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Bunyan Characters First Series: 24. WATCHFUL

By Alexander Whyte

      'Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel.'--The word of the Lord to Ezekiel.

      'They watch for your souls.'--The Apostle to the Hebrews.

      There were four shepherds who had the care of Immanuel's sheep on the Delectable Mountains, and their names were Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, and Sincere. Now, in that very beautiful episode of his great allegory, John Bunyan is doing his very utmost to impress upon all his ministerial readers how much there is that goes to the making of a good minister, and how much every good minister has to do. Each several minister must do all that in him lies, from the day of his ordination to the day of his death, to be all to his people that those four shepherds were to Immanuel's sheep. He is to labour, in season and out of season, to be a minister of the ripest possible knowledge, the deepest and widest possible experience, the most sleepless watchfulness, and the most absolute and scrupulous sincerity. Now, enough has perhaps been said already about a minister's knowledge and his experience; enough, certainly, and more than enough for some of us to hope half to carry out; and, therefore, I shall at once go on to take up Watchful, and to supply, so far as I am able, the plainest possible interpretation of this part of Bunyan's parable.

      1. Every true minister, then, watches, in the words of the apostle, for the souls of his people. An ordinary minister's everyday work embraces many duties and offers many opportunities, but through all his duties and through all his opportunities there runs this high and distinctive duty of watching for the souls of his people. A minister may be a great scholar, he may have taken all sacred learning for his province, he may be a profound and a scientific theologian, he may be an able church leader, he may be a universally consulted authority on ecclesiastical law, he may be a skilful and successful debater in church courts, he may even be a great pulpit orator, holding thousands entranced by his impassioned eloquence; but a true successor of the prophets of the Old Testament and of the apostles of the New Testament he is not, unless he watches for the souls of men. All these endowments, and all these occupations, right and necessary as, in their own places, they all are,--great talents, great learning, great publicity, great popularity,--all tend, unless they are taken great care of, to lead their possessors away from all time for, and from all sympathy with, the watchfulness of the New Testament minister. Watching over a flock brings to you none of the exhilaration of authority and influence, none of the intoxication of publicity and applause. Your experiences are the quite opposite of all these things when you are watching over your flock. Your work among your flock is all done in distant and lonely places, on hillsides, among woods and thickets, and in cloudy and dark days. You spend your strength among sick and dying and wandering sheep, among wolves and weasels, and what not, of that verminous kind. At the same time, all good pastors are not so obscure and forgotten as all that. Some exceptionally able and exceptionally devoted and self-forgetful men manage to combine both extremes of a minister's duties and opportunities in themselves. Our own Sir Henry Moncreiff was a pattern pastor. There was no better pastor in Edinburgh in his day than dear Sir Henry was; and yet, at the same time, everybody knows what an incomparable ecclesiastical casuist Sir Henry was. Mr. Moody, again, is a great preacher, preaching to tens of thousands of hearers at a time; but, at the same time, Mr. Moody is one of the most skilful and attentive pastors that ever took individual souls in hand and kept them over many years in mind. But these are completely exceptional men, and what I want to say to commonplace and limited and everyday men like myself is this, that watching for the souls of our people, one by one, day in and day out,--that, above everything else, that, and nothing else,--makes any man a pastor of the apostolic type. An able man may know all about the history, the habitat, the various species, the breeds, the diseases, and the prices of sheep, and yet be nothing at all of a true shepherd. And so may a minister.

