[Sketch of a Sermon delivered at the Old Jewry Chapel, London, Dec. 27, 1797.]
"Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth." -- 3 John 2.
THERE are two or three characters mentioned in the New Testament of the name of Gaius. I shall not now inquire to which of them this Epistle was directed, but it is sufficiently evident that, whoever it might be, he was an eminently pious and godly man. Gaius seems, by this Epistle, to have been a man of an afflicted body, and, perhaps, in embarrassed circumstances; but however this was, his soul prospered, and it was the desire and prayer of the apostle John that he might be as prosperous in his outward as he was in his inner man.
The prayer in the text is something that strikes conviction, at least to my mind. Here is a prayer for a man that God would prosper him in his outward affairs in proportion as his soul prospered. Now if this were made the rule of all our prayers for temporal blessings, if we never were to pray for prosperity to attend ourselves beyond the degree of soul prosperity which we possessed, I am afraid that very few of us would pray for much more than we have, if any; and if we made this the rule of our prayers for one another, (and why should we not?) I am afraid that we could pray for the outward prosperity of but very few. If our soul prosperity were made the rule by which to pray or wish for worldly prosperity, which is the case here with Gaius, we should very few of us be found qualified so much as to desire it.
In discoursing on this subject we will first consider a few of the leading qualities of soul prosperity as exemplified in the beloved Gaius -- and then consider this soul prosperity as the standard by which it is safe to pray for prosperity of other kinds.
A thriving soul! This is a matter of serious import, my brethren. A plant is said to thrive and prosper when it brings forth fruit -- a field when it abounds with grain -- a human body when it is healthy, vigorous, and active. It is to the last of these that the apostle makes an allusion. When he speaks of Gaius's soul as prospering, he opposes it to his body. You, my friend, as if he had said, you have a weak and sickly body, but you have a prosperous soul, and I pray that your bodily health and your circumstances may be as thriving and as prosperous as your soul is. This was not the language of compliment; neither need I say that it was not the practice of the apostle to deal in unmeaning compliments. The tree was known by its fruits, and Gaius was known by his conduct to have a prosperous soul.
I. WHAT THEN ARE THOSE MARKS OF A PROSPEROUS SOUL WHICH IT BEHOVES US TO ASPIRE AFTER? I would mention four or five, each of which will be found to be exemplified in the beloved Gaius.
1. A prosperous soul is one in whom the truth dwells, and dwells richly. You must have remarked, in reading the first eight verses, how much the apostle Paul makes of truth. He describes Gaius as having the truth dwelling in him, as walking in the truth, as beloved for the truthís sake, and as being a fellow helper of the truth. All these expressions are found in those verses. It seems then to enter into the very essence of a prosperous soul, that the truth dwelt in him, and that it dwelt richly in him. Truly, my brethren, gospel truth is that to the soul which wholesome food is to the body, and wholesome words and sound doctrine have an effect on the soul similar to that which wholesome food has on the body; they render it strong, vigorous, and active. Thus the great principles of evangelical truth being imbibed by Gaius, afforded a constant spring of activity. He was a lively, active, generous man. It is of great importance what principles we acquire. Principles will be active -- will be influential. Indeed this is the very reason why Divine truths are called principles. We read of the first principles of the doctrines of Christ, and principles you know signify the first moving causes which he at the foundation and source of action. Merely speculative notions or speculative ideas, that have no influence on a manís heart, are not principles; they may be called more properly opinions: but if the truths of God are imbibed as a thirsty man would drink in water from a fountain, they become in him a well of living water springing up in the disposition to do good, and terminating in everlasting glory. Principles, whether good or evil, will be influential if they are thoroughly imbibed. Hence we read of false doctrines having a fatal influence. The Scripture speaks of God giving men up to strong delusion, or to the energy or efficacy of deception or error.
All principles, if they deserve the name of principles, lie at the bottom and source of affections and actions. If they be genuine, evangelical, and true, they are the spring of a holy life, and lie at the bottom of evangelical obedience; but if they be false principles, they lie at the bottom of a course of alienation and apostacy from God. Indeed, as right principles stimulate to right actions, so where a person imbibes wrong principles, or is indifferent to right, it enervates right actions: even good men, who have swerved in a greater or less degree from the truth, have sunk into a spirit of indifference with regard to evangelical principles -- it has had the effect of stagnating their souls in Divine actions.
