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OF THE WORK ASSIGNED TO EVERY MAN, AND THE SEASON FOR DOING IT.
1 must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.—Johnix. 4.
THESE words our blessed Saviour spake of himself, whilst he was upon earth; in which he tells us, that he was sent by God into the world, and had a certain work and employment appointed him during his abode in it. A great work indeed! to instruct, and reform, and save mankind. A work of great labour and pains, and patience, not to be done in a short time; and yet the time for doing it was not long after he came into the world: it was a good while before he began it; and, after he began it, the time of working was not long before the night came, and put an end to it: “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.”
But this which our Saviour here speaks of himself, and which properly belongs to him, and no other, may yet be accommodated to every man, with some allowance for the difference and disproportion. For though every man be not sent by (Jud into the world after so peculiar a manner, and upon so particular and vast a design; yet upon a general account, every man is sent by God into this world, and hath a work given him to do in it, which he is 256concerned vigorously to mind, and to prosecute with all his might. And though every man be not sent to save the whole world, as the Son of God was, yet every man is sent by God into the world, to work out his own salvation, and to take care of that, in the first place, and then to promote the salvation of others, as much as in him lies. So that every one of us may, in a very good sense, accommodate these words of our Saviour to himself: “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.”
I shall therefore, at this time, take the liberty to handle these words according to this moral accommodation of them, and apply what our Saviour here says of himself, to every man that cometh into the world; and this I shall do, by shewing these three things:
First, That every man hath a work assigned him to do in this world, by him that sent him into it; and may in some sense say, as our blessed Saviour did of himself, “I must work the works of him that sent me.”
Secondly, That there is a certain and limited time for every man to do this work in. “While it is day.”
Thirdly, That after this season is expired, there will be no further opportunity of working. “The night cometh, when no man can work.”
First, Every man hath a work assigned him to do in this world, by him that sent him into it, and may in some sense say, as our blessed Saviour did of himself, “I must work the works of him that sent me.” God, who made man a reasonable creature, and hath endowed him with faculties, whereby he is capable of knowing and serving him, hath appointed 257him a work and service suitable to these faculties; and, having infused an immortal soul into this earthly body, hath certainly designed him for a state beyond this life, in which he shall be for ever happy or miserable, according as he useth and demeans himself in this world.
So that the work which every one of us hath to do in this world, is to prepare and fit ourselves for that eternal duration which remains for us after death. For the life which we live now in this world, is a time of exercise, a short state of probation and trial, in order to a durable and endless state, in which we shall be immutably fixed in another world. This world into which we are now sent for a little while, is, as it were, God’s school, in which immortal spirits, clothed with flesh, are trained and bred up for eternity: and therefore the best, the only sure way to be happy for ever, is so to improve the short and uncertain time of this life, that we may approve ourselves to God in this world, and enjoy him in the next: or (as St. Paul expresseth it) that “having our fruit unto holiness, our end may be everlasting life.”
And this work consists in these three things:
I. In the care of our own salvation.
II. In doing what we can to promote the salvation of others.
III. And, in order to both these, in the careful improvement and good husbandry of our time.
I. In the care of our own salvation. And this consists in two things:
1. In the worship of Almighty God.
2. In the careful and conscientious practice and obedience of his holy laws.
1. The care of our own salvation consists in the 258pious and devout worship of Almighty God; that we honour him, and pay him that homage and respect, which is due from creatures to him that made them, and is the great Sovereign and Judge of the world; that we have an inward reverence and esteem of him, and that we express this by all solemn external acknowledgments of him; as by praying to him for the supply of our wants; by praising him for all the blessings and benefits which we hare received at his hands; and that we set apart constant and solemn times for the performance of these duties; and that, when we are employed in them, we be serious and hearty, and attentive to what we are about, and perform every part of Divine worship with those circumstances of reverence and respect, which may testify our awful sense of the Divine Majesty, and our inward and profound veneration of him, with whom we have to do: and this is that which is directly and properly religion.
2. This care of our own salvation does consist, likewise, in the conscientious and constant obedience and practice of all God’s holy laws, in the conformity of our lives and actions to the laws which he hath given us, whether they be natural, or written upon our hearts, or made known to us by the revelation of his word; that we govern our passions by reason, and moderate ourselves in the use of sensual delights, -so as not to transgress the rules of temperance and chastity; that we demean ourselves to wards others, and converse with them with justice and fidelity, with kindness and charity.
