A Letter To The Assemblies In Stamford and Oakham – April 2nd, 1864
Dear Friends and Brethren,
As it has pleased the Lord again to lay upon me His afflicting hand, and thus to prevent my coming among you in the ministry of the Word, I have felt disposed to send you a few lines by letter, to show you that I still bear you in affectionate remembrance.
I need hardly tell you what a great trial it is to me to be thus afflicted, not only on account of the personal suffering of body and mind which illness almost always brings with it, but because it lays me aside from the work of the ministry; for with all its attendant trials and exercises, and with all my shortcomings and imperfections in it, I have often found it good to be engaged in holding forth the Word of life among you, and have been myself fed sometimes with the same precious truths of the everlasting Gospel which I have laid before you. But if it be a trial to me to be thus laid aside, it is no doubt a trial also to those of you who have received at any time any profit from my labours, now to be deprived of them. In this sense therefore, we may be said to bear one another’s burdens; and so far as we do so in a spirit of sympathy and love, with submission to the will of God, we fulfill the law of Christ.
But as nothing can come upon us in providence or in grace but by the Lord’s will, and as we are assured that all things work together for good to those who love God, and are the called according to His purpose, among whom we have a humble hope that we are, there is doubtless some wise and gracious purpose to be accomplished by this painful dispensation. I have, as you well know, long held and preached that it is through much tribulation we must enter into the kingdom of God; that the Lord has chosen His Zion in the furnace of affliction; that it is the trial of our faith, and therefore not an untried but a tried faith, which will be found unto praise, and honour, and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ; and that no chastening for the present seems to be joyous but grievous, yet that afterwards it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto those who are exercised thereby.
Now I have to learn for myself, experimentally and feelingly, the reality and power of these truths, as well as ministerially set them before you. Indeed those of us who know anything aright, are well assured in our own minds that none can speak experimentally and profitably of affliction, and the fruits and benefits of it, but those who pass through it and realize it.
But besides you, my immediate hearers, I have a large sphere of readers, to whom I minister by my pen. There seems therefore a double necessity that I should sometimes, if not often, be put into the furnace, that I may be able to speak a word in season to those who are weary. Marvel not then, nor be cast down, my dear friends and brethren, that your minister is now in the furnace of affliction; but rather entreat of the Lord that it may be blessed and sanctified to his soul’s good, so that should it please God to bring him out of it, he may come forth as gold. Peter speaks of being in heaviness for a season, if need be, through manifold temptations (1 Peter 1:5); and James bids us “count it all joy when you fall into diverse temptations” (James 1:2). The words “manifold” and “diverse”, though differently translated, are the same in the original; and the word “temptations”, as I have often explained to you, includes trials as well as temptations in the usual sense of the term. We may expect therefore that our trials and temptations should not only widely differ in kind, but be very numerous in quantity.
Now as to temptations in the usual sense of the term, I think I have had a good share, for I believe there are few, whether external, internal, or infernal, of which I have not had some taste, and of some more than a taste. But I cannot say the same of trials, for some severe trials have not fallen to my lot. Though I have had losses, and some severe ones, I cannot say I have had experience of painful business trials. Though when I left the Church of England, I gave up all my present and future prospects, and sacrificed an independent income, yet through the kind providence of God, I have been spared the pressure of poverty and straitened circumstances. I have not suffered the loss of wife or children, and have been spared those severe family trials which so deeply wound many of the Lord’s people. But of one trial, and that no small one, I have had much experience—a weak and afflicted tabernacle. Though my life has been wonderfully prolonged, yet I have not really known what it is to enjoy sound health for more than thirty-three years, and for the last seventeen have been liable to continual attacks of illness, such as I am now suffering under. Thus I have had much experience of the furnace in one shape, if not in some of those which have fallen to your lot. But this I can truly say, that almost all I have learned of true religion and vital godliness, has been in the furnace, and that though ill-health has been the heaviest natural trial I have ever experienced, yet I trust it has been made a blessing to my soul.
But I will now tell you, my dear friends and brethren, a little of what I have felt under my present affliction, for you will feel desirous to learn whether I have gained any profit by trading. I cannot speak of any special blessing, and yet I trust I have thus far found the affliction profitable.
1. I have been favoured at times with much of a spirit of prayer and supplication. This I count no small favour, as it has kept my soul alive and lively, and preserved it from that wretched coldness, barrenness, and death into which we so often sink. We must feel the weight and power of eternal realities, and highly prize spiritual blessings, before we can sigh and cry to the Lord to bestow them upon us. If I did not covet the Lord’s presence, and the manifestations of His love and blood, I would not cry to Him as I do for the revelation of them to my soul.
2. I have seen and felt the exceeding evil of sin, and of my own sins in particular, and been much in confession of them, and especially of those sins which have most pressed upon my conscience.
3. I have seen and felt much of the blessedness of true humility of mind, of brokenness of heart, and contrition of spirit, and what a choice favour the fear of God is, as a fountain of life to depart from the snares of death. You all know how, for many years, I have stood forth as a preacher and as a writer, and yet I feel as helpless and as destitute as the weakest child of grace, and a much greater sinner, as having sinned against more light and knowledge than he.