2. The prosperous soul is a soul where the doctrinal and the practical parts of religion bear lovely proportion and are united. We may often observe with regard to the healthiness or unhealthiness of the body two opposite extremes. We see some who are epicures, and they are of no use in society. They live to themselves, and glut themselves in sordid and sensual enjoyments. We see others pining away who are mere slaves. There is a great resemblance in these two characters to different species of professors. There is a kind of religious epicures -- men, I mean, who are all clamorous for doctrinal truth, but have no regard to the practical part of godliness; whose whole object is to enjoy the comforts of religion, to be soothed with its promises, to be flattered with its privileges, to be comforted in the prospect of something great and glorious hereafter. Their whole attention, their whole object, is to grasp as much of this as possible, and they are regardless of every thing of a practical nature. On the other hand, there are some who, at the expense of truth, are constantly crying up morality and practical religion. My brethren, these things ought not to be divided; doctrinal and practical religion should be united. To attempt to cultivate the former at the expense of the latter is to constitute an epicurism -- to reverse it is to have a body of slaves whipped to duty, without a
motive. It is the great concern of the Scriptures to furnish men with the most constraining and evangelical principles, that should render practical godliness pleasurable. The true Christian is like the husbandman, who labours that he may enjoy his food with an appetite, that he may be strengthened to future labour, and thus, with a happy mixture of enjoyments and labour, becomes a happy man in himself and a blessing to those about him.
3. The prosperous soul is a soul in which is united a happy mixture of the retired and the active -- a happy attention to the duties of retirement mingled with an equal attention to the duties of active life. Great have been the extremes of men in these cases; some have pleaded for a religion that should make men hermits, and shut them up in a cell secluded from the society of man. As to others again, their religion is always in public; they scarcely ever retire to converse with their own souls. No man can enjoy pleasure in his soul without uniting these. It is not to be always plunged in an active course of life, nor to be shut up always in the closet. Christians must be the salt of the earth, and in order to this they must be spread in every circle of society. They must mingle amongst mankind. It is not improper to mingle in every kind of society where duty calls. But they must retire alone frequently, or they will not carry a savour of God and religion with them. They must be spread like salt, but it will be salt without the savour if they do not retire. It is by retiring to our closets, reading the word of God in private, thinking and praying over it; by conversing with our own souls in secret, by dwelling on divine things, by giving such a tone to the soul that it falls naturally and easily into divine things; it is in these holy exercises that we may expect to meet a Divine blessing, and to acquire such a savour of spirit, that when we go out into the world we shall carry the savour of Christ with us. This is a prosperous and thriving state of soul.
4. The prosperous soul may be known by this, that it is accompanied by a good degree of public spirit, and largeness of heart. A man that is concerned principally about himself can never have a prosperous soul. Such was not Gaius Ė he was a fellow labourer and helper of the truth. He was habitually concerned in promoting the cause of God and religion in the world by every means in his power. A man that takes up six days out of seven, and thinks himself warranted to pursue nothing else but the acquiring of a fortune, and thinks it quite sufficient if he serves God one day out of the week, cannot be a Christian at all. He has not the first principles of religion in him. I grant that one day in seven ought to be devoted especially to the service of God, but the true Christianís aim is to serve God in the whole course of his life; whatever he may do, whether he eat or drink, buy or sell, -- to do all to the glory of God. What a contrast to him is the man whose sole or main object is to get a fortune, to accumulate a few thousand pounds, and who says to himself, After a few more prosperous years in trade, I hope to take a country seat and enjoy myself; to attain this object I must save all I can, now and then giving a guinea to some pious object! Such a man may pass through life as a respectable member of society, but a Christian he cannot be. He whose main object is to amass a fortune -- he whose main object is to live to himself -- lives not to Christ. Christianity cultivates a public spirit, a largeness of heart -- not that narrowness of mind by which we consecrate all that we have and are to ourselves.