These are the sum of the Divine laws, and the heads of our duty towards ourselves and others; all which are more powerfully enforced upon us by the revelation of the gospel, and the plain promises 259and threatenings of it; the faith of Christ being the most firm and effectual principle both of piety to wards God, and of universal obedience to all his particular commands.
And this is the great work which God hath sent us to do in the world. So the wise man sums up our duty: (Eccles. xii. 13.) “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.” The fear and reverence of the Divine Majesty is the great foundation and principle of religion; but obedience to God’s laws is the life and practice of it. God does not expect that we should spend the greatest part of our time in the immediate acts of religion, and in the solemn duties of his worship and service; but only that we should allot a fitting proportion of our time to these, according to the circumstances of our condition in this world, and the example of holy and good men that are in the like circumstances with ourselves. For such is the goodness of God, that he does not only allow us to provide for the necessaries and conveniences of this life, but hath made it our duty so to do. It is one of the precepts of the gospel, which the apostle chargeth the bishops and teachers of the gospel to inculcate frequently upon Christians, “that they which have believed in God, should be careful to maintain good works;” that is, to employ themselves in the works of an honest calling: for necessary uses; that is, for the support of their families, and the relief of those who are in want and necessity. And the apostle lays great weight and stress upon this as a very great duty: (Tit. iii. 8.) “This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God, might be careful to maintain good works. 260These things are good and profitable unto men;” that is, of general benefit and advantage to mankind.
So that no man’s calling is a hinderance to religion, but a part of it; and by performing the duties of piety in their proper seasons, and spending the rest of our time in any honest and useful employment, we may make our whole life a perpetual serving of God; we may glorify God in our eating and drinking, and in all other lawful and useful actions of life. In serving the occasions and necessities of life with sobriety and temperance, and in managing our worldly commerce with justice and integrity, we may serve God, and perform consider able duties of religion.
So that provided we do nothing that is sinful, and manage the actions and concernments of this life with a due regard and subserviency to the great interests of eternity, we may do the work of God all the while we are providing for ourselves, and employed in the works of an honest calling: for God, who hath designed this life in order to the other, considers the necessities of our present state, and allows us to make provision for it.
There are some persons, indeed, whose birth and condition sets them above the common employments of life, and the works of an ordinary calling: but these also have a work given them to do: for God hath sent no man into the world to no purpose, and only to take his pastime therein; neque enim ita generati sumus a natura, ut ad ludum et jocum facti esse videamur; sed ad severitatem potius, et quaedam studia graviora atque majora: “For we are not (says Tully de offic. lib. 1.) so framed by nature, as if we were made for sport and jest, but for more 261serious employments, and for greater and weightier business;” and those who are tied to no particular calling, may allow so much larger portions of their time to religion, and the service of God: and God likewise expects from them, that they should be useful to mankind in some higher and nobler way, according to the publicness of their station and influence. Such persons may be serviceable to their country, and the affairs of government, and in the care of public justice, and may employ their time in preparing and rendering themselves more fit for this service. They may find a great deal of work to do in the good government of their families, and in the prudent care and management of their estates, and in reconciling differences among their neighbours, and in considering the necessities of the poor, and providing for their supply.
So that, besides the proper work of religion, and the more immediate service of God, every man in the world, how exempt soever his condition be from the common care and drudgery of human life, may find work enough wherein he may usefully employ all his time, and provide for his own, and for the common benefit of mankind; and God expects it as a duty from such, that every man should employ himself in some work or other, suitable to the station in which God hath placed him in this world.
II. The work which God hath given us to do in the world, consists in doing what we can to further and promote the salvation of others. This chiefly lies upon us, who are the ministers of God, and to whom the word of reconciliation is committed. We are more especially commissioned and appointed for this work, and are ambassadors for Christ, to beseech 262men in his stead to be reconciled to God. We are sent by God in a more peculiar manner, and appointed for this very work, to watch for men’s souls, and to be instruments and means of their eternal happiness. And therefore we who are sent by God in a more peculiar manner, and have this work as signed to do in the world, ought to be very vigorous and industrious in it: and this, whether we consider the nature of our employment, or the glorious reward of it.
