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The Treasure in Earthen Vessels








ON SUNDAY, DEC. 17, 1837;













Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2008

Trin. Coll.
27, 1837.


We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that
the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.

WHEN we reflect upon the consequences of Adam's transgression, and behold how the inherited corruption has manifested itself through all the families of mankind, we are constrained to confess that the recovery of a world thus fallen and depraved, must indeed be a work of incomparable difficulty.

But if we consider further how mighty an influence is exercised over the thoughts and affections of men by that invisible agent, who is emphatically designated, "the God of this world," we cannot but perceive how the difficulty of accomplishing man's rescue and salvation is immeasurably augmented.

And if we had been left to conjecture by what kind of instrumentality men thus depraved and enthralled were to be reclaimed, and the dominion of the prince of darkness to be destroyed, we should scarcely have ventured to imagine that frail and [5/6] fallen man himself would be the appointed minister of salvation to his brethren; and that creatures of the dust should wage victorious war against legions of evil spirits.

But so hath it pleased the Lord;--and truly we may say--His ways are not as our ways.

We perceive, however, in this appointment results as gracious to man, as they are glorious to God.

Man is thus ministered unto by his brother, by one encompassed with infirmity, and subject to sorrow; and we need scarcely say, in such a case, how tender will be the sympathy of the minister--and how touching his ministration.

God also is thus especially glorified; for had the instrument been less feeble--had the Lord employed some lofty and angelic ministry to convey to us the riches of his grace, we might have been tempted to ascribe to the heavenly messenger what was due solely to the Lord. But now, the manifest insufficiency of the instrument demonstrates beyond question the power to be of God;--or, as St Paul expresses the doctrine in the text,--"We have this treasure in earthen vessels that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us."

These words of the holy Apostle will form a suitable subject for our present consideration. They evidently address themselves with an emphasis of interest to those who are pledged to the solemn and sacred duties of the Christian Ministry; and we would [6/7] earnestly pray that the Holy Ghost, according to the gracious promise of our Lord, may accompany our meditation upon them with his blessing.

In the first clause of the text there is a truth asserted,--that we have a treasure in earthen vessels; in the second clause an end is assigned,--that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.

There are obviously here three distinct topics which demand our attention;

I. The preciousness of the heavenly treasure:
II. The infirmity of the earthen vessel:
III. The excellency of the divine power.

For the sake of simplicity we will notice them in this order.

Now the heavenly treasure committed to our trust is nothing less than the whole of "the glorious Gospel of the blessed God." The Ministers of Christ are expressly termed "stewards of the mysteries of God." To them this grace is given, as of old time to the Apostles, that they should preach among sinners "the unsearchable riches of Christ."

I. All the wonders of redeeming love are thus peculiarly the theme of the Christian Ministry, and these are to be set forth both
(1) as signally displaying the attributes of God, and
(2) as graciously satisfying all the necessities of man.

(1) As it respects the attributes of God, in preaching "Jesus Christ and him crucified," the Minister proclaims to the world the most stupendous truths which have ever been revealed even to the hosts of Heaven; for these are the mysteries upon which the angels of God are represented as intently and continually gazing.

In the developement of the scheme of redemption we can scarce have failed to observe how surprisingly the Divine attributes have been illustrated and magnified.

The goodness of God had doubtless been signally exhibited in the felicity of the early world, as it went forth on its way, rejoicing under the benediction of its Creator: but yet by the introduction of sin and consequently of sorrow, this blessedness had been fearfully interrupted; the goodness of God was no longer universally enjoyed, and therefore the attribute was less clearly to be discerned.

Again, in the ravages of the deluge there had been an awful exhibition of God's hatred of sin, of his righteous indignation, and of his sovereign power; a power mighty to destroy as well as to create: but the permitted prevalence of sin was an inexplicable anomaly in the economy of a Being of infinite purity and unlimited power.