4. I have felt my heart much drawn to the poor afflicted children of God, and especially to those who manifest much of the mind and image of Christ. I never, during the whole course of my spiritual life, felt the least union with the vain-confident doctrinal professors of the day, but have always cleaved in heart and spirit to the living family of God. But I have never felt more drawn than now to those of the people of God, who live and walk in the fear of the Lord, who are spiritually minded, who manifest the teaching of the blessed Spirit, and whose souls are kept alive by His continual operations and influences. I lament to see any who profess to fear the Lord carnal, and worldly, and dead, and do not covet their company nor envy their state.
5. I have been reading during my illness Mr. Bourne’s Letters, Mr. Vinall’s Sermons, and Mr. Chamberlain’s Letters and Sermons, and am glad to find myself joined with these men of God in the same mind and in the same judgment. I have found their writings profitable, sometimes to encourage and sometimes to try my mind; but as in the main I feel a sweet union of spirit with them, I trust it is an evidence I have been and am taught by the same Spirit.
One of the most trying circumstances of my illness is that any exertion of the mind increases the illness and retards the recovery. I need perfect rest of mind and cessation from all mental labour; and yet I am so circumstanced that, with the exception of preaching, I am obliged to work almost as hard as if I were in perfect health. I have however this consolation, that I am working for the good of others, and that I must work while it is day, for soon the night will come when no man can work.
I have spoken thus far and thus freely of some of my own trials, and the effects of them; and now I wish to add a few words upon my present affliction in its peculiar bearing upon yourselves as a church and congregation. Everything connected with vital godliness has to be tried. My ministry among you; the cause of God and truth as ours professes to be; the faith and patience, hope and love, of those who fear God in the church and congregation; the mutual union of minister and people, and of the people with each other, have all to be tried as with fire. And it seems that the Lord is now trying us in all these points. We have lost by death during the past year some of our oldest, most established, and valued members, and by their removal the church has become proportionately weakened. My own ill-health, for the last few years, has left you for weeks sometimes without the preached Word. And as we know that a congregation is first brought together, and then kept together, chiefly by the ministry of the Word, this circumstance has a great tendency to thin and weaken our assembly. Many will come to hear preaching who have no real knowledge of, or love for, what the minister preaches; such hearers therefore naturally fly off when there is no minister in the pulpit. But these very things which naturally weaken a people as a people, try also the reality and vitality of the work of God among them. The ministry of the Gospel, when owned of God, is no doubt a great blessing to a people, and the deprivation of it will be deeply felt by those who derive profit from it. But this very deprivation may have its attendant benefit. You may see more clearly, and feel more deeply thereby, that you must get your blessings, your encouragements, your tokens for good, your helps by the way, your sips and tastes of the Lord’s goodness and mercy, more directly and immediately from Himself. And this will help to put the ministry in its right place—to be highly prized as an ordinance of God, and yet not to be made almost a substitute for those other means of grace, such as prayer and supplication, reading the Word, private meditation, and meeting together among yourselves, all which the Lord can bless as much, if not more, than the ministry itself.
If my ministry has been owned of God to your souls, it will stand. The blessings which you have received under it, whether many or few, little or much, will abide and be rather strengthened than diminished by my present suspension from my labours. If all I have preached in your ears for more than twenty-five years is merely in the letter, and you have never received the least blessing nor felt the least power from my ministry, all you have heard will fall away from your mind and memory, like last autumn’s leaves from the trees. Now then is the time to prove, by the effects left on your spirit, whether my word has been to you only in the letter, or has been attended with some power to your soul.
Many people’s religion goes no deeper and reaches no further than hearing and approving of what they hear. They may at the time seem interested, or instructed, or even moved, with what they hear; but nothing is carried home with them to sink deep into their heart and to work with a divine power in their conscience. These are well described by the Lord as coming to hear His Word as His people come, and sitting before the prophet as His people sit, and hearing His words but not doing them. So to some, if not many of you, I may have been as one that has a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument; and with your mouth you may have shown much love, but your heart has gone after your covetousness (Ezek. 33:30-32).
Now when the voice is silent and the sound of the instrument not heard, such people’s religion seems to die away. The Lord then may be purposely trying your religion by suspending the ministry for a time, to show the difference between those who have a living spring in their souls, independent of and distinct from the preaching, and those whose religion lies almost wholly in the use of the outward means.
We often speak of our weakness. It is a part of our creed and of our experience, that the strength of Christ is made perfect in weakness. But what a very painful and trying lesson this is to learn, whether individually as Christians or collectively as a Christian church! Now that is just the very lesson which you are learning now, and which I believe you will have to learn more and more. It is not often that living churches are what is called flourishing churches—that is, in the usual acceptance of the word. Large congregations, an abundance of respectable hearers, a continual accession of members to the church, flourishing circumstances, and a great flow of such prosperity as the worldly eye can measure, is not the appointed lot of the true churches of Christ. All this we may seem to see and believe, but it is only trying circumstances that can really convince us that when we are seemingly strong then we are weak, but that when we are weak then we are strong.
But I will not weary you longer. I shall therefore only add that, as the Lord through undeserved mercy is gradually restoring my health and strength, I trust that after a little time I may be given to your prayers. Meanwhile I commend you to God and to the Word of His grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
Brethren, pray for us,
Your affectionate Friend and Servant in the Lord,
J. C. P.