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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

The Design of God in Afflicting

Ministers of the Gospel

Stephen Chapin, D. D.

From The Baptist Preacher, November 1846

A sermon prepared in June, 1843, on the occasion of the death of his daughter, Mrs. Sarah L. M. Sydnor, wife of Thomas W. Sydnor, but on account of his own declining health never preached.

Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ. And whether we be afflicted it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effectual in the enduring of the sane sufferings which we also suffer: or whether we be comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation. (II Corinthians 1:2-3)

The word comfort in this passage, and generally in the New Testament, means something more than merely to soothe, to alleviate misery or distress of mind. It means to cheer, to animate, to give new life to the spirits. By it Paul meant that God imparted fresh courage to himself and Timothy to hold fast their profession, however formidable and appalling might be the evils and dangers before them. This is the kind of help and encouragement which the brethren at Corinth most needed when this letter was written; and it is the same kind of cheering and support which Christians now need, and which they will ever need, till the enemies of the cross are reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day.

For we may be certain that Satan will enlist every agent at his command to dishearten and intimidate the people of God, and do all in, his power to extinguish their zeal and to overthrow their faith. True, for shame, and for policy's sake, the fires of the stake have been quenched. But the world has not become a friend to grace; nor has the arch foe given up his malignant purpose. He has changed his mode of attack, but not his spirit and aim. He now transforms himself into an angel of light, and hopes to gain more by his insidious approaches, than he ever won in open warfare.

It was in view of these facts and dangers, and of the means which God had provided to keep alive the love of believers and to encourage them to persevere in the cause of Christ, even in the face of ignominy and death, that Paul wrote this epistle to the Corinthian church.

The text commences with a sublime thanksgiving. The being whom the apostle thus extols and praises, is the God and Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Paul here, as everywhere else, forgets himself—says nothing about consolations as designed for his personal benefit, nor anything about his manifold tribulations to excite pity on his own behalf; but the sole reason why he designed that all should unite with him in extolling and blessing God was, because all the afflictions and consolations which he experienced in the service of Christ, were designed by his heavenly Father to make him a richer blessing to Zion, by giving him greater power to console and cheer believers while suffering in the same cause.

Our text then teaches that all the sufferings and consolation which ministers experience in the service of Christ are designed to qualify them to promote the consolation and salvation of afflicted believers. This truth may be sustained:

I. From analogy. God in all ages has been wont to bless and to afflict leading men in the community, not to promote their personal good simply, but chiefly to fit them to advance the public welfare. What is thus true in fact is confirmed by the general spirit and language of the Scriptures. They represent God as bestowing and sending trials in such a way that it shall be evident that no one is blessed and no one is afflicted for his own sake. He blessed Abraham that he might be a blessing.

He blessed his posterity that in them all the nations of the earth might be blessed. He blessed the Jews, not to promote their independent national weal, but that among them the knowledge and the worship of the true God might he maintained, and through their agency be ultimately propagated through all the other kingdoms of the world. He blessed Cyrus, though a gentile, going before him, gracing his arms with a continued triumph, giving him the treasures of darkness, and the riches of secret places, not to promote his personal glory as a conqueror; but that he might be the instrument to release his people from their captivity in Babylon, and to restore them to their ancient land. God said to him, “for Jacob my servant's sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name; I have girded thee, though thou hast not known me, that they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none besides me: I am the Lord, and there is none else.” (Isa. 45:4, 6)

For the same reason he brings both good and bad men in high stations into great trials and calamities. Job was tried, to refute the charge that he served God only for gain, and to evince to the world and the powers of darkness that his religion was proof against all the assaults of hell. So, too, to illustrate the folly and sin of idolatry, and to prove that the God of the Jews is the only God in all the earth, the three worthies were cast into the burning fiery furnace, and Daniel into the den of lions.

And on the other hand, Nebuchadnezzar was driven from among men, and made to eat grass like the ox, that he and all proud monarchs after him might know that the most high ruleth in the kingdom of men and giveth it to whomsoever he will. Pharaoh was judicially hardened, visited with plagues and overthrown in the Red Sea, that in him God's power might be shewn, and his name declared throughout all the earth. God turned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, making them an ensample to those that after should live ungodly. Yea, the fires of hell are kindled up to be seen forever throughout the holy empire of God, as a warning of the evils of rebelling against the throne of heaven.

