themselves and their posterity to the Lord; and thou, Lord, didst declare thyself well pleased with the bargain, thou did it fill the temple with thy glory, work great deliverance for us, and raise up saviours unto us, when we were brought very low. O do not now forsake thine inheritance!