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A Neglected Duty

HE who wrote this paper prays God to give it his blessing, and begs the reader to afford it a thoughtful perusal.

Mr. Rothwell, surnamed by the godly of his day the Rough Hewer, from the solemn and powerful manner in which he opened up the corruptions of the human heart, and delivered the judgments of God against all iniquity, was, in his early days, a clergyman without any true sense of religion: he was brought to know the power of divine things through an admonition given to him by a godly Puritan. Clarke, in his “Lives,” says, “He was playing at bowls amongst some Papists and vain gentlemen, upon a Saturday, somewhere about Rochdale in Lancashire. There came into the green to him one Mr. Midgley, a grave and godly minister of Rochdale, whose praise is great in the gospel, though far inferior to Rothwell in points and learning. He took him aside, and fell into a large commendation of him; at length told him what a pity it was that such a man as he should be companion to Papists, and that upon a Saturday, when he should be preparing for the Sabbath. Mr. Rothwell slighted his words, and checked him for his meddling. The good old man left him, went home, and prayed privately for him. Mr. Rothwell, when he was retired from that company could not rest, Mr. Midgley’s words stuck so deep in his thoughts. The next day he went to Rochdale Church to hear Mr. Midgley, where it pleased God so to bless the Word that he was, by that sermon, brought home to Christ.” The earnest man who was sent by his Master upon this errand of rebuke, must have felt that he was well rewarded for his holy courage in the after usefulness of Mr. Rothwell; but even had the message failed to bless the person to whom it was delivered, it would not have lacked a recompense from the Great Taskmaster. We cannot command the winds, but he who spreads the sails has the consolation that he has done his duty. Duties are ours: events are God’s. Timely, bold, kind, and wisely-directed rebuke is often used by the God of all grace as the means of awakening souls from spiritual death; this is an all-sufficient reason for our being ready to deliver it when occasion demands it. Can souls be won to God by any means? then we will use that means, and look to God the Holy Ghost to bless our efforts. It is frequently a hard and self-denying duty to administer admonition personally either to saints or sinners; but, if we love the souls of men, and would be clear of our brother’s blood, we must school ourselves to it, and make as much a conscience of it as of our prayers. A little drummer-boy writing home from the Crimea, after giving his mother a description of the hardships of the terrible winter, and the hunger and nakedness which the army endured, concluded his letter thus: “But, mother, it is our duty, and for our duty we will die.” The same sentiment should reign in every Christian breast, and silence for ever all excuses which our flesh suggests for neglected service.

If men were not corrupt in heart, they would turn from sin of themselves; like life-boats, if for a time tossed out of position, they would right themselves: but, alas! their nature is so depraved that one sin is a prelude to another, and he who has begun to descend the ladder of iniquity is impelled to continue his downward career. Men’s consciences should be sufficient monitors; but, like the dogs upon the Capitol of Rome, the watchers sleep, and the foes advance. Hence it becomes essential that, by agency from without, warning should be given. Brands must be plucked from the burning, for of themselves they will never leave the fire. Sin makes men such sots—such madmen—that they are quite beside themselves, and sharp methods must be used to restrain them from self-destruction. An ox or an ass in a pit, will struggle to get out; but men are such silly creatures that they will not move hand or foot to escape, but rather delight in their own ruin; we must, therefore, as Jude puts it, “pull them out.”

The Word of God is very plain as to the duty of rebuking sin, although, from the neglect into which the work has fallen, one might have imagined that it was left optional, or allowed, rather than commanded. It is a most weighty observation that, according to God’s law, silence concerning sin is consent to it. “And if a soul sin, and hear the voice of swearing, and is a witness, whether he hath seen or known of it; if he do not utter it, then he shall bear his iniquity.” (Lev. 5:1.) Trapp has pithily said, “By ill silence to leave men in sin is as bad as by ill speech to draw them to sin. Not to do good, saith our Saviour, is to do evil, and not to save is to destroy.” “And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill?” (Mark 3:4.) To leave others in their sins unreproved is to be “partakers of other men’s sins.” Paul teaches us this when he writes, “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them”—as much as to say, if you do not reprove them, you have fellowship with them. If I see a thief breaking into a house, and give no alarm, am I not, by my silence, an accessory to the act? Without the aid of my silence the burglar could not perpetrate the robbery; if I lend him that assistance, am I not, morally, his accomplice? The same holds good in all cases; but we are not left merely to infer the fact, for the Lord has told us by the mouth of his prophet Ezekiel, “If thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.” The ruin and sin of others we shall surely partake in if they perish through want of our admonition. Eli must break his neck for very grief when his sons are cut off in their sin; it was not meet that he should outlive those whom he had not endeavoured to preserve from ruin by timely rebuke: had he made their ears to tingle with his upbraidings, his ears might never have tingled with the news of the terrible judgments of God. How few Christians will be able to say with Paul, “I am pure from the blood of all men”?—none of us can be in that happy case if we neglect the duty of warning our neighbours for their good. It is to be feared that in this matter we have superabundant reason for using Archbishop Usher’s dying prayer, “Lord, in special, forgive me my sins of OMISSION.”