I may mention, besides this, a sort of religious narrowness of mind in that person whose chief concern it is to get comfort to his own mind -- whose chief and almost sole concern it is that be may obtain a good ground to hope for everlasting life in the world to come Ė who cares little or nothing about the interest of Christ on the earth, the cause of God, the cause of
righteousness, truth, and humanity -- who does not grasp within the circle of his prayers his fellow men, his fellow Christians -- he whose religion centres principally in himself. Alas! it is doubtful whether that man can be a Christian: at any rate he cannot have a prosperous soul; and I have generally remarked that those religious people who are continually poring over their own case, who are only anxious to discover evidences of their Christianity, who are perpetually poring over past experience to spell out whether they were truly converted or not, who hear sermons and read the Scriptures only to find out whether they can come in for any thing to comfort them -- I say I have found that those who spend their whole time in this are, generally, disappointed. You, selfish soul, that care little for the souls of others, take a course directly opposed to your own interest. Seek to bring peace to the souls of others; that will be the way to find comfort for yourself. Seek the good of the poor and the afflicted, and in seeking that you will find your own. By seeking the public good we should find a private good. I never knew a man of a large heart -- whose soul grasped the well-being of others, who laid out his time and property for the good of others -- greatly troubled about his own interest in Christ. It is in seeking the good of Godís cause in the world, and promoting the good of our fellow creatures, that God will give us the earnest of eternal life. A public spirit is the spirit of the gospel, and largeness of heart is the mark of a prosperous soul.
5. One remark more, and I have done on this part of the subject: The prosperous soul is dispossessed of an ambitious spirit -- it is meek and lowly. If a man were ever so public -- spirited and active, but withal ambitious, vain-glorious, and noisy, I should say of that man, whether he be a Christian at all is at least doubtful, but he cannot be a thriving one, he cannot be possessed of a healthful soul. A haughty, self-sufficient, self-important, clamorous, ostentatious professor is a very doubtful character. High minds, like high hills, are blasted and barren. It is the lowly mind which, like a well-watered valley, is productive God's promises are made to such. It is asserted that the Lord is nigh to them that are of a lowly spirit and a contrite heart; and we are told elsewhere that God "giveth grace to the humble, but the proud he knoweth afar off." In proportion, therefore, as we entertain such a spirit, we shall be far from God, and God from us, and we shall be possessed of a soul far from prosperous.
II. Having enumerated a few marks of soul prosperity, I proceed to observe THE STANDARD WHICH PROSPERITY OF SOUL AFFORDS TO OUR SAFETY IN PROSPERITY OF OTHER KINDS. John prays for prosperity for Gaius; and wherefore? Because his soul prospers. Prosperity of soul is that which renders prosperity of body an object of desire, for two reasons: -- One is, that prosperity of soul makes prosperity of other kinds safe -- we can bear it, which we cannot without. There are few men capable of bearing outward prosperity, but almost every man is vain enough to think that he could. There are very few of us that are not so blinded as to think that we could bear a little more than we have. We flatter ourselves that if God would but give us plenty, we should do good with it. One says, If I had but such a one's riches, what good should I do? Alas! this evinces an ignorance of your own hearts. Is your soul so well that you are in no danger of being selfish? You cannot but have remarked that prosperity in worldly circumstances elates men. You may have seen some persons who were very sober, modest, useful, generous people, to all appearance, when in a mediocrity of circumstances; but when providence has smiled upon them, and improved their circumstances, their hearts have been lifted up in proportion. You must have observed that worldly pleasure and worldly prosperity have had a
similar effect on a man: each has detached the heart from God. It is an old saying, that an additional weight put into a bag draws the strings the closer; but you think there is no danger of your being so affected, and therefore you wish, above all things, that your circumstances may improve. And is your soul so prosperous that there is no danger of your becoming forgetful of the poor and needy? Alas! there is nothing but prosperity of soul will enable us to bear worldly prosperity. Blessed be God, we have seen a few to whom it has presented no temptation. I have heard of a good man whose soul prospered alike in temporal prosperity and adversity. He had an intimate friend who used to make free with him, and, observing his prosperity, he one day thus addressed him: "Do not you find the smiles of this world, my friend, to be a snare unto you?" He paused, and said, "I am not conscious that I do; for though I enjoy much of this world, yet I think I enjoy God in all things." By and by providence turned another way; he lost all his property; he sunk into indigence; he had scarcely a competency to support him. His old friend thus addressed him, "Well, my friend, how is it with you now? do not you find your heart dejected in these circumstances?" "I am not conscious," said he, "that I do; as before I enjoyed God in all things, now I enjoy all things in God. I find God to supply all my wants, and a little, with his blessing, is enough." This, my friends, was a prosperous soul. A soul of this description might well bear prosperity, and his friend might well follow the example of John with respect to Gaius, and say, "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth."