      2. Pastoral visitation, combined with personal dealing, is by far the best way of watching for souls. I well remember when I first began my ministry in this congregation, how much I was impressed with what one of the ablest and best of our then ministers was reported to have testified on his deathbed. Calling back to his bedside a young minister who had come to see him, the dying man said: 'Prepare for the pulpit; above everything else you do, prepare for the pulpit. Let me again repeat it, should it at any time stand with you between visiting a deathbed and preparing for the pulpit, prepare for the pulpit.' I was immensely impressed with that dying injunction when it was repeated to me, but I have lived,--I do not say to put my preparation for the pulpit, such as it is, second to my more pastoral work in my week's thoughts, but--to put my visiting in the very front rank and beside my pulpit. 'We never were accustomed to much visiting,' said my elders to me in their solicitude for their young minister when he was first left alone with this whole charge; 'only appear in your own pulpit twice on Sabbath: keep as much at home as possible: we were never used to much visiting, and we do not look for it.' Well, that was most kindly intended; but it was much more kind than wise. For I have lived to learn that no congregation will continue to prosper, or, if other more consolidated and less exacting congregations, at any rate not this congregation, without constant pastoral attention. And remember, I do not complain of that. Far, far from that. For I am as sure as I am of anything connected with a minister's life, that a minister's own soul will prosper largely in the measure that the souls of his people prosper through his pastoral work. No preaching, even if it were as good preaching as the apostle's itself, can be left to make up for the neglect of pastoral visitation and personal intercourse. 'I taught you from house to house,' says Paul himself, when he was resigning the charge of the church of Ephesus into the hands of the elders of Ephesus. What would we ministers not give for a descriptive report of an afternoon's house-to-house visitation by the Apostle Paul! Now in a workshop, now at a sickbed, now with a Greek, now with a Jew, and, in every case, not discussing politics and cursing the weather, not living his holidays over again and hearing of all the approaching marriages, but testifying to all men in his own incomparably winning and commanding way repentance toward God and faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ. We city ministers call out and complain that we have no time to visit our people in their own houses; but that is all subterfuge. If the whole truth were told about the busiest of us, it is not so much want of time as want of intention; it is want of set and indomitable purpose to do it; it is want of method and of regularity such as all business men must have; and it is want, above all, of laying out every hour of every day under the Great Taskmaster's eye. Many country ministers again,--we, miserable men that we are, are never happy or well placed,--complain continually that their people are so few, and so scattered, and so ignorant, and so uninteresting, and so unresponsive, that it is not worth their toil to go up and down in remote places seeking after them. It takes a whole day among bad roads and wet bogs to visit a shepherd's wife and children, and two or three bothies and pauper's hovels on the way home. 'On the morrow,' so runs many an entry in Thomas Boston's Memoirs, 'I visited the sick, and spent the afternoon in visiting others, and found gross ignorance prevailing. Nothing but stupidity prevailed; till I saw that I had enough to do among my handful. I had another diet of catechising on Wednesday afternoon, and the discovery I made of the ignorance of God and of themselves made me the more satisfied with the smallness of my charge . . . Twice a year I catechised the parish, and once a year I visited their families. My method of visitation was this. I made a particular application of my doctrine in the pulpit to the family, exhorted them all to lay all these things to heart, exhorted them also to secret prayer, supposing they kept family worship, urged their relative duties upon them,' etc. etc. And then at his leaving Ettrick, he writes: 'Thus I parted with a people whose hearts were knit to me and mine to them. The last three or four years had been much blessed, and had been made very comfortable to me, not in respect of my own handful only, but others of the countryside also.' Jonathan Edwards called Thomas Boston 'that truly great divine.' I am not such a judge of divinity as Jonathan Edwards was, but I always call Boston to myself that truly great pastor. But my lazy and deceitful heart says to me: No praise to Boston, for he lived and did his work in the quiet Forest of Ettrick. True, so he did. Well, then, look at the populous and busy town of Kidderminster. And let me keep continually before my abashed conscience that hard-working corpse Richard Baxter. Absolutely on the same page on which that dying man enters diseases and medicines enough to fill a doctor's diary after a whole day in an incurable hospital, that noble soul goes on to say: 'I preached before the wars twice each Lord's Day, but after the wars but once, and once every Thursday, besides occasional sermons. Every Thursday evening my neighbours that were most desirous, and had opportunity, met at my house. Two days every week my assistant and I myself took fourteen families between us for private catechising and conference; he going through the parish, and the town coming to me. I first heard them recite the words of the Catechism, and then examined them about the sense, and lastly urged them, with all possible engaging reason and vehemency, to answerable affection and practice. If any of them were stalled through ignorance or bashfulness, I forbore to press them, but made them hearers, and turned all into instruction and exhortation. I spent about an hour with a family, and admitted no others to be present, lest bashfulness should make it burdensome, or any should talk of the weakness of others.' And then he tells how his people's necessity made him practise physic among them, till he would have twenty at his door at once. 'All these my employments were but my recreations, and, as it were, the work of my spare hours. For my writings were my chiefest daily labour. And blessed be the God of mercies that brought me from the grave and gave me, after wars and sickness, fourteen years' liberty in such sweet employment!' Let all ministers who would sit at home over a pipe and a newspaper with a quiet conscience keep Boston's Memoirs and Baxter's Reliquiae at arm's-length.