Thus the circumstances and issues of the fall rendered it impossible to conceive how the knowledge, the love, the holiness, and the power of God [8/9] could be capable of full unfettered and simultaneous exercise. For if his knowledge had foreseen such a catastrophe, how was it agreeable to his love and holiness to suffer it, or to his power not to prevent it? But the whole was foreseen; and in that "hidden wisdom of God, ordained before the world to our glory," a plan was devised not only for unveiling each clouded attribute, but for exhibiting them all in new and surpassing glory. Nay more--the attribute of Mercy, which could only be displayed and exercised upon the occurrence of transgression, was now manifested in wonderful harmony with his justice and severity and truth. All this was exhibited in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ,--in that stupendous mystery, THE WORD MADE FLESH, and DYING FOR MAN! There we behold how the salvation of transgressors may be rendered compatible with infinite justice and righteousness and holiness and truth: yea more, how these very attributes of God are inexpressibly glorified and exalted by the salvation of sinners. For when we behold all the vials of God's wrath poured out upon the head of his own dear Son, so soon as that Son had placed himself in the sinner's stead and thus "was made sin for us," (though only by imputation), how can we fail to perceive with what new and awful majesty all those severer attributes were then for ever invested? But if God's justice and righteousness and holiness and truth were thus [9/10] unspeakably magnified, what shall we say of that effulgence of goodness and love, which then burst forth from the mercy-seat of heaven. That the most High God should become man--should visit these abodes of sin and rebellion--should share our sorrow, and suffer our curse, and die our death;--what is this but an act of love altogether divine--of "a love which passeth knowledge?"

Such then is the wondrous harmony of the divine attributes, and their glorious display in the achievement of man's redemption. And when we contemplate the whole as a manifestation of divine wisdom, how can we forbear to exclaim, "O! the depth of the riches!"

(2) But whilst the doctrine of the cross contains treasures of knowledge, as developing and magnifying the attributes of God, it also imparts treasures of blessing, as meeting and satisfying all the necessities of man. And here we shall see, that in preaching Jesus Christ and him crucified, the minister becomes the instrument of dispensing wisdom to the ignorant--strength to the feeble--consolation to the afflicted--health to the sick--and life to the dead. He bears with him the only specific for all the multiform maladies of affections alienated from God, and imaginations darkened by sin.

To subdue and win back the estranged and faithless soul, he tells it how "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever [10/11] believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." If the heart is stubborn and perverse, he has tender expostulation in his stores--"Turn ye, turn ye, for why will ye die? I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God." If the man is brokenhearted and in despair,--"Come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." What case, indeed, is so desperate which this precious passage will not satisfy,--"If God spared not his own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" Thus rich is his treasure to meet every case of need.

In dispensing these inexhaustible riches, the offices of the Lord Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, (of all things incomparably the most important,) will ever be prominently exhibited. Other truths will doubtless have their place, but these will have the chief place. The great and only atonement for sin by the death of Christ (that one perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sin of the whole world), the continual and all-prevalent intercession of Christ, (the one and only Mediator between God and man), the kingdom of Christ in the heart of a willing people, together with the outpouring and indwelling of the Holy Ghost, as quickening, enlightening, sanctifying, comforting and sealing the people of God,--these, these are the [11/12] glorious verities which shew the exceeding riches of God's grace to a world wretched through sin and unworthy of favour. These are the divine and living truths, which meet the spiritual necessities of mankind; and as the power of God unto salvation, they are omnipotent to quicken the dead--to sanctify the polluted--to liberate from Satan and hell--and to exalt to immortality and bliss. Such is the preciousness of that heavenly treasure to which St Paul alludes in the text.

