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illustrate one general rule; namely, to shew how texts may be treated in a natural manner.
The author has invariably proposed to himself three things as indispensably necessary in every discourse; UNITY in the design, PERSPICUITY in the arrangement, and SIMPLICITY in the diction.
It may perhaps be not unuseful to point out the manner in which these discourses are formed. As soon as the subject is chosen, the first inquiry is, What is the principal scope and meaning of the textb? Let us suppose, for instance, that the text of Jer. xxxi. 18—20, were the subject. Upon examination, it appears to be a soliloquy of the Deity, expressing what He had seen to be the workings of Ephraim's mind, and declaring the emotions which the sight of his penitent child had occasioned within his own bosom. Having ascertained this, nothing is to be introduced into any part of the discourse, which does not, in some way or other, reflect light upon the main subject. The next inquiry is, of what parts does the text consist, or into what parts may it be most easily and naturally resolved? Here an obvious division occurs: it is evident that the text contains, 1st, The reflections of a true penitent; and, 2dly, The reflections of God over him. This division being made, the discussion of the two parts must be undertaken in their order. But how shall we elucidate the first head? Shall we say, that the penitent is roused from his lethargy, humbled for his transgressions, stimulated to prayer ? &c. &c. Such a distribution would, doubtless, contain many useful truths; but they are truths which may be spoken from a thousand other texts as well as this; and after they had been spoken, the people would still be left without any precise knowledge of the portion of Scripture which should have been opened to them. If the text did not contain any important matter, it would then be proper, and even necessary, to enter in this general manner into the subject : but if the text itself afford ample means of elucidating the point that is under discussion, it is always best to adhere to that. In order then to enter fully into the subject, we examine more carefully, what are the particular reflections which God noticed in the penitent before us. And here we observe a further discrimination : the penitent's experience is delineated at two different periods; one in the beginning, and the other in the progress, of his repentance. This distinction serves to open an easy method for arranging what shall be spoken.
b I BEG EVERY YOUNG MINISTER VERY ESPECIALLY TO REMEMBER
Upon investigating still more accurately his expressions, it appears that he laments his past incorrigibleness in the ways of sin, and, with an humble expression of his hope in God, implores converting grace. Soon afterwards, reflecting with a kind of joyful surprise upon the progress he has made, he thankfully ascribes the honour to God, through whose illuminating and converting grace he has been enabled to make such attainments. This experience being not peculiar to Ephraim, but common to all true penitents, we illustrate and confirm it by suitable passages of Holy Writ. A similar process is then pursued with respect to the second head : and when that is arranged and discussed in like manner, we proceed to the application. The nature of the application must depend in some measure on the subject that has been discussed, and on the state of the congregation to whom it is addressed. Where there are many who make a profession of godliness, it will be necessary to pay some attention to them, and to accommodate the subject in part to their state, in a way of conviction, consolation, encouragement, &c. But where the congregation is almost entirely composed of persons who are walking in “ the broad way" of worldliness and indifference, it may be proper to suit the application to them alone. In either case it may be done by inferences, or by address to distinct characters, or by a general address: but, for the most part, either of the former methods is preferable to the last. As for the exordium, that is the last part to be composed; and Mr. Claude's directions for it cannot be improved.
Here then is an example of a discourse made on a text that affords an abundance of useful and important matter. But this is not the case in all texts: take Matt. xvi. 26, for instance. In that, the general scope of the text is, to declare the value of the soul; the distribution of it into its leading parts might be varied in many ways: but whatever distribution were adopted, one must of necessity supply from one's own invention matter for the illustration of it; because the text itself,
though very important, does not limit one to any particular considerations.
