It is easier to speak or write about revival than to strive for it. There is so much garbage to be swept out, so many self bred hindrances to be dealt with, so many old habits to be overcome, so much laziness and easy mindedness to be fought with, so much ministerial habit to be broken through, and so much crucifixion, both of self and of the world, to be experienced.
As Christ said of the unclean spirit which the disciples could not cast out, so we may say of these, "This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting."
A minister in the seventeenth century thought this very thing, for after grieving over the sins of both his life and his ministry, he resolved renew them in this manner:
1. To imitate Christ and his apostles, and to get good done, I determine to rise at a decent hour every morning.
2. As soon as I am up, I resolve to ready some work to be done and how and when to do it, then to engage my heart to it and at evening to call myself to account and to deplore my failings.
3. I will spend a sufficient period of time every day in prayer, reading, meditating and spiritual exercises in the morning, mid-day, evening and before I go to bed.
4. Once a month, either the end or middle of it, I will keep a day of humiliation for the public condition, for the Lord's people and their sad condition, and for raising up the work and people of God.
5. Besides this, I will spend one day every six months for my own personal condition, in fighting against spiritual evils and to get my heart more holy or to get some special exercise accomplished.
6. Once every week, I will spend four hours over and above my daily time in private, for some special causes relating either to myself or others.
7. I will spend time on Saturday, towards night, for preparation for the Lord's Day.
8. I will spend six or seven days together, once a year, when most convenient, wholly and only on spiritual matters.
This was the way he set about personal and ministerial revival. Let us take an example from him. If he needed it much, we need it more.
In the fifth and sixth centuries, Gildas and Salvian arose to alarm and arouse a careless church and a stuffy ministry. In the sixteenth century, that task fell to the Reformers.
In the seventeenth century, Richard Baxter, among others, took a major part in stimulating the godliness and idle energies of his fellow ministers. In the eighteenth century, God raised up some choice and noble men to awaken the church and lead the way to higher and bolder career of ministerial duty.
The present century stands no less in need of some stimulating influence. We have experienced many symptoms of life, but still the populace is not revived. We require a new Baxter to awaken us by his voice and his example. It is depressing to see the amount of ministerial apathy and incompetence that still over spreads our land. How long, 0 Lord, how long!
The injecting of new life into the ministry ought to be the object of more direct and special effort, as well as of more united and fervent prayer. The prayers of Christians ought to be more largely directed to the students, the preachers, the ministers of the Christian church.
It is a living ministry that our country needs; and without such a ministry it can no longer expect to escape the judgments of God. We need men that will spend and be spent — that will labor and pray — that will watch and weep for souls.
"When do you intend to stop?" was the question once put by a friend to Rowland Hill.
"Not till we have carried all before us," was the prompt reply.
Such is our answer too. The fields are vast, the grain whitens, the harvest waves, and through grace we shall go forth with our sickles, never to rest till we shall lie down where the Lamb Himself shall lead us, by the living fountains of waters, where God shall wipe off the sweat of toil from our weary foreheads and dry up all the tears of earth from our weeping eyes.
Some of us are young and fresh, and many days may yet be, in the providence of God, before us. These must be days of strenuous, ceaseless, persevering and, if God bless us, successful toil. We shall labor till we are worn out and laid to rest.
Vincent, the non-conformist minister, in his small volume on the great plague and fire of London, entitled God's Terrible Voice in the City, gives a description of the manner in which the faithful ministers who remained among the danger, carried out their solemn duties to the dying inhabitants and the manner in which the terror-stricken multitudes hung upon their words with breathless eagerness to drink in salvation before the dreaded epidemic had swept them away to the tomb.
Churches were flung open, but the pulpits were silent, because there was none to occupy them. The hirelings had fled.
Then did God's faithful band of persecuted ones go forth from their hiding places to fill the forsaken pulpits. Then they stood up in the midst of the dying and the dead, to proclaim eternal life to men who were expecting death before tomorrow. They preached in season and out of season. Weekday and Sunday was the same to them.
The hour might be scheduled or unscheduled, it didn't matter. They did not stand upon nice points of church regularity or irregularity. They lifted up their voices like trumpets and did not hold back. Every sermon might be their last. Graves were lying open around them. Life seemed now not mere a hand's breadth, but a hair's breadth. Death was nearer now than ever.
Eternity stood out in all its vast reality. Souls were felt to be precious. Opportunities were no longer to be trifled away, since every hour possessed a value beyond the wealth of kingdoms. The world was now a passing, vanishing shadow, a man's days on earth had been cut down from seventy years to the twinkling of an eye!