The law and the gospel with one voice call us to the duty we are now endeavouring to enforce. The law: “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him.” (Lev. 19:17.) The gospel: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.” (Matt. 18:15.) The first Christians were earnestly stirred up to this work, and were some of them well skilled in it. The Roman saints were full of goodness, filled with knowledge, able to admonish one another. (Rom. 15:14.) The Colossians were directed to teach and admonish one another; (Col. 3:16) and the duty is coupled with sacred song, as if the one were as needful and acceptable as the other. The believers at Thessalonica were urged to exhort one another, “Wherefore comfort one another with these words;” (1 Thess. 4:18) and the Hebrews were bidden to exhort one another daily, and to consider one another to provoke to love and good works. (Heb. 3:13–10:24.) Those who forget this duty cannot plead that they are not sufficiently reminded of it, for the Word is very full and clear upon the point; and yet the most of us are so negligent in it that one might imagine we respected the foolish and cruel law of the Spartans, that none should tell his neighbour of any calamity which had befallen him, but every one should be left, by process of time, to find out his own troubles for himself. Alas! that sinners should hardly hear of hell until they come there!

The great usefulness of prudent reproof can be proved by a thousand instances. Scriptural testimony will have the most force with us; and what saith it?—“The rod and reproof give wisdom.” (Prov. 29:15.) “Reprove one that hath understanding, and he will understand knowledge.” (Prov. 19:25.) “Let the righteous smite me,” saith David, “it shall be a kindness.” He calls it “an excellent oil, which shall not break my head.” (Ps. 141:4.) Christ styles it “a pearl and a holy thing.” (Matt. 7:6.) Solomon prefers it before silver, gold, and rubies; it is the merchandize of wisdom which is better than precious treasures. (Prov. 3:14, 15.) He describes it “As an earring of gold, and an ornament of fine gold.” (Prov. 25:12.) Our Saviour encourages us to this much-forgotten service by the prospect of success, “Thou hast gained thy brother.” (Matt. 18:15.) To gain a soul is better than to win the world, as he has assured us who knew the worth of souls better than any of us. Holy John Bradford was the means of preserving both Bishop Farrar and Bishop Ridley sound in their testimony for Christ by means of letters which he wrote them while they were lying in prison, and were willing to have made some compromise with their persecutors. How grateful was David to Abigail for her timely interposition! she saved his character from a great blot; and how much he reverenced Nathan whose faithful parable restored him to the paths of holiness! You cannot do your friend a greater kindness than to admonish him in the Lord, nor can you wish your enemy a greater injury than to go unrebuked.

On all sides there is need for the mutual exercise of exhortation. Good men need it; the royal preacher bids us “Rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee;” and “Reprove one that hath understanding.” Abimelech had just ground for rebuking the friend of God when he suppressed the truth and almost suffered the king to sin through ignorance. Peter needed that Paul should withstand him to the face, for he deserved to be blamed. “The best of men must sometimes be warned against the worst of faults.” The greatest are not too high to need an honest rebuke. John dealt very plainly with Herod; and Nehemiah spared not the nobles and rulers who oppressed the poor. Naaman’s servants were not so overpowered by the greatness of their master as to be silent concerning his foolish pride; he would never have washed in Jordan had it not been for them. Ministers sometimes require this stimulus. Paul writes to the brethren at Colosse—“Say to Archippus, Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it.” (Col. 4:17.) To the ungodly our lives should be a standing testimony for God against all unrighteousness; and, as to the godly, we should constantly watch over one another, and deal freely, tenderly, and faithfully, one with another, labouring to amend faults and foster graces. Have we not been guilty here? When we remember our many opportunities, must we not blush to think how we have wasted them? Ministers of the gospel, are you clear? The most of us are not. It is a very solemn word which we remember to have met with in J. A. James works, “The scrutiny which Christ will make at the last day will not only be into the manner in which we have dealt with the congregation as a whole, but with the individuals of which it is composed. It is an alarming idea that our responsibility extends to every single soul.” Who can receive this truth without a shiver as he remembers his own omission? Holy Mr. Hieron, who laboured most faithfully in his day, when he lay on his death bed was heard to say, “I confess that in public I have been somewhat full in reproof, admonition, instruction—but in private, my backwardness, my bashfulness, my dastardliness, have been intolerable, and I may truly say, that if anything lie as a burden upon my conscience, this it is.” This acknowledgment full many a pastor might make. O for grace to feel the sin as a real load upon the heart, and to be rid of it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. An ancient pastor made this one of his memoranda—“I desire to account the commandment of not suffering sin to lie upon my neighbour, to lie principally upon me; and, therefore, if public reproof of all, in presence of the offender will not affect him, to reckon a wise and particular reproof in private to be a debt of love I owe him, and to defer the payment of it no longer than till the providence of God hath made him fit to receive it: but specially not to let slip the season of sickness or remorse for sin upon any other ground; because then he hath both more need of it, and it is like to do him more good.”