II. Now when we consider its surpassing value, and the unspeakable magnitude of the results it is destined when duly administered to produce, we might well ask,--And what then is that lofty order of beings which can be sufficient for duties so responsible? And here we cannot but be surprised at the infinite disproportion between the importance of the message and the condition of the messenger. That a treasure, which the hand of an archangel might well tremble to bear, should be committed to the stewardship of so frail a thing as man,--is one of those remarkable appointments in the divine dispensations which might warn us for ever against speculating upon the ways of God. But such is Christ's ordinance,--"we have this treasure in earthen vessels."

In the first proclamation of the Gospel, the Lord was pleased to select the humblest of men to be his companions and apostles. And the fishermen [12/13] of Galilee went forth at his bidding to preach before princes and councils, "Repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ." As stewards of the manifold grace of God, they were not unfaithful to their high trust; but yet they continually proved themselves to be mere men, encompassed with infirmity. And when we read the unvarnished narrative of their disputes and prejudices, their ignorance and unbelief, we wonder that such agents should ever have been commissioned for such high duties; and we wonder yet more, that such mighty issues should nevertheless have attended their ministrations.

But if we come to our own generation, do we not find the counterpart of all this infirmity in ourselves? See we not afflicting and humiliating proofs all around, that the treasures of heaven are still committed to vessels of earth? O brethren, the solemn act which separates us to the holy office of the ministry does not change our nature. It may deepen religious feeling--it may stimulate to new exertion--it doubtless increases responsibility, whilst it also ensures grace and benediction from on high; but it does not so separate us from our kind, that we shall not have manifold and mournful reason to walk humbly and anxiously, from the consciousness that we are still in the flesh. When combating the prejudices of a stiff-necked and gain-saying people, how are we reminded of the hardness and unbelief of which we ourselves have been so often convicted by our [13/14] Master! Again, in imparting consolation to the afflicted, how continually do we feel our own need of the like riches of comfort and grace! But, in truth, the daily lesson of the minister is one of his own infirmity and unworthiness; and in whatever light he may appear to others, the minister who has been wont to try and examine himself will need none to assure him that he is indeed but an earthen vessel.

Inconsistent and infirm as all men are in a greater or less degree, the minister is peculiarly liable from his very work, to mutability of feelings. To a season perhaps of depression and despondency, will suddenly succeed one of vanity and elation; firmness and boldness will sometimes give way to base alarms and thoughts of cowardice. Nay, after blessed and long-sustained communion with God, and sitting as it were "in heavenly places in Christ Jesus," there yet may come some unexpected and terrible fall, which will leave him in bitter tears like Peter,--all broken and humbled and prostrate in the dust.

And yet such are the earthen vessels to which God in his wisdom has committed the treasure of the Gospel, and by such instrumentality sinners have been reclaimed, principalities and powers of darkness discomfited, heaven has been peopled with countless tribes of the redeemed, and God himself has been pleased to receive a rich revenue of glory.

[15] III. But such feeble and earthly agency is manifestly inadequate of itself to accomplish such mighty results. No thoughtful man conscious of his own manifold infirmity, and pondering the marvellous effects of a simple preaching of the Gospel, could hesitate for a moment to ascribe the excellency of the power entirely unto God. And this we are told was a special purpose of the appointment, "we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to the end that the excellency of the power may be of God and not of us." And what less power than that which created a soul could renew it? There is an excellency indeed of power displayed in the conversion of men, which was evidently intended to excite our admiration; the manifest disparity between the visible cause and the effect directly leads us to the conclusion that the real and efficient cause must be divine. When we read of the triumph of Gideon and his feeble band over the leaguered hosts of the enemy, we at once ascribe the victory to "the sword of the Lord." And when we therefore go forth amidst the moral darkness, and come off victorious over the spiritual foe, with but a feeble light in a frail and earthen vessel, shall we hesitate respecting the true cause of our success, and not rather instantly "give thanks unto God, who always causeth us to triumph in Christ?" O, brethren, there is an excellency of power overruling and blessing the infirmity of man's efforts which constrains us to exclaim, [15/16] "not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give the praise." All vaunting on man's part is thus entirely excluded. For humiliation, indeed, and shame he will have reason in sad abundance; for self glorying and self complacency, none. For after the most successful ministration, what is he but the mere instrument;--the power, the energizing influence, the secret cause of all his success was of God alone. So that if fruitful and honoured above others, the whole was as directly the work of God, as the blossoming and fruitfulness of the rod of the high priest. How could he indeed venture to suppose that by any power or wisdom of his own, he had been able to cause those who sit in darkness to perceive the light of the day-star from on high, or come forth to the brightness of his rising, unless "God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, himself had shined into their hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ?" In short, when a young and perhaps feeble minister, after a plain and simple preaching of "the truth as it is in Jesus,"--without pomp of diction, or parade of learning, or power of rank,--finds the word, as he will find it, "mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds, casting down imaginations and every thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into the captivity of Christ,"--how can such a result be viewed by him, but as the falling [16/17] of the walls and bulwarks of Jericho before the note of the ram's horn--a miracle of might amidst weakness--an excellency indeed of divine power!