      3. Our young communicants' classes, and still more, those private interviews that precede and finish up our young communicants' classes, are by far our best opportunities as pastors. I remember Dr. Moody Stuart telling me long ago that he had found his young communicants' classes to be the most fruitful opportunities of all his ministry; as, also, next to them, times of baptism in families. And every minister who tries to be a minister at all after Dr. Moody Stuart's pattern, will tell you something of the same thing. They get at the opening history of their young people's hearts before their first communion. They make shorthand entries and secret memoranda at such a season like this: 'A. a rebuke to me. He had for long been astonished at me that I did not speak to him about his soul. B. traced his conversion to the singing of 'The sands of time are sinking' in this church last summer. C. was spoken to by a room-mate. D. was to be married, and she died. Of E. I have great hope. F., were she anywhere but at home, I would have great hopes of her,'--and so on. But, then, when a minister takes boldness to turn over the pages of his young communicants' roll for half a lifetime--ah me, ah me! What was I doing to let that so promising communicant go so far astray, and I never to go after him? And that other. And that other. And that other. Till we can read no more. O God of mercy, when Thou inquirest after blood, let me be hidden in the cleft of that Rock so deeply cleft for unwatchful ministers!

      4. And then, as Dr. Joseph Parker says, who says everything so plainly and so powerfully: 'There is pastoral preaching as well as pastoral visitation. There is pastoral preaching; rich revelation of divine truth; high, elevating treatment of the Christian mysteries; and he is the pastor to me who does not come to my house to drink and smoke and gossip and show his littleness, but who, out of a rich experience, meets me with God's word at every turn of my life, and speaks the something to me that I just at that moment want.' Let us not have less pastoral visitation in the time to come, but let us have more and more of such pastoral preaching.

      5. But, my brethren, it is time for you, as John said to the elect lady and her children, to look to yourselves. The salvation of your soul is precious, and its salvation is such a task, such a battle, such a danger, and such a risk, that it will take all that your most watchful minister can do, and all that you can do yourself, and all that God can do for you, and yet your soul will scarcely be saved after all. You do not know what salvation is nor what it costs. You will not be saved in your sleep. You will not waken up at the last day and find yourself saved by the grace of God and you not know it. You will know it to your bitter cost before your soul is saved from sin and death. You and your minister too. And therefore it is that He Who is to judge your soul at last says to you, as much as He says it to any of His ministers, Watch! What I say unto one I say unto all, Watch. Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. Look to yourself, then, sinner. In Christ's name, look to yourself and watch yourself. You have no enemy to fear but yourself. No one can hurt a hair of your head but yourself. Have you found that out? Have you found yourself out? Do you ever look in the direction of your own heart? Have you begun to watch what goes on in your own heart? What is it to you what goes on in the world around you compared with what goes on in the world within you? Look, then, to yourself. Watch, above all watching, yourself. Watch what it is that moves you to do this or that. Stop sometimes and ask yourself why you do such and such a thing. Did you ever hear of such a thing as a motive in a human heart? And did your minister, watching for your soul, ever tell you that your soul will be lost or saved, condemned or justified at the last day according to your motives? You never knew that! You were never told that by your minister! Miserable pair! What does he take up his Sabbaths with? And what leads you to waste your Sabbaths and your soul on such a stupid minister? But, shepherd or no shepherd, minister or no minister, look to yourself. Look to yourself when you lie down and when you rise up; when you go out and when you come in; when you are in the society of men and when you are alone with your own heart. Look to yourself when men praise you, and look to yourself when men blame you. Look to yourself when you sit down to eat and drink, and still more when you sit and speak about your absent brother. Look to yourself when you meet your enemy or your rival in the street, when you pass his house, or hear or read his name. Yes, you may well say so. At that rate a man's life would be all watching. So it would. And so it must. And more than that, so it is with some men not far from you who never told you how much you have made them watch. Did you never know all that till now? Were you never told that every Christian man, I do not mean every communicant, but every truly and sincerely and genuinely Christian man watches himself in that way? For as the one essential and distinguishing mark of a New Testament minister is not that he is an able man, or a studious man, or an eloquent man, but that he is a pastor and watches for souls, so it is the chiefest and the best mark, and to himself the only safe and infallible mark, that any man is a sincere and true Christian man, that he watches himself always and in all things looks first and last to himself.


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See Also:
   4. HELP
   15. CHARITY
   16. SHAME
   20. BY-ENDS
   25. SINCERE


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