1. If we consider the nature of our employment, both in respect of the honour and the happiness of it. It is the most honourable work that mortal man can be employed in; it is the same in kind, and in the main end and design of it, with that of the blessed angels; for we also are “ministering spirits, sent forth” by God to minister for the good of those “who shall be heirs of salvation.” We are the messengers and ambassadors of God to men, sent to treat with them about the terms of their peace and reconciliation with God, to offer salvation to them, and to direct them to the best ways and means of procuring it. Nay, we have the honour to be employed in the very same work that the Son of God was, when he was upon the earth, “to seek and to save them that are lost;” and “to call sinners to repentance;” and to carry on that work, whereof he himself laid the foundation, when he was in the world. And what greater honour can be put upon the sons of men, than to help forward that glorious design and undertaking of the Son of God for the salvation of mankind?
And it is an employment no less happy than honourable; it is not to drudge about the mean and low concernments of this life, a perpetual toil and 263care about “what we shall eat and drink, and wherewithal we shall be clothed,” which is the business of a worldly employment; but it is a direct and immediate “seeking the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” and a continual endeavour to promote these. It does not consist in the labour of our body, and in bodily toil; but in the delightful exercise of our minds, about the best and noblest objects, God, and heaven, and eternity; in an earnest and faithful endeavour, by all wise ways and means, to gain souls to God, and to turn sinners from the errors of their ways, and to prevent their eternal ruin and destruction; and, next to the procuring of our own happiness, to be instrumental to the happiness of others, which is certainly the most pleasant and noble work that we can possibly be employed in; especially if we consider that, by the very nature of our employment we do at the same time, and by the very same means, carry on both these designs, of the salvation of ourselves and others. So St. Paul tells Timothy, when he exhorts him, upon this very consideration, to give himself wholly to this blessed work; because, says he, “in doing this, thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.” (1 Tim. iv. 16.) And when two of the greatest and best designs in the world, our own happiness in the salvation of others, do so happily meet in one, and are jointly carried on by the same labour: this ought to be a great spur and incitement to us, to be vigorous and unwearied, and “abundant in the work of the Lord;” and a mighty encouragement to us “to preach the word, to be instant in season, and out of season,” and “to be examples to others, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity;” as St. Paul 264chargeth Timothy in the most solemn and awful manner, “before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing, and his kingdom.” (1 Tim. iv. 12. and 2 Tim. iv. 1.) And then,
2. If we consider the glorious reward of this work; if we be faithful and industrious in it, it will advance us to a higher degree of glory and happiness in the other world. “They that be wise (says the prophet, Dan. xii. 3.) shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness, as the stars for ever and ever.” They that are industrious in this work, as they are worthy of double honour in this world, so they shall shine with a double glory and lustre in^the other.
But though this work of promoting the salvation of others be chiefly incumbent upon those whose office it is to attend upon this very thing, yet we are all of us concerned in it; according to the advantages and opportunities we have for it. Every man is concerned to help forward the salvation of his brother, and not to let him perish, if he can help it; and it is in every man’s power to contribute something to this blessed work of saving others, by seasonable counsel and advice, by kind and gentle reproof, but especially by a holy and exemplary conversation, by a shining virtue, which hath a silent power of persuasion, and I know not what secret charm and attraction to draw and allure others to the imitation of it.
III. And in order to both these, the saving of ourselves and others, this work which God hath given us to do in the world, consists in the careful use and good husbandry of our time; for without 265this, neither the one nor the other can be promoted and carried on to any purpose. Time is the season and opportunity of carrying on of any work, and for that reason is one of the most valuable things; and yet nothing is more wastefully spent, and more prodigally squandered away by a great part of mankind than this, which, next to our immortal souls, is of all other things most precious; because, upon the right use or abuse of our time, our eternal happiness or misery does depend. Men have generally some guard upon themselves, as to their money and estates, and will not with eyes open suffer others to rob and deprive them of it: but we will let any body almost rob us of our time; and are contented to expose this precious treasure to every body’s rapines and extortion, and can quietly look on, whilst men thrust in their hands, and take it out by whole handfuls, as if it were of no greater value than silver was in Solomon’s days, no more than “the stones in the street.” And yet when it is gone, all the silver and gold in the world cannot purchase and fetch back the least moment of it, when perhaps we would give all the world for a very small part of that time, which we parted with upon such cheap and easy terms.