By the adoption of such a plan as this, many good ends are attained: for not only is unity preserved, and a perspicuity diffused through the whole, but a variety of ideas suggest themselves which would not otherwise occur to the mind : an hackneyed way of treating texts will be avoided : the observations will be more appropriate: they will arise in a better order, and be introduced to more advantage: the attention of the audience will be fixed more on the word of God: their memories will be assisted : and the very reading of the text afterwards will bring to their minds much of what they have heard : besides, they will be more enabled to discern beauties in the Scripture when they peruse it in their closets. But it may be thought, that, on this plan, it will be always necessary to use divisions. This, however, is by no means the case: every text drawn up after this manner, must of necessity have an unity of design; and wherever that is, the divisions may be either mentioned or concealed, as the writer shall choose. Let the forementioned text in Jer. xxxi. be treated without any division at all; and the same arrangement will serve exactly as well as if the divisions were specified. It will stand thus
“ A true penitent in the beginning of his repentance reflects on his incorrigibleness in the ways of sin, and pleads with God to turn and convert his soul
When he has advanced a little in his repentance, he reflects with gratitude on the progress he has made, and he gives to God the glory of it,
“ In such a state he is most acceptable to God
“ Whilst he can scarcely find terms whereby to express his own vileness, God accounts no honours too great for him
“ He owns him as a pleasant child; expresses his compassionate regard for him, promises to manifest his mercy towards him, and grants him all that he himself can possibly desire.”—
Divest the Skeleton of Matt. xvi. 26, of its divisions, and it will be equally clear.
“ By the world' we are to understand pleasure, riches, and honour
“ This, if considered in itself, is vile; if, as estimated by the best judges, worthless
“ The soul, on the contrary, if considered in itself, is noble; and if, as estimated by the best judges, invaluable
“ Such being the disparity between the value of the world, and that of the soul, we cannot but see what must be the result of a comparison between them
“We suppose, for argument sake, that a man may possess the whole world, and that after having possessed it for a while, he loses his own soul; what in the issue would he be profited ?
“ Whether we enter generally or particularly into this subject, the result will be still the same.”
These two Skeletons are selected in order to exemplify this idea, Ist, In a subject where the whole matter is contained in the text; and, 2dly, In a subject where nothing but the general idea is suggested: and if the Reader will give himself the trouble to examine, he will find that every one of the other Skeletons may, with equal ease, be drawn out in the same manner. This is a point of considerable importance : for if the mind were necessarily cramped and fettered by this method of composition, it would be inexpedient to adopt it. But it is manifest that it leaves the mind at most perfect liberty: and while many advantages arise from it, there is no room at all for the principal objection, which might at first sight appear to lie against it. But though these observations are made to shew that discourses might be formed from the Skeletons as easily without divisions as with them, it is not to be thought that the mention of the divisions is a matter of indifference: the minds of the generality are not capable of tracing the connexion and coherence of a discourse: their attention will flag; they will lose much of what they hear; and have no clew whereby to recover it: whereas the mention of an easy and natural division will relieve their minds, assist their memories, and enable them to "mark, learn, and inwardly digest" the word.
If any student, who has a view to the ministry, should choose to employ a part of his Sabbath in perusing any of these compositions, he would do well first to get a clear view of the great outlines of the discourse, and then to consider, under each part, what is contained in the brackets; consulting, as he proceeds, the passages of Scripture that are quoted. After this, if he will write over the whole, interweaving those passages, or such parts of them as refer immediately to the subject, adding only a few words here and there to connect the whole, he will find that every Skeleton will make a discourse, which, if read distinctly, will occupy the space of nearly half an hour. In this
In this way he may attain, without any great difficulty, a considerable knowledge of the Scriptures, together with an habit of thinking clearly and connectedly on the principal doctrines contained in them. If any one, who has entered upon the sacred office, should think them worthy of his attention, a different method of using them should be adopted. He, having finished his academical studies, has his time more at his own command: he should therefore make himself perfect master of the Skeleton before him, and then write in his own language, and according to his own conceptions, his views of the subject: and he will find that “verba provisam rem non invita sequentur.” It is proper however to observe, that those parts, which have three marks after them should be more fully opened.
But there is one caution which requires peculiar attention. In the Skeletons many passages of the Holy Scriptures are quoted, partly for the conviction of the Reader's own mind, and partly to furnish him with the proper materials for confirming his word. These passages, if they were all formally quoted, would make the sermon a mere rhapsody, a string of texts, that could not fail to weary and disgust the audience. But if they be glanced at, if the proper parts only be selected, and interwoven with the writer's own language, they will give a richness and variety to the discourse, at the same time that they will be peculiarly grateful to those who delight in the word of God. There is however another extreme, which would be no less pernicious: if no passages be formally adduced, many parts of the discourse will appear to want confirmation. The proper medium seems to be, to quote them expressly when there is reason to apprehend that any doubt is entertained respecting the truth that is insisted on, or where the citing of them will give peculiar weight to the point in hand : in all other places the language of Scripture should be used rather to enrich and adorn our own.