We have thus considered, as we proposed, the three great subjects of the text; viz.

The preciousness of the heavenly treasure;
The infirmity of the earthen vessel; and
The excellency of the divine power.

Let us in conclusion found upon each of these topics a few words of practical application.

I. First then let us seek to be enriched by this treasure ourselves; and further let us take care to be faithful in dispensing it to others. What will it avail us to be learned in the literature of Greece and Rome, to be masters in philosophy, and profoundly versed in the wisdom of this world, if ignorant of that wisdom which is from above--of that knowledge which alone "maketh wise unto salvation?" What wealth of earthly attainment or science may be put in competition with those treasures of wisdom, which reveal to us the will and working and attributes of God our Saviour, and direct us to an eternity of glory and bliss? But indeed how shall we be able ministers of the New Testament to others, unless learned, and that not slightly, in its mysteries ourselves? Rightly to divide the word of truth, we must rightly understand it;--rightly to understand [17/18] it, we must diligently study it; and this not in our own strength, nor as reading the word of man; but in deep consciousness of our prejudices and blindness and manifold infirmities, regarding it as the word of God, to be learned only by the aid of the Spirit of God. The Holy Ghost, which dictated the sacred truths, must direct us to their right meaning. Never, therefore, may we presume to study that word for ourselves, much less to expound its mysteries to others, unless we have first sought for "the mind of the Spirit" in earnest, humble, believing prayer to the Father of lights. Then, indeed, shall we find wisdom, when we search for it as "for hid treasure." Thus enriched ourselves, we shall be able to bring out of our treasure things new and old, and so prove ourselves good stewards of the manifold grace of God. So gracious indeed is the appointment of God, that in dispensing our treasures to others, we obtain a richer plenty for ourselves; and like the disciples receiving the loaves from the hand of their Lord, the aliment of life shall be multiplied as we dispense it; and after satisfying all the wants of the multitude, the minister shall find whole baskets of rich fragments for himself.

But how careful should we be that the things new as well as old are indeed out of God's treasure. We are not to speak our own thoughts; "the unsearchable riches of Christ"--these are the grand, the satisfying, the ancient, and yet ever new themes [18/19] for the ministers of Christ to bring forth again and again: to write the same things to us should not be grievous, and assuredly for the hearer it is safe. All scripture indeed is profitable for instruction; but in the public ministration, some portions are peculiarly profitable; these then are to be the principal and perpetual topics of discourse. We have, therefore, for the most part to be practical, rather than speculative or controversial; to treat of great and acknowledged verities rather than of minor, abstruse, or doubtful subjects in theology. And if we are to avoid what is doubtful, how should we fear lest we dispense what is dangerous? If the minister who withholds the truth is criminal, who shall sum the amount of his guilt that adulterates it? The one indeed denies the people access to the fountain; the other poisons its waters. O brethren, this is a wrong and a sin, for which no eloquence can raise a plea in excuse, and no offerings of learning can ever be a compensation. You may present the fairest chalice of gold to the lips of the parched pilgrim, but if empty of living water, or only teeming with death, what careth he for the costliness of the material, or the beauty of its decorations?