Good God! what a stupid and senseless prodigality is this! do we consider what we do, when we give away such large portions of our time to our ease and pleasure, to diversion and idleness, to trilling and unprofitable conversation, to the making and receiving of impertinent visits, and the usual and almost inseparable attendants thereof, spiteful observations upon them that are present, and slandering and backbiting those that are absent, (for the great design of most people in visits, is not to better 266one another, but to spy and make faults, and not to mend them; to get time off their hands, to shew their fine clothes, and to recommend themselves to the mutual contempt of one another, by a plentiful impertinence;) when we part with it by wholesale in sleep and dressings, and can spend whole mornings between the comb and the glass, and the after noon at plays, and whole nights in gaming, or in riot, and lewdness, and intemperance; in all which, people commonly waste their money and their time together!
Nay, how do even the best of us misplace this precious treasure; and though we do not employ it to wicked purposes, and in works of iniquity, yet we do not apply it to the best and noblest use—to the glory of God, and the good and salvation of men; by thus laying out this treasure, we might “lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven,” and help others on in the way thither.
Thus our blessed Saviour employed his precious time, in “going about doing good,” in all kinds and upon all occasions, healing the bodies and enlightening the minds, and saving the souls of men: this was his business, and this was his delight; it was his “meat and drink,” and his very life, he spent himself in it, and sacrificed his ease, and his safety, and his life, to these great ends for which he came into the world: he considered the goodness and the greatness of his work, and the little time he had to do it in, which made him incessantly industrious in it, and to run the race which was set before him with great speed, and to “work while it is day,” because he knew the night would come “when no man can work.” And this brings me to the
Second thing I observed from the text; namely, 267that there is a certain and limited time for every man to do this work in; “while it is day—I must work the works of him that sent me, whilst it is day.” And this day comprehends all the opportunities of our life, which will be soon over, and therefore had need to be well spent. A great part of our rife is past before the season of working begins: it is a great while before the use of our reason begins, and we come to have our senses exercised to discern between good and evil; before our understandings are ripe for the serious consideration of God and religion, and for the due care of our souls, and for the eternal concernment of another world; so that this first part of our life is in a great measure useless and unprofitable to us, in regard to our great design. For infancy and childhood are but the dawnings of this day, and no fit time to work in; and youth, which is as the morning of this day, though it is the flower of our time, and the most proper season of all other for the remembrance of God and the impressions of religion; yet it is usually possessed by vanity and vice; the common custom and practice of the world, hath devoted this best part of our age to the worst employments, to the service of sin and of our lusts. How very few are there that lay hold of this opportunity, and employ it to the best purposes? And yet the following course of our lives doth in a great measure depend upon it; for most persons do continue and hold on in the way in which they set out at first, whether it be good or bad. And those who neglect to improve this first opportunity of their lives, do seldom recover themselves afterwards. God’s grace may seize upon men in any part of their lives; but, according to the most ordinary methods of it, the foundations and principles of 268religion and virtue are most commonly laid in a pious and virtuous education. This is the great opportunity of our lives, which settleth and fixeth most men, either in a good or bad course; and the fortune of their whole lives does usually follow it, and depend upon it.
It is true, indeed, our day continues many times a great while longer, and we are to work while it continues^ and it is never too late to begin to do well, and to enter upon a good course; but there is no such proper and advantageous season for the beginning of this work, as in our youth and tender years. “This is the accepted time, this is the day of salvation.” God’s grace is then most forward and ready to assist us; and we are then least of all in disposed for the receiving of the impressions of it; and the impressions of it do then go deepest into our minds, and are most lasting and durable. But if we neglect this opportunity, we provoke God, by degrees, to withdraw his grace, and to take away his Holy Spirit from us, and by degrees we settle in vicious habits, and are every day more and more hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. It is never too late to work while the day lasts; but the sooner we begin this work, and set about it in good earnest, the easier we shall find it; if we defer it late, every step. will be up the hill, and against the grain.
Thirdly, After this season is expired, there will be no further opportunity of working; when this day is once at an end, then cometh the night “when no man can work.” The night is a time unfit for work, when we can hardly do any thing, if we had never so great mind to it; and there is such a night coining upon every one of us, and woe be to 269us if we have our work to do when the night overtakes us.