But the second reason which renders prosperity of soul a proper standard for that of our bodies and circumstances is, that thus the general good is promoted. If we retain prosperity of soul under temporal prosperity, then for God to bless us is to bless all around us. A man with a truly prosperous soul will not eat his morsel alone -- will not keep it to himself; the poor, the fatherless, the widow, will participate the kindness of God to him; so that for Providence to bless him is to bless the neighbourhood, and to bestow a public blessing. Wherever you see a man of that character the whole neighbourhood will concur with the apostle, and say, "May the Lord prosper thee," or with Boaz's reapers, "The Lord bless thee," and I dare say Boaz himself was such a character, or they would not have said, "The Lord bless thee." -- "The Lord be with you," said the master. -- "The Lord bless thee," said the servants, for we know that in this blessing we all shall be blessed; the town will be blessed, the whole neighbourhood will be blessed, the fatherless will be blessed, the widow will be blessed; every one shall share, and therefore we wish that thou mayst prosper, for thy soul prospereth.
These few remarks I submit to your serious attention. I leave them with you, my brethren: they may lead you to consider whether there be not many who have prosperous circumstances, but not prosperous souls; on whom the world smiles and loads them with its benefits, but from whom scarcely any one receives good; whether there be not many such in all places, even in this city, this opulent city! I grant that I think there is a greater proportion of generous characters in this city than perhaps in any other in the world: this I am inclined, without flattery, to say. But I am sure that there are great numbers who live wholly to themselves; and there are some who profess a regard to religion, and lay their account for eternal life, but who never live to others. Let such consider whether their Christianity be not exceedingly doubtful; or, if it must be admitted that they have the root of the matter in them, still is it not clear that they have unprosperous souls? I bless God, however, that there are many who have prosperous souls, and that over
and above their circumstances. Generosity is not confined to the rich, my brethren: a poor man may feel as much as another; and he who does but little by his substance may do it in other ways. If we are poor in circumstances, yet, if our hearts be tender, we may relieve the poor by our visits, our conversations, and our prayers. I grant that this would not be sufficient without money. He who has money, and who would wish to save his money and give his prayers, will not be received -- his very prayers will be an offence; but for the man who has no money, but who has this compassionate and kind disposition, who will not unite with the apostle in interceding, "I pray above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, as thy soul prospereth!"
Such, my brethren, is my wish and prayer for you; such is my wish particularly for those institutions in this city which are now, I bless God, pretty numerous, for the visiting and relieving the afflicted poor.* I have said, and still say, that of all the benevolent institutions which adorn this metropolis, I know of none which excel in their principle and their effects institutions of this kind, especially in such times as these, when the poor are suffering privations and afflictions perhaps unknown but to those who visit them and search out afflicted cases. True charity does not consist in merely giving a penny to a beggar to get rid of his solicitations, or in giving a guinea to a public charity. Many of these things may be done by persons who have very little genuine benevolence about them; but that is genuine charity which leads us to search out the abodes of the wretched, and to make ourselves acquainted with their wretchedness in order to relieve them. I do not say that every one can give his time to these engagements, but he may assist those whose professed object it is to do so. To this I may add, that the relieving of men's bodies to get access to their minds is a primitive and an excellent practice. The Son of God himself -- and who can doubt that he had access wherever he pleased? -- has set us the example; he went among the poor, the blind, the lame, the diseased. He mingled himself with them, and healed their bodies, that he might find access to their souls. The Almighty God, in human nature, would not overturn the laws of humanity; his desire was to establish and sanctify them. Let us operate by a system he himself has established, and do good to the bodies of men with a view to obtain access to their minds, thus relieving the temporal wants of the afflicted poor, and administering the balm of consolation unto the wounded spirit.
* This sermon, it appears, was preached on behalf of "a society to relieve the sick and distressed." ===============
[From Joseph Belcher, The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, Volume I, 1845; rpt. 1988, pp. 404-409. Document provided by David Oldfield, Post Falls, ID. Formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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