II. By reasoning from the character of these trials and consolations. The same sort of trouble may be sent on different persons and for different ends. Retributive punishments are designed to be lasting admonitions to the guilty, and proofs of the evils of transgression—such as the endless miseries of the incorrigible—the doom which the justice of a holy God requires to be awarded them. Another class of trials, called corrections or chastenings, God inflicts upon his offending children net to destroy, bet to reclaim them from their wandering. If they forsake his law, break his statutes, and keep not his commandments, their heavenly Father will in faithfulness and in holy displeasure visit their transgressions with the rod, and their iniquities with stripes. Nevertheless he will not break his covenant with his anointed Son, nor alter the thing that has gone out of his lips, but he will restore his chastened and purified seed, and make them to endure forever as the days of heaven.

There is yet another division of sufferings, called tentative, which God sends upon his chosen people, not to punish them, but to try their graces—the strength of their love, or faith, or patience. These are the afflictions to which the apostle refers in our text. He calls them the sufferings of Christ, because they are the same that he endured through all his ministry. He, himself, has given us an abridged account of them. They arose from want, from neglect, contempt, scorn and temptations of Satan, and cruel persecutions of men. These are the tribulations which abounded in the life of the apostle, and of all the primitive saints. They were generally chosen, and in them they find rich consolations.

Paul well knew, for the Holy Ghost assured him, that in every city bonds and afflictions awaited him. But none of these things moved him. He still went forward, though he was certain that in doing so he must suffer both hunger and thing, nakedness and buffetings, and have no certain dwelling place; not counting his life dear unto him so that he might finish his course with joy. Sometimes these trials were brought about in the immediate providence of God without any direct agency on their part. But in both cases they bore them gladly. They gloried in tribulations, and counted it all joy when they fell into divers temptations, knowing that they were endured to give proof to the world of the heavenly origin of Christianity, and to make them the more capable of glorifying God in building up his kingdom. These are the different kinds of afflictions, and these the different objects to be gained by them.

Let us remember, my brethren, that it is of high moment for us to gain clear notions of the different purposes for which they are sent, otherwise me may rejoice when we should mourn, and exult when we should lie low in the dust. And let us, too, scrutinize with all care and solicitude the state of our minds and our course of life at the time when our afflictions came upon us. For in this way generally, we may learn why we suffer them, and of consequence, how we should feel and behave ourselves under them. If they came upon us when we were in joy and constantly employed in our labors as ministers of Christ, when it was our meat and our drink to do his will, and we were glad to spend and be spent in winning souls to God, then we may be sure that they are borne for Christ's sake, and that his consolations will abound in us.

But if we leave our first love, and become worldly and slothful, and prepare for our public services, and preach to secure applause rather than to make known the Saviour's love, and God to chasten us for this declension, and these unhallowed motives, lay us on a bed of sickness, take away our property, or remove our children or companions by death, or let us see the once full tide of our people's affection ebbing away from us, then we may be sure that these our trials are punitive, and that in them God is not arraying us with glory but clothing us with shame before the world. Our feelings then and conduct should vary at different times according to the manifest end for which we suffer.

Whilst the church at Rome justly gloried in their tribulations, for they were sent upon them because they were strong and active, and to make them still stronger and more vigorous, the church at Corinth were bound to bewail their tribulations in deep humility, and contrition, because they were intended to punish them for their riotous conduct before seasons of communion, and for their vain boastings and party contentions. True, James says, “count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations.” (James 1:2) And it is equally true that Paul said, “Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous but grievous.” (Heb. 12:11) Nor is there any contradiction between them. For they had respect to afflictions sent for different ends, and upon believers in different conditions.

James referred to Christians strong in faith burning in love and active in labors, and to trials designed to bring out these graces, and thus to prove that the trial of their faith was in the sight of God more precious than that of gold, being thus found unto praise, and honor, and glory.