There is usually an evening before this night, when it will be very difficult for us, and next to impossible, to do this work; and this is the time of sickness and old age, in which men are commonly unlit for any work, but most of all, that which requires the whole force and vigour of our minds, the business of religion. If we attempt this work then, we shall go very heartlessly about it, and do it very imperfectly, and be forced to slubber it over, and to huddle it up in great haste and confusion, and so as we can hardly hope that God will accept it. For how unfit are men to do any thing, when they are full of the sense of their own infirmities, and life itself is become so great a burden to them, that they are hardly able to stand under it! How incapable shall we then be of doing the greatest and most momentous work of our lives, when our faculties are almost quite spent and worn out, and all the powers of life are decayed in us; when our understandings are dark and dull, our memories frail and treacherous, and our hearts hard and “deceitful above all things!” When sickness and old age overtake us, we shall then find to our sorrow, that “sufficient for that day is the evil thereof;” we shall have need then of nothing else to do, but to bear our infirmities with patience and decency; and it is well if we can rally together, of the broken forces of our reason, so much as may be a sufficient guard to us against peevishness and discontent; we had need then have nothing else to do, but to be old and weak, to be sick and die.
Besides, how can we expect that God should accept of any work that we do at such a time? 270 With what face can we put off God with the dregs of our life? or how can we hope that he will be pleased with the service of those years, which we ourselves “take no pleasure in? if we offer the lame in sacrifice, is it not evil? and if we offer the blind, is it not evil? offer it now to thy governor, and see if he will be pleased with thee.”
And sickness is commonly as bad a time as old age, and usually encumbered with greater difficulties, and clogged with more indispositions. If a violent distemper seize upon us, it many times takes away the use of our reason, and deprives us of all opportunity of consideration; it makes us both insensible of the danger of our condition, and incapable of using the means to avoid it. And if we have neglected religion before, and have put off the great work of our life to the end of it, our opportunity is irrecoverably lost; for there is nothing to be done in religion when our reason is once departed from us; the night is then come indeed, and darkness hath overtaken us; and though we be still alive, yet are we as unfit for any work, as if we were naturally dead.
And this is no such rare and extraordinary case; for it happens to many; and every man that wilfully defers the work of religion and repentance to a dying hour, hath reason to fear that he shall be thus surprised in his sin and security, and by the just judgment of God deprived of all the opportunity of life and salvation, while he is yet in the land of the living.
But if God be more merciful unto us, and visit us with such a sickness as leaves us the use of our understandings, yet all that we do in religion, at such a time, proceeds from so violent a cause, from the 271present (error of death, and the dreadful apprehension of that eternal misery which is just ready to swallow us up, that it is one of the hardest things in the world, not only for others, but even for ourselves, to know whether our resolutions, and this sudden and hasty fit of repentance, be sincere or not: for it is natural, and almost unavoidable, for a man to repent, and be sorry for what he hath done, when he is going to execution; but the great question is, what this man would do if his life were spared? whether his repentance would hold good, and he would become a new man, and change his former course of life, or relapse into it again? And it is by no means certain that he would not be as bad as he was before: because we see many, who, when they lie upon a sick bed, give all imaginable testimony of a deep sorrow, and a hearty repentance for their sins, who yet, upon their recovery, return to their former sins with a greater appetite, and make themselves ten times more the children of wrath than they were before. So that all the work that we can do at such a time ought not to be much reckoned upon, and can give us little or no comfort; because it is so infinitely uncertain whether it be real and sincere, and whether the effect of so violent a cause would last and continue if the cause were removed. Therefore we should “work while it is day;” for whatever we do in this evening of our lives, will be done with great difficulty, and with very doubtful success.
But, besides this evening, there is a night coming, “when no man can work: death will seize upon us, and then our state will be irrecoverably concluded: after that it will be impossible for us to do any thing towards our own salvation, or to have any 272thing done for us by others; the prayers of the living will not avail the dead; “as the tree falls, so it lies; there is no wisdom, nor counsel, nor device in the grave” whither we are going; therefore, according to the counsel of the wise man, “what our hand findeth to do, let us do it with our might.”
This counsel concerns all ages and persons. I will apply it to the young, in the words of the wise preacher: (Eccles. xii. 1.) “Remember, now, thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when them shalt say, I have no pleasure in them.” To them who are in the vigour of their age, in the words of the prophet, (Isa. lv. 6.) “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near.” And, to them that are old, in the words of another prophet, (Jer. xiii. 16.) “Give glory to the Lord your God, before he causeth darkness, and before your feet stumble upon the dark mountains, and while ye look for light, he turn it into the shadow of death, and make it gross darkness.” And let us, every one of us, of what age or condition soever, apply it to ourselves, in the words of our blessed Saviour here in the text: “I must work the works of him that sent me while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.”273
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