II. Next, let us reflect seriously and often upon the infirmity of the earthen vessel. This consideration will greatly influence the character of our ministry, as it regards both ourselves and the people committed [19/20] to our charge. With respect to ourselves, if successful in our labours, and therefore tempted to self-conceit, we shall find the necessary correction in the view of our deep vileness. If, on the other hand, our labours seem fruitless, and we are tempted to despondency, we shall be comforted by the reflection that the success is not of man. Then with respect to our people; the sense of our own infirmity and unworthiness will impart to all our ministrations a forbearing tenderness, and the gentleness of unaffected sympathy. There will be a seriousness and earnestness and an unction in all our ministrations. And even if we have to reprove,--and to reprove sharply and boldly--yet will it be in a spirit of compassionate love;--it will be with affectionate earnestness, yea, with meekness of fear, "considering ourselves lest we also be tempted." With seriousness and affection any reproof, however painful, may be administered; we may even tell them that "they are the enemies of the cross of Christ; that their glory is in their shame; and that their end will be destruction;" if only we tell it them weeping; and surely the thought of a brother's ruin might well cause us tears!

III. Lastly. Let the excellency of God's power, which accompanies our ministration, impress us with the dignity, whilst it sustains us in the duties of our vocation. As to its dignity; we are called, brethren, [20/21] to the high and holy office of being "fellow-workers together with God." "We are ambassadors of God," "as though God himself did beseech men by us;" "we stand in Christ's stead;" our duty therefore is evidently to "speak as the oracles of God," and to live as "the examples of the flock." We should magnify our office, whilst we humble and abase ourselves; though we presume not to be "lords over God's heritage;" we should seek to be worthy of honour, and to be "very highly esteemed in love for our works' sake;" we should give no one cause to "despise our youth, but be examples of the believers in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity." To maintain and carry forward this good work in our own souls, we must meditate and depend continually upon the excellency of God's power. Daily, indeed, shall we need this. For no one is so tempted, and none in so perilous a position, as the minister of Christ. The greatest miracle of mercy is the salvation of a minister. [* Chrysost. Hom. Heb. xiii. 17.]

And seeing that all our sufficiency is thus of God, to Him must all the honour most scrupulously be ascribed. God is jealous of His own glory; "He will not give it to another." Now if man dares to claim honour to himself for successes due solely unto God, the Lord will ere long humble [21/22] him by defeat, and compel him, perhaps with open shame, to a confession of his vileness and sin.

And as we are not "to preach ourselves," so neither are we "to use enticing words;" this would be to distrust the excellency of the power which is of God. We are expressly told, that the faith of the hearer does "not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God." And if among the most literary and refined of that polite age, the holy Apostle was deliberately determined "to use great plainness of speech," and "to know nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified;" where is the audience in these days before whom the ambassador of Christ should think of adopting a different theme, or a different style?

Let, however, the ministration be thus simply and sincerely conducted to the glory of God, and in dependance upon His promised power, and we shall soon find that "our labour is not in vain in the Lord." God will give us honour, if we presume not to TAKE it. Out of weakness we shall be made strong; though often perplexed, we shall never be in despair; though poor in earthly wealth, we shall make many rich from our heavenly treasure; we shall have many joys blended with our sorrows, and a crown of surpassing glory where sorrows are no more. Thus, whilst feeling ourselves less than the least of all saints "we acknowledge the grace given: to us to preach the [22/23] unsearchable riches of Christ," the treasure in our earthen vessel shall be found to be the excellency of the power of God; and having ascribed in feeble accents the glory to God below, we shall join with our redeemed and rejoicing flocks above in singing with a loud voice, "worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing."

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