But Paul had respect to brethren feeble and slothful in duty, and to chastenings designed to purify, to reform and strengthen. It is true, that in one aspect even these grievous chastening afford ground of consolation; for after they have produced the primary end for which they were sent, humility and correction, grace will make them yield the peaceable fruits of righteousness. But while he suffered them he was full of joy and animation. He knew in whom he had trusted, and felt it to be all honor and privilege to be called to suffer for his sake. He knew, too, the importance of the conflict in which he was engaged, and that victory was his certain heritage.

Paul had the testimony of the Spirit bearing witness with his spirit that he was a child of God. He had the sweet consolations that his sins were forgiven, that Christ loved him, and gave himself for him, that he had given him grace to preach his unsearchable riches among the gentiles, that God was always with him, causing him to triumph in Christ, and by him making manifest the savor of his name in every place, that the church he served was destined to become an eternal excellency and the joy of the whole earth. He believed that all his conflicts with the power of darkness—that his bright visions of future glory—were intended to cause him to desire more earnestly, and to prepare him to enjoy more fully the crown of righteousness laid up for him in heaven.

Yes, it was Paul’s faith in his personal interest in the blood and intercession of Christ that made up the grand element in his life, and was the animating principle in his labors and triumphs. With him religion was a great matter, a concern of infinite moment. He ever cherished a deep conviction of his wretchedness and guilt while he was a vile blasphemer of heaven, and a persecutor of the Son of God. He ever remembered, too, that matchless grace which delivered him from the power of darkness, and translated him into the kingdom of God's dear Son.

Hence he relates his wonderful conversion again and again, and ever with the deepest emotions of gratitude and praise. When he repeated it in his epistle to Timothy, he was so carried away with thankfulness and adoring thoughts of the transcendent mercy of God in his behalf, that as soon as he had finished it he breaks forth into this sublime doxology, “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory, forever and ever. Amen.” (I Tim. 1:17)

Could you persuade him that Christ is not an Almighty Saviour, and eradicate from his heart his belief that his death is vicarious, and that the promised aids of the Spirit are sure, he would at once become another man. Instead of remaining the champion of the cross, and sacrificing everything earthly to sustain its glory, he would sink in despair, giving up all hope of his own salvation and that of the world.

III. By reasoning from their influence, both on ministers and on the Christian community, and first from their effects on ministers in relation to tried believers. The deep experience of ministers in the Christian warfare strengthens their faith, enlarges their views, brightens their hopes of heaven, makes them more pitiful towards poor lost sinners, and more anxious to save them, and greatly increases their love to the Redeemer's kingdom, and their confidence in the appointed means to build it up. Thus they find themselves put in possession of greatly increased qualifications to cheer and strengthen afflicted saints. Now will they not at once conclude that this fitness of character to serve the cause of Zion was brought about for this very end?

At any rate, its possession is their warrant to employ it thus. But they do not need this logical process to convince them of their duty. No, their feelings lead them at once to fly to Christians who are in any trouble. They know that whilst their tribulations are countless in number and degrees of severity, there is but one way of finding relief, and that is by faith in Christ. Paul tells us in our text, that all he suffered and enjoyed in preaching the gospel was to give him ability to comfort them which are in any trouble by the comforts wherewith he himself was comforted.

And what is more natural than that the Christian teacher should recommend to any afflicted member of his flock what he has ever found to be his only support in all his own tribulations. It is when his own relief is most signal, and his own cup most flowing that he is most anxious for others to share with him. The renovated patient is ever eloquent in recommending the remedies which have subdued his own pains and diseases, and brought back to him the glow of health. We all soon become strongly attached to the agent or instrument which we have long tried in every emergency, and which we have never found to fail us.

There is a charm in both men and things which have brought us relief in our greatest extremities. When the battle sword of Washington and the staff of Franklin were recently presented as sacred relics to our national government in Congress assembled, the sight of them brought a vivid recollection of the glories of the revolution. For the moment party contests were forgotten, every eye was suffused, and every heart beat with a purer spirit of patriotism. When David saw the sword with which he slew Goliath, he said, “There is none like that, give it me." (I Sam. 21:9) And he went on with renewed confidence of victory in his own wars with the Philistines.

