If it be in your power, live under a judicious, faithful, serious, searching, powerful minister; and diligently attend his public teaching, and use his private counsel for more particular directions and applications, for the settling and managing the affairs of your souls; even as you take the advice of physicians for your health, and of lawyers for your estates, and tutors for your studies.
I give this direction only to those that may enjoy so great a mercy if they will. Some live where no such minister is. Some are children, or servants, or wives, that are bound and cannot remove their habitations or enjoy such liberty, by reason of the unwillingness and restraint of others. Some are so poor, that they cannot remove their dwelling for such advantages. And some are so serviceable in their places, that they may be bound to stay under a very weak minister, that they may do good to others, where they have best opportunity. But let him that can be free, and possess so great a mercy, accept it thankfully, though to his cost. As Christ said in another case, "Every man cannot receive the saying; but he that can receive it, let him" (Matt. 19:11).
There is abundance of difference between a weak, unskillful, unexperienced, dead-hearted, formal teacher, and such a one as is described in the direction. Some that are senseless or indifferent in such matters as these themselves, would persuade you to be so too, and look first in your settlement to your bodily conveniences, and be content with such a teacher as accidentally you are cast upon. And they will tell you, that the work of grace dependeth not on the preacher's gifts, but on the gift and blessing of the Spirit of God. The formalists and the enthusiasts concur in this, though from different principles: but though God can frustrate the fittest means, and can work without means or by that which is least fitted to the end, yet it is His ordinary way to work by means, and that for the soul as well as for the body; and to work most by the aptest means. And I am sure it is the duty of every teacher, to preach in the fittest manner that he can for the people's edification; and not to do God's work deceitfully, and ineptly, because God can bless the unfittest means; and it is the people's duty to attend upon the best they can enjoy, though God can equally work by the weakest or by none. As that pretence will not excuse the contemners of God's ordinances, that upon every little business stay at home, and attend upon no ministry at all; no more will it excuse them, that refuse that help which is most suited to their edification, and take up with a worse, when they might have better. We are not to neglect duty upon a presumptuous expectation of miraculous or extraordinary works; when we can have no better, we may hope for the greater benefit from the weakest; but not when it is the choice of our own presumptuous, irreligious hearts. God can make Daniel and his companions to thrive better by eating pulse, than others that fed at the table of the king: and rather than sin against God, we must cast ourselves on Him for unusual supplies, or leave all to His will. But few would therefore be persuaded causelessly to live on pulse, when they may have better. And one would think this truth should have no contradiction, especially from those men that are apt to obscure and extenuate the Spirit's operations on the soul, and to confess no grace, but what consisteth in a congruous ordination of means and circumstances. When their doctrine layeth all a man's hopes of salvation upon this congruity of means and circumstances, should they afterwards teach men to undervalue or neglect the fittest, and willfully cast their souls upon the most unfit and unlikely means? But godliness first resolveth what to speak against, before it resolveth what to say; and will contradict God's word, though it contradict its own; and will oppose holiness, though by a self-opposing.
But the spiritual relish and experience of the godly is a very great preservative to them against such deluding reasonings as these. It is harder for a sophister of greatest subtilty or authority, to persuade him that hath tasted them, that sugar is bitter, or wormwood sweet, than to persuade him to believe it, that never tasted them; and it is hard to make a healthful man believe it is best for him to eat but once a week, or best to live on grass or snow. I doubt not but those that now I speak to, have such experience and perception of the benefit of a judicious and lively ministry, in comparison of the ignorant, cold, and lifeless, that no words will make them indifferent herein. Have you not found the ministry of one sort to enlighten, and warm, and quicken, and comfort, and strengthen you, much more than of the other? I am sure I have the common sense and experience of the faithful on my side in this, which were enough of itself against more than can be said against it. Even new-born babes in Christ have in their new natures a desire (not to senseless or malicious pratings, but) to the rational sincere milk, that they may grow by it, and to perform to God a rational service (see Rom. 12:1).
And it must needs be a very proud and stupid heart that can be so insensible of its own infirmity, sinfulness, and necessity, as to think the weakest, dullest minister may serve their turns, and that they are able to keep up their life, and vigour, and watchfulness, and fruitfulness, with any little ordinary help. I cannot but fear such men know not what the power and efficacy of the word upon the heart and conscience meaneth; nor what it is to live a life of faith and holiness, and to watch the heart, and walk with God. If they did, they could not but find so much difficulty herein, and so much backwardness and unskillfulness in themselves hereto, as would make them feel the necessity of the greatest helps; and it could not be but they must feel the difference between a clear and quickening sermon, and an ignorant, heartless, dead discourse, that is spoken as if a man were talking in his sleep, or of a matter that he never understood, or had experience of.
Alas, how apt are the best to cool, if they be not kept warm by a powerful ministry! How apt to lose the hatred of sin, the tenderness of conscience, the fervency in prayer, the zeal and fullness in edifying discourse, and the delights and power of heavenly meditations, which before we had! How apt is faith to stagger if it be not powerfully underpropt by the helpers of our faith! How hardly do we keep up the heat of love, the confidence of hope, the resolution and fullness of obedience, without the help of a powerful ministry! Nay, how hardly do we do our part in these, in any tolerable sort, even while we have the clearest, liveliest helps, that are ordinarily to be had! And can any that are not blind and proud, imagine that they are so holy and good, that they are above the necessity of such assistance, and that the weakest breath is enough to kindle the fire of holy love and zeal, and keep them in the fear and obedience of God? Alas, we are under languishing weakness, and must be dieted with the best, or we shall soon decay; we are cripples, and cannot go or stand without our crutches. And there must be some savour of the Spirit in him that will be fit to make us spiritual, and some savour of faith and love in him that would kindle faith and love in us; and he must speak clearly and convincingly that will be understood, and will prevail with such as we; and he must speak feelingly, that would make us feel, and speak seriously, that would be much regarded by us, and would make us serious.
And ministers are not set up only for public preaching, but for private counsel also, according to our particular needs. As physicians are not only to read you instructions for the dieting and curing of yourselves but to be present in your sickness to direct you in the particular application of remedies; and as lawyers are to assist you in your particular cases to free your estates from encumbrances, and preserve or rescue them from contentious men; choose therefore some able minister to be your ordinary counsellor in the matters of God. And let him be one that is humble, faithful, experienced, and skillful, that hath leisure, ability, and willingness to assist you.
As infants in a family are unable to help themselves, and need the continual help of others, and therefore God hath put into the hearts of parents a special love to them, to make them diligent and patient in helping them; so is it in the family of Christ; most Christians, by far, are young or weak, in understanding and in grace; it is long before you will be past the need of others' help, if ever in this life. If you feel not this your infirmity and need, it is so much the greater. God will have no men to be self-sufficient; we shall all have need of one another; and God may use us as His messengers and instruments of conveying His mercies to each other; and that even self-love may help us to be sociable, and to love one another: and our souls must receive their part of mercy, by this way of communication, as well as our bodies: and therefore, as the poor, above all men, should not be against charity and communicating, that need it most; so those Christians that are weak and unexperienced, above all others, should be most desirous of help, especially from an able, faithful guide.
But be sure you deal sincerely, and cheat not yourselves, by deceiving your counsellor, and hiding your case. To do so by your lawyer is the way to lose your suit; and to do so by your physician is the way to lose your life; and to do so with your pastor and soul-counsellor is the way to lose your souls. And let the judgment of your pastor or judicious friend about the state of your souls be much regarded by you, though it be not infallible.