It were well if people, as well as ministers, would lay to heart the duty of speaking often one to another by way of admonition. “Exhort one another daily,” says the apostle, “while it is called to-day, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” We should not then have to revive the complaint of Bernard concerning the talk of professors—“not a word of the Scriptures—nothing of the salvation of the soul; but trifles, and toys, and laughter, and words light as the wind, ‘eat up the time.’ ” If we were frequently to warn the unconverted, how much good might we be doing! whereas now we are adding one sin of omission to another by our unconcern about immortal souls. How many a Naaman might have been washed from his leprosy if his Christian servants had been earnest enough to speak with him on soul matters! But, alas! blood-guiltiness is hardly felt to be a sin in these days! Soul-murder is scarcely ever wept over! A poor wretch dies of starvation, and men cry out because bread was not given him; but when souls sink into damnation for lack of knowledge, they who withhold the bread of heaven will not allow their consciences to trouble them. May the Lord give us tenderness of heart to repent the neglect of the past, and holy resolution to labour more heartily in the future.

Do you, earnest reader, feel that you would rush at once into this work? Stay awhile, and hear another word or two; for it is well for you to know that it is no child’s play which is before you. Wisdom must guide you, or you will play the fool. A busy-body who is for ever babbling, is like a yelping cur which is no more esteemed than a dumb dog that cannot bark, and is thought to be a far greater nuisance. It has been said that “If a man were to set out calling everything by its right name, he would be knocked down before he got to the corner of the street;” and he who sets himself up as a general reformer of every other man’s follies, will likely enough receive the same treatment, and will have nothing to blame but his own impertinence. Casting pearls before swine has often led to the simpleton’s discovering the truth of the Saviour’s warning, “lest they turn again and rend you.” Sin may be foolishly rebuked, and so encouraged; it may be sinfully rebuked, and so multiplied. Much spirituality of mind is needed to speak for God; hence Paul puts it, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye who are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness.” Such are fit to be soul-surgeons, whose tenderness and faithfulness give them a lady’s hand and a lion’s heart. “The art of reproving,” says Rayner, “is like the husbandman’s skill which his God doth teach him, in respect of the several kinds of grain, as to beat out cummin and fitches with a staff or little rod, and to bruise out the bread corn as wheat and rye by the force of the flail or the cartwheel. So God doth teach the spiritual man whom to touch with a twig of reproof, whom to smite with a rod, and whom to thrash with a flail of reproof.” We must consider both the offence and the offender, the sin and the sinner, so that our words may be fitly spoken, and prove effectual. It is written of Andrew Fuller, that he could rarely be faithful without being severe; and, in giving reproof, he was often betrayed into intemperate zeal. Once, at a meeting of ministers, he took occasion to correct an erroneous opinion delivered by one of his brethren, and he laid on his censure so heavily that Ryland called out vehemently, in his own peculiar tone of voice, “Brother Fuller! brother Fuller! you can never admonish a mistaken friend, but you must take up a sledge hammer and knock his brains out.” Gentleness and affection should be evident in all our remonstrances: if a nail be dipped in oil it will drive the more readily. There is a medium in our vehemence which discretion will readily suggest: we must not drown a child in washing it, nor cut off a man’s foot to cure a corn. Perhaps it will be less tedious to the reader if, instead of a long enumeration of the qualities required in a successful reprover, we instance the case of Dr. Waugh. There are two or three anecdotes which are eminently characteristic of his power:—“At one of the half-yearly examinations at the Protestant Dissenters’ Grammar School, Mill Hill, the head master informed the examiners that he had been exceedingly tried by the misconduct and perverseness of a boy who had done something very wrong, and who, though he acknowledged the fact, could not be brought to acknowledge the magnitude of the offence. The examiners were requested to expostulate with the boy, and try if he could be brought to feel and deplore it. Dr. Waugh was solicited to undertake the task; and the boy was, in consequence, brought before him. ‘How long have you been in the school, my boy?’ asked the doctor. ‘Four months, sir.’ ‘When did you hear from your father last?’ ‘My father’s dead, sir.’ ‘Ah! alas the day! ’tis a great loss, a great loss, that of a father; but God can make it up to you, by giving you a tender, affectionate mother.’ On this the boy, who had previously seemed as hard as a flint, began to soften. The doctor proceeded: ‘Well, laddie, where is your mother?’ ‘On her voyage home from India, sir.’ ‘Ay! good news for you, my boy: do you love your mother?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘And do you expect to see her soon?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Do you think she loves you?’ ‘Yes, sir, I am sure of it.’ ‘Then think, my dear laddie, think of her feelings when she comes home, and finds that, instead of your being in favour with everyone, you are in such deep disgrace as to run the risk of expulsion, and yet are too hardened to acknowledge that you have done wrong. Winna ye break your poor mother’s heart, think ye? Just think o’ that, my lad.’ The little culprit burst into a flood of tears, acknowledged his fault, and promised amendment. On one occasion, a young minister having animaverted, in the presence of Dr. Waugh, on the talents of another minister, in a manner which the doctor thought might leave an unfavourable impression on the minds of some of the company, Dr. W. observed, ‘I have known Mr. —— many years, and I never knew him speak disrespectfully of a brother in my life.’ At another time, in a company of nearly forty gentlemen, a student for the ministry entertained those around him with some ungenerous remarks on a popular preacher in London. Dr. Waugh looked at him for some time, with pity and grief depicted in his countenance, and when he had thus arrested the attention of the speaker, he mildly remarked, ‘My friend, there is a saying in a good old book which I would recommend to your consideration:—The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy.’ ” Such rare powers of wise remonstrance may not be easy to acquire, but they are very precious, and should be greatly coveted.