These trials and consolations of the apostles would greatly cheer and strengthen the brethren. For they were joyfully endured in a cause which they prized above all others; and in building it up, the heralds of the cross were daily waxing valiant in fight, and gaining more and more skill and power in wielding the weapons of their warfare, and paganism with all its abominations was fast retiring before them. Think you that the saints of Paul's day were dispirited and made ready to abandon their efforts to make the Saviour known to the world, and to win over to him fresh converts, by reading Paul's thrilling history of his sufferings, his victories, and his miraculous deliverances from enemies:

"Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews, five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day have I been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. Who is weak and I am not weak? who is offended and I burn not?” (II Cor. 11:23-29)

“But thanks be unto God which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savor of his knowledge by us in every place." (II Cor. 2:14)

How could it have been otherwise than that these facts should greatly animate the disciples with an assured hope of their own salvation, and with confidence that in the same way the gospel was to be propagated in all nations, to bring them under its saving power. We are ever the most animated and most confident when the cause that lies nearest our hearts is supported by the ablest men, and men, too, who have the same motives to sustain it that we have.

In support of our doctrine we will reason from the less to the greater—from the fact that the afflictions and consolations of ministers have been owned as means in the conversion and salvation of sinners. In proof of this we appeal to the history of the church in the first three centuries. It was then she was most successful in persuading men to renounce the world, and to embrace Christ as their only Saviour. Nor is this strange; for it was then that Christians were the most severely tried, and manifested in the strongest light the pure spirit of the gospel, and its power to sustain them whilst suffering everything that men and devils could inflict. But what thus gave them this unconquerable fortitude, and what made their love to Christ so invincible, were questions which would naturally come over the minds of their persecutors.

For they knew that their founder was in their own estimation, a low born and despised Galilean; that his first ministers were illiterate, taken from the common walks of life, having no worldly greatness to arm them with power. They knew too, that the doctrines which these teachers inculcated shocked the hoary and religious prejudices of the Jews and Gentiles, and waged uncompromising war upon all the interests and pursuits which the lovers of this world most highly value.

They, moreover, saw that for the sake of publishing this new religion they turned their backs on the world, and sacrificed everything most dear to man—property, connections, ease, fame, and life itself—that they held on their way unshaken by all the terrors of persecution, and that when they were burned at the stake, or nailed to the cross, or torn on the rack, they spent their last moments in praising God for the honors of martyrdom, and in prayer for the pardon and salvation of their cruelest enemies.

Now they could not account for all this without admitting that Jesus was the Son of God, and the only Saviour of lost men; and that the gospel which wrought such wonders was of heavenly origin. In this way hundreds and millions were convinced of the truth and excellency of Christianity, and therefore, as persecution thinned the ranks of the saints, new converts continued to fill them up till the Roman empire gave up idolatry and embraced the Christian faith as her established religion. And thus it early became a proverb, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. No wonder, then, that this cord of sympathy so efficient in behalf of sinners, should convey into the hearts of tried and suffering professors the joy, and the courage, and the triumphs of their public teachers.

If the trials and temptations of ministers are intended to make them the more useful, then we may infer that corrections or christenings for their defects of character or delinquency in duty are intended for the same purpose. In this class of sufferings, as well as in the former, we may be certain that God designs to make them not simply better men, but chiefly better ministers. The best of them are far from being perfect. Their evil propensities are not wholly subdued. Vanity, or pride, or sloth, or worldliness, or love of fame or power, may greatly hinder their growth in ministerial gifts and abounding in public labors, if not lead them far astray in secular matters.

When a minister once eminently successful in his appointed work gradually declines, and by and by becomes a zealous politician, or a thrifty farmer, or a celebrated author in there classical literature or science, the churches will be ready to say, well he is preparing himself for severe sufferings, and for a bitter cup of grief; for we once thought him to be a minister of Christ, and we hope so still, and therefore believe that God will not let him off in this way, but that he will visit his transgression with the rod, and his iniquity with stripes, and make him return to Zion with weeping and supplication. Peter as an apostle, had noble traits of character, but yet he had his faults. He was hasty and self-sufficient.