Oh, how they preached! No polished periods, no learned arguments, no labored paragraphs chilled their appeals or rendered their discourses unintelligible. No fear of man, no love of popular applause, no over scrupulous dread of strong expressions, no fear of excitement or enthusiasm prevented them from pouring out the whole zeal of their hearts that yearned with indescribable tenderness over dying souls.
"Old time," says Vincent, "seemed to stand at the head of the pulpit with his great scythe, saying with a hoarse voice, 'Work while it is called today, at night I will mow you down.' Grim death seemed to stand at the side of the pulpit, with its sharp arrow, saying, 'You shoot God's arrows and I will shoot mine.' The grave seemed to lie open at the foot of the pulpit, with dust in her bosom, saying —
'Make louder your cry, to God, to men, and now fulfill your trust; Here you must lie — mouth stopped, breath gone, and silent in the dust.'
"Ministers now had awakening calls to seriousness and devotion in their ministerial work, to preach on the side and brink of the pit into which thousands were tumbling. There was such a vast thronging of people in the churches where these ministers were to be found that they could not many times come near the pulpit doors for the crowds, but were forced to climb over the pews to them. Such eager looks, such open ears, such greedy attention, as if every word would be eaten which dropped from the mouths of the ministers."
Thus did they preach and thus did they hear in those days of terror and death. Men were earnest then, both in speaking and hearing. There was no coldness, no indifference, no studied oratory. Truly they preached as dying men to dying men.
But the question is, Should it ever be otherwise? Should there ever be less fervor in preaching or less eagerness in hearing than there was then? True, life was a little shorter then, but that was all. Death and its issues are still the same. Eternity is still the same. The soul is still the same. Only one small element was thrown in then which does not always exist to such an extent. But that was all the difference.
Why then should our preaching be less fervent, our appeals less tender, our determination less urgent? We are a few steps further from the shore of eternity; that is all. Its everlasting issues are still as momentous, as unchangeable. Surely it is our unbelief that makes the difference.
It is unbelief that makes ministers so cold in their preaching, so slothful in visiting, and so remiss in all their sacred duties. It is unbelief that chills the life and straitens the heart. It is unbelief that ministers handle eternal realities with such irreverence. It is unbelief that makes them step so carelessly into "that awful place, the pulpit," to deal with immortal beings about heaven and hell.
Listen to one of Richard Baxter's appeals:
"I have been ready to wonder, when I have heard such weighty things delivered, how people can keep from crying out in the congregation. I wonder more how they can rest until they have gone to their ministers and learned what they should do. Oh, that heaven and hell should work no more upon men! Oh, that everlastingness should work no more!
"Oh, how can you rest when you are alone to think what is to be everlastingly in joy or torment! I am amazed that such thoughts do not keep you awake, that they do not come into your mind when you are on the job! I wonder how you can almost do anything else, how you can have any quietness in your minds, how you can eat of drink or rest until you have some ground of everlasting comforts!
"Is it a man or a corpse that is not affected by matters of this importance, that can be more ready to sleep than to tremble when he hears that he must stand at the judgment seat of God? Is that a man or a clod of clay that can rise or lie down without being deeply affected with his everlasting condition, or that can follow his worldly business but make nothing of the great business of salvation or damnation; and that, when they know it is hard at hand?
"Truly, sirs, when I think of the seriousness of this matter, I wonder at the very best of God's saints upon earth, that they are no better, and do no more in so serious a case. I wonder at those whom the world accounts more holy than necessary, and scorns for making too much bother, that they can put off Christ and their souls with so little.
"I am amazed that they do not pour out their souls in every prayer, that they are not more taken up with God, and that their thoughts are not more serious in preparation of their accounting. I am amazed that they are not a hundred times more strict in their lives and more laborious and unwearied in striving for the crown than they are."
"And for myself, as I am ashamed of my dull and careless heart and of my slow and unprofitable course of life? The Lord knows that I am ashamed of every sermon I preach. When I think of what I have been thinking of, and who sent me, and that man's salvation or damnation is so much concerned in it, I am ready to tremble that God should judge me as neglectful of His truths and the souls of men, and that in the best sermon I should be guilty of their blood. I don't think we should speak a word to men in matters of such significance without tears, or the greatest earnestness that possibly we can. If we were not so guilty of the sin which we reprove, it would be so."
We are not serious either in preaching or in hearing. If we were, could we be so cold, so prayer less, so inconsistent, so lazy, so worldly, so unlike men whose business is all about eternity? We must be more in earnest if we are to win souls. We must be more in earnest if we would walk in the footsteps of our beloved Lord, or if we would fulfill the vows that are upon us.
We must be more in earnest if we would be better than hypocrites. We must be more in earnest if we would finish our course with joy, and obtain the crown at the Master's coming. We must work while it is day; the night cometh when no man can work.