We have no room to notice particularly more than two out of many practical suggestions which are now upon our heart.

Personal character is of the utmost moment in the work of admonition. We must not try to remove motes from the eyes of others while we have beams in our own. Quarles reminds us that “He who cleanses a blot with blurred fingers, makes a greater blot. Even the candle-snuffers of the sanctuary were of pure gold.” (Ex. 37:23.) We may not urge others to activity, and lie still like logs ourselves. A quaint old preacher of the sixteenth century has put this truth into homely, pungent words: “Beloved in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, it is a very monstrous thing that any man should have more tongues than hands. For God hath given us two hands and but one tongue, that we might do much and say but little. Yet many say so much and do so little, as though they had two tongues and but one hand; nay, three tongues and never a hand. Such as these (which do either worse than they teach, or else less than they teach, teaching others to do well and to do much, but doing no whit themselves) may be resembled to divers things. To a whetstone, which being blunt itself, makes a knife sharp. To a painter, which being deformed himself, makes a fair picture. To a sign, which being weather-beaten, and hanging without itself, directs passengers into the inn. To a bell, which being deaf and hearing not itself, calls the people into the Church to hear. To a goldsmith, which being beggarly, and having not one piece of plate to use himself, hath store for others which he shows and sells in his shop. Lastly, to a ridiculous actor in the city of Smyrna, who pronouncing ‘O cœlum,’ O heaven, pointed with his finger toward the ground. Such are all they which talk one thing and do another; which teach well and do ill.”

Direction and grace from the Spirit of God must be esteemed as of paramount importance. So much may depend upon our temper, manner, and words, that we should never dare to rebuke others until we have sought divine aid. Take God into your counsel and you will be wise; enlist his power on your side and you will be strong. A heart full of love to Jesus will be blessed with an instinctive wisdom with which the cold-hearted cannot intermeddle. The man who pants to be useful and is a soul-gatherer by profession, will not need to be informed of opportunities, for he will never miss them. Does a miser ever forget his moneybags? Will he who loves souls be unmindful of them? The disciples could not cast out the demoniac, for they had not exercised the prayer and fasting which were needful. If we attempt to exorcise the evil spirit in our own strength, he will laugh at our efforts and cry, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are ye?” If we dwell in the mount as Moses did, then shall we be able to break the golden calves which others worship, and with shining face to vindicate the cause of God.

Possibly the reader may feel so disheartened by the difficulties which we have hinted at, that he may half resolve to let the matter go by default. If so, we commend to him the speech of a negro preacher, with which we conclude: “Brethren,” he said, in his broken way, “whateber de good God tell me to do in dis blessed book,” holding up at the same time an old and evidently much-used Bible, “dat I’m gwine to do. If I see in it dat I must jump troo a stone wall, I’m gwine to jump at it. Going troo it belongs to God—jumpin at it ’longs to me.”


Spurgeon, C. H. (1865). The Sword and Trowel: 1865, 10–17. (Public Domain)

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Just read this to start my day and have been blessed in its reading. Jan 24, 2024.

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