When Christ warned him that he would be left to deny him, he vehemently said, if I should die with thee I will not offend thee in any wise. But he did not then know how dangerous it was to trust in his own strength. He was therefore left in the hands of Satan, to sift him as wheat, and permitted to deny his Lord even in profane language. This was suffered not for the good of Peter only, but more for the benefit of the church. Hence Christ said to him, when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren. Go tell them when tempted, to look solely to me for succor and support, and relate to them your own experience as a warning to them not to be vainly confident that they are proof against temptation. Peter, no doubt, was a much more humble and watchful Christian, and a much more useful preacher after his fall than he was before.

Paul too was sometimes chastened to keep down the risings of the lingering remains of pride and vanity in his heart. He could but know his superior genius, and his vast resources of knowledge. He knew too, that he was endowed above his fellows with apostolic gifts and miraculous powers. He had been allowed the peculiar favor of seeing the Saviour's face, and of hearing his voice after his ascension to glory; and had besides been caught up to the third heavens to the paradise of God, and heard unspeakable words—music and language which nothing earthly could reach.

Now was there not a danger that he, possessing as he did, a heart by nature proud and ambitious, would be tempted to exult in these extraordinary endowments and revelations? Hence there was given him a thorn in the flesh—the buffetings of Satan. For this thing he besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from him. But Christ did not grant his prayer; but said: "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness." (II Cor. 12:9) He knew that it would be safest for Paul, and most for the good of the church that it should remain with him, reminding him daily of the reason will it was given him—to prevent him from being puffed up with spiritual pride, and to make him confiding in the power of Christ. And in this Paul acquiesced and said, "Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me." (II Cor. 12:9)

Christ says, "I am the vine, and my father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth fruit he purgeth that it may bring forth more fruit." (John 15:1, 2) Though it is a good branch, yet he sees that it has some twigs and foliage that check its fruitfulness. He therefore prunes them off; and though the branch may bleed under the knife, still he knows that in this way it will be made more healthy and more fruitful.

Are trials designed to make manifest for the public good the strength of the graces of believers? Then they should be joyfully endured. It is not enough that we bear them in silent patience, but we should be thankful and rejoice that we are called to suffer them. So did ancient saints. The apostles, after receiving a public scourging before a Jewish counsel, departed from their presence rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Christ. They gloried in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, in imprisonments, and in the spoiling of their goods, deeming it a privilege thus to suffer in honor of their master, and knowing that it was given unto them in behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, and for his body's-sake, which is the church.

Nor is this strange, for in this way they best honor God, by reflecting on his wisdom and power and truth and holiness in thus sustaining them whilst suffering in his cause. Besides, he most honored them also; for he thus shewed his confidence in their character, in their attachment to him and to his kingdom, and in their fortitude to endure any tortures that their enemies could inflict upon them.

Those soldiers are the most honored who are sent on the most important and most perilous expeditions. Their general herein strews that he confides in their loyalty, and in their superior skill and courage. The Scriptures say, "If ye be reproached for the name of Christ sake, happy are ye, for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you.” (I Pet. 4:14) Men by their slanders intend to dishonor you; but God for your joyful endurance of them, intends that his own Spirit and glory shall rest upon you.

In view of this subject, we see how important it is that ministers should guard against fainting in the day of trial. This would be inconsistent with their profession, and expose them to just reproach. "Behold, thou hast instructed many, and thy words have upholden him that was falling, and thou hast strengthened the feeble knees. But now it is come upon thee, and thou faintest; it toucheth thee and thou art troubled." But what is much worse, if in times of tribulation, they betray any lack of fortitude, or any fear of being overcome, they will not only defeat the design of their trials, but they will also, and that too much more than any other class of men, dishearten the church of God.

It would be as when a standard bearer fainteth in the crisis of battle. Nothing animates soldiers more than to see their colors floating; and if the bearers of them fall or faint, they will be panic struck, and break and flee before the enemy. Every commander knows that his success depends upon the confidence his troops have in his skill and bravery. Henry the IV, king of France, as he was about to commence the battle of Ivry, addressed his army and said, "Children, if you lose sight of your colors, rally to my white plume—you will always find it in the path to honor and glory." Let us then, my afflicted brethren in the ministry, guard against a course so sinful, so dishonorable and so disastrous.