This week I’ve been reading Thomas Boston’s classic, The Art of Man-Fishing. Boston was a Scottish Puritan in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The book is basically his own meditations and personal exhortations to himself (he often addresses himself as, “O my soul”) on ministry. Particularly, Boston was concerned that he, as a preacher, would not forget our charge to be consistently preaching the Gospel even in our Sunday morning sermons. Boston understood that the Sunday gathering is not an evangelistic rally, but rather a time for the worship of God by the assembly of the redeemed and the edification of the saints for the work of the ministry. Nevertheless, he saw it as the preacher’s responsibility to not assume that all who come to church are already saved, and so he preached repentance from sin and faith in Christ every chance he had.
In Part Two of the book, Boston delineates the ways in which we are to “follow Christ” if we are to become “fishers of men” (Matt 4:19; Mark 1:17). In one section that was particularly poignant for me, Boston insists on ministers aiming at God’s glory and not our own. Now of course we all know that, but we all ought also know that we need to keep a constant watch over our hearts so that we might not be foolishly lifted up by pride. Boston’s words were helpful to me, and I’d like to share that benefit with you. And though it’s primarily aimed at those in a regular preaching ministry, it has application to all Christians who are obediently involved in the ministry to the saints.
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Christ designed his Father’s glory in the work. It was not honour, applause, and credit from men that he sought, but purely the Father’s glory. Men that design not this, cannot be useful to the church, if it be not per accidens. This all actions are to level at; it is th at which in all things should be designed as the ultimate end. Whether therefore ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.
Thou seest then that thou, O my soul, must follow Christ in this, if thou wouldst be a fisher of men. Lift up thy heart to this noble end, and in all, especially in thy preaching of the gospel, keep this before thine eyes. Beware of seeking thy own glory by preaching. Look not after popular applause; if thou do, thou hast thy reward (Matt. 6:2), look for no more. […] Let his honour be before thine eyes; trample on thy own credit and reputation, and sacrifice it, if need be, to God’s honour. And to help thee to this, consider:
(1) That all thou hast is given thee of God. What hast thou that thou hast not received? What an unreasonable thing is it then not to use for his glory what he gives thee; yea, what ingratitude is it? And dost thou not hate the character of an ungrateful person?
(2) Consider that what thou hast is a talent given thee by thy great Master to improve till he comes again. If thou improve it for him, then thou shalt get thy reward. If thou wilt make thy own gain thereby, and what thou shouldst improve for him, thou improve for thyself, what canst thou look for then but that God shall take thy talent from thee, and command to cast thee as an unprofitable and unfaithful servant into utter darkness, where shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth?
God has given some great talents; if they improve them for vain-glory to themselves to gain the popular applause, or the Hosannas of the learned, and so sacrifice all to their own net; what a sad meeting will such have at the great day with Christ? What master would endure that servant, to whom he has given money wherewith to buy a suit of good clothes to his master, if he should take that money, and buy therewith a suit to himself, which his master should have had? How can it be thought that God will suffer to go unpunished such a preacher as he has given a talent of gifts to, if he shall use these merely to gain a stipend or applause to himself therewith, not respecting the glory of his Master? Woe to thee, O my soul, if thou take this path wherein destroyers of men’s souls and of their own go.
(3) Consider that the applause of the world is worth nothing. It is hard to be gotten; for readily the applause of the unlearned is given to him whom the learned despise, and the learned applaud him whom the common people care not for. And when it is got, what have you? A vain empty puff of wind. They think much of thee, thou thinkest much of thyself, and in the meantime God thinks nothing of thee. Remember, O my soul, what Christ said to the Pharisees: ‘Ye are they which justify yourselves before men, but God knoweth your hearts. For that which is highly esteemed among men, is an abomination in the sight of God (Luke 16:15). Let this scare thee from seeking thyself.
(4) Consider, that seeking thy own glory is a dreadful and abominable thing.
First, in that thou then puttest thyself in God’s room. His glory should be that which thou shouldst aim at, but then thy base self must be sacrificed too. O tremble at this, O my soul, and split not on this rock, otherwise thou shalt be dashed in pieces.
Second, in that it is the most gross dissembling with God that can be. Thou pretendest to preach Christ to a people; but seeking thy own glory, thou preachest thyself, and not him. Thou pretendest to be commending Christ and the ways of God to souls, and yet in the meantime thou commendest thyself. Will Christ sit with such a mocking of him? O my soul, beware of it; look not for it, but for his glory. Who would not take it for a base affront, to send a servant or a friend to court a woman for him, if he should court her for himself? And will not Christ be avenged on self-preaching ministers much more?
Third, in that it is base treachery and cruelty to the souls of hearers, when a man seeks to please their fancy more than to gain their souls, to get people to approve him more than to get them to approve themselves to God. This is a soul-murdering way, and it is dear-bought applause that is won by the blood of souls. O my soul, beware of this. Let them call thee what they will, but seek thou God’s glory and their good.
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It’s often the case, these days and in our circles, that we have to remind ourselves not to be the kind of brash, overzealous, bull-in-a-china-shop kind of people, who are too quick to judgment and too harsh in making people aware of their faults.
But we must also avoid swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction. We need to be admonished that as we do the hard work of Christian ministry—of shepherding God’s people (Ac 20:28; 1 Pet 5:1–2) and sharpening our brothers (cf. Prov 27:17)—that we not be so afraid to broach the difficult subjects with people that we wind up being guilty of their own blood (Ezek 3:18, 20). We want to be polite, we want to be longsuffering, we want to be understanding, we want to give the benefit of the doubt. But there are people in our congregations who know nothing of the grace of Christ. And if there are doubts in our minds about the state of their souls, we need to crucify our lust for their approbation, abandon such a “soul-murdering way,” and refuse to purchase their applause by the price of the blood of their souls.